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I woke up gradually_ unaware of where I was

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					DON’T DRINK
THE WATER
  A YEAR IN ASIA




   SIMON CUTTING
                           1
          FARANG, CHANG, RED BULL, AND BHANG

                                    THAILAND

Ko Samui- Big Buddha Beach
I woke up unaware of where I was and something seemed to be licking my feet, possibly
a dog. My head was tilted to the right nestling on sand, and in my distorted field of view I
could see a few people sitting on the beach, beers in hand, talking animatedly about
nothing important. I raised my head. It wasn’t a dog licking my feet, it was the waves
lapping up against them as they hit the shore. I was soaking wet, as was my wallet and
my money belt containing close to five hundred dollars in cash, my plane tickets and my
passport. My head was throbbing and my vision was so unfocused I couldn’t even tell if I
recognised anybody around me without going right up to them and staring them in the
face for a few seconds. I’d have called out their names but I couldn’t remember anyone’s
names. After breathing directly into one guy’s face I realised I had never seen him before.
‘Where am I?’ I asked, my words slurred and indistinct.
Either he couldn’t speak English or perhaps in my current state, I couldn’t, but I got no
response. He looked at me like he had just scraped me off his shoe until I wandered off
up the beach, past some bungalows and towards the road. I had to get home, wherever the
hell that was. I hit the road, nothing was familiar. Not just my location, but nothing.
Shapes such as trees and houses were completely new to me. I looked about the dimly lit
street, which seemed empty and imposing.

Where the hell was I?

Then it all came flooding back.

I was on Ko Samui, in southern Thailand. I had arrived that afternoon with my two
flatmates from home, Banga and his girlfriend Mel. We’d gotten into Bangkok late and
headed immediately south to the islands. I went to school with Banga and the one thing
we both share is a common love of binge drinking. Mel had never travelled before and
after some initial distress at the smell and filth upon landing in Bangkok she decided that
Thailand wasn’t so bad after all and had actually started to enjoy herself. We had planned
to meet up with Banga’s brother, Billy, and his girlfriend Ag. Billy is immensely tall and
good-natured whilst Ag, who immigrated from Poland when she was six years old, is not
immensely tall but just as good-natured. We had decided not to tell them that I was
coming to Thailand and so, when we arrived at their bungalows ‘Shambala’, I hid in
Banga and Mel’s bathroom as everybody hugged and laughed in the next room. I waited
for my moment and then emerged triumphantly. Billy and Ag looked briefly stunned and
then came rushing over.
‘This is great! I didn’t know you were coming!’ Ag said.
‘It was meant to be a surprise,’ I replied.
We chatted excitedly for a bit and then there was a pause.


                                             2
‘Umm, but we didn’t book you a room. And they’re full,’ Billy said after a bit.
‘Oh,’ I replied.
There was another pause.
‘Well I’m sure you can find somewhere else just up the beach there,’ Ag said
reassuringly.
I nodded.
’Oh, I’m sure I will.’
So I picked up my heavy pack and trudged out of the room.
‘Come back when you find somewhere. We can have a drink!’ Banga called after me as
he ordered an ice cold Chang and they all set off laughing to the beachfront restaurant.

I pondered over the pros and cons of our little joke as I walked up the road, stopping to
ask at every place I saw. They were all full. We were staying on a beach called Big
Buddha, aptly named after the gigantic golden statue of Buddha that stands prominently
on a headland at one end. Unfortunately, I didn’t know this. Banga hadn’t been sure
where it was we were going. We had gotten a songthaew from the ferry stop and we just
jumped out when he recognised something, as he had been to Samui before. A songthaew
incidentally, is a ute with two rows of seats in the back, facing inwards, and usually with
a roof. They are the main form of transport on the Thai islands unless you want to rent a
motorcycle. In any case, Banga had thought we were on Bo Phut Beach, and had told me
as such. I discovered later that this was a crucial piece of misinformation.

Which led to my predicament. I managed to find a place, a good five hundred metres up
the beach and when I got back down we decided to have some beverages to celebrate our
arrival. I had heard all about Thai Red Bull and how it was so much stronger than at
home. I didn’t think that would be a particularly difficult thing as the Red Bull in
Australia has no effect on me whatsoever, so when Banga suggested I drink a Vodka Red
Bull I was game. In fact, I ended up having about five of them, and I had already been
drinking copious amounts of Chang.

To cut a long story short, I woke up, waves lapping against my feet and lying in the sand,
completely unaware of where I was. The problem, as I have since discovered, is that the
Red Bull gives you so much energy that you’re awake long after you should have passed
out from too much drinking. Not only are you awake, but you have the energy to act upon
every uninhibited impulse that happens to flash through your mind. I spoke to Billy and
Banga the next day to check on what had happened.

‘Well,’ began Banga, ‘You started getting very loud and disturbing the other guests at
Shambala so we decided to walk you home.’
‘Yes. But the biggest problem with that was that you were unable to walk,’ added Billy.
‘Okay, but why was I so wet?’
‘Well you were unable to walk, but you were able to swim,’ he replied, ‘You said you
were going to swim home and ran off into the water fully clothed before we could stop
you.’




                                            3
I thought this over. It sounded plausible. My clothes had been soaking as was my money
belt. I had been forced to hang thousand baht notes up on the clothesline in my bungalow
when I finally made it home.
‘But wait a minute, if you were walking me home then how come I woke up on the
beach?’
‘Well you didn’t know where you lived. You were pretty sure we had come to the right
place when you saw a bunch of guys sitting around a plastic table on the beach drinking,
but when you approached them you tripped and knocked the table over and all their
beers, so they weren’t too friendly after that.’
A memory came back to me. A frosty silence when I asked that blurry figure on the
beach where I was. No wonder he wouldn’t talk to me.
‘And then you refused to get up and couldn’t tell us your room number so we left you
there. We figured you’d get up and go home eventually.’

They were right. I did get up and go home… eventually. When I stumbled up to the road
I had been so drunk I hadn’t even realised that I was just outside my own bungalows. I
had flagged down a passing motorcycle and asked him if he would drive me to Bo Phut
Beach. This he did, and when I got off I realised that I had no idea where I was. I
scratched my head (well tried to, but accidentally poked myself in the eye) and attempted
to think of another way of going about this. Bo Phut Beach was clearly not where I was,
or else I would recognise it. I tried to recall instead the name of my bungalows. They
were called Sunset Song 2, but the only word I could remember was Sunset. Now the
thing about Thailand is, the Thais are some of the friendliest people in the world. They’ll
always help you out and do it with a smile, so even at three in the morning I had no
trouble finding another motorcycle to take me to my destination.
‘I need to get to Sunset… something. Sunset…’ I stammered, shivering a little in my
sodden clothes.
The Thais may be some of the friendliest people in the world, but when it comes to
naming bungalows and guesthouses they lack imagination. Every second place on the
island has Sunset or Beach or Sunrise or Sea in the title.

He dropped me off at the end of a dirt road outside a locked gate of a massive resort
complex called Sunset Resort. I shook my head.
‘This isn’t it!’ I exclaimed.
I was feeling a little desperate now. I had been driving around for half an hour or more
and I had no idea where I was. My Thai was about as bad as his English and he became
angry at me. He wanted money for petrol which I agreed to give him, if he got me home.
Looking back I can see how stupid such a request was. He needed petrol to drive me
around searching (out of the goodness of his heart and perhaps the possibility of a small
tip) for a place that I didn’t know the name or location of, but I refused to give him
money for the petrol he needed to do that until he got me there. My logic was not
working at full capacity and I was getting a little bit scared. I became even more scared
when he got off the bike and shoved me backwards, demanding money. Now I am not a
fighter, but I raised my fists in front of my face to protect myself, and he just shook his
head and got back on his bike.
‘Fuck you!’ he called back at me as he drove away.



                                            4
His English was impeccable in that particular instance but I felt a little better. I had
scared him off. I certainly showed him, I thought, as I stood in the pitch darkness at the
end of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

I found a main road through some blind stumbling and soon found myself perched on the
back of yet another bike, heading for Bo Phut Beach. It was all wrong again, and I
walked up the beach, thinking maybe I was just at the far end of it and would see my
place if I walked the length of it. I arrived at a small wooden bar at the far end without
having seen anything familiar. The bar was literally just that. A bar in the sand, playing
reggae music. The two young Thai guys working there looked up in surprise as I
approached. It must have been getting on to five in the morning.
‘You want a beer?’ one asked, and I admit that the thought did cross my mind, but I
turned it down.
The last thing I needed was more alcohol. Maybe just a Red Bull to keep myself awake…
‘You lost?’ the bartender asked and I nodded.
‘I’m looking for a place called Sunset…’ I began and he just nodded.
I think he had seen this kind of thing before.
‘When I close the bar, I’ll give you a lift,’ he said, ‘About fifteen minutes.’
I shrugged. Sure, whatever. I didn’t honestly expect to get home but a change of scenery
would be nice. So we sat around talking and suddenly something in my mind clicked. I
must have been sobering up.
‘Sunset Song! That’s what it’s called! Sunset freaking Song!’
I was so overjoyed that I had remembered that I didn’t even notice the look of confusion
that crossed his face. It turned out, as we were cruising around Samui that he didn’t know
where Sunset Song was. We stopped once at a lonely crossroads at one point. Lonely that
is except for the five Thai guys sitting around on a little bamboo structure getting drunk.
One of them wandered up and said something to my bartender, and then peered at me
through the gloom. He face spread into a broad smile and he started to laugh so much he
could barely stand up. I looked at him, a bit bemused until I realised what was going on.
He was the guy who had dropped me at the end of the dirt road, about and hour and a half
earlier. My bartender was beginning to sense that he might be stuck with me, but he kept
driving and within a few minutes we met an old man who knew where Sunset Song was.
‘Not Bo Phut. Big Buddha!’ he said.

I could have kissed that old man, and perhaps I did, I don’t really remember. Those two
words and I was home within five minutes. We roared up the road on his Honda Dream
(Bo Phut is the next beach along) and soon the huge gold Buddha appeared in my vision,
like a guide. There it was, Sunset Song 2, just where I’d left it. I got off the bike
exhausted and delved into my pocket, showering my new best friend with money, and
making him promise to give the other guy some petrol money if he saw him again. He
assured me that he would and with that I went into my bungalow, just as the sun was
peeking up over the horizon.

‘Hang on,’ Billy said, interrupting my story, ‘Are you telling me you spent three hours or
more driving around trying to get back to the exact place that we left you?’
I nodded, bowing my head with shame.



                                            5
‘You’re an idiot!’ he declared.
‘You really are,’ Banga agreed.


Krabi- Rai Leh Beach
So what the hell was I doing in South East Asia anyway? A lot of people claim to go
travelling to find themselves or to learn more about their own limitations and confront
their fears of the unknown. Not so for me. I was in South East Asia for one reason and for
one reason only, and that was to have fun. This was no spiritual journey of self discovery.
As a matter of fact, self discovery was one of the things I was trying to avoid in my life,
and the closest I wanted to get to a spiritual awakening had happened on Big Buddha
when I woke up after drinking over a litre of the stuff mixed with Red Bull. There was no
ultimate destination and no purpose to my trip beyond seeing things I hadn’t seen before.
And that, for me, is enough. A person is only made of memories so they might as well be
interesting ones.

Some days had passed since my incident, and I had managed to get myself so burnt from
riding around on motorcycles that the skin on my hands moved in a single section, like a
piece of schnitzel. Apart from that complication, renting a motorcycle in Thailand is a
simple process. Usually a passport and one hundred and fifty baht are enough for the day.
No licence is required, which is good because I didn’t have one. No helmets were
supplied either but of course, I only needed one of those if I intended to fall off. In any
case, Samui is a fantastic island for riding on; it’s about twenty five kilometres long by
twenty one kilometres wide and has its own airport as well as several ports and small
towns. There’s a sort of ring road that wraps around the beaches and it’s along this that
the best views can be seen. There’s nothing like riding a bike around the winding cliff-
side roads and along beautiful beaches.

I was trying to keep off the alcohol since my opening act, although the others all went out
and had riotous times whilst I sat at home dousing my baked body with aloe vera. Finally,
Billy and Ag decided that they had been there long enough and wanted to head off for
Krabi. The rest of us had planned to go to Ko Pha Ngan, but we decided to go to Krabi
with them because they would be leaving for home after that. So Banga and I went to
arrange tickets. There didn’t seem to be any problem except for the fact that we were told
that there was only one ferry a day and the time that Billy and Ag's was supposed to leave
was an hour before ours. Either there was some sort of mistake or there was a small
localised time distortion at the wharf. We were placing our bets on a fuck-up.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what it was. Getting up very early we managed to get in a
songthaew and to the ferry. It was still dark, and the only other people in the back with us
were locals carrying sacks of produce or chickens. It was about ten to seven by the time
we got there and as it turned out the ferry didn't leave until nine. Why did we get there so
early, you ask? Shut up and mind your own business, I reply. It's all someone else's fault I
add, under my breath.




                                             6
But of course, in every trip there are long periods of waiting. I had backpacked before,
through India, and the one thing that I learnt from that experience is that there is no sense
in getting upset about anything. Things will go wrong, and your bus will NEVER look
like the one in the photograph. Express trains are NOT express trains and the Deluxe Bus
is deluxe only when compared to being dragged behind wild horses with a rope around
your ankles. I have a mantra for such occasions. This too shall pass. Whatever happens,
however bad it is, it will be over soon and at some point in the future you will be sitting
back and laughing about it. Of course this also applies to when you’re having fun and you
know that at some point in the future you’ll find yourself at a wharf somewhere waiting
for a ferry that was supposed to have arrived hours earlier. It was there that we found
ourselves later that day. We had booked tickets through the P.P. Family travel agency.
This was not so much because we thought that it would be the best service, but rather
because they seem to hold a monopoly on all services to the beaches.

Krabi town itself is not the place to be. A lot of the beaches that surround the area cannot
be reached by road and so a boat needs to be arranged, which is what we thought we had
done. We had been waiting for over an hour for what was supposed to have been a joint
bus/ferry ticket before I approached the counter, putting on my most passive face.
'Hello there my fine fellow. On this glorious day I have arrived to board the eleven
o’clock boat to beautiful Rai Leh Beach where I plan to indulge in all kinds of
magnificent and possibly illegal debauchery,’ I said, with excessive politeness.
'Not eleven, twelve thirty.'
'Oh. Why is that my dear chap?' I replied.
‘Twelve thirty.’
So we sat down and had a drink in the fine PP family restaurant conveniently located
opposite the ticket office. After twelve thirty had come and gone I approached again.
'This is a splendid restaurant my cheerful friend and trusted confidante. Incidentally
where is the fucking boat?'
'No boat till one.'
‘But you said…’ I began.
‘One.’

The problem seems to be a desire to keep people happy by lying to them. If you arrive at
ten o’clock and the boat is not coming until two o’clock, then you are told it will be there
in an hour. Every hour you will be told the same thing. This is not restricted to the P.P.
Family by any means. It is a common practice everywhere in South East Asia.
Personally, I would prefer not to be appeased repeatedly with lies. I would prefer to
approach the counter and have them say,
'Sit in the restaurant and spend money. You take it, farang, and you like it! The boat is an
upturned coconut and a bloke with a spoon paddling. It comes in four days.'
Eventually they got sick of us complaining and flagged down a longtail for us to ride. It
was not the ferry we had paid for but it would get us there. A longtail is a canoe-like boat
with an outboard motor on the back. The propeller is on the end of a long shaft and can
be lifted out of the water and rotated almost one hundred and eighty degrees by the
driver. This is a particularly useful design for the shallow sections of water they
frequently have to travel in. And so we arrived on Rai Leh Beach. It looked incredible. A



                                             7
pure white-sand beach, flanked on either side by sheer cliffs. Out to sea, huge fingers of
rock protruded upwards, and the water was so clear we could see all the way to the
bottom even when it was several metres deep. The rooms on the beach were too
expensive for the likes of us, and so we were forced to move inland. Between the two
beaches and further inland, was a small hill, and perched on top of that was a series of
bungalows. It was quite a long way from the beach, but cheap and pleasant. It was
approaching Valentine’s day and the others, being couples, all took nice bungalows,
whereas I went to the place next door which offered crap bungalows at an unbeatable
price.

I’ve grown to hate Valentine’s day, not because I’m single, but because people seem to
think I should be sad about that fact. Numerous people I have met on my travels,
especially in India have asked me this question.
‘So why don’t you have a girlfriend?’
‘Well,’ I’d reply jokingly, ‘I just haven’t meant the right stupid, ugly, blind, deaf mute
who has neither the intelligence nor the sensory perception to realise she’s too good for
me.’
‘That’s the spirit! Keep on searching! She’s out there somewhere!’ is the general
response.

So we spent our days kayaking out to the rocks and climbing up into the hollow caves
within them. Rai Leh is one of the main destinations in Thailand for rock climbers and
we could see them clambering up ridiculously dangerous cliff faces all around, as we sat
in the beachfront bar sinking a few coldies and wondering what it was that possessed
people to do such things. We had become accustomed to eating our breakfast at a
restaurant that sat up on the hill, at almost the highest point of the surrounding landscape.
It was from there one morning that Ag noticed something a little odd.
‘You know, there’s an awful lot of black smoke coming from our bungalows,’ she said,
sipping on her tea.
We all looked over. A big pillar of smoke was rising up from behind the trees where our
bungalows were located.
‘There sure is,’ I replied, nibbling on a dainty French pastry.
‘I wonder what it is?’ Mel said, buttering a perfectly browned piece of toast.
‘Beats me,’ Banga replied, stirring his fruit yoghurt with a spoon.
We finished our breakfast. If our bungalows were on fire there was no sense in trying to
put them out on an empty stomach.

When we got back we were relieved to see that they all seemed to be intact, and in fact
the smoke seemed to have cleared away, but as I was crossing the field to my hut the
owner called out to me.
‘Excuse me! You can’t go there!’ she shouted.
I looked over at my hut. It looked fine to me.
‘No! We have all your stuff here.’
Intrigued, I followed her to the restaurant where, sure enough, all of my possessions were
spread out on various tables. This was surprising for two reasons. One, I had put my own
padlock on the door, and two I had also had my pack in a Pacsafe. A Pacsafe is basically



                                             8
a wire mesh that fits over a backpack and can be locked. I had attached it to one of the
supports of the hut. Yet there it was, all my possessions, right in front of me.
‘What happened?’ I asked, looking through my dirty underwear to see if the cunningly
hidden wad of cash was still there.
It was.
‘There was a fire! We had to smash your door in with an axe!’ she said.
I nodded. I had just seen, sitting there on the table, my padlock, with huge gash marks on
it and twisted completely out of shape.
‘But what about my Pacsafe?’
‘We had to cut it,’ she cried, ‘I’m sorry, we’ll pay for it.’
She was becoming quite upset now.
‘I thought the bungalows were going to burn down. I’m sorry!’
I assured her that it was fine. I couldn’t ask for her to pay for the Pacsafe, it cost far too
much money and I was pretty sure she didn’t have it. So she insisted that I didn’t have to
pay for my accommodation. When we went to inspect my former lodgings I could see
that whoever had taken an axe to my door had been having a good time of it. There were
huge gashes all around the door, and the metal latch had been neatly slice in two. It
reminded me of the Shining. And there, just behind the bungalow, which was on the
perimeter of their land, was a huge black area. The fire had come within about ten metres
of the place and then the wind had changed and it had torn off up the hill. As far as I
could see in that direction there was only black desolation.

So they put me in another hut, on the other side of the place. It was much the same as my
previous one except for one small thing. When I went to plug in the little fan she had
given me later that night, I suddenly felt electricity coursing through my body. It lasted
about three seconds, as my hand clenched up and I couldn’t release the plug, and then
finally the vibrations wrenched it free of the wall socket and threw me back onto the bed.
I lay there, breathing heavily, not moving for quite some time. My heart beat felt slightly
irregular but it was probably just my imagination. I smiled. If a ruined Pacsafe could get
me free accommodation then God only knew what near-fatal electrocution would be
worth!


Ko Pha Ngan- Thong Nai Pan and Hat Rin
We had bid farewell to Billy and Ag, who were heading to Phuket before flying home. It
was sad to see them go so soon, but as it turned out I would be meeting them again before
the trip was over. After again being taken roughly from behind by the P.P. Family I was
back on the east side of Thailand with Banga and Mel, although this time we had settled
on Ko Pha Ngan instead. Ko Pha Ngan is the smaller and less developed of the two major
east coast islands, but it is still very much a tourist centre. It didn’t have a McDonalds (as
Samui does) but it was only a matter of time. It’s a sad fact. Initially we went to Thong
Nai Pan, a beach on the far north of the island. This is one of the quieter beaches, mainly
because it doesn’t actually have sealed roads to get to it. Ko Pha Ngan is a particularly
hilly place and to get as far north as we were involved a series of forty five degree hills,
made mainly of mud. The basic idea was for the songthaew driver to lock the brakes up
and slide down, steering and hoping for the best. Which is exactly what we did when we



                                              9
stupidly hired out motorcycles. Consequently I came off three times and vowed never to
ride on Ko Pha Ngan again.

Billy and Ag had gone, but as it happened, we met up with two more friends of ours. One
of these was Rebecka, a Swedish girl that I had met in India a few years before. She was
at one point a semi-professional handball player and it showed. When we first met she
was able to beat all four of the guys I was travelling with at arm wrestling. She came with
another friend of mine from home, Dave. Dave is, to put it mildly, a pessimist. For him
not only is the glass half empty, it’s broken and lying on the ground in a million razor
sharp shards, which he will inevitably stand on and cut his foot. When these two arrived,
I was sitting in a hammock, looking out at the unspoiled beach of Thong Nai Pan and
reading a book. I had just purchased the hammock and had fallen deeply in love with it. I
was considering hiring two strong men to carry around a piece of bamboo with my
hammock tied to it so I wouldn’t have to get up to go to meals. Beck walked up with the
man himself, surprising the hell out of me. We had arranged to meet but I had not
expected them so soon.
‘You’re early!’ I exclaimed.
Beck shrugged, and rocked my hammock back and forth with her hand.
‘Only a little.’
So of course we had a few drinks to celebrate. This was better than our usual excuse
which was,
‘Oh look there's some beers in that fridge, let's celebrate! Oh look, I finished my beer,
let's celebrate! Wow, we’re pissed. Here’s to us. Cheers!’

The night took an unexpected turn when Dave announced that he wanted to try a bhang
lassi. For those who aren’t aware, a bhang lassi is a plain yoghurt lassi filled with copious
amounts of bhang, which is similar to hash. Basically, it gets you very wasted. The rest of
us decided not to but he went ahead anyway. They are illegal, but then again, so is riding
around on motorcycles without a licence and that happens everywhere. So it turned up,
thick and green and smelling like a university dorm. Dave hesitated for the briefest of
moments as he looked down at it. Then he picked it up and drank half of it in one go,
slamming it back onto the table.
‘It’s not too bad,’ he informed us.
‘Well come on then, the glass is still half full.’
He picked it up and finished it off.
‘The glass is empty,’ he replied.

We sat around talking for a bit longer, but I began to notice that Dave had become very
quiet. I didn’t think much of it, as pot has the same effect on me, but soon he began to
curl up like a plant that needs water.
‘Are you all right?’
His look told me that he wasn’t.
‘I’ll walk you home,’ I said, and he nodded.
His lips moved but no sound came out. I walked him back about a hundred metres to his
bungalow and he followed in my wake, lurching like a zombie. We went up the steep
steps to his room and he fell in through the open door and onto the bed.



                                             10
‘All right. Sleep it off. Good night.’
He didn’t respond.

The next day we had planned to head for another beach, Hat Rin, but unfortunately Dave
had other plans. They mainly seemed to involve spasming and being unable to talk for
thirty six hours. Banga came to my bungalow that morning looking pale, just as I was
about to walk out with my pack.
‘I think you better come. It’s Dave. He’s… he’s pretty messed up.’
I didn’t think it could be too bad. After all, it was only bhang. But when I pushed open
the door he was lying on the bed on his back, his arms bent at the elbow and pointing at
the ceiling and he was shaking continuously. His eyes were half open but he didn’t seem
to be looking at anything.
‘Smell that? I think maybe he wet himself or something,’ Banga said.
I shook my head.
‘No, he always smells like that.’
But his sheets were wet. He had been sweating so much it was if a bucket of water had
been poured on him. Which gave me an idea.
‘We’ll chuck him under the shower and he’ll be fine!’

Now Dave is a fairly big guy. He weighs somewhere either side of a hundred kilograms
and the stairs from his bungalow were narrow and steep. I asked him if he felt like
walking to the showers and he shook his head.
‘Is he saying no, or is that just another spasm?’ I asked Banga.
‘We’ll just have to lift him.’
This was easier said than done. He could support his own weight once we got him onto
his feet, but lifting one foot in front of the other proved to be too much for him.
‘You hold him up and I’ll move his legs,’ Banga suggested, and this we did, refusing to
acknowledge the absurdity of the situation.
It was in this way that we got him to the shower block, after almost losing him on his way
down the stairs. Whenever we asked him questions, his lips seemed to move but no sound
came out.
‘Don’t worry, this’ll do it,’ I said, and turned on the detachable shower head.
It was cold water, beating right down on his head, but he stood there looking as if he was
asleep. I tore it from the wall and pointed it directly into his face, but all that made him
do was spit out the water occasionally. He didn’t even try to move away.
‘Well, while he’s here you should shower him anyway,’ Banga said, making sure he
stood well back.
So I sprayed him down like some kind of circus animal, taking every last ounce of
dignity he had left. He ended up leaning against the wall, gagging.
‘All in all I’d say that was a success!’

We got him back to his room and had no choice but to leave him there. There was no
sense in calling a doctor. There wasn’t anything wrong with him. He was just really,
really stoned. And still he had not said a single word. Later in the day we went back and
forced him to come out for food, and he looked a lot better. He was even able to walk
without too much help, but when it came to ordering he pointed at the menu and moved



                                            11
his mouth soundlessly. He wanted a burger and when it arrived, it didn’t stand a chance;
he ate it in about thirty seconds and ordered another.
‘Well that’s a good sign, right?’ Mel said.
‘Oh he’s got the munchies BAD!’ Banga laughed.
It was short lived. He ended up going straight back to bed afterwards.

The following morning I knocked on the door, ever hopeful. He was lying just as we had
left him.
‘Are you all right?’
There was no reply. I sat down on an old wooden chair in the corner of the room.
‘Can you talk?’
Again there was no reply. I sighed. Suddenly, and without warning, his voice rang out
across the stinky silence of the room.
‘What year is it? Who's the president?'
Now we were getting somewhere. Sitting in the shadows, anointing myself with water, I
looked up with sad eyes.
'The year is lost in history, I'm afraid. We wander in packs, scavenging for food. Small
pockets of humanity, desperately trying to cling on to our once proud civilisation. Death
is a constant threat and love and compassion are luxuries humans can no longer afford.
You've been asleep for quite some time.'
Dave fell to his back moaning, as the whispers of a million dead circled the bungalow
and rose into a crescendo of agony.
'The horror, the horror...' he whispered, his eyes staring blindly at the ceiling.
I switched on the light and pushed open the window, allowing the daylight to come
streaming in.
'Oh get up you lazy bastard, the songthaew's coming in an hour...'

And so it was that Dave had his first, and presumably last, encounter with bhang lassis.
He was still quite silent, but clearly getting better, and able to talk, although he seemed to
lack concentration.
‘Why didn’t you answer us when we were talking to you yesterday?’ I asked, ‘You
haven’t spoken in thirty six hours!’
He shrugged.
‘I thought I was talking,’ was all he said by way of reply.
We got some bungalows on Hat Rin midway between the two beaches. Hat Rin is
probably the best known beach on the island. It’s where they hold the notorious full moon
parties and is home to a series of restaurants and beach bars. It’s very crowded and very
much a party place. Down on the beach every night, mats were laid out in the sand and
fire twirlers burnt themselves for the amusement of backpackers. Makeshift stands were
set up selling kits for making buckets of alcohol. Literally, little plastic buckets of vodka,
Sangsom (whisky) and the like, as well as Red Bull and coke. The idea is that a bucket is
placed in the centre of a group of friends and you all sip from it whenever you feel
yourself sobering up. A nice idea that helps to avoid awkward conversations, but in
practice, it results in a lot of excessively drunk people wandering the beach and deciding
that jumping through that big flaming ring of fire is a great idea. We saw more than a few
people singe themselves. All of us except for Dave were having a great time, but he was



                                             12
only very slowly getting back into the spirit of things. As for me, I was perhaps getting
too much into the spirit of things. I decided that in order to fit in with all the other
backpackers I would get my hair, which came down to somewhere around my chin, put
into dreadlocks.

A brief explanation of the process: Firstly, a Thai woman puts on a tape of old songs
remixed as dance tunes and loops it to play for the entire three and a half hours that it's
going to take. Then she takes a comb, grabs two strands of your hair and combs it
backwards, from the tip to the scalp. After this, which takes two hours or so to do the
whole head, the topmost dreads are pretty much standing straight out to the sides and you
resemble some kind of bizarre dog cross-breed. Then she goes and gets a Red Bull and
complains of having repetitive strain injury as Madonna sings ‘Like a Prayer’ over a
techno beat. After the break, she takes something resembling a thin knitting needle,
gestures for you to sit down, and threads it through each dread and compacts it down as
much as she possibly can. This feels about the same as getting brain surgery whilst
conscious. It hurts. I mean it really hurts. And the fact that Starship are singing 'We built
this city on Rock on Roll' to a crap dance beat really doesn’t help matters. Finally she
finishes and you stand up and look in the mirror, hoping to see the new you. The cool
you, with the mystique and the rampant sex-appeal that has been so lacking.

When this moment arrived for me I couldn't see my reflection, because there was this
really ugly red-faced guy with a stupid haircut blocking the mirror and staring at me...
and then the baht dropped;
I looked, and I mean this, like a complete and total dickhead.
Banga and Mel insisted it didn't look that bad, and Beck declared that it had a certain
appeal. Everyone was lying in order to make me feel better. Except for Dave. Dave said,
and I quote;
'Simon, you look, and I mean this, like a complete and total dickhead.'




                                             13
                                   2
                        THE SIZE OF FOREIGNERS

                                       VIETNAM

Bangkok to Hanoi
All too soon it was over. I had a ticket from Bangkok to Hanoi and I had to get back to
the Kok. Banga and Mel had flown to Hanoi a few days earlier, and Beck intended to try
and get a flight and come with me. Dave was going to fly home, assuming his plane
didn’t ditch into the ocean. In any case, I had left Beck and Dave in the islands, whilst
they went to Krabi, and taken the train alone. Although my train was described as an
‘express’ this was clearly just a figure of speech. Stopping every five minutes for no
particular reason, I made it to Bangkok in about fourteen hours. The sleeper trains are
very comfortable and I would have had a great nights sleep except for one minor
problem. My bed was right next to the toilet and, although it was stench-free to begin
with, this all changed when the annoyed-looking Dutch girl sitting next to me decided to
try the railway food. From then on it was all downhill as she, and her foolish partners in
bowel dysfunction, kept relieving themselves directly next to my bed. Due to some
overly vigorous dumping the toilet soon refused to flush and much of my night was spent
gagging on the stench. I was glad when morning came and the beds were folded away so
that I could sit in a seat a bit further back and enjoy the view. I finally arrived at about six
o’clock and just as I got off the platform the loudspeakers came on very loudly and began
to play the National Anthem. Everybody stopped what they were doing and faced a
picture of the King (His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej) that was just above the ticket
windows. The Thais love their King. He is a man universally admired and respected.
Nowhere in Australia would we see a spontaneous display of patriotism like this. If the
National Anthem came on at one of our stations we’d all simply move away from the
loudspeaker so we could still hear the voice on the other end of our mobile phones.

Khao San (the central road for tourists in Bangkok), and the streets surrounding the huge
temple complex at the end of it, were packed with people from all over the world, some
just passing through and others who went nowhere much else. It is a crowded, smelly
stretch of tarmac that is littered with drinking dens and budget accommodation. People sit
by the side of the road getting their hair plaited and dreadlocked, or wander around the
stalls that sell ‘McShit’ and Singha beer shirts and pirate CDs. It was getting a bit late by
the time I got there, and I had to find somewhere to stay. Everything seemed to be full on
Khao San itself, and so I was forced to go down Soi Rambutri (a soi is like an alley or
sidestreet) alongside the temple. I stopped at a narrow restaurant that stunk of bad
seafood. They had a sign up for rooms, but the room I was shown was little more than a
box with a prison style bed in it. The walls were covered with illicit graffiti that appeared
to be a visual diary of what the previous occupants had been doing in Patpong (the Red
Light District). The largest piece of graffiti was three simple words and was asking
exactly what I was thinking, namely ‘What’s that smell?’. There are several
communicable disease I was yet to contract and, as one night in this place could have


                                              14
doubled my current collection, I ended up taking it. Then I had some time to kill. Whilst
Bangkok is very good at killing a lot of things, time is not one of them.

I have a love-hate relationship with the city. It usually depends on where I’m coming
from when I arrive back there. If, for example, I am flying in from a stopover in
Singapore, then I adore it. If I have just been released from a Burmese prison, it’s the
place for me. But if I have just come from an island paradise where the beer runs like
wine and the wine runs like vodka red bull buckets then I’m less than happy. In fact, I
hate it! I HATE IT! It's too hot and it stinks, and if you ask a taxi driver to take you to the
airport, he drives you to a gem merchant in Chiang Mai, and there’s Kombi vans on the
side of the road selling a huge list of cocktails for fifty baht and...

Actually, Bangkok’s not so bad.

'Another Pina Colada my good man!'
Yeah, the Kok's not so bad once you get used to it. All the smells just add to the
atmosphere. And you’re totally immersed in another culture…
'How about a Slippery Nipple this time!'
And the people! They're so friendly. You walk around the streets in Sydney and people
barely look at you. Here everyone smiles...
'No I don't want any bracelets, sorry...'
Plus the hawkers. Well sure they can be annoying but I mean, they’ve got a job to do.
After all, they’re just trying to get by, aren't they?
'Oi, how ‘bout some service here! A B-52 if you please! Oh sorry mate, didn't mean to
bump into you...'
Yeah, they're all good sorts really, just trying to make it in this big old city. Salt of the
earth, that's what they are, salt of the bloody earth and... where the hell's my money gone?
That bastard stole my money!
'Hey, how 'bout a Harvey Wallbanger. Umm... Can I get it on credit?'

So I found myself with plenty to do in Bangkok. I met up with Beck and Dave a little
later, and Dave got his flight home, looking miserable to be leaving. Or maybe he was
happy, I don’t really know. Then Rebecka made a deal with me; i.e. she told me what to
do and I did it- I was to go with her to the airport even though her flight left four hours
before mine and then she'd wait for me at the other end. I nodded dumbly like some sort
of semi-sentient ape creature that humans of the future will use as a slave race. The flight
was great. The stewardess called me 'Madam,’ before correcting herself with ‘Oh, I mean
sir'. This in itself wouldn't have been so bad except for the fact that it was the same one
who had served me three or four times already which meant it took her about half an hour
to work out which gender I was. Oh curse this pretty, pretty face of mine!

Landing in Hanoi, I waited in customs for about forty five minutes, with the line barely
moving until one of the numerous Vietnamese Guards poked the customs official with a
stick and he began stamping passports again. One thing struck me as very odd about the
whole thing. There were perhaps three customs windows open, but observing this were
about ten men in military uniform, all standing around and looking very official, but



                                              15
apparently doing absolutely nothing. This turned out to be a very common sight in the
north of Vietnam, but the military presence dropped off dramatically the further south we
got, until finally in Saigon there were barely any. Obviously this was a result of the old
split, but it was interesting to see. When I finally emerged in the arrivals lounge, running
quite late, I was confronted with an enraged Rebecka. This dangerous beast cannot be
outrun and the only real defence is to lie down and play dead in the hope that it loses
interest after a while.

It was too late at night to get a minivan into the city. We sat in one for a while, but the
only people emerging from the airport all seemed to have their own means of
transportation. Our driver wasn’t going anywhere until the van was full and so we were
forced to get a taxi. A soldier pointed out the taxi stand, and became very angry when we
attempted to go with a tout who offered us a better price. He yelled at us in Vietnamese
until we scurried into the taxi waiting at the official stand. I’m not entirely sure how the
communist system works in Vietnam. There is, as is always going to be the case, a large
black market operating and this includes taxis amongst other things. But to the external
observer, Hanoi appears very much like any Capitalist Democracy, except for the
abundance of guys in green uniforms carrying automatic weapons. Later, we asked a
shopkeeper with good English to explain how the system worked, but he seemed to know
about as much as we did.

A tout had jumped in the front seat of the taxi with us (the driver didn’t bat an eyelid) and
turned around and smiled at us as we drove off.
‘So where are you from?’ he asked.
‘I’m from Sweden, he’s from Australia,’ Beck replied and he nodded as if this was
something he already knew.
Time passed and we talked amongst ourselves before he turned around again.
‘So where in Hanoi do you plan to stay?’
‘The Old Quarter,’ we replied.
He nodded again. It was clear where this was going. Neither one of us was a stranger to
hotel touts and we knew what to do. The best bet was to pick a hotel at random from the
book, preferably one close to several others, and refuse to even look at anywhere else. In
this case, we didn’t even need to do that. Banga had booked us a room at the Nam Long
Guesthouse. We had a get-out-of-touting free card. The magic word ‘reservation’ usually
put off any tout; they simply moved on to easier targets. But it was late, and our tout was
already in a taxi with us on his way to Hanoi, an hour from the airport. He had no choice
but to try, and to his credit he made a very impressive effort. We began to notice that he
seemed to be on the phone a lot. Every few minutes either he would call somebody, or
they would call him, and they would have an animated conversation in Vietnamese.
‘Your friends? Where are they from?’ he asked.
‘They’re Australian too,’ I told him, ‘We’re going to go to Hué next.’
He smiled. Interesting information clearly, because he immediately got on the phone
again. Of course, although I do not speak Vietnamese, I can understand the word ‘Hué’
when he says it to someone on the other end of the line. Subtlety was not this guy’s
strong point it seemed.




                                             16
Finally we were driving through Old Quarter. It has a very obvious French influence. The
buildings are all of a classic European style, and the area surrounds an artificial lake.
Driving around that lake, it almost felt as if we were in Paris. Old iron streetlights lit up
the cobbled streets with a warm yellow light. The streets became narrower and seemed to
take on a sort of carnival atmosphere. It was not what I had expected Vietnam to look
like, but it was beautiful. It was Paris! The illusion was soon broken when we pulled up
at a hotel we had not asked to go to. A young man in a doorman’s outfit opened our door
and said,
'You one Australian and one Swede meant to stay in Nam Long Guesthouse with your
two Australian friends who have gone to Hué without you but have reserved you a room
in our hotel for just ten dollars a night. Each. Come this way please.'
I was a little surprised. Ten dollars was double what we had expected to pay for both of
us. And Banga and Mel had left without us? That seemed highly unlikely, but surely this
man, this door man could not be lying, could he? He had the little hat and everything. He
was wearing leather gloves, for God’s sake! I began to get out of the car, but Beck
grabbed me and pulled me back into my seat.
'Get back in here, you moron. Hey!' she called out to the doorman.
He approached us, smiling.
‘Our friends. What are their names?’
We could literally see the smile melt off his face. He stood there, glancing nervously at
the tout who had gotten out of the car and was now standing next to him.
‘Two Australians,’ was all he managed to come up with.
Beck nodded in much the same way the tout had. As if this was something she already
knew.
‘What are our names?’
Again he was stumped, and we could see the tout wince. Out of all the information he
had managed to get from us under the guise of friendly interest he had forgotten perhaps
the most important one. He had not once asked us for our names.
‘One Australian, one Swede?’ said the doorman hopefully, but Beck had leant across me
and pulled the door shut.
‘Nam Long Guesthouse, please,’ she said to the driver, who simply laughed and drove us
less than fifty metres around the corner to the correct hotel, where Banga and Mel were
waiting for us.

                                         *****

The following days were spent doing various things. Withdrawing money was a high
point for me, mainly because the dong against the dollar is so weak that I withdrew two
million of them in one go. Carrying around such large amounts of cash usually makes me
nervous but in this case I figured if anyone tried to mug me I could just beat them to
death with my wallet. We also went to the Ho Chi Minh museum where, amongst other
things, we learnt that the Americans invaded Vietnam unprovoked and committed
unspeakable atrocities against civilians and Vietcong alike. Hardly a revelation. As the
American founding fathers would say, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’




                                             17
The thing that I liked most about Hanoi was crossing the road. There are literally
thousands and thousands of motorcycles, and very few cars. The flow of traffic is
constant and although there are crossings, they are few and far between. Besides,
stepping out on a green light is no guarantee that you won’t be run down. To cross the
road, you simply have to step out into traffic and walk in a straight line. The bikes avoid
you where possible, or maim you if they get distracted by a pretty girl on the side of the
road. Add to this mix the occasional car and it’s a wonder more people aren’t killed
(although many are). A car cannot swerve to avoid, as it is surrounded by motorcycles,
and changing lanes generally means wiping out about six of them. It’s quite a scare when
one approaches, because changing walking speed probably means getting hit. Any
alteration in direction or speed once you’ve started to cross is likely to be fatal. Don’t
hesitate! That’s the main thing. He who hesitates is squashed.

Another interesting thing is the pubs in Hanoi. The beer is sold to customers by
competing 'beer girls'. These are attractive women, hired by a beer company, who rush up
to you as you enter the bar and try to get you to buy their particular brand. If the girl who
sells your beer of choice happens to be out the back having a cigarette then you are
forced drink whatever's on hand. The beer girls then return whenever your beer looks
close to finished and offer you another one, which they bring directly to your table. It’s
an interesting system, but it was annoying when the Tiger girl disappeared later in the
evening and we were forced to drink Fosters. God help us.

Although Banga and Mel had already seen him, Beck and I wanted to go and see Ho Chi
Minh. We went out the night before to celebrate our impending viewing of the preserved
father of Vietnamese communism, by attempting to pickle ourselves as some sort of
tribute. It ended early for both Mel and I as we simultaneously decided that maybe all this
celebrating was starting to result in major liver failure. So I went to bed pretty soon after
getting home, having something of a bad headache. I went to sleep quickly and then
woke up at 3:00am to do what it is that people who get up at 3:00am do. Then I noticed
that Beck's bed was still empty. Interesting, I thought, considering the fact that she was as
drunk as a poet on payday when I left the bar and Banga was using two pool cues as
crutches just so he could stand up long enough to fish his wallet out of his jeans. So I got
a bit worried, being the worrying sort of person that I am, until finally Beck arrived
home, five hours later! All my worries faded away right then and I raised two thumbs in
the air as she stumbled into the room.
'Bloody twelve hour bender! Right on! Want to go see Ho Chi Minh?'
By way of answer Beck coughed up her liver, a sickly looking black chunk of meat that
smelt like a beer mat. Taking this as a yes, I led her from the room where we went in
search of a cyclo. A cyclo, for those who don't know, is like a cycle rickshaw, but the
driver sits behind rather than in front. It's also slightly too narrow to accommodate the
child-bearing hips of Rebecka, and the beer-enhanced flab of yours truly. The trip was
just becoming intolerably painful for both of us when he applied the brakes and pointed
at a large complex to our right. We paid the man and gratefully stood up, cursing each
other for being so large, before joining the queue of Westerners waiting to be checked for
weapons and the like. These seemed like rather strange precautions to take to protect a




                                             18
man who’s been dead for thirty five years. I mean he's hardly going to be assassinated, is
he?

The line was extremely long, more than a hundred metres or so, leading into the
mausoleum. The strange thing is that once Westerners have queued up, they get to push
in on a much longer line of Vietnamese people (mainly quite old or rural people) who
have been waiting far longer than that. It's a pilgrimage site in many ways, but for some
reason we're allowed to push in just because we think it would be kind of cool to look at
this old guy in a glass box. My moral objection to this didn't extend to actually joining
the real end of the queue, but I did feel bad about it if that helps at all. It wasn’t like we
even paid more or anything. It's free. I mean, they could hardly start charging an
admission fee to view the corpse of the father of Vietnamese communism could they? It's
only a short step from that to selling showbags and gingerbread Ho Chis, whilst a guy in
an oversized Ho Chi Minh suit wanders around shaking hands with the kids and posing
for photos.

Now Beck was still quite drunk by this stage, and having more than a little trouble
standing up. She could also not stop giggling, and after some stern words from me she
just laughed harder. Eventually though, once we actually entered the mausoleum, she
managed to control herself. Security was tight, with soldiers everywhere, all looking very
serious. Inside, several stood guard, completely motionless around the glass box that held
him. He looked very much like a wax doll, although his hands were becoming quite
shrivelled. It was not much of a spectacle to be honest. But the elderly Vietnamese people
coming through didn’t seem to care. Just seeing him was enough.


Hué
Hué is the third largest city in Vietnam, and is known mainly for its tombs. It was the
political capital of the country for almost one hundred and fifty years under the Nguyen
Dynasty and the tombs of the thirteen emperors of that dynasty are a major tourist
attraction. We were not those sorts of tourists. The problem was that to do a tour of the
tombs cost ten dollars, but this didn’t include any of the entry fees. This was simply the
bus to get to them and then it was something like five dollars for each of them. That
winds up being a lot of money by the end of the day, and after the fourteen hour bus trip
from Hanoi, all we really wanted to do was relax. So we wandered about most days, just
looking, and by night we ventured as far as a nearby bar called the DMZ (demilitarised
zone) where ex-pats and backpackers hung out. Hué is not an especially beautiful city. It
has some of the beauty of Hanoi but where we were staying, near the Perfume River,
there seemed to be far more modern hotels and shops. It could have been any number of
South East Asian cities, but it was a relaxed town and we were enjoying it. One morning,
however, Beck woke up croaking the words,
'Simon, I think I'm dead.'
Indeed she almost was. Glowing red with heat and just generally looking quite ill, her
throat was the main problem. It was swollen and very sore. We had read in a newspaper
that there was something called SARS going around, and that it had just been discovered




                                             19
in Hanoi, but we knew very little about it. In any case, there were no doctors nearby, or at
least none that Beck was prepared to entrust her health to.
‘Is it just your throat? And the fever?’ I asked and she shrugged.
‘My stomach is sore too, but that’s probably because I haven’t been to the toilet in nine
days.’
My mouth fell open. I had already been to the toilet five times that day, and it was only
eight o’clock in the morning. But my digestive problems aside, I decided that what she
needed was a laxative, and quick. She was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, and
worse still, I was sharing a room with her. Unfortunately, although I had no trouble
finding a chemist, she spoke no English whatsoever. I had brought the Lonely Planet, as
it had a few Vietnamese phrases in the back, but ‘do you have a laxative pill the size of a
tennis ball?’ was not one of them. There were a few people waiting in line behind me, but
there was nothing else for it. I would have to show her what I meant through mime. So I
squatted on the ground and made some very tense faces, grunting slightly, and then stood
up expectantly. She smiled, somewhat oddly, and dug around under the counter. The
package she took out had a line drawing of a man, with his stomach and colon drawn in.
It seemed to be what I was after, but then I suddenly realised that my mime may have
been ambiguous. Did she think I wanted to block or unblock? So I pointed at the package,
squatted again and made a rather disgusting splattering noise, then gave a thumbs up to
indicate that this was what I wanted. The customers behind me all took a step back, as if
they didn’t want my invisible diarrhoea to splash on their shoes. The pharmacist simply
smiled again and took out another one. All of the writing was Vietnamese, and the picture
was equally ambiguous. After a few more mimes she threw up her hands, still smiling,
but clearly becoming quite exasperated. I decided to take my chances with the most likely
looking box and took it back to Rebecka. She looked at it sceptically.
‘Are you sure this is a laxative?’ she asked.
I nodded.
‘Oh… yeah! No doubt about it.’
She squinted at the picture.
‘From this drawing I would have guessed it was some kind of birth control pill.’
I looked at it again. It certainly could be taken in a lot of ways.
‘Well, the worst that can happen is you won’t get pregnant, so just take the damn thing!’ I
suggested.
She took it.

                                         *****

The man sitting in front of me was a liar. He was not even a very good liar. The best liars
are subtle ones. The best liars are people where you don’t doubt for a second that they are
telling you the truth. You don’t consider what they say, and then decide to believe them.
It simply never occurs to you not to believe them. Steve Powers was not one of these
people. Steve Powers was a blatant liar. Steve Powers: International Man of Bullshit.

We were sitting in the DMZ Bar and it was here that we met Steve. He was an Aussie
who apparently had lived the most amazing life imaginable and yet somehow then found
himself at fifty, alone and drunk in a bar in Hué with no-one to talk to but some bemused



                                            20
backpackers half his age. It all started well enough. Beck mentioned that she was thinking
of becoming a social worker, and Steve said that he worked with disadvantaged kids back
home. In fact, he had done, ever since he retired from professional AFL a few years ago.
This seemed quite plausible as he seemed to know what he was talking about and got into
a discussion with Beck about some of the kids he had helped.

He tended to talk without ever leaving a pause for anyone to respond, but that was okay.
He was amusing enough and fairly interesting. Then a song came on the stereo that I
knew.
‘I love this one!’ I said, and Steve nodded, pausing in his story about how he had donated
his kidney to a poor orphaned boy.
‘Pink Floyd. Great band. As a matter of fact, I used to be the stage manager for Pink
Floyd back on their 1981 tour.’
‘Really?’ Mel asked, as she was interested in studying music management.
Steve was getting into his stride.
‘Oh yeah! I did tours with a few bands back in those days. Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull,
Abba.’
We assume he threw that one in to appeal to Beck, being Swedish.
‘So was this before or after you retired from AFL?’ Banga asked innocently.
The expression of panic on Steve’s face might have been all in my imagination.
‘After, mate. Yeah, I used to hang out with the bands after the gig. Crazy times. All those
groupies.’
‘So you hung out with Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour!’ I said, as Pink Floyd is one of
my favourite bands and I tend to get a little excited.
Steve looked confused.
‘Who?’
‘Pink Floyd.’
He nodded.
‘Oh yeah. Those guys. Great guys.’
I was beginning to get a little suspicious, and Steve was starting to sweat a bit.
‘You know, I don’t think they released an album in 1981. The Wall was in 1979, and the
follow-up was in 1983. What album were they touring?’
Steve looked around at the others and grinned broadly, taking a big swig of his beer.
‘Your mate really likes Pink Floyd, doesn’t he? Umm, yeah, I think it was The Wall.’
He then began to tell us how he was once hired to assassinate Fidel Castro by the C.I.A.
but I interrupted again.
‘You’d probably remember if you were the stage manager for The Wall. That stage show
is one of the biggest and most complicated in rock history. In fact…’
‘You want a beer, mate? My shout!’
I’ve got to admit, the man knew my weakness. My suspicion melted away in a flood of
affection for my newfound benefactor. As we were leaving later that night, we found
Banga sitting at a table, chatting away in simple German.
‘I’m really good at this! They understand every word I’m saying. We’re having a really
good conversation!’
‘That’s good, Banga!’ I said, as we helped him stand up.




                                            21
‘Auf wiedersein!’ Banga called to his friends and we began to walk back to our hotel,
dodging sleeping dogs on the footpath.
‘You know those guys were speaking French, right?’ Beck whispered in my ear.
‘Just let him have this one,’ I replied.

                                          *****

The following morning I convinced Beck to take a walk with me to the citadel. Walking
was not high on her list of favourite things as she had by that stage not been to the toilet
for eleven days, but she came anyway. The citadel is part of the old Hué which contains
the Forbidden Purple City. This was where the Emperor would go for a little bit of loving
with peasant girls that he had forced to become sex-slaves. The citadel was an imposing
building, surrounded by a deep trench, but time had clearly taken its toll. It was beginning
to fall into a state of disrepair. After walking around in blistering heat we finally found
the entrance and went inside, but unfortunately it was not the erotic experience that I had
envisaged something called the Forbidden Purple City should be. Apparently most of the
concubines had been dead for several hundred years and now all that remained was a few
old rooms, all of which seemed to contain exactly the same thing. An uncomfortable-
looking but overly extravagant chair for the Emperor to sit on whilst grovelling
mandarins (the official term for his sycophants) sat around commenting that he was
looking very handsome today and his concubines almost certainly loved him for the
person he was and not the fact that he would have them summarily executed if they
happened to smile at the eunuch that brought them a glass of water. This had been our
first real attempt at sight-seeing in Hué, but I refused to let it be our last.
‘We can’t just give up. We can’t just go to the pub every night!’ I insisted.
‘Why not?’ Beck replied.

Although she had a very good point, Beck and I decided we would give it another go and
do the DMZ tour. This tour supposedly took us into the very heart of the No Man’s Land
that existed during the Vietnam War (although in Vietnam it is of course referred to as
The American War). It sounded interesting. Steve Powers had told us all about his
experiences in the Vietnam War, when he had played AFL against the Vietcong with a
team made up of disadvantaged kids, Jethro Tull, and some extremely horny groupies. It
was not all that we had hoped for, however. They first took us to breakfast, where we sat
with two Irishmen who were annoyed because it was St Patrick's Day and they were
sober. The fact that it was St Patrick’s Day probably had very little to do with it. The Irish
are a people after my own heart, and I’ve never met one who wasn’t annoyed at being
sober, any time of the year. When the tour started our enthusiasm dwindled even more.
Here are the stops in order of increasing boredom.

The Rockpile - It's a big mountain really. It's made of rock. We were informed by our
guide that it once had a tower on top of it, built by the Americans for keeping an eye on
the border. It no longer has that tower, as it had been dismantled and taken away by the
locals in the years following the war, to be sold as scrap.




                                             22
American Airforce Base - We got off the bus and wandered past an old wire fence and
into a field. Our guide began to point out where the various structures had been. The
barracks, the landing strip, the hangars. Unfortunately, they had all been dismantled and
taken away by the locals in the years following the war to be sold as scrap. Which meant
that it was a field.

Ethnic Minority Village - In Vietnam, on almost any tour, tourists will be taken to what
is described as a minority village. These places are not the snapshot of rural Vietnamese
life many may be expecting, but rather a tourist trap, pure and simple. Herded off the bus
we were left to wander around the village and, just as we were leaving, another busload
pulled up. Presumably they’re called as they are because the tourists outnumber the local
inhabitants and this makes them a minority, even in their own village.

The Vinh Moc Tunnels - This was why we did the tour. The Vinh Moc tunnels were
built not in order to fight a guerrilla war, but to house a village of civilians. The bombing
campaigns of the Americans were relentless and indiscriminate, and so the people had no
choice but to flee underground. Before we went in, our guide informed us that there had
been several structures on the surface but they were all gone now. One of the Irishmen
asked him what had happened to them, and we were informed that they had been taken
away by the locals in the years following the war, to be sold as scrap. He then told us
what it was we were going to see. The tunnels had various rooms. A meeting room,
dining room and even a maternity ward, as well as a bomb shelter and living quarters.
Once we went inside, with only the light of a few torches to guide us, it was clear that
these descriptions were fairly optimistic. At one small alcove in the wall he shone his
torch in and pointed out the maternity ward. At another identical alcove he stopped and
pointed out the dining room. And so on. It was tall enough to stand up, so these tunnels
were much larger than most of the tunnel systems used during the wall, but it still became
claustrophobic after a while. We were only inside for about ten minutes, but it felt like
much longer and it was to my great relief that we emerged onto the beach. The
inhabitants of the village had spent six years in there.

Banga and Mel had gone on ahead to Hoi An, and we decided to book the bus for the
next day but when we woke up, Beck was doubled over in pain. We had heard more
about SARS, and although her symptoms seemed to be fading, they occasionally came
back. But this was not the problem. It had been twelve days and still she had not gone to
the toilet.
 ‘Right, that’s it. This has gone on too far. We’re going to the pharmacist and not leaving
until we have something that works. You’ve been eating three meals a day. I mean, where
the hell are you keeping it all?’
We went to a different pharmacy, where he spoke fairly good English, where he just
brought out the usual things. But everything he suggested, she had tried. Finally he
clapped his hands together.
‘I have just the thing!’ he said excitedly.
We stood around waiting. It was a small place. It seemed to be the front room of
somebody’s house that had been converted into a pharmacy. When the pharmacist came
back, he was carrying a big metal bucket.



                                             23
‘What’s that for?’ Beck asked, tilting her head to the side curiously as she looked at it.
He smiled, and pulled out a brown hose, just thinner than a normal garden house, and
then attached a nozzle to it. The word he said was not familiar to us but we were
beginning to get the picture.
‘Is he suggesting what I think he’s suggesting?’ I asked.
Beck looked at the tube dubiously.
‘I think he is.’
‘I can do, right now,’ said the pharmacist.
Beck was completely still as she stared at the bucket.
‘Well you did say we weren’t leaving without having something that works. This’ll
work.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
‘We have to get a bus to Hoi An in an hour and half! You can’t be serious. Look at him,
he’s far too eager to do this. What is an undeniably unpleasant task and he’s keen as
mustard! Isn’t that a little strange?’
‘You can wait outside if you want,’ she said, handing me her bag and walking past the
curtain into the back room.
I stood there, watching as the curtain fell shut, and I heard the metallic thud as the bucket
hit the floor.
‘I’ll just… wait outside then,’ I said.


Hoi An
Personally, I doubted the wisdom in getting an enema so soon before a bus journey, but it
didn’t turn out to be a problem. In fact, Beck claimed that she felt a lot better. I’m not
surprised. Her bowel movement must have been akin to giving birth to triplets. So when
the bus pulled in to Hoi An we were raring to go. Hoi An is a nice little city, just outside
of Danang. We were staying in the newer part of town, which has modern but inoffensive
architecture and is only a few minutes walk from the Old Quarter. This is a beautiful
place, made up of traditional wooden houses and narrow winding alleyways. There’s
even an old covered bridge spanning the river. It feels very medieval, and there is very
little traffic in the Old Quarter, except for the occasional motorcycle. In a word, Hoi An
is enchanting. Consequently, accommodation in Hoi An is relatively expensive and the
only place we could find was quite small but still cost the same as everywhere else we
had been. Banga and Mel (being the bourgeois capitalist pig-dogs that they are) decided
to stay in an expensive resort-style hotel with a pool just outside their door, and satellite
television so they could watch innocent Iraqi civilians die in real time without
commercial interruptions. The Second Gulf War had just begun when we arrived.

We were sitting around having a meal in a place called Treat’s Café. It was a very
successful restaurant. So successful in fact that just down the road he had opened another
place called Retreat’s, and further away in the Old Quarter there was Treat’s Café Two. It
was the original we were sitting in when who should walk up to our table but Steve
Powers: International Man of Bullshit. The first man on the moon, former head of the
United Nations and the Sultan of Brunei. He was rampantly drunk and, disgustingly
enough, seemed to be quite horny.



                                             24
‘G’day! Fancy seeing you guys here.’
We all nodded politely.
‘Hey Steve, what have you been up to?’
He shrugged, and then gave a sly little grin, which on his face was a very disturbing sight.
‘Oh you know, a little bit of this and that. I’ve been having a pretty good run with the
ladies recently.’
‘Oh yes?’
This time he even winked at us, or at least attempted to, but that kind of muscle co-
ordination seemed to be beyond him for the moment.
‘Just last night I took a pair of twins home. That was one hell of a night let me tell you!’
‘The local sex shop must have been having a buy-one-get-one-free sale on inflatable
women,’ Banga whispered, nudging me, but Steve didn’t seem to hear him.
‘Of course, I’m used to that sort of thing. Back when I was touring with the Stones, Mick
would send any women he couldn’t handle over to my room. Back in my prime, I must
have had sex with three thousand woman or more. Great days!’
He sat himself down at our table.
‘I thought you said you’d toured with Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Abba…’ Mel said
curiously.
Steve nodded.
‘That’s right. Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Abba and the Rolling Stones. I must have slept
with over four thousand woman. Maybe more.’
Looking at him, fat, drunk, and horny, I decided that this could have been true. But it
must have cost him a fortune.

We left soon after he stopped buying us drinks.

One of the things that Hoi An is most famous for is its fabric shops. On any street in Hoi
An, there are a multitude of tailors. They have walls of fabric right up to the roof, and can
make any garment desired within a day or so, simply from a few measurements and a
rough drawing or photograph from a fashion magazine. And it all costs next to nothing.
So of course Mel and Beck turned into strange creatures that ran around squealing and
stroking fabrics. I was so frightened that I went back and hid in my room.

Beck came back hours later, over one hundred dollars lighter, and with a series of
appointment cards for alterations to her new wardrobe. But it was later that day, on our
way back to Treat’s (which had become our favourite spot) that the true horror started.
We went and visited Coco, the flamboyantly gay tailor, to pick up some items, and I was
horrified when Banga emerged from the changing rooms in a tailored suit asking,
'Do you think I need to get some shoes to go with this?'
Coco rushed forwards, stroking the line of the suit so it sat better on Banga’s frame.
‘But of course, darling! The clothes maketh the man, but the shoes are the soul!’
I was not at all sure if this was meant to be a pun or not, but it didn’t matter. I was
convinced that the world had finally gone insane, that night was day and black was white.
Banga was checking himself out in a full length mirror, turning around and trying to see
how his arse looked in the pants. He was asking for alterations and thinking about getting
a waistcoat made. Scarily, he was doing all this whilst we were on our way to the pub,



                                             25
but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry at all. In fact, he looked like he was actually enjoying
himself! Worse still, the next day, I managed to get myself dragged into a tailor by Beck
who went through fashion magazines pointing at shirts and pants and saying things like
'Two of these', 'This one but without the coloured stitching' and 'Oooh! this'd be nice on
you'. I stood there getting measured like a piece of furniture and we left. It was the next
day, after we had collected the clothes, that I found myself wondering,
'Do I need some more shorts? Maybe a tailored shirt and some smart trousers for
functions?'
What was happening to me?!? Functions? What the hell is a function? And even if they
did exist, why would I get invited to one? As a guest speaker on the nature of being a lazy
bastard? An acknowledged expert in professional dead-shitness? The leading authority on
dressing to highlight your natural flaws? Hoi An was turning me into something that I
wasn’t sure I liked.

