Tuesday, 25 March 2014

You have reached your destination

Perth: 4pm on Tuesday. Total funds: about $500.

Might keep me going for a week, if I'm lucky.

The government think I came here with $5000 and enough for a return flight. No chance.

And you know what? Anxiety hit.

Travelling's not all fun and games, especially when the money runs out.

At least the sun was out. And as the city bus (I'm still a backpacker, no taxis for me) rolled through streets that seemed far too American for my liking (the road signs that is – they have roundabouts here), I wondered what on earth I was letting myself in for.

3 nights booked into a backpackers, and of course the wifi barely worked.

So I applied for a TFN and went for a $5 Domino's with Nolan, a French guy I met on the bus. First meal: pizza of champions.

I would describe the various menial tasks I did the next day, and really excite the three people who read my blog on a regular basis, but quite frankly, I'd rather trim my toenails. I was a bit stressed about jobs, and spent far too long on Gumtree. And got abused by the English manager about my apparent antics involving sheep.

Of course.

It paid off though: I was awoken the next day to a phonecall (on my new Aussie number, of course) being offered an interview for a milkman job.

Sounds good.

And for some reason, I liked the feel of Australia already. I don't know what it was, but there was something that, through the anxiety, I liked.

I was actually going to head out to see the kangaroos on the island around the corner, but then someone reminded me that they don't come out at midday and that I should probably wait for the evening.

So I headed for a job agency instead: the Job Shop in Northbridge.

I'd applied for a few roadhouse jobs with them, so I thought I'd show my face.

The receptionist stood up, checked my height, thought I was smaller than I actually was (no, I'm definitely not 5'7-5'8 thank you very much), fairly fit (thanks mate), and asked if I wanted some regional work 150km south of Perth.

That started tomorrow.


Money and my second year visa: sorted.

Picking melons. Which I didn't realise grew on the ground until someone at the hostel told me to enjoy my future back problems.

I'd have to get the train the next morning, and had a fairly long list of things I needed to grab.

The army surplus store never did so well off me.

By evening I was knackered, but thought I should probably see something of Perth that wasn't the CBD.

So I went down to the Swan River, and took photos of the CBD from the outside instead.

The CBD: yeah, that's it
The real reason was to go and see the sunset, which I hadn't done in far too long. I have far too many photographer genes in me: not so sure about them.

I had a good wander back after the free city bus that I thought would take me to the centre actually deposited me further out of town than I'd been when I started – but there we go, serves me right for not reading the display on the front.

Happens to the best of us.

Colonial architecture: check.

Lit up CBD: check.

It was all so good that I had to be interrupted by the French guys from the hostel who were coming the other way. They were heading for an Indian buffet where you could pay as much as you like.

An..... Indian buffet....... where you can pay...... as much as you like.

You can guess where I went.

And I pretended to speak French, as only I do. It was good fun.

Oh, and the food was good. I even tried to pay in rupees, which confused yet amused the poor staff, who had quite clearly not seen Indian currency in far too long.

I'm not sure what it is about the last few cities I'd been to, but maybe I'm mellowing. I liked Perth too. People who've stayed there a while have mixed opinions, but there's a fairly compact CBD, then it's got a provincial town feel, then you hit the suburbs. All sounds good by me.

That said, I never really saw anything of Perth. I was looking for jobs. I'm boring like that.

Train to Waroona: let's do this job thing.  

There's going to be more posts, even when I'm sat around working. I have to mindvomit sometimes. Oh, and I'm still travelling. Travelling never stops. There's always a next trip - or in my case, another destination on my escape from home for as long as is possible.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Smuggling chewing gum into Singapore

Singapore: sums it up
Getting to Singapore: bus to JB, state bus over the border, go to Queen Street bus terminal, walk to hostel.

Yeah, if only things were that simple.

The border crossing was one from hell. First of all, I got the wrong bus – though for a few cents more than the state bus it wasn't too bad.

Then we got to the Malaysian exit post. Stamped out. OK, let's go get the bus again.

It was a bus station affair downstairs – and as I got down the stairs, I saw my bus leaving. Without me.

I had no idea where the company's buses left from, so I just stood there – waiting for a bus to appear. Which was at the far end of the station. So I ran, backpack and all – and he wasn't going to wait for me.

At least I knew where the bus left from.

An hour later, I wasn't so sure.

