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Thursday, December 26

all my words are secondhand

that's quite enough time in front of a screen for today; I'll probably come back tomorrow to finish the updating, so here it is in brief. Melaka is really lovely, a bit like Penang in a better state of repair, but also with more identifiably colonial buildings introducing a confusing hint of dutchness to the place. JB is not very exciting but it was good to see James again; Singapore is frankly a rather bizarre place (more on this later, but basically it's too orderly and rational - evidently you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to town planning), but well worth seeing, and it was interesting to put a voice to the website, plus Lai Peng was in town so I got to see her again.

I flew out to Sydney via Taipei, and was allowed out of the airport during my 9 hour stopover, so I managed to see the National Palace Museum. It's basically where all the artwork that the Kuomintang looted/rescued (delete as appropriate to your political bias. I think both are fair, but then I would say that wouldn't I?) from the Forbidden City when they fled China is displayed, and it is mighty impressive. That's all I saw of Taipei though, except for the airport, which is no nicer or more unpleasant a place to kill time than any other.

So far I've not been having the greatest of times in Sydney. It is a nice place, and I am still having fun, but it feels too much like Britain, and it just hasn't grabbed me yet in the way that Hong Kong did within an hour of arrival, and I'm finding myself thinking this time would have been better spent back in Malaysia. I have also been very unlucky with the weather - it's been feeling like autumn back home, and today was shaping up very nicely, with the start of the Sydney to Hobart boat race, but just as the starting pistol went the heavens opened and visibility disappeared. I really shouldn't complain about that though - look at what it's like in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and in Beijing....

Anyway, the thing that I'm liking least here is the backpacker scene. In almost everywhere along the route I've met interesting people from around the world, but here almost every backpacker is British, and they're almost all unpleasant. I could find these people back home, but I choose deliberately not to. I've had this passage (from Lord Jim, which incidentally I've lost my copy of before finishing reading it) in my mind a lot over the last couple of days:

An outward-bound mail-boat had come in that afternoon, and the big dining-room of the hotel was more than half full of people with a hundred pounds round-the-world tickets in their pockets. There were married couples looking domesticated and bored with each other in the midst of their travels; there were small parties and large parties, and lone individuals dining solemnly or feasting boisterously, but all thinking, conversing, joking, or scowling as was their wont at home; and just as intelligently receptive of new impressions as their trunks upstairs. Henceforth they would be labelled as having passed through this and that place, and so would be their luggage. They would cherish this distinction of their persons, and preserve the gummed tickets on their portmanteaus as documentary evidence, as the only permanent trace of their improving enterprise. The dark-faced servants tripped without noise over the vast and polished floor; now and then a girl's laugh would be heard, as innocent and empty as her mind, or, in a sudden hush of crockery, a few words in an affected drawl from some wit embroidering for the benefit of a grinning tableful the last funny story of shipboard scandal....

You really do have to change very few details to bring that up to date. And continuing in the vein of using other peoples' words when they say something better than I could, they're making me really want to get a T-shirt made with a print of one of Sydney's anti-littering posters, all of which have the slogan don't be a tosser.
posted @ 12:27 AM -

rainforest strawberries

Location : Cameron Highlands (Tannah Rata)
Company : Bill & Serena - an American and a Canadian from the hostel
Weather : It's so much cooler at altitude that it felt like an English summer, plus heavy tropical rain reliably at 6pm each day

The Cameron Highlands are one place for which the Lonely Planet is spot on, and felt like it had been written for my benefit. I was wondering whether I should bother going there or not, so I opened up the guidebook, and the introduction with this area concludes with words to the effect of it really is worth the effort of getting here, and if you don't you'll be missing out on somewhere special. It was right, but unfortunately it was also right about this being where old Malaysian buses go to die, so the journey up was pretty hair-raising. A road of the sort that I'm used to on the way to ski resorts, winding impossibly tight hairpins around a steep slope, but I'm not used to travelling such places on a bus that looks (and sounds) like it will fall apart any second.

It is worth it though, even if only for the breathtaking views from the road itself. As for the highlands, well the great thing about here is that the altitude (about 1500 metres for Tannah Rata) makes it relatively cool, which in turn makes taking long walks through the jungle far more appealling than at sea level. Strangely much the same things grow in this climate (though I guess it's not the lack of searing heat that keeps them out of more northerly latitudes, so much as the presence of frost), and the jungle is dense enough that it only takes a few minutes to lose sight of anything built up.

There are a dozen or so fairly established paths, and at first I was disappointed by quite how established it was (concrete on the rainforest floor), but that only lasted a few turns. After that the path was only just blazed enough for us not to need to cut our way through the undergrowth, which was just about ideal because any more than that and the path spoils the places it leads to. After something of a slog through this (the cycling in the previous week must have done me some good, because although I still think I was finding it harder work than I should have done, I wasn't lagging behind this time) we found ourselves at a small clearing at the peak, with views across tea estates and rainforest.

From here, the path went down through an orang asli village, which is not as interesting as it sounds, being basically a corrugated aluminium slum, and then to a golf course and a strawberry farm. As if the strawberry farm amongst rainforest wasn't strange enough, on the way home we passed some terrible imitations of the terrible imitations of tudor cottages that abound in places Stratford-upon-Avon, advertising English High Tea or traditional scones. I wonder if the people running them (or for that matter the non-British tourists visiting) realise that the only thing they resemble back home are also unauthentic tourist traps, or whether they really think that the British live off scones and tea.
posted @ 12:10 AM -

Wednesday, December 25

hard labour

Location : Kampung Kinta Valley
Company : Lai Peng and her family
Weather : slightly cooler but horribly humid

From Penang I went inland to meet Lai Peng and see where her family live. Quite apart from her being a very nice person, this was yet another stroke of luck, because it meant that I could see a place that was devoid of tourists, and actually see a bit more of how people live. It did also mean that I attracted even more attention than elsewhere though. It would have been enough for her to be seen going around with a strange man, but a stranger who was obviously foreign... apparently I was the talk of the village after I had left.

It's one of many villages in the area (around Ipoh) that grew up around tin mining, but the mines are mostly shut down now, and the people who are left mostly work the plantations. Large areas are given over to rubber trees and oil palms, as well as little fruit orchards that people mainly use to feed themselves. I volunteered to help out with collecting the rubber one morning, and very wisely Lai Peng didn't send me out with her mother early in the morning. Wisely because even the couple of hours' work I did were pretty tiring. Actually tapping the rubber is not necessarily the problem, but once the sap has stopped running it needs to be collected from the little pot attached to each tree (next month I'll put some pictures up that should make this make more sense). This is simple enough work - just walking up and down the rows of trees, pouring liquid rubber into a large bucket - but the environment makes it difficult, and the bucket soon starts to feel like it weighs a ton. The trouble is that it's so hot and humid that just walking around unladen entails sweating profusely, and there are hosts of insects. The insects seem to spot the new person and single them out, so I had continuous mosquito nibbling and a cloud of flies buzzing irritatingly around my head. Worst of all though are the ants. There are these little red ants which crawl onto feet and legs, and just dig their mandibles in. It's not clear whether they were trying to eat me or just drive the big animal away from their hill, but either way it was really painful. Sort of like cigarette burns, but how I imagine a torturer's cigarette burns to feel, because the pain doesn't stop until some time after the ant has been forcibly removed.