We finally made it back to Treat’s and the place was in full swing. The entire bar was
like one big party, with everybody talking to everybody else, and before long we had
attached ourselves to a strange group of guys. There were close to fifteen of us but the
clear natural leader of the group was a Scotsman named Richie. Richie was a fairly small,
but very solid guy with heavily tattooed arms and a thick accent. He had a kind of squint
which made him look like he was sizing you up, but in fact he was very friendly. With
him was his friend Cameron. Cameron looked and acted exactly like Spud from
Trainspotting, something which amused all of us no end.
‘I’m nah like Spud though, ken? That coont is likesay, fooking noots! Immay nah like
him at all!’ he said defensively.
There were the Swedes, Christian and Johan, who were travelling with a pale Englishman
named Howie. They were staying in the same hotel as Beck and I were as it turned out.
Beck had seen Christian around town several times and was quite taken by him. He had
those ice-blue eyes that so many Scandinavians have and she seemed quite hypnotised by
them. Johan was enormous, close to seven foot and blond. He looked every inch the
viking. But for this night at least, it was the Norwegian that I remember most of all. His
name escaped me no matter how many times I asked him what it was.
‘Tequila shots for the bar!’ he suddenly shouted, and the bartender eagerly poured out
twenty shots of tequila, which the Norwegian paid for.
‘We’ll give you some money. You’ll send yourself broke!’ people insisted but he shook
his head.
‘All I ask is that when you drink it, you drink it in the traditional Norwegian way!’
Everyone at the bar seemed to agree to this. It was all men at this point. The women
seemed to instinctively know to stay away.
‘So what do we do?’
He smiled and spread some salt onto the bar. He then spread it out into a line, as if it was
cocaine. We all looked at each other strangely. He placed the lemon next to it with a
theatrical flourish and took a straw from behind the bar.
‘To begin with, you’ll need one of these,’ he said, holding up the straw.
‘Now. You snort the line of salt and throw back the tequila,’
‘Wait a minute? You snort the salt? Doesn’t that hurt?’
The Norwegian nodded.



                                            26
‘It stings, but don’t worry, that’s the least of your problems! Once you’ve drunk the shot,
you pick up the lemon and squirt it into your eye.’
The entire bar went silent.
‘What thae fook?’ Richie said, vocalising what everybody else was thinking.
‘Takes your mind off the taste,’ the Norwegian said, as if this was a perfectly good
explanation.
And as stupid as it was, all of us did it. And yes, it hurt about as much as you’d imagine.
Based on this experience I think the expression blind drunk must have originated in
Norway. Later in the evening, the Norwegian shouted out once more.
‘Snake wine for all!’
I didn’t need to ask what snake wine was. I had been watching it all night. Behind the bar
in an enormous glass jar, was a pickled cobra, and floating around it were hundreds of
baby snakes. The liquid looked a strange kind of yellow, but when they placed it in
glasses it was clear like the tequila had been.
‘Do we have to drink this in the traditional Norwegian way? I can’t see out of my left
eye!’
‘Yes we do! What are you going to use depth perception for tonight anyway?’ he said,
laughing.
So again, all the men in the bar snorted, drank and blinded ourselves.

Treat’s closed at midnight, but Richie declared that we should all get on some motorbike
taxis and go to the beach, which we obediently did. The Vietnamese guys standing
around outside loaded us up, three to a bike and drove us off at silly speeds to the nearby
beach. It was not a particularly nice beach but as Richie said,
‘It’s dark! You cannae see shite anyway!’
But of course, the whole area was deserted. Shop fronts were closed up with heavy metal
shutters and there was no one in sight except for our motorcycle drivers, who had settled
themselves in to wait until we got bored and asked to be driven home again.
‘Simon. Come with me!’ Richie said, and he led me off to one of the closed shops.
He banged loudly on the shutter.
‘I don’t think they’re open…’ I began but he laughed at me.
‘Of cos thae not. Thas why I’m banging on the fooking door, ya daft bastard!’ he replied.
Sure enough, the door was opened, but instead of the irate Vietnamese man I had
expected to see, there was only an unsurprised old woman.
‘I need forty long necks!’ Richie said, using his fingers to indicate how many he required.
Again, without any hesitation, she gestured for one of her sons to go out the back, and he
emerged with two crates soon after, straining under each one. They had not been
refrigerated.
'Are you sure we want warm beer Richie?' I asked.
'Aye, it's awright. Just chuck the coonts in the ocean. Cool ‘em doon quick fooking
smart,' he replied, heaving the two full crates onto his shoulder.
‘Give him four hundred thousand dong,’ Richie said, although he noticed me hesitate.
‘It’s awright! We’ll sell ‘em on the beach for ten thousand. You’ll get it back.’
Lugging it back, apparently with ease, he handed one to Cameron.
‘Go put this innae ocean, Cam.’




                                            27
The crate was placed in the ocean by Cameron, who waded out into the pounding waves,
placing it in the sand. It was almost immediately knocked over, spreading beers out into
the sea.
'Shit, aye,' said Richie.
‘Aye,’ I agreed.

The night was spent diving for beers, although only seven were recovered. I soon decided
to leave. Banga was speaking ‘fluent' German again (this time with some Italians), Mel
had gone home after Treat’s and Beck had earlier jumped on Christian, pinning him
down and forcing him to submit to her advances. I was feeling very bad by the time I got
back to the room. I had been sick already, and the Norwegian’s generosity had not helped
matters. So I was lying there, after having vomited continually for about five minutes,
when I heard cheers from a room downstairs. At first I just lay there, but it continued.
Somebody was having a drunken party just metres away from me at four in the morning.
This was not what I needed. I lay with a pillow on my head for a couple of hours, until I
couldn’t stand it any longer. I ran downstairs in my not-very-flattering boxer shorts,
intent on banging on the door and screaming obscenities at the inhabitants of the room
when I suddenly heard Beck’s voice from just behind the door, loudly crying out,
'Oh yes! Of course. All Swedes shave their balls!'
I had forgotten that the Swedes were also in our hotel. I went back to bed, realising that
Beck would probably do something much more painful to my balls than shave them if I
was to storm into the room and ruin her chances with Christian…


Dalat
'My friend, if you put that there it's going to fall on my head. I know what you people are
like,' said the young bushy-bearded American sitting next to me.
He was talking to the driver of our bus, which would be taking us from Hoi An to Dalat,
as he tried to stack yet another backpack onto the back seat. I looked over at the
American. He looked like a hippy, but sounded and acted like a particularly anal private
school boy. True, the tiny bus that we were on was dangerously overcrowded, and true,
there was nowhere to put all of our luggage, but that was only to be expected. I was
beginning to think that this would be a very long journey, and so I reached into my
pocket and took out some valium that I had bought in Hanoi. I slipped four into my
mouth and then, looking again at the American sitting next to me, took another two.
'If Ho Chi Minh was alive today he'd be vomiting at the lengths these people go to to
make money,' he said to me in a conspiratorial tone.
I nodded politely and prayed the pills would kick in soon.

Some people travel the world in order to see new and wonderful things. Some people
travel the world to escape the drudgery of their own lives at home. Some people travel
the world to get drunk in new and exciting places (I placed a tick in that box on my
immigration form). Then there are those that travel the world in order to complain about
everything they see and so make themselves feel superior about wherever it is they come
from. The private school hippy next to me had clearly ticked that box, and sent off the
forms in triplicate, three months in advance of travelling. I pondered over this strange



                                            28
philosophy as I began to feel drowsy. It was very uncomfortable, with luggage pressed up
against me, but very soon I was in a deep sleep.

When I woke up, I was leaning on the American’s shoulder, just as we pulled into Dalat.
He was sleeping, snoring softly to himself as he dreamt of reorganising his filing cabinet,
when I noticed the huge wet patch on his shirt where I had been sleeping. Normally such
a thing would have caused me a huge amount of embarrassment, but under the
circumstances I simply laughed. He suddenly jerked awake.
‘Are we there? I bet we’re not. These people can’t do anything right,’ he began, before
suddenly feeling the moisture on his shoulder.
He looked at me suspiciously, but I just pointed up at the roof, where a small vent was
located.
‘I think the air-conditioning was leaking in the night.’
He shook his head with disgust.
‘Typical.’

We had left the Swedes (including Beck) behind, and for now it was only Banga and Mel
who were travelling with me. For some reason, the hotel we decided to stay at was still in
the process of being built. The corridor on our floor just disappeared and turned into
scaffolding, where large teams of men were hired to hurl metal girdles onto pieces of
corrugated iron at six in the morning. Sleeping in was therefore not an option, and so we
decided to rent out motorcycles and go and explore. The bikes we were given were kind
of twitchy, and mine tended to stall at very awkward moments.
'You're throttling it too hard!' insisted the guy who was trying to rent it to me.
This was true, and if I took it easy it didn’t stall, but when I could get off and walk faster
it kind of defeated the purpose. Eventually it sorted itself out, as long as I kept it out of
first and didn't try to drop a gear going up a steep hill. This sometimes resulted in rolling
backwards into a freight truck powering up behind me, but for four bucks a day I guess I
couldn’t complain.

Dalat is located up in the mountains, and even has a chairlift running up to it. The town
itself was a mixture of old-style architecture and cobblestone streets and modern urban
sprawl. The streets were very hilly and pointed off at odd angles, making it very easy to
get lost. Banga had been to Dalat before and spoke of some very impressive white water
rapids outside of town that we should go and look at. The roads around Dalat are
wonderful winding things, with postcard alpine scenery, and many blind corners to have
accidents on. This became very clear when we came around a corner near a restaurant
and saw a Japanese girl (who had been on our bus from Hoi An) standing next to a fallen
bike, underneath which another girl was lying and being disturbingly still. We leapt off
our own bikes and hauled it off of her. Fortunately she was all right, and they had in fact
only fallen over when they were at a standstill (as they were both quite small and the bike
was quite heavy) but she still had a particularly nasty graze up her arm. Banga and Mel,
both highly trained paramedics, ran to the restaurant and got some disinfectant to pour on
the wound, as there was a general consensus that a little more pain for the poor girl
wouldn't go astray. After making sure she was all right, and Mel cleaning her off as best
she could, we continued on our way.



                                             29
But it did highlight to us the risks that we were taking. Driving around on unfamiliar
roads with bikes of dubious quality, wearing no helmets and taking blind corners at high
speed. Accidents happened all the time. Drivers in South East Asia have less reverence
for the road rules than in Australia. Although that is not usually the problem. It’s more
often the stupidity of the tourists. Back on Ko Pha Ngan, we had heard of a Canadian
who had rented a bike from outside an internet café and declined any instructions on how
to ride the thing. He put it into first and immediately drove into the shop and smashed
into a table, destroying a computer and breaking his ankle. When I had been in India
previously, at least five tourists died near Anjuna Beach from coming off motorcycles,
still high on drugs after an all night dance party.

Of course it didn’t stop us. We rode. And we rode. Then we rode some more. Finally,
after twenty five kilometres of this, we stopped at some little huts by the side of the road
and looked down into the valley below where the white water rapids were located. Or at
least would have been if there was any water. There were rocks there however, and if we
used our imaginations we could almost see that any water moving over the uneven and
rocky surface would probably have moved quite rapidly, and become white due to this
rapidity.

So we decided to go back and eat at a place called Café V. I managed to lose Banga and
Mel very quickly, as Banga drives his motorcycle with little regard for his own safety or
for the laws of physics.
I made it back into Dalat, but beyond that I was lost. My sense of direction is incredibly
bad and finding Café V was difficult. Dalat is a fairly large town. Not a major city by any
means, but large enough to get lost in without a map. I had been searching for the place
for quite a long time when my arse tapped me on the shoulder.
'Don't you think we should just go home?' it pleaded like a whining child.
I gave it a swift whack, much to the amusement of the lady running the noodle stand.
'I'm tired!' it continued, 'I want to go to sleep!'
I told it to put up with it as my stomach was now tugging at my sleeve and begging me to
take it to Café V. But it was no good. I had no idea where it was, and nobody I asked
seemed to know either. There were very few tourists in sight, and I spoke no Vietnamese.
Finally, my arse went to sleep anyway, and I decided to go home. After that first night on
Big Buddha Beach I had always made sure I had the hotel’s business card with me but of
course this time I had not taken one. They had not finished building the place, let alone
had time to print up some business cards. As I was riding around, scanning the streets for
something familiar, I almost ran over a baby chicken which was walking across the road.
It panicked and changed direction so I had to stop and put my foot down and skidding a
little, much to the amusement of a nearby family. I asked the chicken exactly why it was
crossing the road in the first place but it was too frightened to respond. I guess that'll have
to be one for the ages.

                                          *****




                                              30
I was sitting in an internet cafe later that night when a drunk Vietnamese man (about
thirty five or so) came in and stood behind me. I was at the computer right at the door
onto the street and he just came in and stood there, looking at my screen. I was a bit
bothered by it and thought he might move after a while but he didn't. He then leant in and
started to speak to me.
'Are you English?' he said, his own grasp of the English language being rather tenuous.
I shook my head.
'Nah mate. I'm an Aussie,' I replied, with the exaggerated Aussie accent that I always
seem to put on when talking to foreigners.
It’s a bit like Canadians putting the flag on their backpacks so people don’t mistake them
for Americans. He nodded and stood back again, a bit closer this time, shamelessly
reading my email. He leant in again and started speaking.
‘Is what there ish? Oh ish?' he asked, his breath carrying that stench that only a bender of
several days can bring.
Clearly his English was getting worse by the minute. I ignored him, shaking my head that
I didn't understand but he simply moved a bit closer so I could feel his breath on my
neck.
'Are you English?' he asked again, the only sentence he could say that I could understand.
'Strewth nah, mate. Crikey! Haven't you been listening, cobber? I'm a blooming Aussie,' I
replied, removing my Akubra to scratch my head.
By now I had almost finished, when he leant in and said something that frightened me
immensely. His English was so bad that I couldn’t catch most of what he said, but it was
something about me doing him a 'favour' in the alley next door and a comment about the
way I smelt. I stood up and left instantly. This is the second time that such a thing has
happened to me. The first time was back in Sydney. It was a very large Micronesian man
who spoke perfect English that propositioned me back then and I understood every single
word of what he said.

Believe me, I wish I hadn't.


Saigon
We were halfway between Dalat and Saigon, in a roadside restaurant that served
‘vegetables with beef chigglets’ and ‘chicken marinated in fat sheet’, when our bus driver
decided to buy a monkey. For some reason, they had a cage out the back next to the
toilets that housed a family of small monkeys. There was a male, a female and a baby.
They were a sorry looking bunch. Their cage had obviously not been cleaned for quite
some time and the baby, although two years old, was so undernourished that it looked
like it had been born earlier that morning. Two waiters had entered the cage, beating at
the adults with rolled-up newspapers who were attempting to stop their offspring from
being taken away. They were screaming, as was the baby, but our bus driver just smiled
broadly as the terrified primate was placed into his arms.
‘What’s he want with that monkey?’ Mel asked, but we had no idea either.
For the rest of the trip, it lay on the front seat, whining softly to itself and shitting all over
the upholstery. We never found out what became of it.




                                               31
Saigon is a very different city to Hanoi. The north of Vietnam feels quite strict and
regimented with its French architecture and military police on every corner. This is not
the case the further south you travel. Saigon has more in common with Bangkok than it
does with Hanoi. It’s a big, bustling city, open well into the night, where touts run
rampant. Most of it is bland urban sprawl, but it also has expensive shopping districts that
are reminiscent of Singapore, as well as the obligatory Chinatown. The buildings in the
tourist areas are old concrete boxes; ugly but functional. It’s not as pretty as Hanoi, but it
is a lot more lively. To put it simply, Saigon is a lot more fun. It was for this reason that a
friend of mine from home, Lily, had decided to teach English there. She was living for a
year in Saigon and I had arranged to meet up with her.

It was later that same evening, after I had procured myself a room for two dollars a night,
that Banga, Mel and I found ourselves at a little pub called Allez Boo. Soon enough, Lily
was there also. She was very happy to be in Saigon, and had made friends quickly. She
seemed to know almost everybody in the bar when she came in and she introduced us to
them all, whereupon I forgot most of their names instantly. It being something of a
reunion, we settled in for a night of getting completely celebrated. A friend of Lily’s,
Kim, sat herself next to me. She spoke reasonably good English and when I asked her
what she did for a living she told me she was ‘her own boss’.
‘You know, I am very sad tonight,’ Kim said, sticking out her bottom lip and simpering.
‘Why?’ I asked, feeling like a character in a pantomime.
She even sniffled slightly now, for effect.
‘My boyfriend has just left Saigon. He was from Norway. I only want foreign boyfriends,
you know.’
‘Why?’ I asked, as she tried to sit on my lap.
‘Because Vietnamese boyfriends hit me.’
This seemed a pretty strong generalisation to make, and as I pushed her gently back into
her own seat, she frowned. I could almost see the light bulb appear over her head as she
got up and ran to the bar, and when she returned she was grinning and carrying a bottle of
local rum. She filled up everybody’s glasses, forced us all to drink, and then filled them
again. Banga and I glanced at each other, then shrugged and did as we were told. Kim
kept up with us, glass for glass, although Lily and Mel wisely sipped theirs very slowly. I
didn’t really have this option, as if I left it sitting on the table for more than thirty
seconds, Kim would slap me hard on the cheek.
‘Are you trying to get me drunk?’ I asked, but questions only meant I got another whack.
I was thoroughly relieved when the bottle was empty five minutes later, but my relief
turned to mindless terror when she ran and got another one. Ten minutes after that, Banga
and I had our heads resting on the table, with Kim punching us and screaming for a new
bottle of rum. This was embarrassing as she had drunk more of it than either of us and
weighed about the same as a Jack Russel Terrier.

Lily came over when Kim went to the bathroom and sat down next to me.
‘Make sure, whatever you do, that you don’t go home with her tonight. She’s a
prostitute.’
I wanted to give her the award for stating the bleeding obvious, but that had already gone
to Banga a few minutes earlier when he’d declared, ‘we’ve had too much rum’. Instead I



                                              32
assured her that I had no intention of going home with Kim, that in fact I would be
terrified at the prospect. Still unconvinced, she decided to take me over to the pool table
and introduce me to some more of her friends. There were the brothers, Tiem and Tihon,
as well as a guy called Boo. They were pool sharks and although it was illegal to gamble
they did so anyway. Unfortunately, that night they had come up against two other pool
sharks from New Zealand and were being beaten at their own game. I learnt some choice
Vietnamese curses when Tihon missed shot after shot.
‘He seems angry,’ I said to Lily and she shrugged.
‘They’re nice guys, but they do lose it sometimes. Just the other night, they got into a
fight out the front of the bar with their friend Adam. Go and ask Tiem what happened to
his thumb. You’ll see.’
So I went up to Tiem, just as he was lining up a particularly difficult shot. He drew back
the cue but at the last section changed the angle and missed the shot. I look down at his
thumb, and there was a huge gash in it. He had covered it in chalk and was still
attempting to play, but the pain was obviously too much.
‘What happened to your thumb?’ I asked him, and he suddenly looked very coy.
‘Nothing. Just stupid thing.’
‘Like what?’ I pressured.
He glanced over at Lily, who gave him some kind of secret nod and he leant in close, as
if he was about to tell me a big secret.
‘Me and Tihon got into a fight with our friend Adam. He’s from South Africa.’
‘But he’s your friend?’ I asked.
Tiem nodded, smiling.
‘Oh yes! Very good friend! But he was hitting Tihon out the front of Allez Boo. So I
smashed a bottle on his head.’
There was a pause as I thought over this information.
‘He doesn’t sound like a very good friend,’ I remarked and Tiem shrugged.
‘We were drinking. It was nothing. It was only when I tried to stab him with the broken
bottle that I cut my thumb. It slipped through my hand.’
He tried to stab him? I wasn’t sure if being friends with these guys was the safest thing in
the world. They seemed really nice, but…
‘Does this sort of thing happen often?’ I asked.
He shrugged.
‘Sometimes. I once chopped off a guy’s finger with a machete,’ he said proudly, but then
he saw the look on my face.
‘Not a tourist. A Vietnamese guy,’ he added, as if that would somehow make it better,
‘By the way, did Lily tell you not to go home with Kim?’
‘Yeah.’
‘She shouldn’t do that. Bad for business.’

Many hours passed. We were by then sitting in a local pub, where the beer was cheaper
and the pub snacks consisted of tofu and green beans. The beer came served in big plastic
containers and each glass had a large block of ice in it, as it was served warm. Tihon
handed me a puppy, which for some reason was being passed around the table. The
strangest thing about this local pub was that it was no more than a small hole in the wall.
Tiem and Boo had simply gone up and asked for more seats, and the owners had put



                                            33
some undersized children’s furniture onto the footpath. It was late in the evening, so we
were placed very close to the street. The pub had been spreading outwards all night. I
looked at the puppy in my hands, wondering what I was supposed to do with it, when
suddenly from behind me I heard Boo’s voice. Boo seemed a friendly sort of guy. He was
constantly making jokes and laughing, even if some of his jokes didn’t make the
translation from Vietnamese to English so well. He also had a strange habit of walking up
to me in friendly greeting and then punching me violently in the stomach. This took some
time to get used to, but after being slapped around for half an hour I was pretty much
okay with it. When I turned around he was standing in the middle of the street, holding a
cordless microphone and strolling around the tables of drinkers, crooning along to a
Chinese love song. Behind him was a mobile karaoke cart, with two huge speakers
strapped to it, and a man waiting patiently for the song to finish. Boo walked up to us,
pinching cheeks and pointing at people like he was a regular in Las Vegas. The fact that
Saigon even has mobile karaoke carts wandering the streets at 3:00am only endeared the
city to me even more.

Just as Boo sat down, to the applause of the entire street, a rose seller walked past us. The
rose sellers in Saigon tend to be little girls of about ten years old, with the curious
technique of beating you repeatedly on the shoulder until you give them money to go
away. Lily finally relented and bought a rose, purely out of charity. It was passed around
the table, until eventually she offered it to Boo. Suddenly the mood was altered. Things
seemed to tense up almost instantly. I tapped Tiem on the shoulder.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
‘It is a great offence for a woman to buy a man a rose in Vietnam. Only a man buys a
rose for a woman,’ he whispered.
Boo was certainly offended, and it seemed to signify an end to the evening. The whole
table had gone quiet and everybody was uncomfortable. I noticed I was still holding the
puppy, so I handed it back over to Boo who took it, without even bothering to punch me
in the stomach. It was clearly time to go to bed.

                                         *****

The video machine flickered into life and some grainy black and white footage appeared.
It was a shot of some hills and trees.
‘Cu Chi. Land of many fruits. Cu Chi, a good place to have a picnic. Cu Chi, with many
gentle peace-loving locals who want only to live in peace,’ the voice-over began.
There was stock footage of people skipping about in fields and generally pretending to
have a lot more fun than they actually were.
‘Cu Chi, beautiful and friendly.’
We saw some shots of beautiful and friendly people. It then upped the stakes a bit.
‘War!’ declared the voice-over with a foreboding musical accompaniment, ‘The
Americans swept across the land like a bunch of crazy devils. They shoot at the people.
They shoot at children. They shoot at trees and into the air.’
I looked over at the other people sitting around me, all tourists, some Americans. Most
had very serious expressions on their faces. I was trying not to laugh.
‘They shoot at animals. They even shoot at the earth.’



                                             34
Why the Americans were wasting so much ammunition was beyond me, but the video
continued.
 ‘They shoot at pots and pans. They shoot at small peace-loving huts filled with
picnickers. They shoot happy frogs in a shady meadow. They shoot puppies in the head,
execution style. They shoot fourteenth century Ming vases with babies inside. They shoot
a chicken called Peter who was only trying to make a go of it after two failed
marriages….’

The Cu Chi Tunnels were remarkable during the war as they allowed the Vietcong to
control a large section of rural land only thirty kilometres from Saigon. There were over
two hundred kilometres of tunnels in the Cu Chi area and at one point in its history the
tunnel system extended as far as the Cambodian border. The Americans lost many men
there and eventually decided to use artillery to just bomb the area into oblivion. This was
made especially poignant because at the time we were there it was a tactic they were also
using in Iraq. Old habits die hard, but unfortunately civilians die very easily indeed. In
fact, walking to the small hut where we were being shown the propaganda film, we could
still see the remains of huge craters in the ground. The video went on to describe several
‘American-killer heroes’, one of whom was a sixteen year old schoolgirl. It was
interesting to see, if only as a demonstration that in times of war, neither side can trust
their government to tell them what’s really going on.

We had met up with the Swedes again, Beck, Christian and Johan, and they had come
with us to the tunnels. Our guide had actually fought during the war on the side of the
South Vietnamese, but all of the staff at the Cu Chi Tunnels were dressed in the black
pajamas of the Vietcong. The place had become something of a tourist trap, with the
tunnels being rebuilt to accommodate the numerous visitors they received every year.
Our guide led us off through the bush, telling us to stick to the path as it was possible
there was some unexploded ordinance around in the bushes. The Americans had dropped
a lot of bombs on the area, as the cratered landscape revealed, and not all of them had
detonated. Finally he stopped and pointed at a small metal covering on the ground, about
the size of a large book.
‘The tunnels around Cu Chi used to be much smaller. But because we now have so many
visitors, we have had to expand them due to your foreign size.’
Beck snickered at this. The guide noticed her laughing and smiled, trying to explain
himself.
‘Foreign people are usually bigger than Vietnamese. Your foreign size meant we had to
enlarge the tunnels.’
She snickered again, but stopped when he lifted up the metal covering.
‘So, in you go!’
The entire group just stood there looking at him in disbelief. There was absolutely no way
we could fit into the hole he had uncovered.
‘Come on! It gets bigger inside,’ he insisted, and Christian bravely stepped up.
He lowered himself into the hole, barely fitting, and raised his arms straight above his
head before he slipped in and out of sight completely. It just didn’t look possible, but he
had done it, so I followed, and sure enough, I was able to squirm in. Even Johan, at about
two metres tall, managed to get inside and soon the whole group was wandering through



                                            35
the underground tunnel. We popped up in a bunker which had thin slits looking out onto
nearby paths.
‘Now how could we not have seen this bunker from the surface?’ Johan asked, and so we
wriggled back to the top and the answer was revealed.
The bunkers were all disguised as ant hills. Compacted mud and dirt had been packed on
top of them and they looked completely natural. It was ingenious.

‘The next tunnel is one hundred and forty metres long. It’s very low, so you will have to
crawl,’ our guide said, pointing at a well-disguised entrance.
We hesitated. One hundred and forty metres was a long way. There was a lot of doubt as
we all stood around discussing why exactly we would want to do something like that.
Finally people began to file in though and our guide looked satisfied and started to walk
away.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked him.
‘I’m not going through there. Are you crazy? I’ll meet you at the other end.’
Then he started to walk again.
‘But what if we get lost?’ I called after him.
‘There’s only two ways to go. Forwards and backwards. And it’s too cramped to go
backwards…’
Then he was gone. So I took a deep breath and went inside. I began to crawl as the
ceiling dropped down. The bulbs were spaced very far apart so there was not much to see.
This was a relief because the ground appeared to be covered in guano and in the darkness
I could pretend it was something more pleasant.
‘So what?’ I thought to myself, ‘I’m a man damn it, and if there’s one thing I’m not
afraid of it’s being in an old Vietcong tunnel all by myself with nothing but the darkness
to keep me company, with my heart beating out of my chest and the walls closing in and
the heat, the abominable heat just tearing the moisture from my body like some sort of
succubus…’

After about fifteen minutes of this tourist degradation session we emerged, to find
ourselves covered in mud and guano. Our guide laughed.
‘That was enlarged for our foreign size? Could’ve fooled me!’ Beck said, no longer
finding the term amusing in the slightest.
Then he led us for a sample of the Vietcong diet. This consisted of compressed rice and
dried papaya dipped in a sweet peanut powder. It was actually very nice, but if I was
forced to live on it for years then I very may well have said to my fellow Vietcong,
‘What do you guys say we let the Americans win and set up a bloody McDonald’s or
something?’

By the time we got back to Saigon it was getting dark. Banga and Mel had decided to
travel to Cambodia the following morning and so we all made our farewells at Allez Boo.
We had had a great trip and it was sad to see them go, but they had far less time in South
East Asia than me, and wanted to see the temples at Angkor. I would get there myself
eventually, but I wasn’t in any kind of a hurry. So they left in the morning and I moved in
with Johan. From now on, I would be travelling with only the Swedes for company.




                                            36
                                         *****

Boo had invited us to go fishing at his house, and although fishing is not something I
enjoy, Boo assured me that this would not be like any fishing I had ever done. I didn’t
know whether that reassured me or not, but it was something I wanted to try and so I
found myself at Boo’s place with Tiem and the Swedes. It was a small, cosy place, just
near the Saigon River. I had assumed that this river was where we would be fishing but it
wasn’t. He led us in the other direction, through the narrow alleys in his neighbourhood.
Most of the houses were one or two room, freestanding concrete boxes with verandahs
serving as the communal living area. Some of them had small fenced yards while others
looked directly onto the dirt alleyways. But everybody seemed to know everybody else,
and the whole place had a sense of community that I hadn’t seen in a big city before. In
fact, as Boo led his strange pale friends through the alleys, we managed to collect quite a
few curious onlookers. Most of them were children, but several men followed us, as well
as some teenage girls. Boo continued to lead us through the alleys until the ground turned
into grass and the concrete walls of the little houses turned into trees. Then he stopped
next to a big irrigation ditch which was filled with muddy water and surrounded by dense
jungle.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is where we fish.’
We looked at the water. It didn’t look like there would be much living in it.
‘Are you sure?’ Johan asked.
‘Of course! I fish all the time here.’
Again we began to wonder exactly what we had gotten ourselves in for. Boo was holding
two plastic buckets which he threw to the ground as he took off his shirt.
‘First. We need a dam.’
He ran over to where the irrigation ditch joined the main channel which led out to the
river and began to pile mud onto it, blocking it off. Several children helped him with
great enthusiasm. It appeared that this was quite a big community event. Boo leapt into
the water once the dam was built and, using a bucket, began to throw water out of the
ditch and back into the channel.
‘What’s he doing?’ Christian asked.
I shook my head. I had some idea, but I wasn’t quite sure.
‘What are you doing?’ I called out to Boo.
He paused with the bucket halfway into the water.
‘Fishing!’ he said, smiling broadly.

He hadn’t lied. This was not like any fishing I had ever done. Whereas at home we try to
get the fish to come out of the water to us, Boo had decided to simply remove the water
and pick up the fish from the ground.
‘Come on in!’ Boo said, and we all looked at the stinky, muddy swamp, which was
probably holding about sixty thousand litres of water.
‘Do they have malaria around these parts?’ I asked Beck.
She nodded. I wasn’t on any medication as the side effects always sounded worse than
the disease to me, but I nevertheless took off my shirt and launched myself into the
swamp. I took up a bucket and began to fish, much to the delight of the locals, who all
began to laugh and cheer. Tiem jumped in too and took the bucket off Boo. It became



                                            37
immediately apparent that I was not up to the same level of fitness as either one of them.
Tiem was a small guy, but he was easily able to outlast me. In fact, ten year old children
seemed able to keep up with me without even breaking a sweat. I could also feel my
pasty white skin beginning to burn.
‘Do you have any suncream?’ I asked the Swedes, all of whom were standing on the bank
looking at me like I was insane.
They shook their heads.
‘Suncream?’ Boo scoffed, and instead picked up huge handfuls of mud and began to
smear them all over me.
The local kids all joined in, pelting me with mud, until I was completely covered. This
caused all manner of confusion in the Swedes. Swedish people are naturally imbued with
a sense of style and fashion, and standing around in a malaria infested swamp covered in
mud generally doesn’t fit into that ideal. But eventually, Christian and Johan were
convinced to come in, largely by the violent (yet affectionate) persuasion of Boo.

The work took a long time. During the day, I began to become very concerned by the
kids. They worked harder than any of us, but one in particular had the peculiar habit of
trying to grab my genitals whenever they became even vaguely visible through my
swimmers. If I blocked this he would pinch my arse. If I blocked that then some other kid
would grab me, while another poured a cup of icy water from a big thermos down my
spine. I went to ask Boo exactly why I was the centre of so much molestation and he
tweaked my left nipple so hard my eyes watered.

Finally the ditch was empty. The kids all ran about in the mud, picking up the flapping
fish as they tried to hide in small puddles. They collected them all into buckets, but pretty
soon the whole thing just degenerated into a big mud fight. After the fighting died down
the whole group wandered through the alleys again, crusted with dry mud, to wash off in
the Saigon River. Whilst they were all splashing about, the Swedes looked in the buckets
that had been collected. There were perhaps ten fish, each no longer than ten centimeters
long.
‘Seems like a lot of effort,’ Beck noted.
I felt the ache in my arms from hoisting the buckets all day and had to agree.
‘I don’t even like fish,’ I replied.

                                         *****

It was our last night in Saigon, and I was sitting in Allez Boo next to a South African
named Alan.
‘Do you know these guys?’ I said, gesturing to Tiem, Tihon and Boo who were playing
pool with some unsuspecting Canadians.
‘Sure,’ Alan replied, ‘We’re great friends.’
Suddenly something clicked. I knew that name. Alan. He was the friend that Tiem had
smashed on the head with a beer bottle.
‘So what was the fight about?’ I asked him.
He shrugged.
‘Buggered if I know.’



                                             38
‘But he hit you on the head with a beer bottle! Didn’t that hurt?’
Alan shook his head as if this was the stupidest question in the world.
'Nah. It's all right if it smashes. Didn't you do that when you were a kid? Sit around
smashing beer bottles on your head for a laugh?'
I smiled politely.
'No, Alan, I didn't.'
He shrugged.
'I thought everyone did that.’

It being our last night, Lily, the two brothers and Boo were determined to make it a
memorable one. They took us back to the local pub, and then to karaoke. This was the
sort of karaoke where a private room is hired so that people can feel more comfortable
making fools of themselves. Drinks are served, and everybody sits around in front of a
large television screen handing around a microphone. Karaoke is huge in Vietnam. The
houses on the way to my guesthouse all had open living rooms, and I frequently saw
people lying about having dinner, whilst somebody sang along with the television. It
didn’t seem important if they had a good voice or not. Nobody cared. They just liked to
sing anyway. By the end of the night, we were in a place called the Backpacker’s Bar and
I found myself engaged in a dance-off with Boo. There was a sort of cat-walk towards the
stairs, and he would strut up it, pull off some funky moves and strut back, just daring me
to top it. Not being one to shy down from a challenge I took up the gauntlet. I danced
long, I danced hard. I set that floor on fire! Boo won in the end, but only because I had a
slight regurgitation problem. I threw up a small amount into my mouth and looking
around the bar, I noticed there was no toilet in sight. So I decided to head downstairs in
rather a hurry, bringing up slightly more as I did so but still holding it in. The downstairs
bar was crowded and it was then that fate again decided to make fun of me. A French girl
refused to let me pass, and began to get a little suggestive when I tried to force my way
through. This was one of the very rare occasions in my life when someone was blatantly
coming on to me and I couldn’t even say to them,
‘I’d love to join you but I have a mouthful of vomit and I don’t want to spew on your
pretty dress,’ because if I did then I would have spewed on her pretty dress.
That was the end of my last night in Saigon.




                                             39
                               3
                   EVEN FOR NATURE’S CALLING

                                    CAMBODIA

Phnom Penh
The immigration officer stared at my passport, then at me, then back at my passport.
‘Where are you coming from?’ he asked.
‘Vietnam…’ I replied, wondering exactly where else he supposed I could be coming
from.
He nodded as if this information was particularly useful to him. Then he stood up and
walked out of the office, still holding on to my passport. Johan stuck his head around the
corner. He had come through immigration just before me and it had taken a little under a
minute for him to be cleared.
‘What’s taking you so long?’ he asked.
I shrugged. It was the same guy who had cleared Johan’s passport and everybody else’s
without any problem. Johan sighed and took some snus out of his pocket. Snus is
basically tobacco, but instead of chewing or smoking it, a small teabag-like sack of it is
placed under the lip where it slowly dissolves over about four hours. Johan always had
one in, even when eating and as a result it pushed his top lip forward to make him look
permanently amused. Right now he was anything but.

We had made the mistake of taking a Mekong Cruise to get from Saigon to Cambodia
and it was wearing a bit thin. We had spent the day before being carted around to various
tourists spots, and that morning we had gone to yet another minority village where local
craft items we didn’t need or want were offered to us. We then had to wait to get cleared
into Cambodia after a short and fairly unpleasant speedboat ride up the Mekong. We still
had a way to go before arriving in Phnom Penh and the day was not shaping up to be a
good one. Finally the immigration official came back in and sat down, sizing me up once
more.
‘Is there a problem with my visa?’ I asked him.
He thought about this, sucking in his cheeks as he looked over my passport.
‘No. Welcome to Cambodia,’ he said, stamping it and handing it back to me.
Warily I took it, thinking he might shoot me down as I tried to leave the office, but it was
not to be. As I emerged, Johan threw his arms up.
‘So what the hell was the problem?’
‘Guess he just didn’t like the look of me,’ I replied.
‘Sure. Well you look like a drug dealer on that passport.’
This was true. Although I know most people aren’t overly fond of their passport
photographs, mine was universally acknowledged by everybody I’d shown it to to be the
worst they’d ever seen. It wasn’t so much that the photo was that bad (although it was)
but that the Australian Consulate scans the picture in rather than sticking it in, and in the
process it comes out far more pale and blotchy than the original. In my photo I look like I
haven’t seen sunlight in weeks and have a particularly virulent form of facial herpes.


                                             40
The rest of the journey was not fun. Although that part of the Mekong is a beautiful area,
we were only on it for the shortest time before being taken ashore and loaded into
minivans. Beck and Christian had already gone by the time Johan and I were put on a
bus, as they had been on a different speed boat to us. The bus was tiny and there were far
too many people to fit, especially as each had the standard backpacker rucksack. But like
the tunnels at Cu Chi, we were all somehow miraculously able to squeeze in. Unlike the
tunnels at Cu Chi, we were in there for four hours. The trip was along dusty, deserted
roads, and to make us less comfortable the driver put on a tape of famous pop songs
covered by a Cambodian band. Soon the dusty road turned into paved roads, and
eventually taller buildings began to appear. Finally, we were driving along the waterfront
of a quite attractive city, which looked nothing like what I had expected of Phnom Penh.
There were lush green parks and spotless office buildings flanking wide smooth roads. I
don’t know what I’d expected, but this was certainly not it. There were areas that seemed
similar to the decay of Saigon, but Phnom Penh was quite an attractive city. Sections of it
seemed to be unfinished, that was all.

Johan and I got out, looking around at our new surroundings. We had been dropped off at
a hotel in one of the two tourist sections of the city. Beck and Christian were not there
waiting, although they had left half an hour before us. I went and read the hotel register,
as privacy was apparently not a major concern. I learnt exactly which room the twenty
two year old German girls were staying in, but Beck and Christian had not signed in
either under their own names or under any known aliases. Most of Beck’s aliases are far
too rude to print here in any case. So Johan and I were standing around, wondering
exactly what it was we were going to do when a Dutch couple walked past and saw us
looking confused.
‘You looking for your friends?’ they asked.
‘Yeah. You seen them?’
‘Sure. The other bus dropped us off down near the water with them. They’re waiting
there for you to show up, we just left them.’
They had apparently been told to keep their eyes out for an excessively tall Swedish man.
I have no distinguishing features whatsoever and didn’t get a mention, so I was thankful
that Johan was with me.

So after getting some detailed instructions on how to get there (down that road, chuck a
right, you’ll see them probably) I took off.
‘You stay here and mind our bags, and I’ll bring them back. I can’t be bothered carrying
our stuff around.’
The main thing I noticed about Phnom Penh upon getting out off the bus was the heat. It
wasn’t just a little bit hot in an ‘oh wouldn’t it be nice to go for a swim?’ kind of way, it
was sweat pouring from our bodies in rivers. In fact it was so humid it was very much
like going for a swim just walking around. By the time I had gone down that road and
chucked a right my shirt was soaked completely through. I was walking along the
waterfront and contemplating diving in, when I saw Beck and Christian sitting around in
a restaurant sipping on cokes. I stumbled up and threw myself down next to them.
‘Wow, you look like crap,’ Beck said, succinctly summing up the situation.



                                             41
‘Johan’s waiting back at the hotel. Can I order a coke first?’
‘Sure. One dollar,’ Beck said.
I was shocked.
‘What! One dollar for a coke! That’s… that’s…’
‘Not very much money but about three times what it costs in Vietnam?’ suggested Beck.
Exactly right. I ordered a coke.

When travelling around in cheaper countries it becomes very easy to forget exactly what
things are worth. Back home, one dollar for a coke is about what it costs and you pay it
without a second thought. But when travelling, it’s different. Somebody will offer you a
comfortable hotel room with its own bathroom and television for five dollars and you
spend half an hour trying to get it for four. After such an epic sturggle, to then go out and
spend the dollar you just saved on a coke seems to defeat the purpose. It’s worse at
markets and street stalls in some countries. If you’re not careful you can sometimes find
yourself fiercely haggling for the equivalent of thirty or forty cents and then walking
away in disgust when the salesman refuses to budge. It’s important to keep things in
perspective, and in the end I simply gave up haggling all together.

After my expensive drink purchase, I was refreshed enough to lead them back to the hotel
where Johan was waiting. Except that by the time we got there he was no longer waiting.
He was nowhere in sight, and neither were our bags. I went back into the hotel and
flipped through the unguarded register. Although I did discover that several twenty three
year old Danish girls had recently checked into room six, Johan’s name was nowhere to
be seen. Beck and Christian took a room there anyway, arguing that he must have just got
bored and would come back at some point. So I sat down in the restaurant attached to the
place and performed the standard emergency procedure. I ordered a beer. It was a
Beerlao, from Laos, and I had never tried it before. It arrived promptly and I knew then
that I had found my true love in life. At that moment I wondered how I had ever lived
without it. This was no mere beer, this was more pure than love, more permanent than
death, more rewarding than faith, more alcoholic than VB, cheaper than Toohey's Red…

The fact that I had no luggage and no place to stay seemed unimportant after a while.
Christian and Beck had come out to sit with me, and it was only when it started to get
dark that it occurred to us that something bad might have happened.
‘It does seem a little strange that he would just leave like that. Especially with all of our
bags. I mean, how could he carry them?’ I reasoned.
‘He’s big enough to carry them,’ Christian replied and I had to admit that this was true.
But even so, why would he stumble off down the street hauling my bags with him and his
own? We read through the Lonely Planet and came to the section entitled ‘Dangers and
Annoyances’ for Phnom Penh. What we read was not encouraging.
‘Clearly he’s been killed and the luggage has been stolen,’ I said to Beck.
She didn’t reply. It wasn’t a joking matter. The fact that this was a possibility, no matter
how slight was all too clear in our minds. We sat there in silence for a while before,
finally Christian came back, although I hadn’t even noticed that he’d been gone.
‘Wait here. I’ll be back,’ he said, and then threw his leg over the back of an Enfield
motorcycle, driven by a big Cambodian guy.



                                             42
They sped away, leaving us to wonder what the hell was going on.
‘Beck, you’re going out with the Terminator,’ I said, awestruck.

Finally, about twenty minutes later, the bike returned, and with it was Johan, on the back
of another bike, clutching all of our luggage. He leapt off and threw them to the ground,
smiling like a returning war hero as he slipped in some more snus under his lip.
‘So what happened to you?’
He sat down, and ordered himself a beer.
‘Well I was just waiting around when suddenly the bus pulled away. I realised that our
bags were still on it so I chased after it but they didn’t stop. Finally I had to jump onto a
passing motorcycle taxi…’
‘You mean you actually got to say the words, “Follow that bus”?’ Beck asked.
Johan smiled even more.
‘Yes I did! So he pulled up alongside it and I got him to stop. Finally he did and I got our
bags off, but then I realised that I had no idea where I was. Worse, I had no idea what the
name of this hotel was.’
I scoffed.
‘How could you forget the name of the hotel? What are you, an idiot?’
‘What’s the hotel called? Without turning around,’ Johan said instantly.
I stammered.
‘What about that time on Samui when you spent four hours trying to get home? Or in
Dalat? Or when we were in India and you thought your front door was your bathroom
door in the middle of the night and you took a…’ interrupted Beck.
‘Johan is trying to tell a story here. Don’t mind her, carry on,’ I said.
Shaking his head, Johan continued.
‘So that’s it. I sent an email and waited for Christian to come and pick me up. Here I am.’
We all clinked our glasses together to celebrate our little reunion.
‘Right. Well now we need a room. Room five is free. I haven’t actually seen anybody at
reception yet, but I’m sure if we just sign in and take the key they won’t mind.’

                                         *****

We were not planning on spending a lot of time in Cambodia, but one thing that Johan
was absolutely determined to do was to go to the shooting range. There are many legends
about Cambodian shooting ranges. We often heard travellers talking on the subject saying
that for enough money, it was possible to fire a rocket launcher at a cow. And chickens
could be taken out with M-16s if we were to believe everything we’d heard. There was
also the argument that spending obscene amounts of money to fire guns in a country with
such extreme poverty is sick and wrong and should not be encouraged. People suggested
to us that that money should instead be donated to charities to help the poor. That may be
so, but the same argument could be said of almost anything. The holiday that the person
making the argument is on for example. The money for one airfare to Cambodia would
support a family for a lot longer than thirty rounds with an AK47.




                                             43
So that’s what I got. This experience was unlikely to come up again, after all. I sat down
in a small room on a chair, resting the gun on the table. Thirty metres away, at the end of
a long concrete tunnel, a man was setting up a paper target.
‘Don’t shoot yet. That’s my brother,’ the attendant said, pointing down the corridor.
Check. Don’t shoot his brother. Finally it was set up and he gave me some intensive
training in the proper safe operation of a firearm.
‘Pull this to shoot,’ he said, pointing at the trigger.
Propping it on my shoulder and aiming for the paper target's heart, I fired off a round.
'Hmm, lot of kick on these Russian guns', I remarked to the attendant, trying to sound like
I fired high powered weapons all the time, and hoping he didn't see me rubbing my
shoulder or the tears in my eyes.
The thing had so much recoil it was like being punched with every shot. I fired again.
The noise was deafening, but I managed to get it under control after a few more shots.
Then he switched it to full automatic fire. I'm not sure if I hit anything, but at least I
managed to hold it steady. It was like the gun was trying to jump out of my hands. Finally
it started clicking and I was done. My target was brought to me and it wasn't as bad as I
had expected.
'Not too bad for a first try,' the guy said, not sounding overly enthusiastic.
I’d gotten eighteen shots on the paper, and only two of those had missed the outline. The
automatic fire accounted for the rest. Then it was Beck's go. She fired off a few, and got
that manic look in her eyes. I recited a quick prayer as she switched to auto and the guy
told me to hold her shoulder so she didn't break it if the gun got away from her. Most of
these rounds hit the dirt in front of the target and I laughed.
'Hey, you did okay, kid. First try and all!'
When the target was brought up I was silenced. Every single one of her shots (barring
some of the automatic fire) had hit, and all were on dead centre, with a high proportion of
them having struck our little paper man in the groin, head and chest. I placed my hands
protectively in front of my fly.
'Nice shooting,' I muttered, cursing my utter inability to do anything physical with an
acceptable level of competence.
As she was holding up the target admiring it, two strange Poms came over. They were
wearing camouflage and had been there since we arrived, mucking about with the
demonstration guns and reading over the menu. The place had an actual menu that we
could peruse. The anti-aircraft gun cost a whopping three hundred dollars and a rocket
launcher was five hundred. I think that the Poms were seriously considering it. But when
they saw Beck’s target they put down their menus and came over.
‘Did you do that?’ one asked, in his most seductive voice.
Beck nodded proudly.
‘Are you Israeli? You in the army?’ asked the other.
‘No I’m from Sweden. I’ve never fired a gun before!’
I have never in my entire life seen two men become so instantly aroused. She must have
appeared to be their dream girl. A Swedish backpacker who was as trigger happy as they
were, and could take the wings off a fly from a hundred metres away. Their advances
annoyed Christian enough that we decided it was time to leave.
‘Johan, it’s time to go.’
‘In a minute. Take my picture!’ he replied.



                                            44
He was standing there, in an oversized combat helmet, with a Tommy gun in one hand
and a Magnum in the other. I’m not sure, but I think perhaps this did something for the
Poms as well.
‘Let’s get the hell out of here. These guys are creeping me out…’ Johan said after they
started posing with him and trying to get him to take his shirt off and hold the Desert
Eagle.

After such a frivolous waste of money our next stop was a change of pace. We visited
The Killing Fields. Like a lot of the DMZ in Vietnam there isn’t much to see. The fields
are just that: fields. There are pits everywhere, now filled with grass. At first it all looked
very innocuous, but when we read the simple signs next to them it became horrifying.
Listed, like an inventory, were the bodies that were found there.
‘Woman and children mostly naked, and without heads’ said the worst of them.
Walking around looking at these horrible sights, small children came up to beg, oblivious
to what it was they were standing on. And in the very centre there stood what looked like
a memorial or shrine, but upon entering it we soon realised that it was actually a series of
platforms, upon which lay the actual skulls of the eight thousand people killed there.
They were piled up higher than we could see. Some had holes in them from where bullets
had entered, and we were close enough to see if they had any dental work. Most of those
killed by the Khmer Rouge were the educated people as they were considered the most
dangerous. In a lot of cases, people were bludgeoned to death to avoid wasting bullets.
When we had just been firing off bullets using possibly the same guns that contributed to
those very massacres, it suddenly didn’t seem like just a bit of fun any more.

The point was further driven home when we stopped at a place called S-21 on the way
back to Phnom Penh. S-21 is a prison that had been converted from an old school and it
has that foreboding look to it that most schools have. It’s three storeys high, and made of
concrete. Walking from room to room it wasn’t hard to imagine what had happened there.
Most had a picture on the wall of a victim strapped to a bed and this was made all the
worse because they had been strapped down in the very room we were standing in and on
the very bed we were looking at. Another room had unmarked photos on the wall of
nearly every inmate who had been held there. There were thousands of them. They stared
out from the walls with passive expressions. Men, women and children, and every one of
them had died in the prison. They all seemed so calm, as if they had no idea what was
about to happen to them. After all, why would anybody want to hurt them? They hadn’t
done anything wrong. It was getting late by the time we got back to the hotel and we just
went to bed. There was nothing to celebrate that night.


Siem Reap
We had all heard the horror stories about Cambodian roads. Like the fact that bridges had
a tendency to be washed away, leaving buses stranded for days. More specifically, we
had heard that the road to Siem Reap was one of the worst in Cambodia. The trip was
supposed to take four or five hours by boat, and about eight by bus, assuming that it
wasn’t delayed.




                                              45
‘It’s twenty two dollars for the boat. I think you should take it,’ said our hotel manager in
Phnom Penh, who had finally materialised.
‘How much is the bus?’ asked Johan.
The manager looked reluctant to tell us, but finally he did.
‘Four dollars.’
Johan reached into his wallet and placed four dollars on the bench.
‘One for the bus,’ he said.
Christian, Beck and I were not quite so quick to decide, and the manager leapt upon the
opportunity.
‘The bus is not so bad, if it doesn’t rain. But if it is raining then it can be very delayed.
Twelve hours or more. You can get the bus if you like, but it may be delayed. I can’t
promise. The boat will be on time.’
Johan shook his head as he watched us discussing the pros and cons of the boat.
‘Last night you weren’t sure you could afford to spend three dollars on a pizza or whether
you should just go out into the street and eat a stray dog and now you’re seriously
considering spending twenty two dollars on a five hour trip?’
‘But what if it rains?’ we insisted.
Johan wandered off, sick of the conversation.
‘Fine. Take the boat. I’m getting the bus. It hasn’t rained since we’ve been in Cambodia.’
We had only been in Cambodia for three days. We decided to take the boat.

                                         *****

Normally the sound of rain hitting the roof is a pleasant one. In this case it was hilarious,
although Johan didn’t seem to think so. I looked over at the bed next to me, just as there
was a huge thunder clap, but I couldn’t think of anything to do but laugh. It was
absolutely pouring down. The instant Johan had decided to take the bus, fate had decided
that it would rain. Fate is cruel.

We left Johan waiting at the hotel for his bus as we got driven to the wharf. The boat that
greeted us when we got there was a strange looking thing. It was incredibly long and
narrow, but it appeared modern enough.
‘I wonder if the rain will delay the boat?’ Christian said, more to himself than anybody
else, ‘it’s really coming down.’
Then, when I thought about it, I decided that if he had been saying it to himself it would
have been in Swedish, so I answered.
‘It’s a boat. The more water there is, the better things are for boats!’
I hoped that this rather simplistic view would hold true. As it turned out, a bit more rain
wouldn’t have been a bad thing. The boat had quite a bit of speed on it, but it managed to
get bogged down on sandbars frequently. When this occurred, it would quickly reverse
until we were on our way again. Finally, exactly five hours later, we were there, or so we
were told. But when we came up onto the deck we seemed to be floating in the middle of
the river, in a totally random spot. It was no longer raining, and in fact it was becoming
just as hot as it had ever been. It was then that some fishing boats motored up to our own,
waving signs and filled to the brim with touts. They crowded the boat, screaming out
hotel names and cursing each other, but fortunately, we spotted one of them who had our



                                             46
names on a sign. Our previous hotel owner had booked us into his nephew’s place, which
was not something we had really wanted to do at the time. Staring out at the sea of touts
floating before us, I was glad we had.

The boat we were led onto was dangerously overloaded with tourists and it took off with
some difficulty. It died after only a few metres. The engine had some impromptu repairs
done on it and we were on our way again, directly into a sandbar. And there we remained,
stuck fast for a good ten or fifteen minutes as numerous men jumped out and pushed at
the boat with bits of bamboo. We finally got moving but it was so hot just sitting there
that I felt faint from the amount I was sweating. I realised that if I didn’t get a drink soon
I would evaporate.

When we finally got let off the fishing boat, our sign man pointed over at three guys on
motorcycles.
‘They will take you to the hotel,’ he said.
We looked dubious. Riding on bikes with packs was never fun.
‘How far is it? These packs are really heavy,’ asked Beck.
‘No problem,’ said the driver of her bike, taking it from her and placing it between his
legs as he got back on the bike.
It balanced there precariously, and he gestured for her to get on. Our drivers did the same
and we took off. It was more than an hour later when we finally pulled up at the hotel,
which was well out of Siem Reap. Just as we were dismounting, Johan pulled up on
another motorcycle and got off, pack in hand.
‘Did you guys just get here?’ he asked, laughing.
There was no point in denying it. We had all arrived at almost exactly the same time.
‘Um… yeah. Well how was your trip, anyway?’ I asked, hoping to change the subject.
He thought about it for a moment.
‘Cheap.’

Siem Reap is where most people stay in order to see the temples of Angkor. The actual
town itself is a small, charming sort of place although it’s already beginning to show
signs of the expansion that will one day ruin it. A narrow river runs along the eastern
perimeter of the old town, which is filled with small restaurants, guesthouses and bars.
Being only about six kilometres from Angkor, it has a well defined tourist infrastructure
and a similar feel to Hoi An in Vietnam. Where we were staying was part of the new
expansion, far enough away from the action that we had to get motos (motorcycle taxis)
to go into town. But our hotel did have one thing going for it. It had a crocodile farm. Just
out the back was a small concrete enclosure which contained a few logs, a pond and
about twenty crocodiles, each about two metres long. The fence that held them in was
only chest high, and a narrow plank of wood ran over the enclosure to the pens behind it.

After settling in, we went out to a restaurant called the Ivy and had a few beers but I was
learning a few things about travelling with Swedes. For one thing, they drink far less than
the average Australian. It was true we were going to see Angkor in the morning, but in
general the night ended far earlier than I would have liked when they all retired to their
rooms for a quick cardiovascular workout and an hour in a tanning booth. It was for this



                                             47
reason that I was quite happy to see the Norwegian sitting in the Ivy. The Norwegian, in
case you don’t remember, was the madman I met in Hoi An who made me snort lines of
salt and spray lemon juice into my eyes.
‘Hey!’ I said upon seeing him, and he raised his hand in greeting.
‘Hey. What are you doing here?’ he asked.
‘Angkor. You?’
He nodded.
‘Angkor.’
There was a pause. We were both sober and apart from that depressing fact we had very
little in common.
‘You having a big night?’ I asked, thinking I already knew the answer.
‘No. Gotta get up early tomorrow. Going to bed soon actually. Although you don’t have a
cigarette do you?’
I didn’t.
‘I’ll get you one if you like, but you have to smoke it in the traditional Australian way,’ I
said, hoping that maybe now I could get some payback, ‘First we drill a hole in your
throat, rub vinegar on it and then you smoke it directly through your oesophagus.’
The Norwegian laughed.
‘I swear, that’s how we do shots! I wasn’t messing with you!’ he said defensively.
I still didn’t believe him, but soon he went home so I went back to sit with the Swedes. It
was here that I was reminded of another disconcerting thing about travelling around with
our northern cousins. I was completely outnumbered in the language department. We
would all sit around having dinner together, but the conversation was invariably in
Swedish and so I had nothing to add except for the few choice words that Rebecka had
taught me. It was only so often I could casually fit fifteen different words for penis into a
conversation before I started to become boring.
‘You know, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on…’ I finally said as we sat there in
the Ivy.
They all paused briefly. Then Johan began to speak in Swedish to the others, ignoring me
completely but peppering the conversation with my name.
‘I know you’re just making it up,’ I said, and he smiled enigmatically and continued.
He said my name twice more along with at least one word I knew from my less than
exhaustive Swedish vocabulary.
‘You’re not bothering me…’
Christian laughed and mentioned my name also, along with a word that literally translates
as ‘vein pole’.
‘Beck! What are they saying about me?!?’ I cried out, snapping under the pressure.

Later that night, Johan and I were back at the hotel, staring over a chest-high concrete
wall.
‘Why have they even got crocodiles here?’ he asked, slipping another snus under his lip.
I clambered up onto the wall and stepped gingerly out onto the narrow plank.
‘So we can do this!’ I declared, running from one end to the other, as the disinterested
crocodiles looked up at me.
‘What are you doing, you stupid Australian? Valhalla awaits those who tempt fate!’




                                             48
One of the crocodiles slipped into the murky green water of the pond and disappeared
from sight.
‘Come on. Come across,’ I said, but he shook his head.
‘No. It’s stupid.’
Walking back across I momentarily lost my balance and had to throw my arms out to
keep from falling. It was at about that same time I realised he was right. It was stupid.

                                         *****

It cost twenty dollars to get into Angkor for one day, but we had spent more than that just
getting to Siem Reap. There are something like one hundred temples, built between seven
and eleven centuries ago, spread over a fairly large area and interconnected by roads. We
had each hired a motorcycle and driver to get us around for the day, and they took us in a
convoy to the main temple in Angkor. They called it the Sunset Temple because it was
the place that all the tourists gathered at sunset. Its real name was Angkor Wat. Each of
the other temples in Angkor had different names, although I couldn’t pronounce most of
them when they were told to me. Angkor Wat is huge, with a moat surrounding it and a
long stone bridge leading up to the large rectangular temple. The moat is about one and a
half kilometers long, which should give some idea of the scale. The carvings on most of
the stones that make up the temple are incredibly ornate, and it’s possible to wander
around for hours just looking at them. As it was, we wandered around for about twenty
minutes.

Now I know I’ve mentioned it before but the heat was absolutely ridiculous, and walking
around ancient temples, no matter how spectacular, was a massive undertaking. In fact,
putting one foot in front of the other was a massive undertaking. The centre of Angkor
Wat is a tall stone platform about twenty metres high and the steps that lead up to it are
each about knee-high, but shorter than the average foot. This made climbing them a
dangerous proposition, and Beck, whose knee is not the best due to a handball injury,
decided not to attempt it. I laughed merrily, kicking her in the shins and bounding up the
stairs like a young gazelle, as she stumbled around at the base.
‘What are you going to do about it?’ I called down from the high ground, and was
horrified to see her walk calmly around the base of the platform where there was a far
less treacherous set of stairs.
Not wanting to wait around for her to reach the top and kick forty five flavours of shit out
of me, I scrambled back down.

Our drivers took us around to several temples after that. They were all very impressive,
but it was getting on to noon and they were all starting to look the same to our
increasingly delusional eyes. Breathing the air was like breathing soup. I’m talking about
a soup that eats like a meal as well; none of this cream of celery crap. But we pressed on.
One that we stopped at was a massive pyramid, of the type I associate with Aztecs, with a
whole lot more steps to keep the place safe from rampaging hordes of Swedish warriors
with bad knees; a very real threat in the thirteenth century. At the highest point of this
temple that I could climb to, I sat down to rest, and whether it was sunstroke or a true
spiritual awakening, I felt very much like this temple was something amazing.



                                            49
‘You will like the next one, very special,’ said my driver when I finally agreed to stop
fainting.
He was right. It was very special. It was the temple that everyone thinks of when they
think of Angkor, if indeed they think of it at all. Its name is Ta Prohm. Huge creeping
vines cover a complex of altars and spires, with massive jungle trees towering all around.
The roots of the towering trees have forced the stone apart or else simply grown over it to
create an eerie effect. It really made it clear that what we were looking at was old. Not
just old in the sense that elderly relations would bore their grandchildren with stories
about it, but something truly ancient. The massive towering trees that are slowly tearing it
apart are not even close to the age of Ta Prohm itself.

‘You will like the next one, very special,’ said my driver, reading off a card that had been
issued to him by the tourist board.
It also included the helpful lines, ‘you want food?’ and ‘not far, not far’. By this time we
had seen the best that Angkor had to offer. We had visited about eight temples and were
by that stage feeling far less enthusiastic than we had been. The next one was actually
kind of boring by comparison to what we had just seen and I needed to take a piss, so I
headed off into the jungle. Standing there, doing what needed to be done, I noticed a
small mound of dirt just next to my right foot. I paused for a moment. What was it that
the Lonely Planet had said? Something about Cambodia being the most heavily mined
country on the planet? Something about there being four to six million landmines littering
the countryside? Something about not straying from the path under any circumstances
even around the monuments of Angkor? Even for a call of nature?

I froze. All around me were tiny little mounds of dirt. I hadn’t noticed any of them before
but, now that I looked, they were everywhere. I was standing in the middle of a minefield
in the Cambodian jungle. I very carefully took a step back, watching where I placed my
feet and being very careful to listen for a click or anything else out of the ordinary. Why
I felt it was important to hear the click when it would be immediately followed by the
bang I don’t know, but I wasn’t thinking in an entirely rational way. As I made my way
back to the temple with excruciating slowness, a small child came up to me in the jungle
and started to dance in little circles around me.
‘Hello, hello!’ he sang happily.
I watched his feet narrowly missing several of the small piles as he danced and I hissed at
him to stop. He looked a little confused and hurt so I felt it best to explain myself.
‘Mines!’ I whispered, as if a single noise might set one off.
He laughed when he saw what I was pointing at, and with a broad grin on his face he
kicked one of them as hard as he could.
‘Ants!’ he said, and skipped off into the jungle again.
I wiped the sweat from my brow and looked around to see if anybody had seen, before
walking back to the motorcycles.




