Bangkok, 5 mai 2003
Are you in your late fifties, overweight, and relatively well off? Do you have a face like a half-eaten pastie, a large moustache, long greasy hair and maybe a couple of tattoos? Do you drool uncontrollably, fart and pick your nose? Are you tired of your wife at home? Do you like young girls, boys or even ladyboys? If so, why not think about a trip to Thailand?
Not everywhere is like this of course. Like everywhere, you can find empty beaches, national parks, big cities and remote towns, beautiful temples, party islands, whatever you're looking for really. But the vulgarity of what I saw in some places like Phuket, Southern Thailand, just left me disgusted by mass tourism. Middle aged Helmuts hand in hand with young Thai girls, ladyboy porno shows, all the junk food multinationals and Irish pubs, fake Thai boxing, meaningless souvenir shops, etc etc. This kind of experience makes you want to live in a monastery with a couple of Buddhist monks.
The overall feel of the trip at the moment is characterised by a lack of motivation for ordinary backpacking. The trip was never planned to be a backpacking trip because we were going to cycle it all, but of course that fell through for me and I found other ways to make the trip special. But for a while now, the excitement of going from one place to another with the sole purpose of seeing what is out there is wearing off a little, and a new challenge, activity, or objective has to be found before I go home in three or four months.
The Henrietta Experience (Part II)
Indonesia, 18 - 29 March
Having rested Henrietta - my 1984 Vespa - for five days in Yogyakarta, I headed west along the coast and pitched my tent on a beach, close to a fisherman's bar. All evening they made me smoke their clove cigarettes and some kind of root they call klambak, and they offered me sexual intercourse with one of the women there, an offer I would have declined even equipped with a potato bag and 10 pints of strong ale. One of them spoke a bit of English, and he asked me loads of questions all night about my life back home, while the other fishermen just stared at me blankly.
The next morning I was on the move again, stopping for lunch in a tiny village called Lumbir in the hills with the world famous Nunung family and all the local onlookers. That same evening I reached Pangandaran, a fishing village bordering a lovely national park full of aggressive monkeys, WWII bunkers, and caves full of bats and porcupines. As I opted for a medium sized road heading west, taking me past the Green Canyon, a magnificent gorge, I realised that I had maybe overestimated the Indonesian road infrastructure. It looked like they had once made a road a few decades ago, but there had been no maintenance since and it was smoother off the road than on it. So for about 80km I was stuck in first gear, bouncing all over the place and seriously worrying about my future reproduction capabilities. Caught by darkness and heavy rain in a small group of houses called Salopa, I was welcomed to the Junaedi family?fs home. That evening, the whole village seemed to be there as we watched cheesy Jon Bon Jovi videos and Sunda dancing on TV. We ate with our fingers, plain rice and fish that looked like it had been sunbathing there for a while.
The Junaedi family, my hosts in Salopa, southern Java, Indonesia
The next morning, my eyes opened wide, I got up and made one of my most spectacular sprints to the little boys' room. By the time I came out, wearing a relieved smile and a substantial amount of sweat on my forehead, everything was in order. It was hard to leave, the whole family was asking me to stay, but I wanted to move on.
I finally left the pothole zone and reached Bandung after breaking my front suspension and losing the bolt from my back wheel the same day. Getting closer to Jakarta and the densest part of Indonesia, I could feel I was back in the urban environment. Bandung was dirty and noisy, unfriendly to pedestrians, but I was pleased to find you could buy CDs there for half a euro (I bought 30 of them).
Another stop in Bogor on the way, and I reached the outskirts of Jakarta, where I took refuge in the home of Andrew and Nicole, an adorable Aussie couple I had met in Yogyakarta a week ago. They are both teachers in a fuddy duddy expat school in Lippo Karawachi. Their job comes with a lovely house and a live-in maid, and they welcomed me there with open arms for several days before I decided what I was doing next. I watched a lot of TV and caught up with what was going on in the war in Iraq, a war that some papers called the Invasion of Iraq, whereas some had the cheek to call it Operation Iraqi Freedom. The most entertaining programs were Bush?fs speeches of course, but there were also some very humorous Christian channels that blessed the war because it had led to and additional 1.6 million American Christians praying for their President on a regular basis since the beginning of the conflict.
I tried all the routes that would enable me to keep going with Henrietta, but none was possible. The Singaporean authorities, for instance, were asking me to register and pay dearly for 7 different administrative documents just to go through Singapore for a week. The other option was to take a ferry to Sumatra and ride through several thousand km of nothingness. So I sold Henrietta to Jonathan, another friendly expat I met in Yogyakarta, and cried for an hour.
A taste of civilisation
Singapore, 30 March - 4 April
After one month in Bali and Java, Singapore was actually a breath of fresh air, a small island of civilisation in an ocean of noise, smell and traffic. I stayed with some English friends of mine I hadn't seen since I was twelve. It was really nice to get to know them properly, and they treated me like a king compared to my usual backpacker lifestyle. They spoilt me with tennis, swimming, squash, gorgeous dinners, and a night tour of Singapore. I stayed most of the time with Julia and her really cute 4-year-old son Lucas, so I became a part time babysitter. I did get a chance to see Singapore as a proud tourist too, took the spotless modern train, walked through Chinatown and its shophouses, and got a taste of Little India. I also lazed on the first beach I have seen that overlooks huge industrial containers and tankers, which is the place they pride themselves in calling Continental Asia?fs most southerly point. I also got a surprise email by Seb, who was a little sick of traveling alone, so we agreed to meet a few weeks later in Malaysia.