I'll have to think twice about throwing out a pair of marigolds in future.

There are some other cottage industries in the area, and I was treated to the rather comical sight of Lai Peng's cousins' tourist souvenir factory. All around Malaysia it is possible to buy tacky items like keyrings and paperweights made of clear plastic, with insects, spiders or scorpions preserved inside, and a caption with a place name. At this factory, case upon case of chloroformed arthropods (including plenty that are not native to Malaysia) are delivered, pinned into suitable poses, dried, and then set in plastic. The part that I really liked though was the labelling production line. A set of identical tacky souvenirs arrive here, where the orders are written down, so that 50 get the Sarawak sticker, and then the next 50 get Penang, and so on. I think the whole tacky-dried-creepy-crawly souvenir trade for Malaysia is monopolised by this one plant....
posted @ 11:23 PM -

When defeat comes, I won't even notice, 'cause I'll be too busy looking good

Location : Penang
Visited since last post : [I'm trying to catch up with myself - this was over a week ago]
Company : an assortment of armchair martial artists
Reading : Lord Jim. This one's been taking me a while....
Weather : baking hot

I really didn't get to spend much time either in Georgetown itself or any time at all to explore Penang island, but I did really like the feel of the town. It consists mainly of narrow streets with terraces of Chinese Baroque (or so I'm told) shophouses, the shop halves of which tend to spill out into the five-foot ways that would otherwise provide some shelter from the sun. A lot of the buildings are quite richly decorated, but the majority are also in slight disrepair, with paint starting to flake off. It's not dillapidation to the extent that makes a place depressing though, it actually adds to the atmosphere. It's also a very non-uniform place, with the odd street among this that would fit nicely in Brighton, and the odd street that could be a one-light town in North Carolina.

What really made me like the place though was the people. Penang was the first place where I encountered the Malaysian melting-pot of races (because Langkawi is a very strongly Malay island), and it looks like that works far better than I had expected, and far better than in the UK (where race relations are still better than in much of the world). The Chinese, Indian and Malay communities (with Malays actually being the minority here) each have a degree of cohesiveness, with an area where they are mostly found, obvious manifestations of their individual cultures, and infrastructure like the halal butchers in one part of town, and the temple offerrings shops in another. At the same time, they aren't ghettoised to the extent that minority communities seem to be in much of the UK. People of different groups do live side by side, they do eat in each others' cafes, and they do speak to each other, because they all speak English (it seems that although everyone in Malaysia learns Bahasa Malaysia, only the Malays actually tend to speak it well, so English becomes the common language in places like this). I know from what I have read and been told that there are some tensions and stereotyping, and it's not the utopia I may be making it sound like, but it's still reassuring to see a place where a fair degree of racial harmony can exist without the different communities losing their identities and cultures.

Anyway, on to one of the few pieces of actual Malay culture that I experienced (it's not that it's absent, it's just that as chance would have it I spent so little time in Malay areas) - the Silat tournament. I think the best thing about it, from my biased point of view, was an atmosphere that I recognised from gradings and the one competition I've been to with my kung fu club. A good martial arts club has an atmosphere like a big family, and the events that bring different clubs together have the feel of the sort of enormous family gathering where you don't know most of the people, but you can be sure that they are all friendly and all pleased to see you. Even as a spectator I felt a certain warmth from this, as well as a sort of nostalgia because I've let myself lose touch with that scene. Another kick up the arse for me to get back into martial arts as soon as I have a stable residence again.

The afternoon started with the Canadian Silat club, who were at this event for the first time, giving a demonstration of various forms, some unarmed, some with weapons, and some with several people. Most interesting of all were a couple done to the beat of music - something I've never seen in a traditional martial art before, except Capoeira (which takes its present form because practitioners had to disguise what they were doing as a tribal dance). It strikes me as very odd to set a form to music, because it makes the whole thing rather artificial, but that seemed to set the tone for the actual fighting. Every fight started with the 2 people approaching each other in a series of static poses, before suddenly breaking out of the ritualised part and turning it into a proper fight, which would then be broken up as soon as someone had scored a point. There were evidently rules about how to move from one stance to the next in the approach, and about when to stop posing and start fighting, because people were penalised for doing things wrong, but I couldn't work out what the rules were. I also found the constant stopping hard to understand - I think if I were one of the fighters I would just get frustrated that whenever I gain an advantage I'd be stopped from using it.

Still, there were some impressive skills on display, and even the parts I didn't understand or found frustrating were interesting, plus anything that motivates me to get out of my laziness with martial arts has to be a good thing.
posted @ 10:34 PM -

Thursday, December 19

Just a quick update

because I'm in a hostel with a midnight curfew. The only flaw in an otherwise spectacular place, which looks like a cross between the first set in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and a hippy youth club, and features a paddling pool and massage service (yes, actual massage, not a euphemism)

The Silat was interesting, if rather hard to understand (basically there's a heavily ritualised element to it, and a free fighting element, and evidently some rules about when to switch from one to the other, but I couldn't figure the rules out). Penang is also a very cool place, but more on that later. Then it was off to see Li Peng (Diong's actually her surname, I just got confused because she's adopted Dion as an Anglicised name, but it's not very useful addressing someone by surname when she's with her whole family) at the plantation. Rubber tapping is serious hard work; I didn't even work for very long but it was enough to see that.

Up to the Cameron Highlands, for a break from the heat. It's about 1500 metres above sea level, so the weather is basically like England in Summer, only it's like that all year round. Being that much cooler I could actually face doing long walks up hills, so I went for a wander (I can't bring myself to call something a trek if it only lasts a few hours) through the jungle with a few nice people I met at the hostel. It's nicely set up, with paths that are clear enough and maintained enough not to require guides or machetes, but also not over-done so it still feels pretty natural. Very surreal place though - amidst the jungle there is a strawberry farm, and a collection of bad half-timbered cottages serving scones and tea.