                                            50
                              4
                A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE THINGS

                                   THAILAND

Bangkok
The border at Poipet was crowded, hot, and dusty. Thousands of people cross there every
day, but there was even more of a hold-up than usual when I attempted it. This was
because of the SARS epidemic. There were medical officials behind tables, handing out
forms that asked about symptoms. Beck had never fully recovered from whatever it was
she had picked up in Vietnam, although the effects came and went. The glands on her
face were a little swollen, and so when she filled out the form she dutifully ticked off
what was wrong with her, to the best of her knowledge.
‘What are you doing!?!’ I hissed as I ticked off NO to every suggested symptom.
‘It’s important,’ she whispered back, ‘I don’t want to infect everybody if there is
something wrong.’
We had received an email from Banga and Mel who had flown back into Bangkok before
heading home, and they told us of the strict quarantine measures that were going around.
People at the airport were all wearing face masks and they told stories of suspected SARS
cases being detained for up to two weeks in border camps.
‘They won’t let you in. Besides, the doctor in Vietnam told you it was tonsillitis. You
don’t have SARS!’
The official sitting opposite watched us with some interest, and I realised I was talking
much too loudly. Beck handed in her form and he looked over it.
‘Come with me please,’ he said and with that he led her away from the table and off into
a restricted building behind him.
I didn’t know what to do, so I went and joined the queue that got my passport stamped.
Christian was in line just in front of me.
‘So where’s Beck?’ he asked.
‘Um. About that. I think maybe you should just forget about her. Move on with your life.
I don’t think she’s coming back…’
At that exact instant, Beck came back. She was wearing a surgical mask and she calmly
got in the queue behind us.
‘He said I have to wear this for two weeks. It’s hot though. I can barely breathe.’
‘All the time? I mean you have to eat…’ Christian protested.
‘I’ll wear it for a while anyway.’
She took it off as soon as the minibus pulled away from the border.

The trip from Poipet on the border of Cambodia, into the heart of Bangkok, was fairly
short, but when we arrived we discovered that our van could get nowhere near Khao San.
It was the Thai New Year, and the Songkran festival was in full swing. The festival is
basically a five day, city-wide water fight. Utes drove past us, overloaded with entire
families carrying water guns, or buckets. They scooped water from huge metal barrels
and threw it over passers by, or at other utes also filled with people. It was absolute


                                           51
madness. Our driver circled around several times, but could not get close to Khao San
and finally he just stopped and pointed.
‘That way,’ he said, and we all got out and picked up our packs.
Crossing the road, buckets of water came flying past, most barely missing us. As we got
closer and closer to Khao San, the fighting intensified. It wasn’t just the Thais who were
in on the act. The backpackers of Khao San had formed a resistance movement, arming
themselves with weapons, that were being sold up and down the length of the road. It was
so packed that when we finally got to the start of the road, it was almost impossible to
move. We had made our way about ten metres, becoming completely soaked in the
process, when we heard a voice to our right.
‘This way. Come inside quickly!’ it said, and we looked over to see a short, round Thai
man gesturing for us to come in under a half closed metal shutter.
We did as he said and ducked under, finding ourselves in a dark little guest house, filled
with relatively dry staff, all peering out into the street.
‘You need a room?’ he asked, gesturing to our bags.
We told him we did and he gave us two very simple rooms for a fairly good price. I had
been thinking that we would have a lot of trouble finding a place to stay. It was hard
enough normally, as I always seemed to arrive in Bangkok at strange hours, but this was
as easy as it had ever been. Within five minutes, we were out on the streets in our very
worst clothes (and being backpackers, they were pretty bad) and using our soggy money
to buy some one litre water guns. With guns in hand, we were suddenly bigger targets
than ever and there was nowhere to run. It took a minute or so to move about twenty
metres down the street, and we were under heavy fire. We were outnumbered and were
finally forced to retreat into a restaurant. It was more of a beer garden, being entirely
outdoors, with a bar in the centre. We hadn’t eaten yet so I ordered a burger, but being in
a restaurant didn’t save us from the water fight. When my food finally arrived I had to
keep diving across my plate to protect it from being soaked. Seeing these efforts, two of
the waiters finally came up with a massive tub of water filled with ice and poured it all
over my head as I ate.
‘Damn you all!’ I cried, leaping to my feet with nipples as hard as diamonds and shooting
at them as they ran laughing into the kitchen.
In most situations, if the staff of the restaurant where you’re eating were to pour a tub of
ice water on your head while you’re trying to enjoy your meal you probably wouldn’t eat
there again. In fact, you’d probably demand to see the manager. However, I had already
seen the manager of this particular establishment. He was wandering around with a
massive water gun and a five litre tank strapped to his back, shooting his customers at
random and for this reason I decided not to draw any more attention to myself.

It wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the festival in any case. Although most of the
backpackers were getting into the spirit of things, there were some who took offence.
They stopped and screamed at anyone who so much as splashed them, which of course
was only inviting a soaking, after which they would scream some more. It wasn’t just
farangs who were being mean spirited about the whole thing. Another aspect of the
festival is having a kind of white dye smeared onto the body by passers by, usually on the
face. It seemed to be some sort of blessing. Unfortunately, some young Thai guys had
decided to add Tiger Balm to their mixture and then smeared it across the mouth and eyes



                                            52
of farangs as they passed. For those who don’t know what Tiger Balm is, it’s a very hot
cream, used to ease muscle ache, amongst other things. But when smeared in the wrong
place, it burns like crazy. The first time it happened I turned to Johan screaming;
‘Shoot me in the face! Shoot me in the face!’
He didn’t need to be told twice, shooting his gun at my head with a scary lack of
hesitation.

Buying beers from the 7-11, we managed to hook up with a whole bunch of farangs who
had holed themselves up in the front of the New Siam hotel. There were several pillars to
hide behind and retreating indoors was always an option if too much firepower came
along. The water fights were strictly an outdoor activity, a rule which nobody broke. Our
group got bigger and bigger as the night went on and people had more and more to drink.
It was like a reverse war. Instead of shooting at people to make enemies, we shot at them
to make friends. Once we’d had a brief skirmish with somebody, we would sit down and
have a beer, telling each other our stories. It was as if the entire city was just one
enormous drunken party. There was no real violence anywhere, and everybody spoke to
everybody else. It was a wonderful experience. On our way home, after exhausting the
last of our soggy, disintegrating baht, we found that the crowd had stopped moving. They
were all standing still and looking up at the top floor of a window across the street. Two
girls stood looking out as the whole street cheered. I wondered what all the fuss was
about until one of them lifted her top up and exposed her breasts. I guess I was drunk
because I started cheering along with everyone else. This went on for a bit, much to the
excitement of the crowd in the street below. The show went on for half an hour or more,
getting more risqué every minute, as thousands of people stood below cheering their
every move. Johan and I went to bed, glad that things such as Songkran happened in the
world.

The next morning the fighting went on. I was prepared to take a bit of a break, but Johan
got itchy feet after a while and went to the front door of the guest house to shoot people
like a little coward before running back inside. The up side of this was that he met the
two girls who were so eager to expose themselves to the appreciative street and they told
him to be at the Narcissus night club that evening. He came back looking smug and told
me the story, confident that if they were prepared to show the entire street what they had
to offer, then he was pretty much assured of some kind of private show. We decided to go
and get some food somewhere off Khao San because, of all the things I felt like eating,
none of them were good wet. Beck and Christian had moved off Khao San entirely, and
were staying on Soi Rambutri, where I had stayed when I first arrived in Bangkok. We
had to stick to back streets, sneaking into the alley behind our hotel by ducking out
through the manager’s living room. We ran, keeping close to walls and hiding in shops
whenever armed men went by. I had decided to try and keep dry for as long as possible,
and when we finally arrived, about half an hour later (it’s a five minute walk under
normal circumstances) we saw Beck and Christian walking out of their hotel, strutting
like a pair of actors in a Calvin Klein commercial.
‘Hey. You guys want to go get some food?’ I asked.
‘You’re dry!’ declared Beck loudly, ‘How did you get here?’




                                           53
Unfortunately, just two doors down from their hotel was an old Thai lady who cackled
like a witch every time somebody came past her. She had a barrel of water which she
kept cold with lumps of ice and chased everybody down the street with surprising
tenacity for someone of her age. As soon as she’d heard the magic word ‘dry’ she’d
snuck up behind me and before I knew it I got a bucket of icy water on my head.
‘That’s a shame. Anyway, let’s go eat,’ said Beck.
‘We’re meeting a friend of ours,’ Christian added.

We were sitting in the restaurant, trying to watch a movie, but it had been recorded in the
cinema and was almost impossible to hear. It had English subtitles, but they had
obviously been written by somebody who didn’t speak English. When the woman in the
car said to her date for the night ‘Would you like to come up?’ it was subtitled as ‘Would
you come on my tits?’. I gave up watching and looked around me. I was sitting next to a
guy called Howie. I had met him once, very briefly in Vietnam. He had travelled with the
Swedes for a while and had just arrived in Bangkok that afternoon. He was very tall, and
quite pale, with glasses. With that sort of skin tone, it was impossible to mistake him for
anything other than an Englishman.
‘Hey. How long are you travelling for?’ I asked, thinking small talk had to be better than
the movie we couldn’t follow.
‘Few more months. I’m going down to Malaysia soon,’ he said.
This was interesting. Banga and Mel had already gone, and the Swedes would be leaving
me very soon, so I was to be without a travelling companion. I hadn’t really thought
about it too much, but Malaysia sounded interesting.
‘Really? When are you going?’
Howie shrugged.
‘I’m going down to Lipé tomorrow I think, and then on from there.’
I hadn’t thought about Lipé either, in fact I didn’t even know where it was. It turned out it
was an island on the south western coast of Thailand. Very small and quite near the
border with Malaysia, but still with just enough tourist infrastructure to not make it too
frustrating to get too.
‘Would you mind if I came down and met you in a few days? I’d like to do Malaysia as
well…’
He thought about it for a second. I could hardly blame him for hesitating, I was sitting
there with a Chang in one hand and a water gun in the other, with tiger balm smeared
across my mouth.
‘Sure,’ he said finally, ‘that’d be good!’
So I was going to Malaysia. Good to know.

                                         *****

'Let me see your war face! Aurgh!' Johan screamed at the bemused Thai on the street.
He had been drinking quite a lot and had somehow got certain phrases from Full Metal
Jacket stuck in his head. The Thai wandered off, taking a few shots at me as he passed. It
was the second last day of the festival. We had been pretty much continuously fighting
for three days and we had no idea when it was going to end. Everybody we asked had a
different opinion.



                                             54
'This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine...' Johan was shouting to
nobody in particular.
He said it with such enthusiasm that it had been funny the first few times. However, this
was the forty sixth time I’d heard it that hour and it was losing its charm. We were sitting
around on the balcony of Christian and Beck’s hotel soaking everyone who went past
using a hose hooked up to the kitchen sink. It had all become fairly routine by now.
People walked past, allowed us to soak their back and front, and then continued on their
way with a tip of their sodden hat. My gun had broken so I used Beck's pistol, which had
three independently aiming nozzles. This was all well and good, but the power of the
thing was similar to a gnat taking a leak. Sitting there along with the Swedes was a
Canadian named Jason. He was a nice enough guy and spent a lot of the day trying to
chat up a girl from Seattle who wanted all of us to know that the guy she was with was
her brother and that she needed more 'company' than her brother. Her brother being the
guy she was with who was not her boyfriend. He was her brother. And she wanted some
other 'company' than him. Just as Jason was coming to grips with this difficult concept he
saw a Japanese woman walking past and turned the hose onto her. This was the same girl
that he had hit three or four times that day and she was growing increasingly impatient
with the whole thing. She stormed up the stairs, furious, and slapped Jason hard across
the face before continuing on her way. This was definitely not in the spirit of Songkran
and in order to teach her the true meaning of the Thai New Year, Jason turned the hose
on her again. As she screamed abuse at him in Japanese, a South African guy came past,
chasing after a girl.
‘I’m sorry. Let me buy you a drink!’ he insisted, but she ignored him.
‘I didn’t know!’ he called after her but she was gone around the corner.
‘Shit!’ he added and then turned around and noticed us.
‘That girl, she was just robbed in the street and I poured a bucket of water on her. She
wasn’t having a good day and I made it worse,’ he said by way of explanation.
It appeared that things were starting to fall apart. We had heard of people who had been
killed on motorcycles when they lost control after being hit with hoses and water bombs.
Apparently Songkran had the highest road fatality rate of the year for Bangkok. At least
five people a day died just around the Khao San area, or so we were told by a very
unreliable source. Now people were being robbed amongst all the confusion as well. It
was starting to get dark, and the hose had been turned off by the cook in the restaurant
who decided we’d wasted enough water by now. So we went out again, but it was too
much. The festival was running out of steam and it was time to call it a night. I was
leaving the next day for Lipé, and I wouldn’t see the Swedes again. On the way to the
hotel, Khao San was still very crowded, and when we were almost home three guys
picked Johan up and dumped him into a big oil drum filled with water.
‘Help me!’ he screamed as they tried to force him under the icy water, but I just laughed.
One of them came over to me.
‘You laugh instead of helping your friend? You’re next!’


Lipé
So I was alone for the time being. The Swedes had all left after a sad farewell and I was
planning to make my way down south in search of Howie. I had had no emails from him,



                                            55
but assumed that if I got myself to Lipé I would be able to contact him somehow. That
was my first mistake. I went to the Southern Bus Terminal in Bangkok, hoping to get a
bus down to Satun. It appeared that getting to Lipé was a bit of a rigmarole. I would have
to get a bus to Satun, then a taxi to Pak Bara, and then the ferry to Lipé. With any luck I
could do it in one day, although it meant crossing half the length of the country. At the
Bus Terminal, everything was written in Thai script, so that I could have been standing in
front of a sign that said, 'Tickets to Satun, you stupid farang’ whilst asking locals where
to buy a ticket to Satun. Finally one pointed behind me.
'Right there, you stupid farang,' he said in a friendly tone.
There were several more communication problems but I was pretty sure I had the right
ticket. The problem was, the ticket was all in Thai script as well so I wasn’t completely
sure of my destination. So after more gesturing and standing around in front of a Thai
sign that read, 'The bus is right in front of you, you stupid farang. What the hell is wrong
with you people anyway?', I finally boarded my bus. Then as we got underway they put
on a Thai movie. It was about a very effeminate kung fu expert who came into a town run
by hoodlums. He kicked them a lot, and there were some zombies, and a big water
buffalo racing sequence. After this the comic relief guys got into drag and pranced
around for a bit, but kept getting attacked by zombies. Then the hero got decapitated, but
because he was holding a clay head of some sort he was all right and he rode the buffalo
around holding his head and managed to save the day and get the girl. Unfortunately he
then turned into a bad special effect and floated off into the sky whilst a corny love song
played. It was the best martial arts, comedy, romance, drag-act, drama, zombie flick I've
ever not understood in the slightest.

Satun is a very small and incredibly boring town. The buildings are all drab, concrete
constructions and a farang seemed to be a rare enough sight to warrant a lot of staring. I
considered staying the night, but there were very few hotels and even fewer forms of
entertainment. So when I arrived, fifteen hours after leaving Bangkok, I immediately took
a taxi to Pak Bara in an old American muscle car. There was a crowd of taxi drivers
waiting around just outside the local 7-11, presumably because they realised that any
backpackers that do visit Satun will flock to it. They were right. After negotiating a price
with their front man, I was put in a car with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English.
He placed a brown paper package tied up with string between us and didn’t say a word
for the whole trip.
‘A few of your favourite things?’ I asked, gesturing at the package and trying to make
light of the situation, but he only glared at me.
I was glad when we arrived and I managed to get on a ferry for Lipé after waiting only an
hour or so. By this stage I was exhausted, having not really slept for thirty hours or more.
It was on the ferry that I had met a middle-aged Canadian who ran a dive school on Lipé.
We were out in open water, passing several small, green, and apparently uninhabited
islands. There seemed to be a lot of them on the west coast and I was enjoying the view
when he sat down next to me.
‘So have you been to Phuket?’ he asked me.
‘No. I heard it was filled with German sex tourists. I don’t really like to see that.’
This was perhaps an unfair write-off of the place, but it was what I had been told. The
Canadian looked a little surprised.



                                            56
'Oh. Well I always have a good time when I go to Phuket. And the sex tourists can be
quite funny to watch,' he said.
'I find it disturbing more than funny,' I said snootily, like an uptight nun, 'The really old
guys and the very young girls. It's not good.'
This seemed to offend him slightly, and it then occurred to me. This was a pretty old guy
in front of me. Did I just insult him? Apparently I did, because he went on to describe
how the sex trade works and how it wasn't such a bad thing after all.
‘Thai people don’t have the same attitude to sex as Westerners. They’re not so uptight.
It’s just a job to them,’ he said defensively.
I shrugged, conceding the point because I didn’t want to argue it. He was getting quite
worked up and he’d obviosuly noticed that I wasn’t convinced.
'Look, back home when you take a girl out and buy her dinner or take her to a show or
whatever, why are you doing that?’
'Because I enjoy her company and want to spend time with her?' I suggested tentatively.
'Wrong, buddio! It's because you want to get laid! In the Phillipines it's the same, but the
girls acknowledge it. You buy them an apartment to live in and come up on the weekends
for a servicing!' he continued, ‘Now what is the difference between that and buying a girl
a meal or something?’
I shrugged.
‘I guess you’re right. There is absolutely no difference between hiring a prostitute as part
of your full-time staff and taking a girl out to dinner,’ I said.
The Canadian smiled.
‘Exactly.’

When we arrived at the island after this enlightening chat, I saw that it was very small
indeed. The only other person on the longtail with me as we went ashore was a Thai
bartender who called himself Bob.
‘I work at the Jumping Monkey Bar,’ he said, ‘You should come down tonight once
you’ve got yourself a place. It’s at the far end of the beach.’
His English was very good, and I told him I would be there later that night. After finding
a place, I had a quick look for Howie. Lipé is a very small place, only a few kilometres
long, and there are only three main tourist beaches to stay on, so I figured I had to run
into him eventually in some beachfront restaurant. As I wandered around I realised that I
was in some sort of paradise. My bungalow was right on the sand, with just a few steps to
the ocean, which was so clear I could see several metres to the bottom. It was a quiet,
nearly deserted island with white sand beaches on the shoreline and lush jungle inland. I
saw only about twenty people on the whole beach. I was out in the middle of the ocean
without a care in the world on an island that looked like a postcard. Just as it was getting
dark I realised that I had come to the Jumping Monkey Bar. It was a small place, just a
small bar on the sand with a fridge behind it and a few mats lying on the beach. It did
have a monkey, however. He was standing on top of a dead palm tree stump, chained up,
and jumping up and down in time to the music. The bar was aptly named then.

Bob saw me and called me over.
‘Simon! You want a beer?’ he asked, cracking one open without waiting for a response.
I sat down on one of the bar stools (palm tree stumps) next to another Thai guy.



                                             57
‘This is Mos,’ Bob said, and we shook hands.
‘Hey Simon. You enjoying Lipé? It’s very beautiful,' Mos said, with English that was
even better than Bob’s.
I was beginning to feel a little inadequate, as my Thai extended only as far as saying
please and thank you.
‘You speak very good English,’ I said to Mos and he seemed pleased.
‘Thanks. I had to learn in order to get my new job. I work as a tour guide, taking people
out around the reefs here.’
That explained it then. He had to speak English because he was a tour guide. I felt a little
better about my own lack of linguistic skill.
‘How long have you been learning?’
‘Six months or so. A little less. I just pick up whatever I need to know from my
customers.’
I couldn’t believe it. Bob smiled when he saw my look of amazement and opened me
another beer, despite my current one still being half full. We chatted for a bit longer, with
Bob trying to force feed me drinks, before he finally got bored and went off behind the
bar to pull some bongs.
‘Do you want a smoke?’ Mos asked but I shook my head.
‘Nah. I’ve alreashy had too mush too drinksh,’ I said, my own English by this stage being
far worse than Mos’s.
‘Yeah. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow and take a group out, so I’m going to bed,’ he
said, standing up.
‘I’m gonna sleepsh too. I had a long daysh. Sheeya tomozza, Bob. Ish been reeeeaal!' I
slurred, but Bob was beyond replying.
'Goodnight, Simon,' Mos said, 'May flights of angels guide you to your rest as you
wander this lonely beach in search of your home.'
'Shtop showin off, you bashtad,' I replied, pitching face first into the sand.

                                         *****

The biggest problem with Lipé was the lack of good places to eat. There were a few
restaurants, but they didn’t have that much choice. It would have been great if I’d felt like
rice with stir fried dead something and vegetables, but not if I wanted anything else of
any kind. The island was about to close down for the wet season as well, and so supplies
of a lot of things were running out. I was trying to be a vegetarian and this was not
making it easy. I usually ate one meal a day and didn't enjoy it very much. I spent most of
my time sitting in my hammock and occasionally I walked around the island. This
involved hauling myself up makeshift rope ladders to get over parts of the headland, but I
never saw Howie anywhere, and there were no internet facilities anywhere on the island.
I had resigned myself to spending my time on Lipé alone. Mos and Bob had left on the
second day for Tarutao with a bunch of tourists. They weren't coming back. This was a
pity, as they were a lot of fun, but I held back my emotions and wished them luck.
'See you then. Have fun,' I said to Mos.
He nodded.
'Parting is such sweet sorrow...'
'Oh shut up!' I snapped.



                                             58
In the centre of the island was a village filled with locals. It was not there for tourists, it
was there in spite of tourists. They were there long before the resorts and dive schools
were set up, and lived their lives in much the same way they always had. It was just on
the outskirts of this village that I found a place called Pooh's. After farewelling Bob and
Mos I had a green curry there, which was the best food I'd had in ages, and while I was
eating a waiter came and sat opposite me.
‘You are from?’ he asked.
‘Australia,’ I replied.
He nodded, but it didn’t seem like he knew where that was.
‘I am Noi. I drink whisky,’ he said, after much thought.
I held up my bottle.
‘I am Simon. I drink beer.’
Noi nodded and stood up. I thought maybe I had said something to offend him but he
soon came back carrying a beer. I looked at my own and it was still half full again. It
appeared that on Lipé, getting home sober was going to be difficult. He kept getting me
beer whenever I finished one, and it turned out his English wasn't good enough to
understand me if I refused.
‘I don’t want another one,’ I said and he stopped and looked at me.
‘No beer,’ I said.
He cocked his head to the side like a curious bird.
‘I don’t want a beer.’
He smiled and finally seemed to understand, but then he rushed off to get me a beer
anyway. I looked around the bar as I waited for my unwanted beer to arrive. When I had
arrived on Lipé it was nearly deserted, but every day had brought more and more people.
Most of them were Thai package tourists who stayed in the resort a few doors down from
my place, and the beach was starting to get crowded. There was a large group of them in
the corner now and when Noi returned with my beer he kept glancing in their direction.
‘You want to talk to them? Go. I don’t mind,’ I said.
He shook his head.
‘No. I talk to you.’
We sat there in silence for a minute or more, until finally he stood up.
‘You come with me,’ he said.
I looked over at the table. There were about ten Thai couples, sitting around and
laughing, speaking rapid Thai to each other. It wasn’t really my scene.
‘Wait. I go ask,’ Noi said and ran over to the table.
They had a long discussion and he pointed back at me several times. I could tell from the
looks on their faces that the holidaying Thais were not too keen on the idea. Finally Noi
came back over.
‘You stay here,’ he said, and then wandered back and sat with the group.

I was just about to leave when another Thai guy sat down opposite me. I wondered who
he could be, but before I could ask he introduced himself by pointing to the sign outside
the restaurant.
‘I am Pooh.’
He opened a beer and handed it to me, and I placed it next to my other two unfinished
beers. This enforced drunkenness on Lipé was starting to play havoc with my liver. I



                                              59
realised, as a backpacker, it was my duty to drink dangerous quantities of alcohol but this
was too much.
‘You know. You could have stayed here,’ he said.
‘Oh! You have bungalows?’
Pooh shook his head.
‘No. Could have done but don’t. The local people stole my land. I paid for twice as much
as I have but they won’t give it to me. So I can build no bungalows.’
From where we were sitting I could see the outskirts of the local village. All of the other
establishments were well away from them, but Pooh’s was only a matter of metres. I
didn’t blame them for not wanting him to expand.
‘Can’t you get the money back? Or make them give you the land? You paid for it.’
He shrugged.
‘I paid, but I don’t want trouble with the locals. It is worth more than land. This is their
home.’
I liked that attitude. Anywhere else in the world the owner would have called in the
police and had the land taken by force, but Pooh was philosophical about it. It was their
home after all, something that a lot of developers don’t seem to understand or care about.
Not that I could think of this kindly looking Thai guy before me as a developer.
‘You want to lift some weights?’ he asked, opening a beer and sliding it across to me
before I had even taken a sip of the previous one.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to such a question so I just nodded, and he led me over to an
old weights machine.
‘Sit down,’ he said, and I did so.
‘How much weight do you want?’
The last thing I felt like doing after being on a constant beer drip all night was to lift
weights but Pooh seemed to think it was the most natural thing in the world.
‘Ten kilos?’ I said, unsure of what a good response would be.
‘I’ll give you thirty.’
And so I found myself having a conversation about land rights whilst doing weights at
two in the morning with a man named Pooh. I was glad when he had his son drive me
home on a massive dirt bike, roaring down the beach and through the surf, spraying water
everywhere. It seemed a fitting ending to the proceedings. It had been a surreal evening.

                                         *****

One morning I was awoken by a huge electrical storm just off shore, with forked
lightning stabbing down into the ocean from masses of swirling grey cloud. One flash
every two or three seconds lit up the beach and the palm trees as they swayed in the wind.
It was still dark outside, and I’d decided to leave because I could see the storm on the
horizon, and the ominous grey clouds seemed to be coming straight towards the little
island. The swell was making the normally flat ocean very choppy. I was soaking wet, as
a hole in my bungalow roof had been leaking water directly onto my bed during the
night, so I went and sat on my hammock and watched as the sun came up on this gloomy
scene.




                                            60
It turned out that a lot of the other farangs were leaving too, and we all looked out at the
sea warily. We had been told that longtails would not run when it was that choppy, but
the guest house managed to track down a guy for us. Mad Dog, I think his name was. So
we walked out into the pelting rain and waded into the sea, throwing our backpacks onto
the front of the boat and clambering on. I was the last one on, and couldn’t fit under the
makeshift tarp that had been strung up. Our bags were completely exposed and the rain
started to come down harder. We had to take the longtail a few beaches around to get to
the ferry and a couple of times it dipped so low after the crest of a wave that water
washed in over our bags. Then it dipped low on the other side and water washed in over
me. I threw myself to the bow of the boat, arms spread wide.
'Is that all you've got, you bastard! Is that the best you can do?' I screamed at the
tumultuous skies, much to the amusement of the driver.
When we finally got to the ferry, soaked to the skin, one of the Canadians (there was
always at least one, everywhere I went) pointed to something at the stern of the boat.
‘What’s that?’ she said, squinting through the rain.
There were flashes of intense white light coming intermittently from the back of the boat.
I was sitting in the front and could see what it was as we got closer.
‘It’s a welding torch. They’re welding a panel onto the back of the boat!’
And they were. Some last minute repairs were taking place to the hull of the boat.
‘I don’t want to get on a boat that they’re repairing!’ said one of the girls.
‘Well I’d rather they repaired it than have us sink on the way,’ I replied.
She couldn’t argue with that logic and followed me on. Once we were on board and
safely under cover, I opened my pack to find some dry clothes, but it was filled with
water. I had to pour it off the back of the boat and my things were all sopping. There
didn't seem too much point exchanging wet clothes for other wet clothes so I sat down
next to an unfortunate German man and began to form a puddle on the floor. Suddenly I
realised I had forgotten something. I had been so eager to pack and make the boat that I
had forgotten the most important thing.

Where exactly was I going?


Hat Yai to Kuala Perlis
I had been in Hat Yai for two nights and the most interesting thing I had done was fill out
a survey in an old FHM magazine called ‘Are you an utter joke of a man?’. Although I
received extra points for having fired an AK-47 in Cambodia (for this is apparently what
real men do) it appeared that I was indeed an utter joke of a man. I was relieved when I
finally received an email from Howie. He told me that he had gone to Ko Phi Phi instead
of Lipé, but would now meet me in Satun and we could go to Malaysia. I’d gone to Hat
Yai because I thought it might be more interesting than Satun but this wasn’t the case.
Hat Yai is a very similar town to Satun in that it is incredibly boring and holds nothing of
any interest for the average traveller. It’s bigger, and more polluted, but beyond that it has
very little charm, so I was quite happy to be leaving. The travel agent at my hotel had told
me to get down to the station and order a minivan, which was exactly what I was doing.
'One hundred and twenty baht,' said the man behind the counter.
That didn’t sound right to me.



                                             61
'I was just told sixty five by the travel agent.'
He shrugged with a 'do I look like I give a crap what the travel agent told you?' look on
his face. So I paid him. One thing that Cambodia had taught me was that it really didn’t
matter if I paid three dollars or five dollars, because back home everything would cost ten
times that amount anyway. And this money was going to a very good cause. It would be
getting me the hell out of Hat Yai. True, it would be taking me to Satun, a town I had
only just left a few days before and one that was so dull I had considered euthanasia, but
it was a step in the right direction. After I had paid and he had tucked away all the
money, I was informed that I would in fact be taking a bus.
'A bus! I said I wanted a share taxi!' I said in that utterly impotent way that only an utter
joke of a man can manage.
He shrugged with an 'I've already got your goddamn money now get out of my office
before I have you beaten and killed in an alley' look on his face. So I took the public bus
to Satun, paying three times what it was worth.

When I finally arrived in Satun, I was the last person on the bus, but the driver didn't
decide to stop. He just kept driving, and it was only because I had been there before that I
knew to get up and ask him to let me off. So I wandered the streets of Satun, cursing that
I had been in any way excited about coming to such a crappy little town. Then I saw, in
the distance, something that could only be Howie. I had seen no other farang in town on
my last two visits, and certainly no other farang who would be wandering around in blue
floral shorts. So I had a travelling companion again.

                                         *****

‘We need to get to Tammalung. According to this book we can get a boat to Kuala Perlis,
just over the border and then carry on to Penang on another bus.’
I nodded. I had been reading the same book.
‘According to that book, we can get to Penang on a bus directly from Hat Yai.
Remember. Where I just came from to meet you…’
I had learnt several things about Howie. Firstly, he was from England, not too far from
London and nineteen years old. Secondly, to my great relief we got on very well and
shared a similar sense of humour. The third thing I learnt about Howie after travelling
with him for a day or two was that he farted pretty much consistently throughout the day
and night. I would estimate he expelled, in one night, a similar amount of methane as a
medium sized pig farm does in an hour. In this case though, the execution was an art
form, and I got the entire range of expulsions. There were squeakers, quackers, roaring
bulls and the ever popular 'silent but deadly'. The fourth thing I learnt was that he finds
farts incredibly funny. Which is of course very useful as he is constantly able to keep
himself entertained. The fifth thing I learnt was that when it came to organising what we
were doing next, he was about as useless as I was. I had, up until that point, travelled with
people who more or less knew what they were doing. This meant that they could
therefore tell me what to do with a bare minimum of effort on my part. Now that it was
left up to Howie and I to work it out on our own, it seemed a fair bet that those thousand
monkeys would type up the complete works of Shakespeare long before we worked out
how to get to Penang.



                                             62
                                        *****

We had been waiting at Tammalung pier for quite some time. We asked around where
exactly we could get the boat to Kuala Perlis and people always pointed vaguely to the
end of the pier. Whenever we walked down there, there seemed to be nothing but a bunch
of people sitting around and not doing anything. The only boat in sight was an old
wooden one, which seemed designed for fishing rather than transporting passengers.
Right near the end of the pier, we finally found a guy sitting at a table and looking
incredibly bored.
'Kuala Perlis?' we asked.
He nodded and sold us a ticket, but he didn't seem very happy about all that unnecessary
movement.
'When does the boat leave?' we asked.
He shrugged.
'Whenever enough people show up.’
We sat around for almost an hour but no more people did show up so they finally put us
onto what I had assumed was the fishing boat. The trip itself was quite nice and the boat
moved far faster than it looked like it was capable of. It stopped every so often next to
other fishing boats and people jumped on, although how our driver had any idea which
boat was which I don’t know. There were a lot of them and they were all exactly the
same. We soon arrived at Kuala Perlis, which has a modern looking pier attached to a
town as boring as Hat Yai and Satun combined into one horrible conglomerate mass of
urban apathy. Even finding some way to get stamped into the country was hard, and we
very easily could have just walked in, done whatever we wanted, and then returned to
Kuala Perlis and left without anyone being any the wiser. But we’d read about the
Malaysian tendency to hand out the death penalty for minor offences and so we decided
we should ask around until we found Customs. We ended up finding it in a small office
up a hallway and near an open sewer that ran along the length of the boatyard. The man
behind the counter looked extremely surprised to see us, but stamped us in for three
months, without asking any questions beyond, ‘How the hell did you find this office?’




                                           63
                            5
               A NEWFOUND HATRED OF POULTRY

                                     MALAYSIA

Penang- Georgetown
We’d been in Georgetown for a few days. Getting from the Malaysia/Thailand border to
Penang was a hassle, involving six different types of transportation and a fuck-load of
swearing. When we finally made it to the ferry that took us to the island of Penang, the
glowing metropolis in front of us was like a shining beacon of hope. After a full day of
travel, we’d made it. We took a room in Georgetown, on the north east corner of the
nearly three hundred square-kilometre island. Although Penang is known mostly for its
beach resorts, we’d both just come from the southern islands of Thailand (which have far
more to offer than anywhere on Penang), so we were after something a bit different. Our
room was in a section of Georgetown called Little India. Little India is only a small
section of Georgetown, a few blocks or so, and is situated right next to Chinatown, which
looks much like every other Chinatown I‘ve ever seen. I’d been to India before, several
years earlier, and I must say that Little India actually bears a striking resemblance to
some parts of its namesake. Walking down the street, it could almost be in Calcutta or
Delhi if it wasn’t for one or two very obvious giveaways. These are;

1. It’s clean and not nearly as crowded.
2. There’s expensive cars everywhere.
3. There are no cows.
4. There are no beggars.
5. There aren't rivers of shit flowing openly down the street.

The only thing I really missed were the cows.

We ventured out one day to look at Fort Cornwallis. Fort Cornwallis is a fairly small
British Fort set in the colonial section of Georgetown and only a short walk from Little
India, but the difference was extreme. Instead of nice, modest buildings there were huge,
official-looking buildings with impressive sandstone facades lining the streets, in front of
perfectly manicured lawns which were constantly being watered by sprinklers. It was this
section of Georgetown that we had seen from the ferry. After reading the signs relating
the history of the fort, and seeing the artillery I realised that Fort Cornwallis was a prime
example of the English Empire’s mentality towards its colonies. If you had enough forts,
enough canons lining the walls of those forts, and you killed just enough of the local
people to show them who’s boss without actually starting a rebellion, then by Jove,
anybody could be cultured!
‘Jolly good, Field Marshall Pondleson. Those bally Malays didn’t see that one coming.
Let’s retire for a cup of tea and a spot of buggery, what?’




                                             64
It was a very lazy couple of days. We got up, ate food and went to bed again. Beyond
that, the only thing I achieved over those few days in Penang was acquiring a new book
to read. Unfortunately the choice of books was fairly limited. We had found a second
hand bookshop directly above a meat and fish market, which smelt so bad and was so
large that it was hard to walk through without feeling ill. And when I emerged the book
in my hand was by a Mr Tom Clancy. I had never read any of his books before, but when
I began this one I felt the same queasiness at his overblown patriotism that I had felt
when walking through the market to get the bloody thing. So it was with great relief that
we entered the Reggae Pub (I am yet to find a tourist location in South East Asia that
does not have a Reggae Pub) later that night and ordered a beer.

This particular Reggae Pub was unusual in the fact that although the walls were covered
with pictures of Bob Marley, the music of choice seemed to be Britney Spears. As we
sipped on our beers, an old Malay guy came over to us.
‘Hello. You are from?’ he asked.
‘England,’ Howie said.
‘Australia,’ I added quickly, not wanting to be confused for a Pom.
‘You play pool in England? Or Australia? You want to play me?’
Neither one of us was a very good pool player, but the man before us looked to be about
sixty and fairly frail. I was positive that he was a pool shark. He was overdoing his
underdog act.
'I will pay for the first game. If I win, you pay for the next.'
It seemed fair enough but I was still positive that he was going to beat us.
‘We’re not very good,’ I said, but he waved aside my concerns with a shaky hand.
'I'm old. The old never win.'
It appeared that sometimes the old do win, because he beat us within five minutes or so.
‘Good game. Your turn. I got lucky.’
So we paid for another game as agreed, and this time he beat his own record, winning
within three minutes.
‘Well played, but a little boring,’ he said, ‘Would you care to make it interesting?’
I thought about what he could possibly mean by that. The only way to make boring things
more interesting in my experience was to drink more beer, but that would certainly not do
much to improve my pool skills.
’Twenty ringgit on the next game?’ he suggested.
I shook my head.
‘You’ve got it the wrong way around. First you let us win, then you ask to bet, then you
beat us.’
He smiled enigmatically.
‘I’m old,’ was all he said.

When we arrived back at our tiny room in Little India, I caught my reflection in the
mirror. The dreadlocks that I had gotten on Ko Pha Ngan had not lasted. The ends had
not been sealed and they’d unravelled all the way up to my scalp, so that all that remained
was a knotted mess on top of my head, with dirty strands of hair hanging from it.
‘Do you have any scissors?’ I asked Howie, and he handed a pocket knife over to me,
barely looking up from his book.



                                            65
I began to saw away at them, as close to the scalp as I could.
‘What are you doing?’ Howie asked.
‘I hate these things! It’s too hot!’ I declared, cutting more and more of them from my
head and throwing them down into the bin. When I was done, I turned to face Howie,
doing a little turn so he could examine my handiwork.
‘How do I look?’
He thought about this for a few seconds before replying.
‘Ridiculous.'
I let my shoulders slump in disappointment.
‘No! It’s a huge improvement!’ he insisted.

                                         *****

I had finally found a hair salon that had men’s prices up and waited my turn, skimming
through a copy of 'Female' magazine. When the hairdresser finally finished with the
ageing Malay woman who wanted her hair to be died an ugly shade of orange, he came
over, asking me what I wanted. I told him, as his English seemed quite good, but it turned
out that while he knew how to speak in English about hair, he knew nothing about
actually understanding the answers. He looked a little repulsed when he saw my festive
yuletide dandruff (it makes every day a white Christmas!), and started by shaving the
sides to almost bald. Interesting, I thought, and suggested he ease off a little. So he left
the back quite a bit longer. This had the interesting effect of making me look like I was
losing hair around the temples. Then he set to work on the top, cutting it short, and then
shorter again as he tried to even it up. Then a bit shorter because he stuffed it up, so he
took off a little more and then just a bit off the top to even out the other bits he'd just
evened out. I ended up with a regulation US marine crew cut. I looked in the mirror,
feeling absolutely ridiculous.
‘You like?’ he asked, seeming to stop not when the haircut was complete but rather when
he’d realised it was a lost cause.
Or because I’d run out of hair.
‘Fine!’ I said cheerily, standing up and walking out.

When I returned to the hostel, Howie was sitting at the table in the common room
opposite an exceedingly blond-haired man who looked strangely familiar, and a happy-
looking girl with long reddish hair.
‘This is my brother, Ed, and his girlfriend Rachel. They’ve just come from South
America and are going to travel around Malaysia with us,’ Howie said by way of
explanation.
He had mentioned that he might be meeting his brother, and I was only too happy for
them to be there.
‘So where do you guys want to go next?’ Rachel asked, but neither of us could offer a
response.
We had been in Penang for close to a week and had achieved nothing. Neither one of us
were motivated enough to get things done, so it was a great relief when Rachel said;
‘How about we go to the Cameron Highlands? We can get a ferry across to Butterworth
and catch a bus. They leave every hour.’



                                            66
Finally, someone organised enough to get us moving again.
‘Sounds good,’ I said, ‘Oh, and by the way, what do you guys think of the haircut?’
 ‘When you first came in I thought you were one of those psychos you always seem to
see in hostels…’ Ed said.

Off to a good start then.


Cameron Highlands
'Bus to Cameron Highlands! Over there!' screamed the official looking man in the blue
collared shirt with as much shock and rage as if he was saying,
'Oh my God! It's Tom Clancy with an M-16 slaughtering people indiscriminately whilst
wiping his arse with the Malaysian flag.'
I was a bit disappointed when I turned around to see nothing but an ordinary looking bus.
We each had two seats, as the Cameron Highlands were apparently not an excessively
popular destination, and so I settled myself down to read the aforementioned author’s
book. It wasn’t long before I noticed something quite disturbing about his work. He
seemed to relish descriptions of people's heads exploding into a 'red mist' whilst their
brains were spilt all over the ground by two rounds of 5mm hollow-point bullets fired at
high velocity from an HK-10 which has such good noise suppression that the report of
the bullet is actually softer than the sound of the bolt sliding on the reload mechanism.
But it helped to pass the time and soon enough we were driving through lush green hills
on winding roads. For some reason, the air-conditioning on the bus was far too cold and,
as we’d been dressed for Penang weather, we were all starting to shiver. The bus pulled
into the stop at Tamah Rata, which is the main backpacker town in the Cameron
Highlands, just five kilometres south of Brinchang. That distance could be covered by a
9mm sniper round fired from a Nightstalker helicopter in a little under half a second,
neatly taking apart a terrorist’s head and turning it into a fine red mist.

The highlands were far colder than we’d anticipated, and as soon as our bags were off the
bus we were tearing out jumpers, most of which had been packed into the very bottom
due to lack of use. The touts crowded around us, making it difficult to move, and they all
offered free lifts to various establishments. One seemed very much like the other when
reading the facilities and prices on the business cards, so we decided on one called
'Daniel's Travellers Lodge' which just so happens to be my brother's name. I agreed to it
on the off-chance that perhaps he had decided to forgo his university studies and had
instead opened up a small guest house operation in Peninsular Malaysia. This was not the
case but the place seemed nice enough anyway. One of the best things about it was the
inclusion of hot water in the room, something which had been lacking from almost every
other place I’d stayed in. It was very necessary as it was getting even colder as the sun
went down.

We were losing light fast, but decided to go and have a quick look around and see what
the town had to offer. Tamah Rata is a nice town. It’s small enough to have everything
within walking distance, but large enough to not get bored too quickly. The main street
looked like a beacon in the night, surrounded by the dark shapes of hills, and this gave it



                                            67
a feeling of isolation from its surroundings. But the streets themselves were far from
quiet. There was a myriad of restaurants, most of them open kitchens looking out onto the
street with some simple plastic tables and chairs set up. Most of the places served either
Indian or Chinese food and they did it well, as we discovered. Just next door to the Indian
restaurant that we ate at, was a small shop set up like a carnival stall, offering archery.
Cameras were mounted behind the targets and television screens offered a close up.
There was something about Tamah Rata which made the whole place feel very lively. It
was for tourists, clearly, but it was not overtly tacky. Besides, the town was just for
sleeping and eating in. The reason people came to the Cameron Highlands was to go
hiking, and that was exactly what we intended to do.

                                         *****

‘You going out ‘iking are ya?’ asked the cockney at our guesthouse as we passed.
‘Yeah. Just a short one to start with, we thought,’ said Ed, and the cockney nodded.
‘Sure, sure. You got yourselves a map ‘ave ya?’
Rachel, in her organised way, reached into her pocket and produced a hand-drawn hiking
map that we had purchased in the town. She handed it to the cockney and he looked at it,
shaking his head.
‘You know what? Best thing ya can do with this map is to chuck the bloody thing in the
bin,’ he said, handing it back to her.
‘Why?’ Rachel asked.
‘Cos it’s a load of shite is why. See those numbers on it? Well they don’t mean nuffin’.
You follow those numbers and you’ll end up walking right off a bloody cliff, mark my
words.’
I took the map from Rachel’s hands and had a look at it. As far as I could tell it wasn’t
even a map. The detail of the land formations was almost non existent. It was impossible
to tell the elevation, or the type of terrain, and it showed no landmarks or features. It
looked more like a join-the-dots puzzle for children. The best thing that could be
ascertained from looking at it was the vague direction we were supposed to head to get to
the next number, and considering that the numbers ‘didn’t mean nuffin’, and we didn’t
have a compass I was starting to see his point.
‘So what should we do?’ Howie asked.
The cockney shrugged.
‘Do what everyone else does. Go for a walk. Get lost. Swear a bit and wind up back ‘ere
eventually through sheer bloody luck.’
This was starting to seem like a bad idea, but as there was little else to do in the
highlands, we set off anyway.

Finding the start of the trail in the first place was hard enough, but when we finally did
and we followed it, it seemed to disappear after about ten minutes or so.
‘What about this way?’ Ed suggested, pointing towards some slightly flattened grass
which may have been a trail used primarily by largish rats, but at least seemed to
continue for a while.
So we took the trail. The tree coverage was minimal at that point, mainly being hills and
tough yellow grass, and I had forgotten to bring suncream. The fact that my white neck,



                                            68
which had previously been covered by mouldy strands of hair, was now exposed meant
that it was cooking like a piece of bacon. I walked along for a bit, suddenly feeling rather
hungry, until I realised that it was in fact my own flesh that was simmering in a salty
perspiration sauce. The trail finally stopped on top of another hill directly beneath an
enormous electricity pylon. We settled down on the concrete, and as its gentle humming
gave us all cancer we munched on chocolate bars and remarked on the beauty of the
landscape, and the unhealthy red colour of our skin. There is something very annoying
about becoming sunburnt whilst also being cold.
‘So now what?’ Rachel asked, optimistically looking at the map.
We had no idea. We wandered around the pylon, searching for anything that even
remotely resembled a path, but there was nothing to be found. So we made our own.
‘Well we need to go vaguely west, and the sun is over there, so if we walk this way we
should be all right,’ Rachel said, still clinging to the concept of the map.
It seemed as good an idea as any, although how she knew we needed to go west when we
had no idea where we were was not a question anybody bothered to ask.

‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’ Howie said finally, sitting down on a rock to rest.
Rachel shook her head.
‘No, we aren’t lost. We’re somewhere near number sixteen I think. You see this ridge?’
she said, pointing at the map.
We all peered at the map, pretending that we could see the ridge she was describing.
‘Well that should be the ridge over there.’
I sat down on the rock next to Howie.
‘What was it that cockney said? That we should go for a walk, get lost…’
‘Swear a bit,’ added Howie.
‘Right.’
‘Shit,’ said Howie.
‘Shit,’ I agreed.
We all sat in silence, looking up at the sun which had passed its zenith and was making
its slow way down towards the horizon.
‘We have to keep moving,’ Ed said, ‘We don’t want to be stumbling about in the dark.’
He was right of course, so Howie and I got to my feet, but not too enthusiastically.
‘We’ll we’ve gone for a walk, gotten lost, sworn a bit. Now all that’s left is to wind up
back at the guesthouse through sheer bloody luck,’ I said.

It was an hour or so later when we finally emerged onto a road and started walking down
it in completely the wrong direction. We finally came to a town and were greatly
relieved, until we realised that it was not Tamah Rota at all. We were walking past a golf
course when we discovered our true location. It was ‘Brinchang Golf Course’.
‘Hang on a second,’ Ed said, pulling out the Lonely Planet.
The first line of its entry in The Lonely Planet was, 'there is absolutely no reason to stay
in Brinchang'. This was discouraging, and so we sat around next to the golf course,
wondering exactly how our hike through the wilderness had ended up at such a place and
what exactly we should do now. The answer came just seconds later when a vehicle came
around the corner, heading towards us. I leapt to my feet and threw up my arm.
‘Taxi!’



                                            69
We walked back into the guesthouse, just as it was getting dark, and the cockney was still
sitting where we’d left him, although at some point he’d gotten himself a beer.
‘Ow’d ya go?’ he asked, smirking.
He could already see on our faces how it had gone.
‘We went for a walk, got lost, swore a bit and got a taxi back here,’ I said, trudging past
him towards my room.
‘A taxi? Where the bloody ‘ell were you?’
‘Brinchang,’ Ed said as he passed.
The cockney laughed out loud.
‘Good effort, my son! Best I’ve heard of in days!’
As we closed the door of our room we could still hear him talking to himself.
‘Blimey! Brin-bloody-chang! Ha!’

The next morning it was a miserable and rainy day, with further storms predicted and a
whole lot of wet drizzle pissing down on our tired little heads. In a manner that would
have infuriated Gene Kelly, instead of skipping around like idiots carrying umbrellas, we
rushed with our heads down towards the Tamah Rata bus station. Glorious feeling, my
arse! Happy again, I don't bloody think! Gene went back to his trailer and got changed
after shooting that scene. He didn't have to sit on a bus to Kuala Lumpur all day long, wet
and cold, with sub-zero air conditioning.


Kuala Lumpur
The bus station in Kuala Lumpur was a very depressing place. Incredibly hot, smelly, and
crowded. The various bus company stands were all manned by particularly irritable
women who looked like they'd rather tear our throats out and leave our lifeless bodies in
the middle of the bus station than sell us a ticket to Melaka at a competitive price.
Nevertheless, Ed and Rachel managed to get a ticket for an hour or so later and at this
point we left them. They had already been to Kuala Lumpur on their way up to see us and
where now heading to Melaka and then on to Taman Negara where we were planning to
meet up again. So for the time being, it was just the two of us again. We were pointed in
the right direction and set off towards what we hoped was Chinatown, where we intended
to stay. We marvelled at the sights as we passed. McDonald’s, 7-11, Burger King, Kenny
Rogers’ Roasters…
‘What the hell is Kenny Rogers selling chicken for?’ Howie asked me, pointing to the last
one.
I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question, but further down the street I saw a man
buying a burrito from Barbara Streisand and decided to let the whole thing slide.

Chinatown was, as it was in Penang, exactly like Chinatown anywhere else in the world.
Lots of red lanterns were strung across the streets and Chinese restaurants filled every
available space. A huge market selling pirate copies of everything imaginable occupied
the main street. In the distance, we could see towering office blocks, the CBD of Kuala
Lumpur. The city is a massive international business hub and it certainly looked the part.
Chinatown was filled with hotels that were far too expensive for us, but we eventually



                                            70
found a place called ‘Golden Plaza’ that proclaimed that it was 'Only for Backpackers'
and had the 'Cheapest Beer in Town'. It also had ‘Rooms Available’ and ‘Hot Water’. We
decided that any place that required the use of that many quotation marks couldn't be all
bad, so we decided to stay there. The only problem was that the front door was locked
with a huge padlock, and the door was a big sturdy iron looking thing. We rang the bell
but nothing happened for a while. We rang it again, and waited. We were about to leave
and gave it one more quick ring when an Indian guy came down, cautiously unlocking
the door and letting us inside. He proceeded to give us the full tour and then made it very
clear that we weren’t to let anyone in.
'The door is to be locked at all times,' he commanded us.
'Fair enough,' we replied.
He raised a finger.
'Don't let anyone in. For my safety, for your own safety, that key is for you only,' he
continued, handing it to us like a sacred relic.
‘Uh huh.’
'We can't just have strangers coming in off the street. There is no curfew, but you must
lock the door and if you bring anybody into the hostel then you will be asked to leave.'
'Okay,' we replied, carrying our bags towards our room.
'If even one of those bastards was to breach our security, the place would be overrun in a
matter of minutes. All hell would break lose. Life would be an agony of torment.'
At first we were a little concerned about what we had gotten ourselves into. What exactly
happened in Kuala Lumpur that necessitated so much security? Did the dead rise and
walk again in the streets of Chinatown? We relaxed somewhat when he was describing
the bathrooms to us. He just had a flare for being melodramatic.
‘When you have used the bathroom, you must be sure to flush it. Before you leave, no
matter what you do, flushing is vital.’
We nodded politely.
‘If I ever found that one of you didn’t flush the toilet then I would have no choice but to
throw you onto the street. Those bastards out there would eat you alive…’

                                         *****

The Light Rail Transit (LRT) pulled into the station and we got out. We were planning on
going up in the Petronas Towers and had been informed the day before that in order to do
so we would need to arrive at 8:30 in the morning. As far as I’m concerned, nobody
should be awake at such an ungodly hour, and I felt less than eager. We had spent the
previous day wandering around the city. The problem was that KL doesn’t seem to have
streets that run parallel to each other. Every street skews off at a slightly different angle
so that by the time we’d turned left and expected to be heading to our destination we
were walking in the totally opposite direction. We’d been using the twin Petronas Towers
as our point of reference, and were trying to get back to them because we knew that there
was a station underneath them. They are amazing looking buildings, the tallest in the
world, and joined together in the middle by a single corridor called the Skybridge. They
were hard to miss on the skyline, but for some reason we managed to circle them several
times without actually getting closer. Such is the nature of KL’s streets. It was like trying
to navigate through an Escher picture.



                                             71
It was the Skybridge we were visiting. We weren’t allowed on the top of the buildings,
and had to settle instead for the corridor, which is only about halfway up. So after riding
up forty five floors in about twenty seconds, we popped our ears and emerged onto the
Sky Bridge. The view from up there is quite spectacular, as it is in the very centre of the
CBD and offered great views in all directions. Just next to the base of the towers, there’s
a large park, and Howie and I stood, looking down, listening to the three Australians next
to us talking. They were looking down at an ankle-deep pond with black tiles on the
bottom.
'What is that?' the stupider girl asked.
'It's a pond,' replied the other.
The stupider girl pointed at the group of men cleaning the central tiles.
'The black tiles, I mean,'
'Yeah, it's a pond,' said the guy.
At this, the stupider girl looked mighty confused.
'But... but, how are they walking on water?' she gasped, as if witnessing a miracle.
The guy looked at her oddly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘They’re walking on the pond! How are they walking on water?’ she said, becoming
quite excited and loud.
The guy seemed lost for words, and he simply stood there for a few seconds.
'It's shallow,' he said finally.
‘Oh. These buildings are tall aren’t they?’
Howie couldn’t help but laugh. This was just more ammunition for his inflated sense of
English superiority over Australians. We had a friendly rivalry going on, and this was not
helping my case in the slightest. As we were leaving, I longed for one of the English
tourists to stand pushing at a door clearly marked ‘PULL’ for several minutes, but none
of them did.
‘Come on, you genetically inferior sub-human,’ Howie said, ‘Let’s go and see the Buta
Caves.’

The Buta Caves are very large and impressive caves where Hindu devotees go and once a
year hang weights off their bare skin with hooks to prove something or rather; possibly
that they're clinically insane. We got the bus there, just as our friendly (and paranoid)
hostel owner had described, and on arriving we saw a large mountain, jutting
incongruously out of the ground. Coming out of this was a long, wide set of steps, that
led up into a dark hole in the centre of the mountain, and I got tired just from looking at
it. It felt strange that this chunk of rock should exist, in the middle of such a flat
landscape and it almost looked artificial, as if it had been placed there for some reason.
As we came closer it was clear that the stairs were even longer than I had imagined. They
seemed to stretch on forever, coming to a tiny point near the very top as they entered the
darkness. Just as we arrived at the base of the stairs, a monkey came strutting towards us
with such confidence that I thought maybe he was collecting tickets, but upon seeing a
man selling peanuts he quickly diverted his attentions elsewhere. Feeling a little rejected,
we began to climb the steps, passing a few more monkeys who were coming the other
way by running down the banister.



                                            72
'Is it worth the climb?' I asked one.
He threw some excrement at me in response.
'Is that a no?' I persisted.
At the top, after what was surprisingly only two hundred and seventy two stairs, we saw
that the mountain opened up into a truly immense cave. The pigeons flying near the
ceiling far above gave a good sense of scale, as did the water dripping down. It took
several seconds before it hit the floor. The small holes in the ceiling let shafts of sunlight
come shining in, but there was something very artificial about the place. The floor was
paved and flat, and there were stairs everywhere to negotiate tricky areas. Monkeys were
also everywhere, and they had no fear of humans. Howie placed his water bottle on the
ground and it was nearly stolen while he was looking at a Hindu shrine in the corner. The
big caverns were mainly empty, with only the occasional shrine, usually secreted away in
a corner of the cavernous rooms. It was the natural aspects of the cave, rather than the
man-made ones that made it so amazing. We left when the monkeys began to circle us
and use group tactics, with some of them creating a diversion, while the others snuck up
behind. At the base of the stairs there was a bridge leading across a pond towards the 'Art
Gallery'. The pond was filled with fish, packed so closely together we had to look twice
to realise that they weren’t actually sardines. The occasional turtle also bulldozed his way
through the throng of fish, looking smug, as turtles so frequently are. The 'art' was
actually statues of all of the Gods and they were some of the creepiest things I've ever
seen. They were all about three quarters human size, and most of them were either cutting
off bits of themselves, or had green or blue skin and the heads of various animals or had
cobras coiling around them. There was a good whack of them that had more than their
fair share of arms. Of course all the family favourites were there, like Ganesh and
Hanuman, as well as the incomparable Shiva. All of this was contained within natural
cave formations and was quite impressive, but we were alone in the darkness, and we
kept getting the unnerving feeling that they were moving about when we weren't looking.
‘At least they’re doing it when we’re not looking,’ I said to Howie, ‘I don’t think I could
handle it if they did it in plain view.’
He agreed, and we made a hasty retreat.

                                          * ****

We decided to go to the Golden Triangle by LRT this time, in order to not get lost yet
again. We had hoped to find somewhere to have a few drinks as, although our hostel had
‘the cheapest beer in town’, it lacked atmosphere. Well actually it had plenty of
atmosphere but it seemed to be made up of about forty percent methane. But if I thought
our hostel lacked atmosphere then let me just say something about the Golden Triangle. It
is a monumental altar to the stupidity and greed of humanity, and it has some of the finest
shopping malls in the world. All of them right next to each other. Unfortunately, just as
we emerged from the station, the skies erupted into a downpour of biblical proportions. I
can only assume God was angry at all those false idols that were being worshipped by the
trendy consumers. After gathering two of every backpacker into the nearest shopping
mall, Howie and I were utterly soaked. We sploshed around the trendy interior, receiving
many strange looks from the Calvin Klein clad youths who reeked of Hugo Boss perfume
and had their hair filled with Loreal Paris designer mousse.



                                             73
'G'day. I'm an Australian!' I drawled, dripping with water.
Several of them backed off as if I might infect them with whatever disease it was that
made me dress the way I did. And in sandals! What was I thinking?!?
After some pointless wandering we were handed a card by one Mr Li, who (as the card
informed us) seemed to be quite good friends with several fine young ladies who were
looking to meet eligible young perverts who couldn't attract women to save their lives.
Despite fitting the bill perfectly, we declined the offer.
‘I don’t think I like the Golden Triangle,’ Howie said.
‘No. These people all have lots of money and good taste. It’s creepy.’
‘Although Mr Li seemed quite friendly…’

We got a taxi back to Chinatown, where we seated ourselves at an outdoor table and
ordered a few Changs. They arrived in a large ice bucket and we sat around watching the
world walk by. There were quite a lot of foreigners in Chinatown and most of them were
sitting at their own tables and watching, much as we were.
‘This is more like it. Cold beer and good company.’
Due to the ice bucket in which our beer had been placed, our beer did remain cold.
Unfortunately a drunk American guy came and sat at our table, ruining the good
company side of things.
'What the hell are you doing over here?' he asked us, loud enough that most of the street
turned to watch us.
'Well the islands in Thailand were getting a bit rainy and...'
'Not that! Why don't you get over there and pick up?' he demanded, gesturing at the two
girls across the street.
They could clearly hear every word he was saying and were now looking a little
concerned.
‘I'm thinking either those two and, if not, the ones behind are a back-up plan. Not as good
though. There's a guy there, could be a boyfriend or something. It’s easier to strike when
they're alone,' he said sagely.
'True,' I replied, 'Or you could just wait until they head down to the waterhole to drink,
and then pick off one of the weaker ones.'
He nodded, thinking perhaps that the euphemism between waterhole and pub made my
words anything other than sarcastic. I think he passed out a bit later, much to the delight
of the entire street.

It was time to keep moving.


Taman Negara
We found ourselves standing inside a small A-frame hut. I immediately took the bed with
the mattress, whilst Howie was left staring at the partially broken slats of the other bed.
'It's good for the back!' I declared, reclining luxuriously on my mattress, but Howie,
being a spoilt Westerner, insisted we get a room that had a mattress for him as well. We
had finally arrived in Taman Negara National Park, after a night spent in a little town
called Jerantut, just outside its borders. Jerantut is a fairly small town and is only used as
a starting-off point for most travellers on their way to the National Park. When we got off



                                             74
the bus from Kuala Lumpur there was only one tout hanging around waiting for us and
this put him in a very powerful position. He stood there enticingly offering a free ride, but
not putting too much pressure on us, until finally we agreed to go to his hotel. It seemed
wrong to only have one tout. Where was the sport in that?

Our hotel in Jerantut had lied to us and told us that we wouldn’t be able to get
accommodation unless we booked it first as everything was very full, and they suggested
many other tours and things we should sign up for before we left. Of course, upon
arriving (after a four hour journey upriver in a long boat) we discovered that this was not
the case at all. In fact, competition was quite fierce. The boat had pulled up alongside one
of many floating restaurants and we soon discovered that every single one of these
floating restaurants (there were about ten of them) offered the same services in
competition with each other. So we were paying too much for an A-frame hut with only
one bed. But Taman Negara was beautiful. We were staying not too far from the water’s
edge. Only one side of the river is allowed to have restaurants and hotels on it (the other
side is officially National Park) and as a consequence it had been ravaged. It looked like
it had been strip-mined, whilst the park side of the river was lush green jungle. The
restaurants were at the convergence of two rivers and locals in their longboats powered
around at all times of the day and most of the night. The non-national park side of the
river was a moonscape, although this seemed to be due to the fact that they were building
a massive resort into the side of the hill. They were literally cutting away large chunks of
it in order to create flat land to build on. Despite this, the pontoon restaurants that lined
the riverfront were very pleasant places to eat. The fact that they didn’t serve beer was
probably a good thing, as getting back to shore inevitably involved balancing across a
thin wooden plank. Although I had practiced this drunken skill over a pit of crocodiles in
Cambodia, I didn’t feel like pushing my luck.

