Tuesday, December 28, 2004

In my living room, in a large tank, there live two turtles Ronnie and Reggie. They belong to my flatmate's girlfriend and, whilst he is visiting her somewhere in the southern hemisphere, it seems that I am their daddy. One's big fat and greedy, the other small and prone to anxiously withdraw into his shell.

The problem with turtles is that their life spans are about as long as a human's. This means that if you get one as a pet, you have the responsibility of looking after it for the rest of your life. Making them the last pet I would choose – especially considering their tank takes up space that a sofa could otherwise inhabit. Bah.

And this reality is what many parents tried to inflict upon themselves and their children in the eighties after the much-watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started a fad for the hard round eating-machines. I never watched this flagon of other peoples toss, but I remember enough about it to say that it was like Charlie's Angels, but with turtles. In sewers.

I tried to tie bandanas around my turtles eyes but they weren't having any of it.

And here is the interesting thing about it: After a relatively short amount of time, hundreds of annoyed parents flushed said animals down their toilets thusly populating the sewers with turtles and setting up the possibility that a shit children’s cartoon could have become the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy.

The full extent of my ambition however is simply to keep the things alive until Tom returns from porking his woman on a Fiji beach. When I told people about Ronnie and Reggie's existence some told me that turtles are virtually indestructible. So to see the little one (cannot remember which ones are which) eating very little recently is a bit scary. Should the little bastard die a day before Tom comes back I'll be in trouble; a one-day turtle hunt would produce an unsatisfactory result so preparation is key. I'm already scouting pet shops for identical replacement turtles.

So you should not be surprised to hear that it is not the turtles I am worried about following Boxing Day's tsunami in SE Asia. I never visited any of the Andaman Coast beaches on the Western coast of Thailand but I went to a few similar coastal resorts and spent many weeks in Thailand. Therefore images of suffering and destruction have been doubly affective to my mind as I am fully able to imagine the lives and places that have been affected.

I cannot really speak for those citizens of Sri Lanka, India, Sumatra or the small islands around that area, but Thais are a philosophical bunch. Life will go on after the clean up; places and people will not be allowed to pass out of memory; prayers and shrines will be offered; always eager to eek out any opportunity, buildings will be re-erected; and normal life, accompanied with smiley faces, will eventually return.

I hope these areas recover quickly and I hope people realise that such events occur both randomly and extremely rarely and that tourism - which is vital to so many locals livelihoods on the coasts - quickly returns, because these are magnificent places full of beautiful and friendly people.

For the very latest news, apart from the obvious sites, try visiting Tsunami Blogs.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

This week some campaigners have been in overdrive trying to get violent video games banned. Last week a friend lent me Manhunt for the wondrous Playstation 2. I found out subsequently that the game has been held responsible for inspiring the recent murder of a British schoolboy. Manhunt offers little in the way of depth other than that presented by the range of deaths one can inflict upon a victim. And as my friend handed over the game he advertised it proudly, “this was banned in New Zealand”.

“Cool.” I replied.

Why would I, and doubtless also most of my peers in the same situation, be so positive about such news? I’m not a bloodthirsty loner desperate to gain a thrill by enacting gory simulated murders. I cannot say I’ve ever experienced any sort of adrenaline increase when executing a computer-generated character. But rather that when I get hold of such a game I want to play it because I’m curious to see what the fuss is all about. By playing such a game I am exploring societies tolerances and measuring myself against them. I don’t think I would have turned the game on had it not been banned. And actually it’s pretty dull but I’m playing it still, curious to see how far it goes…

Banning Stuff Encourages Its Use Shock!

Which is why Dutch locals don’t really bother with drugs. Why Brits with their strict drinking rules binge drink. Why Catholic priests are renowned, unfairly or not, for kiddie fiddling. And also why American teenagers - strictly denied any sort of narcotic, legal or otherwise - go completely and utterly over the top when off on their ridiculous “frat” parties.

Of course age restrictions should be properly enforced. I don’t think 6 year-olds should be free to play games in which they can get a satisfying pop from the head of a pedestrian using the sniper rifle they had to murder three Yardie Gangsters to obtain. But I do think adults should be free to do so if they wish. The basic principle is: if it hurts or affects nobody else, I should be free to do what the hell I like. As a loyal existentialist I would defend such a basic right to the end.


Which is why all drugs should be legalised for adults. It’s both controversial and staggeringly obvious. Anyone not exposed to the incessant media-induced morality and with half a brain would deduce nothing else without a doubt. No, I don’t think people mainlining crack is a good idea. But I am an adult; if I want to fuck up my body I have every right. Recently suicide was legalised, so how is this any different?