I'm in Melaka now, which will be my last nice small town stop, having had a layover in KL that was just long enough to see the Petronas Towers and the park round there, and then get saturated by the mother of all monsoon deluges, so that the air conditioning on the next bus (have they heard of thermostats in this country?) seems to have given me a cold. I will stop over in Johor Bahru, but that's more so I can catch up with James than for sightseeing - even he says it's an uninteresting place - and then after that it's Singapore. That should be interesting - my first experience of meeting for real someone who I only know online.

Then it's off to Sydney to meet Lynn, who I do already know in the real world, and then to New Zealand, where my friends tell me I will find them by the beach (I'm hoping I get more precise directions soon - it's not that small a country). All good stuff, but it still means my holiday is coming to an end, and I will soon have to deal with serious things like looking for work, and flying over to the US to try and sell myself to potential PhD supervisors. It feels like I'm just beginning to wake up from a strange but wonderful dream....

Anyway, I guess I'll probably next write from Sydney (next week), so happy christmas to those who care, and happy time off work to everyone else.
posted @ 7:02 AM -

I am a unique world of rich beauty intertwined with mysterious evil

allegedly

thanks to Alex for those pearls of wisdom

posted @ 6:33 AM -
first things first: I let my mailbox fill up over the last few days, so if you've had any mail to me bounce back to you, please re-send it now.
posted @ 6:31 AM -

Saturday, December 14

Now I am in Penang, and it's been entertaining. I haven't done any of the tourist things I meant to do on this island (there's always tomorrow morning), but that's because of some pleasant diversions. First of all there was that procession last night (which I now think was in preparation for a wedding over the weekend), and then this morning a Canadian guy in the hostel mentioned that there would be a world Silak tournament starting today. We went along to the venue, only to find out that all that was on today was an opening ceremony this evening, but that tomorrow there would be fighting at 2 tomorrow, but meanwhile encountered lots of interesting locals, some of whom also thought it started today, and others were working on the preparations. People are just as friendly here as in Thailand, but with the added advantage that many of them (especially the Chinese, and this is a mostly Chinese town) speak really good English, so it's even easier to have interesting conversations with locals. It also seems like the loss of tourist business has made them especially happy to see foreigners.

Tomorrow I'll go along and watch the fighting, and then head off to somewhere near Ipoh, where Diong lives on a rubber plantation, and has offerred to show me around both there and the Cameron Highlands. After that I think the only remaining Malaysian stop I'll have time for is Melaka, before going on to Singapore. It does mean skipping Kuala Lumpur, but that seems like the place I'm most likely to pass through another time anyway, and the easiest place in the country to get to.
posted @ 7:00 AM -

Me and my monkeys

Location : an unintentional grand tour of Pulau Langkawi

On Friday morning I rented another bike, partly because I'd had so much fun doing that in Thailand, and partly because the walking in Hong Kong made me painfully aware of how unfit I've become in a few months so any opportunity for exercise had to be taken. Having still been very tired from the previous day's journey I decided to go for a short easy ride to a nearby waterfall. I never did find that waterfall.

Somehow I got lost and diverted myself inland, but it was rewarding enough that I never bothered working out where I was supposed to be going. The coast of Langkawi is somewhat overdeveloped, because the government has picked it (because it's predominantly Malay) as a place for lots of economic support. The resorts are quite empty these days, because the development was never that well though out, and Malaysia has been more deserted by tourists than the rest of South-East Asia because it's an islamic country, but it still means there are too many buildings and too many places advertise western food (oh, and by the way, we might also have some of that delicious fresh Malaysian seafood if you ask for it, but we didn't think you'd be interested because most feringhi aren't). By contrast, the interior is far less developed than the parts of Thailand I saw.

There are fewer plantations, not much industry (a couple of big eyesores, but lots of space away from them), and bigger gaps between villages. This means that the jungle comes right up to the road, complete with a riot of bright flowers, garrulous insects and birds, and wild monkeys. I had seen a couple of pet monkeys in Thailand, a rather sorry sight tied to trees and looking bored, but a troop of monkeys in the wild are a joy to watch. They seem to spend a lot of time just playing, chasing each other around for the sake of it, and their expressions are very human. It would be easy to dub a comedy soundtrack, Whose Line is it Anyway style, over footage of these creatures.

I also stumbled across a cable car up to the top of one of the hills (which was far too big for me to be bothered to cycle up in the heat), which proved to be a great viewpoint for gazing out to sea and across the island itself. The only problem was that I realised I was way too far from where I was staying, and I had to race back in order to make it to the ferry I was trying to catch. I'm actually a slightly lazy cyclist, and I've never pushed myself that hard for that long (it took about an hour), but I just about made it. Returned the bike, showered so quickly that my legs were still radiating heat, jumped into a taxi and went straight onto the boat. Perfect.
posted @ 6:29 AM -

Break for the border

Location : The long and complicated route from Hadd Pak Meng to Pulau Langkawi

For Thursday's journey I had more uncertainty, because I just didn't know if I could make all the connections I needed to get to Malaysia in one day. I set off shortly after dawn on the bike (a good move because of the temperature, but a couple of dogs really scared me badly), and took a different route back, which was a bit longer but ought to have been flat because it stayed near the coast. I should have learned my lesson about such assumptions long ago - this route was much less flat than the way out - but it went through some pretty villages, and for some time along the edge of a national park, so the roadside vegetation was a bit closer to natural jungle rather than ordered plantations.

I got to Trang, had a quick lunch, and then went back to the guesthouse, only to find out that their minibus had left a few minutes before. The manager called the minibus back, just giving me time for a shower, and then we headed off again. The only other passengers were a lovely Anglo-Italian couple (she was English, he was Italian), and we spent the hour and a half journey talking about just about everything under the sun. The only problem is that when we arrived I realised I was in the wrong place - they were going to a Thai island, so they didn't need the same port as me at all. The driver said everything was under control, but then he filled the minibus up with people heading north, so it became pretty clear that nothing was. Words were had with his manager, who saw that it was his mistake, and was decent enough to tell the driver to pay for a taxi to take me where I was meant to be.

I just about arrived in time to clear customs and get on the last boat for Langkawi. The boat itself was quite odd - a large fast ferry with the windows so tinted that it was almost impossible to see out of them. There was an upstairs deck, but strangely few people moved. I can understand with the regular commuters, but it seems almost phillistine of travellers to choose to stay inside and watch trashy films on video rather than take in the views in a very beautiful part of the world. Still, there were a few others up there, including a very friendly retired Irish couple who lived on Langkawi for half of each year (fleeing the Northern winter), and had just had to go Thailand to renew their visas. I am deeply cynical about the whole expat scene, but these two were clearly here just because it was a nice place to be, not running away from boredom or disillusionment at home.