We discovered that Ed and Rachel would not be arriving for a day or so, and wondered
what we should do with our time. Our main reason for being in Taman Negara was to go
on a trek, but there were plenty of other activities being offered. One of these was white
water rafting. It was not white water rafting in the traditional sense as the rapids were too
small for that, so instead we were offered an inner tube from a truck tire and set adrift.
The trip upstream in a longtail boat proved quite wet, as we had to power through all the
rapids we would later be coming back down, but there were long sections of nearly
stagnant water. The jungle on both sides of the river grew thick until finally we stopped
and our boatman told us to get out. I slipped our room key into my back pocket and did
up the velcro before jumping onto the tube. The current was very weak, and as our boat
took off up the river we wondered if we had made a mistake. It seemed there would be a
lot of paddling involved. We floated for a bit, but there didn’t seem to be any rapids for
quite some time and we were forced to lie on our stomachs and paddle. To help us along
we sang Beatles songs very loudly to establish some sort of rhythm. Looking up at the
hills surrounding the river, and the one hundred and thirty million year old rainforest that
covered them was quite a spiritual experience; or at least it would have been had Howie
not been screaming,
'C'mon, c'mon, c'mon baby now!'
'C'mon baby,' I added for good measure.



                                             75
‘Twist and Shout!' Howie screamed again.
‘Twist and Shout,’
‘Come on and move a little closer now!’ Howie shouted, drawing some strange looks
from the fisherman who had stopped in the middle of a wide section of river.
‘Move a little closer…’
‘We can work it all out!’ he said, and they waved their arms at us angrily.
'Work it all out, Hoooo!' I replied, lowering my voice when I saw the attention we were
receiving.
I’m sure that our flailing about as we tried to get to something resembling rapids and our
hideously off-key John-Paul-George-and-Ringo-ing lost them a day’s catch. They looked
at us with a mixture of bemusement and incredulity as we floated by them.
'Strawberry Fields for ever!' we declared haughtily as the rapids just beyond them finally
picked us up and we sped away into the white water.
Going over the final set of rapids I discovered exactly why our boatman had said ‘keep
your bum up’, when a pointed rock tried to invade my derriere. I cried out and reached
down, hoping that it wasn’t as bad as it had felt. It wasn’t, but then I discovered
something else. The key that I had slipped into my back pocket was gone.
‘Umm, Howie. I’ve lost our key.’
He was coming to expect things like this from me.
'You stupid Australian muppet!' he said angrily.
'It ain't easy being green and gold,' I replied.

                                         *****

All chickens must die! Outside our huts, wandering freely around were several hens and
a rooster. The rooster seemed determined to get a shag from either one or both of the
hens, but they didn't seem in any way interested. I didn't know chickens could fly as well
as they can, but when I make a move on a woman and she flies to the top of a tree
squawking I generally chalk it up to experience and leave it at that. This rooster was
determined and followed them around, making irritating noises that in turn made the hens
flutter away and make even more irritating noises. This went on all night, and when I
emerged from the A-frame the next morning I had a newfound and lifelong hatred of
poultry. Just as I was about to throw a stick up into the tree and was screaming, ‘I’m
gonna pluck you, you clucking egg-layers,’ Ed and Rachel walked up to the front door.
‘Hey! We found you!’ they said, giving me a very strange look indeed.
I nodded.
‘You sure did!’ I said as I let the stick drop from my hand, ‘I’m just going to go and put
some pants on…’

They were staying in a different hostel to us, further down and much more dilapidated.
‘It’s a lot cheaper than this place,’ Ed said, ‘But the toilet is a bit of a shit-hole.’
I considered this for a second.
‘They also have spy holes drilled into the walls. I had to plug them up with toilet paper,’
Rachel added.




                                            76
Despite this hostel sounding like a charming place to spend a few days, we decided that
we would get trekking immediately. Our plan was to get a boat further upstream to a
remote hide, and then walk back down and spend the night in a fishing village, before
looping back around to the National Park Centre which was just across the river.
Unfortunately, the man in the Park Centre informed us that the fishing village was closed
(as was the distant hide, and most other things) and so we had to book a night staying in a
hide a mere three kilometres from the place where we were standing.
‘You’ve come at a very bad time of year. Not many tourists,’ he said.
Three kilometers from a resort (as part of the Park Centre appeared to be) was not likely
to give us much of a chance at spotting any animals, but we really had no choice. This
amended plan also meant a hike of about eleven kilometres the next day. Being young
and extraordinarily fit examples of the human animal we decided this would not be a
problem. We also rented out some equipment such as mess tins and sleeping bags as the
hide was equipped only with wooden bunks and no mattresses. The chartered boat we
booked took us upstream from a pier just a few metres away. I had attempted to borrow
some canvas hiking shoes from the centre but they all seemed designed for midgets with
only left feet, so I was forced to wear a pair of socks and sandals. Apart from being a
very bad fashion choice, it was also lacking in the necessary ankle support for long treks
through the jungle.

We had to travel upstream over the same rapids Howie and I had floated down the day
before, and we consequently became absolutely soaked. The boatmen smiled cheerfully
as we stepped off the boat an hour or so later, dripping, and clutching our equally sodden
packs.
'Have a good trip,' they said, motoring away, laughing.
Looking around, it was clear that nobody had been there for a while. There was a small
brick building just near the pier, but it was closed up and falling apart. Apart from that,
there was nothing around at all. No sounds except for birds and crickets, and thick green
jungle stretching off in every direction.
‘Well we’d better get going. It’s a long walk,’ Rachel said, and led the way on the only
possible path away from the water’s edge. The walk started off fairly easily, although it
was very hot and incredibly humid. It soon became clear that our wet clothes had no
chance of drying, and so we had to accept the fact that for the next two days, comfort was
not an option. We were soon at the first hide, which we had been told was closed. It was a
small rectangular structure on stilts, standing about twenty metres up above the canopy.
The door was open, but inside it was only bare floorboards and dirt. The viewing window
looked out onto a water hole, but it was obscured by too much undergrowth.
‘He said they hadn’t maintained this one for a while and we wouldn’t see much,’ Ed
informed us, ‘But I’m gonna go see if I can push through to that waterhole.’
He went off searching through the bush whilst I tried to dry out my shirt on a piece of
corrugated iron. There seemed to be a lot of building materials strewn around the base of
the hide, as if construction had been stopped part way through. I could hear Ed coming
back through the scrub when he suddenly stopped and I heard him say, 'Umm, guys.
Quick. Come here quick,' in quite subdued tones. Howie and I rushed over. Although he
had spoken softly, there was a definite urgency to his voice and it soon became clear




                                            77
why. He was holding his left foot up in the air behind him, and sticking out of it was a
three inch nail attached to a large block of wood.
'What is it?' he asked.
I coughed and stuttered.
'Umm, nothing,' I replied as nonchalantly as I could.
'What the FUCK is it!!?!?!?' Ed demanded in slightly more urgent tones.
'It's a big bloody great bastard of a rusty nail. We’ve got to pull it out.'
'Good idea,' he replied, wincing.
Howie decided he couldn’t stomach the thought of wrenching the nail free, and so I
placed my hands on either side of the piece of wood and began to extract the nail with all
the skill of a surgeon who's been called in to work whilst out on his buck's night. It
twisted around a few times, but wouldn’t budge.
‘Just pull the fucking thing out!’ screamed Ed as it twisted around for a fourth time.
It had become lodged in his shoe, having gone straight through the rubber, and I had to
place a foot on the sole of his shoe to get enough force to pull it free. Finally it came
loose.
‘Thankyou…’ he said, dripping with sweat and dropping down to sit on a rock.
‘You’re welcome.’
The damage was not too bad, most of it having been in his shoe and the nail had only
slightly pierced his toe. It was painful but he was able to walk on it.
‘I’ll get a tetanus shot once we get out, but we have to keep moving.’
He was right. We had wasted a lot of time, and if we didn’t get to the next hide in time
then there was no way we would find it in the dark. Given our track record there wasn’t
that much chance of finding it during the day either.

The biggest problem turned out not to be the walk itself, or even finding the path but the
huge quantity of leeches that littered the trail. For some reason, as with mosquitoes,
leeches seem reluctant to suck my blood. Probably because it's ninety percent proof.
Rachel did not have similar immunity, and Howie and Ed fared little better. None of them
had ever seen a leech before, and when they discovered the first one on Rachel’s leg no-
one seemed inclined to touch it.
‘Get it off! Get it off!’ she screamed, but Ed and Howie seemed a little stricken.
Fortunately I had a cigarette lighter in my backpack that I had bought to light candles
with and was able to burn it off, but in the meantime, Ed had now discovered one on his
own leg.
‘Give me that lighter!’ he cried, tearing it from my hands and holding it so close to the
leech that it burnt his skin and singed off all the hair.
Howie was next, and soon we were stopping every fifty metres or so to check for leeches.
Inevitably, Rachel had one somewhere, and Howie and Ed were racking up a fairly good
score as well. But I had found none. By the time we reached a wide creek Rachel’s
trousers were red with blood. The leeches had somehow gotten underneath them and then
dropped off unnoticed, and now the blood wouldn’t clot. When she sat down for a rest on
a log and closed her eyes, she looked like the victim of some brutal crime. Ed was
starting to become annoyed and he brushed his hand across his head, leaving a spot of
blood from one of his own wounds, and staining his blonde hair red.
‘Now what are we supposed to do? How do we cross that?’



                                           78
I looked out over the creek. We knew from the map (which seemed far more accurate this
time, and thanks to Rachel, was actually being used correctly) that we had to cross, but
we had been hoping for a bridge. It was about thirty metres wide, but only knee deep. The
bank dropped away sharply, leaving a five metre drop on either side. I was beginning to
feel like perhaps I’d better take a bit of initiative. The Poms were becoming desperate,
what with the leeches and the soaking wet clothes, so I took off my sandals and socks and
waded out across the river. It was a strong current, but only a problem if I was to fall
over. On the far side, there were several logs conveniently stacked up to enable me to
climb up onto the far bank. The last section meant walking across a narrow log for about
three metres with nothing to hang on to. Now there are many things that I cannot do.
Throw a football at me and I try to catch it, but end up with a broken nose. Hand me a
baseball bat and toss a pitch to me, and I end up with a concussion. Spar with me in the
dojo, practicing the art of fighting, and I end up with permanent brain damage. In fact,
have a thumb wrestle with me and chances are that I will end up swollen and bleeding.
But one thing I can do is run around on narrow things without falling off. The others were
not so good at this and once across the river, it was left to me to ferry the packs across the
log whilst they used all their concentration to not fall off.

The only problem was that I had to place the bags on the ground, and by the time we all
got across to the other bank, twenty minutes later, most of them were infested with
leeches. I even found one on myself finally, burrowing into my stomach, presumably
trying to work its way in to the burger I’d gotten the night before from the 'Western Style'
section of the menu at one of the floating restaurants. I got him just before he hooked in,
but now Ed was bleeding again in two places and Rachel had a few more, as well as
discovering her trousers had ripped in the crotch.
‘These were my favourite pants!’ she said sadly, looking down at the torn and
bloodstained rags rapped around her legs.
I was quite enjoying the walk as the place was beautiful in the way that only a one
hundred and thirty million year old rainforest can be, but the others did not share my
enthusiasm.
‘Another bloody leech!’ cried Ed, just as we were preparing to move on from the river.
He tore it off and started to jump up and down on it, hissing, 'Die, die you bastard, die
you little bloodsucking arsehole!', when he lost his balance and started to fall backwards.
Only a combination of him grabbing a tree and me grabbing his wrist stopped him from
falling the three metres into the ankle deep and very rocky river bed below.

But in spite of enjoying the walk, I was pleased when we finally made it to the hide,
about six or so hours after we started. The sun was just going down but we had made it.
The hide was a very basic wooden hut, with no door and hard bunks with no mattresses.
After that day, it was perfect and we sat down to cook some noodles we had bought with
us. It was then, that I realised I had run out of water for the rest of the trek.
‘What are you going to do?’ Howie asked.
'I'll drink the morning dew off the flowers. It's an old bushman's trick.’
He nodded skeptically, fully aware that I was anything but an old bushman.




                                             79
That night was not the menagerie we had been hoping for. We sat around and chatted,
reading the comment book. It mainly had stupid stories about what people had seen, all of
them clearly not true. Especially the one about the panda and the leopard having a tag-
team battle with two elephants. Twice Howie and I went down to the river to see what we
could find, but this probably scared away any animals we might have seen. Going to bed,
slightly disappointed, my torch gave out and I also discovered that bare bits of wood hurt
if you lie on them for long enough.

The next morning, although we had hung up our clothes, the humidity was such that
nothing was at all dry. One shirt was even wetter than before and really was the worst
thing I have ever smelt. I put on my other shirt, which was only ranked number fourteen
on that list and proved to be the lesser of two evils. In the hide with us, we finally saw
some local fauna. It was a black millipede, about a foot long and the width of a sausage.
Also, perched just above the door outside was a moth, brown with black markings, with a
fifteen centimetre wingspan. Later, during the walk back to the Park Centre we saw some
very large ants, each about three or four centimetres long. It appeared that in Taman
Negara, they didn’t do anything small. The walk was only three kilometres and we did it
quickly, without anybody talking too much. It had been an exhausting and uncomfortable
hike for all of us, and we were glad to get back to rooms with relatively clean sheets and
relatively comfortable beds. Despite that, I’d do it all again any time. It had been a great
experience.

In one of the floating restaurants that night we discussed our next move.
‘We should go to the Perhentian Islands,’ Ed suggested.
The Perhentian Islands were supposed to be a tropical paradise with beautiful white sand
beaches and great scuba diving; exactly the luxury we needed after the amazing but
exhausting trek through the rainforest. Rachel nodded.
‘Definitely. Once more onto the beach dear friends, once more. Agreed?’
‘Fine with me, but right now I’m going to go and take a shit, a very palpable shit…’ I
said, excusing myself from the table and walking towards the restaurant bathroom.
‘To pee or not to pee, that is digestion!’ Howie yelled after me.
‘Oh shut up!’


The Perhentian Islands
The train from Jerantut was late, and my surprise was so great it had to be seen to be
believed. I almost fell asleep I was just that damn surprised. My yawns of shock could be
heard across the peninsula. The station was a single platform, and it was very late at
night, but there were at least sixty people waiting for it. Once it did arrive, we settled
down to sleep only to discover that, as always seemed to be the case, the air-con was set
to a temperature designed to make penguins feel at home and here we were dressed as if
we were in Malaysia or something. Several hours later, when we arrived at Kuala Besut, I
removed the frozen snot icicles from my nostrils and stepped onto the platform,
whereupon most of my internal organs exploded from the sudden increase in heat. Such
is life.




                                            80
We got a taxi to the ferry pier. We had tickets to the Perhentian Islands organised already,
but were informed that the ferry would not be arriving for three hours, unless of course
we were prepared to pay a little more and get the 'fast' boat that was leaving in, oh, about
five minutes. It was five in the morning and we were obviously all very tired. But while
we were all thinking it, one German man actually said it. He launched into a tirade about
how they had lied to him, and there were so many companies he could go to instead of
them, and if he found out it was possible to buy a return ticket from the island rather than
just from here as he had been told then he'd be back to get his money from them, schnell!
'Suck my balls, you arrogant tourist pig-dog!' declared the ferry operator in Malaysian,
smiling submissively the whole time.
This placated the German man long enough (his daughter was there to observe the whole
display and seemed quite upset by it) for us to board the boat. It was actually quite fast.
So fast in fact that it skipped over the waves violently and threw us around a bit. Our
boatman kept stopping so he could examine his various passengers and decide which fat
bastard had to swap sides in order to keep us from capsizing and ending up on a news
report where a concerned looking anchor-person sat in front of a picture reading
'Malaysian Tragedy' whilst wondering when the next ad break would allow them to run
off to the loo.

But we had made it. I was again on an island paradise. The island we had chosen was
called Pulau Perhentian Besar, and it was everything we had hoped for. A perfect beach,
dotted with palm trees and, just off shore, beautiful coral reefs. The main activity on the
islands seemed to be diving. The Poms were all divers, but I had never taken a course and
so was more than happy to stay on the beach sucking down coldies and occasionally
going snorkelling. The first thing to become apparent, as is the case with a lot of places in
Malaysia, is that the Perhentian Islands were almost completely ‘dry’. There was only
one place offering beer and it was at such inflated prices and so poorly refrigerated that it
didn’t really seem worthwhile. We had also been forced to take a large room with two
double beds in it, as there was nothing else available. My main reservation about this was
the fact that, as I have mentioned before, Howie was chronically flatulent and the thought
of sharing a bed with him was not something I relished. It was worth it, however, as the
room had a balcony at one end of the beach, just as it curved around, and looked directly
down onto the coral reef. I strung up my hammock and sat back as the others set off to do
some diving.

Most of the staff at our bungalows appeared to be ladyboys, except for an old guy who
was always stoned, and a few young guys who were always stoned. The ladyboys were
usually stoned as well, except for one named Deedee, who was able to remember the
name of every single person in the place.
'Simon! You want something to eat, Simon? You wanna go diving, Simon?' she would
coo as I walked past.
'Ooh Howard! You do have a healthy appetite!'
'Ed! Ed you like my dress?!'
'Rachel, where did you get that blouse?!?'
She was very entertaining, all said and done but unfortunately she was only in charge of
the hotel. The restaurant was run by the old guy who was always stoned and his young



                                             81
apprentices, and so ordering food was very much a hit and miss affair. I sat on the sand,
at a table that looked directly out to sea, two hours after having ordered a cheese
sandwich. I was not feeling well to begin with, as I seemed to have developed a minor
case of food poisoning, so I was not too bothered when it didn’t turn up. I wandered up to
the counter, feeing much worse for standing up.
'Good morning, Simon! You're looking rough today!' Deedee declared.
'Too right I am. Got any snorkles?' I asked, more grunting than speaking.
'For you? I'm sure we can rustle up something!' she exclaimed.
Deedee never ended a sentence without an exclamation mark.

The only snorkels they had were several sizes too small for me as I have a head so large it
affects the tides, but I forced it on and within a few steps I was wading into blue-green
waters, with schools of fish swimming around my feet. I swam out around the headland
and had a very nice time. The sea floor dropped away quickly to about four or five metres
deep out there, and huge boulders littered the way between the coral. I dived down a few
times, but my massive head felt like it would explode before I even got close to the
bottom and I had to return to the surface. It was good, but once I decided to return to
shore I realised that I had a good two hundred metres of swimming ahead of me. So it
was fairly late when I got back. The Poms had all been out scuba diving that day, and had
made some friends they were planning to meet later for a drink in the over-priced beach
bar. I agreed to come as well, although my food poisoning was not getting any better, and
by now Ed was feeling sick as well. It had something to do with the fact that a lot of the
chicken dishes served on the island were severely undercooked. I had done my best to
avoid eating meat in South East Asia, but there was only so much tofu I could eat before
rending flesh from bone with my teeth became a very attractive prospect. But in our food-
poisoned state the bar was not an attractive proposition for any of us. It was crowded and
filled mainly with excessively drunk English girls making fools of themselves and
looking to shag anything that moved, so we left soon after. Now I know some people will
be thinking 'excessively drunk English girls making fools of themselves and looking to
shag anything that moves' and you left? What the hell is wrong with you? Even I don’t
know the answer to that question, but whatever was wrong with me, it ensured I spent
most of the night in the outdoor toilet block, on my knees and wondering if that thing that
just brushed over my leg was a foot long millipede the width of a sausage.

                                         *****

'Are you sure? It doesn't look that deep,' Ed said, looking over the three metre drop
warily.
'Sure! I swam there yesterday, it's deep!'
'You jump then,' Howie put in.
'I mean, it's not that... what's that? Me do what now?'
'Jump,' Howie repeated.
'Well you know...'
We had taken a boat around to the next beach, which was tiny and had only one guest
house on it. The residents seemed annoyed at our arrival, as we effectively doubled the
population. The headlands around from this beach were made up of an odd assortment of



                                            82
different sized boulders, all stacked precariously on top of each other. We were standing
on top of one now, looking at the coral below.
‘Jump,’ repeated Howie.
I was trapped, so I jumped, and in that hilarious tradition of men doing stupid things I
allowed myself to float to the surface face down and with my head banging on pointy
rocks. Actually, that last bit was accidental but it looked good, what with the gushing
blood and so on. So we climbed up and did it again, because idiots know no fear, and
then continued to snorkel around. The coral there was even better, and there were far
more fish as the boats did not disturb the area as frequently. All around were hundreds of
fish and scores of different species. I became so engrossed that when I finally surfaced I
was well away from the shore again. I saw a multi-coloured manta-ray swim past me and
followed it. It got away from me, but led me right up to a school of huge round, grey fish.
I had never seen one of that type before, but their bodies were at least as big as my torso
and they had huge mouths that opened and closed constantly. The water became a little
cloudy and I came to the surface again. In fact, it wasn’t just a little cloudy, it was
starting to turn almost white. I was having trouble seeing through it under water.
‘What the hell?’ I muttered through my snorkel, and then suddenly I realised with dismay
what was happening.
They were spawning.
I swam back to shore as fast as my tired limbs would allow.
‘That’s disgusting!’ I shouted, feeling a thin layer of slime on my body as I emerged onto
the beach.
‘What?’ Howie asked.
‘Those bloody fish! They were spawning. I swam right through it! Let’s get the boat
back. I need a shower.’
It was an hour before we got home and I was finally able to thoroughly wash off the huge
quantities of fish spunk I had been forced to swim through. Now I know some people will
be thinking 'huge quantities of fish spunk and you got out of the water?', but I won't
embarrass those perverts by naming them.


Cherating
Our time on the Perhentians was over and we had taken the speed boat back to the
mainland. At Kuala Besut, after getting off the boat, we said goodbye to Ed and Rachel.
They were heading home, as they had been travelling for eight months already. Howie
was heading on to New Zealand soon as well, flying out from Singapore, so we were
going to stop off in Cherating (on the east coast) and then head south. We needed a taxi,
but we weren’t sure where to go. We decided on the local bus station.
‘You don’t want to go there!’ our driver insisted, ‘You should go Kuala Terengganu.’
Howie and I pretended to discuss this as if we had any idea what he was talking about. To
be honest, he seemed a little dodgy, constantly repeating himself and laughing maniacally
every so often.
‘We want to go to Cherating…’
‘Is a holiday today. Maybe buses to Cherating full. We try Terengganu but maybe no
buses.’




                                            83
I’d heard this kind of spiel before. It always seemed to be a holiday or festival and
everything was full or dirty or had closed down.
‘Okay. Take us to Kuala Terengganu. We’ll get a bus from there.’
Our driver laughed in an unnerving fashion and gestured for us to get in.

It cost us fifty ringgit to get to Kuala Terengganu, and it took more than an hour. The bus
station was an asphalt car park, with about fifteen counters along one side for various bus
companies. Our driver jumped out with us and led us over, despite our assurances that we
were okay. He walked up to the counter just before we got there and said something in
Malay.
‘What did you say?’ Howie asked him, and he shrugged.
‘I just say you want bus to Cherating,’ he said innocently.
‘So can we get a bus to Cherating?’ Howie asked, but the man behind the counter shook
his head.
‘No. Buses are full. Holiday,’ he said mechanically.
This didn’t seem right. We looked at the timetable written on the side of the booth and
saw that buses to Cherating left almost every hour.
‘Every bus is full? We’ll take any bus.’
Our driver said something in Malay again.
‘Yes. Every bus is full today.’
‘What about tomorrow?’ I suggested.
I had seen a few guest houses near the bus station, and Kuala Terengganu, whilst not an
overly exciting place, was not too bad a spot to spend one night. It was a fairly large city,
clean, and with at least enough to entertain us for a day or so.
‘No. All buses full tomorrow. Long holiday.’
I shook my head.
‘You run eight buses a day. You mean to tell me that there are no seats on any of these
sixteen buses?’
Our driver spoke again and the counter man shook his head.
‘No seats.’
There were several other bus companies with stands, so I pulled Howie in close.
‘I think our taxi driver is screwing us. You go up to the far one on that end and I’ll go the
other way. He can’t follow both of us.’
So we split up. I took the counter at the far end and Howie took the other end. It was no
good. We were told there were no seats. Out of five or so companies each running about
eight buses a day, there were supposedly no seats, even for the day after. Our driver had
obviously done this before.
‘I can drive you to Cherating. One hundred ringgit.’
‘Fuck you,’ I said under my breath, climbing back into the taxi.

Of course, high prices are no guarantee of quality, and as we got away from the major
cities and ran along the coastline, the car started playing up. Our driver had asked some
rather strange questions, and I was beginning to like him less and less. Suddenly, the
engine died, just as we stopped at a traffic light. Howie looked concerned, as all around
us there was nothing but scrubland and a few small wooden houses.
'It's okay, we're in the middle of nowhere,' I said reassuringly to Howie.



                                             84
He looked at me strangely.
'No one would find the bodies if he decided to kill us,' I continued soothingly.
Fortunately, he decided not to kill us and instead rounded up some guys from a nearby
mechanic to give him a push start. For some reason he didn’t ask us to do this, preferring
to spend ten minutes tracking down mechanics who were qualified to push a car, but we
jumped out and lent a hand anyway. He laughed again as the engine roared into life and
we continued on our way to Cherating.

                                          *****

Upon arriving in the tiny coastal town of Cherating, the night was begun in earnest, first
with a trip to the local Italian restaurant where a woman of indeterminate origin was
serving pizzas. I mention this only as a curiosity, as she was Caucasian and we first
thought that she was from somewhere in England. Even Howie thought she was and he
comes from that patch of bad weather off the coast of France so I figured he would know.
In the end we decided she was from somewhere in mainland Europe but that was as close
as we could pinpoint it. But that didn’t matter because just over the road from where we
were eating was a bar that had a nine hour happy hour. Now I don’t know about you, but
I can get pretty bloody happy in nine hours.

Cherating is a fairly small town, just off the main coastal road. The section we were
staying in was probably what would be called the town centre, but it’s little more than a
short stretch of road next to the beach, and as usual it is littered with bars and restaurants.
The beach itself did not seem particularly nice, with dirty sand and a bit of a smell, but
this impression may have been because we had just come from the perfect Perhentians.
And, unlike the Perhentians, the bars (bars; as in more than one, also unlike the
Perhentians) had nine hour happy hours. The mediocre beach was irrelevant in the face of
this damning new evidence.

The bar was deserted. Although we had been told that Cherating was the place for two
hot young studs to live it up (and they politely added that Howie and I might not look too
out of place amongst those studs if we kept our heads down) it didn't seem to be so. The
only people in the bar were us and the waiters. Nevertheless, the waiters had the
admirable ability of dispensing alcohol and so we decided to stay for a few. We sat
ourselves out on the front near the beach and soon discovered why the beach was in such
bad condition. The locals roared up and down in four wheel drives, doing donuts and
playing chicken right in front of us. Sand was flying everywhere and the noise was
incredible. Suddenly we heard a voice from behind us.
‘Pretty crazy, aren’t they?’
It was an Australian accent, something I hadn’t heard since that idiot thought she saw the
miracle of men walking on water from the Petronas Towers.
‘Sure are.’
‘This is a party town for the locals. Lots of Malaysians come here during this holiday,’ he
said.
‘Oh, we’ve heard all about that holiday.’
Maybe our driver hadn’t been lying after all.



                                              85
‘Mind if I sit?’ he asked.
I pulled the chair out a bit and he sat down. I was born in Newcastle, Australia and as it
turned out he had a lot of relatives living in Newcastle, so this gave us a lot to talk about.
Here's a brief extract:
'So you're from Newcastle?'
'Originally.'
'I've got a lot of relatives in Newcastle.'
'Me too.'
'Nice place.'
'Oh yeah.'
‘You been there recently?’
‘No.’
‘No, me neither. You planning to go back at all?’
‘Maybe.’
‘Yeah me too…’

I could actually hear the earth turning.

Fortunately the social lubricant kicked in and we soon got to talking more fluidly. This
particular Australian lacked that optimistic happy-go-lucky spirit that a lot of Australians
tend to have. He seemed almost depressed to be sitting on the beach drinking beer.
Fortunately this was counteracted immediately by the Canadian that came and joined us.
Canadians in general seem to be extremely happy about pretty much everything. I got to
talking to him about his hometown and where he was going next. It turned out the poor
bastard had to fly home with twenty four hours of flights/connections and then go to
work the next day despite there being a fourteen hour time difference. He was a decent
guy but more of a talker than a listener, so it helped to just strap ourselves in and go along
for the ride, keeping comments to a minimum with things like 'yeah', 'that sucks', and
occasionally ‘totally, dude’. So the four of us sat there, myself, Howie, the Australian and
the Canadian, enjoying ourselves despite our inherent incompatibility with each other, as
the four wheel drives tore up the beach with reckless abandon. Beer, thank crap for beer.

                                           *****

The following day I went to the local library (which would sell books as well if no one
was around) and got a book on Bias in the Media, written by an incredibly biased media
guy who had lost his job by writing about left-wing bias in a newspaper column. His
book was then biased by his bitterness at being sacked and so his comments were pretty
easy to dismiss as venom rather than considered argument. Then again, I don't like people
with right-wing politics so I guess my opinion is biased. The irony really kept me up that
night, after I got home from turtle watching.

Yes, turtle watching. Howie and I were sitting around on the balcony of our hut in a place
called Matahari (which disappointingly had very few sexy female spies staying there)
when the owner came up and asked if we wanted to see some turtles.
‘Sure!’ we replied, because who doesn’t want to see turtles?



                                             86
‘Okay. Wait here and my son will drive you to Club Med.’
This was news to us, but apparently there was a Club Med down the road and on the
beach at night they went out searching for turtles as they laid their eggs. When the son
finally arrived, he was dressed in tight jeans and a sleeveless muscle top, with his hair
gelled up. He looked like he was getting ready for a photo shoot in some vacuous fashion
magazine and the car he led us to had mag wheels, and was lowered. When he climbed
in, an ultraviolet light came on and some dance tunes started on the stereo. The
subwoofers in the back made everything vibrate. It almost seemed appropriate to pay a
cover charge as I got in the back door and I half expected him to take one look at my
sandals and say, 'Not in those shoes, mate,' before letting three beautiful girls get into the
car ahead of me.

Unfortunately this was the most interesting part of our turtle watching experience. At
Club Med we were led down to the beach, which was slightly less grubby than the strip
of beach we were staying at, and told to wait. We waited for two hours with a crowd of
fifty or so people, mainly Malaysian families, before being told there would be no turtles
tonight. We were pretty close to falling asleep as it had been pretty late when we came
out, so we asked our DJ to drive us home. The deal was that they only called up the
hostels when a turtle had actually arrived on the beach but something must have gone
wrong that night. Maybe the turtles were just messing with them and were all offshore
watching us and wetting themselves with laughter. I’d like to think so anyway. I would
get the chance to see turtles before the trip was over, in any case.




                                             87
                            6
              WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO GUM

                                   SINGAPORE

Bugis
It seemed that the further south we went, the more expensive things got. We had taken a
bus all the way to Singapore and were forced to stay in a dorm because it was impossible
to get a cheap room. I’d stayed in dormitories before when travelling in Europe, and
inevitably somebody in the room either snored or smelt, but in this case it was Howie and
I that were stinking the place up. It was a six bed dorm, with three bunks, just opposite a
place called the Yukee Food House in Bugis. This was just a few doors down from the
Pig’s Organ Soup House. Bugis, apparently like everywhere else in Singapore, is a main
shopping district. We were the only ones in our dorm, or so we thought, but when we
returned one evening I went to take a piss and Howie emerged from the room just as I
was getting back. He stopped me in the hallway.
'Our room is full of girls,' he said, white as a sheet.
I blinked.
'What?'
He nodded, still breathing a little fast.
'Our room,' he said slowly for emphasis, 'is full... of girls...'
I digested this information for a second, and then pushed past him and flung open the
door. Sure enough, three pairs of eyes looked up to greet my over-enthusiastic entrance,
and attached to each of them was a very attractive girl in her underwear. I nodded
politely, as the one in the corner glared at me, obviously not too keen on her new room-
mates.
'Would you ladies excuse me for a second?' I said, exiting quickly.
Howie was waiting expectantly where I’d left him.
'Our room is full of girls,' I said.
He nodded.
'What do we do?'
I thought about if for a second, trying to remember something from my past that would
help me deal with such a situation. There wasn’t much to fall back on, sadly.
'Pull their pony tails?' I suggested.
Howie shook his head.
'No, that's for when you're ten years old,' he replied irritated.
Yeah, that sounded right.
'Experiment with homosexuality?' I replied after a bit more thinking.
He dismissed this with a wave of his hand.
'A while to go. That's for the mid-life crisis. You must have some idea what we do?' he
said, becoming exasperated.
'Don't ask me,' I cried out far too loudly, 'I went to a boy's school for Christ's sake!'
‘So did I, dammit!’ he replied, equally loudly.
‘Okay, just act casual.’


                                            88
So we went back in, half-expecting the lingerie clad women to be involved in a pillow
fight, as this is what lingerie clad women do in dormitories, or so I’ve been led to believe.
They were becoming distinctly uneasy now, so we decided to just go to bed. When we
did, Howie removed his shoes, and I instantly realised the fatal error. The room very
quickly began to smell like a cheese factory.
'Psst! Put your shoes outside!' I hissed, 'And if possible, hack off your legs just above the
ankle!'
It was too late, the beautiful woman had smelt it and with that discovered the
complications of taking a room in a mixed dorm. For you see, whilst women in general
are clean creatures, men tend to be revolting pigs who stew in their own filth. And those
that aren’t pigs are still used to it because they have to wade through other men's urine
every time they use a public toilet. Most women can deal with one man, but any more
than that and trouble arises.

They were gone the next morning.

We decided to go to Orchard Road. It’s supposed to be the largest concentration of
shopping malls in Singapore, and probably the world for that matter. We caught the MRT
(Mass Rapid Transit) and discovered that this was about right. It seemed similar to The
Golden Triangle in Kuala Lumpur, but worse. The malls were massive towering
skyscrapers, and huge screens displayed ads for various products that people didn’t need
but thought they did. Amongst these behemoths there were also some much smaller, far
crappier ones. It was in one of these that I passed by a small Indian tailor’s shop and he
reached out his hand to shake mine as I passed. I took it out of politeness.
‘Hello my friend!’
‘Hello!’ I declared cheerfully, and attempted to keep walking.
But I could not. He held my hand fast, loose enough to pretend we were still shaking but
not loose enough to break free.
‘Would you like some pants? I could make you a jacket,’ he said.
‘I’m sure you could,’ I replied, trying to move on, but he still held me.
‘What about some shirts? Lovely shirts. Very cheap…’
It was clear I wasn’t going anywhere until I decided to buy something.
‘Can you make gloves? I need some gloves. Can you make gloves to fit my hands?’
That was enough. His false smile widened and he released my hand to check what size it
was.
‘Run!’ I cried, and we broke away quickly, much to his dismay.
On the next corner of the labyrinthine mall was another tailor, with his hand out and
pointing at his dazzling array of stylish yet affordable menswear.
'I'm not falling for that one again!' I screamed, shoving past and sending him stumbling
into a rack of cheap casual sports jackets.

                                         *****

The night that Howie left, a new guy moved into our dorm. He walked with Howie and
me to the MRT station, and we said our goodbyes. He was heading off to the airport and
onto New Zealand. It was sad, because I had enjoyed travelling with him, but he was



                                             89
gone. The new guy was Jonas from Sweden and after Howie left we went wandering
around the streets until we came to Little India. This looked like the Little India in
Penang, although the streets were far more crowded with people dressed very well and
seemingly doing very little. Groups of five or six men in smart casual were standing
around having conversations, although there were very few women to be seen. Jonas and
I had an in-depth conversation about all kinds of things in English, but when we sat down
to eat we switched to Swedish. Our conversation became rather more limited, although he
did comment that my accent was very good and he had never heard any foreigner say
such absolutely filthy things so fluently.
‘I learnt from a girl called Rebecka,’ I told him.
‘Well she did a good job,’
'Sprutluder!' I said by way of a thank you.
He looked a bit surprised to hear this word and we then got into a conversation about the
literal translation of it into English. He sided with 'crackwhore' which, although quite
bad, was nothing compared to what Beck had told me it meant. He blushed slightly when
I told him her translation.
'I guess it could mean that,' he said, embarrassed, before asking, 'Exactly what kind of
girl is this Rebecka anyway?'
I told him. He blushed even redder.
The place where we were eating did a good vegetable thali (a set meal of rice and three
curries with chapattis) for three Singaporean dollars, a delight that Jonas had never
sampled. All was going well until we were nearly finished and an obese Indian woman
began to vomit loudly into a plastic bag just behind us. Jonas put his fork down and
turned away in disgust. I continued to spoon in my dhal, trying not to notice the obvious
comparison between the sound behind me and the sloppy yellow muck I was eating. The
woman eventually stood up to leave the restaurant, still vomiting and gesturing frantically
for a fresh bag as she did so.
'This must be very authentic Indian cuisine to elicit that kind of reaction. I was doing that
all the time after meals in India,' I remarked, thinking back to my days on the sub-
continent.
Jonas didn’t seem too keen to order dessert.

The problem with meeting people in Singapore, as I soon discovered, is that most of them
are on their way somewhere else. I was waiting for a friend of mine, who lived in
Singapore, to return from Australia, and so for the meantime had nowhere else to go.
Jonas left to go to somewhere in Malaysia, so I gave him some tips on what to do and
what not to do and then I was alone once more.

                                         *****

When I arrived back home one evening a tall and very beautiful girl with absurdly blonde
hair walked into the room and looked everybody over, dropping her luggage onto the
ground. Swedish. She must have been. I’m a magnet for those bastards!
'Hello, my name is Mereike. I am from Germany!' she declared, smiling, 'Would you like
to buy my surfboard?'
‘I’m Simon and, no not really,’ I replied.



                                             90
She didn’t seem surprised by my response. I gathered she was asking everybody she met.
She sat down on the bed opposite me.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Australia. Sydney,’ I told her.
She looked genuinely shocked.
‘What kind of Australian are you that doesn't surf?'
‘According to FHM, I’m an utter joke of a man,’ I informed her helpfully.
She looked me over, as if gauging the validity of that remark.
‘You know, everywhere I go, men offer to carry my things for me. That is how I got this
surfboard here. I have just flown in from Australia and everyone is so nice, they help me
carry my things,’ and she emphasised this with a dazzling smile and toss of her hair.
Then she winked at me. I was quite taken aback until I noticed that she winked frequently
and it was actually an involuntary twitch.
‘Maybe I will send it home instead,’ she said.

I went to the zoo the following day, and spent many hours observing the orangutans. The
whole group dynamic of those creatures reminded me very much of a Saturday night at
my place in Manly when a few of my mates would come over with a case of VB and we
would listen to bad music whilst picking the fleas from each other. The monkeys were so
like us! There were smaller monkeys wandering freely about the zoo as well, trying to
steal food from children when they weren’t looking, something I was considering
attempting myself as Singapore was taking a big chunk out of my travel budget. When I
came home, early in the afternoon, I found the German girl sitting in the room looking
angrily at her surfboard.
'No one will take it! No one will send it home! They say it's too big! What about furniture
and cars? What about boats and other big things? They send these things? How can my
surfboard be too big?'
She paused.
'Are you sure you don't want to buy it?' she suggested, batting her eyelids at me and
generally looking incredibly attractive.
I scratched my non-existent beard as if thinking about it. After I felt a reasonable amount
of time had passed I gave my answer.
'Hell no,' I replied.
I spoke to Mereike for a while about travelling around Australia . She loved the country
and urged me to see more of it. We then came to the realisation that I had seen more of
Germany than she had and she had seen more of Australia than I had. We both vowed to
do something about it when we got home. I knew I probably wouldn't but she seemed a
bit more outgoing. She must have been; the girl owned a surfboard for God's sake!
'I will be leaving tonight. Would you like to come and have a drink with me before my
bus leaves?' she asked.
I nodded mutely.
We went across the road to a trendy café and she ordered a Singapore Sling whilst I had a
beer.
‘You must try a Singapore Sling before you leave! It’s so overpriced it must be good!’
Mereike said.
It was good and it was overpriced, but I decided to stick with beer. It was just overpriced.



                                            91
‘Can you help me fill out this form before I go?’ she asked after we spoke a bit more
about what she was going to do in Malaysia.
Her English was very good, but not perfect and there were a few words she needed help
with. Occupation for example. She also filled out under address, 'wherever I can find a
bed in Malaysia'. I pointed out that that was quite a suggestive comment to make at an
immigration desk but she just shrugged.
‘It’s the truth.’
All too soon it was time for her bus to leave and we stood up and walked towards the taxi
stand.
'I am going to take my surfboard with me,' she said, attempting to hug me and carry the
board at the same time.
'Then I can send it home and go surfing in Denmark,' she added, stumbling along the
street and whacking some guy on the arse as she turned.
'Surfing's a source, man. It'll change your life,' I said sagely.
Then she got into taxi and was gone.

                                           *****

My friend Pan was arriving that evening but there was time to kill before he landed, so I
went to see a movie. It was called 'Narc' and was reasonably violent so it had a 16+
rating. I asked for a ticket and the man looked at me curiously.
'Are you over sixteen?' he asked me.
I was incredulous.
'I'm twenty three!’
He didn’t seem to believe me but let me in anyway. I nodded in gratitude.
'Thanks. Hey, could you go into the 7-11 and get me some beer, dude?' I asked.

I had arranged to meet Pan at 9:30pm at a city pub and after the film I still had time to
kill. Which I did. In fact, I didn't just kill it, I cut up the body and left it around as a grim
warning to other time not to pass so slowly, and soon I found myself waiting outside a
bar called Cuscaden, just off Orchard Road. True to form he was fifteen minutes late. He
looked different to when I had last seen him. He had contact lenses and a different
hairstyle. I realised it had been quite some time. His father was waiting in a car nearby to
take us to a hotel. Pan had booked a flight, and due to SARS he’d got a bonus two nights
in a luxury hotel. It was a deal designed to encourage more people to travel to the source
of the epidemic. It was a good deal, made even sweeter by the fact that the room had two
beds, cable television, a fridge, hot water, no spy holes in the wall, and a mini-bar where
a single can of Tiger beer cost a measly ten Singaporean dollars. The bed linen also didn't
have a huge yellow stain in the shape of a big fat guy. It was quite surreal to be staying
somewhere so nice.

                                           *****

I hung around for several days, drinking down at Clarke Quay, and living in luxury in
Pan’s hotel, until one night we ended up at a place called Marina Bay. It had been done
up with classy restaurants and bars, none of which we could afford to go into and once or



                                               92
twice we were asked to stop standing in front of them and ruining the view for the rich
people. At one end of this bizarre place the Merlion, (a big statue of a lion with a fish tail
and the symbol of Singapore) stood, protecting the harbour. The Merlion once actually
managed to fend of Godzilla who had gotten lost on his way to devastate Tokyo so I'm
not just blowing smoke up your arse.

I was beginning to become bored with Singapore. It was very expensive and everything
seemed far too trendy for the likes of me. This was not the reason that I had come to
South East Asia. This was exactly the kind of thing that I was trying to get away from
and yet I had spent almost two weeks there, far longer than anywhere else I had been so
far. I had spent only a couple of days with Pan, after waiting far longer than that to meet
up with him, but my tourist visa was about to expire and it seemed a natural end to my
time in Singapore.
‘I have to go,’ I told him.
‘Fine, we’ll find a toilet. But don’t just do it on the street. You even chew gum on the
streets here and they lock you up. Incidentally, oral sex is illegal, unless it’s a part of
foreplay. As an individual act you can got to gaol for it.’
This strange fact broke my concentration.
‘How do they know? Couldn’t you just say that you were about to have sex before the
cops burst in and interrupted you?’ I suggested.
‘I guess.’
There was a silence as we both considered this profound thought.
‘I have to leave Singapore. I’m going back up north.’
‘Oh come on, man! How often do you have oral sex anyway? That’s no reason to leave!’
But my mind was made up.




                                             93
                                   7
                      LIFE IS BUT A 125cc DREAM

                                    THAILAND

Ko Samui
My thirteen hour bus ride from Singapore was luxury compared to what I was used to,
with huge reclining seats, air conditioning and a television. At the border into Malaysia,
the immigration official seemed incredibly curious as to what I had been doing in
Singapore for two weeks and almost refused to let me into the country. Even when he
did, I had to promise that I would leave within a few days and not sell any drugs to
anybody. By the time I made it to Penang, very late that night, I was exhausted but I
decided to continue on the next morning with a joint ticket to Samui. After getting up at
5:00am, I was sitting on the side of the road outside my hotel, all alone except for the
ageing prostitutes and the local teenagers, who were drag racing up and down the tourist
strip. I was grateful when my minibus arrived, because one of the drag racers had just
pulled up across the street and every one of the guys in it was staring straight at me. The
owner of my hotel had told me that an American guest of his had been beaten senseless
and put in hospital just a few weeks earlier on the very spot where I was sitting.

Getting from Penang to Samui took a further sixteen hours and I was almost dead on my
feet when I got off the ferry. A songthaew was waiting and I climbed on dumbly, asking
the other, more spritely backpackers to wake me up at Chaweng. Eventually, about forty
hours after I’d left Singapore, I arrived. I found a room in a placed called Lucky Mother
Bungalows on Chaweng Beach. I figured a name like Lucky Mother would be fairly hard
to forget as I hoped to avoid a repeat of what happened the last time I was on Samui.

Chaweng is not a very nice place. It may once have been a nice secluded beachside
paradise, but it has been taken over by Pizza Huts, McDonald’s, fashion shops and pirate
CD shops. It is also filled with an odd assortment of tourists. People who wear G-strings
on the beach despite having the figure of a walrus (men and woman alike). Men with
enough money to hire a different girl every night to pretend to love them. Old guys who
rent out Harleys and cruise around in desperate pursuit of their lost youth; but in most
cases they’ll need something faster than a rented motorcycle to catch it. My bungalow
was good enough, though. Set far enough away from the pumping music of the bars to
avoid hearing problems (and sleeping problems) but close enough that I could still get the
necessities of life from the local 7-11. There were about six bungalows, all in very close
proximity to each other, and mostly occupied by people around my age.

They were: Neil, who lived to my right. Neil was from England, with short cropped
peroxide hair, and we frequently got into political arguments. The fact that he knew far
more about politics than me gave him a major advantage in that area, but I argued un-
winnable points just for the hell of it. Diagonally opposite me were two ethereal Swedish
girls, Ylva and Caroline. For some reason, wherever I go I meet Swedes more than any


                                            94
other nationality. I have no idea why this should be, as the population of Sweden is not
that large, but I’m not complaining. These girls were perfect examples of the term
‘phwoar’ and made me feel like I came from a completely different species. Staying in
other bungalows just nearby where two guys from Edinburgh University. They were Phil
(a very mild mannered and friendly Scotsman) and Tom (an hilarious and frequently
drunken or otherwise drug-affected Englishman).

                                         *****

When we all awoke one morning it was to the sound of rain on the roof. It was really
coming down hard and going anywhere was not an appealing prospect. In the bungalow
just opposite me was a newcomer, a Frenchman named JC who had just arrived from
India. Neil and I ended up sitting around playing cards with the Swedish girls whilst JC
sat on his balcony opposite us, giving out pearls of wisdom and drinking beer. As it
turned out JC was a very heavy drinker. He started at about one o’clock and just kept at it
all day. I didn't really notice at first, as I was a little distracted by the Swedes, but
thinking back he always had a beer in his hand. It was getting on to eight o’clock when
he suggested we go to the Reggae Bar. What visit to anywhere would be complete
without a night at the Reggae Bar, after all? Had I been paying more attention to JC’s
alcohol intake and less attention to Ylva then I would never have gotten onto his bike
behind Neil.
‘We could walk,’ I suggested, but JC shook his head.
‘It’s too far and it might rain again. Get on!’
Three full grown men on a 100cc motorcycle was perhaps not the greatest idea. Although
in South East Asia I have seen entire families of five riding around on the one bike, this is
something the locals have been doing all their lives. We were relatively new to such
things and JC was, to put it perfectly bluntly, completely off his little French tits. Quite
apart from the fact that his braking was very lax, having three guys on a bike driving past
bars filled with hookers is just asking for cat-calls and dirty remarks. The Reggae Bar
was set back from the beach along a muddy road which was surrounded on either side by
completely empty bars, except for the girls. JC waved at them, and in doing so drove into
a pothole and nearly threw us all off the bike and into the puddles covering the road.
‘It is good to be alive, no?’ he said, laughing.

The Reggae Bar was absolutely empty, and so we went and played pool, on a snooker
table, with rips in it and so many divots and malformations that it was more like playing
mini-golf. JC was well into it, and knocked over a pint glass whilst he gyrated around to
the live band that was doing Shaggy covers. JC informed us that he was soon to get
married, but he seemed completely incapable of remembering his fiancé’s name. The
conversation took a very tedious turn when he started suggesting possible names and then
dismissing them as incorrect. Fortunately around that time Ylva and Caroline turned up
with the Edinburgh Uni boys. We all made space for them to sit, which proved quite
unnecessary as they immediately forced us to dance, as women so frequently do. JC
hadn't stopped dancing all night, even when taking a shot in pool, urinating, or whilst
sitting in a chair, so he was right out there. I followed reluctantly, because I dance like I
have a large stick wedged firmly up my anus. I did not disappoint. Very soon, our dance



                                             95
circle was large enough to take up the centre of the dance floor and we had quite an
audience. Everyone stopped to gaze in wonder at our form. Well, some of our forms in
any case.

We had all tired ourselves out with these pointless gyrations and went and sat down in the
corner. Tom the Englishman had gotten himself very drunk and had become quite
concerned with the fact that although none of the Westerners on the dance floor were
under fifty, most of the women they were dancing with were barely out of their teens, if
that.
‘It’s disgusting! Look at those guys! They’re old enough to be their fathers. And large
enough to swallow them whole!’
He was right; they were invariably very fat, pasty white men of that extremely
unattractive variety.
‘We should do something.’
‘What do you suggest?’ Phil asked.
Tom thought about this for a second.
‘I’m just speculating here, so I want you to pull me up if you see any problems with this,
okay? Just throwing ideas around but how about we go up there, drag those fat fucks
from the dance floor and kick the living shit out of them?’
We had to admit that it was a plan. It wasn’t a very good one, but it was certainly a plan.
Tom seemed to have his heart set on it, and Phil actually had to restrain him to stop him
from leaping to his feet and enacting it. Sure, it was disturbing to watch those tiny Thai
girls dancing around loping fat men, like pilot fish around a whale, but it wasn’t up to us
to save the world. Tom had other plans, and we were forced to carry him from the
Reggae Bar kicking and screaming about how he was going to kick their colossal arses.

It was much later in the night. Everybody had dispersed. The Swedish Girls had gone
home, Tom had been put to bed and sedated, and Neil had gone home with JC just to
make sure he actually made it back. Phil was at the bar, when I noticed a Thai guy sitting
alone at his table staring into an orange juice. He looked pretty lonely, so I went over and
sat next to him.
‘Hey. You all right?’ I asked him.
He shrugged but didn’t reply.
‘You on holidays here?’ I tried, and he nodded.
‘I’m not gay,’ he said.
That was not exactly the response I was expecting.
‘It’s good that you can admit that.’
I was about to leave, as it appeared I was giving him the wrong idea completely, when he
stopped me.
'You want to see my girlfriend?' he said suddenly.
I shrugged and he took out a large number of photos from his wallet. A strangely large
number in fact.
'I walked in on her in bed with my best friend two weeks ago,' he said solemnly.
I didn’t know what to say. This was not a conversation I wanted to have.
'That's terrible. What did you do?'
'I told her it was over,’ he said, ‘and then, one week ago, she killed herself.'



                                            96
I was silent. There really was no response to that. No standard response that could be
considered adequate. Thirty seconds or more passed before Phil came back over.
‘Do you want to go down to the beach? I’m sick of this bar.’
‘Yeah. I want to go down to the beach,’ I replied.
I left the guy sitting there and staring into his drink. He didn’t even notice when I stood
up and left.

Once on the beach, we quickly met up with a group of girls who were sitting around
drinking. Phil is one of those guys who just has to look in their direction to get an
invitation to join them and so by default I was invited also. Definitely a handy guy to
have around. So we sat around and swapped travel stories. It was so late in the evening
that I couldn’t really focus, so descriptions of these particular girls would be complete
lies, but I do recall that one of them was a Thai kick boxer and I remember this because
she decided to start sparring.
‘Come on!’ she said, pulling at my arm to get me to stand up, ‘It’ll be fun! Just sparring.
Not fighting!’
I declined for as long as I could, but soon everybody was in on it.
‘Go on, spar with her!’
I didn’t have the backbone to stand up to them and so we began to spar. Or at least, I
began to spar. She was very quick and almost immediately gave me two pretty substantial
kicks to the jaw.
‘You said sparring!’ I protested, as she kicked me in the stomach.
So finally I kicked out and unfortunately hit her in the leg hard enough for her to fall to
the sand.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t want to fight you in the first place. I knew this would happen,’ I said,
rushing forward.
So I could now add to my list of accomplishments beating a women into submission.
What a proud day.
‘No problem,’ she replied, and with lightning speed she thrust her knee into my chest,
knocking the wind out of me.
It appeared she was far from beaten into submission and I fell down onto the sand,
breathing heavily.
‘You know, I think I might go to bed,’ I said.


Ko Pha Ngan
It had been universally decided that we should cross over from Samui to Ko Pha Ngan
and stay on Hat Rin. There was a full moon party coming up and everybody wanted to
make sure they had rooms on the beach. I had already decided to head up north to meet
some other friends in Bangkok before this happened, but I still had a bit of time to spare.

Ko Pha Ngan was much as I had left it. The bungalows that I had stayed in previously
had been demolished (although in the state they were in this could have been achieved by
a strong gust of wind) but everything else was as I remembered. We were sitting outside
the Cactus Bar, on straw mats on the beach, as we watched the fire dancers jumping
about. I have nothing against fire dancing in particular, but we had seen much the same



                                             97
thing for several nights in a row now and it was becoming a bit old, so I went into the bar
and upstairs to the toilet. Somebody had taken several rolls of ‘sit and smile’ toilet paper
and blocked the system, and as a result of this the toilet bowl was completely full of a
substance which I can only describe as stew. I gagged for a bit and then went back down
to the beach, but Phil and Caroline had gone off somewhere. Only Neil, Tom and Ylva
remained. This came as something of a relief as Phil and Caroline had been circling
around each other for days now. It was getting to the stage where I just wanted to whack
them on the back of the head and say 'would you two just fuck and get it over with!’
 ‘I lost my wallet last night,’ Neil said, once the fire dancers had finally stopped.
‘Me too,’ Tom replied.
‘It was up that end of the beach,’ Neil said, pointing to the dark end of the beach where
both him and I had rooms.
‘Me too!’ Tom replied, ‘What happened?’
‘Well, I was walking along and this prostitute came up and linked arms with me. She was
saying all this stuff and I was pushing her away. She grabbed me a few times and I guess
when she did that she stole my wallet. What happened to you?’
Tom laughed out loud.
‘It was the same girl. I met that girl! She came up and linked her arm in mine. Then in
dulcet tones she enquired if I wanted a blowjob. I am not a suspicious man by nature and
so all I did was a cursory check to make sure she wasn’t a ladyboy before I told her that
that would be nice. She stole my wallet when she had me otherwise distracted.’
Ylva laughed.
‘That’s a wonderful story! Tell everybody that story!’ she said.
‘Or better still,’ Tom said, ‘Let’s go and get some magic mushroom milkshakes.’

I wasn’t too sure I wanted one, as I was feeling pretty sick from general abuse of
substances, but Tom had a very persuasive way of talking and soon I was in yet another
bar with Ylva, Neil and Tom. The bar in question had large tables and chairs carved into
rock faces around the walls and was exactly the kind of surroundings in which I would
expect to be sold hallucinogenic fungus. Neil was not even drinking beer that night but he
came along to watch because he thought it would probably be a laugh.
‘Do you have mushroom shakes?’ Tom asked the bartender, who just nodded and held
out his hand for money.
There was a hell of a lot of glow-in-the-dark paint on the walls, and the few people that
were in the bar with us seemed to be hardcore raver types. By that I mean guys who dress
like wankers and always try and look angry because they think it impresses women.
Sadly enough, it seemed to work, because they each had a gorgeous girl with them. We
sat down in one of the booths and waited, and soon the bartender carried over three
glasses of thick grey mush.
‘That looks like shit!’ Tom declared, picking it up and downing it in one go.
‘Tastes like shit too!’ he added.
I took a sip of mine and had to agree that he was right. It was fairly hard to get through it
all, but we managed it. Neil watched us from the opposite side of the booth expectantly,
as if he expected us to sprout horns or something.
‘So what happens now?’ he said.
Tom stood up and walked towards the door.



                                             98
‘We get out of this freaky arse bar before this shit kicks in,’ he said.

As it turned out, Neil’s description was very apt. The shakes were ‘a bit of a laugh’. All
we did was return to the mats and sit down, before collapsing into fits of giggles. Neil
simply sat there scratching his head and wondering exactly what it was that was so funny.
At that moment, Neil scratching his head was what was so funny, but this was closely
followed by Tom finding Neil scratching his head funny and laughing. It was a vicious
cycle of contagious laughter that thankfully wore off after an hour or so and left us
feeling just generally happy.
‘Well, time for round two,’ Tom declared, standing up.
‘What, you’re getting more of them?’ Neil said in disbelief.
‘I’m bloody not. I’m sore from laughing so much,’ I said.
‘Me too,’ Ylva agreed.
‘Suit yourself,’ Tom said and set off down the beach.
An hour or so later and Tom spent the rest of the night dancing like a small marsupial as
it crawls from its mother's pouch and exposes its eyes to light for the first time.
‘This is fantastic,’ was all he seemed capable of saying.
We all got home well after sun-up and had a good day’s sleep.


Bangkok
After seeing off my friends on the islands, who were remaining for the full moon party, I
caught the ferry back to Surat Thani where I got a bus to Bangkok. I was seated next to
an English guy, about forty or so. He was moderately racist, and despised Islam, strong-
willed women, homosexuals and roosters.

I agreed with him about the roosters.

And possibly the politicians.

It had taken me nineteen hours to get to Bangkok from the islands, and I had arranged to
meet my friends soon after, so I tried to get some sleep. I took a room near the temple at
the end of Khao San and was awoken by poultry soon afterwards. After vowing jihad
against all fowls, I wandered down to Gaylord’s Indian Restaurant on Khao San, where
we had arranged to meet. Shotty and Kate were there, my friends from home. Shotty
(obviously not his real name) was a friend of mine from high school. He’s tall and looks
like a surfer, mainly because that’s what he is. He had met Kate (from England) whilst on
a previous trip in Thailand and they had hit it off, so he was on his way to England with
her until she sorted out her Australian temporary resident’s visa. In the meantime we had
about three weeks to see all that Thailand has to offer.
‘Hey Cuts! Hot here, isn’t it?’ Shotty said.

It was hot. I had come from the islands where the heat was not much of a problem due to
the close proximity of the beach. In Bangkok there was no escape. I suddenly found
myself longing for a Songkran festival to break out so we could all cool off. We
wandered about Bangkok aimlessly for a while, trying to find Chinatown, and climbing



                                              99
the Golden Mount. The Golden Mount is a large gold-topped temple, and although it
offers quite nice views of the Banglamphu area of the city, the climb up nearly killed us.
My foot was becoming sore also as, on my last night on the islands I had kicked it very
hard on the beach on a piece of concealed concrete. I had been far too mushroomed up to
notice at the time, but when I woke up my sheets were covered in blood and there was a
big part of the end of my toe missing. Walking was not something I was finding very
pleasant.

The same could be said for Shotty. He very quickly discovered the discomfort that could
be caused by extreme heat and humidity. On our little foray around Bangkok his
discomfort was apparent as he waddled around with his legs apart to prevent them from
rubbing on each other. The problem was, the huge tectonic plates that are Shotty's legs
created a build-up of heat and pressure that caused violent eruptions on the surface of his
skin. Fortunately we stopped off for some baby powder and all was well again.

‘We should go to the weekend market,’ Kate suggested, ‘There’s loads of brilliant stuff
there.’
I was a little sceptical. Markets never appealed to me, and going shopping with a woman
was also not high on my list of fun activities, but with no better option, that is what we
did. We caught the train out and soon we were amongst the hustle and bustle of
Bangkok’s largest marketplace. It really is an enormous place, but we were there for one
reason and one reason only.
‘There’s a certain type of clothing in this country, that is decorated with English words,’
Kate explained, ‘In the same way that Westerners use Chinese characters that they don’t
know the meaning of simply because they look cool, the Thais have English printed on
their clothes.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, ‘Why would you want that in particular?’
‘When we find it, you’ll see why.’

It had started to rain, which made the heat bearable, but we were forced to dash about
between stalls and were fast becoming soaked. I seemed to have spent a lot of time
getting wet recently. I had come to Thailand expecting it to be hot all year round, and
hadn’t brought anything to protect me during the wet season. This was forgotten for the
moment, because at last we had found it. A stand was selling T-shirts, and across the
front of most of them were large sections of English text. One had written at the top in
bold print; 'Josh Hartnet's dazzling smile and model good looks are just a few of the
reasons we love him'. Underneath this heading was the writing from the back of a packet
of noodles telling of the joys of this quick and easy snack and giving directions on how to
prepare it. In the centre of this whole ensemble was a picture of a teddy bear. I looked at
the object in my hand with reverence.
‘What the hell is this thing?’
‘It’s a work of art,’ replied Kate.
She ended up buying a shirt for the bargain price of thirty baht that had possibly the most
glorious message of all; 'The wings on your maxi-pad help prevent leakage, so even on
your heaviest days you can be confident and relaxed...' This had an equally innocuous
picture next to it of a little girl flying a kite.



                                           100
Shotty, who had been observing us with some discomfort, strutted over with his legs wide
apart.
‘Kate, do you still have that talcum powder in your bag?’ he asked.

Later we discovered another stand selling second hand T-shirts. A lot of it was from
small American towns and advertised local events or schools. The type of shirts usually
only worn on the day and then left in a cupboard for all eternity. Things like ‘4th Annual
Eugene Oregon Clambake- 1996’. I can only assume that they were taken from the
bodies of dead American backpackers in Patpong's back alleys as I doubt they’d been
specifically imported. They were a bargain but I couldn't see myself wearing a shirt that
said 'September 11, 2001. Never Forgive, Never Forget'. In fact, I think I can see why
that guy ended up in the back alley in the first place. We soon went home when the sun
re-emerged and Shotty’s chafing became too extreme.