The current state of affairs is this: Any anthropologist worth their salt would be forced to admit that narcotics use is a constant that every human civilisation has always partaken in throughout all of history.

A sizeable proportion of intelligent and reasonable (as well as unintelligent and unreasonable) people take both legal and illegal drugs responsibly (and irresponsibly).

Any intelligent legislative thinker would openly admit that good law making must always follow society and its trends.

Users of illegal drugs, in order to obtain said substances, are forced to turn to a black market that is driven by people who use the money for criminal activities or, worse still, to fund organised crime, gang violence, and even terrorism. The principle, remember, is that we should be able to do anything as long as it doesn’t affect others.

Sorry to patronise here but DO YOU SEE?

Drugs legal: nobody else affected.

Drugs illegal: people take drugs anyway. Other people affected via black market criminality and hooked drug users thieving and begging to fund their dealers.

Drugs, it seems, more adversely affect the general public whilst they remain illegal than they would do if they were to be legalised.

How unbelievably simple does this logic have to be?

Let us explore other ridiculously obvious arguments that even a ten year old could grasp (maybe not the statements themselves but the deductive and inductive processes without a doubt):

Drugs legal: people have the choice to take all narcotics, all admittedly damaging, some less than the current legal ones; others more.

Drugs illegal: tens millions of Britons choose to consume the two major narcotics that are really quite damaging. Any other uses of major narcotics are often those that those dealers would like you to take, which - shock of shocks! – are the drugs that are the most addictive!

Drugs legal: People would feel much more open about asking questions to the right people such as a doctor, allowing young adults to make better decisions. Think how well informed we all are about nicotine and alcohol compared with heroin and cocaine.

Drugs illegal: Dissemination of the facts about drugs the realm of the drug dealer, the peer pressuring friend, stereotypes, cultural pressures, campaigning groups battling against sensationalist headlines and school lectures by police which although may be largely true is usually distrusted due to the blatant inconsistencies in drug laws which everyone down to the most innocent 12 year old is aware of.

Drugs legal: Police and judiciary time and finance freed to concentrate on burglars, rapists, murderers, terrorists and, er, nowadays, motorists.

Drugs illegal: police, politicians and judiciary expending huge amounts of effort, money and manpower on maintaining a war against drugs and, oh yes, the massive numbers of related problems exacerbated by this, let’s face it, culturally central phenomenon’s illegality.

Drugs legal: Drugs sold pure, manufactured by companies operating within safety guidelines and with all tax from profits going to the treasury. Industry and jobs created. More tax. Drug prices not inflated meaning addicts not encouraged to steal to pay for unneccesarily expensive habit.

Drugs illegal: Drugs laced with rat poison, baking powder, bleach, random chemicals and other horribly dangerous substances that drug cartels and unscrupulous amateur manufacturers use to heighten their profits. Leah Betts mum is a leading campaigner for a zero tolerance against drugs. Most people free of emotion and with the facts to hand should see the irony in this: had her daughter taken a legally produced ecstasy tablet, she would have almost certainly had a good time and gone home safely. Although still illegally: she would have been underage. So maybe she still would have used the black market, but more probably would have obtained legal ones illegally.

'Drugs are bad. M'kay?'

The change itself would probably lead to an increase in the number of users. Change always does. But it’s not the process of change that is important but the situation that needs to be bought about. Once the change has become the norm the numbers of drugs users would probably, using the common laws of anthropology and psychology as a guide, drop from today’s levels. And after all they could hardly rise.

What sane person, in possession of the facts, would voluntarily decide to start injecting him or herself with heroin? Many still would no doubt; and a black market would still inevitably remain for all the drugs – like it does for cigarettes and alcohol. But the problem would be massively reduced without a question. And inevitably fewer people would take the highly addictive, depressant, anti-social, car wrecking, vastly toxic, and violence inducing alcohol – and frankly that can only be a good thing for everybody. (Here’s a question: why is an alcohol comedown, arguably one of the very worst of all the drugs, given a friendlier name?)

Any politician who searched his or her own mind must know all of this, but who can blame them for valuing their careers? Such a move would never enjoy even a decently sized marginal support in today’s world. But it would be one hell of a brave move and I bet, if explained properly and despite all the inevitable headlines and follow up stories designed to dispute the facts we’d see splashed across the Express and the Mail for weeks on end, would get at least the respect of the public for being a genuine attempt to do something meaningful.