When we arrived in Langkawi we went for a sunset drink by the sea together, and then they showed me around a few places, helped me find somewhere to stay, and took me to a wonderful Indian restaurant. There we met another friend of theirs, who was a local agent for a lot of European tourism companies, and had lots of depressing news about her business. It seems that takings are down by about 60% since September last year, and people are starting to go bust.
posted @ 6:06 AM -

More cycling tips

Two additional hazards:
  • Dogs (again). If you set off early in the morning, so as to avoid the heat, the dogs are not so docile. A couple of times I found myself being chased. I don't think my normal cycling speed would outpace a dog, but it's amazing what a bit of adrenaline can do....
  • Blazing saddles. Most bikes have black saddles. Don't leave them in the sun. Enough said?
posted @ 6:02 AM -

The romance of the shallows

Location : Hadd Pak Meng

Hadd Pak Meng itself is not the greatest of beaches, consisting mostly of half-crushed shells that aren't very nice to walk on, but it looks absolutely wonderful. From the resort, the view up to Pak Meng village itself was one long strip of beach, with jungle behind, and a calm expanse of shallow water in front - just what I had been wanting while breathing smoke in Bangkok. Then there was the view out to sea, with green rocky islands dotted around everywhere, and two great sunsets while I was there.

For the one whole day I would spend here I took a boat trip out to a few of the islands. The drawback of doing it this way (rather than going to stay somewhere more out of the way) is that there is a bit of a tourist circuit (mostly Thais at this particular place), so there are a number of boats all going to the same places, meaning the sea's a bit too churned up to be crystal clear, and a quiet island can suddenly become over-run by tourists. Many of the tourists swim in life-jackets, which I find somewhat embarrassing, but I guess inland Thai schools probably don't teach swimming. Even so, the places are beautiful, and there's a lot of life underwater; fish in all manner of bizarre shapes and bright colours. The coral's not as brightly coloured as it ought to be, because it doesn't take well to constant disturbances, but at least it draws the fish. As for the land, one of the islands had the perfect picture-postcard white sand beach, and another featured this bizarre swim through a long cave (we had to form a human chain because in the middle it really was impossible to see) to get to a hidden beach within the island, surrounded by jungle. Apparently it was used for clandestine airlifts of munitions in the second World War, and I can't help but suspect that Alex Garland must have seen this place.

This was always meant to be a little treat for me towards the end of my trip, and not the object of it, but I must admit that this taster left me wishing I could spend longer in the area, stay on one of the islands, and do some scuba diving.
posted @ 5:45 AM -

On yer bike

Location : Trang province

Having backtracked to Ayutthaya gave me a longer journey down to Trang than I had wanted, but Thai trains are comfortable enough. The only problem is that they keep the lights on all night in the sleeper compartment, so although there are curtains for each bed it's still pretty bright. I think I was tired enough to get quite a lot of sleep anyway though.

I had been worried about this part of my plan, because I had to get to Trang in the morning, and then very quickly (to avoid the afternoon heat) get hold of a decent bike and find somewhere to leave my luggage. It all worked out OK because I quickly encountered a guest house manager riding around on quite a flash mountain bike, touting his guest house (if you ever happen to go to Trang it's the PJ Guest House near the station, and the manager is a lovely, lovely man). He offerred to rent me a 10-speed mountain bike for not too much money (though I had to leave a huge deposit - possibly the real value of the bike), take care of my bag for me, and let me use the guesthouse showers when I got back 2 days later. All good.

After a quick breakfast of curry and noodles (a local speciality apparently) I headed off on a nice road, which was a little busy for my taste, but had a wide hard shoulder for me to use as a cycle lane. It was pretty flat and not too hot, though I did manage to get strangely localised sunburn (a small patch on each elbow), and a lot of the way there were rubber plantations beside the road, with the fairly tall rubber trees offerring patches of shade for me to stop in. The road became nicely quiet as soon as I was a few km out of Trang, and there were enough distance markers and signs with latin letters for me to have a fair amount of confidence in getting where I was going. It was the sort of road on which there's never a long stretch between villages, and in each village at least once house operated as a cafe, so I was able to fuel myself with sugar cane juice. They supply it in plastic bags tied up with elastic, with a straw, which happen to very convenient for hanging off handlebars - something I think I may copy when I go cycling in future - and with lots of ice that turns into a conveniently long lasting water supply as it melts.

I arrived at Hadd Pak Meng before lunchtime, and the first thing I thought when I saw the sea was along the lines of it really does look like those Thai tourist board posters. I asked an English couple about where they were staying, which turned out to be too expensive for me, but I ended up spending the afternoon with them because they were interesting. He had worked in Beijing for a couple of years, giving me a rather different perspective on the place than my own observations as a visitor. As the sun was going down I took my leave as I had to find somewhere to stay, and found myself in a wonderfully quiet resort along the beach (imaginatively called the Pak Meng Resort), with individual bungalows, exceptionally nice staff, and a restaurant serving the best food I've had in Thailand (which is really saying something).
posted @ 5:21 AM -

Teacher's pet

Location : Ayutthaya

Having finally collected the suits from the tailor and shipped them off to New Zealand (which reminds me - I'd better warn Tom & Caroline that there's a package on the way), I headed back up to Ayutthaya last Sunday to meet up with this teacher. We went for dinner (and on the way I had my first ride on the back of a motorcycle - not half as frightening as I expected it to be), and then sat around in my hostel for a while to talk. I must admit I had been quietly hoping her intentions weren't purely professional, but I wasn't prepared for what emerged. The long and short of it is that I don't know whether this is a cultural clash or her being prone to melodrama, but there was a very awkward conversation about broken hearts and expectations, and because I wasn't willing to lead her on (I suppose I could have lied and let her expect to see me again) nothing actually happened. I am pleased to report feeling no regret at all about not being a bastard....

On Monday morning I did go to school as planned, and all the kids seemed to have decided I was teacher's new boyfriend anyway. I was the subject of much staring and shy giggling, as expected, though they gradually seemed to find me less odd and be less nervous around me. It was a very interesting experience, and the school is really quite different from those back home, even though the kids are much the same.

Before the start of school the staff gather in the office for a quick meeting. The first thing that struck me was how military the teachers' uniforms looked, complete with gold braid on epaulettes and colours pinned to the senior teachers' chests. I couldn't understand what was being said, but I got the impression it had a lot more to do with banter than work, which often seems to be the way in Thailand. Then there's a full school assembly in the gym, which involves a very short speech by one of the teachers, a short reading from a religious text (I don't know which one), and a few minutes for meditation. It's not as quiet and still as it should be through the meditation, but it seemed like the younger kids took it seriously. Then the royal anthem and national anthem are played, and then it's off to class.

