Life and Death

“Your friend go Mama?’
This from Joy as I arrive for a facial; she is determined to turn back time and has insisted I have one a week.

‘Yes, she’s gone to Bhutan and then Myanmar, we catch up in Siem Reap in December.’

“You alone then Mama?”

‘For a bit, but that’s fine.’

“You come to BBQ tomorrow. Pi Pon’s birthday. We go to Bantai, you come!”

An order rather than a request.

“You come here 7…we go in Pi Pon’s car…no motorbike.” She knows of my fondness for those two wheeled death traps.

‘Pi’ is used as a preface for an older person in Thailand. Joy being younger than Pon and his wife, Now, refers to them as Pi Pon and Pi Now….it gets a bit confusing and I’m sure they must call me Pi Pi Pi Pi Kim.

“ Seven you come here. seven..no late! Look…” she holds up the hand mirror so I can better inspect the road map that is my face…”Souwie” (beautiful).

Well they say it is in the eye of the beholder.

Chai assures me the next (very wet) morning that I must only have small breakfast as BBQ ‘dee mach mah’ (very very good) and there will be….’fish and pa -ork…and sa- quid…and beef and chick-en..and salad and fruit and ice cream and many many food.’

I settle for just mango but by three give in to my rumbling stomach and devour a toasted tuna sandwich and chips.

The rain stops in time for a magnificent sunset of the kind that only those who have been here can appreciate and with torch, birthday card and hastily wrapped Kraama (Cambodian scarf) in bag, I head down the beach.

They are all waiting. Pon (I’m older than him so I don’t use the ‘pi’), his wife, Now, their daughters Noi and NamPet, Joy and her ‘sister’ (some kind of relative), Nor , complete the group.

We head to the car.

Pon and Now have a shop in the next village which sells clothes and jewellery, much of the latter hand made by Now. She also takes her wares to the beach, while Pon looks after the shop, and on Sundays they have a stall in the Sunday market. They work hard. They live behind the shop with their three daughters in two rooms. Their kitchen is in the open as is the dining area, a large piece of wood where they squat (oh that I could squat like that) to eat. Everyone has a mobile phone, there is an old TV in one of the rooms and, they are doing well, they have a car.

The car is quite magnificent, air con, a front seat, a back seat and behind that an open boot area (like a half back lorry) where they can transport everything. It is spotless, I sense Pon takes great pride his car.

“You sit in front with Pon, Kim”

I protest ‘That’s not fair. You sit in the front with NamPet Now’.

I confess I have rather a soft spot for NamPet, her of the gappy smile and huge black eyes; all of six and trouble in the making.

“No, you sit in front Kim, I am not so big”

‘Cheers Now! OK I will sit in the front!’

Much laughter.

The five girls pile into the back and I wallow in the space and air con in the front, chatting with Pon as best we can with our challenged alter vocabularies.

The bbq is in a restaurant (I call it that very loosely) some 30 minutes drive away. Two stories, open to the elements, neither with windows, and the upstairs looks like it could have been a Mui Tai (Thai boxing) centre at some point in its history.

It’s crowded. Tables against the wall and down the centre of the lower floor, heave with food, all uncooked. Chai was right there is fish and pa -ork, and sa- quid, and beef and chick-en, and prawns vegetables of every description and stuff I wouldn’t hazard a guess to identify.

There are also long wooden tables with round holes cut out at two foot intervals. Each hole is a bbq. Some kind of non flammable cage inside the hole contains the charcoal and on top of this is what looks like a large round metal jelly mould with a perforated dome in the middle. The tables are crowded, nearly everyone in the restaurant is Thai. I count four farangs (foreigners) who look at me curiously, as do many of the Thais – a farang with a Thai family, obviously not the norm.

Joy encourages me to pile raw food onto my plate while Now organises our seating arrangements.

We are to be upstairs, which is tantamount to being in a private room at Claridges, a huge honour albeit without the sumptuous décor.

They teach me how to use chopsticks to pick up slivers of meat and fish and to place them on the dome. It sizzles. Pa-ork alongside sa-quid and chick -en; the aroma is unique.
A kettle of water is used to fill the jelly mould and anything green is thrown into it, along with noodles, rice and every variety of egg you can imagine, cracked or otherwise.

We all have a bowl with a spoon to scoop portions of what can only be described as the dubious soup into.

It was interesting, the soup, in an acquired taste kind of way, and the obvious delight at having me there to share it with them made every mouthful taste more palatable.

Joy brings me a red wine cooler (they only serve whisky and beer in the alcohol department), I give Pon his present, much thanks are given, and the older girls (Noi and Nor) hit their phones. Just like a family visit to Pizza Express really.

NamPet drags me downstairs to the buffet so we can collect plates of fruit and cones of ice cream for desert.

We chat, the easy chat, were it not language challenged, of friends catching up.

You may be wondering why this is called Life and Death…be patient it’s coming.

“Mama Kim” says Joy “I have bad news”

Oh no, the last time she gave me bad news her favourite dog had died.

Before she has time to expand one of the girls gives a shriek. She has a photo on her phone that we all have to see.

The phone is passed around, I am the last to see the photo. There is a bit of tutting, a shrugging of shoulders – nothing that dramatic. I think at worst it may be a rolled motor bike.