Meanwhile video games won’t be banned. Although I wouldn’t support such a ban it would probably be easily enforced. Hardcore video games would be genuinely difficult to get even with the minimum policing. Drugs’ trafficking on the other hand is policed like a bastard and yet the flow is bountiful. Could it be that our society is intrinsically linked with drugs? Well, durr…

“We are losing the war on drugs” politicians say. When only one side bothers fighting a war and still loses it really should be prepared to consider that the war is a fundamentally misplaced one. As the late great Bill Hicks once said: "Well you know what that implies? There's a war going on, and people on drugs are winning it! Well what does that tell you about drugs? Some smart, creative motherfuckers on that side."

Just for the record and in case you’re thinking I’m trying to justify some habit of mine I am not a great illegal drug taker nor am I the only person? who thinks this. I have not tried most drugs and probably never will, although my existentialist duty forced me to experience one or two. When you realise how pathetic some of these are to alcohol in particular you have to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Until you really think about it using basic cold logic.


Monday, December 06, 2004

It is always disappointing to look into the London night sky. Firstly it usually consists of one gigantic cloud; but when the way is clear the number of objects one can spot in the night sky is roughly about three. And that annoyingly includes the moon. The authorities have attempted to lighten our mood so to speak by lining Oxford Street with tens of large spotlights which wave into the sky so all the foreign visitors to Christmassy London can observe the cloud 24/7.

It is all so depressing when I think back to the time I reclined on a warm and powdery Fraser Island beach, which lay perhaps 40 miles from the nearest significant artificial light source, and wondered at the southern night sky.

I stared up at the literally millions of visible stars in awe.

“There are loads in a stripe over there,” I said pointing upwards to someone I had earlier befriended, but “if only that long bloody cloud would move out of the… ah.”

I had made a realisation.

“That cloud’s not actually a cloud is it?” I continued.

“Oh yeah” agreed whomever it was I was with in a tone that suggested I had pointed out something both revelatory and blindingly obvious.

Even a masturbating Claudia Schiffer could not have distracted me from the splendour that was the Milky Way at that moment.

The Milky Way. Londoners may not know that this can only be seen in the southern hemisphere. And they aint in it.

Curse London and its light pollution.

Over the millennia that have seen the rise of human intelligence, wondering and philosophising under a starry sky has gone hand-in-hand with our development as a species. I have found there seems to be a direct relationship between the friendliness of an average person and the number of objects that can be observed in the night sky in their skies. When city folk visit a region like, say, eastern Australia, they tend to open up and become much more ready to embrace things like the possibility of connecting with a total stranger. It must be the stars.

Why is it I think less of a person who walks onto my tube train wearing a beaming smile?

Perhaps I think they are stupid for not realising the obvious connection between stars and friendliness. I’m betting that astronomers are the salt of the earth. If I ever need someone to lend me money I’m going straight to the nearest observatory. Although traditionally an under-funded discipline, I’d at least get a smile along with the inevitable rejection.

“Are your family also astronomers?“ I would ask with an urban-induced furrow on my brow.

“No my friend. Tea?”

“Lots of milk lots of sugar. Is your house near any artificial light sources?

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

“Fuck off then; your family makes me sick.”

It's some sort of international scandal really.

Hail the International Dark-Sky Association!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

In September 1996 I got myself a compact-looking Sony stereo. The CD function has long since failed replaced now by a CD player connected to the stereo via its auxiliary function. In fact it shares this function with my computer on which is composed weird-ass electronic music (you can of course hear compressed evidence of this by clicking on the song titles listed in the left-hand column on this page) all facilitated by a mixer which means I don’t have to worry about constant fiddly lead manipulation to toggle between the two. Hang in there now I might be going somewhere with this.

I use my stereo constantly to listen to the radio and even occasionally a tape. Actually I get to digress here and mention a magnificent couple of 90-minute tapes I have which bestow a recording of Dave Rabbit’s show on a pirate radio station called Radio First Termer who broadcasted live and unofficially to US troops during the Vietnam War. Dave’s show played, in his words, “hard acid rock music” and featured deep philosophical musings such as “fighting for someone else freedom is like fucking for someone else’s virginity”, tips on where to score the best acid and of course where naked women might be found on that particular evening. It’s a glorious three-hour recording – I only wish you could hear it too. And in fact you can. Bloody marvelous.