I was only present for one 2-hour-long class of 12-year-olds. It doesn't take a genius to see that 2 hours is far too long to expect kids that age to concentrate for, so the class consists mainly of the playing of games, which somehow have to involve speaking English. So I found myself with a whistle to blow while a ball was thrown around by the kids (boys on one side of the room, girls on the other), and whenever I blew it the person with the ball had to say something to me. All well and good, but all they ever said were phrases that had been written on the board, and this seems to be the general way the classes work - learning phrases by heart, without the kind of grounding that actually leads to speaking and understanding the language properly. Apparently this is the norm across Thailand for all ages (and they start young with English), so I think I understand now why most Thais speak some English, but few speak it well.

When concentration dropped too much the teacher let the kids demonstrate a few things for me, so I was treated to some Thai dancing (done with too much shyness to be good), a bit of volleyball (in the classroom - teachers at my old school would have been having fits), taklor and a few songs sung by a younger kid with a beautiful voice. I was asked to join in with the taklor, and naturally I was rubbish (I'm rubbish at most ball games, and this is one I'd never played before), but just having a go seemed to do a lot to make the kids see me as one of them, and be a bit less shy around me.

I left at lunchtime, having had a very entertaining morning, surprisingly unmarred by any awkwardness with the teacher. It was time to hit the beach after all that....
posted @ 3:24 AM -

Friday, December 13

email addresses

It seems that my multiplicity of email addresses is causing some confusion, so I ought to clarify the situation. Regardless of where mail from me claims to have come from (typically myrealbox, hotmail or uk2, but in future it could be anywhere I'm working or any friend's account that I borrow), there is only one address to which mail should be sent for me.

It is myfirstname AT myfirstname dot co dot uk

The reason is that it is an address that I will never spell out on a webpage, and am taking great pains not to get onto junk email lists. It's also the only address that is actually my property, and will follow me around wherever I check my email, while the other accounts will all eventually be abandoned, either when my situation changes or when they get flooded with spam. Mail sent to those addresses does in theory get to me, but I read them less often, and am much more likely to skip over something amongst the spam.

Speaking of spam, also please do not send me 'no subject' emails. They make it very hard to know whether they are really from who they say they are from, or bear a viral payload, so I would like to filter them all out, but at the moment I receive too many from real human beings to make that practical. It does mean that there's a risk that such messages will not be read by me though.
posted @ 6:31 AM -

can anyone illuminate me about Hindu rituals?

Location : Penang (Georgetown)
Visited since last post : Watpradoosongtham School, Trang, Hadd Pak Meng, Pulau Langkawi
Mood : very good but extremely tired
Company : a whole assortment of characters; will explain later
Reading : Lord Jim. I started reading it in the summer, but work got in the way, and this seemed like the right place to pick up again
Weather : We had a huge thunderstorm on Sunday night, and since then it's not been as humid and there's been a nice breeze

I'm going to keep this short because I'm extremely tired, and I need to go online tomorrow in any case to try and co-ordinate meeting someone whose phone number I have lost.

Basically, the last few days have been joyous. I went to the school on Monday morning, as promised, and had a lot of fun - it seems that teachers here try to keep the kids' attention by playing games, and while the kids were even rowdier than in a British school they were a lovely bunch. Then a long train ride South to Trang, and a long bike ride out to Pak Meng, where there is a beach, a small fishing port, some restaurants, and very little else. Took a boat trip out to some islands, which look a lot more like the Tourism Authority of Thailand posters than I had dared hope, before cycling back, catching a van to Satun, and only just getting there in time for my boat into Malaysia. Spent about 24 hours on Langkawi, during which time I managed to cycle around half of the island, because I set off on a short trip to a waterfall, never found the waterfall, but enjoyed it enough not to be fussed about map-reading. Only just made it in time for the ferry here (Penang), and have been here for a few hours.

That's where it really got interesting, because as soon as I had had a shower and walked out of the hostel in search of some food, an Indian man with large beard and turban accosted me, and insisted that I have some [free] coffee and join in with a passing procession (talk about timing!). It turns out that this procession was headed by a bullock-drawn cart, carrying some sort of idol decorated with flowers and a chanting priest. Two people did try to explain what was going on, but I couldn't understand their accents.

So, now I have some questions for anyone who actually knows the answers: (1) what is the correct word for a Hindu priest? (2) is there a Hindu festival on this day, or was this something local? (3) when is Divali?
posted @ 6:17 AM -

Saturday, December 7

A beginner's guide to cycling in Thailand

what I have learned in two days

The first lesson is that this is something that definitely should be done. A lot of the country is flat, you don't have to travel far from Bangkok to leave the traffic behind, and the drivers I did encounter were very considerate, putting as much road as possible between their vehicles and me when they overtook. Cycling outside of towns lets you see a different, slower moving side of Thai life, where water buffalo are used as pack animals and houses are still built on stilts next to canals and rivers. That said, there are certain things to bear in mind:

Environmental hazards
  1. Lonely Planet maps. I know I go on about this one a lot, but it really is very irritating when the long straight avenue turns out to be a winding road, and half the streets are simply not marked at all, making it impossible to count turnings. It's worth just completely ignoring the map and riding wherever looks appealling, because the main towns are signposted in English, so getting back is never a problem
  2. Dogs. It's not that they chase or attack cyclists - the heat makes them too damn lazy for that - it's just that they lie in any shady patch and pant, and show no desire at all to get out of the way of oncoming vehicles that don't have loud engines
  3. Heat. The movement of air makes cycling feel much cooler than walking, but you're still in 35° and doing exercise. I found myself going through more than a litre of water per hour, and I wasn't pushing myself remotely hard
  4. Sun. Even more so than dehydration, the cooling slipstream lets you forget that the sun is beating down on you, and to make it worse suncream is quickly sweated off
  5. Suncream. It's important, but it also runs. If you put suncream on your forehead it will end up in your eyes, and that is not pleasant. My solution was to get a large-brimmed hat, and not bother putting suncream where it shaded. I'm sure I looked ridiculous cycling in a straw stetson, but it seems to have worked
  6. Insects. Repellent also gets sweated off quickly, and while mosquitoes aren't really active in the light of day, anywhere near water has lots of flies that seem to find humans very interesting
  7. Potholes. Most of the roads I've seen are actually quite good, but the quietest and most pleasant parts are also the least maintained. There were a few potholes big enough to catapult a careless cyclist over the handlebars
  8. Highways. Rural roads are nice and quiet, but I did manage to stumble onto a proper highway at one point. It's a whole different ball game there, with lots of fast moving traffic and nowhere for me to escape to. Not an experience I will be repeating in a hurry
How to make Thai people look at you like you've just landed from outer space
  1. Ride a bicycle. They all have motorbikes or scooters, and I think they find the idea of actually using self-powered transport rather primitive
  2. Ask for a helmet. It's not that they don't understand - most of the motorbike and scooter riders have helmets - it's just that they think you must really be a big wuss for wanting one on a pushbike, and all they can offer are motorbike helmets that are unbearably hot and heavy for cycling use
  3. Give way to anything smaller than a bus. The expectation that bikers (based presumably on motorbikes, who can accelerate just a little faster than I can on a rustbucket) will push through ahead of moving traffic is so strong that car drivers seem really confused when I don't do the same
  4. Show the slightest trace of irritation when a tuk-tuk cuts you up. It's just something they all have to deal with...
  5. Take pictures of water buffalo. I suppose a British farmer would consider it quite strange if some foreigner turned up and found their cattle a worthy subject for photography, and water buffalo are as much a mundane feature of rural life round here....
posted @ 11:09 PM -