OH MY GOD! IT’S A YOUNG GIRL…. HANGING…. FROM A FIRST FLOOR BALCONY…DEAD!…A NOOSE ROUND HER NECK ….. AND THIS MERITS A ‘TUT’ AND A SHOULDER SHRUG?!

It seems it happened this morning, Noi saw the girl hanging as she drove through Thongsala. Terrified, she sped off and called the police. Her friend (who sent the photo) decided that such a good photo opportunity could not be missed.

I have no idea what nationality the poor young girl was, so far it hasn’t made the BBC and my Thai is not good enough for the local news but to my Thai family this was just an incident. Noi may  have trouble sleeping…but asides from that life goes on.

And it did. Everyone carried on chatting and Joy picked up where she left off.

“Bad thing happen Mama, I very silly.”

Still shell shocked by the dangling corpse of round one , I can barely whisper…”What’s happened Joy?”

“I have baby in my stomach.”

ROUND TWO!

‘You can’t have baby in stomach!'(how easily the pidgin English comes back). ‘You split up with Hlod because you couldn’t have babies and he wanted them…you told me, last year.’

Shrug of shoulders. “I know it’s bad mistake.”

‘Well I bet it was bloody good fun at the time!’

Laughter all round.

‘So who’s the father?’ No wonder she’s had three ice cream cones.

Little grin.

‘Is it a Farang?’

Shake of head.

‘Thai?’

Little grin and shake of head.

‘Myanmar?!’

Sheepish grin and nod. “I know very silly.”

Very silly? Just a bit of an understatement! Thai’s are not known to be the best husbands, Farangs may offer a slightly better future, but the workers from Myanmar are bottom of the ‘providers’ pile. Most are illegal, have poorly paid jobs and no rights at all.

Chai is from Myanmar and a lovelier man would be hard to find. His ‘wife’ Toy, is from Laos, they both work on the resort and have a baby, Villa, who will never know the privileges of her Thai peers. It doesn’t work that way.

Very silly? A financial catastrophe!

‘What are you going to do?’

“I clear it with father?”

‘What do you mean you clear it with father? Doesn’t he know?’

“He know but I no want him. I clear it with him, I keep baby. I look after baby.”

Dear god this goes from bad to worse.

“Last baby I give up, this baby I keep.”

OK…ROUND THREE!

‘You have a child?! You never said! You said you couldn’t have any children!’

” I have boy, ten years ago when I 26. I have to give up to French family, no money, live in northern Thailand. I sign papers, no see any more… this baby I keep.”

She means it. A thousand thoughts race through my head as the bill arrives. Pon refuses to let me help with it…”Happy birthday, Mama Kim…Now we go to Festival”

Of course we do, there’s a corpse hanging from a balcony somewhere, Joy who can’t have children has a ten year old son and is pregnant again, so let’s all go to the funfair!

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Surrender to the tuk tuks

I am tourist. I have forgotten all the rules. I think it is a splendid idea to go for a walk, a walk after breakfast, a walk into the city centre of Phnom Penh to see the Royal Palace at 11.30 in the morning. Luckily I remember one rule, ‘dress appropriately’ so with T-shirt dress over long trousers, I stride into town.

Barely thirty minutes later, sweat running into my eyes causing temporary blindness, gagging at the smells (I had also forgotten that not all the smells in SE Asia are of the Frangipani variety), choking in the wake of exhaust fumes, my nervous system shot to pieces having crossed seven roads, I am informed that the palace is closed until 2pm.

I know the river is close, I know the river will have a breeze, rivers always have a breeze. Like Virginia McKenna in A Town Called Alice, I crawl in the direction of the only space without buildings…at last…the river!
Actually I possibly exaggerate a teensy weeny bit. Yes it’s hotter than hell, yes my eyes are stinging with the sweat dropping into them, but the smells aren’t nearly as bad as Bangkok nor the roads as polluted or as terrifying as Hanoi. I can almost manage to launch myself off the pavement and trust that everyone will go round me…almost.

The river is wonderful as is the road that runs alongside. Riverside reminds me of the corniche in Kuwait without the Starbucks but rather old colonial buildings converted into, coffee shops, bars, massage parlours, tourist tat shops, ATMs, massage parlours, massage parlours, and more massage parlours. Street vendors and tuk tuks make up the rest of the population. The tuk tuks are relentless in touting for trade.

“Where you from?”

“You want tuk tuk?”

“You want to see the killing fields?”

I smile and shake my head, just in time remembering that a ‘thumbs up’ sign is tantamount to ‘fuck off’ in these parts, and offer instead the V for victory sign pressed against the side of the head by way of a greeting. It placates momentarily.

I find myself by an old temple…a really old temple and am instantly joined by yet another tuk tuk driver whose English is impeccable. He tells me this is the temple where people come to offer thanks for good heath. I give in, I haven’t yet located a cigarette shop in this urban jungle and am seriously concerned about my pedestrian health.

We negotiate. $20 later the deal is done. He will be my driver for the day. He will take me to the supermarket…think challenged corner shop, and then on to the killing fields and S21 with all points in between covered. Now $20 is a good five dollars over the asking price so he’s done well.

Two ‘supermarkets’ later (the first not being in possession of a single packet of L&M blue) we arrive back at the old temple and he stops next to another tuk tuk, Bwana (yes, really his name was Bwana) tells me the new tuk tuk driver is his brother and he will take me to the killing fields.