Don?ft mind me, just passing through
Malaysia, 4 - 17 April
I didn't expect much from Malaysia before I went there and I left the country after two weeks with the impression of having just passed through. I think this has a lot to do with my lack of visiting motivation really. I stopped in Melaka, an old colonial town, where I had a quick look at the Dutch heritage, and went on to Kuala Lumpur, the bustling, modern capital of Malaysia. I surprised myself at my cultural initiative and actually went to the theatre (do you believe this?) but actually it was pathetic.
I really had my share of cities after Jakarta, Singapore and KL, and I really needed some air, which was perfect timing for visiting the Cameron Highlands, a hill station some 6 hours north of Kuala Lumpur. The place seemed to be loads of lone travelers who all seemed to have an issue of some kind, either some personality or alcohol problem, or a family or other personal issue back home they were trying to escape from. I spent my time jungle walking during the day, playing guitar and drinking whisky at night by the fireside. That?fs where I celebrated my well deserved 28th birthday, with a crowd of friendly backpackers.
After five days of relaxing it was time to get back down to the lowlands, where the heat really took time to get used to again. Found a place to stay in Penang, a popular tourist island on the Northwest coast, and went for a stroll. As I was eating these dodgy brochettes (god knows what they put in them) that you cook for 30 seconds in boiling water, I heard a french voice to my left that I knew very well. It was Seb, whom I hadn?ft seen since Buenos Aires 6 months ago. The temptation to snog him right there was unbearable.
The Giggle Chums meet up again, Penang, northwest Malaysia
We caught up on a few guitar tunes, burst out laughing at anybody attempting to have a serious conversation with us, explored a temple and went up a hill overlooking the island, very reminiscent of the Rio de Janeiro episode last September.
Kek Lok Si temple in Penang, northwest Malaysia
Thailand, 18 April - 3 May
Life is tough for us at the moment, so we decided we needed to relax on the sunny islands of southern Thailand. We were screened for SARS at the border with Malaysia, where we had to fill in a form stating we didn?ft have any SARS symptoms. Seb was suffering from mild diarrhea at the time, and his honest instincts were to tick the diarrhea box, which apparently was not such a good idea. There was a sudden silence amongst the three border officials, who all stared at Seb suspiciously and asked him loads of questions. As Seb was desperately trying to wave off the issue as a temporary stomach bug due to Malaysian food, he was deeply wondering why in heaven?fs name he had ticked that bloody diarrhea box. The other tourists were waiting patiently behind, and I was in absolute stitches.
Seb managed to avoid quarantine and we got to Krabi safely. This was our transit point to the islands of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi, so we didn't stay very long. We managed to fit in a pitiful karaoke concert whose main star was a 12 year old girl singing out of tune, and we became 14 again with a ride on bumper cars. I also got to taste a couple of deep fried insects, including a worm, a maggot, a beetle and a grasshopper. Seb gave it a miss, I don't really blame him as it was pretty disgusting. I felt a little queasy when I was offered a huge, brown cockroach with wings.
Two hours away by boat was Koh Lanta, an island the French channel TF1 used to film one of their reality shows. It was nice and very quiet, idyllic scenery, white sand beaches, densely vegetated interior. The roads were reminiscent of the cheeks of a young lad suffering the full rage of puberty, which wasn?ft exactly safe, as we found out on rented motorbikes. I got to explore the coastline too on a sea kayak, getting close to the cliffs and their hidden coves, caves, natural tunnels and wildlife.
Sunset on Koh Lanta, southern Thailand
Feeding the beasts, Koh Lanta, southern Thailand
Exploring Koh Lanta on rented motorbikes, southern Thailand
But the island was a little too quiet for a long-term stay, and we headed for the infamous Koh Phi Phi, which is both a big party place and a relaxed beach resort, depending on what you are looking for. After Koh Lanta, this place was a good opportunity for us to build our liver resistance and to do a little cleavage spotting, which I believed I enjoyed more than Seb did, as the atmosphere was a little too artificial and leaning towards the look-at-me-here-I-am style. We did both enjoy the snorkeling tour of the island, where we saw the most beautiful cliffs sticking out of the sea, hidden beaches, caves, and a delightfully colorful marine wildlife. And then Seb announced that he felt like heading home, as he was tired of wandering around aimlessly. I felt the same but I preferred to keep going for a while, so Seb and I went our own ways again. See you in Paris me luvly!
Swimming with the fishies in Koh Phi Phi, southern Thailand
Koh Phi Phi, southern Thailand
Koh Phi Phi, southern Thailand
After Koh Phi Phi, I went to visit Cristina, a Spanish/German friend I know from business school. She was working in Phuket at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, a small volunteer organisation whose mission is to find Gibbons that are being held in captivity and to prepare them for release into the wild. I got a special VIP tour into the project?fs facilities and made a few treks in the jungle, relaxing under waterfalls in the stream?fs natural swimming holes.
Starting to realise I didn't really know what to do with myself for the rest of my trip, I took a night bus to Bangkok and found a cheap hotel on the infamous Khao San Road, the world-renowned backpacker's centre. This would allow me to send stuff back home, enquire about flights, meet a few people, and think about what is next. So that's what I did. I decided that because I was beached out, templed out, citied out and jungled out, I would head for the Himalayas in Northern India to do a little trekking and chilling in remote mountain villages. I should be on my way in the next few days.
The famous Tuk Tuk taxis in Bangkok, Thailand
As usual, I wish you all the best back home and I hope you are planning your summer holidays with a big smile on your face. My route back now is London-Dublin-Madrid-Paris. So see you again in a little while. Bye bye!!
Dress modeling, Penang, northwestern Malaysia