So I just went and found any other bus heading in the right direction. “Kranji MRT” meant I could take the MRT to Little India and the hostel, so I went for it – and it was cheaper than going all the way to Larkin. And it wasn't Woodlands, which was the border post MRT station.

Ah, got it. Singapore border post crossed, chewing gum smuggled in (they only cared about cigarettes) and a fairly friendly welcome, and I looked for a bus from the same company.

I know how this works now.

Except Kranji MRT was actually further away than Woodlands, and required an hour's journey stood up in a silent carriage. I couldn't even chew gum to pass the time.

From fair-enough to ridiculous
At least it's straightforward enough, even if when I left Little India station it was tipping down and my flip flops, weathered by the Thai border post experience, really didn't approve of the slippery pavements.

So I settled in, avoided complaining about $5 beers, and enjoyed some “Australian steak with gravy” affair that cost me far too much. But it was blooming good. And the hostel was called the “Prince of Wales”, complete with requisite Welsh flag. I approved.

And my first full day was a Sunday, and I inadvertently went to church.

And stayed for a bit too!

Then the monsoon rains decided to say hello, and it was time to see Singapore in all its dull and dreary glory – skyscrapers, skyscrapers and more grey.

Even beneath the skyscrapers and dull environs of the city-state, there were still some elements of Singaporean history: the waterfront shophouses that would have looked a lot better if it hadn't have been tipping down with rain.

And there was a Russian family there, the father filming while the mother read out of the guidebook.

Yeah, who watches these videos?

By the looks on their faces, the poor children are forced to.

And I made friends with some locals, who took this amazing photo of me.

By this point, I needed my aircon fix again, so it was time to jump on the MRT to Chinatown, and enjoy some hawker food for the first time in a while. 5$ meals? Yes please! So I avoided the more touristic parts for a bit, and saw more shopfronts.

Then eventually I had to hit the Tourist Central which is Singapore's Chinatown, Inc, and of course the tooth relic temple.

Yeah, I can't see any tooth in there.

And there was a Hindu temple in Chinatown. Yeah, makes sense.

Eventually I had to go into some backstreets and hide from the usual tourist mecca that has so annoyed me so far, and I found an actual Taoist temple. Taoist temples are the only ones that seem to welcome you in with shoes on. Staying in tune with nature, this is, apparently.

OK, time for more modern stuff. Singapore is that kind of place, where I can just swap and change my mind as I wish.

Apparently people take boat trips round shopping centres.

I know this because the MRT deposits you in a shopping centre. The “only shopping mall with a UN membership” thing rings far too true.

Ah, they look EXACTLY THE SAME from this angle

Then of course I decided that I was having severe travel ADHD, and needed a mix of the two. Clarke Quay will do.

But by now, yesterday's border antics had got the most of me and I needed to sleep, before a bit of an evening photo session.

Oh yeah, enough of that. NEED MORE SKYSCRAPERS.

No, that's just overpriced clothing
And in the end, hardly any of the lights were on. Ah, Sunday night.

You know what? I ran around Singapore a lot, deciding I wanted to see something new. But Singapore provides: for a small city-state, it has a lot to offer, and with the MRT you can engage in travel ADHD to your heart's extent.

You can also give the place a good wander, even if the humidity of the monsoon season made me want to dive into the nearest shopping mall every now and then. And there are plenty of them too.

There's even these two gems in, appropriately, the Arab Street district:

So much culture crammed into one place: Singapore has history and a whole lot of diversity.

So much that I took the MRT over to Orchard Road – and they actually pronounce “Somerset station” with a Somerset accent.

But of course the monsoon rains had started, and so I had to hide inside...... shopping centres? Plenty of them here.

But getting in is always easier than getting out: there's a surprise.

After a couple of never-ending escalators, I found some sort of roof garden, and about 3 people in total. Wonder why that is.

What a view though
You know what: I like Singapore. There's something about it, in the diversity, in the crazyness, in the nutty nature of the ruling classes, that just shines through, and makes the place slightly awesome.

Even if it is a little too expensive.

At least you only need a couple of days to explore, and it's a fairly standard stopover – so a lot of people will end up there at some point, and half of them will probably hate it – but there you go. Cities are a bit hit and miss like that.

A fine way to end one hell of a trip: Australia's up next!

I'll blog a bit about my experiences there, even if I'm working quite a bit – and I've got a fair bit of miscellany (read: mind-vomit) to share (read: bore you with). So keep your eyes peeled for it!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Barefoot border crossings are the way forward

I actually went to a couple of places in south Thailand before heading to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, but actually, they bear little mention apart from the fact that they look nice.