We had wanted to enjoy a few beverages to celebrate meeting up but there just so
happened to be a Buddhist holiday on the 13th and 14th of July, and part of this involved
the prohibition of alcohol. Now we all know from the prohibition of alcohol in 1930s
America that such a rule is unenforceable and only leads to heightened crime,
drunkenness and debauchery (which coincidentally is exactly what I had in mind for that
evening), but in this case it was a little disappointing. We only found one place that was
prepared to serve us beer with our dinner, but they insisted that we place our bottles
under the table when not pouring them into a glass. If the police had raided the restaurant,
they would have had to have had severe learning disabilities not to realise that the amber
liquid we were all drinking was anything other than beer. It was a very subdued evening
and we decided not to force it. We went to bed. As I lay there I thought about all I had
done over the past couple of weeks. I had traveled through three countries alone and was
becoming used to it. I had thought that it would be weird seeing Shotty and Kate in
Thailand, but this was not the case. In fact it was like I had seen them only yesterday.


Pattaya
The following morning this was indeed the case. We were going to Pattaya that day, and
after a taxi to the local bus station, we were soon on our way. I flipped through the
Lonely Planet during the trip and as I read about the place, I became more and more
apprehensive. I knew nothing about it, but Shotty told me it was one of the most messed-
up places in Thailand.
‘It's basically THE place for sex tourists. I’ve never been but it sounds psycho.’
‘So why are we going there?’
‘I don’t know about you, but I intend to get a BB Gun, get shitfaced and go shoot me
some perverts!’
It was not too far away from Bangkok, and we were soon there. Getting off the bus, it
was clear that this was indeed THE place for sex tourists. There was a very long beach of
a few kilometers that wrapped around a little bay with no waves, and this was bordered
by a raised concrete footpath. On the other side of the road there was nothing but fast
food restaurants and bars filled with prostitutes. I was walking a little ahead of Shotty and
Kate, and upon passing every doorway I was greeted with nothing but cat-calls and cries



                                            101
of ‘Come and have a drink, honey!’. I was also a little concerned when we finally found a
hotel. It was a dank and dark place, with stains on the walls and low wattage bulbs
everywhere. The walls in the lobby were lined with pictures of naked women and the
room we were shown was very dirty and contained only one small double bed.
‘We only have one room, but I can put a mattress on the floor,’ the hotel owner said.
Looking at the floor, I wasn’t even sure I wanted the soles of my shoes touching it, so we
opted for a more expensive place that had less of a pay-by-the-hour ambience.
Accommodation in Pattaya seemed to be a bit tight and we had to take a three-bed room.
‘Okay. Whatever happens, do not leave me on my own. No matter what I say, make sure
I come home with you tonight,’ I said, dropping my bag.
‘Okay,’ Kate replied.
‘Promise me!’
‘We promise, all right?’

                                          *****

‘I’m not sure I like this place,’ I said later, as we sat on the beachfront wall drinking long
necks.
Just beyond the beach area there was a thin street that was literally nothing but bars on
either side of the road. From where we were sitting we could see the glowing of the
coloured lights and hear the thumping music, but we decided we needed to work up some
more courage before we ventured that far.
‘I can’t believe nobody’s selling BB Guns here!’ Shotty complained, ‘There’s a big hole
in the market. They’d make a fortune. It’d be like an African hunting safari but instead of
rare white rhinos it’d be pasty white devos!’
Whilst we were sitting there, Kate gestured with a flick of her head at a group of three
Thai girls sitting just down the wall from us.
‘They’ve been watching us for ages. I think they’re trying to decide whether to come
over.’
We both turned to look. That was our first mistake, for they saw this as a sign that we
were interested and instantly came over.
‘Hi! How are you?’ said one, apparently the leader.
She was a short, not particularly attractive girl, and she spoke to Kate, ignoring me and
Shotty entirely.
‘I’ve been watching you. My name is A. I’m a lesbian,’ she said.
Kate nodded politely as A sat down next to her.
‘These are my friends, Min and O,’ said A.
The other two were thin, pretty girls who seemed to speak only a little English. I’ve
found that a lot of people in South East Asia will shorten their names to just the first letter
if they think a foreigner will find it difficult to pronounce.
‘Oh lovely,’ said Kate, ‘Are your friends lesbians as well?’
‘No, they’re not. Min and O are prostitutes but it’s their night off. We’re just out having
some fun.’
Min sat down next to me and I felt my heart sink. She was sitting very close and
immediately started that age-old trick of pretending to be drunk and falling onto me a lot.
She didn't get any response but that didn't stop her giving it a red hot go.



                                             102
‘Are you a prostitute as well?’ Kate asked, as it seemed that A refused to talk to men.
Suddenly there was a sad look in A’s eye. She shook her head.
‘No. I wish I was but I’m too ugly to be a prostitute. Min works in a grocery store, but
she sleeps with farang as well.’
I had read in the Lonely Planet about waitresses in Pattaya. It said, 'sometimes the girls
supplement their income by occasionally sleeping with customers'. Maybe that Canadian
dive instructor on the way to Lipé was right. Maybe Thais did have a different attitude to
sex.
‘Let’s go!’ O said suddenly, ‘I want to meet some clients!’
There was a long argument in Thai, which resulted in O walking off towards the flashing
lights and thumping music further down the road. The night wore on and Min taught me
to count in Thai, it being about the only thing we could do with her limited English.
Occasionally her hand wandered across my leg but I removed it quickly.
‘I thought it was your night off!’
Min shrugged.
‘She never takes a night off!’ A said, laughing, ‘And by the way, I’m not a lesbian. I just
said that to stop you guys from coming on to me. Usually, all foreign men in Pattaya are
here for sex.’
It was a sad state of affairs when a girl was forced to do such a thing, but I had to admit,
from what I had seen she had a point. Most of the farangs here were fat, middle-aged
men, and mainly Europeans. Eventually a young Thai guy who happened to be
wandering past sat down next to us on the wall. He spoke no English at all, but with Min
and A translating we soon learnt that he was a Muay Thai boxer. The bars in the flashing
lights section frequently had boxing rings set up, where amateur Thai kickboxing
matches went on all night, and were usually completely ignored by the patrons. The kick-
boxer said something in Thai suddenly, standing up.
‘What was that?’ I asked Min, who was still trying to grope me, despite the fact that I had
moved to sit on the other side of the group.
‘Let’s go play pool!’ she translated.

                                         *****

I stumbled into the room, later that night, where Shotty and Kate where sleeping, and had
been for several hours.
‘I can’t believe you left me on my own!’ I muttered, ‘You promised!’
My arm was bleeding where my bicep had split from being kicked, and had seeped
through onto my shirt. Shotty and Kate had left me earlier in the night, and Kate’s final
drunken memory of me, apart from trying to stop Min from dirty dancing with me in the
pool hall, was of me disappearing deeper into the flashing lights of Pattaya. I had my arm
around the kickboxer and we were on our way to meet his friends, all of whom were also
paid to do Muay Thai in the bars.

I don’t recall fighting any of them, but from my injury I could only assume that I had, and
that I had lost.




                                            103
Ko Samet
We were sitting on the crowded local bus to Rayong, on our way out of Pattaya, when the
guy next to me decided to make a major excavation of his nose and wipe it all over the
curtains. Ten minutes before we arrived the bus nearly emptied out and I gratefully
moved seats. We were on our way to Ko Samet, an island that Rebecka had been to, and
she informed me that it was worth a look. It had the added advantage of being relatively
close to Bangkok, as I was sick of long journeys. Rayong was a fairly ugly city, and we
wandered only a few metres before getting a songthaew to Ban Phe, where we could get a
ferry over to Ko Samet. The island of Samet is only about six or seven kilometers long
and relatively undeveloped, at least when compared to Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. It
also has the advantage of having nicer weather when the more southerly islands become
very rainy, as they had been when I was there.

Despite getting ripped off on the boat over, we were feeling happy. In the distance, a
magnificent thunderstorm danced across the horizon, a huge swirling vortex of rain and
cloud, but far enough away that we were sitting in sunshine. Our boat had cost us three
times what we should have paid, but the grandiose beauty of nature made the petty greed
of man fade into insignificance as we sped along the coastline of what looked like a
beautiful little island. We were let off on a beach called Ao Nuan, where we had to wade
into the shore. Samet is part of a National Park, but it certainly didn’t seem that way. On
the beach in front of us, restaurants and bars were set up, and bungalows stretched back
behind them before turning into thick jungle. Looking in either direction, we could see all
the way up and down the east coast of Samet, and it was possible to walk along nearly the
full length of the island without leaving the beach. We got our bungalows about fifty
metres from the ocean, and I strung up my hammock immediately.
‘Before you sit down in that thing,’ Shotty said, ‘we’re giving you a haircut.’

He had decided to go for a David Beckham style mohawk and that is what I got, but more
pronounced. Both Shotty and Kate had a pair of scissors and began snipping away,
seemingly at random, neither one checking much on what the other was doing. I stood up
and took a look in the mirror. I actually did resemble David Beckham.
'I look like a total twat!’ I said.
Shotty nodded.
'Yeah, but I’m not gonna cut it again so you'll have to live with it.'
I did have to live with it, and I must say that despite the bald patch above my left ear,
courtesy of Kate, it kind of grew on me after a while. Well of course it did. It's my hair.
‘You know, these bungalows are quite nice,’ Kate said, sweeping the remains of my hair
from the balcony, ‘There’s cats wandering around, and chickens. Lots of birds and there’s
even a green snake on that tree over there.’
Normally I would have been quite excited by the mention of a green tree snake. I could
see it from where I was sitting, a baby one, sitting perfectly motionless amongst the low
branches of a sapling. But I had picked up on something else. Looking around the
bungalows I realised she was right. There were chickens everywhere. My paradise had
just turned into hell.

                                         *****



                                           104
‘The menu in this place is a little strange,’ Kate said at dinner that night, pointing to a
selection called ‘Fried Aborigine with Tofu’.
That was not the only thing strange about the menus. Under the section called vegetarian,
there were invariably choices such as ‘chicken with vegetables’ or ‘beef with vegetables’.
If that was vegetarian, then it led me to wonder exactly what they served with the meat
dishes. Lamb with seasonal chicken and your choice of beef or pork in a veal sauce?
‘Let’s get out of here and go down to the beach,’ Shotty said, and we all quickly agreed.

The beach bars laid out straw mats just like Hat Rin, and also like Hat Rin they hired
well-oiled guys with six-packs to twirl firesticks with their shirts off. It seemed that
Samet was not the quiet beach we had been expecting. It was a miniature Ko Pha Ngan,
and like Pattaya, it appeared that it had more prostitutes that it knew what to do with. I
was sitting on the mat, looking at where I had kicked my toe on the southern islands. It
was so deep that it simply wasn’t healing and looked like it was becoming infected. There
was skin at least half a centimeter thick missing from the end of it, and the flesh
underneath was starting to turn a horrible shade purple.
‘You should get that looked at,’ Kate said, sitting down next to me, followed closely by
Shotty.
‘You should get that haircut looked at too,’ added Shotty.
Fortunately the recriminations that would have followed such a remark were cut short,
when a Thai girl, who was quite possibly the most drunken creature I have ever seen,
stumbled across the mats. She was barely able to stand and spurting out lines of Thai to a
largely uncomprehending audience. Samet seemed to be a weekend retreat for a lot of
Thais living in Bangkok, and so there were some people who could understand what was
being said and what they were hearing was making them cringe. She did a lap of the
mats, yelling in Thai the whole time, before stopping near the fire pit that had been made
in the centre of them. It wasn’t too long before two girls, both in miniskirts and platform
shoes came running across the mats, and grabbed her by the hair, throwing her to the
ground. Her drunken stumbles almost made her fall backwards into the fire pit, but she
landed just short and the girls proceeded to give her a thorough kicking. Nobody seemed
too inclined to stop them, but eventually one guy went over to calm them down. One of
the girls, saw us looking at her, as she stood breathing heavily with her hair hanging
down in front of her face. She flashed us a smile and came and sat down next to us. She
was probably the second most drunken creature I have ever seen. Although she clearly
knew a lot of English words, she had little grasp of what order they were supposed to go
in as she tried to explain her actions. Her explanation was largely incomprehensible, and
the only information which I can solidly report as fact, and which was driven home quite
frequently was that that girl they had beaten was a 'stupid bitch'.

                                         *****

I was woken up at 5:00am as the first rooster noticed the sun rising. This alerted the
other, more lazy roosters who had been dozing around and they leapt to their feet,
crowing as well. For some reason, that’s not enough for the little bastards. They can’t just
see the sun, crow once and then get on with their business for the day. Their brains are so



                                            105
small and their memory so short that whenever they see the sun they’re so surprised they
crow again. I lay there with a pillow on my head for as long as I could stand it, but I was
finally forced to admit defeat. As I emerged from my bungalow, a rooster strutted past
the front of my room proudly. Shotty approached just as I shut the door.
‘Let’s go for a ride,’ he suggested.
So we decided to rent some motorcycles, as it had been a while since I’d ridden one, and
even longer for Shotty. Kate wisely decided to go to the beach instead.
‘They’re dangerous! Tourists are always injured on those things!’
I knew that this was true, but I wanted to reassure her.
‘Oh come on, it’s not that common. How often do you see seriously injured tourists
wandering around?’
I realised as I said it exactly how stupid that question was but we were not to be
dissuaded by mere safety issues.

The roads on Samet are all dirt, and fairly rough, so the bikes were 110cc Honda Dreams
with dirt bike tires and suspension. I had found my new favourite bike! Okay, it was
slightly less powerful than a top of the line ride-on lawnmower but it looked so much
cooler! We took off around the island, heading inland over the dirt tracks. It seemed to be
set up like a motocross course, with hillocks and bumps everywhere, although this was
mainly due to soil erosion. For a National Park, Samet certainly had a very lax policy
towards preservation. The island was so small that we found that we had seen everything
within an hour. Samet has a serious water shortage and the water is rationed out and the
last thing we found was the reservoir in the centre of the island. When we drove around
the big concrete pit it was looking very low indeed. I skidded to a halt, looking down into
it.
‘Where should we go after Samet?’ I asked Shotty as he stopped next to me.
‘Well, there’s something called the Mae Hong Son loop up north. We rent bikes out from
Chiang Mai and do a six hundred kilometre loop up around through Pai and back down
again. It might take a few days but it should be a lot of fun. Do you think you could
handle that long on a bike?’
I only had to think about it for a few seconds.
‘Let’s do it.’


The Mae Hong Son Loop
Somebody had managed to access Kate’s email account, presumably because she forgot
to sign out in an internet café. They had changed the language (to Swedish, naturally) and
a quick look at her personal details revealed that she was now a twelve year old boy from
Morocco called ‘yo momma’. This in itself would not have been anything other than a
minor irritant except for the fact that they also saw fit to delete all of her archived emails.
The fact that the language was changed to Swedish may not necessarily have meant that
the culprit themselves was Swedish but I wouldn’t have been surprised. I had lived
among their kind, broken bread with them, and I knew what they were capable of! This
may very well be the first time a viking sacked and looted somebody’s email account.




                                             106
We had taken the sleeper train to Chiang Mai, and were staying in a place called Sanook.
Sanook was run by a woman called Noi and it was where I had stayed when last in
Chiang Mai, four years earlier. Shotty had been there the year before and Noi recognised
him immediately. After a while she conceded that she thought I looked familiar too. The
rooms, whilst spartan (actually a Spartan would probably have complained about the lack
of comfort), cost only fifty nine baht. On top of this unbeatable price, Noi is the nicest
and friendliest person you could ever hope to meet.

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and the centre is made up of a fort area,
complete with tall stone walls and a water-filled moat. The walls are still largely intact
and the main tourist area is located around the Tha Phae Gate: two huge wooden gates
that open out onto a paved market area. Beyond that, a few hundred metres down the
road, there is the massive night market. Budget restaurants, expensive restaurants, fast
food restaurants: and all of them nestled amongst market stalls that stretch as far as the
eye can see. Chiang Mai is a perfect blend of modern consumerism and ancient beauty.

I had arranged to meet Neil, the Englishman I had met on Ko Pha Ngan, at a bar called
THC later that night. As it happened, we met earlier than that when we saw him by
chance walking past Sanook, having taken a room in the place next door. We were sitting
out the front watching the world go by.
‘Neil! You made it! How was the full moon party?’ I asked him.
He shrugged, sitting down on one of the benches next to us.
‘You know how it is. We got completely wankered. What have you been up to?’
It was my turn to shrug now.
‘Not much. Getting completely wankered, mainly.’
So we went out to dinner, and spent most of the meal explaining the state of our bowels
to each other. This becomes something of a habit whilst travelling in Asian countries
(especially in India) and it sometimes takes quite an adjustment to realise that it is not a
topic for polite conversation upon returning to the real world.

Anyway, we did end up going to the THC bar, which was utterly empty. It was on a
rooftop overlooking Chiang Mai and had a very unsafe railing set at just below knee
height all the way around. It offered a great view of the Tha Phae Gate, which was lit up
with yellow floodlights. The THC bar seemed very laid back, probably due to the fact
that they sold shots of whisky that contained the bar’s namesake. We sat around drinking
and discussing politics as I always seemed to do with Neil, before Shotty finally
mentioned our plan.
‘Can you ride a bike, Neil?’ he asked.
‘Sure. I’m all right.’
‘Well we’re thinking of taking a little trip. Six hundred kilometers in about three days.
You interested?’
Neil looked skeptical. I have to admit that initially, although I had agreed to do it, I
wasn’t sure we would make it. I was convinced we would either get lost or have a head-
on with a speeding truck. Kate had declined to make the trip, deciding to meet us in Pai
as we came through, but she had been kind enough to draw us a map from her Lonely




                                            107
Planet, and had quite thoroughly researched the route that we were to take. Looking at the
handwritten papers she’d handed to Shotty, I was sure it wouldn’t be too hard.
‘Isn’t it a bit rainy this time of year? Especially up north?’ Neil said finally.
It was not the response we’d been hoping for. We hadn’t even really considered that
aspect of things. Fortunately, Shotty had the answer.
‘Nah. We’ll be right,’ he said.

The following morning I woke up with a hangover. It had been a late night and an
impromptu water fight with Shotty on the walls of the old city had left me without
anything to drink the night before. Nonetheless, after breakfast we headed over to get
motorcycles from the aptly named Mr Beer.
‘We should get 125cc bikes,’ suggested Shotty, ‘A lot of this ride is going to be on
highways and things so we’ll need the extra power.’
The fact that 125ccs was considered extra power would have been laughable to most
people. So we got 125cc Honda Dreams and when I started it up for the first time, it
purred. We had convinced Neil that it would be a good idea, and after waving the
handwritten pages in front of him, he agreed to do it.
‘Be careful. It’s very rainy now, especially further north,’ Noi said when we told her our
plans.
Neil looked a little concerned when he heard this.
‘We’ll be right,’ repeated Shotty.
We were only taking very light packs and leaving the rest in Sanook. Kate was going to
go up to Pai the next day and meet us there as she had stayed in Pai for a month or more
the year earlier and knew plenty of people living there.

Getting out of Chiang Mai was fairly easy, although the traffic was heavy. We knew only
what road we were to get onto to be heading in the right direction, and after that we were
counting on signs to help us. We circled the old city walls a few times, darting between
tuk tuks and cars before finding the correct one. The first day of riding we followed main
roads for the most part. The 125cc’s could cruise at about one hundred without becoming
too unstable, but anything beyond that and the handlebars started to wobble. I was
wearing a helmet (with BEER emblazoned proudly across the back in big yellow letters)
but it was far too large for me and in an accident I didn’t hold out much hope that it
would save my life. In general, riders stuck to the shoulder, so we did the same except
when overtaking, and we had no problems as the signs were in both Thai and English.
We were heading for Mae Sariang, about one hundred and eighty kilometres away from
Chiang Mai by road, but it wasn’t too long before it started to rain. At first it was just a
light sprinkle. I had foolishly not brought anything with me to protect me from the rain. I
had intended to buy a poncho at a 7-11 before we set out, but I’d forgotten. I remembered
now. I had to put on my sunglasses in order to stop the raindrops from blinding me, but
unfortunately the sky had darkened considerably, so it was hard to see. I focused only on
the road in front of me and tried to think happy thoughts.

By the time we passed by a sign saying ‘Mae Sariang 20km’, it was coming down so hard
I couldn’t tell where I was going. I was following Shotty’s tail-light in front of me, but
the sides of the road were mainly a blur and I could only see about five metres in front of



                                            108
me. There was at least an inch of water on the road and it was hard to turn. My clothes
were soaked through, as was my distinctly un-waterproof bag which I had placed in the
basket in front of me. The water was pooling in the seat of my pants and I was freezing.
My hands had begun to go numb as I blindly followed the red light glowing in front of
me. As usual, I was soaked. When we finally arrived in Mae Sariang, Neil pulled up
behind us, panting.
‘What the hell was that?!?’ he exclaimed.
‘What?’ I replied, the rain still pouring down on us as the locals huddled under awnings
and watched us with bemused expressions.
‘Why were you driving so fast?’ he demanded, ‘You were doing eighty on a mountain
road with blind corners.’
I hadn’t noticed how fast we’d been going, but it was probably true. I was in such a hurry
to get somewhere dry that I hadn’t been paying much attention to the speedometer.
‘They weren’t just blind corners. I couldn’t see jack shit on the straights either!’ Shotty
said.

Mae Sariang is a small town, with single storey traditional Thai houses and a river
running through the centre. Our guest house was one of only a few in town, and seemed
to be completely empty. The rooms were very nice but quickly became not so nice as wet
clothing was flung around the place and muddy footprints were left on the floor.
'Hey Simon, want a beer?' Shotty said, no sooner had I put on my only other dry T-shirt.
It had, of course, stopped raining the instant that we arrived and when we went into town
to check out the local nightlife all we could find was a Thai bar, decorated with Liverpool
colours, and showing a football match on the television.
‘You support Liverpool?’ they asked as we entered, and naturally we pledged our
allegiance to the team.
They cheered, and poured us some beers. It came in mugs that had been half filled with
water and then frozen, so that the warm beer would cool down. This was fine until the ice
melted free and then every time we lowered the glass after drinking, the ice would slide
back into place and spray our faces with beer. The locals cheered this as well.
‘Okay,’ Neil said, ‘Now tomorrow, if it’s raining as bad as it was today, we are not going
to ride in it, agreed?’
Shotty and I both agreed, but I was secretly wondering exactly what it was we would do
instead.

The following morning it wasn’t raining, but a quick look up at the sky showed that it
would almost certainly come down later that day.
‘Do you think it will rain today?’ we asked the hotel owner as we loaded up our still
sodden possessions.
‘Oh yes. Definitely,’ he said, smiling.
‘We have to go, we can just stop if it gets too bad,’ I said.
‘And do what?’ Neil argued.
Good question, but one with no real answer, and so we soon set off, through what was
becoming increasingly less long gentle curves, and turning into sharper and much more
entertaining winding little roads up the sides of bloody great mountains. We were
winding our way up one mountain and then down the other side, again and again. We had



                                           109
to cover the same distance as the day before to get to Mae Hon Song, but this time we
weren’t doing ninety on a dry stretch of highway. In one of the valleys, we were speeding
past rice paddies, surrounded by towering rock faces, when the drizzle became a
downpour. Just off the road, next to a rice field, was a small bamboo platform with a
makeshift roof on it. We pulled up our bikes and huddled underneath it. It was beautiful
in a way. The cliffs towered all around us and gigantic ferns, far larger than any I have
ever seen, clung to the sides of them at bizarre angles.
‘I’m desperate to take a shit,’ Neil said, spoiling the serenity completely.
‘I’m not feeling too hot either,’ Shotty said, and they both went tramping off into the
wilderness to squat under the deluge. They both had something resembling a nuclear
reactor inside them judging from some of the waste they were pumping out, and I was
glad when the rain slackened off enough for us to keep moving. The more distance we
put between ourselves and that contaminated rice field the better.

The road continued winding up and down, over hills and valleys, but we eventually
pulled into Mae Hong Son. It was a much larger town than Mae Sariang, but still fairly
small. The buildings were taller, and the place we were staying was nearby an artificial
lake, surrounded by bars and Wats. Unlike Mae Sariang, it had a definite tourist presence.
Our guest house this time consisted of two mattresses on a floor and a dead dragonfly
being eaten by ants.
'We'll take it,' I said immediately.
Along with chickens, I had developed a dislike of dragonflies ever since they started
hitting me in the face at high speed whilst riding, and leaving yellow streaks across my
forehead.

                                        *****

We went out that night to a bar by the side of the lake, imaginatively called 'Lakeside
Bar' where a Thai guy was singing John Denver covers for no reason I could understand.
We had plans to have an early night as we were all sore from too much riding and we had
to ride to Pai the next morning. This leg of the journey was to be substantially shorter
than the rest of the trip but it would still be exhausting. Just as we were thinking about
leaving, three cars of Thai police officers turned up and marched into the place. I
assumed it was to shoot the guy singing John Denver covers, as it was something I had
been considering myself, but instead about five cops started wandering around with their
revolvers and flirting with customers. They seemed to completely ignore the farang in the
bar, going only for the Thais. I asked a waiter what was going on and he raised his arms.
'No, no problem. You stay,’ he said.
‘Okay. But what’s going on?’ I said again.
‘They're checking IDs. One hundred baht on the spot fine.'
As we watched the police go about their business it became clear that this fine was not
exactly a fine as we understood it.
‘There, that kid got caught, see?’ Shotty said, pointing, as an obviously under-aged boy
failed to produce identification.
He reached into his pocket and handed over his one hundred baht fine. Then he sat down
and kept drinking as the cops continued on their way. This happened several times before



                                           110
the cops all returned to their cars and took off down the street, towards the next bar. It
was payday for the Mae Hong Son Police Department it seemed!

Pai is about one hundred and ten kilometres from Mae Hong Son and therefore
represented a relatively short ride for us. We had been doing about one hundred and
eighty kilometres a day and so half way through we decided to stop and have some lunch.
We were making good time, it was only just past midday and we were already halfway
there. There had also been no rain, which was good, as the roads were becoming steeper
than ever. We had taken to racing each other, speeding up the hills and down the other
side, only stopping once we came to the next mountain. Most of the time we were spread
out enough that it seemed we were doing the ride alone, which was a marvelous feeling
of freedom. The menu at the isolated restaurant by the road side offered the enticing ‘pan-
fried sticky rice of pain’. I wanted some ‘glass noodles of doom with tofu’ but they didn't
have any, so I just got a coke.

As we left the restaurant and passed through a tiny town called Soppong, I found myself
trailing behind the others. There seemed to be something wrong with my bike. It was
starting to shake, and I slowed down just in time as my rear tire blew out. I was doing
about eighty but fortunately I was on a long, dry, stretch of road and although I fishtailed
wildly for about a hundred metres, I managed to bring the bike to a halt without coming
off. I got off to inspect the damage. The back tire was completely flat. I had heard it burst
and it sounded like a gunshot. Shotty and Neil had just disappeared around the corner up
in front of me and I knew that they wouldn’t stop to wait for me at least until they
reached the top of the hill. There was nothing else for it. I would have to push the bike
back to Soppong and hope that somebody could help me. It didn’t weigh a lot, but when I
had to push it three kilometers, up and down hills, it became a different story. I rode the
rim down the smaller hills, and kept the engine running so that the bike could drive itself
up the hills with me just guiding it, but it was still some time before I found what I was
looking for. I passed a farm shed, where two guys were working on a beaten-up old car.
They saw me approach and came running out and then they took the bike off me and
pointed at an old smelly lounge chair that was sitting next to the shed. I didn’t know what
else to do so I just sat down, wondering what all this was going to cost me.

Shotty and Neil drove past, about fifteen minutes later, and I ran to the side of the road
and flagged them down.
‘So you’re not dead,’ Shotty said, ‘I guess I lost the bet, Neil.’
The mechanics seemed excited by their arrival. My efforts at communication had been
fairly pointless, but they seemed to know what they were doing so I left them to it. One of
them pointed at Neil’s bike, but Neil seemed unsure as to what he wanted.
‘I think he wants to borrow it. They need to go buy an inner tube in town,’ I said.
I had watched them trying to fit an inner tube that was clearly too small for quite a while
now.
‘One hundred baht,’ said the mechanic, leaping onto Neil’s bike.
I handed him the cash and he took off but it seemed strange that they didn’t have their
own bikes. I would have assumed mechanics would have an over-abundance of transport,
and there certainly seemed to be a lot of old cars lying around, but I guess they hadn’t



                                            111
actually gotten any of them to run. This didn’t bode well for the possibility of them fixing
my bike any time soon.

As it turned out it was very fast. When his friend returned they fixed my wheel and sent
me on my way within five minutes. They seemed to think the hundred I had given them
was enough. Eighty for the tube and twenty for the work. Mechanics at home could learn
something from this. It wasn’t until I had driven over the final hill and we were
descending into Pai that I noticed the banging sound coming from under the chain guard.
It didn’t matter by that stage. It was all downhill from there. We’d made it.


Pai
Kate was staying at a place called Mr Jan’s Lodge. Set in an alley back from the main
road it had bungalows of varying quality in amongst a tranquil herb garden. Mr Jan
offered a variety of different services, including massages and saunas, and every morning
a big pot of herbal tea was placed out for anybody who wanted it. The water that came
from the taps smelt of herbs, and even the water in the toilet had a herbal aroma. The only
thing wrong with my room was that the toilet seat was split in the middle on either side. It
was not enough to snap it in two but it had a tendency to pinch me if I stood up too
quickly. I would have to be careful about that.

I was examining my toe, which by now had become so septic that the skin on the end was
completely gone. The skin which remained around that only loosely covered the purple
flesh underneath. Apart from being absolutely disgusting, this also had the quite
disconcerting effect of making my toe resemble a penis. As I was examining this wound,
Shotty leapt out of his room onto the shared balcony between our bungalows, brandishing
a gun and firing it at me. A small plastic ball bearing went flying past my head, bouncing
around before landing in the pond.
‘They sell them up at the convenience store. Come have a look,’ he said.

Pai is a small town, mainly made up of wooden houses and restaurants. There are two
streets that intersect in the approximate centre of the town and most of the guesthouses
and restaurants are in that area. It is a very small place, and despite becoming more and
more tourist-orientated it somehow still retains the charm of a traditional Thai town. How
long it manages to hold on to that innocence remains to be seen. Apart from being a nice
place to relax, Pai is also a magnificent place to purchase all kinds of highly dangerous
weapons. Which is what me and Shotty went searching for. The convenience store not
only had BB guns, but also working crossbows and bows, and katana-style swords with a
thin blade like an large filleting knife. With all the stuff on offer in just one store we
could easily have hunted down and filleted our fellow man, all for under a thousand baht!
I decided to forgo the crossbow, as that could only result in accidental death or severe
wounding, and got a BB gun instead where the worst that could happen was somebody
being permanently blinded. The gun I bought was the largest and most powerful one
there, as I am a highly inadequate member of the male gender, and when we returned to
our room we immediately set up some targets on the railing. It was reasonably accurate
and so powerful that shooting each other was not an option, so instead we set up Neil’s



                                            112
lighter and took pot shots. I hit it on the second go and it fell on its side, spitting butane
and spinning around wildly, steam rising from the puddle of liquid gas. I looked at Neil
after the hissing had stopped.
‘Cool.’
‘You idiot,’ he replied, and I went inside and got him another lighter to replace his fallen
companion.
Kate had opted out of purchasing weaponry and had instead bought a pad of letter writing
paper. The front cover had the words ‘Happy Time Sodami!’ written proudly across it. A
fine purchase.

                                          *****

Neil left the following day, as he was in a hurry to get to Laos, and so after we gave him
some very vague directions on how to find Chiang Mai, he rode off into the sunset. In the
meantime, Kate had booked me in for a herbal sauna. I wasn’t entirely sure what this
consisted of, but it wasn’t long until I found out.
‘Put this on,’ said the woman, handing me a sarong.
I nodded, as Shotty stood back shaking his head. He had absolutely refused to be
involved and looking at the apparatus I was beginning to think that wasn’t a bad idea. It
stood in a small covered area in the middle of the herb garden and it looked like a
miniature circus tent, covering some wooden bleachers. Along the top of it were several
holes where our heads could protrude. I put on the sarong in the bathroom. A sarong is a
piece of clothing that is very flattering on some, but not at all when wrapped around my
pasty form. When I got inside the tent and poked my head out of the hole, the woman
wrapped a towel around my neck to stop heat escaping. It was hot inside the tent, as a
large boiler had been lit behind it several hours before, but having my head outside made
it bearable. Kate clambered in next to me, poking her head out as well.
‘My nose is really itchy,’ I said, realising I had no hands to scratch it as the sweat rolled
off my body.
Shotty wandered over and scratched it for me.
‘I also have this!’ he said, revealing an electric fly swat, and pushing it against my head,
sending a shock through my skin, made more conductive by the layer of moisture.
‘Don’t you dare do that again!’ I said, but he just laughed.
‘What are you going to do, bite me?’ he said, shocking me once more.

‘Time to get out!’ said the woman after ten minutes and she opened the flap and offered
us a cup of tea.
Hot, herbal tea. HOT tea. As we were drinking it she began to mix lemon juice and honey
up in a small wooden bowl, and I assumed it was for the tea, but then she suddenly
dipped her hand in and began to smear it all over me.
‘Back in!’ she said, wandering over to the tent flap and gesturing. I didn’t want to go
back in, but I was covered in honey and the bees were starting to circle so I did as I was
told. A little while later four English girls walked past and looked strangely at each other
from about ten metres away.
‘What do you think that is?’ one of them said.
The other shrugged.



                                             113
‘Don’t know. Let’s go and have a look,’ they said, coming closer.
‘Maybe they have some kind of performances here…’
‘It’s a herbal sauna,’ I replied and they all jumped.
One of them actually screamed. They came over to look at us in disbelief.
‘We thought you were some kind of puppets!’ they declared, ‘You scared the crap out of
us!’
Our little heads bobbed up and down.
‘What’s it like?’
‘Hot.’
Sweat was running down us in rivers, and when we got out the second time, our sarongs
were as wet as if we had been swimming in them. More tea followed before she again
gestured for us to get back into the tent, but this time I had to sit at the back near the
raised section, my head no longer sticking out. Kate joined me seconds later and we sat
there, lightly poaching in lemon and honey like two pieces of fish. We sat this way for
what seemed like an eternity. Normally I like saunas but this one was almost unbearably
hot and humid. I felt like I was about to pass out, or possibly throw up, but for some
reason I just sat there, determined to finish the treatment.
‘This is killing me,’ I said to Kate, but she could barely respond.
Finally the woman opened the flap and stuck a fork in my leg.
‘You’re done,’ she said, and we got out.
The feeling of relief was amazing. I felt fantastic. It was the most amazing feeling of pure
relief I have ever felt. Shotty stood nearby shaking his head even after I described this
sensation to him.
‘Yeah, and if you beat your head against a brick wall for ten minutes and then stop, that
feels pretty good too!’
But after I had a shower, I hadn’t felt so clean in months of travel. It was a good feeling
while it lasted, which was not long at all.

                                         *****

When Kate had been in Pai before she used to go to a bar called Bee-Bop and had gotten
to know the owner, Chart, very well. It appeared that along with the expansion of the
town, Chart had expanded Bee-Bop as well and had changed locations. It was now a bit
out of town so we rode there and, on arrival, found ourselves looking at a two storey
structure standing next to a field lined with motorcycles. What had apparently been a nice
quiet bar with a lot of character and live music was now a dimly lit place with excessive
air conditioning and farang everywhere. It could have been a bar anywhere in the world.
Chart recognised Kate immediately and got us all a beer. He was a young Thai guy, with
long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and after some brief introductions he excused himself
as it was time for the band to start. In addition to being the owner of the bar, he was also
a talented guitarist. They did some covers of old songs, mainly twelve bar blues. Shotty,
who had had a few beers by this stage, began to sing.
‘Well I’m sitting here in Pai,’ he sang in a gravel-throated voice.
‘Drinking away my woe,’ I replied in an equally gravelly voice.
‘And I can’t even tell,’ we continued. ‘If it’s a penis or my toe! Oh I got the blues… the
Bee Bop ski doodle dopping blues… that’s right.’



                                            114
Kate turned to her right slightly, pretending that she wasn’t with us. We didn’t stop
singing and she eventually went and sat at the bar to talk to Chart, who had just finished
his set with the band. He was fairly busy serving customers however, and it wasn’t long
before somebody sat down next to her. He was an Australian bloke, perhaps in his late
forties, and incredibly drunk. He had trouble standing, and we had seen him enter the bar
an hour or so earlier. He was so plastered that he sat down in a chair near the door
because the stairs into the main bar were a bit too tricky for him and he was carrying a
bag that had a wooden handle sticking from it. He was also making some very smooth
advances on Kate, which consisted largely of sticking his arm around her and declaring
that he was in love with her. She gave Shotty a ‘help me’ look as she told him she had a
boyfriend. To this he replied that he didn’t care if she was attached, because he loved her
and that was all that mattered. Together, they could overcome any obstacles. Chart
wandered past and Shotty stopped him, pointing at the bar.
‘Do you know that guy?’ he asked.
Chart nodded.
‘I don’t know his name, but he was here last night. He was so drunk we had to let him
sleep on the lounges here.’
‘Why didn’t you just kick him out?’ I asked.
Chart shrugged.
‘Doesn’t bother me if he sleeps here, long as he doesn’t throw up. And besides, he carries
a machete around in his bag. Not worth the trouble.’
We both looked over at the wooden handle that was sticking out of his bag, and then at
his clumsy advances on Kate. Shotty got to his feet and wandered over nonchalantly.
‘I think we should leave,’ he said, glaring at the man.
She nodded and stood up, but as she did, the man leant in close and whispered in her ear.
‘I think your boyfriend wants to kill me,’ he said.
‘You’re the one with the machete,’ she replied and he nodded, as if he was just
remembering this fact.

Instead of doing the sensible thing and going home we instead went to the local
swimming pool where the party was continuing. It was a large pool with an attached
community centre, where a makeshift bar had been set up and was selling over-priced
beer. We very quickly met up a girl from Melbourne and her friend, as well as a middle-
aged English guy who was talking to them. One of the stranger of my habits is that when
I imbibe alcohol with a little too much gusto, I have a tendency to speak in a Scottish
accent. It’s not a very good one, and the Englishman picked up on this immediately.
‘There’s no Scotsman in the world who speaks like that!’ he declared haughtily upon
hearing it.
I tried to insist, my accent becoming more and more outrageous and unconvincing, but I
finally had to admit that no, I was not Scottish after all.
‘So where are you actually from?’ asked the Melbourne girls.
‘Australia. Sydney,’ I replied in my normal voice.
They looked at each other and began to laugh.
‘Oh like crap you are!’ said one of the girls, ‘that’s the worst accent I’ve ever heard.’
‘What! This is my normal voice!’ I protested.




                                           115
‘Sure it is,’ said her friend in a very strong Australian accent, ‘Look, we’re from
Melbourne and I think we know what Australians sound like.’
They refused to believe me and I quickly lost interest in trying to convince them, so like a
few others had done before me I stripped down to my boxers and hurled myself into the
swimming pool. It was colder than I’d expected and I climbed out again. It was time to
go home. I wandered out of the party carrying my clothes, with my dripping boxer shorts
leaving a trail of water through the community centre. It was freezing on my bike, but I
stopped just long enough to order some falafel from a roadside stand. The woman selling
falafel seemed completely unfazed by my near nudity and merely asked if I wanted
hummus or not. I did.

Somehow I made it home, although by rights I should have been removed from the gene
pool in a road accident for attempting to ride in that state. Instead, I managed to injure
myself in the most embarrassing and stupid way possible. I sat on the toilet seat in
drunken repose and, once my transaction was complete, I stood up too quickly, cutting
myself on either cheek. There was blood running down the back of my legs in thin little
rivers. I had to laugh at the absurdness of it, despite the pain. I had cut my arse open!

                                         *****

The following morning, the penis toe and the cut arse combined with a thumping
hangover meant that I was not at all in a good mood.
‘Who wants to ride one hundred and thirty four kilometres on a motorcycle, leaving in
about half an hour?’ I asked Shotty when the banging in my head subsided to a dull roar.
He seemed unenthusiastic, shooting at me with his BB gun until I let him go back to
sleep, so we decided to stay another night in Pai. We had made the decision to leave the
night before, on the suggestion of drunken Simon. It was a decision that hung-over Simon
only tentatively endorsed. Sober Simon, had he been around, would no doubt have been
disgusted by the both of us and told us to sleep it off. The uptight prick.

Later that day Shotty and I went for a ride in search of a nearby waterfall. We had been
riding for quite some time, and the road had turned into little more than a dirt track, when
we suddenly came across a very small hill tribe girl in traditional dress. She flagged us
down and indicated that she wanted a lift, before jumping on the back of Shotty’s bike.
She wrapped her arms around him very tightly and we rode off. As I followed behind she
kept sticking out her tongue in a strange way and staring at me or gesturing at Shotty who
was oblivious to all of this. I was a bit bemused and wasn’t entirely sure what she was
getting at but it all became strikingly clear once she got off the back of the bike. She
raised her fingers in the standard two-finger ‘up yours’ salute. This in itself would have
been strange enough, had she not then placed it up to her mouth and stuck her tongue
through obscenely in the internationally recognised sign for cunnilingus. I was shocked to
say the least! I’d expect this sort of thing in Pattaya in a seedy bar somewhere, but not
from a young hill-tribe woman in Pai wearing traditional hand-made clothing!
‘So why don’t you shag her then?’ Shotty asked me in all seriousness as we rode away.




                                            116
Chiang Mai
On the ride back to Chiang Mai both Shotty and I had a problem. His was an unfortunate
case of food poisoning (or something similar) that meant he needed to go to the toilet
about fifty to sixty times a day. Mine was the fact that I had cut two large sections out of
my arse on a damaged toilet seat and therefore sitting down was not at all comfortable.
But we had no choice. We had to get back to Chiang Mai. Shotty’s problem was
something I could feel the early rumblings of in myself. A feeling in the pit of the
stomach that could only be described as ‘Thailand’. We rode quickly, over mountains and
over rivers. Kate was on the bus behind us somewhere, but we didn’t wait for her. We
were in a hurry, as the nearest bathroom was quite some distance, and only bears shit in
the woods. We made it back quickly, in a little over two hours. The rattle in my engine
that had developed after getting the tire fixed had become worse and worse, and was most
obvious when the bike was idling. It was strange to be back in a big city like Chiang Mai,
and I did a circuit of the city walls in the old section, dodging between traffic and trying
to remember where Mr Beer’s bike shop was. When I did finally return my bike I was
glad when they only made a cursory inspection and gave me back my passport without
even starting it up. Shotty was not so lucky. A dent in his exhaust pipe (which he had not
made) set him back five hundred baht as they held his passport to ransom.

We returned to Sanook where Noi looked pleased to see us and Kate was waiting. She
had beaten us back after all our messing about with Mr Beer.
‘You made it! I was quite worried when I heard how much rain there had been,’ Noi said.
‘We were fine. No problems at all,’ I lied, completely ignoring our first near-fatal day of
the Mae Hong Son loop.
‘So where are you going now?’ she asked.
‘Well we’re going to England. Back to Bangkok to fly out,’ Kate said.
‘What about you?’ Noi asked.
That was a good question. I had been thinking about going to Laos, but I wasn’t sure if I
wanted to do it on my own. Then again, no matter where I went from now on I would be
doing it on my own.
‘Can you arrange for me to get to Luang Prabang?’ I asked, and Noi nodded.
‘I can, but it’s Friday now and even if you put in for the express one they won’t begin
processing it until Monday morning.’
I thought about this. Five days in Chiang Mai it would end up being.
‘Okay. Let’s do it,’ I said, reaching into my money belt and handing Noi my passport.

                                         *****

It was supposedly the last night that Shotty, Kate and I would all be together and so we
planned to have a big night. Again. That was the plan, but as it turned out, Shotty’s bowel
emptying antics were not quite as simple as first thought. He was not only painting the
porcelain every ten minutes or so, but having painful stomach cramps that Kate suggested
sounded very much like period pain. In fact, she said it sounded exactly the same. So
there you go, Madonna, one man who does know what it feels like for a girl…




                                            117
Unfortunately, this meant that a heavy night of boozing was out of the question but we
decided to go and have a nice dinner after Shotty had a bit of a lie down. I was sitting in
my room, looking at Sanook’s stark concrete walls and trying to read my book, when I
heard some moaning start up next door. It was quite regular and a bit breathless and I
sighed to myself. It went on for quite some time, this regular and rhythmic moaning.
‘Bloody hell,’ I cursed under my breath, , ‘Like bloody rabbits some people are…’
It continued on for quite a while. I was trying to ignore it as much as possible, and
fortunately most of it seemed to be in Japanese anyway. From the sounds of it, whatever
was being said was bound to be absolutely filthy. It continued for another five minutes or
so and I decided that what I had at first supposed to be moans of passion may in fact have
been something else. It sounded like somebody reading some kind of mantra or prayer. It
was regular and repetitive in pattern and in a dull monotone. It was still annoying, but at
least it didn’t conjure up the same disturbing imagery as before. It wasn’t long after that
that I heard someone talking outside my door. It sounded like Shotty and Kate, so I stuck
my head out to see what was going on and there, crouched in the opposite doorway was a
very small Japanese guy, barely able to move and moaning. Kate was kneeling by his
side and checking his temperature.
‘Didn’t you hear him calling for help?’ she asked, as Shotty rushed off to get an
ambulance.
‘I heard something…’ I said sheepishly.
‘Well how long was that going on?’
‘About ten minutes,’ I replied, ashamed.
She looked at me in disbelief.
‘Maybe fifteen,’ I said.
‘And you didn’t help him?’
‘I thought he was having sex! If that was the case then offering to help could cause great
offence!’ I protested.

As it turned out, the same guy had been sick several times and had already been to
hospital repeatedly. His friends were all sitting around downstairs and didn’t seem too
concerned so we weren’t either. But Shotty looked considerably lighter on his feet as we
walked towards Tha Phae Gate, as if this greater suffering had somehow eased his own.
He also took his BB gun, as he did everywhere, and fired randomly at pretty much
anything that crossed his path. Whilst this may have been in line with US foreign policy,
both Kate and I thought that it might harm diplomatic relations between Thailand and
ourselves and we asked him nicely to put it away. We went to the Art café, which is
expensive and does mainly Western food, as this was all Shotty’s pesky stomach would
allow. In sympathy for the man, I decided to refrain from drinking beer.
‘It wouldn’t be fair, you sitting there all sick, if we were to start drinking and having a
good time,’ I argued.
‘Don’t be stupid! You shouldn’t let my illness stop you from ruining your liver.’
But I was adamant. I would not be drinking beer that night. Kate reluctantly agreed to do
the same, as the waitress approached and asked what we would like.
‘A spinach and ricotta pizza and a large Chang’ I blurted out.
‘I’ll have a large Chang and all,’ Kate added.
I am a weak, weak man. Shotty looked over the menu, clutching his gut.



                                           118
‘Water please,’ he said mournfully.
He looked so distressed that I seriously considered having him put down.

After we were done with dinner, I went next door to the bookshop, as I was not sure what
I would be able to find to read in Laos. I flipped through a copy of ‘The Prince’, and read
a few sentences, but I found the whole thing a bit too Machiavellian for my tastes. I
ended up getting the story of Phoolan Devi, India’s Bandit Queen instead. Kate came up
behind me, after having settled the bill next door.
‘We’re not leaving tomorrow,’ she said.
‘Why not?’
Behind her, Shotty farted loudly and then doubled over in pain.
‘Oh.’

The next day he could barely leave his room, and only got out of bed to use the bathroom.
‘Go out tonight you two. Have some beers. This really is the last night!’ he said, and this
time we didn’t even put up the pretence of staying with him out of sympathy. We went to
a German restaurant, right near the THC bar. We ordered some beers, but the overly
attentive waiter started to become annoying after a while. As soon as so much a sip of
beer was drunken from the glass he would rush over and refill it. It was a very annoying
habit. We just didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere.
‘I’m going to the toilet,’ Kate said and she noticed my look, ‘Not food poisoning, just too
much beer.’
I sat there wondering what kind of a night Shotty was having, lying flat on his back in
that concrete cell at Sanook. Kate came back soon enough.
‘They’re really nice! Western style, clean and with an antique mirror, and the toilet roll
dispenser is beautifully hand painted!’ she said.
‘Shotty would have enjoyed that,’ I said, blinking away my tears.

                                         *****

They had their bags packed, and were standing at the top of the stairs. That was it. They
were on their way to England and I was on my way to Laos by myself.
‘See ya, guys. Take care,’ I said.
‘See ya, Cutts, have fun in Laos.’
Then they were gone and I went back to my bedroom. Sitting there I thought to myself
what it was I was about to do. I had been reading up about Laos on the internet, and it
sounded a little dangerous. The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang had recently
seen a lot of raids, and two Swiss tourists had been killed just a few weeks earlier.
‘You know your problem?’ my common sense said at this point.
‘What?’ I replied dismissively.
‘You come over here and think you’re some sort of adventurer. But it’s all been done
before by thousands of backpackers before you. And they actually see the place rather
than just hanging around in bars. You’ve been away long enough. Time to get back to the
real world.’




                                           119
‘Yeah, well you know your problem? You don’t know how to have any fun!’ I replied
angrily, trying not to acknowledge the fact that I was already talking to myself after
having been on my own for only five minutes.
‘Not quite,’ my common sense replied, ‘The problem is that you don’t know when
you’ve had too much.’
I stopped listening to him at this point. The guy was clearly an idiot. I mean, who ever
heard of having too much fun?




                                          120
                               8
                 SO MUCH TIME, SO LITTLE TO DO

                                        LAOS

Luang Prabang
The minivan that took me to Chiang Khong on the banks of the Mekong river (which
forms part of the border between Laos and Thailand) was not in the best condition. It was
an incredibly hot journey, but we were told that if the air conditioning was left on whilst
the van was going up a hill then the engine would explode, killing us all. It was six hours
before we were dropped off at the hotel in Chiang Khong where we were to spend the
night. I was sitting having a phàt thai whilst two Canadian guys were playing cards at the
table next to me.
‘Do you want to join us?’ one asked me.
I tore myself away from the Thai soap opera and sat at their table. One of the guys, Dil
was originally Sri Lankan but had a strong Canadian accent, and the other was Ben, a thin
guy with glasses who frequently made comments about ‘my momma’. Every time he won
a hand at cards he would say something along the lines of.
‘Ha! I just schooled your mofo ass and yo momma can suck it,’ or something similar.
As it got dark we could see lights on the opposite side of the river coming to life. The
Mekong is wide, about two hundred metres or so where we were, and it was impossible
to see any detail but for the twinkling of gas lamps on the far bank. We got to talking
about where we had travelled and how long we had been away. Dil and Ben were both
impressed when I told them I had been away for more than six months, as they were just
doing a quick three week trip.
‘We’re hoping to do Laos in about five days and then down through Vietnam and
Cambodia before flying home.
‘In three weeks?’ I said, incredulous.
‘You don’t think that’s possible?’
I had been talking my experiences up a bit and both Ben and Dil seemed to have gotten
the impression that I was some sort of backpacker guru. I had to give a response.
‘It’s possible of course, but whether it’s worthwhile is another matter…’
Just then the lights on the terrace we were sitting on went out.
‘Yo momma! I can’t see, man!’ Ben said.
 ‘I guess we should go to bed,’ came Dil’s voice through the darkness.
‘Who said that?’ I replied, tripping over a table.

The following morning we had to get a boat across the river and be stamped into Laos,
before taking what had been described as ‘the fast boat’ up to Luang Prabang. There were
other people along with me and the Canadians. One was an English guy called Alex, who
was far browner than most Englishmen. There was also a cynical but funny German
called Chris and an Israeli couple, Marty and Marion. Marion had the largest, greenest
eyes I have ever seen in my life and Marty looked very much like Banga, which was
disconcerting. We crossed into Laos with no real problems, but there was a lot of


                                           121
speculation about exactly which one was the speed boat. Everybody had heard bad stories
about them. Billy (Banga’s brother) had told me that when they were in Laos they had
seen one of them sink. It was only after we had all been stamped through that we were
led down to a small bamboo pier with several long canoes tied to it. They each had
massive engines strapped to the back of them, with multiple exhausts pointing skywards.
They looked like submerged drag racers!
‘Sweet ass candy!’ said Ben.
We were each handed motorcycle helmets and a life vest before getting in. It was six to a
boat, and I was seated up front with Alex (the Englishman). The boat was small, and my
knees were up around my ears because there was no other place to put them. Alex had
given me some earplugs, which I jammed in as we had heard some of the same types of
boats from several hundred metres away, and even that was too loud.
‘How long is this journey?’ he asked me.
‘Six hours,’ I replied.
He looked grim. He was folded up like a piece of origami, being about twenty
centimetres taller than I was.
‘Look on the bright side,’ I said, ‘It may sink long before then.’
He gave me the thumbs up as the engine started.
‘See you in hell,’ I said cheerfully to those remaining on the dock, as the boatman revved
the engine and we sped away.

The boat lived up to its name. It was definitely a speed boat. It travelled at about seventy
kilometres an hour, which felt very fast in a boat that was dodging between rock outcrops
and submerged sand bars. There was no way to talk to each other, no room to move and
my legs soon cramped up. Our driver stopped frequently and went wading ashore to hand
large wads of cash to people, seemingly at random. Of course, the Laos currency, the kip
was worth very little and the large wads of cash were probably worth a lot less than they
seemed, but something illegal was definitely going on. We ignored this, for despite the
noise and discomfort, the scenery was beautiful. Laos is without a doubt the greenest
country I’d been to. Huge mountains surrounded either side of the Mekong, each in fifty
different shades of green, all blending together in an organic mass. Five hours in, and our
boatman had handed over a lot of cash and the occasional package wrapped up in
newspaper.
'Maybe it's called a speed boat because that's what he's selling to these guys,' commented
Alex.
I didn’t get a chance to reply, as the engine came to life again and we continued.

                                         *****

We had been dropped off near Luang Prabang, and some jumbo drivers were arguing
over who got our business. A jumbo is basically a large tuk tuk, capable of taking about
ten passengers. It appeared that my exaggerated conversation with Dil and Ben in Chiang
Khong had made me the default leader.
So, man, where do we go now?’ asked Dil.
The whole group stood around looking at me expectantly. I had no idea. I’d never been to
Laos before.



                                            122
‘I dunno. Get a jumbo into the city and pick a guesthouse.’
The jumbos wanted ten thousand kip (about four dollars) each, but Marty became furious
and started walking away.
‘Four thousand,’ suggested the driver, too late.
Both the Israelis and Chris the German had walked away.
‘What do we do?’ Dil asked.
This was not a role I was cut out for, so I simply got into the jumbo.
‘Four thousand kip. That’s bugger all in any language.’
Ben, Dil and Alex got in with me.
‘Hey you’re the leader, man!’ Dil said.
I sighed. It appeared that I was.

We drove into the town, which was small but pleasant and were dropped off relatively
close to the centre. Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos and yet it doesn’t
feel that much bigger than Pai. In actual fact it is quite a lot bigger, but it still has a small
town feel. The traditional wooden houses are everywhere, especially along the
waterfront, and there is none of the hustle and bustle of most major cities. Further from
the river, most of the buildings are plain concrete boxes, but they add rather than detract
from the small town feel. All of the locals were relaxed, and seemed fairly disinterested
at our arrival. I shared a room with Alex the Pom, whilst Ben and Dil took another one.
Marty, Marion and Chris the German turned up much later in the front yard of our hostel.
I stood on the balcony looking down.
‘We got it for three thousand!’ Marty called up triumphantly.
‘You should stick with us,’ Marion agreed, ‘You will save so much money!’
‘We have a room here for you guys if you want. It’s ten thousand a night,’ I said
Marty was on a roll now and there was no way he was going to settle for that.
‘Ten thousand? I bet I can get it for half that!’ he said, storming off with Marion in tow.

We were going out that night to check on the nightlife in the city, but before we did, Alex
and I went to the restaurant next door to our guesthouse, called Wat That, to get some
pre-beer beers. There was not much of it left, just a few tables under a makeshift shelter;
the rest was a building site. The woman running the place, Li was apologetic.
'My guesthouse burnt down last September and I'm having trouble getting the money to
rebuild it. All I've got so far is that toilet block.'
She pointed over at a small concrete structure surrounded by rubble. It had three toilets
but two of them were labelled 'Unuseful'. The other one said 'You can use this one, but
please take off your shoes'. The last thing I wanted to do when entering a toilet in
Southeast Asia (or Sydney for that matter) was take off my shoes, so I held on until we
had finished our beers.
‘Will you come back for breakfast?’ she asked hopefully and we promised that we would.
We then all set off for dinner. The two Israelis and the German, the two Canadians,
myself and Alex. We found a restaurant that served something to suit all our tastes but
paying the bill turned out to be quite a struggle. We had been told that baht (what most of
us had) was acceptable in a lot of places but the menu was listed in kip. It took a very
long time, but we worked it out. Or rather, Marty worked it out. Very, very precisely. I
was happy to give up my de-facto leadership to him and sipped on yet another Beerlao as



                                              123
he punched furiously at a calculator. When he was satisfied, we moved on to a karaoke
bar, which was attached to the restaurant, as there seemed to be very few other places to
go.
‘I’m gonna do a Frank Sinatra song,’ Chris said as we entered, but to my bitter
disappointment he didn’t, because there were too many pissed Laos residents singing
songs about love lost and how great love is.
Some of the other songs were about how painful love is or about love found and then lost
on purpose because it wasn’t that great. At least I assume that was what they were about.
None were sung in English, but love isn’t bound by language. I could feel the emotion in
their off-key, slurred voices. Beautiful in its way, but the silence that followed was far
nicer. This was not my sort of place.

The only proper bar turned out to be a strange little Western oasis in the middle of the
city, just up from the waterfront. It was called the Hive Bar and the only locals in there
were serving drinks. There were no windows and it was quite hot and generally not the
nicest place in the world, but at least the beer was expensive. We all sat around drinking
Beerlao, as there was no other beer and even if there was it I wouldn’t have had it.
Beerlao remains the greatest beer I’ve ever sampled. The Israelis quickly found another
group of Israelis and we didn’t see them again for most of the night.
‘Here,’ said Chris the German handing me a small glass of clear liquid.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Dunno. It’s called Lao Lao. Drink it.’
He handed Alex, Dil and Ben a similar glass and we all threw it back. It was very strong.
Far more potent than the Vietnamese snake wine. It made my eyes water, without the
need for spraying lemon juice into them.
‘Yeah! I like it,’ Chris said, ordering another, which he threw back as soon as it touched
the bar.
We all sat back, feeling a little sick.
‘Let’s do another one together!’ Chris shouted, already drunk, and only two minutes in.
Stupidly, we did. The taste sat in our mouths like an unwanted guest and every so often a
burp brought its full flavour back with a vengeance. It did clear my sinuses though. The
Hive Bar closed at twelve and we were all herded unceremoniously to the door at the
stroke of midnight. We met Marty on the way out, who was looking a little upset.
‘You see those other Israelis? They got the jumbo for two thousand!’
I looked over at the guy he was pointing at. Was this the face that saved a thousand kip?
Marty didn’t wait for a reply. He stormed up the street angrily, again with Marion in tow.

It was just up the road from our hotel, as we were walking home, that we stopped outside
a massive temple complex with multi-headed snake gods as banisters on the stairs. It was
here, under the sightless eyes of an unnamed God that I sat with Alex, the Canadians and
two English girls that we had met at the Hive Bar.
‘We should get up at seven tomorrow and go check out the Kuang Si waterfall,' Dil
suggested.
Everyone nodded enthusiastically.
'That would be hotter than your momma!' Ben said agreeably.
I glanced at Alex's watch. It was 3:30 in the morning.



                                           124
'Let's do it. See you at 7:00!' I said.

It was 12:30 when Alex and I woke up. I looked around the tiny room, bleary eyed.
‘Didn’t I set the alarm?’ I asked.
Alex nodded.
‘It was going off for five minutes but I couldn’t find it. You didn’t even move.’
‘Oh well. Bugger it,’ I replied.
‘You told me that the dark-haired English girl was the one for you and that your long
search for love was finally over,’ Alex continued.
I considered this. Apparently all that raw emotion at the karaoke bar had rubbed off on
me.
‘Well that’s good news. What did she look like?’

                                          *****

The next day, Alex and I ran into Chris, Dil, Ben and the Israelis all of whom were
leaving for Vang Vieng that evening. Alex had spent the day trying to book a flight on
Laos Aviation to Cambodia, as he wanted to see Angkor before he had to go home. The
plan was to get a bus to Vientiane and then fly to Siem Reap. He saw this as a badge of
honour and told me that he would be completing the ‘trilogy’ if he managed it. This
consisted of the highly dangerous speed boat trip, a ride on a bus to Vientiane on the
notorious Route Thirteen, and then a trip on Laos Aviation. We had been told that Laos
Aviation used no instruments, flying only by sight, and most governments had strongly
suggested that their citizens not fly with them.
‘If I can do all three of those things in a row and still not wind up meeting God then I’m
doing well.’
‘Speaking of God,’ Chris observed, ‘You were really laying into him last night, Simon.’
‘What do you mean? What did I say?’
‘Oh don’t worry about it. That son of a bitch had it coming!’ he replied.
‘Yeah man, that was awesome last night!’ Dil interrupted, ‘We got to that karaoke bar
and you just turned it on like a tap. You were being hilarious!’
I didn’t recall being particularly hilarious but I was pleased with the compliment.
‘What did I say?’ I asked him.
He shook his head laughing.
‘Man, I have absolutely no idea!’
‘So you guys still want to go to the waterfalls? We’re going now,’ I said.
‘We already went! We said seven this morning but you never showed up, mofo!’ Ben
said.
I couldn’t believe they had dragged themselves out of bed that early.
‘Besides we have to leave soon. But go, they’re great. You’ll love it. It was really nice to
meet you guys anyway,’ Dil said.
Then the whole group walked off towards Mount Phousi, in the centre of town.