He may well have been, his brother that is, not that I could detect a solitary family resemblance, but a deal is a deal and I may be blonde but I am not entirely without my ‘I’m not thrilled with this situation’ sensors. I didn’t like the cut of his jib and quite frankly a deal, and for Bwana a bloody good deal at that, is a deal.

I alight and hand over $2. Much concern and many words follow. I launch myself into the oncoming traffic as Bwana’s brother follows me up the road, offering the trip for $15, then $14 and finally $10. My tourist anorak stripped away I duck into a cafe on the corner, opposite the river, order an iced coffee and savour the breeze.

5 sets of street children (they like to work in pairs) offering everything from outstretched hands to postcards later, I am ready to head home. The killing fields will have to wait until tomorrow. I take the pretty route…possibly not intentionally but I am shade seeking and there is absolutely none on the main roads.

Thankfully my built in sat nav is still functioning. I find my hotel, strip off my sweat sodden clothes, turn the air con down to 21 degrees (27 is usually my preference), mentally admire daughter for living in this turkish bath for a year without aircon and decide that I have done quite enough for one day.

Tomorrow I will talk to the tuk tuk driver I met yesterday while in search of a pharmacy near the hotel. His pitch seems to be just outside the hotel and we will negotiate terms for a day of sightseeing.

I am not longer tourist, I no longer walk, only tourists walk, I surrender to the tuk tuks.

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Number 1 bakery in Cambodia

As I pass through the designer souk that is Bangkok airport, eyes hungrily devouring the fresh fruits tantalisingly waiting to seduce on every corner, while oblivious to the more obvious western delights of Gucci, Jim Thompson and Chanel, I allow myself a spoilt princess frown. Thanks to a delayed BA flight out of Heathrow due to thunderstorms over Dover, and a hopeless lack of administrative skills (mine) resulting in having to apply for a re entry visa airport side, there is no time to indulge in one of  travel’s real pleasures, the Bangkok Airways courtesy lounge with its bite sized pastries, bitter coffee and free wifi.

Incredibly the world has listened to my ‘fair internet for all travellers, not just business and above class,’ plea,  and there is now free wifi (albeit limited) at both Heathrow and, I now discover as I juggle opening emails with trying to cram three cigarettes into my mouth at once in an attempt top up nicotine levels, Bangkok Airport.

‘Are you there yet?” Daughter.

When do children become the parents?

I’m the one who should be saying “Have you got your passport? Don’t speak to strangers. Call me when you get there?”

Now it’s ‘Write everything down Mum. The taxi driver won’t know where the hotel is you know. Only go with a driver who has your name on a placard. Phnom Penh is not like Bangkok, it’s got a very dark underside.’

I’m almost there for heaven’s sake, only one short flight to go and most countries have a dark bloody underside. Perhaps my Schiphol adventure last week raised her anxiety levels. I got there in the end didn’t I?
Mentally promise to email on arrival. I will arrive, of course I will arrive, I refuse to accept anyone else’s doubts…I have more than enough of my own.

Bangkok Airways is an absolute delight. Wider seats than a BA long haul even, a full three course lunch with proper cutlery, albeit hardly enough time to be reunited with the exotic tastes of pork cooked in some far remembered spices, and rice noodles.

I find myself seated with a mother and son. Always difficult to age guess in SE Asia, I would hazard a 45-55  for mum and 19-28 for son. They are from Phnom Penh and have been to Bangkok for Mum’s medical treatment. Thrilled to find my pidgin English still works well, I discover she has been for tests in Bangkok and they had to stay an extra day while waiting for the results. I suspect the results were not great as they have to come back for operation once Mum has got her head round it…I think.

We share a smile, a smile that says both ‘I feel for you’ and’ it’s OK that’s what life is like.’

She is, as are all Khmer women, tiny and beautiful. Enormous triple drop zircons fall from her ears and her delicate fingers are dressed with similar sparkle.

Her son, who is in the seat next to me, tells me they have a bakery in Phnom Penh. I tell him about the Cambodian Cultural Festival, he says he would love to come to London with the bakery for the festival. He gives me his card, Trenh Bunleang (Bunleang is the first name…’but call me Zack’), Bayon Bakery, and I promise to try and visit.

It’s 2.30 in the afternoon when we land at Phnom Penh. 2.30 and hot…proper hot, everything sticking to you hot.
I enter the arrival’s hall and am met with a sea of placards, none which bear my name. Unperturbed I head for the exit. There is always a taxi rank somewhere and it’s still daylight, the dark underbelly can’t get me yet surely? And a cigarette will put everything back in proportion.
At last I see it, my name, being held high by a gentle, smiling Khmer man.

I wave, he looks around, puzzled, checking to see who I am waving at. Finally, if somewhat reluctantly, he concludes I am his fare, suitcase is handed over and we walk across sizzling asphalt to the car, me asking if I have time for a ciggie.

‘You smoke in car, it’s fine.’ He smiles.

It’s not fine. A vision of a scowling daughter, far scarier than the hippopotamus Mother in Law in Reggie Perrin, blurrs my vision and I assure him I am happy to smoke outside the car.

The journey into town is much like any other in SE Asia, wide roads, tall buildings, bright colours, belching exhausts, chaotic traffic and loud horns.

Rinda (sounds like an Asian version of Linda) tells me that he freelances for several hotels, that life is slowly getting better for people in Cambodia, that he has three children, 2 girls, one in school one only 2, and a son of 5, that I have to visit the Killing Fields, S21 and the Royal Palace.