Of course
Krabi had been taken over by Russian tourists for Christmas, while Ko Phi Phi was full of the chavrists that I so despise.

Had a good New Year's though, mostly powered by the oh-so-lethal Chang beer.

And I ran into Ollie, who I met in Belgrade, in the entrance to the place I was staying in Ao Nang. He was leaving, but a couple of days later I got fed up of the place and headed to Ko Phi Phi to join him.

Via a snorkelling trip of course, where I demonstrated my great fitness levels by having to wear a lifejacket as I swam.

Yeah, Chicken Island is chicken-shaped. Alright then
Though I met a couple of great guys that Ollie had met at various points – Josh and Suneil from England, Alan and Liam from Glasgow (ie I didn't understand a word they said) – and Buzz. Buzz (real name unknown) was the creepy old guy, but there you go.

Back to the mainland and me and Ollie had to sit in the luggage hold on the bus to Hat Yai, as that was the only place available. Lovely. Cultured?

Eventually I worked out that the bus from KL did indeed require heading to the booking office across the road, and that I had all of half an hour to wait for it.

And the Tesco next door doesn't accept my Clubcard.

So on to the overnight bus to KL it was – and it was a VIP bus. One of those gems.

Border crossing before I'm allowed to sleep though – and they'd just painted the floor on the Thai side. So my goodbye involved one of my flip-flops breaking as I cleverly stepped on it.

Oh, and you aren't allowed to import Bob Marley memorabilia into Malaysia. Or something like that. Yes, you heard it here first.

And yes, I crossed the Malaysian border post barefoot. They loved that.

You know the benefit of arriving in KL at 5am? You can go and queue to go up the Petronas Towers, and might actually make it in time to go up. Got to make the most of the early start you know!

I made it
It's an experience, even if my ears haven't been the same since. And coffee is actually reasonably priced in a tourist attraction – amazing.

The Petronas Towers are quite tall too. Shame the view is of KL, actually.

Noone has ever taken this photo before
Even if the view's not so great, I did like KL. It had character – a real good feel to it. And it had food – plenty of food – and some good, cheap stuff.

Colonially influenced mosques backed by skyscrapers: what's not to like?
And its Chinatown was decent, and not too touristic. Well, except for Petaling Street, that is.

That said, some of the shopping malls had air-con so strong that it actually cooled the street down to shivering level. Quite pleasant during monsoon season, I'll have you know.

Sweating at 7am is not so fun.

Especially after a night bus trip.

KL is one of those cities you've really got to wander to get a feel for – interrupted by frequent LRT and monorail trips just to make us of the aircon. And I liked the feel of it.

Night-time came, a bus to Singapore was booked for the next day, and I couldn't find Little India. Having spent a month in the real thing, I think I'll live.

So having headed back to the hostel, I confused an Australian girl, Claire, by just speaking. “Sorry – where are you from?”

And then she didn't understand a word I said, but we still headed to grab some food in Chinatown.

Minimum order for frogs: 500g. No, sorry, I'm poor. I wanted 200g.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The (inevitable) return to Bangkok

Bangkok is at the epicentre of everything in this bit of the world – and this was the second time it had played this role for me. All roads lead to Bangkok, after all. Or something like that.

My first task was to get myself out of Hsipaw, and then out of Burma. Certainly not the easiest thing in the world by any means.

Ben and I had booked a bus to Mandalay the day before, and were up to abuse the buffet breakfast one last time before settling and walking down to the main road for 9am.

Though of course, the bus was late.

And had a food stop after all of 45 minutes. Into a 6 hour bus journey. Oh dear...

It was a mildly interesting journey, down into the gorge that I'd just glided over on the Gokteik Viaduct 4 days prior.

Well, “glided” is pushing it, but there you go.

And back up again. It took a while, long enough that I was surprised that the Chinese hadn't built a road viaduct across the thing. This is the main road to China, after all. Which has an immigration office a good 100km inland from the border.

Right then...

And there was a second food stop in Pyin Oo Lwin – or “Plllllllurrr” as Ben called it. Yes, we'll go with Maymo. Where I got preached at by some Americans. Stereotypes are incredible things. At least these ones had actually made it out of the USA.