In the meantime Alex and I were heading to the Kuang Si waterfall. Marty had insisted
that we pay no more than sixty thousand kip for the trip and he seemed to know about




                                            125
these sorts of things. Unfortunately, by the time we had our stuff together, it was pouring
down with rain and we felt rather ridiculous standing there holding swimmers and towels.
‘You want to see the water fall?’ asked the driver.
I looked up to the sky.
‘I already can, mate.’
But we got in anyway. As it turned out, the rain slackened off by the time we got there. It
was only twenty nine kilometres away, but it was over dirt roads that ran through tiny
villages, sometimes made up of no more than five or six houses. Finally he stopped in a
muddy field and pointed up a path.
‘You walk from here,’ he said.
So we kept walking, trudging up the rocky path before we suddenly stopped, amazed.
There in front of us was an amazingly beautiful waterfall. It had three tiered levels,
dropping down maybe twenty metres each time and cascading over the rocks, surrounded
by the unique Laos greenery. It was, in a word, wonderful. We clambered up around the
side, trying to make our way up the muddy path which rose steeply up the side of the
cliff. If it hadn’t been raining so hard it would have been fine, but as it was we made our
way up on all fours like monkeys. Alex seemed to be having quite a bit of trouble. He
slipped several times and as he struggled to his feet it started to pour down especially
hard.
‘Oh no!’ he cried out.
I shrugged.
‘Oh come on. We’re already soaked, what does it matter?’
He shook his head.
‘Not that. I just realised that I haven’t got a Cambodian Visa!’
Then he fell on his arse and got covered in mud as it started raining. We had to laugh.

At the top, we could stand right on the edge, clinging onto overhanging trees and looking
straight down. The current was quite strong, but not too strong, and we made our way
across the top of the falls, where we met up with a group made up of Irish, Australians,
English and Germans. Leeches began to attack people, and most of us were bleeding after
not too long, but it didn’t seem to matter. It almost suited the situation. Getting down was
more a matter of falling than climbing, and sitting around in the rain at the bottom, an
English girl told me her bus to Vang Vieng the next morning had an armed escort. I
laughed.
‘No I’m serious,’ she said, ‘I paid extra for it.’
She was serious too. Alex sat there looking nervous.
‘I don’t think mine does,’ he said, but by that time we had to go back and get him to his
bus so we all jumped into our various jumbos and headed for home.

                                         *****

 ‘Is there something wrong with my right eye?’ I asked Li, in the Wat That restaurant,
next door to my guest house.
I had been spending a lot of time there after everybody had left, and was becoming
friends with Li, who ran it with her sister.




                                            126
‘There is,’ she said, ‘I’ll cook you up some hot water with chilli sauce to wash your eye
out with!’
I declined graciously. I was not falling for that again. I’d already snorted a line of salt and
squeezed a lemon in my eye in Hoi An because I was told it was the ‘Norwegian Way’. It
seemed I had conjunctivitis. I washed it thoroughly in warm water and then went to bed.
When I woke up I couldn’t open it. The lids simply would not separate. I had to use my
fingers to pry them apart and it made a sound like velcro when I did. I stood up, fearful to
even look in the mirror, but there it was. The right lid was heavy and half closed, and I
could not even force it open fully with my hands, it was so swollen. Li had told me it was
probably the guest house I was in as the whole family had had similar problems a week
or so ago. I also met a German guy living in my guesthouse who had a similar problem.

Another day passed and both eyes became infected. My left eye was closed while my
right eye was open but so bloodshot that it seemed to be completely red. I could barely
see, and was forced to walk very slowly to avoid tripping. Of course, Li laughed
uproariously.
'Get away from me! I don't want it!' she giggled.
I looked at her sternly.
'I may go blind, you know,' I replied with mock seriousness.
'Good, then you won't have to see how terrible you look!'
I sat down next to the German, shaking my head.
'You two stay in the corner. Don't infect the other customers!' she said, causing the whole
place to look at us.
At least she didn't feign sympathy. She thought it was funny so she laughed and I
respected that. Well not at the time I didn’t, but later.

After I regained my sight.


Vang Vieng
I got up at 6:00am and wandered bleary-eyed next door to say good-bye to Li and pick up
my sandwich which she had insisted I take with me on the trip. I was wearing my
Radiohead T-shirt which proudly proclaimed 'Hail to the Thief'. I was to be travelling on
Route Thirteen, supposedly the most dangerous section of road in Laos for bandits and I
decided that if we were to be held up then I may as well try and get on their good sides.
The bus station was well organised, and the bus was more comfortable than I had
expected. I was assigned a seat next to a young Laotian guy who was wearing far too
much cologne for so early in the morning. He also had a bad habit of sitting with his legs
spread so wide I had to assume he was hung like a donkey. Unfortunately, his jeans were
tight enough to unambiguously demonstrate that he wasn’t.

The bus trip itself was boring. My eyes were still very bad, and keeping them open was
fairly painful so I attempted to sleep a lot of the way. The scenery was magnificent but all
the same after the first hour or so, and there were, as always, a few near misses with
freight trucks but nothing much worse than other buses I'd been on. There did seem to be
an inordinately high number of guys wandering the roads carrying rifles, but none of



                                             127
them seemed particularly interested in shooting us. In fact, sometimes it was hard to tell
who was a soldier guarding the road, and who was just a guy with a gun. Some were
children, but wearing uniforms, and some were angry looking men wearing civilian
clothes. But they all ignored our bus completely and we soon arrived in Vang Vieng.

It looked very much like a deserted piece of highway, but I saw other people wandering
off across a large field of dirt and decided that they must know something I didn’t. As it
turned out, I had very little chance of getting lost. Vang Vieng was hard to miss. The
street on the other side of the field of dirt had restaurant after restaurant, mostly offering
pizza, and several sterile looking guest houses. I took the first one offered because all I
really wanted to do was get some sleep. It was a fairly modern place, functional but
without charm. I didn't care. I was also functional and without charm so we suited each
other. Vang Vieng is tiny. It’s basically a block of tourist shops, with a road running
around it, on the banks of the Nam Song river. Beyond this concentration of buildings
there are the homes of the locals, but they’re far more spread out than in the tourist
centre. On the other side of the river, a sheer dark cliff rises straight up, with no greenery
growing on it. It’s at least a hundred metres high, probably a lot more, and it makes the
town feel even smaller than it is.

I went out for dinner after a brief nap and noticed something that I had seen in Luang
Prabang also. The local children were playing a game which seemed to involve taking off
their sandals and throwing them down the street. As far as I could tell, the object was to
land their sandal as close to the first sandal thrown as possible. It was played on almost
every street in Luang Prabang and in Vang Vieng as well. On any given day, shoes would
come flying past as I walked down the street, followed by the shouts of children as they
came to check who’d won.

                                          *****

The gears on my mountain bike, worked at least fifty percent of the time. Billy and Ag
had been to Laos before and Ag had informed me that riding around on a bicycle was the
best way to see all of the surrounding caves, so I stopped off in one of the shops and
asked for a tourist map. The map I was given was hand drawn with nice pictures of waves
along the river and coloured in with pencils. It was very pretty, and if my child brought it
home from pre-school I would almost certainly put it on my fridge, but as I was about to
discover, as a map it was nearly worthless. I had not learnt my lesson about hand drawn
maps from my experiences in the Cameron Highlands it appeared, because I began to
ride. It was a very hot day, but I had stupidly not brought any water with me. Instead I
rode in the sweltering heat, and after about six kilometres I took a turn-off that pointed to
the first cave. I knew there wasn't a bridge there, and it was on the other side of the river,
but I thought there might be a boatman or something similar. The track got more and
more vague, and harder to pedal on, and I was about to give up when I saw a sign for the
cave pointing into the river. There was nobody around except for a large water buffalo
grazing at the water's edge. I pulled up short of the bank and looked around. The scenery
was certainly pretty; the huge black cliffs rose straight up from the other side of the river,
topped by ominous grey clouds and surrounded by rice paddies at their base. It was quite



                                             128
unlike the scenery of Luang Prabang, which had far less sheer cliff faces, and many more
green rolling hills. But no sign of a boat. I glanced at the water buffalo for help.
'How am I supposed to get across?' I asked it.
It shrugged (as much as a water buffalo can shrug in any case) and began to wade into the
river, slipping once on the muddy bank.
'Oh! Good idea! That's fine for you. You're a water buffalo. What am I supposed to do?'
It didn't reply, but instead began wiggling its ears to splash water onto its back.

I went back to the main road and kept riding. There were at least five caves along the
same road so I kept going. One of them had a bridge, as the map told me, but getting to it
was not going to be easy. The highway had been moving further and further away from
the Nam Song river and soon it was completely out of sight. I was feeling quite faint.
There was nowhere to buy water, and I eventually decided to turn back, seventeen
kilometres or so from Vang Vieng. It was on the way back that I noticed a tiny sign
pointing up a dirt road towards the cave with the bridge. Refreshed by the sight, I made
my way down it, bouncing over rocks and avoiding two men carrying huge loads of
firewood on their heads. They looked at me in such a way as to suggest they didn’t see
many tourists. This was not encouraging, as according to my map and the sign I was
following, I was on my way to a major tourist destination. Eventually I came to a
suspension bridge and rode across it warily, dodging the gaps in the floor. On the other
side was a small hut where a bunch of teenagers were all sitting around lazily, smoking
cigarettes and laughing. As I passed, one of them jumped up theatrically and shouted for
me to stop. I did so, but warily. They had a book open on the counter in front of them and
not one of them looked older than sixteen. One of the guys in the back was clutching a
rifle as they all stood around snickering at me. The book looked fairly genuine. They
wanted one thousand kip, which I presumed was a bridge toll, so I signed in and paid
them. The book may or may not have been real but the rifle most certainly was real so I
wasn't going to argue, especially not over one thousand kip.

The problem was, there were no more signposts on the other side of the bridge. Just a
long irrigation channel that blocked the way, and lots of kids jumping into the water. I
stopped and they all began to laugh and crowd around me, but none of them understood
the word cave and, along with not bringing water, I had not brought a basic knowledge of
their language. There was nothing for it but to keep looking. I had ridden about three
kilometres or so up the channel when I finally saw another sign for the cave. It was very
muddy by now, and both myself and the bike were caked with the stuff. I followed the
path for another kilometre or so but it just sort of disappeared, and by now I was
developing heat stroke. I decided to turn back. I had about twenty kilometres of riding
ahead of me in the middle of the day, and I had no way of obtaining any water. On the
way back, after noticing that the kids who were swimming in the irrigation channel had
not yet died, I almost considered drinking the water but ultimately decided against it.

I made it back to Vang Vieng some hours later and went to my room to rest, after
drinking three litres of water. As it turned out, there was a much closer cave on the other
side of the town, and I later decided to try again. This time I was there within ten
minutes. To get up to the cave, called Tham Jang, I had to climb a lot of stairs. It was set



                                            129
about halfway up the black cliff face and by the time I got to the top I was sweating
profusely, but entering the cave was wonderful. The temperature dropped ten degrees
instantly, and I wandered around inside, completely alone. The deeper I got, the more
silent it became. Only the dripping of water could be heard. It was the kind of oppressive
lack of noise that is so extreme it feels loud. I sat myself down, looking up at the dimly lit
formations, a few hundred metres inside the cliff. I considered twisting the light bulb that
hung from the wall to make it pitch dark also and complete my sensory deprivation but
then decided against it, as I would have been in a lot of trouble had I not been able to get
it working again. I was still half blind with twin eye infections as it was, and that would
have to be enough.

                                          *****

The Nam Song had a very strong current and we stood there clutching our inner tubes as
children leapt in just in front of us. There seemed to be children absolutely everywhere in
Laos. Some were holding onto bundles of sticks tied together with rope to help keep them
afloat. They swept past us very fast and off around the corner, but they seemed to be
laughing so we assumed they knew what they were doing. Either that or they were
laughing in the face of death. I never found out because by the time I’d gotten the
courage to jump in they were long gone. The current picked me up and I was away,
already fifty metres or so from the two American girls standing on the shore.

One of the main forms of entertainment in Vang Vieng is called tubing. Basically, you
are given an inner tube, driven upstream, and then left to float back to where you started.
It took about half an hour to drive to the spot where we entered the Nam Song, but it
would take about two hours to get back. It was very nice floating down, and
entrepreneurs on either side of the river held out long pieces of bamboo for us to grab. If I
took hold they would drag me in to shore and sell me a Beerlao before sending me back
on my merry way. Fortunately, they accepted wet money. I floated in this way for quite
some time until I finally heard something up ahead. On a sharp bend in the river I could
see a bar, made up of crude wooden benches and tables. It was pumping out dance music
and about ten people were sitting on the banks waving at me to come ashore. So I
paddled over, only just making it to the rope they had strung across the water, and pulled
myself in. The current was so strong that this relatively simple operation took me about
five minutes.

There were a lot of people at the bar. Most of them were British and most of their names
escaped me. The only ones I learnt were Karen, Chris and Michael (a German). A big
pile of inner tubes were stacked on the side of the river, which was nothing more than a
muddy bank. These people had clearly been out of the water for quite some time. I fished
some money out of my pocket, trying to separate the sodden mass into individual notes in
order to refresh my beer.
‘We’re going into the cave, want to come?’ Karen asked me after we had all been
introduced.
This was no doubt one of the caves that I had been searching for the day before and so I
was only too happy to go. The guy running the bar had brought out some miners lights,



                                             130
each attached to a car battery, and was checking them to see if they worked. It was a full
three beers later that we finally got it together to go in, and by that time, the English guys
were handing around a joint. Pot in Laos is ridiculously cheap and easy to acquire,
although it is still not strictly legal.
‘You know, a kilogram of this stuff here,’ Chris said, looking at the joint reflectively,
‘would cost about the same as an ounce back home.’
We put on the miners lights, and placed the car batteries around our necks with a strap.
They were surprisingly heavy. Then we followed our guide through the jungle, up
towards the cave entrance.
‘And furthermore, this stuff is better. A gram here will get you high many times over,’
Chris continued, taking another drag of the joint before passing it on.
The guide suddenly pointed up at the cliff face, where a huge gaping cave entrance stood.
Coming directly out from it was a muddy brown river, flowing fast.
‘In there!’ he said happily, wading in and just as stoned as the rest of us.
We all stood on the shore, not too sure we wanted to follow. It was already up to his neck
and he was having to haul himself in on a fixed rope to beat the current. Each of us had a
heavy car battery around our necks and were either stoned or drunk. If it didn’t
electrocute us, it could still drag us to the bottom.
‘Oh well. I’ll die happy at least,’ Chris said, taking one last drag on the joint and then
wading in after him.

The water was cold, much more so than the river, and after about twenty metres, and
many stubbed toes on submerged rocks later, we clambered out onto a muddy bank inside
the cave. It was very dark now, and there was no light other than our own lamps. The
mud floor made it very difficult to stand up, as it took only a few seconds to sink down
up to the knee. It wasn’t long before things degenerated into a mud fight.
‘Keep following,’ our guide insisted, ‘Better stuff ahead.’
So we followed him, falling and sliding. I had to help Karen get her legs out of the mud
several times and one of the American girls fell face first, almost being swallowed
completely before she struggled to her feet.
‘This is crazy!’ she said, ‘I’m completely wasted!’
We scrambled on for a bit further before our guide finally stopped.
‘This is best,’ he said, pointing up at a mud mountain in front of us.
He was right. Carved into the mud wall at the top of one of the rocky outcrops was a
slide! It was obviously man-made, and it had mud footholds to climb up to it. It was
about four or five metres tall and dropped away vertically at the end. Chris scrambled to
the top, falling a few times and bloodying his knee but he didn’t seem to notice. He sat
himself on the slide and then dropped away. He hit the water hard, which was only about
a foot deep. He leapt to his feet, whooping and hollering, looking like a mad-man covered
in mud and blood as he was.
'How was it?' I asked him.
He touched his crotch gingerly.
'Fun. A little hard on the balls though.’
I climbed to the top myself, followed by Michael, Karen and the Americans and did the
same. I decided that I strongly agreed with Chris’s assessment. I could only do it three
times before I decided that I was seriously jeopardising the possibility of children in my



                                             131
future. After the slide, the final section involved climbing through a very narrow gap that
I was sure the Americans would never fit through. They did however, but only just, and
with the guide shoving and laughing the whole way.

We emerged from a completely different exit. On the walk back to the river bank, Karen
stopped me.
'Can I ask you something?' she said, her tone very serious.
‘Okay,’ I said hesitantly, not sure what she was getting at.
'What were you on, your last night in Luang Prabang?'
'Yeah! You were absolutely out of it! What were you doing to yourself?' Chris said.
Apparently they had all been on the same bus as me on the way to Vang Vieng, and had
been placing bets about what drug I had taken. I was sorry to disappoint them.
'Eye infection,' I replied, and Karen laughed and then went into profuse apologies about
making fun of me.
'I told everyone that Radiohead was completely wasted. You had that Radiohead T-shirt
on so I nicknamed you.’
'Oh, is this that wasted guy you were talking about?' Michael asked, coming up behind
us.

After the cave, we all got back into the river again, but stopped soon after when we
floated past a sign on the bank saying 'Jumping Beerlao’. The bank rose sharply at this
point and coming from the top of the shore was a concrete runway. Just as we passed, a
Laos guy took a running jump off into the water below.
'Oh, we have to stop there!' said Karen.
‘Ten metres,’ yelled the man as he returned to the surface.
So we all pulled ourselves ashore and climbed to the top. I jumped first, hoping to God I
wouldn’t trip at the last minute and go tumbling down the side of the rocks. I made it,
sinking far below the surface before coming up again, just as the others all started to hit
the water around me. They all came to the surface, laughing or screaming.
‘Canoes!’ Chris cried suddenly, as two canoes came paddling gently past.
They used their paddles to splash us, but quickly learnt that this was the worst thing to do
to a team of pissed tubers. We swam after them, grabbing one and trying to capsize it. For
my efforts I got a kick in the face (accidentally) from a French woman, but I would say
that overall the operation was a complete success.
‘You’re all crazy! I love this country!’ she cried, pulling herself back onto the canoe and
paddling away, waving.

                                         *****

It was my last night in Vang Vieng. I was sick as a dog. The night after tubing, we had all
gone out for more drinks and my memories of that night took on a hazy quality. I
remembered being introduced to numerous other English people, all of whom knew me
as either ‘Radiohead’ or ‘that wasted guy from the bus’. I could also recall ordering a
mushroom milkshake with Michael. After that I woke up fully one day later. Everyone
else had left at some point while I was sleeping and for some reason the right side of my
face was hugely swollen. Once I woke up, I couldn’t get to sleep again as I had a fever



                                            132
and kept having vivid hallucinations. The most bizarre delusion was that there was a
group of surveyors in my room who were rehearsing for a musical version of the film,
Solaris. I couldn’t sleep with all that going on, although they were quite good, and they
sang in what sounded to me like very competent Russian. I would then suddenly snap out
of my delusion and realise how stupid what I had just believed to be true was. Following
this revelation I would drift back into a waking dream about Jesus returning to earth and
needing to crash at my place for a few nights because he didn’t know anyone else in
Vang Vieng. It was a very long night.


Vientiane
I got off the bus in Vientiane and a Laos girl came running up to me.
‘Are you Simon Cutting?’ she asked excitedly.
I looked around at the other passengers, confused, and wondering if I had become a
famous pop star at some point over the last few days.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘You only paid for four nights in Vang Vieng. My sister made a mistake. Give me twenty
thousand kip!’
I wasn’t at all sure if that was true, but it sounded possible. I had not been feeling much
better and when checking out of the hotel I could very easily have made a mistake. So I
paid her and she smiled and left without even getting my autograph.

Vientiane was nothing like I’d expected. The bus stopped right next to Fountain Circle, a
small cobbled area surrounded by restaurants and with a fountain in the middle. The
streets in Vientiane are lined with fairly modern but bland European-style buildings.
There’s some nice colonial architecture, but nothing too amazing. Some sections of the
city feel like Luang Prabang, small and comforting, as well as a little bit dirty. Others feel
like any other major city in South East Asia, with too much traffic and touts who want
nothing more than to rip you off. I wandered around the alleys looking for a cheap hotel,
and perhaps my mood was dampened by my illness, but Vientiane did not impress me at
all. I finally found a hotel that looked suited to my budget (it was crappy looking) and got
a room. My room was indeed crap, but cheap, and I lay gratefully on the bed. I didn’t feel
like moving or eating, or doing anything much. If I thought very hard about it, the thing
that I least wanted to do was to listen to a crap amateur band rehearsing cheesy Chinese
love songs in the room above me.

In the room above mine there was a crap amateur band rehearsing cheesy Chinese love
songs. The band was of the type heard at the local pub on a Friday night. They were not
that bad as individual musicians, but they just couldn’t seem to get it together. The singer,
on the other hand, was far more painful. He had a very whiny voice which cracked on the
high notes. Even on the notes that weren’t even that high, in fact, and at one point he tried
to rap. The drummer got over-enthusiastic occasionally and would whack the bass pedal
so hard that the mirror in my room would shake. Just as I was wishing I had taken a room
with a window so I could hurl myself out of it, they stopped and I was able to pass out.

                                          *****



                                             133
That night I went out, thinking I should probably get something to eat as I had not had a
thing that day at all. It was near Fountain Circle that I bumped into the German from
Luang Prabang, who had also suffered from an eye infection.
‘Simon!’ he said, upon seeing me.
I had no idea what his name was, so I raised my hand and said.
‘Hey, man! Good to see you.’
‘You look very bad,’ he said.
I nodded.
‘I was going to get some food, but I’m not really hungry.’
‘Well come with me anyway. I’m going to get something.’
So we wandered around, as I desperately tried to remember his name, but it never came
to me. Finally we sat down in an outdoor beer garden, which served overpriced food. I
looked over the menu but there wasn’t a single item on it that didn’t make me feel
queasy. I concluded that eating was probably not possible and so I just got some drinks.
In retrospect, it was a bad choice of drinks, a Lime Juice and a Coke, but I didn’t realise
that I was also having stomach problems at the time. I just thought I wasn’t hungry
because my head was throbbing. I was wrong. So we sat there, my unnamed friend
having a beer and a phàt thai, whilst I sipped on two highly acidic drinks with reckless
abandon. We got to talking about what we would do when we went home. He told me he
was going to have to do civil service for a year and then go to university and then asked
what course I had done.
‘I didn’t go to university,’ I replied.
He looked slightly confused.
‘But how will you get a job? How will you get a career?’ he queried.
I hate being asked this question. I never know the answer.
‘I don’t think I really need to worry about it. For me, a career is like sex. It’s something
that only happens to other people.’
‘Radiohead!’ came a voice from the far end of the bar.
I looked up, and there was Karen, Chris and Michael.
‘Radiohead! What happened to you?’ Karen asked, rushing over.
‘I have no idea. I had a mushroom shake with Michael…’
‘Those things were messed up!’ Michael said.
‘And now I’m really sick. I haven’t eaten in days.’
‘You look really bad,’ Chris said.
This illness was not very good for my self esteem either. That was the second time in five
minutes I’d been told how terrible I looked. I was feeling ready to faint again, and Karen
could tell.
‘Go to bed. You need to sleep,’ she said, ‘Maybe we’ll see you again some other time.’
I nodded, and stood up.
‘You’re right. I have to go…’
I stumbled out of the bar. My eye infections were not as bad as they had been, but they
were still itchy and my stomach was starting to complain now just as loudly as my head.
Just outside a fashionable pasta restaurant, I heard a knocking at my epiglottis.
‘Psst, let me out!’ said a voice.
‘What? Who is it?’ I replied cautiously.



                                            134
‘It’s that lime juice you drank earlier. Let me out!’ it said urgently.
I thought fast and looked around.
‘Um, I’m a little busy right now, could you come back later?’ I suggested.
The lime juice was having none of it. It kicked me in the lips and leapt forth into the
street in a green arc. I apologised humbly to the diners, as they looked up from their
fettuccine, and kept on walking. Twenty metres further down the street I heard another
tapping, less discreet this time.
‘Vomit delivery,’ said a gruffer voice, obviously belonging to the Coca-Cola.
I sighed and pointed to a grassy patch by the side of the road.
‘Just put it over there.’

                                          *****

That night I had almost as much trouble sleeping, but with the help of yet more
paracetamol I did get a bit. I was awoken by the sound of cheesy Chinese love songs.
‘Look, you obviously need the practice but could you do it somewhere else?’ I shouted
through the ceiling.
I was drowned out by some especially loud bass drum hits. There was nothing else for it.
I would have to get up. I still didn’t feel like eating so I did the next best thing and rented
out a motorcycle instead. It was much more expensive to rent a bike in Laos than it had
been in Thailand, but I figured with all the money I was saving on food I could probably
afford it. It was an interesting bike. It looked new, and had a digital clock built into it, as
well as a little flashing light that had a picture of a telephone on it for some reason. But it
made a disturbing rattle when it… well, when it moved. It also tended to get stuck
between first and second if I didn’t change gears carefully, resulting in the engine
screaming when I tried to accelerate. But it was still a motorcycle, and I rode off eagerly
around Vientiane, ready to take in all the sights. This soon proved to be a problem,
caused mainly by the fact that there weren’t really any. I did pass the Victory Monument,
which is a sort of massive four-way arch, with Gods carved into it. It was quite
impressive, but after standing there gawking at it for five minutes or so I’d had enough.

Laos is a very laid-back sort of place. Nothing is done quickly. When you order food, it
sometimes arrives and sometimes doesn’t. If you want to catch a bus at ten, book the
eight o’clock one. It’s the same with driving. Everyone cruises around slowly, not paying
too much attention, and stopping often to look at the nice green colour of the traffic
lights. It was infectious. I found myself doing the same, never going over sixty or so.
Which was good, because whenever I did it sounded like the bike would shake itself
apart. Instead I just drove about at random. Now as I have amply demonstrated, my sense
of direction is miserable and I was very soon utterly lost. Worse than that, most of the
street signs, except for the really major ones, were in Laos script only and therefore no
use to me. Still, I got to see some of the surrounds of the city, including small villages
filled with kids who almost certainly had never seen anyone quite as stupid looking as
myself before. They were intrigued. They didn’t know how I could get back to my hotel
however, because if I asked the way to Vientiane I was inevitably told that I was already
in Vientiane. It was the only word we had in common. It turned out I was in Vientiane
Province, which is not the same thing, and after more random riding about for two hours



                                             135
or so I finally struck on a great idea. It had been raining when I left the city and it had
since stopped. The only dark clouds in the sky were all gathered over one area, so I
assumed that had to be the city and drove towards it when possible. As flawed and idiotic
as this logic was, it paid off and I soon hit the main road back into the city. I was only
twenty kilometres away! Once I arrived in the city, I went to a pharmacy and using mime
tried to explain that the right side of my face felt as if it was about to explode. They
didn’t understand. We were going at it for about ten minutes, ruling out arthritis cream,
pimple cream and skin whitening cream before I gave up.
‘Just give me some more paracetamol,’ I said.
By that stage I was eating enough paracetamol to keep both my headaches and my hunger
at bay.

                                         *****

I’d decided to go back into Thailand the next day, but when I woke up, I really didn't feel
like getting out of bed. I was lying in a hotel room in Vientiane, it was raining, and quite
frankly, I couldn't be bothered. Then the band began to rehearse and I leapt out of bed,
shoving my clothes into my bag and trundling down the stairs.
'Burn in hell!' I yelled cheerfully back up in the direction of the worst musicians in Laos.
With the musical sins they were committing, I was sure they would.
I checked out, and arranged some Thai money, but then I was at a bit of a loose end. I
didn't really know how to get out of Laos. I was planning to go to Nong Khai, which
could be used as a base for a few different places, including some ancient cave paintings
and historical sites. I passed a guy in a jumbo and asked him to take me to the Friendship
Bridge. He nodded.
‘Fifty thousand kip,' he suggested.
I checked my wallet. Thirty thousand left.
'I'll give you this,' I said.
‘Forty thousand?' he then suggested, a little optimistically I thought, as my now empty
wallet was open in front of him.
'It's all I have!' I said, and I had been told twenty five thousand was standard anyway.
He finally seemed to understand, as his eyes lit up and he made that 'ah' sound.
‘Thirty five thousand?'

The trip was fun, largely because of the novelty of being able to carry on a conversation
using only a single word at a time. It was drizzling down with rain, but my driver was the
sort who enjoyed taking strange risks for the amusement of his passengers. Every time he
saw another jumbo with pretty girls inside he would zig-zag through the traffic to catch
them up.
'Ladies,' he would say to me by way of explanation. We narrowly avoided running into a
motorcycle that was lying on its side in the middle of the road, a few metres from where a
bicycle was lying on its side.
'Accident,' he explained, pointing at the bleeding men on the side of the road, neither of
whom was particularly injured, but who still had some nasty gashes.
Further on, as the rain began to fall faster we passed a Laos girl who flagged us down and
leapt in the back with me.



                                            136
'Customer,' my driver told me, and the girl smiled and nodded at me.
After a while she spoke.
'Bangkok?' she asked, in a strong accent. I was about to reply, when my driver did it for
me.
'Nong Khai,' he answered.
She nodded again and we drove in silence for a while. Suddenly she pointed at a factory
as we went past.
'Beerlao!' she said happily.
I looked out of the jumbo, and there indeed was that shining fortress of freedom and
hope, the Beerlao factory. I gave it a quick salute as we passed.
‘Beerlao,' I agreed.
It was a sad moment. I had had my last Beerlao, presumably for quite some time. The
only place I had seen it on sale outside of Laos was Cambodia, and I wasn’t going there
again for a while.
'Thailand,' she said.
I nodded sadly.
'Chang,' I replied, making it clear through my tone that I did not relish the prospect of
being demoted to Chang beer.
'Singha?' she suggested.
I raised a slight smile.
'Singha,' I agreed, feeling better already.
She got out of the jumbo on a stretch of road that looked very much like the stretch of
road that she’d got in it at and we kept going to the bridge. The driver helped me out with
my bags as I handed him the thirty thousand kip.
‘Thirty one thousand?' he asked, ever hopeful, and he laughed loudly when I looked
exasperated.
The border crossing was simple enough. I showed my passport, and the immigration
official stared at it for a while. Then he said something in English so strongly accented I
couldn't understand him. I asked him to repeat it. And again. And again. Then I did what
everyone does when a situation like that becomes embarrassing and I just nodded and
said 'uh huh', which seemed to satisfy him. A short tuk tuk ride later and I was back in
Thailand.




                                           137
                            9
             IMAGINARY FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES

                                     THAILAND

Nong Khai to Bangkok
My guesthouse in Nong Khai was a traditional two storey Thai house. Nong Khai is
located on the Mekong, as was my guesthouse, but the view was not as good as it could
have been. It rained almost constantly. There’s an old partly submerged temple in the
middle of the Mekong just near the city, but more often than not it was too foggy to see
that far, and so Nong Khai looked very much like any other small town in Thailand.
There was nothing except for an odd assortment of shops, all of which sold incongruous
items like auto tires and medication, or toys and dried fish. I also had a fair bit of trouble
finding somewhere to eat that sold anything other than meat. My guesthouse didn’t have
a restaurant attached, but they did have a sign up that said, 'Beer/coffee drinking service
available here'.

Nong Khai seemed to have a large population of ex-pat German and Danish men, all
middle-aged. Most of them had opened restaurants and most of them were terribly fond
of sausages. And by sausages I mean those big offal-sacks that Germans like to eat. This
did very little to help restore my appetite. The fact that the toilet in my guesthouse looked
directly down onto the outdoor kitchen of the restaurant next door also didn’t help. There
was a large open window behind the cistern, and no curtain, so it would only take a slight
miscalculation before I found myself urinating into the big pot of yellow curry simmering
directly beneath me. It also involved a fair bit of indecent exposure if the cook ever
decided to look up…

I had been planning on renting a motorcycle and riding around Eastern Thailand looking
at the numerous Khmer ruins in the area but the rain, and my nagging illness put me off
the idea. Billy and Ag were going to be flying to India in about a week, and I decided that
maybe what I really needed was a complete change of scene. I was going to go back to
Bangkok and try and get a flight to Delhi.

                                          *****

I got lucky on the bus back to Bangkok. No, I don't mean I joined the Metre High Club,
but I did manage to get the seat just behind the stairwell. This seat was the coveted seat
because it allowed me to stretch my legs out as far as I wanted. In Bangkok, I managed to
get a room fairly quickly and instantly put my passport in to get an Indian visa. So, I was
back in Bangkok, yet again. It seemed that no matter where I went in South East Asia, I
always ended up there. Bangkok was becoming like home to me. Coming back to it was
so familiar that it was almost like I was no longer travelling. It was more like taking a
break from the pressures of the unknown.



                                             138
I spent the rest of the day wandering around Khao San, in search of nothing, and finding
even less. I walked past a Sikh, a young man with a ridiculous upturned moustache, who
smiled broadly and was wearing traditional Indian clothing. Although I knew about the
old handshake trick, having been a victim of it before, my inbuilt sense of politeness
made me forget.
‘Hello, my friend!’ he said, and stuck out his hand as I strolled past.
I shook his hand briefly, returning the smile, wondering what he was selling. And of
course he did not release me.
‘I am a fortune teller.’
‘Oh for fuck’s sake…’ I said under my breath.
‘And I can tell that you would like to know what your future holds,’ he finished.
I nodded.
‘Oh very much so,’ I replied, and he smiled even more broadly and released my hand,
now that he had me captive.
I walked away quickly as soon as I was free.
‘Maybe next time?’ he yelled after me, ‘Tomorrow?’
‘Hey, you’re the fortune teller!’ I called back.

I was having a meal later that night, my first in quite some time, and was celebrating this
fact with a beer, also my first in quite some time. I was still sick but that night I was
feeling a little better. It wasn’t too long before I felt my head begin to ache and a
rumbling in my stomach. I looked at the beer in my hand. Could it be that I had been
betrayed by my closest ally? I went back to my room and was stopped at the reception as
I passed. The woman smiled thinly at me.
‘You have to pay for your room,’ she said icily.
I nodded, feeling dizzy, and paid her. Then I stumbled my way upstairs to my room,
which was thankfully up only a short flight of stairs and quite close to reception. I lay
down and felt my forehead. My fever was back. My head was pounding and I lay there
for the rest of the night trying to remember exactly what sleep was. This was ridiculous. I
had been sick for weeks now, and there was no end in sight. Whenever I felt better, it was
always an illusion. I flipped through the book to see what I could find, and the only thing
listed that suited all of my symptoms was Dengue Fever. I was pretty sure I didn’t want
Dengue Fever, and so I decided to go out and try and find myself some kind of super
miracle science pill that would cure my fever, remove my headache, return my appetite
and make me more attractive to women in six to eight days.

I tried hard to remember where there was a pharmacy, but I couldn’t think of one. It was
a hot day, and I wandered the streets in a weird sort of semi-daze. If I stood still for too
long I was in serious danger of passing out, but I decided that as long as I kept moving I
would be fine. As I moved quickly down Khao San Road in search of a pharmacy I
realised a horrible truth. If I moved too quickly I was also in serious danger of passing
out. I stopped to consider the situation, which seemed to be a bad idea as stopping to
consider the situation put me in serious danger of passing out…




                                            139
It was hopeless. I couldn’t find a pharmacy, and I decided to go home, cutting through a
small arcade to get off Khao San and take the backstreets to my guesthouse. The Sikh
from the day before was still there and he put out his hand again.
‘Hello again, my friend. You have returned!’ he declared.
I rushed past, ignoring his hand.
‘Hallelujah! It’s a miracle!’ I agreed and kept going.
He called out after me as if he was truly offended that I didn’t even have the common
decency to shake his hand. There were in fact three Sikhs in the alley, and it looked like a
whole family. At the one end there was a man older than my ‘friend’ with an even larger
moustache, and at the other end was a young boy, maybe eighteen, who also grabbed my
hand as I passed. They were all dressed in the traditional costume.
‘Hello, my friend,’ said the youngest, shaking my hand even as I kept walking, and he
followed for a few steps before releasing it.
‘Hey!’ he called after me when I didn’t answer.
‘Read my mind! I’m not interested!’

So I went and lay down again, getting a strange look from reception as I passed. I lay in
sleepless repose for a few hours before I suddenly remembered where a pharmacy was.
And it was close! A few doors away at a far fancier hotel than mine. It had a pharmacy,
travel agent, hairdresser and several other things built into the lobby. I forced myself to
get up and walk down there, but as I passed reception, the girl grabbed my arm and for a
second I thought she wanted to read my fortune.
‘Sir, you have to pay for the room,’ she said, sounding a little exasperated.
I did so, but the sweat pouring off me and the bloodshot eyes were making her
suspicious. I got some Ibuprofen and found that it worked wonders. For the next week or
so my days were exactly the same. I would pop a pill and my fever would go down for
five hours or so, and then I would read the paper or something similar and try and force
myself to eat something. More often than not I couldn’t, or if I did I would throw it up
again. Even water wasn’t a fan of my stomach, and would evacuate after just a few
minutes. I felt like my stomach was the nerdy guy who threw a party where everyone left
by nine o’clock to go to a much cooler party somewhere else. Sleep was occasional but
not very good and I would wake up throughout the night, usually with bad headaches or
the need to go and gag in the toilet for a few minutes. I couldn’t throw up any more as I
hadn’t eaten anything in days. I also found myself talking a lot. To myself, to my fevered
delusions or just talking for the benefit of hearing something other than the pounding in
my ears. A lot of my chatter was in a Scottish accent and one night I did pirate
impersonations for two hours. I had just watched a movie about pirates in one of the
restaurants (where I had managed only water) and I was haunted by them for the rest of
the night.

Needless to say, I feared I was going a little bit crazy. As did my guesthouse. They were
constantly leaving notes on my door that said ‘Room 201, please contact reception’ and
quite often leaving them inside my room as well if I went out somewhere. This proved
quite embarrassing because once, when I couldn’t sleep, I had taken a big full page
picture of the Thai Prime Minister from the newspaper and drawn on it to make it appear
that he was sleeping. I then placed him under the blanket with his head on my pillow and



                                            140
used clothes to make the shape of a body. I don’t know why I did that, but most of my
actions during that time were inexplicable to me. When I returned later, there was a note
stuck on the inside of the door.
‘Well Thaksin, I wonder what they want,’ I said, looking at the sleeping Thai Prime
Minister, who had recently been in the limelight for battling corruption.
They wanted me to pay for my room again.

                                         *****

I didn’t want to stay in Bangkok any longer, with only myself, Prime Minister Thaksin,
and a rag tag group of pirates for company. I had my passport back, and there inside was
a shiny new Indian visa, so I went into the travel agency conveniently located underneath
the hotel with the pharmacy and hairdresser. I asked to book a ticket, preferably for the
next day.
‘Tomorrow? All flights are full!’ she said, without even looking.
That made sense. This wasn’t a bus I was catching.
‘I can put you on standby in case somebody cancels,’ she added, noting my
disappointment.
I was about to say something, when suddenly, a man entered the travel agent. He looked
like one of the pirates from my delusions. A puffy white shirt open to the chest and a
thick mane of hair, with extremely tight pants. He was really, really camp.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked with a flourish.
‘Delhi. Tomorrow if possible…’ I replied.
‘I will get you on your flight, darling, no problems!’ he said and immediately made a call
on his mobile phone.
He chatted away for a long time and eventually told me I should go home, but not to
worry.
‘Pay her for the ticket and then come back in the morning. It will all be ready to go,’ he
said, before going back to his conversation.

I was not entirely convinced but I left a little hopeful. He was just so full of energy! I
went back to my room, receiving the now customary glares from the staff as I did so. I
had made sure I actually did pay for my room that day, but it was the same problem I had
in Laos. I just looked really out of it on drugs and that was the first thing everyone
assumed. I kept odd hours, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night for water, and
spending most of my time in my room. I would go out for very short periods of time
before coming back and sleeping all day. They were definitely convinced something was
going on. I had been lying down for about an half an hour when there was a knock at my
door. I answered it and there was a woman from reception, looking at me standing there,
apparently stoned, in my boxer shorts and scratching my arse.
‘There’s a Thai man in reception. He wants to see you.’
‘Does he look like a gay pirate?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said coldly, and then went back downstairs.
The place I was staying refused to allow Thais upstairs or into anybody’s room.
Presumably this was to stop prostitution but it seemed fairly racist to me. Especially for a
place run by Thais. I got dressed and went downstairs and my travel agent was there.



                                            141
‘Hello, Simon!’ he said, as excited as if I’d told him he’d won the lottery.
He gestured for me to sit at a table in the restaurant and I did so. He was holding his
mobile phone.
‘I called them up and it’s set. You have your flight tomorrow at 2:30pm. Confirmed. But
you need to give me an extra two and a half thousand baht,’ he said.
‘What for?’ I asked.
He said something about upgrades and then uhmed and ahed for a bit. I took the message.
It was a bribe. I was screwing some poor bastard out of his seat by ‘accidentally’ losing
his reservation on the computer or something similar. Could I morally do this? Was it fair
to do so? Could I, in good conscience…
‘All right, let me get my wallet,’ I said and ran back upstairs, barefoot and red-eyed.
The receptionist had been watching our exchange closely, and continued to do so when I
returned with two and a half thousand baht and handed it to him. He smiled and shook
my hand, and then left, already making a call on his mobile phone. I turned back and the
receptionist was openly staring at me. This was it! This was the proof they needed that
some addict was dealing drugs from within their hotel. It was a good thing I was leaving
the country in the morning! I went back to bed and pretended to sleep but instead had a
tearful farewell with my various mental phantoms and psychotic apparitions because later
that night, my fever broke. I felt incredibly cold, and sweat poured from my body in
waves. I shook uncontrollably for a minute or more, but when it was over I felt better.
Much better.

                                        *****

We had been cruising at ten thousand feet for an hour or two when the stewardess pushed
the trolley up next to me. I was in a fantastic mood. My illness had gone away as
suddenly as it had arrived. My fever was gone. My headaches were gone, and most
importantly, my appetite was back. I hadn’t eaten anything at all in six whole days!
‘Good day, sir. Would you prefer the chicken or the pork?’ asked the stewardess, smiling.
‘Both! I’m bloody starving!’




                                           142
                                 10
                     THE LIVING, THE DEAD, AND
                      EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

                                         INDIA

Delhi to Varanasi
Billy and Ag were looking a little overwhelmed. Neither one of them had been to India
before, and the frantic scene at the airport was not the first thing they wanted to see after
a long flight. I had met up with them, as our flights arrived relatively close together, and I
went out to order a prepaid taxi. It was late at night, and there were taxis everywhere with
wallahs screaming out for our business and crowding around us. I booked one at the
counter, and he led us off into the throng of people, making us run to keep up.
‘It’s really cold here,’ Billy commented.
‘It’s freezing,’ Ag agreed.
It was. The last time I had seen Billy and Ag was on the islands in southern Thailand,
where we spent our days on the beach in swimsuits. Coming to India, the last thing we
had expected was for it to be cold. Our breath was freezing in front of us.

Our taxi driver tried to tell me that our hotel was ‘house full’, so I used the old 'we've got
reservations' line. It was a good thing I had the foresight to pretend that I had the
foresight to book ahead or who knows where we would have ended up. He dropped us
near Par Ganj (main bazaar), the main backpacker area in Delhi. It was past midnight by
this stage, and the streets were nearly empty. Those that were wandering around were
Indians wrapped up in blankets and walking with their heads bowed.
‘Lead the way,’ Billy said after we all had our packs on, but I was lost.
I was always lost. It’s the only thing I’m really good at. I had spent quite a bit of time in
Delhi in the past, but it had been three years and it was the middle of the night. Still, I
tried to appear confident that I knew what I was doing and strode off purposefully. I
found my way to the main street. A cow walked past, stopping only to pick through some
garbage on the side of the road. Engrossed in the spectacle of a cow wandering free in a
city street, Ag stepped straight into a puddle, wearing only a pair of thongs.
‘Oh no! It’s all brown. I’m going to get infected or something,’ she said.
It was only through blind luck that I happened to lead us past a hotel that I remembered
as being fairly good from my last trip. It was a five storey construction that seemed to be
made entirely out of concrete and cheap marble. This had the effect of making the rooms
retain practically no heat whatsoever, but that was the least of Ag’s worries. She went
into the bathroom and pulled out some medicated wipes, frantically rubbing at her foot.
She went through practically the entire pack.
‘We’re in India now,’ I told her from the doorway, ‘There aren’t enough medicated wipes
in the world to save you!’
She scowled at me and kept wiping.

                                          *****


                                             143
Our first goal was to book a train ticket to Varanasi. We only had a month in India and
Delhi was not figuring largely in our itinerary. I had heard the stories of people who
landed in India, took one look at Delhi and booked a flight home again. I could believe it.
Delhi can be an overwhelming experience. The train station was no more than a few
hundred metres from our hotel, but getting there meant walking up the centre of Par Ganj
itself. It was crowded that day, and the streets in that area are fairly narrow. Rickshaws
drove through the crowd, beeping for people to move but barely slowing down at all.
Minivans forced their way through as well, and the people flowed like liquid around
them. There were backpackers everywhere, as the area is filled with cheap
accommodation, but they were still heavily outnumbered by the Indians. Every so often a
cow would pass by. Cows have right of way in all situations, and seemed to be the only
thing, besides potential customers, that rickshaws would stop for. At one point we saw an
old woman lying in the road with a small crowd around her. She had been run over in the
street and killed. She simply lay there, ignored by most people as they went about their
business. When we arrived at the train station there were hundreds of rickshaws hanging
around in the car park in front of it. We pushed through them and inside. I knew where
the tourist office was and headed straight for the stairs but as we approached, an Indian
man stepped in front of us.
'Construction upstairs, you cannot go up. The tourist office has moved across the street.'
‘Really?’ I asked.
He nodded. I turned to leave and he stepped aside, but then we rushed past him quickly.
‘Is closed!’ he called after us.
I climbed to the top, hoping I wouldn't have to come back down with my tail between my
legs, or worse still, plummet to my death when the stairs ended at a yet to be constructed
upper level. I was less than surprised when it turned out he was lying. We had to line up
for two hours, but we soon had a ticket to Varanasi.

Our twelve hour train journey took closer to eighteen, but we had booked second class
sleeper berths so it was quite comfortable. I had always travelled third class before, but
now we had bedding, and even a curtain to pull across the bunk in order to stop creepy
guys from watching us sleep. The time passed surprisingly quickly. The train system in
India is actually very good. It’s almost possible to get across the entire country without
changing trains, but it means several days of travel without a break. The schedules are
also incredibly unreliable, and a cow on the tracks or a breakdown can hold up a train for
hours on end. There were stories about the Delhi to Varanasi train being the most
dangerous, with possessions going missing frequently. Sometimes backpackers were
even kicked out of a doorway if they sat down to enjoy the view, or so we’d heard. The
toilets are less than perfect, consisting of a hole that drops directly onto the tracks, but it’s
a cheap way to get about and far more comfortable than any bus.

                                           *****

Our guesthouse in Varanasi was just above the Burning Ghats. It proclaimed to be the
highest building in the city and we were on the top floor, with a massive window
overlooking the Ganges. Just outside the window was the corrugated iron roof of the



                                              144
restaurant, one floor down, which also happened to be the home of about six or seven
monkeys. The room had two double beds in it, so we all decided to share it and the view.
As part of a religious festival there were hundreds of kites flying high above the city and
directly in front of our window there was a constant column of black smoke. Our room
looked directly onto the Burning Ghats.

We stood on the platform above the ghats, wrapped up in our warmest clothes. The ghats
are the famous stairs that lead down to the waters of the Ganges. Below us were
numerous funeral pyres, with corpses wrapped in colourful cloths, burning away. Men
wandered around the pyres, stoking the flames and pushing the burnt limbs into the
flames. The pyres were too short so the feet stuck out of the end and it was their job to
make sure everything was burnt. The last time I had been to the Burning Ghats a tour
guide had tried to insist that I buy some wood for the old women who were crowded
around the viewing platform. He actually said to me, pointing at one of the toothless old
women, ‘This one is very small. We would not need much wood to burn her!’. She was
smiling the whole time, for to die in Varanasi is to be blessed, and many ageing pilgrims
travel to the holy city towards the end of their lives. A constant stream of new bodies was
coming in, carried by their male relatives and friends on wooden stretchers, wrapped in
expensive garments. It was a macabre sight, but completely hypnotising. I could have
watched it all day. Suddenly the wind changed direction and the smoke rose up to the
viewing platform. Billy looked over at me.
‘Are you crying?’ he asked.
I shook my head.
‘No. I’ve just got someone in my eye.’
As we were leaving a little man in rags came up to us.
'You want to learn about the ghats? Burning is learning. Cremation is education! No
charge.'
I didn’t want to hear about the ghats. This was the same spiel I’d heard before, although
admittedly it hadn’t rhymed last time. But a spiel is a spiel, so we shook our heads
politely and made our way back to the street. Varanasi streets are very narrow. No
vehicles can fit down them except for motorcycles, which honk their horns and drive at
insane speeds. In most places, the alleys that wind around the tall, old buildings of
Varanasi are no more than two or three metres wide. Everything looks old, from the shop
selling silk to the internet café; it is truly an ancient city. It also has more shit in the
streets than anywhere else I had yet been. It came in four different flavours (goat, cow,
human, dog), and according to Ag, the faecal content in the Ganges is so high that there is
no oxygen in the most polluted sections of water. Fish cannot even live in it, but millions
of people wash their clothes and bathe in it every single year. People even discard of
bodies in it if they cannot afford to have them burnt at the ghats. So when we decided to
go on a boat, needless to say we were very careful not to fall in. The boatman was a little
boy, no more than twelve years old, but he was incredibly muscular and could have
beaten any one of the tourists in his boat in an arm wrestle. He rowed us away from the
shore, smiling, but saying very little. Seeing the ghats from the water is amazing and has
to be seen to be understood. It’s the classic picture of India: the ghats leading down to the
water and the ancient stone buildings of Varanasi rising up behind it. Woman were
beating saris against the steps to clean them, and water buffaloes wandered about in herds



                                            145
along the shore. On the other side of the Ganges is a massive floodplain. When we were
there it was dry and looked like a desert stretching off until the fog obscured it. It was
still very cold, and most of the time the horizon was shrouded. From the water we could
see that there were still hundreds of kites in the sky, very high up. Flying kites as a form
of worship. Wonderful.

We had spent the night eating the best Indian food I have ever tasted in a place called
Ganga Fuji which also had sitar recitals every night. Varanasi is famous as Ravi
Shankar’s home, and has the best music schools in India. Students of these schools
frequently give free recitals in the tourist restaurants and, believe me, a sitar recital is just
as interesting to watch as it is to listen to. The tabla (a type of drum) player and the sitar
player work together as one, using only glances to indicate a change in the tempo of the
performance. The songs go on for ten minutes or more, but it is more of a mood being
created than an actual tune. Listening to a sitar recital on a CD cannot possibly compare
to the experience of seeing it performed live in Varanasi.

We were stopped on the way home from the performance by a guy asking us to see his
shop, which he claimed was just upstairs. Reluctantly we went up, as we had already
refused the same man many times, but when we got there it was merely an empty room.
He had a bed with a big book of Indian art lying on it and nothing else.
‘You want to see my art book?’ he asked.
He opened it and began pointing out pictures to me, whilst Ag and Billy stood near the
door looking a little worried.
‘I thought you said this was your shop?” I asked him.
He seemed a bit annoyed at being rushed through his art appreciation class, but he opened
up a compartment on the headboard of his bed and began pulling out plastic bags.
‘Sure. So what do you want?' he asked, 'Opium, hash?'
‘Nothing!’ I replied.
He looked confused.
‘You already have?’
I shook my head.
‘No. I don’t want opium though…’
He looked even more confused.
‘You come to Varanasi, you have to have opium! How much do you want?’
I stood up to leave. I’d tried opium the last time I was there and the only effect I had was
an inability to urinate for twelve hours and some mild hallucinations. After my
experiences in Bangkok, more hallucinations were not what I wanted. We left quickly.
Billy and Ag were already back in the street before I even got out of the door. We got
back to the room only to find that we were woefully ill equipped for the conditions. It
was freezing in our room and no blankets had been supplied. It was so cold we couldn’t
stop shaking, and so we emptied our packs and put on everything we owned. Still it was
too cold to sleep and just outside our window, no more than a few metres away, was the
family of monkeys. They leapt up and down, fighting and screeching. Ag sat bolt upright
when one landed on the air conditioner outside.
'Demons! There's demons at the window!' she screamed, only half-joking.




                                              146
                                          *****

The next day a monkey was peering in at us curiously. The window could open from
floor to ceiling and was protected by a steel mesh, so we opened it up and fed it some
particularly unpleasant bhuja mix that we had bought the night before. It was a small
male, and he ate it quickly, picking out the sultanas but eating the nuts and dried noodles.
Suddenly, the big alpha male climbed up over the corner of the roof and caught sight of
what was going on. He rushed over screeching and at first we thought he was trying to
scare the other one off, but then something very different happened.

He mounted him.

As is often the case with monkey love (and frequently human love also) it only lasted a
few seconds but that was enough for us to see that the little fella was far from having a
good time. Another male came over, drawn by the commotion and the alpha looked over
at the newcomer.
'I'm done with him if you want a go,' his sparkling little simian eyes seemed to be saying.
Say no more! If the newcomer had had a moustache he would have stroked it and
winked. He leapt upon the small male and was pumping his little hips as fast as he could.
But still the little victim stayed around, determined to get some more of the bhujia mix.
We left them to it, going down to breakfast, thankful that we didn’t have to put up with
that every time we ordered a bowl of dhal.

We booked the bus to Nepal at our hotel. It was a two day trip with one night at the
border. The plan was to do some hiking, probably on the Anapurna Trail. We then made
the decision to walk down along the ghats. This presented a few problems. First and
foremost, we’re foreigners. Varanasi, along with lots of shit, has the most persistent touts
imaginable, and down by the Ganges we found several types. Guys who hung around and
all of whom seemed to own silk shops (although for businessmen they seemed to have a
lot of time to sit around doing nothing), guys with boats who wanted to take us up the
river on a sightseeing tour, and little kids who wanted whatever we had regardless of
what it was. We also had the misfortune of being Australians and the admission of this
was inevitably met with,
‘Australia! Very good at cricket! Steve Waugh!’
I know nothing of cricket, a fact of which I am very proud, and Billy and Ag know very
little either. This didn’t stop us frequently getting involved in conversations about batting
averages and the suspect wrist action of a Sri Lankan spin bowler. Steve Waugh seemed
also to be universally admired by every Indian we met, and after some small talk they
usually seamlessly blended in the point of the whole exchange.
'Steve Waugh likes my silk shop, you want to come see?'
We met up with one very persistent silk shop ‘owner’ who simply would not take ‘go
fuck yourself’ for an answer. We thought we'd lost him and sat down to enjoy the
ambience of death and excrement. We were sitting there, soaking it up so deeply that it
stained our clothes, when he came by again.
'So you like silk? I think silk is probably about the greatest thing in the world. Australia is
very good at cricket, by the way...'



                                             147
‘No silk!’ Ag said irritably.
He was not put off. He simply changed tactics.
'You want some hash? Very good quality. Smooth as silk. I have a silk shop by the way if
you want a place to play indoor cricket. Australians are very good at that. Steve Waugh is
Australian…'
In the end we were forced to walk on down the ghats and ignore him. He was soon
replaced by another, far sleazier tout. He asked us questions which we gave monosyllabic
answers to, and finally we began to walk up the ghats towards the town. He walked a few
steps ahead of us, to at least give himself the illusion that he was leading us somewhere,
probably to his silk shop, as he apparently owned one. After a kilometre or so he finally
gave up, crossing the road to take down a Japanese tourist who had become separated
from the herd. We decided to head back to the hotel, as it was all becoming a bit much. In
the alley on the way back to our hotel we were charged by two cows, who thundered past,
oblivious to us as we scrambled onto the ledges of people’s houses. Following behind
them was yet another body, held aloft by relatives who chanted as they led him through
the streets.
‘Rama is the one true God,’ we were told it means.
It could be heard outside our hotel at all hours of the night; the Burning Ghats operate
twenty four hours a day.


Agra
I was not too keen to get to Agra. Billy and Ag wanted to see the Taj Mahal, but I had
sworn that I would never return to that city. The last time I’d gone there it had been on a
one day package tour from Delhi with a friend of mine. Everybody else on the bus was a
wealthy Indian, but still we were separated from them in the numerous ‘government
emporiums’ that the bus stopped at and given the hard sell on expensive and very poor
quality merchandise. The Indians were largely left alone, but because we were white (and
therefore rich in their eyes) we were taken to a room by ourselves and told of the virtues
of shoddy Taj Mahal replicas. And at both Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, the entry price
was twenty rupees for Indian citizens and a whopping nine hundred and fifty rupees for
foreigners. I understand the principle behind this, but it was very annoying when one of
our entry fees cost the same as one and half times the entry fees of the entire rest of the
coach tour. We couldn’t even afford to go inside Agra Fort, as it was towards the end of
the trip and we were very poor by that stage. Agra is a city that once had great
significance in the cultural history of India (it was the capital at one point) but now it
seems to be nothing more than a place designed to separate tourists from their money.
Since that trip I’ve developed Agra-phobia. For some reason I still agreed to go with
Billy and Ag, but I wanted to spend as little time there as possible.

The ticket we were given had me seated away from them. It was a twelve hour journey so
we had again booked a sleeper, but this time it was third class. There were no curtains
and no bedding was provided. In addition to this, I had a lower side berth. The lower side
berth is the worst berth on Indian sleeper trains. To begin with, it is only about five feet
long, with a join in the middle where the seats meet when it is folded out. It also has the
disadvantage of being a convenient place for people without beds to come and sit during



                                            148
the night. I woke up several times to find myself kicking a young Indian guy in the back
as I tried to find somewhere to put my feet.

The next morning I woke up and looked out of the window. All along the sides of the
tracks were abandoned concrete sleepers, and perched on the vast majority of them were
men, women and children, squatting down and going to the toilet. Sometimes they
squatted in groups chatting to each other.
'Did you see that lightning storm last night. Oh, Sanjeev! You need to eat more fibre,
you'll do yourself an injury!'
I checked my watch. We were already an hour late as we pulled into a station called
Kampur. It seemed to be a fairly large city, so I checked the Lonely Planet. What I saw
did not please me. We were only halfway there. We were thirteen hours into a twelve
hour journey and still we were only halfway.

A group of kids were seated two compartments down, but they seemed to have trouble
sitting still. They wandered up and down the carriage, constantly. There were a lot of
tourists on the train, which made sense as we were going to the city that was home to the
Taj Mahal. One of the kids, a girl of about fifteen, sat down on the seat next to me.
‘Hi, I’m Trishti! Where are you from?’ she said in perfect English.
‘Australia.’
‘Do you want me to write your name in Sanskrit?’ she asked.
Strangely enough, I did, so she wrote it down for me on a piece of scrap paper.
‘I can also speak French!’ she said, before switching languages once more.
A younger girl, about nine or so grabbed my arm.
‘I can speak Tamil,’ she said, and proceeded to do just that.
They both looked at me expectantly.
‘What can you speak?’ asked the little girl, whose name was Dolly, as I found out later.
I felt ridiculous.
‘English,’ I said meekly and they scoffed.
‘Well of course. Everybody can speak English!’ Dolly said, running away up the train.

Dolly and Trishti were cousins, and each had a brother, Samad and Jai respectively. They
brought them back to sit with me, and soon I was squashed up on the bed with four
children, all telling jokes and trying to get me to dance. They could all do Bollywood-
style dancing very well and seemed disappointed when I couldn’t do anything at all. We
were four hours late by now and the train had stopped again.
‘The engine broke down,’ explained Trishti, ‘We didn’t move for eight whole hours last
night while they sent another one from Varanasi.’
‘So we’re going to be eight hours late?’ I asked miserably.
Jai shook his head.
‘More like ten. We didn’t move for eight hours, and we were already running late
anyway. All trains run late.’
‘Don’t be sad!’ said Dolly, before bursting into tears.
Trishti suddenly started doing the same, and they both looked at me, crying.
‘Now you cry!’ Dolly said, but she didn’t even wait for me to try it because she had run
up the carriage again.



                                          149
The children were incredibly hyperactive , but they were making what could have been a
very boring trip much more interesting. We were only about an hour or so out of Agra
when Samad leant over to me. There was a man in his mid thirties sitting next to him. To
me, he had seemed like an affectionate uncle, but everything he said was in Hindi so I
didn’t know.
'I have no idea who this guy is, but he keeps hugging me,' whispered Samad.

I swapped places with him.

Just before we pulled into the station, a beggar with no legs and about sixty years old,
dragged himself through the carriage. I saw him coming and took ten rupees out of my
wallet, putting it into his cup as he passed. He bowed and placed his hands together as a
sign of thanks, but the kids seemed shocked.
‘You gave him ten rupees!’ Trishti said, ‘Are you crazy?’
I wasn’t sure what to say to that.
‘Only give them coins. Ten rupees is far too much!’ Dolly agreed.
‘Oh let him do what he wants,’ Jai said, whacking Dolly across the back of the head.
A fight broke out after that but it demonstrated something I had noticed throughout the
journey. The kids were very nice, but they seemed to think that they were superior to
beggars, and many of the people who did the more menial tasks. It’s something that
seems very common in India. People aren't just richer or poorer than each other, they're
better. I’d seen it many times before, but it seemed more shocking coming from children,
and by the time we pulled into the station at Agra I was a little sad to be leaving them, as
they were going on to Jaipur. Trishti insisted on getting my email address, and when I
met Billy and Ag on the platform, both girls started screaming my name from the window
as the train pulled away.
‘Looks like you made quite an impression,’ Ag said.
It appeared that I had. They were screaming so loud that the whole station was looking at
me. I felt like I was one of the less-talented Beatles or something. You know the one I'm
talking about. We walked out of the station, exhausted. What was meant to have been a
twelve hour trip had taken twenty two. What they needed in India, I decided, was some
fascist Italians to make the trains run on time.

                                         *****

All of the hotels in Agra claim to have rooftop views of the Taj Mahal, and ours was no
exception. We climbed up to the rooftop restaurant to have a look, but found only some
old broken plastic chairs in a field of concrete. It was so foggy we could barely see the
Taj at all, even though it was only a few kilometres away.

We got a lot closer to it the next morning. I’d decided I didn’t want to go and see it again,
but I quickly changed my mind when I realised there was very little else for me to do in
Agra, and so we got a rickshaw to take us there. Wandering around on the road that led
up to the entrance, there were all manner of wallahs, selling an eclectic mix of items. The
strangest one was leather whips, and not of the stockman’s variety. These things were




                                            150
huge, phallic, 'get on your knees, slave' style bondage whips. One of the vendors walked
up to us, cracking the whip loudly.
‘Twenty dollars,’ he said optimistically.
We ignored him and went inside. I gritted my teeth and paid the entry fee, which had
dropped down to seven hundred and fifty rupees. The price had been climbing
exponentially for years, and the businessmen in Agra had complained that it was bad for
business. Backpackers were bypassing the city entirely, and it was only the package
tourists that were staying in the town. Apparently their complaints were starting to have
some kind of effect. The first checkpoint had a line for men and a line for women because
at the end of it, a very thorough frisk search occurred. It was the most romantic thing that
had happened to me for a while, so imagine my excitement when fifty metres later there
was another checkpoint which did exactly the same thing. Then we were in.