He tells me Kim is boy’s name in Korean, which is why he looked surprised at the airport. I assure him that I would have been called Kim no matter what my sex, my mother being an avid Kipling fan and married in Singapore. First brownie points gained.

I tell him about CCF which adds to the brownie points, that I am more interested in the river and how people are living now than the horrors of the past and the killing fields, that I have no wish to be a ghoulish tourist, but promise him I will go if he thinks I should.

We pass the independence monument and many temples, all, he assures me, are new, despite looking centuries old in design, and have been built since the fall of Pol Pot.

“What is the main industry here now?” I ask

‘Textiles, many many factory outside Phnom Penh, some employ over 2000 people. Have union now, better wages, not good yet though, $100 dollar a month, nother strike soon. More western company support workers now, getting better.’

“Where does the fabric come from?’ I ask

‘China’

“Can I see a factory?”
‘Maybe… here my card…we see.’

‘And what do the Khmer people like to do?” I ask.

‘Shop and trade. People love to shop, everyone shop.’

Cambodia it seems is culturally obsessed with acquisition.

I tell him about Zack and his mum and the bakery.

“Which bakery?” he asks.

I show him Zack’s card and his eyes widen.
“Number 1 Bakery in whole Cambodia!’ ( for a moment I am in the Marigold hotel) He is impressed; very impressed. ‘Big chain…many shops.’

He agrees to take me to the bakery to say ‘hello’ to my new friends in a couple of days.

Perhaps Zack’s Mum’s zircons weren’t zircons after all.

 

 

 

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Give a shit.

What do I actually give a shit about?

I don’t think I give a real shit about what is happening politically in most of the war zones around the world today; tired and jaded I find the repetition of man’s constant failure to find a better way exhausting.

War, according to Hollywood, brings out the best in us. We become brothers in arms, sisters of mercy, communities with a common bond (death and depravation being demoted in favour of rabbit pie and heartwarming family gatherings).

Is that so?

Anyone who has spoken to someone who has first hand experience of a war will know this is not true. Firstly most people who have actually fought in a war are, more often than not, loathe to talk about it. They will tell you about their friendships, their loves, the places they visited, the bartering they did in the Suez canal on their return, how great Stoke Mandeville was in helping their recovery, but they will omit to share the feeling of blind white fear they felt the first time they raised their gun in a ‘be or be killed’ moment; the moment they lost their humanity.

I do give an enormous shit about the daily effects of any war on the human condition. The way we behave towards each other when placed under impossible stress. Note I say ‘placed’.

I give a shit about boy soldiers desensitised by atrocities perpetuated against them by men who are barely more than boys themselves; sons all, who will now never know what it is to feel compassion.
I give a shit about the women who have to raise a child that is the product of gang rape, knowing not whether to love or hate the daily reminder of their war.
I give a shit about the children who have to watch their mothers being raped and their fathers bludgeoned to death by men their fathers used to play football with.
I give a shit about the orphans destined to grow up in refugee camps who duck at the sound of a firework and who will never feel their mother’s arms around them. (I also give a great shit about the people who give up their lives to take care of them.)
I give a shit about the depravity that the lost men of war believe is acceptable, murder, rape, paedophilia, necrophilia and cannibalism, and the lasting scars this will leave on the next generation.
I give a shit for the old men and women who have seen all this before and are now too frail and feeble to stand up and say “It’s wrong! It doesn’t achieve anything!”
I also give a shit about the lost art, the lost architecture, the lost books, the lost music, the lost dance; the things that raise us to a higher level that war raises to the ground and buries in the rubble of the dead.

So no, I don’t give a shit about who rules the world and I am not going to pin my flag to any political or religious cause that could lead to war.

And do you know what? The people who will start the wars don’t give a shit that I give a shit about anything. I don’t matter one jot.
All I would say to anyone who still has the right to vote is “Be careful what you wish for.”

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A Baby Boomer’s travel survival kit. Part One. South East Asia

I love to visit new places. Actually, I love to settle in new places. For me travel is not about ticking off sights or adrenalin filled experiences, for me it is about getting to know the people, their lives. It is about discovering how alike we all are, despite our different cultures. It is about making new friends.

There are many travel guides that will tell you where to go, what to see, where to eat – this is not one of them but it will hopefully help you endure the worst part of travel, the travelling.

What to bring and, yes, I only travel when it’s hot.

A passport’s handy and, not being a lover of paperwork of any kind, pretty much the only document I take. It is all you need at any airport check in as long as the system is working and there hasn’t been a power cut, in which case chances are the flight will be going nowhere. Everything else is relegated to technology. The insurance documents, booking confirmations, medical conditions etc, all logged into at least two pieces of technology. I have learnt from experience that you ignore ‘back up’ at your peril. Oh and a universal travel adaptor which will give you access to all of the above.

Travel light. I mean light. No more than 20kgs at the outside for 6 months. All you really need are your ‘keep me alive’ drugs, a few clothes, your preferred technology, books or a kindle, underwear (not easy to find good bras and knickers everywhere), possibly make up (not that you’ll be using much but there might be the odd evening when you feel like making an effort), Sun glasses (not so much to keep the sun, but rather the dust, out of your eyes), reading glasses, and a back up pair – we are old remember and therefore blind. Losing, or breaking your glasses is like losing or breaking a limb. Not easy to carry a spare leg around with you, but a spare pair of glasses – no problem.  And wet wipes – a suitcase full of wet wipes. Everything else can be bought and your expensive designer clothes will be a travel accessory albatross you will regret; they will never be worn.