Everyone I'd met had said that Mandalay was fairly overrated – and they were right. It was a rubbish version of Bangkok by what I could see. Unfortunately I didn't quite have time to go and see the famous bridge for sunset, a bridge in Amarapura, 11km away. But Mandalay itself is a bit rubbish.

This is Mandalay. It really isn't that exciting.
Though the overpriced hotels were still full.

After an elusive search for a fishkin (Ben had decided that if he saw one on sale, he was getting it) it was time to sleep, in preparation for the big BKK.

Christmas Eve, and it was on to the shuttle bus (that's organised) and off to Mandalay airport, some provincial affair which didn't even have a currency exchange. Just a guy on the information counter. Given that I had a good 60$ in Burmese currency, it was a good time to exchange it all.

Even if there wasn't actually a 5000 kyat departure tax, and we had to waste the rest of our kyats on burgers and cocktails.

Though the burgers were incredibly good, and the cocktails far too potent.

And we were rushed on to our flight, where security didn't care about the litre bottle of water Ben had or the fact that I'd set the metal detector off. And because this is Burma, we went into the skybridge..... then down some steps on to the ground, where we had to take a bus all 100 metres to where the plane was sat.

No, I can't walk there.

Or run, because they won't catch me that way.

The poor guy seemed amused, at least.

The flight arrived a good 40 minutes ahead of schedule too. On an intercontinental flight, this might be impressive, but on a 2 hour flight, it looks like bad scheduling so they can claim that 99% of flights arrive on time, or whatever.

This was not how I arrived. I just wanted an excuse to use the photo.
Arriving in Bangkok felt like a bit of a homecoming too. Sorry mum?

From what I've seen, the longer you spend there, the more you like the place. Seems like my experience – and I'm certainly not a big city kind of guy.

And so we got a taxi in, confused the driver by not wanting the tollway, and headed back to see Aung was still in good form. And got reunited with my Burmese hat, that I'd not taken to Burma.

And Nikolas was still there. Magnus had left one day prior.

Bangkok holds on to everyone.

As for Christmas Day, I went to the currency exchange. And the post office, where it's forbidden to post liquids, explosives, firearms – and Buddha images.

Then to Siam Square, just because we were bored – and went to an Indonesian fast food restaurant around the corner. A&W is decent, and I do highly recommend it.

Must..... take photo..... of root beer
And of course there was time to get lost.

But we found the pier eventually – and they let the people without tickets on before the ones who'd bought the expensive 150 baht day passes – the ones that require you take 11 journeys before they become worthwhile.

The looks on their faces when the boat departed without them. Ah, Bangkok.

Bangkok: never the end of the line
I know I'll be back here. It's just going to happen. It's a good thing I like the place.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Rise of the Unpronouncables, part 2

After Pyin Oo Lwin, it was time to head to the second unpronouncable: Hsipaw. Hsipaw's a Shan town in the hills, and I was thinking of doing a bit of trekking to some villages nearby at one point. That was before I was ill, however, so it now seemed like a good place to do absolutely nothing at all except for eat, drink, and sleep.

Talking of sleeping: accommodation was $7 a night. For the first time, I'd found it below $10 in Burma. Simple victories.

But the journey was meant to be something quite epic, and so I was actually up at 6:30am to take a motorbike taxi to the station.

Well, I'm not sure if it was an actual taxi or just a guy with a motorbike who was happy to make 1000 kyats off me, but there you go.

And the booking office wasn't even open for a while. Should have just grabbed breakfast first. Or I could have gone in between buying my ticket and the train arriving, but I was the stupid one who left it too late and just bought some assorted biscuits and other baked delicacies.

Oh, and in my tiredness I forgot that Burmese sweets are disgusting.

The Danish guy from the night bus was also there, and was trying to get something cheaper than the 3$ train fare. I suggested he went on the roof. Or walked.

Seriously, why do people do that? Live a little!

I spent most of the journey hanging out of the door though, because I'm a nutter.

Seemed appropriate
It is possibly the bumpiest journey I've ever been on – the trains swing from side to side, and the doors like to knock you out of the train by closing on you from time to time.

Thankfully the thing's so slow that you can just sprint and jump back on.

If you don't get caught in the undergrowth that is. The train seems to disappear into it from time to time.

Still, when there's a gap, everyone in the vicinity waves at the train.

I still love the Burmese.

Stereotypes: still as amusing as ever
It's a long, slow journey, with a lot of stations on the way – though that was a good opportunity to eat and ingest some caffeine into my system, both of which were badly needed.