Wat luck

Location : Ayutthaya

After the King's birthday celebrations, my escape from Bangkok was to head a short distance North to Ayutthaya, a former capital with a wealth of mediaeval ruins. The cost of travel here is probably worth noting - a journey about equivalent to London to Brighton cost me a whopping 15 Baht for 3rd class on the train, which is no more uncomfortable than standard class on UK commuter trains, and it managed to get there on time.

Arrival in Ayutthaya was an instant change of atmosphere from Bangkok, because having left a large, busy station in the capital I reached a small outpost that, well, looks like it hasn't changed since the days when Siam was the only island of self-rule in South-East Asia. A large wooden hut houses the offices (which admittedly do have computers inside to do the bookings, but that's not visible until you go inside), and in the absence of air conditioning large fans give people their only refuge from the heat. Getting into town involves crossing a river, which is done on a modern boat, but the jetties are so ramshackle that they feel on the point of collapsing. Just what I needed after spending a little too long in the big city.

I found myself a place to stay (for 60 Baht), and rented a bicycle (30 Baht), which seemed like the best way to explore because the ruins are spread across a wide area, which is pretty flat and has little traffic. The bike was a real joy to have, because even though it was a horribly heavy and creaking one-gear machine the area is so flat that it took little effort to reach a high enough speed to have a cooling slipstream, making it a far nicer way to get around than walking in that heat.

Still, before I did any real cycling I took a boat trip across to a modern temple that the Lonely Planet claimed had an interesting Buddha statue. True to Lonely Planet form the said statue was not there, but the trip was an unexpected boon, because on the way I was accosted by the local school's English teacher, who invited me to a show her students were putting on that evening. She was only able to give me very vague directions (the name of the school that would be the venue, and the side of town it was on), but I told her I'd try to make it, while expecting that I couldn't possibly find it.

Back to the bike, and I very quickly got completely lost. Insert appropriate expletive to describe the experience of using Lonely Planet maps here. This didn't seem to matter though, because the concentration of ruins was high enough, and the Chedi conspicuous enough that I could just ride off aimlessly and turn towards the next one I spotted. It means I don't have a clue what most of the places were called, but also that I got to wander around most of them completely alone. The next morning I did some in-town sightseeing, and discovered that although the main ruins are bigger and more impressive, they are also over-run by tourists, to an extent that quite spoils the atmosphere.

The ruins were certainly atmospheric. While a modern Wat is a riot of colour, shining mosaic tiles and rich paintings, the old style were far more majestic, and even in their dilapidation they retain a lot of their impact. The better preserved ones also have a lot of sculptures of figures from Thai Buddhist mythology (which is particularly interesting because as well as the usual Hindu influences it also absorbed a lot of local pre-Buddhist animist beliefs, so there are all kinds of spirits and animal figures), while the rest are highly overgrown and colonised by dogs and birds. I must admit I actually enjoyed the more overgrown sites more; it seems somehow appropriate that if people don't use these places any more the jungle should reclaim them.

At the end of the day I still didn't know where I was, so I just followed signs to Ayutthaya (Thailand seems to have put Latin letters on all signs, which is most helpful, even if in some cases the spellings are so un-standardised as to be confusing), and found myself in a part of the city I hadn't seen before. I was trying to work out where I was, when I realised that one of the signs - Prattuchai School - seemed familiar. By chance I had stumbled upon the school that that teacher had been trying to direct me to.

It turns out that what she had invited me to was a Scout celebration, in preparation for the World Scout Jamboree that will be held in Thailand later this month. It might not be apparent why I should be pleased to find myself at a Scout celebration - certainly in the UK there's nothing to much such things interesting to people who aren't part of the movement - but these people were using it as a final rehearsal of the show they will put on for their visitors from around the world. In fact I was treated to a selection of fairly good performances of Thai folk dances, martial arts (one with weapons this time, in a far more ritualised form than Muay Thai), and a couple of old fables (which the English teacher narrated for me). All good, except that having managed to keep the little beasties away until that evening, I have now been bitten by a small army of mosquitoes.

Anyway, I've been asked to go to the school on Monday so that the kids get the chance to speak to a native speaker of English, which I'm quite looking forward to. I've had to come back to Bangkok for the weekend in order to sort this suit out, but I'll be back in Ayutthaya as soon as I possibly can escape here.

It still messes up the plan I had only just formed for how to travel on from here, so this is what it now looks like I will do:
  • Get to Ayutthaya this evening and go to school tomorrow morning
  • Leave school after lunch and head south, arriving in Trang on Tuesday morning
  • Leave most of my things in Trang (I have as yet to work out where, because the train station is only open for 4 arrivals and departures each morning, so left luggage there probably won't do), rent a slightly better bike (if I can find one), and cover the 40 km to Pak Meng
  • Recover from the bike ride by lazing on a beach for the rest of Tuesday
  • Take a boat to some nearby islands on Wednesday and snorkel (or possibly scuba dive) around a coral reef
  • Return the bike to Trang on Thursday, take a bus to Satun, and then cross the border by boat to Pulau Langkawi in Malaysia
  • Take another boat to Penang (timing gets vague here), and then back to the mainland where I will head to Ipoh to see Diong and the Cameron Highlands
  • Bypass KL altogether and go straight to Melaka
  • Hopefully reach Singapore around the 20th
There are an awful lot of 'if's in this, but worst comes to worst I'll just have to skip somewhere, and if I can make the transport connections I need it should be an interesting trip.

It may also mean that the next time anyone hears from me is in a week or so, when I am in Malaysia.
posted @ 9:51 PM -

A city of candles

Location : Bangkok

I have been very lucky with my timing here. When I booked the flights which were always going to be the fixed points on my trip, the only local event I took notice of was that I wanted to be in Sydney for the new year. What I have also managed to do is be in Bangkok for the King of Thailand's birthday, and a most interesting experience it has been too.