Forget fashion. Swap your tart’s trotters for flip-flops and, (if you really must trek to that ‘amazing’ waterfall – which will have no water – it is the dry season, or climb up the –   gave up counting at 300 – steps, to the top of a pile of old stones known as Angkor Wat so you can look down on a pop festival’s worth of tourists and tour buses), trainers. They will stink after a week but you might not break an ankle. Only ‘might not’ mind you, there are plenty of limb breaking hurdles ahead.

White anything has no place outside of the Med or the Middle East. It will be burnt brown or grey (depending on the colour of the soil), with dust in a day, and you will cry. Start off with greys, browns, reds, sludgy greens and blues. They will all look the same after a month and it will halve your laundry bill.

Loose clothes are good, (naked is better but somewhat frowned upon). Thin T-shirt material best mops up the rivers of sweat between the dashes to the shower, and those less than flattering baggy cotton trousers they sell in every market are popular because?…They are cool, and not in a ‘wow man that’s cool’ kind of way. They also go a long way to keeping the militant armies of mosquitos at bay. Jeans, unless you actually decide to live here and therefore eventually acclimatise and find 27 degree chilly, are a ‘no no’ but, if you insist on bringing them, I suggest you add several tubes of anti fungal cream to your ‘staying alive’ drug cabinet.

Now might be a good time to mention laundry. It’s cheap, easily accessible (you’ll find one on most street corners) and often returned the same day. How often should you wash your clothes? Forget ‘does it look clean?’ Work on the ‘what does it smell like?’ principal. If you think you can get away with the T-shirt for one more day, you can get away with it for two.

So my top tips for your case – note I say case – not backpack. There are few sights more ridiculous than that of a pensioner carrying double his/her weight on their back and trying to look cool, in any kind of way. Ageing baby boomers desperate to recapture a youth long gone; remember in the sixties we thought Blue Nun was cool.
HELLO?! There weren’t wheels on suitcases back then! If there had been don’t you think half the kingdom of hippy would have used them. I think Jane Asher and Pattie Boyd would have happily embraced them on the Maharani tour, oh no, I forgot, they had staff.
Coming through Samui airport on my last visit, I counted the back packs, precisely 2. Even the most die hard, tattooed, full moon partygoers, were dragging their wheels behind them.

I digress. For your suitcase you will need:
4-6 bras (optional for men)
7 pairs of knickers (one clean pair to be kept in your hand luggage at all times. Your case will get lost in transit at some point and you will thank me for this. I am forever grateful to a good friend for this tip.)
2 or 3 pairs of shorts.
1 bikini/swimsuit/pair of swimming trunks. Note: speedos do not look good on anyone, least of all pot bellied old men. Replacement swimwear can be bought everywhere so a starter pack will suffice. If you are size 16 or over, you may need more.
6 spaghetti strap tops or vest tops for men.
2 thin dresses or skirts/ 2 pairs of thin trousers for men.
A combination of 3 or 4 long sleeved thin over tops/shirts/T-shirts/thin cardigans.
NO sarongs. They have them by the thousands.
2 pairs of flip-flops (one of which you will be wearing).
Your ‘keep me alive’ drugs.
Your technology which could include: a laptop, an iPad, a phone, a kindle and relevant chargers. A universal adaptor  and credit and debit cards, yes cards…you will lose at least one of them.  KEEP ALL THESE WITH YOU IN YOUR HAND LUGGAGE AT ALL TIMES.
A short visa run ago I foolishly packed the chargers in my case, which was duly lost in transit. Great. I had my laptop, my iPad, my phone and my kindle and within 2 days they were about as useful as a cake mix with no oven.
A couple of books (for those with no kindle).
Sunglasses and reading glasses plus a back up pair.
Possibly hair dye (we are old and therefore almost certainly grey) if you have a preferred product, and ditto make up. Optional for men of course.
WET WIPES. I cannot stress how important wet wipes are. In the larger cities you will be able to stock up in the shopping malls. On an island the shopping mall IS the 7/11 and wet wipes are pretty low on their priority list. Alcohol and red bull being deemed far more important.
DON”T bother with jewellery. It’s something else to worry about and beach jewellery looks far better.

That’s it. Toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, skin care, perfume (there is only one perfume that is relevant ‘Eau de mosquito repellent’), suncreams (coconut oil is the best), after sun, cigarettes, alcohol, chocolate, in fact all the travel essentials can be bought in the 7/11 and are generally far cheaper than back home.

Trains and Boats and Planes (and buses, and motorbikes and tuk tuks) and …Airports – the darker side of travelling.

My absolute pet travelling HATE is the fact that airports, globally, do not offer free wifi unless you are travelling business class or higher. That is just spiteful and perpetuates a rather tasteless myth that as a high spending traveller you are so much more valuable as a human being. On the rare occasions I stay in 5* airport hotels, which by the way often charge for their wifi, I afford myself a slight smug smile knowing that the offspring down the road in their back packer hostel are getting it for free.