Any idea that I shouldn’t have bothered coming again disappeared. It was worth it. It was
relatively uncrowded that day, so we had a good view straight down the avenue. To get
up to the Taj itself, you have to remove our shoes, so we did this and went inside. The
inside of the building is less impressive that the outside, but it still looks remarkable. The
Koran is painted up the walls in false perspective, so that it looks the same width at the
top as it does at the bottom. Behind the Taj there is nothing. Just a river and some fields,
where people were farming what looked like wheat. It was quite a striking contrast. They
were working in the shadow of the greatest monument to love ever created and they
barely bothered to look at it any more. We took it slowly and wandered around, sitting
occasionally to just soak it up. At one stage we were sitting just behind it, up against a
knee-high wall, and there was a space between Ag and I. A young Indian man came and
sat down between us and had his parents take a photo, before running off again without
saying a word. Normally people asked if they wanted a photo, but now we were simply
being ambushed.

We spent over an hour there, taking photos but soon we decided to leave. Just as we were
passing the first checkpoint, an Indian man going the other way saw me and raised his
hand in greeting.
'Hey Simon, how you doing, man?' he said.
'All right. How about you?' I replied.
'Good. Good. You remember me, yeah? From the train. Lots of trouble?'
I nodded.
'Of course, mate, of course I remember you.'
‘You like the Taj?’
‘Sure. It’s beautiful. I saw it before, last time I was here.’
‘Oh yeah. You said. Good to see you anyway, Simon. I better get in there.'
'Yeah, see you later.'
And he was gone, walking off towards the second checkpoint. Billy and Ag looked at me
curiously.
'Who was that guy?' they asked.
‘I have absolutely no idea.’
We never did work it out. My best guess is that he was the guy who sat on the end of my
bed on the train. I must talk in my sleep, I suppose.



                                             151
There was a crack of a whip as we were walking back towards the rickshaw stand. Our
friend was back.
‘Five hundred rupees?’ he said.
The price was coming down, but it simply wasn’t an item I thought I needed. I noticed
there was more than one whip salesman as well, so there was obviously a market for it. I
didn’t say a word and kept walking.
‘Four hundred rupees?’ suggested the whip wallah.
‘That’s not bad,’ Billy said, sizing up the whip.
I shook my head.
‘What the hell would we need a whip for, anyway? I’d buy it for maybe one hundred.
That’s it.’
‘One hundred rupees?’ said the whip wallah, hearing our conversation.
We stopped.
‘You said you’d buy it. Go on then.’ Billy said.
I hadn’t expected it to come to this, but it had. So I reached into my wallet and took out a
hundred rupees. It was an easy haggle. From twenty dollars down to one hundred rupees
and I hadn’t said a word to the guy. I took a crack with it, and it whipped back across my
arm, instantly leaving a long purple welt.

We couldn't get a rickshaw for a decent price, but eventually a horse-drawn carriage
pulled up and offered to take us to the Red Fort for ten rupees. We did some quick
calculations and decided that that journey was probably worth one-tenth of a bondage
whip and so we climbed on board. I was seated directly behind the horse as we trotted
along. I tightened my grip on the whip. It took a lot of self control just to remain still as
the horse’s arse jiggled in front of me.
'Whip me!’ said the horse’s arse.
It had terrible halitosis, but I did not relent, and soon we were at the Red Fort. I climbed
down from the carriage, sweating from the sheer effort of controlling my natural
instincts. The entrance into the Red Fort has a long ramp and on either side of it are two
high walls that finally shrink away to nothing as the ramp rises to meet them. Just as the
walls reached head-height we saw a monkey sitting on top of the wall. It had the biggest
testicles I have ever seen on any type of animal.
'Whip me!' they beckoned, 'For the love of God, WHIP ME!'
I didn’t. I thought of how aggresive the monkeys in Varanasi had been, and figured a ball
whipping could only have made it ten times worse. The whip was a danger to myself and
to those around me, so I wrapped it up in my jumper and carried it around under my arm.

The Red Fort was just the kind of thing I’d expect to find in colonial India. Wandering
around the red walls and climbing up the stairs, I could just imagine British soldiers in
their splendid uniforms, practising drill on the stately lawns just as the enemy attacked.
‘Jenkins! It’s those bally Indians again. Man the ramparts. Then report to my office to
ram the man-parts and have a spot of tea!’
It is not, in fact, a British Fort as it turned out. It had been built in 1565 by the then
Emperor of India, Akbar. He must have been quite short because all the railings came up
to the shins only and were perfect for tripping people so they could fall to a bloody death.



                                            152
In fact, the railings made it more dangerous than if there was nothing there at all and they
seemed to be very common in India. Another thing I noticed was a sign that kept
appearing in various spots around the fort. It said;
'Please do not scratch on the monument'
Looking around at any given time, I could see at least ten Indian men shamelessly doing
just that. Not just scratching either. Fondling, caressing and massaging. There was also a
lot of graffiti scratched onto the walls, so either way you take the sign it was disobeyed
with reckless abandon. People had carved their names into the walls of heritage sites
everywhere I’d been in Southeast Asia with such banal inscriptions as ‘Junti was here,
2003’ or ‘J.K. loves M.H.’ Why they thought that anyone cared, I don’t know.

That night, pigeons roosted just outside my window and cooed their sad, sad songs.

My whip proved very useful after all.


Jaipur
We were getting a bus to Jaipur, and the rickshaw wallah that was taking us to the bus
stand seemed intent on having one of us drive. He would stop every few metres and look
back at us, gesturing at the controls. Eventually, Billy clambered into the front and took
over. It was pretty nerve racking. He had a tendency to stray towards the middle of the
road and once we just narrowly missed being taken out by a car. He also had no control
over the brakes, as the rickshaw wallah was controlling them, so they had to have a good
synergy to negotiate the more perilous roundabouts. They didn't have a good synergy as it
turned out, although I'm not entirely sure what synergy means.

After an uneventful bus trip, we were picked up at the bus station in Jaipur. A young guy
stood outside the window holding a sign that said ‘Billy, Simon and Maria'. We had
given Ag’s name as ‘Maria Von Trapp’ for no reason other than the joy of seeing it
written on a sign. Jaipur is a big city, the capital of Rhajistan, and extraordinarily
polluted, even for India. The bus station and most of the hotels are in the new section of
town, which is fairly charmless, and resembles parts of Delhi or any other major urban
centre in India. As our driver negotiated the streets it was obvious that the traffic lights
were merely suggestions, and driving on the correct side of the road was a matter of
personal choice. We were supposed to be taken to a hotel called the Pearl Palace.
'So we have rooms at the Pearl Palace?' I asked the driver.
He shook his head.
'No sir, it is full.'
This was not exactly what we were expecting.
'So where are you taking us?' Billy asked from the back seat.
'Pearl Palace Hotel,’ replied the driver.
‘But why?’
‘I was told to drive you to Pearl Palace,’ he replied.
So he took us to the Pearl Palace hotel, a nice looking place. It was fairly new, but the
style was old. It looked like an Indian fort as it would look in Disneyland. I wasn’t
entirely sure what I was expected to do, so I went to reception.



                                            153
'Do we have rooms booked?' I asked.
The receptionist shook his head.
'No. We are full.' he said.
Our driver nodded.
'Yes, they are full.'
'They certainly are,' I agreed.
So we got back in the car, after our inexplicable tour of what could have been and he
drove us to another hotel. It was kind of out of the way but we couldn't be bothered to
argue. It was late at night and all we really needed was a place to sleep. Billy and Ag
were placed in a large bedroom on the ground floor, but I was led upstairs, across the
rooftop restaurant and into a small room with a bookcase and an old washing machine in
the bathroom. The shower had been ripped out of the wall, but I was told I could get hot
water in a bucket if washing myself was that important to me. In the rooms on either side
of mine lived the employees of the hotel. I was pretty sure that I had been given
somebody else’s room and they had just been evicted. That night, the family living next
door to me sang songs of old and played drums into the wee small hours, burning incense
at their own private shrine.

I lay in bed thinking. I had never been to Jaipur before, but Shotty had. He had been
travelling alone and was wandering around the old city when a friendly Indian man
invited him to come and have some chi. He did so, being a very trusting guy, and soon
the talk changed to gems. The Indian told him that he was a gem exporter, but that in
order to send gems to Australia he had to pay a large export tax and Australian citizens
were supposedly exempt from this. He took Shotty to see the factory where people were
cutting gems in a big production line, and introduced him to several other men.
‘If you send these gems home on our behalf, we will pay you ten thousand dollars,’ he
was told, and foolishly, he believed them.
They asked him for some kind of insurance, and took his passport and plane ticket from
him. They boxed up the gems and sent them off at the post office, making sure he saw
every step of the process. After this, they took him in, showing him around the city and
even taking him to a Muslim wedding where he was the guest of honour. They bought
him traditional Muslim clothing and he handed gifts of money over to the groom in front
of hundreds of relatives. It was a great cultural experience.

Then, of course, it all went bad. They asked him for some more insurance; this time they
wanted money.
‘I don’t have any money!’ Shotty had insisted, but that wasn’t good enough.
They put him up in a hotel but he was not allowed to leave without somebody escorting
him and the front door of the hotel was always locked. They brought back food for him,
but more often they brought him beer and marijuana. Occasionally they took him out to
play pool or have a few drinks, but they watched him closely. One of the guys had knife
scars all over his face and Shotty was starting to become scared. Eventually I received an
email from him, asking me to meet him in Delhi (I was in Jaisalmer at the time). It all
seemed fine and was nothing but banal pleasantries except for the last line which said
‘Things are fucked up’. Scarface had been watching what he was writing and he only just
had time to write that before sending it.



                                           154
They had his plane ticket and his passport and told him they would arrange a new flight
for him, a few weeks earlier than his current one. They had forced him to empty his credit
card and give them close to three thousand Australian dollars. Even this wasn’t enough
and they made him ring the bank and try to extend his credit limit. When this was refused
he was ordered to ring his friends in Australia to try and get some more money. When he
couldn’t get it, they became angry and he began to fear for his life. He slept with his
pocket knife next to his pillow, in case something happened. They stopped feeding him
for the last few days, and then, one night, they rushed into his room and told him to pack
because they were on their way to the airport. The car they placed him in had no door
handles on the inside, and two men sat on either side of him as they drove through the
deserts of Rhajistan. He honestly thought they were going to kill him.

Instead they drove him all the way back to Delhi (several hours away) and dumped him at
the airport with his new ticket and his passport. Unfortunately, the flight was not
confirmed and he had to spend another night in Delhi. He was forced to sell his watch to
some rickshaw drivers that his taxi pulled up next to, just so he had enough money to get
somewhere to stay and some food. The rickshaw wallahs quickly realised they had paid
far too much for it, and chased him down, catching his taxi at some traffic lights and
ordering him to get out of the car. His own taxi driver insisted on being paid five hundred
rupees, or else he would turn Shotty over to the angry rickshaw drivers. He paid, and they
sped away, and eventually he wound up in a hotel room on Par Ganj. That was where we
found him. He was terrified, refusing to open the door to us until we could prove who we
were and he flew home the next day, three thousand dollars poorer.

This is what I knew about Jaipur.

                                         *****

Jaipur is known as the pink city, but walking around in the old walled section of the city,
this did not seem to be the case. Certain buildings seemed to be a sort of orange or red
colour, but they were few and far between. There was a festival going on. The streets
were filled with people but also with animals. Our rickshaw dodged past them on the way
through. Hay had been laid out in the town square and animals were feasting upon it. Up
in the sky there were kites everywhere; far more than there had been in Varanasi. Trishti
(from the train journey to Agra) had told me there would be about twenty thousand of
them. Looking up I could believe it. Looking up I also couldn’t see where I was putting
my feet and the first thing I did upon getting out of the rickshaw was to stand in a huge
steaming pile of excrement. I slid on it, directly towards the open sewers that lined the
roads, but managed to avoid falling in or falling over. But my foot was covered up to the
ankle, so I took off my sandals, hoping to find somewhere to wash them. I wouldn’t like
to hazard a guess at what type of excrement it was, as all around us there were plenty of
dogs, pigs, cows, water buffaloes, chickens, cats, camels and even elephants. The
elephants had had their faces painted with coloured chalk in intricate and beautiful
patterns, and wandered about looking bored. Camels are used in Rhajistan to pull carts
around, and many of them trotted by on the road along with rickshaws and cars. As we



                                           155
wandered down the street, searching for some water to wash my shoes, we saw huge
boars fighting amongst piles of garbage. They were getting very aggressive and we
quickly realised what it was they were fighting over. It was the corpse of a puppy. It
wasn’t the only time we saw the pigs fighting over canine remains that day either.

Ag had some toilet paper in her bag (it is always best to be prepared) and so finally I
decided I would have to make do. I put my shoes down and began to scrape off some of
the crap in front of a doorway. Suddenly, a little Indian woman, about sixty, came out
yelling and waving her arms. I thought she didn’t want me to clean my shoes in front of
her house, so I was about to keep walking, but she grabbed my arm and made me wait
before running back into the house and emerging with a bucket of water. She then poured
it onto my shoes, speaking in Hindi the whole time. The louder she spoke, the more
people began to crowd around, and soon there were at least fifteen or twenty people
watching as this woman helped me clean my shoes. Another woman approached Ag as
this was going on, handing her a toddler. The child began to cry immediately, and Ag
simply stood there, trying to have the woman take back her screaming offspring. We
were the centre of attention, and one of the young men even offered to swap shoes with
me but I respectfully declined his offer as his feet seemed to be on the verge of flaking
off.

After this brush with celebrity we decided to go to the Heaven Piercing Minaret. This two
hundred and fifty year old minaret is about fifty metres high and the view from the top
was supposed to be spectacular. For some reason, the entrance was a side door in a small
alley just off from the hardware district. We had to be led there by a kid on a bicycle to
even find it. It had a spiralling ramp inside it rather than stairs, and walking up it seemed
to take forever, but once we reached the top it was clear that it was worth it. We could see
Jaipur all the way to the horizon, and floating high above it were the kites. Trishti must
have been right. They were everywhere, soaring above the pink city in every direction.
‘It doesn’t look very pink, even from up here,’ I said.
‘That building over there is sort of pink,’ Ag suggested.
‘That’s more browny-red,’ Billy interrupted.
The town had been painted pink in 1876 by Maharaja Ram Singh to honour the visiting
Prince of Wales and supposedly this had become a tradition that was maintained. It was
hard to see how, but that didn’t make the city any less impressive. On the horizon, a huge
rocky mountain sat with a fort perched on top of it.
‘Let’s go there,’ I suggested.

‘Can you take us to the Tiger Fort?’ I asked the rickshaw driver, and he nodded.
Hopping in, it was obvious that three people could not sit comfortably in this particular
rickshaw, and so I was forced to squat on the floor, facing backwards. I hoped that it
wouldn’t take too long. Unfortunately, along with not being able to comfortably sit in the
rickshaw, it didn’t have the power to carry three passengers up the side of a mountain to a
hilltop fort, and we were forced to get out on some of the steeper hills and walk to the
top. Utes, overloaded with Indians, came flying past us as we strained up the side of the
mountain.




                                            156
‘I could get out and run faster than this,’ I complained, but upon doing so it appeared that
I couldn’t.
‘Anyone with a moderate level of fitness could get out and run faster this,’ I complained,
as I climbed back in, panting and red.
We finally made it, but unfortunately it was not what we had hoped for. Most of what
was left of the fort had been turned into a restaurant which was inside the walls and had
no view of the city. The remains were only fortifications, so we wandered along these,
looking back down on Jaipur.
‘It still doesn’t look pink,’ Billy said.
‘Wait till Jodhpur. It’s the blue city. Much more impressive,’ I replied as we began to
walk back towards the rickshaw.
‘I bet it’s not. It’s probably just a light purple or something…’ Billy muttered under his
breath.

                                         *****

‘Those guys over there have been staring at me ever since we got here,’ Ag said, glancing
at the opposite platform where five or six young men were standing.
She was right. They had been. One of the things that was most disconcerting in India was
the way that people simply stared at us. There was no shame attached to it. They simply
stared, without caring whether we noticed or not. A few minutes later, the platform was
becoming very crowded and a group of about thirty young Indians were standing all
around us. We were sitting on our bags and they stood in a semi-circle looking down as if
we were exhibits in a zoo. Most of them were staring at Ag and many were not even
bothering to blink. Eventually we had to stand up and move down the platform, but that
only meant they had to strain their eyes to see her a bit more.

Ag came up with a theory. She decided that India is permanently stuck in the 1940s,
when the English left, and at first glance it seemed to be true. All of the men were
wearing pants up as high as an elephant’s eye, and so tight we could make a pretty good
estimate on whether or not they were circumcised. This, combined with their patterned
woolen vests, nice cotton shirts, and their huge waves of hair held in place with
Brillcream really seemed to support the idea. As the theory goes, their attitude to women
is equally stuck in the past. To a lot of these guys, women seemed to be mysterious and
infinitely fascinating. Which of course they are not. My theory about the reason for their
staring is slightly more succinct; this is what happens when you have a society made up
of so many thirty year old virgins.

Our ticket had seat numbers on it but when the train pulled up everyone rushed forward,
seemingly jumping onto any carriage and shoving everybody around them out of the way.
We were sure that the seat numbers meant nothing. Why would these people be risking
life and limb wading into that mass of passengers unless there was the risk of being
forced to stand for five hours? But when we finally managed to get to our seats, the
people there moved away as soon as we showed them our tickets, allowing us to sit
down. The carriage was still a frenzy of activity and I’m sure a few people got more than




                                            157
a little trampled. My seat was a good one. I was seated next to a family with two small
children, of the type that cannot sit still for more than about a minute.

They ate the whole way there. The mother just kept pulling out all kinds of delicacies
(usually messy ones that little hands could not hold onto) and passing them about. Fair
enough. Growing lads need to eat. They also need to drink, but the cup she was pouring
water into for them was a polystyrene one which had four splits in it almost all the way to
the bottom. She’d pour a cup for them to just below the split, they’d try to drink it and
pour it all over themselves, and then ask for a drink five minutes later because they were
still thirsty. Of course they were still thirsty! They got through an entire bottle this way
and the floor was awash. Unless they were anointing themselves for religious reasons,
that is by far one of the stupidest things I have ever seen. Even more so than when she
took off the little one’s pants and sent him to the toilet, half naked, by himself. The toilets
in Indian trains are no more than a hole that drops onto the tracks, and he was easily
small enough to fall right through.

Unfortunately he didn’t.


Jodhpur
We were sitting on the roof of a hostel called The Blue House, looking at the fort on the
hill which overlooked the whole city. We were very close by, and it dominated the
skyline of Jodhpur. The buildings were almost all blue. Originally, only Brahmins
painted their houses blue, but others soon took on the practice and now Jodhpur was a
splash of colour in the desert. All around on the flat roofs, people were drying saris or
vegetables in the sun, and trying to fight off the monkeys that tried to steal them.
‘It’s pretty blue. I’ve got to admit,’ Billy admitted.
The owner of The Blue House was a young Jain named Manish. He had sat down next to
us at breakfast and began to tell us all about the city. After a while, he stopped.
‘Have you met my girlfriend?’ he asked.
We shook our heads, and he went over into the corner, searching around behind some of
the pot plants on the roof. When he came back, he was holding a tortoise.
‘This is her. She is very pretty. But you keep away from her. I know your type,’ he said
to me in mock seriousness.
I swore that I would make no sexual advances towards his tortoise, and he made me
shake to ensure that I would be true to my word.
‘Can we get beer here?’ Billy asked, going off topic, although I had been thinking the
same thing.
Manish shook his head.
‘This is a Jain house. Alcohol is forbidden here. I am sorry my friends.’
‘That’s cool. It doesn’t matter,’ lied Billy.
So we sat there in what would have been uncomfortable silence had it not been for the
nearby temple. It was blaring out a mantra, being sung by children and broadcast across
the whole city. It was to praise the God, Rama, and therefore very sacred to the local
people but it was also bloody annoying when you’re trying to sleep. I’ve never met the
guy (Rama) and I’m sure he’s very nice but it was too much. It went on constantly the



                                             158
entire time. We had some mandarin vodka that night, and believe me, trying to sleep off
that toxic crap whilst children praise God is no easy task.

We decided to go to the fort, which is named Mehrangarh, and were pleasantly surprised
when we arrived to find that it had an audio tour. We each got an MP3 player and
listened to exciting facts about the fort. For example, fifteen wives of the Maharaja
committed sati (ritual suicide) by throwing themselves onto his funeral pyre after leaving
their vermillion hand prints on the wall. The handprints were still there and were quite
creepy. Almost as creepy as the guy who volunteered to be sealed alive in the foundations
as a sacrifice to help break a curse of drought that had been cast on Jodhpur. We also
saw all the various extraordinary lengths that woman had to go to in order to avoid being
seen. They had to move about in covered tarnquins and all the women’s quarters had one-
way windows into the courtyards. This was to keep them safe from the lustful eyes of
men. Did they really think that if a princess was allowed to be seen then the men would
be so out of control that they would chase her and start humping her leg? Although after
the incident at the train station, I guess they had a point. Billy and Ag also got their palms
read and the palm reader gave the usual vague reports of how wonderful life was going to
be, and how everything they ever wanted was exactly what was going to happen. I didn’t
bother getting mine done. Maybe it was because I dared not see past the misty veil of
time to view what my future held. Maybe I feared that he would expose all my
weaknesses: those things that I hold deep inside myself. Or maybe I just thought that it
was all a crock of shit.

As we were leaving, the man who collected our audio sets asked Ag about her labret
piercing. This seemed an endless source of fascination to everybody in India, who were
sure that it would be painful. This seemed somehow incongruous with what we had seen.
Indian woman frequently had a large number of ear and nose piercings, as well as
incredible amounts of jewelry and henna painted on their bodies. After discussing the
piercing for a while, he then told her that she was very beautiful and it seemed like he
was coming onto her. This was apparently not the case because he then moved on to Billy
and told him he was very handsome and asked him if he had ever done any modeling, and
if he hadn’t then he damn well should do! He looked me over as I handed him my headset
and I looked back at him with quivering anticipation of the praise he would surely heap
upon me.
‘Thank you,’ he said, taking it and putting it back on the rack.

It wasn’t like I cared if an Indian tour guide thought I was strikingly attractive. It wasn’t
like I went back to my room and cried like a little girl for hours on end wondering what I
could do to make him love me. It wasn’t like that at all.

                                          *****

Manish placed his baby son between his legs and started up the engine. He had offered to
drive us to an internet place just out of town, and he’d us to his car in the centre of the old
city. The streets were only a metre or so wider than the car itself, but he drove around at
speed, sometimes holding his son up so he could see where we were going. His wife sat



                                             159
beside him, and we all sat in the backseat, trying not to look worried as he swung around
a corner and almost rear-ended a camel cart. Soon the streets became wider, and the
buildings became newer, and it looked like any other city in India. We were on the
outskirts.
‘Didn’t we just pass this place?’ Billy asked.
Manish simply nodded.
‘I’m sorry, my friends. I don’t know what I’m doing,’ he admitted laughing and singing
along to his stereo.
When we drove past the same street for the fourth time, his wife seemed to be getting
impatient with him, playfully hitting him in the arm.
‘Wow, all this petrol is going to cost you a lot!’ he added.
They stopped and asked for directions from various men who all pointed opposite ways
but eventually we found the place.
‘This is it. But Simon, I must tell you something. I have heard something that displeases
me,’ Manish said, turning to face us.
I didn’t reply. His demeanor had changed so suddenly that I hadn’t expected it.
‘My tortoise tells me that she has been unfaithful. She tells me that you are responsible,’
he said, completely straight-faced.
I didn’t know how to respond. What do you say to someone who accuses you of having
sex with their pet tortoise?
‘I am joking! What’s wrong with you? Get out of the car!’ he said, laughing again.
We all got out and he pulled away singing loudly along to the Hindi pop song playing on
the radio.

We sent emails home, but as we emerged we saw that it was getting dark and realised we
had absolutely no idea where we were. There were no other tourists anywhere and most
people seemed quite surprised to see us. We walked some way up the road, trying to find
a rickshaw, stopping only when Billy popped into a Government Authorised Booze Shop
and bought a bottle of ‘Old Smuggler’ rum. It was sure to be a delicious treat and I
personally couldn’t wait to try it. Rum. Made in India. It cost about eighty rupees for the
bottle so we knew we’d have to savour it. As Billy emerged with his prize, a rickshaw
pulled up on the road outside. Unfortunately we were far enough out of town that the
driver rarely saw tourists and spoke no English, so he jumped out of his rickshaw and
went over to the fruit-stand with Billy to try and rustle up a translator, because as we all
know, fruit sellers are renowned for their linguistic skills. Meanwhile, Ag and I were
standing next to the rickshaw, which suddenly started to roll backwards. The rickshaw
wallah had driven it up onto the shoulder and it now hit the edge of the tarmac with a
bump.
‘Umm, that rickshaw is moving,’ noted Ag.
I nodded.
‘It is. I wonder where the brakes are in that thing.’
The fruit seller apparently spoke English quite well, but only in terms of selling fresh
produce, so Billy was building a scale model of our location out of unripe tomatoes,
much to the befuddlement of the rickshaw wallah.
‘Should we tell him?’ Ag suggested as the rickshaw cut across the first lane of traffic,
forcing cars to swerve.



                                            160
I nodded again. So we called out to the driver, who threw his arms up into the air with
dismay. He raced over and jumped in, gunning the thing forward and cutting back across
two lanes, narrowly avoiding a motorcyclist and then pulled up next to the fruit stand
smiling broadly and saying something in Hindi. He apparently knew where we were
going and we got in, although this was probably a bad idea as he clearly had no idea
where the handbrake was. I wondered what else he still had to learn about driving a
rickshaw.

We decided to go to a place called ‘On the Rocks’ where we had discovered there were
beers to be had. It turned out to be pretty far out (and I don’t mean that in a hippy kind of
way, I’m referring to the distance from the Blue House) but we had soon lined up a few
bottles on the table and were talking nonsense. We left at what we thought was a
respectable hour and got back to the Blue House at about eleven thirty, but it was locked
up tight. We stood around on the doorstep debating what to do.
‘They’re Jains and we’re pissed. They’ll hate us!’ said Ag.
‘So what are we going to do instead?’ I asked.
Billy was looking up. Their balcony was directly above the front door and he was looking
for something to climb.
‘I could probably get up there if…’
I rang the buzzer before that drunken thought could go any further and a few minutes
later Manish’s mother answered the door and looked at us sternly.
‘You’re late,’ she said.
We bowed our heads in shame, like three kids who’d been dragged into the principal’s
office for smoking behind the bike sheds. We apologised profusely as we came inside,
but fortunately a few minutes later some really drunk people got home and were singing
loud, bawdy songs of the type I’m told sailors sing, so our indiscretions were washed
away by theirs. That night I introduced the Old Smuggler Rum to the mandarin vodka.
Things seemed to be going fine but later that night they had an argument and Vodka
kicked Old Smuggler out and forced him to sleep in the toilet bowl.

                                         *****

One morning we didn’t order any juice for breakfast and Manish came up to our table.
‘You always order juice!’ he insisted.
‘But we don’t want any.’
‘We went and bought fruit especially. I sent the boy!’
The boy is a regular fixture in Indian guesthouses and can be any age from eight to
eighty. The shit-kicker, we would call him. In this case, the boy was a twelve year old
named Vikram, and a very suitable boy he was indeed. He seemed incredibly enthusiastic
about everything he did. He popped the lids of Pepsis with such youthful exuberance that
the caps would fly off onto neighbouring roofs and it was young Vikram who had been
sent to get fruit for us.
‘All right,’ we relented and we drank the juice we didn’t want.

Two of the kids were playing cricket in the small courtyard just outside my room when
we came down from breakfast and they decided that we should have an Australia versus



                                            161
India test match. Knowing that these things could last up to five days I was reluctant but
we played anyway. They were giving us a thorough pasting when Manish decided to join
in. The courtyard was very narrow and every shot ricocheted around, but Manish didn’t
hold back one bit. I passed him a gentle underarm shot and he whacked it back directly at
my head.
‘Yes! Six!’ he screamed excitedly.
After it rebounded off my head and hit Billy in the teeth he laughed out loud.
‘Oh yes! India is showing these Australians how to play the game! What a great day for
Indian cricket.’
Billy spat blood onto the tiles.
‘Oh bugger this, I’m heading back to the pavilion,’ he said and returned to his room.
‘You are finished?’ asked Manish.
‘Yes. In fact, we’re leaving tomorrow.’
There was a pause. Manish nodded, but there was an expression on his face that I
couldn’t quite read.

It all became clear when later that night we were having dinner on the roof and Manish
came to our table. He knelt down next to us and took our hands.
‘Are you sure you have to leave tomorrow?’ he asked, sounding truly sad.
‘We have to, we don’t have long in India,’ I replied, but he wasn’t having it.
‘You can stay one more night. One more night is no big problem,’ he insisted.
He then asked us separately, pleading and begging with us to stay one more night. It was
a bizarre display and at first I thought it was because he hadn’t been able to arrange the
tickets for us and was trying to cover the fact.
‘Please stay. I mean it. We will go out in my car and you and I can flirt with the pretty
girls!’ he said to me, and I think he genuinely meant it.
I was apologetic but said we still had to go, but the others (who have softer hearts than
me) kept umming and aahing, even though they knew we weren’t going to stay.
‘We really can’t…’ I started.
‘Shut the hell up, man!’ Manish snapped, turning back to Billy and cooing in his ear.
We agreed to nothing and he left us sitting there.
‘I’ll give you some time to think about it. I’ll be back in twenty minutes,’ he said.
We sat there dumbstruck after he was gone. The owner of the hotel was so taken by us he
was literally begging us to stay! We didn’t know what to do, so eventually, when he
didn’t come back, we went to bed.

Later that night he went into Billy and Ag’s room and asked if they had made their
decision. They had. They told him we had to go.


Jaisalmer
Toothless old men and women with weathered faces sat all around us. The men wore
turbans, and some of the women had veils or scarfs across their heads. It was standing
room only for a lot of people, even though the journey was to take five hours. I gazed out
the window as the desert rolled by, watching as people got off at completely isolated




                                           162
spots and started trudging across the sand, their scarves blowing out behind them. There
didn’t seem to be any towns at the stops. They just disappeared into the desert.
This strange serenity was broken when we got to Jaisalmer. Getting off the bus we were
immediately besieged by touts. They surrounded us so we couldn’t even get our bags out
from under the bus.
‘So is that where we’re staying?’ Billy asked, pointing up at the fort that towered above
us.
‘It is,’ I replied.

Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City. All the buildings are made of a honey coloured
stone, and blend in well with the desert that surrounds them. Jaisalmer is isolated and
quite small, with a population of only forty eight thousand, and it looks like something
out of a movie. The fort is central, as in Jodhpur, but the difference is that the fort itself is
filled with guesthouses and restaurants. Some people we had met complained that
Jodhpur had become too much a destination for tourists but we didn’t mind that. After all,
we were tourists. We got ourselves some rooms that Manish had suggested to us, right on
the fort wall, overlooking the city and just as I was taking off my shoes, Billy walked into
my room. He was holding a razor.
‘Let’s shave your head,’ he suggested.
I thought about this for a second before digging out my own razor and holding it up.
‘Okay. You take the right side and I’ll take the left side.’
So we set to work, shaving away at the sides of my head. It took a lot longer than we had
anticipated and the razors were fast becoming blunt. My skin was becoming irritated as
well.
‘How much have you done?’ I asked Billy, placing my hand to the side of my head.
The smooth skin on his side felt alien. I rubbed my hand across it with a mixture of
curiosity and disgust.
‘How much have you got?’ Billy asked, coming around to check but he stopped.
‘Umm. You’re bleeding.’
I put my hand up and when I pulled it away my fingers were covered in blood. I had
sliced the top of my ear open and although I hadn’t felt it, it was pumping out a fair
amount of blood. Ag, who had been lying on my bed and watching this display, shook
her head.
‘You need a professional. Let’s get down into town,’ she said.

So I slapped on a beanie to cover my ridiculous haircut and mutilated ear and we went in
search of a barber. I had to wait in line and when I stepped up and pulled off my beanie
he didn’t bat an eyelid. He was a young guy who gestured for me to sit. I had been
hoping for a pair of electric clippers, but I was a bit dismayed when he flicked open a cut-
throat razor and began to rub oil onto my head. Then it began. It was a strange sensation
to have my head stripped clean by a skilled razor-wielding Indian boy. The sides were
bearable, but the top was long enough that it hurt like hell with every stroke. The
scratching sound was enough to make the others wince just watching. I just gritted my
teeth and let him finish. When we were done, and my head was a pale, white egg, Billy
and Ag both suddenly chorused, ‘Make it shiny, make it shiny!’




                                              163
The barber looked amused, and then started to massage my head with India oil. This had
the same effect as aftershave and was less fun than bowel surgery. It was nothing on what
was to follow, because he then pulled out what looked like an electric sander and started
to buff my head. It seemed to be some kind of industrial strength machinery and my
whole skull reverberated but when he was done I had a perfectly polished skull and a
slight headache. I stood up dizzily and thanked him, before heading back into the street.

We had booked a camel trek for the next day, and had decided to just get some food and
go to bed. We went to a restaurant called the July 8th which looked down upon the
courtyard of the fort and was notable because, along with traditional Indian food, they
served Vegemite. It was still very cold, so we went inside and an Australian girl had to
move her bags so that we could sit down. She had a strange mark around her top lip. It
was a sort of purple discolouration and it was the first thing my eye was drawn to. She
was sitting at the table behind us chatting away to some Americans, and before long we
were eaves-dropping, trying to catch a hint of what it was. We figured it was probably a
birthmark, but soon the conversation turned to the Anapurna Trail in Nepal. She was
talking about how hard the trek was and how incredibly cold the nights were. It was then
we decided that it must have been frostbite. But when I looked up again, from my oh-so-
subtle ‘I'm not listening to you’ routine, the mark was gone.

She had wiped it off with her napkin.

As we were leaving the restaurant we met Jag, the husband of the woman who runs 8th of
July.
‘You Australians?’ he asked us, as he heard us paying the bill.
‘Yes,’ we replied.
‘Yeah, I lived in Australia for twenty six years. Go there all the time. Live in bloody
Sydney, ay,’
‘Jag, let them go. They’re tired. They have to get up very early tomorrow!’ said his wife.
Jag shook his head.
'Bloody woman. She's my bloody boss, you know? I do whatever she bloody well says.
Bloody slave I am.’
'Oh Jag, that is not true. Who do you see working here all day? Not you! Tell him!'
She gestured at us to intervene on her behalf.
'I have to run the bloody hotel. I have a bloody good hotel! Bloody Laughing Camel!
Down in the bloody town,’ he said.
‘Run the hotel! You just sit there talking to guests all day.’
‘Bloody woman!’

The next morning we had to get up very early for the camel trek. My shiny head was cold
in the chill morning air and I pulled a beanie over it. We were with two other couples on
the trek; Steph and Ruby from Australia (although he was born in India) and Lucy and
Brian, the Canadians. They were doing a three day trip but we were only doing one and
were to be picked up by jeep at the end of the day. They were all very nice but it soon
became clear, as the jeep we had piled into pulled out of Jaisalmer, that Lucy was one of
those people who simply had to talk.



                                           164
'Oh look at those cows! We have cows in Vancouver but not like here!'
'Our Persian friends were telling us that we should watch our shit here!'
'Well I worked in Tibet for a few years and my Tibetan friends and my Persian friends
are so much nicer than anyone I've met. Except in Vancouver of course.'
‘Have you guys been to Vancouver? My Nepalese friends went and they loved it!'
 The jeep ride was long and very cold, as the whole thing was open to the air, but
fortunately we were all kept warm and toasty by the hot air billowing from Lucy’s mouth.
When we arrived we were fed toast as they got the camels ready. It seemed bizarre to me
that they were even able to find the spot, as there were no landmarks in the desert. Our
driver simply pulled off the road at one point and started driving across the dunes until
the camels came into sight.

A camel is a very ugly beast. Ag’s camel was the prettiest of the bunch, and it was still a
very unattractive animal. Camels are also wider than a horse. So whilst on a horse, a
rider’s legs are spread quite far apart, on a camel it’s even further. Instead of the buttocks
getting sore (although they do as well) it is the inner thighs that suffer the most pain.
After a few hours of riding we were all in absolute agony. The landscape was sparse
desert, and the camels were unresponsive animals. They followed the others, or
occasionally stopped to graze despite any commands we gave them. It was actually a
great relief when we finally stopped to dismount in a small village. We walked through
just as the inhabitants happened to be having a sing-a-long to some traditional music.
What extraordinary luck that such a splendid cultural moment should just happen to be
taking place as we passed. And of course, monetary donations were gladly accepted,
although they had clearly just been entertaining themselves and none of it was
specifically for our benefit! Of course, it was hard to be too cynical about this because it
was actually a very enchanting thing to behold. With clear horizons on all sides, we stood
in a village made up of no more than five or six mud-brick huts listening to the locals
sing.

We rode on only a short way further and stopped for lunch. Lucy asked for the blankets
to be put in the shade because 'although I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa doing aid work
with my African friends I just cannot get used to the sun'. The meal that was offered to us
was quite amazing. A full thali which was delicious and only slightly sandy. They even
made fresh chapattis. All of the camel drivers refused to eat anything until we had
finished. It is part of the culture that they make sure their guests are satisfied before
helping themselves, but we still felt bad about it. We ended up lazing around there for
more than two hours. Presumably that was to stop us from moving during the hottest time
of the day but we soon became bored and wanted to go. When we finally did, it turned
out that Steph's camel had turned evil. It began to bleed from the nose and hocked up a
big load of blood onto my camel’s backside, before stampeding towards trees and getting
right in amongst them, almost bringing her off. She was screaming and as the camel
drivers were trying to help her, Lucy’s camel took off at a gallop when it saw a female
nearby. The females wander free in the desert, as only the males are ridden. Well if
Lucy’s camel had its way, I guess that female camel would have been ridden as well, but
one of the camel drivers took off after her and managed to bring it under control.




                                             165
When we finally got off on some sand dunes where the others were to stay that night my
thighs were so sore I felt like I had had a baby. And a breach birth at that. We knew that
our jeep was coming soon and felt waves of relief wash over us.
‘We’ve got two more days of this!’ complained Steph.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Lucy, ‘We’re going back in the jeep.’
‘Then that’s just the two of us,’ Ruby said to Steph.
‘No way. If they’re going back, then so are we.’
So, within about five minutes of getting off the camels, everyone had decided to come
with us. It felt strange as we sat around the camp fire eating dhal with our hands, under
the night sky. It was a bit unfair, dumping all these guys out in the desert with eight or
nine camels, but I guess they didn't mind too much. They got paid for three days and only
worked one, no longer having to cook for us or listen to our complaints. Their only
concern was that it was their fault that everybody wanted to leave. The others assured
them that it was not as we all climbed into the jeep. The ride home along darkened roads
by open jeep was freezing. The surreal experience of watching the road unravelling
before us was broken only by Lucy.
'Shit, it's cold! This is colder than Vancouver!'

                                          *****

We had booked train tickets to Mumbai the next morning, but when we finally got back
to the hotel they had not yet arrived. We were all so bow-legged and bleeding from the
arse we simply couldn’t find it in ourselves to care right then, but the next morning we
had breakfast and decided to head off to the train station and do it ourselves. Billy and I
weren’t keen on taking the initiative, but Ag got to the front of the line and started firing
off questions left and right. Indian Train Ticket Guys (their official title) had proved
notoriously unhelpful and this one was no exception. When she asked if we could get
tickets on a specific train he would check that one and that one only. We had to ask for
each class and for each possible change we could make and he would check them
individually and shake his head. The simple all purpose question, 'How do we get to
Mumbai?' was met with a blank stare.
'What train number do you want to go on?' he finally asked.
We consulted.
'Umm, anything that starts with a two... any freaking train that goes to Mumbai!’
He took a dislike to us and then a cow pushed into line and we were forced to leave.
Nobody seemed too keen to make the cow move and as it was now blocking the ticket
window we had little choice but to arrange for a bus. The only bus we could get was to
Ahmedabad (only halfway to Mumbai) for the following evening.

I hate Ahmedabad. The last time I was there I got in at 4:00am and was ripped off by
rickshaw wallahs on the way to the station. Inside the station, the first thing I had seen
was the police assisting in the beating of a beggar by a big, fat rich guy. I left a few hours
later on a bus and the day after that, Ahmedabad was largely demolished by an
earthquake which, despite the loss of life, was not such a bad thing. It was a scary, shitty,
smoggy little hell hole. Knowing this, I set off in search of some valium. Twelve hours
on a bus in order to wake up in Ahmedabad was not something I was relishing but I was



                                             166
sure that with the proper pharmaceutical assistance I could get through it. I finally found
a chemist and strode in, my bald head shining under the fluorescent lighting.
'Could you sell me some valium?' I asked.
The pharmacist immediately shook his head, looking shocked.
'Oh no sir. Not possible. I cannot provide. I cannot provide without a prescription.'
I thought about this for a while.
'Well can you sell me a prescription then?'
He shook his head.
‘No sir! I cannot provide. Please leave now.’
Since when did India get responsible?!? Back in my day, highly addictive prescription
drugs were practically mandatory for backpackers.
'Fine,’ I snapped, ‘I’ll go to the Government Authorised Bhang Shop instead.'

The Bhang Shop in Jaisalmer sat at the base of the fort and sold all manner of wonderful
items. It was a small alcove with a few chairs, and a menu of various products containing
bhang, a derivative of marijuana. The menu consisted of lemonade, brownies, tea, and
cookies, amongst other things. Billy and Ag had come with me, and after much
discussion we bought one hundred grams of green chocolate and six green cookies for
about fifteen Australian dollars. They even did camel safari packs, but that didn't seem
like a good idea. Getting the munchies from bhang cookies out in the desert with nothing
to eat but bhang cookies. A vicious cycle that could only end in hallucinations and the
writing of some Jim Morrison style 'poetry'...

At the restaurant, July 8th, it was insisted that we take a packed lunch for the bus journey
before leaving. Jag was standing around as his wife packed chapattis, samosas and a few
vegetable curries for us.
'Bloody Vegemite, woman! Get them some bloody Vegemite!'
She did so and we were standing up to leave, but Jag began to talk to us about Australia
again, and how he wanted to open a Laughing Camel Hotel in Sydney.
'Always he does this! He just talks and talks to anyone about anything!' she said.
'Bloody woman! I talk, they don't have to listen. Bloody hell!'
'Let them go Jag. They have a bus to catch. They don't have time for this shit!'
You’ve got to love a woman old enough to be your grandmother who uses the word shit
as if it were punctuation.


Jaisalmer to Mumbai
The bus was not fun. It was a very old one and it had more chairs in it than it really had
room for. Seats were pushed back, legs were crushed, and several hours later we were
stopped at a seedy café by the side of the road. A drunk guy came up to us and led us all
to the toilet. Billy went in first, but when he emerged it became clear that it was the
ladies, as a line of Indian women were disapprovingly shaking their heads. Out the back
was a piece of concrete that was deemed the one men should piss on. This was
surrounded by pieces of concrete that it was deemed men shouldn't piss on.




                                            167
We finally got into Ahmedabad at 4:00am, just as I had the last time I was there. I guess
they bring you in at night just so you can't see how crappy the place really is. This meant
waking up our hosts at the hotel, but that was all right. In fact, we treated ourselves to
nice rooms with satellite television and I learnt all about why Indian men think Western
woman are so promiscuous. Baywatch appeared to play on the hour, every hour. When I
finally decided to go to sleep at about 6:30am, the call for prayer started at a nearby
mosque. I’m an atheist, but I'm normally very tolerant of religious beliefs. After the forty
eight hour praise-a-thon in Jodhpur and twelve hours of hell on wheels, I was less so. It
actually made me very happy that I live in a predominantly Christian country. Okay, so
occasionally I get fanatics at the door asking if I’ve heard about Jesus, but generally they
seem pretty laid back about the whole deal. They only have to worship once a week, and
it’s on a Sunday when there's not much on telly. Even then, they don’t wait until it's over
before getting stuck into the booze.

The next day we went to the station so Ag could do her thing again. We lined up in a
random queue and soon realised what a pointless act this was. Although the ticket
windows had queues this was only for show. Whenever somebody (particularly
somebody who was obviously wealthier than the others waiting in line) wanted
something, they simply walked to the front and yelled over the top of whoever was
speaking. When we finally go to the front after surreptitiously using our elbows to guard
our territory, we were sent to window thirteen. We went to window thirteen and waited in
the queue, which also grew longer, and when we finally got the front we were told to go
to office thirteen, not queue thirteen and why were we wasting this guy's time anyway?
So we found office thirteen after much stuffing around and were finally led into a small
room.
'Can we get a train to Mumbai tonight?' I asked.
What a stupid question. I may as well have asked if I could have a beer for the reaction I
got. Gujarat (where Ahmedabad is) is a 'dry' state. It was apparently possible to get a
drink if we obtained a licence, but that seemed like far more trouble than it was worth to
get a mouthful of 'Old Smuggler' rum down and spend the rest of the night talking to God
on the big white telephone. It seemed that in Gujarat, getting a train ticket was equally
difficult and we left the station feeling dejected. It appeared we would have to get another
bus.

The bus turned out to be another very old one, with narrower seats than usual. This was
all right for the most part as it was fairly empty, but after driving around Ahmedabad for
over an hour picking up passengers, it soon filled up. I was fortunate enough to still have
the seat next to me vacant. It was the only one on the bus in fact, and I thought I would
have somewhere to sleep, when he got on. When people describe India they often talk of
the 'teeming mass of humanity' that populates it. Well this guy was a perfect example of
that mass. He was so fat he had three smaller men orbiting him and when he sat down
next to me a large portion of him leaked over onto my seat. We sat there in silence for a
while and then the engine started. Towards the rear of the older buses, the vibrations were
incredible and it made his thighs rub together so much that I was afraid his pants were
going to catch fire. But that was not the worst part. Far from it. He was so big, he could
not put his arms around his own jiggling belly and so they rested next to him. Right on



                                            168
my thigh. Where it jiggled. When he fell asleep (and began to snore) he had no control
over it. The more it jiggled, the closer his hand got to my joy department. Now I'm
completely comfortable with my sexuality, but I must say that I wasn't too comfortable
with his. I even placed a blanket between us but he somehow managed to work his way
under that within a few minutes and we were right back in molestation-ville. Somewhere
in the night he turned on his side against the window and I was wedged in the chasm
between his colossal buttocks. Only after I stood up in the aisle did he turn back over
again and invite me to sit down. I did so, reluctantly, whereupon he fell asleep and
continued to touch me in ways I’d never been touched before. Somewhere on the
outskirts of Mumbai, enough people had gotten off the bus that I was able to move and
get a few fleeting hours of sleep.

                                         *****

‘Do you have any single rooms?’ I asked, and he nodded.
We were in the Colaba area of Mumbai, which is in the extreme southern part of the city
and right near the Gateway to India. Mumbai is very expensive for accommodation, and
Billy and Ag had already taken a very small double for eight hundred rupees, about four
times what we usually paid.
‘Here is a single. Three hundred rupees,’ said the receptionist.
He opened the door, which turned out to lead into a closet. It had a narrow single bed in
it, which the room was not even twice as wide as, and only a few centimetres longer than.
It was so small that I could touch both walls with my arms outstretched, and above the
door was a red light bulb.
‘Is that so I can indicate when I'm with a client?' I asked.

We went out to get some food and as were sitting there, dazed due to lack of sleep from
several days in transit, an English girl approached us.
‘Do you guys want to be in a movie?’ she asked.
We sat there blinking, trying to comprehend what was going on.
‘There’s a Bollywood movie shooting in a month or so. You guys can be extras in it, if
you want,’ she said.
‘What sort of movie?’ Ag asked.
‘No idea.’
‘Would we have to sing?’ I asked.
‘I think they’d prefer it if you didn’t,’ replied the girl.
Those Mumbai cats with their Mumbai dreams and their empty promises! We weren't
falling for that one.
‘We have to leave tomorrow anyway,’ Billy said.
‘Tomorrow? Really. I was wondering if you wanted to be a hostess at a wedding,’ she
said, addressing Ag.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I was asked to get five Caucasian girls to be hostesses at an Indian wedding. I guess it’s
a sign of wealth or something, having foreigners there.’




                                           169
This was a strange request, but it fitted in with the idea of strangers wanting their picture
taken with foreigners. Foreigners were seen as wealthy and therefore by association, their
friends were wealthy as well. In India, status is very important.
‘Tomorrow. I suppose we could stay another day,’ Ag said, but the girl shook her head.
‘It’s an Indian wedding. It goes for five days!’
Ag decided to pass on the opportunity. We only had a week left in India as it was.

Instead we decided to try a half each of our green cookies. We sat in Billy and Ag’s room
(I had no space for entertaining guests) and the others promptly fell asleep. I sat for a bit
and then decided that I would go out and write some emails home, as I was suddenly
feeling a wave of affection for those I had left in Australia. I found a place, in an attic
down a side alley, when the cookie began to take effect. Within about an hour I was
positive that the guy next to me was a CIA spy sent to kill me. I stood up and paid
quickly, before stumbling down the extremely steep stairs from the little low-roofed room
that constituted the email cafe. I could feel the walls closing in as Shiva chased me, arms
flailing and screaming Hindi curses. I decided to sleep it off and somehow made it back
to my room, lying down in that claustrophobic space and staring at the light above my
door. My room had a miniature fan on the ceiling. The blades had been cut in half so they
wouldn’t hit the walls and I turned it on as I was starting to sweat profusely. I finally
drifted off, and when I woke up I had one hand touching each wall. For a moment I was
afraid I was in a coffin and had been buried alive.

                                         *****

With just a few hours to go in Mumbai, and having wasted so much of the short amount
of time we had, we walked to the Gateway to India. This was built in the last twenty
years of colonial India as a symbol to new arrivals. It was a fairly large stone archway,
much like a miniature Arc de Triumph. Unfortunately, we couldn’t even get close to it. It
was not particularly crowded but, being white, the beggar children began to close in on us
like a fog as we approached. They wanted whatever we had, and we had to cover our
pockets as we passed through. Ag caught one with their hand inside her bag and we
decided it was not worth the effort, so we turned away. The beggar children fell away the
further we got from the Gateway but then we were suddenly ambushed by holy men.
There were groups of men wandering the area who used guerrilla tactics to bless
foreigners. They forced boiled sugar (the food of the Gods) into our hands and placed a
tikka on our foreheads and a flower in our pockets. They also tied yellow and red cloth
around our wrists. It didn’t matter if we said we didn’t want it, they did it any way. Then
of course, once the ambush-blessing was complete, they demand baksheesh. The
aggressiveness of the whole thing was amazing, especially as it was done with the
sweetest of smiles. We had no choice but to be blessed and to pay for the privilege. I
handed a note to my spiritual guru.
'Thankyou!' he beamed.
For a man who supposedly valued spiritual nourishment over material possessions he
seemed quite pleased with cold, hard cash.




                                            170
We wiped the tikka’s from our forehead and returned to our room to get our bags. It was
time to go. When we arrived at the bus stand it appeared that again, something had gone
wrong. The bus we had arranged for was a sleeper but when we got on, it did not seem to
be. It was an ordinary bus, with old seats and nothing else.
‘Excuse me, we paid for a sleeper bus,’ Billy said to the driver.
The driver nodded.
‘Yes, sleeper.’
We stood around awkwardly for a while.
‘But this is not a sleeper bus. We paid for a sleeper bus,’ insisted Billy eventually.
The driver looked confused. He lifted himself out of his seat and walked down the aisle
towards us.
'Sleeper! One, two, three!' he said, pointing at three luggage racks.
Sure enough, in each one there was a grimy mattress, but apart from that it was a normal
bus. That meant that no one else had sleeper tickets. It was just us. Everyone else who got
on that bus was Indian, and we were their foreign baggage, to be safely stored in the
overhead compartments. Billy and Ag complained for a bit but it was hopeless of course.
It just proved to be very embarrassing when we went to sleep and clambered over
people’s heads to get there. We also had to be careful not to let anyone put their bags on
our beds (which is what they were for) so baggage space was short. For all these reasons,
I think we were fairly disliked on that journey. And of course, Billy was too long for the
bed. Billy is too long for most things.


Goa
Anjuna Beach was much the same as I remembered. A lot of the restaurants had been
renovated and were now a lot nicer, but those that sat directly on the beach were much
the same; temporary structures that were taken away at the end of every season when the
monsoon made the water level rise and swamped them. We were staying in a place off
the beach, a few minutes walk away. The famous Anjuna Market was going on the day
that we arrived and so we had spent the day wandering around looking at the items on
offer. Goa still seemed to be the destination of choice for tired, washed up, old hippies
and Israelis who only stopped dancing when they wanted to complain about the service
somewhere. Goa is where a lot of young Israelis travel to after completing their
compulsory military service. As a result, those that we came across in Anjuna were so
desperate to have a good time that they tended to take drugs constantly in order to have
the energy to go to the illegal parties and dance until the sun came up.

The next day we decided that we really should get straight down to some laziness. After
so much travel, a day on the beach seemed to be the way to go. We sat around, going in
for a dip amongst the submerged rocks, and watching the strangeness. Goa is the only
place I have ever been where cows wander the beach freely, sometimes in large numbers.
It is also the only place I have ever been where tourist buses dump groups of fully clothed
Indian men to wander up and down gawking at all the bikini clad Western women. They
walked up in groups of ten or fifteen and just stood, looking into the water and
occasionally even taking photographs. What was even stranger was the ones who actually
went into the water in their dirty grey Y-fronts and then had their picture taken as if they



                                            171
were shooting a swimsuit calendar. The most common one I saw was one leg crossed
over the other, with the hand resting suggestively on the thigh as the surf washed over
them. The first time I saw it I thought it was some kind of Indian boy band doing a
publicity shoot, but I saw it happen often enough to dispel that theory.

We were sitting in a restaurant drinking lazy afternoon beers and eating falafels when a
crazy drunken Russian came in and sat down behind us. We already had ourselves a fair
selection of beach sellers trying to get us to purchase many, many tonnes of worthless
crap but I guess he looked like an easier target to them, as quite a few moved in his
direction. It was a hopeless task. His mind was on nothing but drink.
‘My name is Padma,’ one of them said.
‘Vodka? Your name is vodka?’ he replied, sipping his beer urgently at the thought.
‘No. Padma!’ she repeated.
‘Do you drink vodka?’ he enquired.
We left him surrounded by beach hawkers but later that night we met him again. Anjuna
was absolutely dead by about 10:00pm and the only place open, was right up at the far
end. Every single person in there seemed to be playing chess. It appeared that, for that
night, the party was going on somewhere else. In Goa, the locations of the parties
travelled by word of mouth, and so practically everyone, from all of the multitude of
beaches in Goa would get on their rented kinetic motorcycles and head for the same spot.
Everywhere else was completely deserted. We sat for a bit playing cards just so we’d fit
in with the chess players when our drunken Russian stumbled in, even drunker than
before. I challenged him to a game of chess, as he was looking at a bit of a loss.
‘Tequila?’ he said.
We began the game, and he lost very quickly, in about fifteen moves.
‘If I use my bourbon to threaten your vodka then I can have you in beer-mate by…
what’s going on?’
He soon wandered away, but by then I was involved in a conversation with an
Englishman sitting next to me, named Mark. He told me he was ‘setting up’ in Goa. He
wanted to open some kind of holistic medicine clinic and at first I thought he was
genuine. But he wasn’t. Basically he was one of those guys who talks crap about
transcendental meditation in order to look cool. It failed of course but to Mark this didn’t
matter because ‘he knew that he didn’t exist’.
‘You see,’ he continued, ‘Once you realise that you don’t exist, all sorts of doors are
opened up to you.’
‘And how do you do that?’
‘I can’t explain it, it’s just the way things are. Nothing exists.’
I pondered this.
‘But how can it be the way things are if nothing exists? The way what is?’
He thought about this some more.
‘I have realised that I don’t exist!’ he said again.
If only it were true and he didn’t then I could have had a drink in peace.

Billy and Ag had tired of this much earlier and gone home. On the way they were stopped
by two guys who claimed to be cops searching for drugs, except that they were just
dressed like two guys. How are people supposed to know? And if they did find drugs,



                                            172
would anyone really complain if they wanted to take them away? I stumbled home
through pitch blackness, getting fairly lost in the alleys behind Anjuna, and when I woke
up I felt terrible. Not nearly as bad as Ag who, after breakfast made an absolutely
spectacular display of vomiting bright green into a small ditch by the side of the road.
Billy and I wanted to get bikes but as we were going out to get them we were stopped by
the owner of our guesthouse. The Godfather as he liked to refer to himself. He had one or
two quirks, the first of which was his extreme religious zeal. That was not uncommon in
Goa. The Portugeuse colonised Goa and had left behind a large Christian population. We
had seen many trucks driving around with ‘Soldier of God’ and ‘Jesus’ emblazoned
across their windscreens. The second quirk was his security precautions. The main gate
had three latches on it, which led into the courtyard (guarded by a German Shepherd) and
then to the stairs which had another two latches, followed by another gate one metre
inside that with yet another latch. And these were kept closed at all times, yet none of
them were locked, although the first place we had looked at was worse than that. To get
to the rooms in that guesthouse, we had to walk through an office that was used by the
local police. On the wall were tallies of rapes and murders written in chalk and there was
an Indian policeman sitting behind the desk. The last thing we wanted whilst in Goa was
to have to wander past policemen every night, completely drunk or on God knows what
else. And the rapes and murders for the current month seemed quite high. It was not
encouraging. Another thing The Godfather liked to do was talk. He talked about pretty
much everything, and it was hard to get in or out of the place without becoming engaged
in some conversation or another. Usually about absolutely nothing, but occasionally
about bugger all; the choice was wide and varied.

That night, Ag was still feeling sick so Billy and I went next door to the Italian place, but
as soon as we sat down it became immediately apparent that we were in a very romantic
setting indeed. It was a candlelit garden with soft love songs filling the air. It felt like we
were on an awkward first date.
‘So, aren’t girls hot?’ I said by way of conversation.
‘Oh absolutely,’ agreed Billy, ‘I like girls a lot!’
We had a few too many there as well, and the tone of the place seemed to change from
secluded romantic retreat to drug den as the smell of pot filled the air. We left in order to
go and check out the action on Anjuna but it was clear that Anjuna simply wasn’t the
place to be. It was dead again, and even the pub at the end of the beach, where Mark the
transcendental guru had said he would be that night, was closed without a soul in sight.
‘Well, I was very drunk. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe he really doesn’t exist,’ I
suggested to Billy, who threw a plastic bottle across the sand just to reconfirm his own
physical reality.

                                          *****

An excerpt from our final conversation with the Godfather;
(Billy, Ag and myself approach the Godfather.)
US: Hi. We were wanting to get a taxi. We have to get a bus to Bangalore tonight.




                                             173
GODFATHER: Right. Now where are you getting the bus from, because if you are
getting it from Calangute then you will have to go there, but you can also get it from
Panaji and if that is the case then you will have to go to Panaji in order to get the bus.
US: We’re going to Panaji.
GODFATHER: Okay. Well you can get a bus there if you want. The buses run every
hour or so and are quite slow, but you will have to change at Siorim to get the bus to
Panaji and sometimes they are running late so if you want to be on time you should get a
taxi.
US: Right. That’s why we said we wanted to get a taxi…
GODFATHER: Okay. So where do you want to get a taxi to? And at what time? I could
call a guy to drive you there if you like…
(Five minutes of dialogue removed.)
GODFATHER: So now I will call the taxi to come here and get you.
(The Godfather walks to the telephone, picks it up and then starts screaming as if trying
to wake the dead)
GODFATHER: How are your wife and family? Give my best to them. Now I need you to
come around here at 4:30… NO! You don’t tell me the time, I tell you the time. They
have to get a bus at 6:00 so you need to be here…
(Seven minutes of dialogue removed.)
GODFATHER: You see, I don’t let Indians come into my guesthouse. I know that is bad
because I am Indian myself but I won’t have them here. All they come to Goa for is to
drink. That is why I have all the gates…
(Three minutes of dialogue removed.)
GODFATHER: And the Israelis. I will not have them in my guest house. If they come to
the gate then I just tell them we are full, because you know, they are always so noisy.
And one checks in and then two or three more and they bring back the women and play
loud music and annoy the other guests…
(Six minutes of dialogue removed.)
GODFATHER: And they all shower in the same room but they only pay for one
person…
(Three minutes of dialogue removed.)
GODFATHER: And they always bring drugs in. And come in at all hours… Oh look,
your taxi’s here. This is Mario.
(Billy, Ag and myself nod a greeting to Mario)
GODFATHER: Now run along before you miss your bus.

So with that we had spent our last day in Goa, although to give you a brief insight into
Mario I have included a brief excerpt of his conversation also.
MARIO: And they always have showers there. One person signs in and they bring their
friends back and play loud music, I won’t have them in my guest house either…

After an hour of anti-semitism, we finally found ourselves under the bridge at Panaji.
Panaji is a big town, the largest in the state of Goa, but we were only on the border of it
where there was nothing but a concrete bus station. There wasn’t a single section of
ground at the bus station that didn’t have wet puddles that smelt like piss, so we floated
our bags in one of the shallower areas and sat down waiting. I was apprehensive because



                                           174
I knew we would be getting a sleeper bus. Ag and Billy would be together of course,
which left me and some random passenger to spend the night behind a curtain, away from
prying eyes. After our last experience on a sleeper (where we were in the luggage racks)
and my last experience next to an unknown (where I was violated in every orifice by a fat
man’s nocturnal groping) I was, I’ll admit, terrified.

When the bus finally did pull up and we got on, my fear was not abated. None of the
front section sleeper beds seemed to have numbers on them, but one of the few ones that
was free was next to yet another big, fat Indian guy who had already placed all of his
stuff onto the other seat. In India, to be fat is to be wealthy. Consequently those that can
afford sleeper buses are frequently fat. Imagine my surprise then when I was in fact
placed on a different bunk, next to a gentle looking Korean man, about forty five or so.
Imagine my further surprise when the space where we were to sleep was no bigger than a
reasonably large beach towel. I clambered up next to him, and he made some small talk.
He seemed nice enough and he wasn’t overweight which was all I really cared about. It
turned out to be a fairly pleasant journey. I slept well, and the only disturbances in the
night were a few instances of the Korean man’s arse pushed against my spine. I was
ecstatic. And the fact that I was ecstatic that a forty five year old Korean man pressed his
buttocks against my lower back should give some indication of how bad the other trips
were.