Then we got going again, and I caught a glimpse of it.

The Gokteik Viaduct is what makes this journey. It's an incredible feat of engineering, a viaduct put across an incredibly steep gorge, and something that I really didn't appreciate until I actually saw it.

The Eiffel Tower school of engineering never did so well.

The train winds its way down to the viaduct too. There's a terrific sense of adventure, of journeying, of history.

It just gets closer, and closer.

Then the train slows down to a crawl, so the bumpiness doesn't damage the creaking viaduct.

Because putting down new rails is too difficult.

And then, there it was.

It's truly something that has to be experienced.

And in my case, I tried to touch the viaduct with my feet – and ended up losing a sandal off the side of the thing. How clever of me. Maybe the viaduct needed some sort of sacrifice in order to not fall down though. I'm not sure how these things work – and some Buddhist guru is about to slap me round the face, I can just sense it.

Eventually, after what seems like a lifetime, you get off the thing, and start heading into the Shan hills for that long journey all the way up to Hsipaw.

It's still a while away yet!

Standard Burmese scenes, according to Rambo
By this point half the train realised that I was crazy, and a Czech guy had worked out that I was Welsh on this basis. Personal victories, eh?

We definitely named this one
I even had to chase the train down the platform because I was buying some more food and the train started to pull out of the station. Definitely crazy. Never seen someone count money quicker than the poor seller who was trying to give me all of 40 cents in change.

And it got so bumpy that my bag flew out of the luggage rack. I was quite impressed.

At about 3pm, after a good 7 hours on the train, we finally pulled into Hsipaw, and got accosted by a number of guesthouses. I went for the one that would have people in it, since I was planning on doing nothing for the next 2 days.

It did indeed have people in it. I met a German guy who I'd met in Bagan, and who thought that I was Waleisch. Yes, Waleisch. Those Germans. I also met a Kiwi called Ben – and given that us Brits, Aussies and Kiwis share the same dodgy sense of humour, we naturally got on like a house on fire. And my jokes were probably as cliched as that turn of phrase, but it's not like I care that much about such things.

He was leaving on an overnight trek – my original plan – and if I hadn't had been so ill, I would have joined him. But I let him make do with some Yanks and Germans instead. Poor guy.

So we had a few beers, talked about who knows what, was convinced that I should go to Indonesia (as if I needed convincing) and then headed across to Mr. Food.

Everyone in Hsipaw is Mr. or Mrs. something. Mr Charles, Mr Food, Mr Book, Mr Shake, Mrs Boat, Mrs Popcorn...

But Mrs Popcorn doesn't actually sell popcorn, and Mrs Boat is a restaurant. How disappointing.

The Czechs turned up too and drank the 600 kyat draught beer as only Czechs can.

At some point we realised that we should probably leave, but we decided that we should visit the shop with some weird, brightly coloured, plastic toy animals on the way back. Except that these animals seemed to actually be hybrids of a couple of random animals.

The staff seemed happy for us to laugh far too much at their products, and even demonstrated what they were. A hen, apparently.

Yes, I saw a grown Burmese woman do an impression of a chicken. Be jealous.

Ben decided that it should be called a fishkin, and that actually it maybe wasn't a good idea to buy one.

More food the next morning. The hostel breakfast was good, even if I've forgotten how to eat a breakfast buffet in the past 3 or so months.

And so I settled into my original plan of doing absolutely nothing, only punctuated by returning to Mr Food and drinking beer on the basis that it was the cheapest drink in there.

I'm a boring sod when I'm ill, eh?

I did learn how to ride a motorbike though. It's really easy. Rented one and took it up the road to Lashio until I hit a toll booth – at which point I turned around. Fun fun fun.

Standard photo of rice terraces to break up my rambles. Probably needed.
Just don't get yourself blindsided by a lorry though. That's not so fun.

My days in Burma were coming to an end, and while I was ready to leave on such a high, I knew I'd be back. An incredible country that rose to the top of my favourite countries list very quickly. There's so much more I need to see!

There was just time to watch the closing ceremony of the SEA Games, which had a song which sounded like “crystal meth, crystal meth, crystal meth”, and this amused me and Ben far too much. They were very proud of hosting the SEA Games, the ASEAN sporting competition which amused me far too much while I was there.

Oh, and Ben was seriously tempted to buy the fishkin. Also highly amusing.

But the return to Bangkok was nigh.

There's always a return to Bangkok though. We've been through this already.