I also detest the whole airport experience, http://kim.hemmingway.info/2012/03/air-travel-like-age-has-little-to-commend-it/  however, a quick trip around some of the SE Asia airports I have endured to date:

Koh Samui
Small but perfectly formed, nestled in a bouquet of bougainvillaea and currently my Number 1 airport in the world. Sad that the island doesn’t come up to the same high standard and generally resembles a municipal rubbish dump. Taxis and mini bus transfers are all available once through immigration and there are ATM machines at the top of the walkway.

The departure area has limited, but charming boutique shopping and a small duty free shop, once through immigration, where alcohol, perfume and tobacco can be purchased. Not an airport for those craving retail therapy on an heroic scale but rather one where you can chill, open your book or your lap top and de stress. The waiting areas are built Thai style with roofs but no walls. Although there is a VIP room with air-con, few use it, preferring the warmth and the last rays of holiday sun. Seating is comfortable and more than adequate and, if you are travelling with Bangkok Airways, all food, snacks and wifi are provided free of charge. There is a small smoking area in the garden, so no build up of stale smoke.
Top tip: On arrival If you have several hours to kill before your ferry crossing to one of the islands, stay airport side for a couple of them, the ferry ports are anything but charming.

Siem Reap
Arrivals can be a nightmare. Best advice is buy an e-visa on line before you set off. Queuing for a visa at the airport (you will need $20 US and a passport photo, or $25 if you have no photo) can take several hours if more than one flight has arrived at the same time. Once through immigration there are plenty of taxis/tuktuks/motor bike taxis all touting for your business. Don’t assume the hotel taxi you booked will arrive, it possibly won’t.
Top tip: Go to the taxi stand on the left outside the main entrance and book through them. Cost should be about $7-$8 US.

Departure check in area is pretty utilitarian but runs smoothly unless there is a backlog of flights, if there is, be prepared for a long wait.
The Departure lounge is a taste of the west. A bite sized delightful taste. Plenty of seating, good eateries, enough shopping to satisfy most retail therapy cravings, massage facilities, a well stocked, if limited, duty free shop and a large well ventilated smoking room that more resembles a cafe (without the food or drink) than the usual leper colony.
All the boutique airlines have their own lounges and in these your wifi will be free.

Phuket
Top of my list of ‘never to be visited again, unless absolutely necessary’ airports.
Arrivals isn’t too bad, it’s just another airport with the usual luggage delays, but departures…words fail me…
Badly signed, chaotic queues and, once through immigration, it resembles a poor man’s shopping centre, not even a mall (Think Elephant and Castle circa 1970). One or two traditional Thai shops and a raft of fast food chains. The smoking room reminded me of a second class British Rail carriage in the 1960s – actually probably worse, the black hole of Calcutta had better ventilation.
Not enough seating for one flight, let alone the hundreds that take off in a day.
Again, if you are travelling with a boutique airline or business class and above, you will be able to avail yourself of the free wifi. If not, forget it or make sure you have pockets deep enough to get you into a VIP lounge.
Departure gates are often overcrowded with two or three flights waiting to depart from the same gate at the same time. If you are lucky enough to find a square foot of floor space, park your bum, that’s as good as it gets. Top tip: Fly through somewhere else if you can. Phuket, the island, has little charm unless you are a sex tourist, a fitness fanatic intent on causing yourself injury, determined to drink the island dry while indulging in Karaoke, or cocooned in a five star resort.

Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK)
Famous for it’s sci-fi pods, BKK is a truly international airport it has everything with knobs on. If you like retail therapy, you will be in seventh heaven, if you don’t it’s a bit of a challenge.
Arriving more than 3 hours before your departure will mean you will have to stay off airport side, which is more than a challenge. Overcrowded, not enough seating, clogged and artery clogging fast food outlets and limited internet, mostly in the fast food outlets. You can however buy access to a VIP lounge for about $8 an hour and I would thoroughlyrecommend it.
Once through immigration, it is one giant shopping mall. There are several smoking rooms, all larger, but all as equally poorly ventilated as Phuket. Plenty of seating but pretty rank.
Again, if travelling with a boutique airline or not in cattle class, you will have access to free wifi. If not there are some stations where, if you show your boarding pass and after a long walk to find the station, you can access free wifi for 30 minutes. As airports go it’s bearable but hardly sublime. Top tip. Shop if you must then find a quiet spot and curl up with your book/kindle.

Bangkok Don Mueang
Is Bangkok’s second airport. It handles the traffic for budget airlines both domestic and international. Much smaller than BKK, with limited retail outlets and less bling but well organised and easy to get in and out of. Personally I prefer it. Top Tip. BKK is an hour away but there is a free airport shuttle. Make sure you get your flight times right if you have to connect. Warning: traffic through Don Mueang is growing, it could lose it’s charm in a couple of years.

Singapore
With its tropical fish tanks, roof top swimming pool and butterfly house, Singapore is often rated as SE Asia’s top airport. I would beg to differ. Another giant, orchid draped, shopping mall designed to make you feel that you are an absolute failure, having neither the money nor the inclination to throw yourself into an aspirational shopping fest.

I did look to buy a new Longchamp bag, mine being some 10 years old and showing its age. Longchamp bags are large and waterproof , handy for those boat trips. They are the perfect travel bag and my only concession (apart from Apple Macs) to designer anything, in fact the only bag I possess is a Longchamp. I discovered that it was far cheaper to buy one on line than in the Singapore airport shop.