The most important thing to understand is that the King is not only revered here, but also adored like an adopted grandfather by most of the population. It's something I'm not entirely comfortable with - the Bangkok Post has been horribly sycophantic all week, in glorifying his benevolence and hard work, whereas I'm used to a press who by contrast are too desperate to criticise everything. However, it does mean that his birthday is celebrated very enthusiastically indeed.

All week I've been able to see lots of preparations going on; main streets being covered in fairy lights, huge portraits of the King (mostly one that must date back to shortly after his coronation, of a very young King looking ill at ease in his ceremonial garb) being put up in front of just about every office, and little shrines to him appearing in hotel lobbies, shops and restaurants. There was also noticeable excitement around the city, with people asking whether I'd be going to the celebrations, and being very eager to help me understand where to go on the night.

Thursday morning (his actual birthday) was a bit of an anticlimax, because as far as I could tell many people didn't get the day off work. But then in the evening I headed off to the Royal Grounds (the park next to the ceremonial old palace, so I guess equivalent to Green Park in London), and it took forever to get there because it felt like the whole city was converging on one spot. All along the avenue leading up to the park (which normally the bus would run along, but everyone gave up on the bus and jumped out because the road was so jam packed that walking was faster) there were happy throngs eating and drinking and lighting candles. Any space that wasn't required for walking on became a stand for hundreds of small scented candles, and the bridge that is the entrance to the park was absolutely covered in them.

In the park itself were a selection of stages, for performances ranging from a big band with lots of American-style dancers in formation, to Thai pop & rock music, classical Thai theatre and a muay thai ring. All around there was the sort of atmosphere that I associate with Glastonbury, and being one of the few farang just meant that everyone was extra nice to me. A whole selection of cultural performances for me to take in, and none of it for the benefit of the tourists. It would be fair to say that the rock bands with the most American sound were the ones that pulled the biggest crowds, but it was nice to see large audiences held rapt by the classical theatre and enthusiastically cheering on the boxers as well.
posted @ 9:40 AM -

Thai'd down

Location : Bangkok
Visited since last post : I'll write about one place at a time
Mood : distinctly festive
Company : Diong & James - two Malaysians who I will see again when I get to their respective parts of the country
Reading : guidebooks about both Thailand and Malaysia; trying to work out a coherent plan when there isn't enough time for the trip I'd like to do
Weather : hot [and humid] like a sauna. Let's just say that cold showers, 2 or 3 times a day, have become something to look forward to

Well I was half right about Bangkok. It is overcrowded (read badly organised - it fits the same population as Hong Kong into a larger area but manages to feel more cramped), horribly polluted (I've never felt pollution in my nose and throat as badly as this), unpleasantly hot for a place where there's no convenient sea to dive into, a nightmare to get around, and distinctly seedy. I have no desire to see Patpong, but everywhere in town there are farang men leading Thai women (often young enough to be their daughter) by the hand, while it's obvious that they have too little common language to hold a conversation. It should be obvious enough what I'm getting at; I've seen nothing like it anywhere else.

On the other hand, there are lots of good things to say about Bangkok that justify putting up with the big smoke and the maddening crowds. The Thai people are another wonderfully friendly, smiling bunch like the Mongolians, and many of them speak at least a little English, so it's relatively easy to actually talk to local people. Those who I have had a chance to speak to have been really pleasantly laid-back (in fact they seem incapable of taking work seriously, but somehow things like trains manage to run perfectly to schedule in spite of the guards' apparent preoccupation with water pistols, so they get the best of both worlds), and actually interested in the foreigner as a person to speak to, rather than just a source of money. Even the monks are very approachable; all those I've encountered have been very eager to make visitors welcome in their temples, even at places that clearly aren't set up for tourists.

The horrible urban sprawl is broken up by the river and a set of canals, which tend to smell distinctly sewer-like, but provide the only pleasant mode of transport - the surprisingly fast boats that run up and down the river. All around there are Wats, which are almost without exception glittering buildings, covered on the outside in brightly coloured mosaics, and on the inside with wonderfully detailed artwork; Buddha statues, murals and carvings everywhere. They are also very much 'living' temples, kept bright and shiny by the work of monks and the donations of other worshippers, rather than tourists' entrance fees (though the more important ones do charge a fee to non-monks), which is something I like to see. People also do a lot to decorate their houses, with even humble places on back alleys being bedecked with flowers and greenery, and about half the houses have a 'spirit house' (part of a pre-Buddhist religion that has survived) in the grounds, which are also always decorated with flowers and burning incense.

So, there is a lot to like about Bangkok, but it's also a place I don't want to spend too much time in. Unfortunately I am a little restricted in options, because I decided I'd have a suit tailored (something I can actually afford here), so I have to keep coming back for repeat fittings. I should finally leave tomorrow, but it all depends on whether the suit actually fits right tomorrow; otherwise I'll be stuck for a little longer and the itinerary I finally decided on for the Thai/Malaysian peninsula will have to change once again. I have at least managed to get out for a couple days though, and I think I'd be quite fed up by now had I not done so.
posted @ 7:46 AM -
I liked this: a major survey has told us what we already knew; that the same people who profess to hate America also copy its culture extensively....
posted @ 7:40 AM -
stable doors and bolted horses?

or, of course, we could consider using less oil
posted @ 7:31 AM -

Sunday, December 1

Krungthep mahanakhon amon ratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avantasathit..

...sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit

is the full name of where I'll be going tomorrow. Most people just know it as Bangkok, and apparently the full name (chanted) formed the entire lyrics of a trance tune released in Thailand in 1989.

I'm torn between wishing I could spend longer in Hong Kong and being quite excited about Thailand. I'm not actually expecting to like Bangkok much, but then I expected to hate Hong Kong, so I am prepared to be wrong again. I've also just discovered that Thursday will be the King's birthday, which apparently tends to be celebrated in style in Bangkok, so I definitely won't leave there until Friday.
posted @ 9:59 AM -

We love the city

Location : Hong Kong
Visited since last post : Lantau Island, bits of the New Territories, Shek O
Mood : very good indeed
Company : I'm rather more impressed with the crew in the hostel now
Reading : Look to Windward, by Iain M. Banks. Not a Hong Kong book as such, but science fiction seemed like an appropriate choice here....
Weather : steamy. Not actually all that hot, but the air is almost saturated, and all the peaks (and the tallest few buildings) are in the clouds

Hong Kong is a wonderful place. The first place I've been to on this trip where I really feel I could live, and I must admit I've been weighing up the pros and cons of trying to come back here in January to look for work, though for the time being I'll wait to see how New Zealand strikes me before making a rash decision like that.