Bangalore to Chennai

So we were in Bangalore. Not much to tell. Bangalore is a big, commercial city and the
area we were staying in was filled with fast food restaurants and shopping malls. The
architecture was either capitalist monuments of glass and steel or gritty urban decay, and
neither one of those styles is very attractive to me, even less so when they are side by
side. It was a horrible change from the relaxed pace of Goa. We went to a hotel in the
book that was listed as ‘nicer rooms than the shabby reception suggests’ and were quite
surprised. The reception was fairly nice and the rooms were just plain shithouse. Add to
this a bellhop who insisted on doing every little thing for us and we were not happy.
‘Now I’ll put your left leg in front of the right, then I’ll attend to your friends and return
to put your right leg in front of your left’. All just in order to get a tip which I didn’t have
(I had no change and was forced to overpay him). We were flying out of Chennai soon
and that meant that the following day we had to get a train. In the meantime, we went in
search of a dentist for Ag, as she had developed a cavity and we had a while to go until
flying home. We were sent off to the dentist district where, it seemed, no dentist opened
before 4:00pm. Entertaining fantasies of men equipped with nothing more than leather
restraints and a pair of pliers (I have, in fact, been to a nightclub like that) she was
relieved when we found an expensive-looking place located in the IBM offices.
Unfortunately she was told in no uncertain terms that nothing could be done. He drilled in
a bit and told her she’d need root canal, which would take several weeks. We didn’t have
time to stay anywhere and so she was forced to simply put up with the pain.




                                              175
We went to a place that night called 20ft High, which was a very apt name, due to the
place being twenty feet above the street level. The staff were stupidly over-attentive to
our needs, in much the same way the bellhop was. From the moment we sat down they
pulled out chairs and brought us menus with the utmost servility. When we ordered a
bottle of water it was brought to us and shown as if it were a fine wine. We nodded our
approval that it was relatively free of lumps and drank it down. We also had a few beers,
and all in all, the food was good. They poured us beers as we were placing them down on
the table after having a sip. Ag went to light a cigarette and one of them jumped in and lit
it for her, mistaking her for a character in a 1940s film.
We went home far happier than when we had set out but later that morning I had a slight
problem. Ag was always insisting on getting water. Every time we went anywhere she
wanted a bottle of water just in case they didn’t have enough in their room.
‘What if the shower’s not working? We’ll need at least sixty litres and then we have to
brush our teeth…’
Consequently, being somewhat of a cad, I was constantly making fun of her and nick-
named her ‘The Camel’ as a demonstration of my lack of real wit. I was soon to be taught
a lesson in humility. At five in the morning, I ran from my bed to the toilet and threw up
twice in quick succession, probably due to a dodgy pasta meal I had eaten. I breathed
heavily, wondering if I would be safe to go back to bed. As if to answer the question, I
threw up three more times. I had no water. Knowing Ag’s fondness for the stuff, I could
have gone and knocked on their door, but I was damned if I was going to subject myself
to the humiliation. I knew what her response would be.
‘Oh! So you’ve come to beg the Camel for help, have you? The days of wine and roses
have finally come to an end have they, little man?’
I could not possibly bear the shame, so I went to reception, and being eager to please they
offered to send it up. I sat there tasting my own stomach bile and watching a satellite
television show about American hill-billies trying to build super tractors to fight each
other in a junkyard. The water only arrived forty five minutes later. So the Camel won
that round.

Our tickets had arrived for the train to Chennai and we were leaving that afternoon, so we
went walking about, buying things and generally eating lots of fattening foods for the
pure pleasure of it. We saw a DVD of a Hindi film called ‘Jism- The Dark Side of
Desire’ and I was tempted to buy it purely so it could sit with my collection and start
conversations. Eventually, for want of something better to do, we found ourselves back at
twenty feet high.
‘So you want beer!’ said the head waiter.
‘No, just cokes,’ we replied. He seemed thoroughly disappointed, but consoled himself
by putting cocktail umbrellas in our soft drinks and when we ordered chips he spooned
the sauce onto individual trays for us in the basic shape of our individual silhouettes.
Then to the train. As we were sitting on the platform we wondered exactly what we had
gotten ourselves in for. We hadn’t caught a train in quite some time and those we had
taken were not good. This one was different, it was only supposed to take four hours and
sounded quite deluxe.
‘I wonder if it will have airline-style seats in it?’ Ag pondered.
I scoffed.



                                            176
‘As if it will! When have you ever seen the inside of a train here that wasn’t absolute
crap? Airline-style seats? We’ll be lucky if we even get seats. More likely there’ll just be
big spikes on the floor that we have to sit on, or it’ll be a cattle car used to transport us
whilst our luggage is sorted for resale by the station staff. Airline-style seats? Don’t be so
stupid…’

I sat down in my airline style seat and reclined, as they handed me a newspaper and a
bottle of water. So the Camel won round two, but this was not over, not by a long shot!
The train was amazing. It was fast for one thing, which is something that I had thought
Indian trains could not possibly be. Express Train usually just meant the duration of the
journey could be measured in days rather than weeks but this one cruised along at about
eighty kilometres an hour for most of the trip. The weirdest thing was the service. They
gave us Pepsi and then a tray of sandwiches and pastry, as well as chocolate éclairs.
‘Not a bad meal,’ I said and the others nodded approvingly.
They came by an hour later with bread rolls and cups of tomato soup.
‘Wow a snack as well!’ I added and the others nodded approvingly.
Then they came by offering steaming mugs of coffee, which I took.
‘Well now this is just too much!’ I commented and the others nodded in slight disbelief.
Then the waiter bumped my arm as he came past and coffee spilt all over my crotch and
the book I was reading. I glanced up at the sky.
‘You couldn’t just let me enjoy one journey could you, you bastard!’
But after such good service not even this could dampen my spirits, although the same
could not be said for my trousers. I was just drifting off to sleep when they came by with
a full thali consisting of three curries, rice, and curd.
‘Man, it’s only been three hours. This is more than I eat in a day!’ I said, and the others
ignored me because they were getting sick of me making innocuous and largely obvious
comments.
So I turned to the guy next to me.
‘Man, it’s only been three hours. This is more than I eat in a day!’
The Indian man next to me smiled.
‘You like cricket? Australia is very good at cricket. Ricky Ponting!’ he replied.
I nodded approvingly. Then they took away the largely uneaten meal. It was too much.
They had been stuffing us consistently and I couldn’t eat another thing. Well except for
the ice cream they bought us directly afterwards! There was always room for that. So
basically, this was not only the best journey I’ve ever undertaken in India, but in fact
anywhere. At first I was suspicious and wondered exactly what they were fattening us up
for, but we arrived in Chennai and got off the train without being butchered. It was
perfect. Chennai seemed massive, thoroughly polluted and filled with impoverished
people sleeping all about the station. The streets were chaotic and the traffic was intense.
It was quite late at night, so we went straight to a random hotel chosen from the book and
went straight to bed. It was a fairly nice one, but as in Bangalore, the staff insisted on
carrying our bags around, which is not something I like. Not least of all because I don’t
like tipping people for doing something I can do perfectly well myself. If they were doing
something useful then I wouldn’t mind.




                                             177
The next day we got up and decided to go and see Chennai in the one day we had to do
so. We read through the book, but it seemed to be a town solely for people who really,
really enjoyed temples. We decided to go to the Marina because it sounded nice but it
really wasn’t. It was simply a massive, unattractive beach flanked by a hot concrete path
with no shade. We walked down this for a kilometre or so and it was much the same.
‘Let’s just go back to the hotel, we have cable television!’
No one said it exactly, but we all thought it. So that’s what we did. It would be easy to
say we didn’t give Chennai a chance. It would be easy to say that because it was hot and
uncomfortable we didn’t even try to see the beauty of the city.

We didn’t give Chennai a chance. Because it was hot and uncomfortable we didn’t even
try to see the beauty of the city.

Hey! That was easy! Or perhaps it was fatigue, knowing that we were soon to be leaving
India and going on to somewhere new. Whatever it was, we sat around in the room
watching the television until Billy and Ag got an SMS from home telling them that they
had a lot less money than they thought. Ag, being resourceful (both with water and all
manner of other things), quickly started going through what she might be able to do to
raise some money. She thought about selling some stuff that they had collected.
‘It’s all that water you buy, man, I’m telling you! You’re pissing your future away!’ I
said triumphantly.
She ignored that and dug her hands into the sack of fake silver jewellery she had bought.
‘This! I didn’t need all this! Every one of these could have gotten us just that much more
food.’
‘You did all you could,’ Billy insisted but she was inconsolable.
‘These stylish yet affordable suede bags! I could have gotten just one! I didn’t need so
many!’
‘You did more than most. You couldn’t possibly have bought less. You’re only one
person after all,’ Billy insisted.
‘These budget T-shirts from Rhajistan! Every one of these is a life I could have taken by
eating a chicken dinner…’

We got a taxi to the airport but as we were leaving the room, we were accosted. They
tried to tear the bags from our backs and informed us that they were cleaning our rooms
before placing out their hands for a tip. Billy casually placed the key in it.
‘Thanks!’ he said and walked off.
Unfortunately it was impossible to keep them off. We got to the taxi and three of them
jumped us, tearing the bags off and carrying them the two metres or so to the rear of the
van. They all wanted money for doing exactly what we could have done ourselves, and
they did it in groups so that they would all have to be paid. Every time I’d seen one in the
hall they’d ask me if I needed towels or soap, and if I took it, they’d want a tip. They
were almost certainly paid very poorly (although it was a fairly nice place) but it was
tantamount to mugging. Expecting a tip for cleaning the room after we’ve left? Fine.
Don’t clean the room. I really don’t care!




                                            178
The driver was very bad and the traffic was atrocious. Nobody stuck to lanes and it was
rush hour so he was edging his way in everywhere. He would find he had a metre gap in
front of him and floor it, before slamming on the brakes almost immediately. Inevitably,
he rear-ended a taxi and my head flew forwards and hit the window frame. I was dazed
for a second.
‘Take it easy!’ Billy cried from the back, but he didn’t.
He drove like a madman, nearly having about six more low-speed collisions and at least
two high speed ones. I looked to my left, but where the seatbelt should have been there
was nothing but an indentation.
‘So where’d you get your licence, man?’ I asked.
He looked at me, not comprehending and looking a little angry.
‘Hey I’m just kidding! You clearly don’t have a licence,’ I said to placate him.
The journey was torturous. I would tense up every time he passed a speeding bus on the
inside lane, forcing a bike onto the shoulder. I cringed as he tried to nudge forward
rickshaws with his bumper bar. When we got out at the airport, relatively unscathed
(although my neck was really sore from the crash) we took out our bags and headed
straight in, without looking back.
‘I’d give you a tip man, but I have a concussion and I doubt I could find my wallet right
now,’ I called back to him.
Chennai Airport was big on security. We had to recheck our bags several times and the
music playing in the place was scary. It sounded exactly like the music that played in a
movie just before the axe murderer jumped out and began chasing the big-bosomed
heroine through the hallways as she bounced in her tight T-shirt. It went from this
through to freakish chanting and children singing discordantly, as if possessed. I guess it
was meant to be soothing but it did little for my nerves. I had enjoyed my time there, but
I was still glad to be leaving India.




                                           179
                                     11
                             OH, THE HUMIDITY

                                    SRI LANKA

Negombo
The flight from Chennai to Colombo was very short but for the flight attendants it must
have felt like an eternity. We were seated right up the back and were privy to the
comments of the stewardess, most of which consisted of 'Jesus' and 'Oh, for fuck’s sake'
as the large extended family of about fifteen sitting in front of us continually called her
for every little thing. When the meals were served they had run out of the vegetarian
option, and one man insisted that she go and retrieve one from somebody who had
already started eating. When she refused he became very angry, but fortunately at that
moment we hit a patch of turbulence and she had the excuse of going to sit down. In fact,
the turbulence was quite bad and continued for most of the trip but that didn’t stop the
family from calling her every two minutes for drinks or bhujia mix. It was hard enough
for the cabin crew to stand up as the plane was tossed around, let alone pour cups of
coffee. In the end, the stewardess began to ignore them, but this only made them get up
and track her down, ignoring anybody else she may have been serving and insisting she
instantly come and pour them some orange juice. We were delayed on the tarmac waiting
for a gate to be cleared and they all got up and started taking their bags down, only sitting
after some stern words from the Captain. A few minutes later they were at it again,
despite the fact that we hadn't moved. It was like flying in a plane filled with five year
olds who’d found out where the red cordial was stashed.

When we arrived in Colombo, the humidity was eighty three percent. As in Phnom Penh,
stepping through the automatic doors at the airport was not dissimilar to taking a shower,
and we were very relieved to get into an air-conditioned taxi. We had arrived at night, but
fortunately we were meeting a friend in Negombo, about forty minutes from the airport.
Pelvin had gone to school with Billy and Ag, and had decided out of the blue to come and
meet us in Sri Lanka. When we arrived at the hotel, he was sleeping, as he had been
drinking heavily ever since boarding the plane in Sydney. He told us of his adventures in
Sri Lanka so far and we realised he had done more in five hours than we had done in the
last week. The highlights included snake charmers on the beach, meeting up with some
Latvian air hostesses, and finding out all the best spots on the coast for us to visit. The
rooms were average, but also expensive when compared to India. Sri Lanka also has a
very large Christian population (as evidenced by the statues of the Virgin Mary or Jesus
that line the roadside from the airport) and so every room had a copy of the New
Testament. For some reason they didn’t have the Old Testament, which was a pity, as a
bit of wrath wouldn't have gone astray right about then. It seemed very quiet, but it was
relatively early so we went to the hotel restaurant for a meal.

The curry in Sri Lanka comes in the most ridiculously large portions imaginable. We
ordered three, thinking that this would be enough to start with, but when it arrived our


                                            180
waiter, Chandra, had to get another table to accommodate the plates. The food stretched
off to the horizon and we looked at it in disbelief.
‘This is a little more than I wanted,’ Billy said.
‘They’re bringing more too!’ Ag said, pointing over towards the kitchen where another
steaming bowl was emerging.
Pelvin dug in anyway, spooning some of the curry onto a bed of rice. He took a bite and
nodded.
‘It’s really good.’
So we all began to eat as the food continued to arrive. It was indeed very good, but
unfortunately, it was also very hot. We ate until we were full, but when Chandra came
back to clear the table he paused.
'Oh look, there's still some vegetable curry in here, and you have a lot of chicken left. I’ll
come back later,’ he said, as the curry slowly dissolved the bowls.
So he put them back. We also had several tonnes of fried rice, although it had more chilli
than rice in it. When Chandra headed back to the kitchen we considered our options. He
was so nice, and the food was so good that it was a shame to waste it. We forced down a
few more mouthfuls, but I was sweating profusely and beginning to feel some stomach
rumblings. Our hotel looked directly onto the beach, and with some stealth and speed we
could have disposed of the evidence by burying it, but we never had the nerve. Being
caught in the act would have been impossible to explain. He came back several times, but
always left even the smallest amount, as Billy forced himself to eat more and more to the
point of hallucinating. I was having curry flashbacks from years before and couldn't
manage any more food. When he returned a final time and said ‘there’s quite a lot of dhal
left’, Billy snapped.
'It's just too hot! HOT! AURGH!' he cried.
Chandra seemed most upset.
‘I told the kitchen not too spicy,’ he said, and he took a spoonful to taste it.
He swallowed it, and then tried a bit more. It was obvious that the word ‘bland’ was
echoing in his head.
‘Too hot?’ he asked curiously, as if we were insane.

 We went out for a quick walk to help digest this torturous meal. Negombo is a long
beach, and we were staying at one end of it, near the slum area. It is not a particularly
pretty beach to begin with, and the street behind it contains mainly gem shops or
restaurants that quickly thin out into small concrete boxes that the locals live in. It was
here that we met Anna. She was sitting on the street in front of her house and began to
ask the usual questions. Where are you from? What is your name? The fact that we told
her we were Australians and didn’t then get involved in a discussion about cricket
endeared her to us immensely.
‘Would you like to come inside?’ she asked us.
We hesitated. She was a very friendly woman who spoke remarkably good English, but it
was clearly leading somewhere. We followed her in to where she lived, a small one room
concrete box. She slept there with her husband and three children, as well as a few
grandchildren. She ordered one of the girls to get us Chai, and as we sipped at it the
conversation turned more and more to observations about how lucky we were and how
unfortunate she was.



                                             181
‘Your clothes are very nice. I cannot afford nice clothes,’ she said.
We didn’t know what to say to that. For one thing, my clothes were clearly not very nice,
but that was irrelevant. One of the children hit me in the arse and then scampered off. I
laughed, and then the whole room laughed.
‘You know my daughter, she is very sick,’ Anna said finally, getting to the point.
She presented her daughter to us as evidence of this fact. She was obviously retarded, and
stood there, not saying a word. She was used to being used in this way.
‘Her medicine costs three thousand rupees a month. I was hoping, whatever you could
spare…’ Anna said.
There was no embarrassment at this request. She needed money and so she asked for it.
We sat there, not really knowing what to do. How much did she want? What if we gave
her too little, or too much?
‘It’s okay. You can give me what you like. Or nothing if you are not comfortable. I didn’t
invite you in here for money,’ she said.
This was an obvious lie. She had brought us inside to show us her daughter, and show us
exactly how poor she was. But the fact remained. She was very poor and she did have a
retarded daughter to support. Billy reached into his wallet and gave her a thousand
rupees. She seemed very happy with this, and we made our excuses and left soon after.
She gave us her address and asked for a postcard when we got home. Walking back to the
hotel we felt good. In a way, we had been conned, but it was not a bad thing. In India,
people would say anything to get our money. Sri Lanka was more relaxed. Most of the
beggars we met (there were far fewer than India, but still too many) were notably less
persistent than their Indian counterparts.

                                         *****

I got a knock at my door and the boy (in this case about thirty five years old) offered to
change our towels. I was sharing a room with Pelvin, who had just gone down to
breakfast.
‘Sure, fresh towels,’ I agreed and he was so pleased by this success he decided to push it
further.
'You want girl help? You want nice girl?' he asked.
I had some idea what he was getting at but I decided to play dumb.
'Girl help?'
'I help you get girl,' he replied.
As much as I wanted to believe that this was a Cyrano De Begerac type of situation, I
decided it was more likely that he was a pimp.
‘Ah, no. No girl help.’
He looked disappointed, and shook his head.
‘Very nice towels though. Good towel help!’ I said.
He laughed and shook my hand.
‘Towel help!’ he repeated and then wandered off in search of more desperate hotel
guests.
I told the others this story over breakfast, and they all decided that I simply radiated some
sort of ‘I want a prostitute’ vibe. I resolved to do something about it later. Maybe a new
shampoo or something.



                                            182
‘We should go to the Dutch Fort today,’ Ag said, pointing at the relevant section in the
book, ‘It’s not far. We could get a rickshaw there.’
It had been a while since we had done anything touristy, and so it was agreed. After
breakfast we went and hailed a rickshaw.
'Do you know where the Dutch Fort is?' Pelvin asked a rickshaw guy.
He nodded. We all bundled in, very uncomfortably and he accelerated up the street. As
we were driving he turned around.
'So where to?' he asked.
'The Dutch Fort,' we replied.
His face lit up. Oh! The Dutch Fort. We drove for a while longer, before he turned around
once more.
'What? Duck Thought?'
Billy shook his head.
‘The Dutch Fort!’
Our driver shook his head, finally admitting that he had no idea what we were talking
about. We did the usual trick of saying it slowly, as if this would suddenly make him
understand English. Finally we stopped and asked someone else who then told him in
Sinhalese. He drove us there and sure enough, there was the archway inscribed with the
date the fort was built, just as Lonely Planet had said.
'Can we go in?' Billy asked, but our driver looked at us strangely.
‘What’s his problem?’ Ag said as we walked through the gate.
Inside we saw a large line of Sri Lankans outside a big metal gate. Our driver ran past us
and straight up to an armed man at the gate. Beyond the gate we could see a large
whitewashed building. It didn’t look much like any fort I had ever seen, and the razor
wire fence seemed excessive also. The lines of people stared at us unrelentingly.
‘I’m feeling a little uncomfortable,’ Ag said, and we all just nodded.
‘This,’ I said, ‘Is a prison. This is a working prison.’
Everyone else nodded. They had worked that out for themselves. The people were all
there to see their incarcerated relatives. Our driver came back over as we were edging
away.
'I've spoken to the President of the gaol’ he said in faltering English, 'He said you can
come in!'
We had a brief conference interspersed with nervous sweating.
‘I’m not going in there!’ hissed Ag.
‘Me neither,’ I agreed.
‘In Australia you say Dutch Fort. In Sri Lanka we call it prison!’ our driver said from
behind us, laughing.


Hikaduwa
There was a train strike the day we left Negombo, so we were forced to take a minivan all
the way down to Hikaduwa, a beachside town on the west coast. The west coast of Sri
Lanka is an almost continuous stretch of beaches, broken up only by the occasional
headland, and the road followed it closely all the way there, giving us beautiful views.
We arrived in Hikaduwa in the late afternoon and got a place with relative ease. The




                                           183
owner was very laid back and didn’t want us to sign in or particularly care that we
existed, which in my opinion is just the way a good hotel should be run.

Later that day we walked all the way to the end of the long beach, where sand gave way
to a rocky finger, jutting out into the sea. We scrambled out onto it. Unlike the beaches in
Goa, there was a lot of surf, and Sri Lanka actually seemed to have a very vibrant surf
culture. The large waves hit the rocks hard, throwing white spray everywhere. After a
short while, a local fisherman crawled out after us and smiled.
‘You should come back in. Three men were swept off here and killed yesterday!’ he said.
We nodded. It was believable, but then our saviour decided to stand on that very spot and
ask us questions.
‘So you like cricket?’ he asked.
‘We should go back in,’ I replied, ‘Three men were killed here yesterday.’
He shrugged, conceding the point, and we went back to the relative safety of the beach.
Our saviour was very charming, spoke about five languages very fluently and suggested
we drink beer other than the local brand, Lion.
‘It is filled with formaldehyde to preserve it. You will have a very bad hangover!’ he told
us.
With the amount of Lion I had already consumed I am certain that I will not begin to rot
for years after my death and will probably be proclaimed as a Saint.
‘So where have you been in Sri Lanka? Do you like it?’ he asked.
‘Sure. It’s really nice. We’ve only really seen the beaches so far though, but everybody
seems very nice. Friendlier than in India. Less rip-offs.’
‘So you have been to India?’ he asked.
‘We just came from there,’ Ag said.
'I have been to India, but I did not like it,' he said, and his face showed that he did not like
being reminded of the experience.
'Why not?'
He thought about this for a second.
'Indians shit everywhere! It's disgusting!'
It was a difficult point to argue against.
‘Let’s surf then,’ Pelvin said, bringing the discussion to an end.

So we bid our saviour farewell and walked back up the beach. There were men renting
body boards everywhere, and even Ag and I, neither of whom can surf, decided to give it
a go. The surf was ridiculously violent. It came in fast, where the shore became shallow
very quickly and then rolled over and dumped into the sand, throwing up spray twice as
high as the wave itself. The roar of the ocean was incredible.
‘Shore pound!’ cried Pelvin, running into the sea clutching his rented body board.
I followed him tentatively, and managed to catch a few waves, but more often than not I
rolled over the lip and was dumped into the sand, once even landing on my head. It was
after this that I decided to go back to shore. Pelvin was less pessimistic about his chances
of survival and went out of his way to get dumped. Seeing this, a photographer set up a
telephoto lens to take pictures, possibly for the next Lonely Planet and to be captioned
‘An idiot tries to kill himself- Hikaduwa’. Ag and I moved up the beach a little way to




                                             184
where the ocean was less violent, whilst Pelvin and Billy kept searching for the perfect
wave. As we floated around pretending we could surf, two guys started checking out Ag.
'I dare you to go and grab her arse!' one of them said, loudly enough that everybody could
hear.
'You do it man! Just go and grab it!' said the other.
They were completely shameless and although I had no idea what was going on, Ag
couldn't stop laughing. The thing was, they were speaking in Polish, and so made no
attempt to lower their voices. After all, how many people in Sri Lanka were likely to be
able to speak Polish? It was just a pity that they decided to go for the arse of probably the
only girl who could! They soon went ashore, but Ag then noticed another danger. Some
monkeys were circling our possessions closely. She eyed them warily.
'They're gonna steal our stuff!' she insisted, 'I read about it! They get trained to steal your
stuff and take it back to someone!'
What a monkey would have done with my towel I don't know. It had travelled with me
for over a year and its sky blue colour had become far more sinister as the stains rolled in,
as if proclaiming a coming storm. Before they had a chance to grab it, I went ashore.

                                          *****

Pelvin and I got up early one morning and rented out some bicycles. We were planning to
go for a bit of a ride through the jungle, but with the crazy traffic that sped past within
inches of our bikes, we managed to get separated. I naturally decided to take a side road
because, as everybody knows, randomly wandering around is the best way to find
someone. Naturally, I got myself very lost, and soon found myself riding around in thirty
five degree heat through the middle of tiny Sri Lankan villages. I spent most of the trip
waving at school children and old men squatting around by the side of the road,
apparently doing nothing. The scenery was magnificent, and I kept my eyes out for the
foot long scorpions that Pelvin swore were everywhere in Sri Lanka. The gaps between
the villages became larger and larger and, as in Laos, I had not brought any water. I was
out in the jungle on a dirt road, with no civilisation in sight before I finally decided to
retrace my steps. I never saw a scorpion, but I did see a huge lizard dragging itself across
the road just in front of me. It was a monitor lizard, about two metres long and its attitude
distinctly suggested that I should stay the hell away. It had seen the likes of me before
and was far from impressed. Eventually I emerged back on the main road. I knew it was
the main road because as soon as I got on it my life flashed before my eyes. I didn’t know
which direction to turn but I inevitably chose the wrong one. Soon enough I met an old
guy on a bike who told me he was an English teacher. The thing was, every single old
guy I’d met in Sri Lanka claimed to be a retired English teacher. Okay, the people there
all spoke very good English so they must have been learning from someone but I found it
hard to believe there were quite that many. Especially when the conversation turned to
how much money I was going to give him for 'helping me'.

When I finally got back home I met the others walking up the beach. They expressed
relief that I was not dead (it had been about three hours) before going back to their
conversation.




                                             185
‘Okay, we should keep moving south,’ Billy suggested as we walked back towards our
guesthouse.
‘Where do you want to go?’ I asked.
‘Marissa. It’s the best beach in Sri Lanka. It’s got waves and it’s relatively secluded. It’s
got everything we want.’
‘It’s not far. We could go by rickshaw,’ Pelvin added.
Just then we passed the two guys who had been daring each other to grab Ag. They were
sitting on their towels and staring out to sea.
‘Hey guys, enjoy your surf?’ Ag said in Polish, walking by without waiting for a
response.
So it was agreed. We picked the best rickshaws we could find and set off. The two that
we got were very well decked out. Their drivers had painted surf designs all over them
and they had such large speakers in the back that there was no room for our luggage. But
who needed comfort when we were cruising down the east coast of Sri Lanka with Bob
Marley blaring from our revved up three-wheeler, whilst the locals smiled and waved?
This was the life!


Marissa
We didn’t trust our rickshaw drivers by the end of the journey, as they had tried to rip us
off and change the price, so we were determined not to stay in the hotel they showed us.
Billy and Pelvin did a quick check of the rooms and then we told them we would keep
looking. The beach at Marissa had guesthouses looking directly onto the sand, and behind
this a road ran through the centre of the tiny town. We walked for a short way, checking a
few places. They were all either too expensive or full and so we decided to head into the
jungle away from the beach to get some cheaper places. We stopped at one but he had
only one room and sent us even further into the jungle. We were walking for fifteen
minutes before we got there. It was indeed cheap, but it was also just a few rooms in a
local couple’s house and I don't think they would have appreciated us coming back at
3:00am and singing 'We Are the Champions' at the top of our lungs. So they sent us back
on a trail running alongside the river. The surrounding jungle was filled with monkeys
and we could hear them jumping between the branches above us.
'Watch your bags!' screamed Ag.
The monkeys seemed more concerned with masturbating than with stealing and watching
my bag was certainly preferable to watching that so I did as she suggested. Finally we
emerged back on the main road at the opposite end of the beach that we had started on
and tried every place we passed, but they all had only one room left. We did eventually
find a place, but it was almost an hour after we had set out. It was right on the beach, and
had cheap, clean rooms and very friendly staff.
'We'll take it!' we declared.
It took us only a few minutes to realise that it was the same guesthouse the rickshaws had
brought us to in the first place. We had come in through another entrance and taken the
exact same rooms we were originally offered. The staff didn't say anything, but I’m sure
they had a good laugh at us.




                                            186
That evening it rained again, and we had dinner surrounded by scores of hermit crabs
scuttling around in the sand.
‘Let’s race them!’ Billy said excitedly, jumping up and grabbing one that he arbitrarily
decided was the fastest. I did the same, and almost immediately, two pincer-like claws
whipped out of the shell and squeezed my finger so hard that I dropped it onto the
concrete slab our restaurant sat upon. It ran off quickly. So quickly it was clear I had
made a good choice, but it disappeared into the scrub before I could catch it.
‘Winner by default,’ Billy said, releasing his own crab back onto the sand.

                                         *****

The only problem with Marissa, as we discovered, was the flies. There were more flies
there than I would have believed possible. We would sit down on the balcony or in the
restaurant and at any one time there were ten or more flies trying to eat bits of us or our
meals. As we were batting away the flies one evening on the little balcony in front of our
rooms, we met up with an Australian named Carly. She simply walked up and introduced
herself, and soon we were all drinking and laughing. It turned out she worked for Oxfam
and was in Sri Lanka to go and check out the working conditions in garment shops, but
before she got started on that she had decided to come down to the beaches for a quick
holiday. We got quite nicely toasted and were talking about how she used to work for
Lonely Planet when she asked to use the bathroom.
'Of course,' said Billy and she got up and went inside their room.
Suddenly both Billy and Ag looked at each other, embarrassed, with their hands over
their mouths.
'What?' I asked, and they started laughing.
'Oh it's just that there's a big bowl of our pubic hair sitting in the sink,' Billy explained
casually as if this was the most natural thing in the world.
I thought about this.
'Were you using it as an aromatic potpourri by any chance?' I asked.
He shook his head.
'I just didn't think anyone would be going in there so I hadn't cleaned it up yet!'
The others didn't understand my look of confusion at this.
'You should do it man, it makes it look bigger!' said Pelvin.
They were quite embarrassed about it, so when Carly emerged, Pelvin leapt to the rescue
by apologising about his pubic hairs in the sink.
'Yeah I wondered about that,’ Carly said.
At that point, however, she was probably more curious as to why Billy and Ag were
keeping Pelvin's pubic hair in their sink.
‘Anyway, are you guys going to the Valentine’s Night Disco? It’s going on down the
beach,’ Carly asked, wisely changing the subject.
‘Do you realise,’ Ag said to me suddenly, ‘That we spent last Valentine’s Day with you
as well? Krabi, remember? On Rai Lay beach.’
It was a strange thought. I had been away for so long, and now the end was in sight. After
Sri Lanka I would be flying home and once again, it was Valentine’s day.
‘Yeah, sure. We’re going,’ I said, standing up.
It wasn’t over just yet.



                                            187
                                        *****

The next day we went out for a swim and were going to rent out a snorkel but we couldn't
seem to find anywhere to do it. Fortunately we found something even better. One of the
restaurants had a paddle boat. It was a large one, with two seats and a large flat area on
the back. It was basically a pedal-powered pontoon but it looked as if it hadn't been
moved in years. We pushed it down the beach with some difficulty. It was clear why no
one had used it in so long. The waves crashed into the beach very hard and quite
frequently they turned into big dumpers. It would have been crazy to push a boat that
heavy out into that kind of surf. So we pushed the boat out into that kind of surf and we
got lucky. It was turned sideways a few times but it was not too much trouble. We
pedaled around, taking in the sights and trying to avoid the reefs. On the way in, the
waves were fairly calm and we caught a gentle one right back to the shore.

We decided to take Carly out on the paddleboat the next day, and it was all good to go.
We'd bought snacks and water to take with us as, but as we walked down the beach, a
horrible sight met our eyes. Four guys were pushing the boat out into the waves. The
bloody thing hadn't moved in years and after our display of the previous day everybody
wanted in on the act!
'Back in half an hour,' the waiter at the restaurant assured us.
So we sat down to eat and have a drink first. Pelvin ordered Hawaii toast (pineapple and
cheese) and we sat and watched them pedal the boat around like the rank amateurs they
were! After a while the boat came back in and was dragged up the beach but no food had
yet arrived.
'Ten minutes!' the waiter assured us, although the expression on his face made it clear
that they had forgotten.
We sat around, talking nonsense and fiercely guarding the boat, although nobody else
seemed even mildly interested in it. Half an hour later when the food still wasn't there,
Carly went to check.
'One minute!' the waiter said.
Pelvin and Billy went for a swim and came in twenty minutes later, noticing the
conspicuous absence of Hawaii toast.
'There's no Hawaii toast,' they said, gazing at the empty spot where it wasn't.
We checked with the staff and it was clear they had forgotten yet again. The thing was,
everyone smoked pot on the beaches. The surfers, the restaurant guys, the hawkers. It was
the exact same situation I had encountered on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. They
just got so stoned that they forgot to make the order. Five times. Finally, close to two
hours later, the Hawaii toast arrived and Pelvin ate it hungrily.
‘How is it?’ I asked him.
He shrugged.
‘Average.’
He finished it quickly and we all stood up.
‘We can’t go in the water yet. I’ve just eaten. We have to wait half an hour…’ he said.
Billy smacked him across the back of the head and he reversed his decision.




                                           188
So we got the boat out again and did much the same thing as the day before, only this
time with five people on board, which it really wasn't designed for. It was very low in the
water and very hard work for the two pilots, but it was fun. Coming back in proved a very
exciting moment this time. Billy, Ag and Carly were all smart enough to get out and
swim in upon seeing the massive waves that were hitting the shore, but Pelvin and I
remained in the boat.
‘Let’s just keep going,’ Pelvin said, raising his hand to grab mine.
I grasped it firmly.
‘Okay, Louise!’ I said and we began to pedal as fast as we could.
A huge wave reared up behind us and I believe my exact words were 'holy shit' just
before it hit. At first it was fun. We were riding it and keeping it straight on, but
unfortunately my side was full of water and it dragged us around to the left. I don't know
exactly what happened after that but I think I was thrown out. I possibly jumped when I
thought it was about to tip. In any case, I hit the water swimming bloody fast, because a
two hundred kilogram boat was right behind me about to be thrown and dropped onto my
slender, snappable neck. Or so I thought. When I surfaced, Pelvin was still sitting in the
boat as it did donuts on the sand. My ankle had taken a beating from the wildly spinning
pedals as I came out but under the circumstances, not being dead had to count as a
positive result.

The night was spent in the usual way and the buffet was eaten with the usual initial gusto
and subsequent loss of mobility. Beer was swilled with a blatant disregard for livers and
eyes were then closed with reckless abandonment to the sweet abyss of sleep. When I
awoke, an ant was tap-dancing on the wall next to my bed and my ears and eyes began to
bleed. I had been awoken by Pelvin, who was going down to the beach to watch the
sunrise.
‘You have to come and see this!’ he said.
I initially refused, but he was so insistent.
‘You have to come and see the sunrise. It’s incredible!’
So I dragged myself out of bed and went with him.

The sun rose, I went back to bed.


Kandy
It took about seven hours to get to Kandy by train, the longest journey we had taken in
Sri Lanka by far. The train line hugged the coastline all the way up to Colombo before
branching off and heading inland to Kandy. It was a very different experience to our
journeys on Indian trains. When we traveled on Indian trains, any amount of remaining
space was a seat and people would push us out of the way with their luggage. They
forced their way to the front to save a few seconds when getting off the train and they ate
and then simply threw the remains onto the floor whilst beggars came through sweeping
it away for coins. There were no beggars on the Sri Lankan trains, although food sellers
did come through selling all kinds of fried food and nuts, most of it quite cheap and good.
The train ran right along the beach most of the way to Colombo, sometimes no more than
twenty metres away from the ocean. We went through all the places we had stayed at as a



                                           189
sort of nostalgic journey and then, once we had passed through Colombo we started
seeing the mountains, a side of Sri Lanka we had not seen yet. Tunnels cut through them
and the walls were so close to the train we could have reached out and touched them. As
the light failed we were running along a ridge in absolute darkness with a huge valley of
lights below us. After some confusion, we found a guest house in the centre of the city. It
was not far away from the artificial lake in the centre of the town, and from the roof we
could see the statue of Buddha that perched on a nearby hill and watched over Kandy. It
made a nice change from the beaches of the east coast.

The next morning we had breakfast in the hotel and then arranged for a taxi to take us to
the Elephant Orphanage nearby. The journey took a little over an hour, most of which
was spent winding our way down one hill or up another. When we finally arrived and got
our tickets, we were instantly accosted by a man who claimed to work there. He took
hold of our tickets and then led us away from the entrance and down to the river. We had
to follow him as he now had a firm grasp of our tickets and politely but firmly refused to
give them back. He led us into a big expensive hotel that looked out over a narrow rocky
riverbed in which there were about forty elephants, a lot of them juveniles, rolling about
in the water. It was a completely surreal experience to see that many of them all together.
They lay down underwater, with their trunks sticking up like snorkels, whilst trainers
with harpoon-like sticks tried to keep them together. We sat down on the steps watching a
big male splashing around for the benefit of the crowd as his trainer sat nearby looking
bored.

Too soon our unwanted guide tried to lead us to a nearby herb garden, but we made him
wait. The elephants were walking by an adjacent alley to get back to the orphanage and
we went to look at them. They paraded down the street in a big line, kicking up dirt and
swinging their trunks about curiously at the stalls and tourist watching them. The one
bringing up the rear was missing most of one of his legs and hobbled along.
‘Land mine. In the north,’ our guide said.
The poor elephant was struggling to keep up with the others, but he had become quite
proficient at walking with three legs. It was pretty horrific and in the wild he would have
been long dead. Our guide then insisted we go to the herb garden which was free with our
tickets and only once we agreed did he hand them back to us. As it turned out it was a
ruse to get us to buy herbal treatments (surprise, surprise) but the garden was still fairly
interesting. Our tour guide at the herb garden described to us the various qualities of the
plants and was most embarrassed about the sexual ones.
‘This plant helps for men… in the… well, in the bedroom,’ he said.
‘What, does it help you sleep or something?’ I asked, just to make him sweat a bit.
He shook his head.
‘No. Not to sleep. In the bed…’
‘Does it prevent snoring?’ I suggested.
He shook his head, avoiding my eye.
‘Not snoring. It is for love…’
‘Oh, is it an aphrodisiac?’ I asked.
He shook his head.
‘No. It just makes men want to have sex,’ he replied, blushing red.



                                            190
As if men needed a plant to make them want to have sex.

The actual park itself was bare. There was very little shade and not that much room for
the seventy or more elephants that lived there. Just a patch of decimated hillside with
elephants and people roaming around freely together. The only one that was chained up
was a big tusked one that had been blinded by a hunter and when I had my photo taken
with him the guy asked for one hundred rupees. The place was packed with tourists and
seemed to be bringing in a lot of money. We went to the baby elephant feeding time
where they fed them milk from bottles, but the trainers were quite aggressive with them
and chained them up, which obviously distressed some of them. They hauled them
around by the tail and hit them across the face to make them do what they wanted. It was
quite cruel, and Billy and Ag were totally disgusted and walked away from it. I could
definitely see their point. For the amount of money the place was making it could
certainly afford better conditions for the elephants. And whilst a certain amount of
aggression may have been necessary to get animals of such size to do what was required,
the trainers were excessive. The free roaming elephants seemed scared every time
someone called out in Sinhala, and tried to run away. So we left, and instead went back to
the bathing restaurant with our driver and had a meal. It turned out he was actually a
pharmacy student, not a taxi driver, and his friend at the hotel had called him up and
asked if he wanted to make some money. Still, he drove as well as any other taxi driver
we'd ever had. He nearly killed us on three separate occasions on the way home. He could
have turned professional with that record! Pelvin purchased a snake charmer’s flute in the
gift shop and on the way home he demonstrated that the most musical sound it made was
a near perfect imitation of a car horn. This could account for the near misses we had as
our driver dodged phantom trucks on blind corners.

                                          *****

The only place in Kandy that stayed open after 10:00pm (and even then, not much
longer) was called simply The Pub and that was where we went that night. It was a nice
enough place, with a balcony overlooking the wide streets and a room totally covered by
the scribbled messages of backpackers. One of these said; ‘Laos- The Last Untouched
Frontier and the place for REAL travellers’. I’d met guys like that before. There is a
definite culture of snobbery amongst backpackers. There are those backpackers that want
to go to a country and experience the culture, travelling to places that most tourists never
make it to. I have nothing against that. I think it’s a wonderful thing if someone has the
patience to pull it off. What is annoying is the idea that the people who do this are
somehow better backpackers than those who take the easy route. I can’t even remember
how many conversations I’ve had with fellow travellers who put someone down for
travelling to Phuket or Jaisalmer because it’s ‘so commercial’. The idea of a backpacking
holiday is to have fun. For some people it seems to be a competition.

The Pub was very popular but the service was quite bad. In Sri Lankan restaurants in
general, everything took a very long time. Most simple meals took about half an hour at
least, we knew that, but we ordered a plate of chips and when it finally arrived, over an
hour later, it was cold. So they had made it and then left it sitting there to get cold before



                                             191
someone thought to bring it out to us. The couple next to us had waited an hour and a half
for their meal and it was cold as well. So we decided that we would go and have our
dinner elsewhere. Of course this meant asking for the bill which took about an hour and,
yes, it was cold too. We instead went across the road to KFC, because at least the shit
food they served there came quickly.

When I came back from the toilet after eating, Billy and Pelvin were surrounded by about
fifteen Muslim school boys, all of whom were shaking their hands and telling them about
their 'girlfriends'. The girls in question all seemed to come from other countries around
the world so I assume they used the term loosely. They looked at the picture of Pelvin’s
girlfriend that he kept in his wallet and then asked if they could see a picture of mine.
‘I don’t have a girlfriend,’ I informed them.
They all looked at each other, half smiles on their faces.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ one of them asked.
I shrugged. Where to start with a question like that?
‘I just don’t have one.’
‘My girlfriend is from Japan,’ one of them informed me, to break the awkward silence.
‘That’s nice. What’s her name?’
He looked a little confused, as if trying to recall.
‘Keiko… I think,’ he replied finally.
‘You must love her very much,’ I said.
They became very interested in Ag and when they left they all made sure to shake her
hand. In fact they pushed past me to do it, as well as shaking Billy and Pelvin’s hands,
but they ignored me for the most part.
‘I guess they don’t want to catch whatever disease it is that makes you incapable of
getting a girlfriend,’ Pelvin said helpfully.

                                        *****

Pelvin and I had a dream of going to the casino in Kandy, wearing rented tuxedos and
monacles, carrying jewelled canes, and smoking fat cigars. Late one afternoon, after a
day of pure tourism, we decided to see if it was plausible. We had visited the Temple of
the Tooth where I saw my first taxidermed elephant, a Royal Tusker. It was a fairly good
job except that the eyes were weeping some kind of fluid. Pelvin insisted that it was on
purpose and was designed to make it look like he was crying.
'Why would they want him to look like that?' I asked.
'Because he's dead, you idiot! It's pretty sad! You’d cry if you were dead too!'
The casino happened to be very close to the Temple of the Tooth and so we decided to go
and have a look. It was not what we’d expected. The Kandy Lake Club appeared to be
closed, and when our rickshaw driver knocked on the door, a metal grill slid back.
'What?' grunted the doorman.
'Is there Kandyan dancing tonight? And a casino?' we asked.
He shrugged.
'Can we book a table?'
He shrugged again as more people behind the door gathered around. It was like we were
trying to get into a speak-easy during prohibition or something.



                                           192
‘Swordfish?’ I said hopefully, wondering if I could use an old Marx Brothers routine to
get me inside.
It actually seemed to work, and they reluctantly unlocked the door and let us into the
lobby. Inside, the Kandy Lake Club looked very much like a suburban RSL club that had
been allowed to fall into disrepair.
'We couldn’t possibly come here in monacles and tuxedos!' I said to Pelvin, 'Why, we
would look like absolute buffoons!'
‘I don’t think I can go anywhere tonight anyway,’ Pelvin said.
‘Why not?’
He lifted up the leg of his shorts, and revealed that both of his inner thighs seemed to
have broken out into a particular virulent rash. It looked like an allergic reaction, it was
so bad. There were huge white ridges of raised skin and blotchy red circles surrounding
them.
‘What the hell is that?!’ Ag said, voicing what we were all thinking.
Pelvin shook his head.
‘I don’t know, but look.’
He raised his T-shirt as well and we all gasped as it became clear that the rash covered
most of his body.
‘We have to get you home.’

So we took him home and Billy and Ag went across the street to the pharmacy. Our
driver from the Elephant Orphanage (the pharmacy student) was working there and gave
them some medicated talc. Pelvin snatched it and sprayed himself liberally as he stood
around in his underwear. I gave him some privacy for a few hours, and when I came back
he was lying on the bed, white as a ghost, and the inside of our room looked like it had
been hit by a snow storm. There was talcum powder absolutely everywhere.
‘Feeling any better?’ I asked.
Pelvin shook his head.
‘I want to tear my skin off,’ he replied.
The rash seemed to have gotten worse. His whole body was a series of raised white
bumps, but he still bravely agreed to come with us that night to see some traditional
Kandyan Dancing.
‘I’m bringing the talc.’
By the time we were leaving he had covered himself completely in talcum powder and
was wearing very thin white cotton clothes he had purchased earlier. He looked terrifying
and sitting next to this white ghost in the rickshaw, I felt like he was Death taking me on
my final journey to the great beyond.


Negombo and Mount Lavinia
We had come back to Colombo on the train and taken a minivan to Negombo. Billy and
Ag were flying out at 3:00am and needed a room to get a bit of sleep before that. The
place where we ended up staying was fairly crap. It was small and filled with mosquitoes.
Billy and Ag’s room was worse than Pelvin’s and mine. Whilst our room had a full
bathroom, Billy and Ag’s only had a sink in one corner and a shower screened from the
room by a single curtain. As it turned out, the room not having a toilet didn’t seem to



                                            193
have discouraged people from urinating in there as the whole place smelt like a men’s
room. Ag lit some incense while we went out to dinner and when we returned she
managed to convince herself that it didn't smell like piss anymore. But it did. It smelt like
piss and incense.
‘So you guys are leaving this morning,’ I said unnecessarily.
‘Yep. See you back in Sydney, I guess,’ Billy said.
‘Yeah. It was a great trip,’ Ag added and we all hugged.
It was sad. The trip was over. Pelvin and I had a few more days and then we would be
home as well and I would have to get on with my life.

The next morning they were gone, and Pelvin decided we had to move rooms as he
needed air-con to keep his skin from flaking off his body in large, red, itchy lumps.
‘You know what we could do? We could stay in the Mount Lavinia Hotel.’
I didn’t know what that was, so Pelvin handed me a brochure. Apparently, the Mount
Lavinia Hotel used to be the former British Governor’s Residence and looked very swank
indeed. It was also fairly expensive with rooms ranging from sixty to one hundred and
thirty dollars per night.
‘Yeah. But we only have one more night. Let’s go out with a bang!’ Pelvin insisted.
So we got a rickshaw and set off. Mount Lavinia is just south of Colombo, which meant
we had to drive right through the city centre. This journey took over an hour, through
heavy traffic, and by the time we got to the hotel we were covered in a thin layer of soot
that we could rub off with our hands. Literally. When we picked our noses, we pulled out
lumps of coal. And it was in this state that we drove our little three-wheeler up the
driveway of one of the most exclusive hotels in Sri Lanka, much to the surprise of the
well-dressed doormen. We had called the day before and they had informed us it was full,
but Pelvin was convinced we should try anyway. His plan was to kick up a stink and
pretend we had made reservations and were very angry, and then they would give us a
room. I waited in the rickshaw because such scenes were unbecoming of a lady, but when
he emerged he shook his head. It was still full. He hadn’t even bothered arguing as they
were all so disarmingly nice, but they had suggested another hotel down the road that
might do for the likes of us. We ended up at a place called the Berjaya Mount Royal,
which cost fifty dollars a night. We didn’t even bother to look at the room. At that price,
it simply had to be good!

The hotel was built in the 1970s and it looked it. The room was comfortable, but the
décor was kind of ugly and the balconies were painted that strange brown colour that
people in the 70s liked so much. There was no lift although we were on the top floor, and
it had a train running through the middle of it. That’s right. In order from the ocean there
was a charming little beachfront restaurant, the coastal train line, a swimming pool and
then the hotel.

So we went and relaxed down by the pool, laying on deck chairs and watching the 1:30 to
Kandy go by, the people on board either waving, or scowling as they watched us
reclining and not even bothering to experience the REAL Sri Lanka. Anyway, it was all
very nice, and they were kind enough blow their horns very loudly as they approached so
we had time to stop sunbaking on the tracks and collect up our towels. That night we



                                            194
went and got some food from a restaurant opposite the train tracks. I had lasagne, but
Pelvin ordered the crab, and when it arrived it was enormous. He began to tear into it,
butter and crab meat flying. I had never seen somebody eat a crab before and I really
hope to never see it again. It was like an autopsy performed by the kind of kid who
tortures puppies. I was thankful when he pronounced the deceased delicious at 8:45pm
and we could leave.

We decided to go and see what it was that we were missing at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.
They were just in the middle of the buffet and there was so much food that just looking at
it made me gain weight. Everything we could possibly have wanted was on offer, if only
we had the money to pay for it. Beers cost three times the regular price, which kind of
made a mockery of the ‘complimentary’ peanuts they gave us. So instead we walked up
to a place called the Lion Pub which we had seen earlier. It had a huge snarling Lion’s
mouth as its entrance and we figured that couldn’t be bad. Sure enough, it was filled with
men sitting alone in the strange adventure playground beer garden (there were swings and
rope bridges and things) all drinking their beers and looking about ready to put a gun to
their head and pull the trigger if a female didn’t sit opposite them within the next five
minutes.
‘Hey! This is my kind of place!’ I said, walking in to find a seat, but Pelvin had other
plans.
We wandered for a bit, but the town was far from nice. The night was still young, which
meant it was well past bedtime for the good folk of Mount Lavinia. Everything was shut
and we were forced to go back to the room and raid the mini-bar.

                                        *****

We had a late checkout the next day, and so did nothing but swim and play Carrom.
Pelvin and I had the same flight out of Colombo, but he had received an email saying that
it had been delayed from 12:30 that night to 7:10 the next morning. This presented a bit
of a problem as we couldn’t afford another night in our 70s style train station. But they
hadn’t actually contacted either one of us directly and so we decided to do the honourable
thing; turn up acting surprised until they gave us free accommodation. So we got a
rickshaw back to the airport, driving through the smoky clouds once more and arrived to
find that low and behold, our flight was delayed. We were standing right in front of the
service counter checking the flight schedule and I must say, it was an Oscar-winning
performance.
‘My golly gosh, Pelvy, me old chap! Our tickets don’t seem to correlate with this
information here. What do you suppose happened?’
‘I don’t know, old bean, perhaps we should ask at this customer service desk and find out
what in blazes is going on…’
‘Your flight is delayed. You should have been informed,’ said the woman behind the
counter.
We shook our heads.
‘Why no. This is the first I’ve heard about it. How about you, my dear chap?’ I asked
Pelvin.
‘News to me, I’m afraid. This puts us in something of a bind, I must say.’



                                           195
We may have been laying it on a bit thick, as she seemed sceptical.
‘Please take a seat and we’ll be with you in a moment.
They made us sit there watching Dawson’s Creek for an hour while they sorted it out but
eventually the woman came up and said, ‘We have a hotel for you if you’ll follow me…’
Pelvin looked at me laughing.
‘Sweet. A hotel near the airport and we don’t have to pay for it!’
I looked up again as the indescribable thunderstorm of shit that is Dawson’s Creek
continued.
‘We’ve been together for so long, Dawson, I just need some time alone to see if I can be
a whole person without you…’ Kate Holmes was saying without a hint of irony or
sarcasm.
I shook my head sadly.
‘Oh, we’ve already paid for it…’ I muttered.

The hotel in question was the Airport Garden, normally costing one hundred and ten
dollars a night. We couldn’t believe our luck. Okay, so we only had seven hours there,
but it was still fantastic. The guys at reception informed us that everything in the mini bar
was free, a fact that Pelvin made them repeat three times, and then they gave us meal
vouchers for the restaurant. We were laughing as we were shown to our cushy room with
satellite television, two double beds, a safe and all the trimmings. Then we opened the
mini-bar.

It was empty.

We looked at each other in disgust. Pelvin looked like he was about to start crying, after
all that assurance at the front desk.
‘I’m keeping that little light bulb’, he said, slamming the fridge closed.
We decided to cash in our dinner coupons, although the restaurant seemed to be closing
and neither one of us was actually hungry.
‘The buffet is finished, what am I supposed to do?’ demanded the head waiter, looking at
our filthy clothes with disgust.
We didn’t respond.
‘You can have chicken or fish, that’s it. And no drinks!’ he said, storming off to the
kitchen.
The meal was quite good, but the two cokes we ordered cost about four times what they
should have so I guess he had his sweet revenge on us after all. Just before we went to
bed I was flicking through the channels with the delight of a child who has just been
given a free hotel room with satellite television, when Pelvin knocked the lamp over
while he was brushing his teeth. The top of it fell off, and the TV flicked off along with
the lights. We stood in the dark for a while.
‘What did you do?’ I asked.
‘I broke the room.’
He had short circuited our sweet hotel room and there was nothing else to do but go to
bed. The nicest hotel room I had ever been in and we had to leave a torch on the bed side
table so we could go to the toilet without tripping over.




                                            196
Five in the morning, we were up and off to the airport and onto our flight. It was not a
bad one except for the fact that the woman sitting next to Pelvin was so flatulent that she
had doused herself in perfume to disguise the fact. It didn’t work. As Billy and Ag’s
room had smelt of incense and urine, this woman smelt of perfume and farts.

Pelvin was staying in Singapore for a few days, but I was flying on just a few hours later.
He decided on a hotel that was located next to the Centre for Communicable Diseases
called the Quality Hotel. What he was planning on getting up to that would require such
close proximity to the centre I didn’t know and, frankly, I didn’t want to know. We went
for a dip in their pool but it was not exactly as the brochure at the airport had suggested,
being only ninety centimetres deep and very small, overlooking the freeway. If it was
inside, it would have been called a bathtub. Similarly, the sauna was more like a poorly
ventilated cupboard. Soon it was time for me to go, and we said goodbye. That was it. It
was definitely over now. One more stopover and I would be home.




                                            197
                             12
               THE PLACE FOR REAL TRAVELLERS

                             PAPUA NEW GUINEA

Port Moresby
I hadn’t been to Papua New Guinea before, but Billy’s father lived there and as far as I
knew he was going to pick me up at the airport so I could get a bit of sleep before my
flight left nine hours later. Unfortunately, I had no idea if this had been confirmed or not
as I had been unable to check my email, and to get out of the transit lounge I had to
purchase an expensive two month visa. After looking at the tiny transit lounge I decided
to get a visa and go outside regardless. I also didn’t know what Billy and Banga’s father
looked like, and he didn’t know what I looked like so I checked the signs being held up.
Considering the guys holding them up were all Korean I wasn’t holding out much hope
and sure enough, my name was not there. I went outside and waited near the taxi stand
but he wasn’t there either. After about two hours I decided he wasn’t coming, and I
should probably go for a bit of a walk as I had paid so much to get out of the airport.

The terrain around the airport was really quite beautiful. Very hilly and green. So much
so that it looked like it was in the middle of some untouched wilderness rather than the
nation’s capital. As I walked along the road following signs that simply said ‘town’ it
was clear that this was not the case. There were people absolutely everywhere all just
walking in either direction by the side of the road.
‘G’day mate!’ a few of them said as I passed, with distinctly Australian-sounding
accents.
It was strange, although lack of sleep probably added to my feelings. The landscape
seemed to get less pretty the further I walked from the airport, and turned more and more
into highways and shops, and lots of utes loaded with people drove past. I didn’t really
know where the hell I was going so I decided to walk back to the airport, by which time it
was fairly late. I had some lunch at the kiosk, which served chips made from what tasted
like leather, and watched two naked kids sliding down the storm drain that ran through
the airport garden. They were treating it as a waterslide, but the stuff that made it slippery
enough to do so was certainly not water. They didn’t care. It was looking like a very
boring end to the trip, but then I met an airport security guard. He had seen me wandering
around and wondered what the hell I was doing.

The security guard was a guy called Brown Neba, which sounded to me like a 60s
psychedelic rock band rather than an airport security guard, and he asked me what was
wrong. I told him nothing and that I was just enjoying the atmosphere. He had a bandaid
across his cheek and looked very friendly.
‘Let me tell you my plan,’ he insisted.
I let him.
‘I want to open up a chicken export business. All of the places here are going into
receivership and I want to start my own to take advantage of that,’ he said.


                                             198
I listened, making encouraging comments.
‘I want to go back to Lae, where I am from, to do this. What do you think?’ I nodded.
It sounded good to me. People needed chicken after all.
‘Do you want in, then?’ he said.
There was a silence. I wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he making a business proposition
to me?
‘It’s a business proposition,’ he said.
Yes he was.
‘Not right now, but in two or three years perhaps. When you maybe have a wife, you can
bring her back here and come and stay with my family. You see, we would take you in as
our family. In Papua New Guinea, everyone is like family. It is our custom.’
I was very flattered, but as we had only been talking for fifteen minutes, the idea of
becoming his brother seemed a bit sudden. On the other hand after all those sleepless
nights listening to noisy poultry, murdering chickens for export was a very attractive
proposition, so when he gave me his details I took them. He then walked off as he said he
would lose his job because his boss could see him talking to me on the security cameras.
Despite this, five minutes later he came back and started talking again.
‘They say there is gold up in the mountains near where I live. If I find some, then I will
need an agent in Sydney to sell the gold for me. I’m not saying now, but maybe I will call
on you to be my agent. Gold will sell for a much higher price in Sydney than here. Maybe
then you could come back to PNG and live with my family and me. I could pay for your
airfares.’
I nodded again. I could certainly see myself flying to PNG to open a chicken exporting
business with a gold miner. Not right now, maybe, but in a few years perhaps.
‘You could come back to my place. I finish work at twelve.’
My flight was at 3:10.
‘I could introduce you to my family. Although my wife is very angry at me now. I want
to divorce her,’ he said.
‘Why’s that?’
‘You see, I like to go out and drink with my friends, and have parties with the ladies, you
know? In PNG, men can have many, many wives. I just have one, but I like to meet other
ladies. But she doesn’t like it.’
‘Well I’m not surprised,’ I reply.
‘But it is our custom. A man has three or four wives but they are not jealous. She doesn’t
understand that. She wants me to pay attention to her. Forget it. We could go and have a
drink, maybe you will find a PNG wife here. I could help you.’
I paused. Was this what I thought it was? Was this what had happened to me so many
times on my travels? Was he offering me ‘girl help’? I didn’t find out. At that moment a
car pulled up with two middle-aged women in it. They stopped in front of me.
‘We saw you here before. Are you waiting for someone?’ they asked.
I shook my head.
‘Just looking around.’
‘Well, I’m going into the city,’ said one, ‘You want to come for a ride?’
‘You should go!’ Brown said.
So I went. I hadn’t gone more than a few kilometres on my walk so it seemed a good
chance to see some more. She was going into nearby Beroko to drop some things off and



                                           199
then coming back to the airport where she worked. We drove for a bit, and she chatted
about her business and I told her about my travels, until we pulled up at a house with a
big metal gate padlocked shut. An old PNG man came up to the gate and looked at her,
then at me.
‘Open the gate!’ she demanded, but he shook his head, gesturing at me.
‘Open the fucking gate!’ she demanded again.
He shook his head, but did it anyway, and she drove in. She picked up the groceries on
the back seat and carried them to the door, where an angry looking lady stood, and they
had a brief argument in a language I couldn’t understand. She got back in the car and we
drove out, the old man closing the gate quickly behind us.
‘That’s my ex mother-in-law,’ she said, with the same distaste one would say ‘I’ve just
fallen head first into a pit toilet’.
‘Oh,’ I said, leaving it at that.
On the way back she stopped by the side of the road to get some betel nut. She offered
some to me but I refused. I had tried it before in India and it had such a bad taste I nearly
threw up. I guess she chewed it because it covered the bad taste she had from the meeting
with her ex mother-in-law. She took me back to the airport and offered to let me sleep on
the couch in her office, where she ran a shipping business, but I wandered round a bit
more until the flight was ready to leave. It had been a good day. I’d met some interesting
people and been offered a partnership in a business. It was definitely more than I’d
expected to do in transit. And Papua New Guinea seemed interesting, because most of it
was not yet overrun by tourists. Maybe I’d come back someday.

The flight home was great. I was seated next to a charming Irish girl who told me of her
travels. She was one of those REAL travellers, but not pretentious. She did amazing
things because she enjoyed it. She’d gone around PNG without a guide book, not to be
cool but because it got her into unusual situations, and she liked that. She was probably
the nicest random stranger I’d been seated next to on any journey of the trip, and the one
that brought me home to Sydney. She didn’t rip me off, she didn’t try to grope me, she
wasn’t so fat she took up most of my seat, she didn’t press her arse into my back while I
was trying to sleep. She didn’t sit with her legs spread like she had the biggest balls in the
world, she didn’t fart, she didn’t snore, and she wasn’t boring. It was bliss. After a few
hours, the plane began to descend and we all put on our seatbelts. I had a simultaneous
feeling of sadness and relief as we approached the runway and I realised that it was all
finally over. This was the end. We hit the tarmac with a bump and the engines roared as
we slowed to a halt. I glanced out the window at the airport outside. It could have been
anywhere in the world; airports all look the same. But it wasn’t. I was back on Australian
soil. I was in Sydney.

As I had known it would be right from the start, I was neither more spiritual nor more
aware of my own place in the universe. I hadn’t become a source of mystical Eastern
wisdom, bringing the good news to those caught up in their decadent Western lives, and
thank fuck for that. All I had done was make some memories, and that was enough. After
all, a person is only made of memories.




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