The last time I came through Singapore I had a 3 hour stop over in the early hours and, not being a worthwhile human being, was travelling on a budget airline so had no access to any of the free wifi lounges. I did, however manage to charge all my technology. The plugs are 3 pin square, like the UK, and unlike most of SE Asia where they are 2 pin round or flat.
Lying on the floor, (seating is limited and usually occupied by canny backpackers sprawled over three chairs, who, if not asleep, are feigning it – they have no intention of giving up an inch of their hard won space) hoping to cat nap while everything charged, I noticed that I was sharing my floor space with a colony of copulating cockroaches whose offspring were intent on eating every spare morsel the carpet (think of kitchen flooring circa 1960 ) had to offer. Beneath the thin veneer of bling clad Singapore sophistication, the grim reality of third world grime is never far away.

The smoking room is a larger version of those in Bangkok with possibly more seats but no more enjoyable.
Top tip: If you have to transit through Singapore make it during the working day. Little is open in the very early hours and there is only so much coffee, even Starbucks, you can drink.

Kuala Lumpur KLIA and KLCC
An international hub airport with a satellite. Having only been through the international KLIA twice, I can’t offer great advice. It is another large shopping mall, albeit prettier than some, with interior and exterior tropical gardens softening the harder lines of its architecture. KLCC the budget terminal is 16 kilometres away, $20 by taxi, so get your timings right. A bit like Don Mueang, Bangkok’s satellite, it feels friendlier than KLIA and if on the return leg you end up at the wrong airport and your connections times are tight (trust me it CAN happen), the taxi drivers at KLCC will happily break every traffic rule and speed limit to get you back to KLIA on time. Bribery won’t even be necessary, they delight in your terrifying experience.

The smoking room in KLIA is pretty much the same Bangkok and Singapore but with no seats, making it almost not worth the effort.
There is a lovely restaurant – I forget the name – where you can get a proper glass of French wine and poached salmon with spinach, worth every overpriced penny.

That’s about it on airports. Planes take off and mostly land. Some have jet engines, others spiders on the front. Sometimes it gets bumpy, sometimes it gets very bumpy. Some airlines offer food, others let you buy food on the plane. Not being fan of airline food, I generally travel with nuts and dried fruit on short haul flights.

Top Tip: Wherever funds allow use Bangkok airways for short hops. Twice the price of many of the budget airlines but you will thank me. After a few months of any other type of transport, discovering the Bangkok Airways lounge with its complimentary food and drink (non alcoholic) and it’s fast free wifi is like reconnecting with civilisation.

Buses and Trains.
This is aimed at the old remember. Young people happily suffer the discomfort of budget travel. Young people are also prepared to go for days without a shower. Young people still believe that buses and trains are all part of life’s rich travel tapestry. To quote Leonard Gershe from his play ‘Butterflies are Free’ “ Diahorrea is part of life but do we have to look at it?” Or in the case of buses and trains in SE Asia, suffer it.

Some golden oldies think it’s fun to take a bus. I’m still trying to work out why. It’s not, it’s barely sufferable for the young; nothing short of traumatic for the rest of us. Rather like Glastonbury (unless you are flown in by helicopter to the VIP enclosure), bus journeys in SE Asia are something that should be relegated into room 101 at round about the age of 35, 40 is definitely the upper limit.
Oh sure you will have many a tale to tell at dinner parties when you get home of how you ‘really lived’ the life. “Do you remember when that bus was coming towards us and we thought we were all going to die?” Yada yada, yada… yes, we’ve all done that, everyone does that and it wasn’t that much fun at the time was it? If you really want to ‘live the life’ cross London on a double decker bus, you will see just as much of the human condition and a London bus will be far more comfortable.
Bus journeys are long, bumpy, uncomfortable and, although sometimes the scenery can be spectacular, unless you are a sufferer of FOMO syndrome (a new expression a young person taught me, ‘Fear of Missing Out’), not worth the discomfort. I am not even convinced that by the time you have spent the extra money on overnight accommodation and food to relieve the boredom, they actually work out that much cheaper. If you insist on travelling by bus, go buy Lonely Planet and do the research yourself.

Trains are not a lot better though I suppose, if you do suffer from FOMO  syndrome, (I don’t), a bit like the Full Moon party, you have to do an overnight train once.

To my absolute despair, I have done it twice, the train that is, not the Full Moon Party. The latter being a bit like jumping out of aeroplanes, mass murder and bungy jumping, all experiences I can well do without.
My first train journey was an overnight in India. 10 years later (rather like childbirth, the pain dulls with time) I foolishly agreed to repeat the experience with a young person on a tight budget who was travelling with me. This time from Surathani to Bangkok on our budget trip to Chiang Mai.
A two and a half hour ferry to Surathani, an hour’s bus drive in a bus with no suspension over pot holed roads to the train station in a particularly unspectacular part of town, three hours waiting for the train. Train delayed for another hour. Nine hours in our overnight, admittedly, not uncomfortable, sleeping compartments, being woken at every stop by new travellers joining the train and opening the curtains to make sure it wasn’t their compartment….Can I rest my case now? The memory is causing a fresh outbreak of hives.

It’s your choice dear Baby Boomer, but I would rather forgo new shoes for a year, dining out in the UK for two years, my monthly manicure and pedicure forever, than give up Bangkok Airways.