I'm having a lot of trouble putting my finger on what it is that I like so much about here though. I was stopped today by two schoolkids interviewing people for a geography project (god that brings back memories!), and their final question was when you leave Hong Kong what do you think your favourite memory will be, which I actually found very difficult to answer.

I can think of several partial answers though. For a start, it really is easier to see living connections to traditional Chinese culture here than on the mainland, even in the little gaps between skyscrapers on Hong Kong island, and all the more obviously when I headed out to the less developed parts of the New Territories. That excursion was the first time I've found a Chinese temple that was purely a functioning place of worship, rather than a tourist site. It was actually far less pretty than the restored and repainted museum-temples in China (which people do come to to pray, as well as the tourists), but it had a soul that is lacking in those places. I think that's part of the appeal of Hong Kong actually - where I expected to find a soulless concrete jungle of pure unbridled commercialism, I found an awful lot of concrete and excesses of commercialism, but also a palpable soul to the city. There's an energy to this overcrowded mass of humanity other than pure greed; something that I just couldn't find in China.

The city itself is also much more human than I expected, with many nice pieces of human-centred design that are perhaps best explained by contrast with Guangzhou (a city that is trying to emulate Hong Kong more than anywhere else, but is falling very short, and is by far the least pleasant I've seen in China). On arrival in Guangzhou I felt completely overwhelmed by the oppressive towers that loom around the city, and although it has a decent metro I found ground level travel tricky. Roads have few crossings, and are far too busy to jaywalk (though at least that wouldn't get me 'arrested'...), pavements disappear to make space for more cars, and the place has the feel of somewhere that has just been developed with no thought given to the end result. Hong Kong has far bigger buildings, but far from feeling overwhelming the effect is actually one of jaw-dropping beauty, and the whole place has been designed with obvious concern for how it will affect people. There are places where the road leaves no space for pedestrians, so a couple of miles of overhead walkway have been built to solve this problem. Between the buildings, even in Central Hong Kong Island, there are little open spaces, with trees and sculptures and fountains, giving a breathing space that stops the whole thing from being overwhelming.

Even so, the place is overcrowded, and after a while the endless noise and the packed streets do start to grate, but this where another of the wonderful things about Hong Kong becomes crucial. The public transport network extends well out of the city itself, with efficient and cheap buses and ferries taking over where the metro ends. When the city becomes too much to handle, it doesn't take much longer to get out into quiet countryside than I used to find when I lived in the middle of Brighton (the population of which is about 1/24 that of Hong Kong, but I don't think its land area is less than half, because of the British revulsion towards high rise building). To really get away from other people altogether takes a little more effort, but the day I went walking on Lantau I was able to find solitude just a ferry ride and short hill climb away.

Another asset of the place is the sea, which was of particular personal importance to me, because since leaving Croatia I've gone longer than I had for many years without being able to look out at the open sea. It's something I've missed. It's also something that I've always felt added a lot to Brighton's charm, because from the bustle of the middle of town it's always easy to step back and be able to look out to infinity. Hong Kong goes one better, with the harbour forcing a wide open space right through the middle of town, and the easiest way to cross this space is by a quaint old ferry that serves as a wonderful contrast to the ultra-modern shiny vista on either shoreline. Plus the undeveloped side of Hong Kong Island has a selection of small quiet beaches with views out across the South China Sea.

Finally there's something that I particularly appreciated, because as I became disillusioned with China I started to experience homesickness for the first time. I've been missing various people, as I had expected to (and you know who you are), but until about a week ago I had felt a lot less sentimental about places than I thought I would. I'm not even sure where exactly counts as home, but I was missing a strange combined essence of Southern England, and Hong Kong has managed to satisfy that yearning. It's not really in obvious things that someone who doesn't know Britain quite well would necessarily notice, but details like the perfect unadorned sans-serif font on the blue roadsigns, or the driving on the left, or the phrasing of the Tourist Board leaflets (correct English for a change, but also worded subtly differently from American-written material), or the uniforms of the police all contribute to a curious and very reassuring home-from-home feeling. I'm not sure I would even have noticed these if I flew directly from the UK, but having been away from home for a while makes me really appreciate them.

I really could do with more time here.
posted @ 9:31 AM -

Manuel!

It's about time I wrote something about Hong Kong, but first there was one more thing that happenned in China that I want to remember. In Yichang I stayed in a single room in a hotel, partly because it was cheap, but mainly because there doesn't seem to be a hostel there. I thought it might be a good idea to give my parents the number so they could call me.

Most of the time in China I didn't find the language barrier too obstructive, because people made enough effort to surmount it with gesturing and pointing at words that were written down. This was an exception. While I was waiting in my room, expecting a phone call, one of the staff came round and knocked on the door. The conversation went roughly as follows:

__something in Mandarin
__I'm sorry, I don't speak Chinese
__something else in Mandarin
__I'm afraid that miracle hasn't happened. I still don't speak Chinese

At this point she gestured for me to follow her, and took me to reception. It occurred to me that perhaps they couldn't route the call to my room, so I would have to speak to the folks at reception, but no phone was presented to me. Instead someone else came up, who evidently spoke a little English:

__How may I help you?

I wasn't best pleased about being called out of my room, while trying deliberately not to leave the place, just to be asked what I want, so I tried explaining that I didn't want anything and could I go back to my room now? She didn't understand, so she just repeated:

__How may I help you?

This went on for a while, until I became quite exasperated (and I was trying really hard to keep my temper, because in China losing it achieves even less than in Europe as it just embarasses everyone concerned and causing embarassment like that is a Very Bad Thing to do). Eventually, having shouted at them that they had called me, and not vice versa, I just stormed back to my room.

A minute later all the staff on duty turned up together, to find me struggling with my ailing mobile phone (which to be fair was a major contributor to my being short tempered at that moment), in an attempt to phone home. Of course they didn't understand that the blank display was because it was broken, so they assumed that it needed charging. In a gesture that clearly was well meant, but just irritated me further at the time because it felt so patronising, one of them picked up the charger (lying on the bed, with plug adapter attached), and showed me how to plug it in, because obviously the problem was that I couldn't work that out for myself.

Eventually I did manage to speak to my parents, by waiting at reception while my dad phoned. The next morning I realised what must have happenned: a male European voice (we don't sound alike, but then I guess two Chinese people who don't sound alike to each other probably would to me) calls reception, and says something, of which the receptionist only understands my name and the room number. The poor girl must have thought that he was me, calling from within the hotel.
posted @ 8:47 AM -

ahem

I had a look at my web server statistics today, for the first time since setting off. I'm not quite sure what to make of being hit #1 on Google for deer penis. Or rather, I can understand that, but I'm a little disturbed that several people have actually found my site from such searches.

I know what I'll do today. I'll have a look at websites about deer penis.
posted @ 8:12 AM -
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