Boats
I love boats. I love being on the water so it’s hard to find bad things to say about the ferries that take you to the islands of your dreams. Yes the ferry ports are horrid. overcrowded, hot, dusty and with endless queues at the ticket office. Even if you buy a ticket at the airport, you will have to queue to change it for 3 more. One to stick on your chest like an unaccompanied minor, so they know which ferry company you are travelling with, (odd as there is generally only the one), one for your case so it MIGHT be taken off at the right disembarkation port, and one to hand over as you board as proof you have paid.
The walk from the ticket office to the boat is never less than 100 yards and generally longer (see you love me for your case on wheels now, no sherpas here.).
The ferry companies have never heard of health and safety. The boat is old, creaking and in danger of sinking even before half the people are on board. It will lurch out of port and the young people (if they are headed to the hedonism of a full moon party, or the island they are going to’s equivalent) will be drunk before they embark and will be on a mission to be catatonic by the time they reach their destination.
Pray for a calm sea. I will leave you to imagine the picture of an overcrowded ferry, alcohol fuelled passengers and a rough sea…not pretty. On a calm day with no party date close, it is like entering paradise.

Top tips:
a) Check your ferry times. They cruelly rarely match up with international flight times and you could well end up having to stay overnight at your port of entry.
b) Don’t queue to get on the ferry. Wait in the shade until the disembarking passengers and their luggage are off the boat, then saunter with well travelled, weary confidence to the front of the queue (limping a little helps) and ignore any dark looks. You’re old, you don’t know the rules and no one in SE Asia queues unless they are a Farang (foreigner).

Tuk Tuks, motorbikes and motor bike taxis.
Travelling by tuk tuk, is best accomplished blindfolded and with earplugs. Driving on whichever side of the road is designated as the right side of the road to drive on in SE Asia, is merely ‘a suggestion’ and rarely adhered to.

Tuk tuks are expensive in Bangkok where taxis are far better value (always insist on the metre). On most of the Thai islands open air taxis ( a bit like mini buses with no side panels) are the norm. In Cambodia and Vietnam Tuk Tuks are virtually the only form of city travel (apart from death by motorbike taxi).
In Singapore and Malaysia I have only ever used taxis.

Motorbikes and motorbike taxis
Whether hiring them or riding on the back of one, I have nothing to say apart from ‘go look at the stats’. There are so many motorbike accidents daily in SE Asia that they don’t even make the local papers, let alone the nationals, unless (and not even always) a death occurs. You may be a safe driver with decades of two wheeled experience under your money belt but trust me the rest of them out there on the roads are insane (and often drunk). The bus drivers are insane, the taxi drivers are insane, the roads are insanity. There are no rules. As many as seven people can be seen on one motorbike with all their worldly possessions. It’s your call but I would rather jump out of an aeroplane than get on a motorbike in SE Asia, and you know how I feel about jumping out of aeroplanes.

You can hire motorbikes in Thailand but not legally in Cambodia or Vietnam. You can of course hire them but it will probably invalidate your insurance.
On the subject of Insurance, don’t travel without it and don’t take short cuts. Yes you do need that repatriation add on.
A young friend had a motorbike accident on Phuket. She had no insurance. Her injuries were horrific. She had to be flown back to the UK. Her friends and family had to raise the necessary funds. That’s all I have to say on that.

Walking and trekking
For me only the former applies, I see no delights in scrambling up well trodden mountain paths in sweaty hiking boots, missing what might be beautiful scenery as you battle with a battalion of mosquitos and live in abject terror that a snake might cross your path. Good luck if this is your bag. For me walking is getting about town and that isn’t as easy as you might think.
In most SE Asian cities crossing roads on foot alone is a fantasy.
Top Tip: Water sellers, little old ladies weighed down by a bamboo pole on their shoulders, with half a vegetable market in the baskets at each end, or currently ‘resting’ tuk tuk drivers (who find the whole spectacle funnier than a Japanese game show), are the best travel companions when attempting this.

Do’s and Dont’s
SE Asia is largely, but not exclusivley, Bhuddist (there are many Muslim enclaves).
Topless sun bathing is, by and large, tolerated but you won’t gain much respect by going bare breasted or bare arsed in this modest part of the world.
Bartering is a tricky one. For centuries a way of life, now over exploited (alas often by the young). Margins generally are tight (thanks in part to the internet) so think before you erode them further. Your 50p win could mean less on the table for a family meal. Is it really worth it?
The thumbs up sign was once considered a huge mark of disrespect. The Vietnam war and the tourist invasion has largely dispelled that, but putting your hands together and lowering your head, or even the V for victory sign pressed against your forehead, is still far more respectful.
Do tip. You can afford it and for the migrant workers in Thailand  from Laos and Myanmar (often illegal with no papers or recourse to schooling and health care) this can be a life line. Wages are extremely low (as little as £6 a day in most resorts).
Do get ripped off, at least for the first week. You are a tourist, you should get ripped off, it goes with the tourist territory.
Don’t come here if you think you can live a high end western lifestyle for peanuts. Your fantasy will implode.
Try not to be loud and argumentative. Confrontation is against the nature of most SE Asians and you will only embarrass them and be far less likely to secure your goal.
Try and learn a few words of their native tongue, even just a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will go a long way.
Show respect. This is their land not yours, don’t be so arrogant as to think you have the right to impose your ways on them.

As more occurs to me, or if you have questions on any other topic, I will happily update. Please note all prices quoted are circa 2014. Costs will have gone up.

Yours
The traveller who hates travelling

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