Anyway the reason I bring the subject of my stereo to your attention today is because I want to pay homage to the two AA batteries that have been housed in it’s remote control for about 3,000 days providing me with a regular and fault-free service without the need of any sort of tinkering whatsoever. For the record these batteries are not Duracell, Duracell Ultra, Energiser or Ever Ready whatever-colour-isn’t-the-shitty-fail-after-two-weeks version, but Sony’s own brand no frills comes-with-the-remote version. After all this time I can still point my remote directly away from my stereo and the infra-red signal will bounce off my wall and give me instant volume increase or whatever other irrelevant requested available service.

I congratulate Sony on getting the little things right. Even if the stereo looks dreadfully ugly, houses buttons that often perform the actions of neighbouring buttons instead of their own, has preset EQ settings rather than the much simpler, more practical and better sounding bass and treble knobs, and has a CD laser that stopped working only two years after I started using it.

Battery issues are important. There is not a consumer alive who doesn’t curse a manufacturer when they release a product from its wrapper and open up the battery compartment only to find the bastard thing takes three fucking batteries. Who designs these things? Batteries are only sold packaged in even numbers you twats. I swear it’s a conspiracy. Apart from forcing you to buy an extra battery, it might also encourage some who already have the standard two to find another battery of a different make and use that as the third. Mixing different makes in such a way reduces their lifespan drastically again meaning you have to buy more batteries more often... Conspiracy!

And that is the Capitalist system we live in. Would such a trick be played on communist Vietnam? Well actually yes because Vietnam is as commercial as hell but with electronic goods sold at even more expensive prices than here; although oddly batteries are far cheaper (some indecipherable part of the conspiracy I wonder?)

But what if the whole world was Communist? Not a chance.

There might be lots of other massive massive disadvantages readers but getting conned into buying lots of batteries would not be one of them.

Makes you think doesn’t it?

Thursday, November 25, 2004

So I’ve moved house. My new abode is in the merry borough of Islington, North London. Which officially makes me a beardy, Guardian-reading, sandal wearing liberal. Little does it matter that I never wear sandals and aspire to never sport a beard of any kind whatsoever – excepting perhaps for any cool looking goatee type apparitions.

Perhaps my opinions of facial growth and footwear will subtly change over the coming months as who one is appears to be defined by where one lives. Over the coming days I will be carefully scrutinising newsagents for evidence: I am expecting to see large piles of Guardian and Independent newspapers and a tiny to pathetic collection of copies of the Daily Mail and Express on the shelves. I will be scanning shoe shops for sandals; chemists for beard-treatment products; supermarkets for tofu; grocers for organic greens; and of course streets for bicycles scooters.

That geography can affect personality is fairly easy to spot. Go to many of the commuter towns on the inside rim of the Home Counties circling London (or indeed run down areas of central London) and do some chav spotting. These individuals are so alike that it takes significant effort and application to talk to one and find the true human being underneath. Their souls are encased beneath shells of tracksuits (rather sportingly entitled “shell suits”), oversized trainers, ridiculous looking baseball hats and too often white jumpers emblazoned with the logo of some awful clothes manufacturer. During the winter evenings the females like to advertise how hot they really must be by exposing as much of themselves as possible to the cooling frost. This might sound like gross over-stereotyping, but having lived in such an area for a not inconsiderable time I can assure you the stereotypes are unfortunately justified. And many chavs – and I have seen this all too often – are responsible for much of what is now politically termed as ‘antisocial behaviour’.

Now being a softy liberal I have only sympathy for these unfortunate individuals who are after all only born into the British equivalent of the American red neck situation. I now feel duty bound to say that if only we weren’t so antagonistic and ready to judge these kids they would not feel the need to react like a horse fed with a large flagon of Tabasco Sauce. They really do need their problems to be understood by others. How isolated they must feel in the land between urban and rural Britain – how symbolic their geographical position is of their lives in modern British society.

Of course if you travel from chav country in either direction towards or away from London you will encounter Tory Country. Enter a newsagent’s on a Sunday morning before the young paperboys have collected their morning’s work and gasp at the mighty pile of Mail on Sunday’s stretching to the ceiling. As a penniless teenager I was employed to do a paper round in such an area. The leafier the road, the greater the percentage of Mail readers – I even distributed one daily to the ex-Arsenal manager Bertie Mee, who in 1971 delivered the league and cup double to Highbury.

What would these people say about chavs? (I discourage you from attributing the late great Mr Mee to any labels as dealing with individuals would clearly be neither accurate nor fair and I’m trying to stereotype wildly here. He did give me a fiver at Christmas once as well.)

I suspect it would be a gloomy view possibly connected with a sense of decomposing societal and family values allied with an incompetent judicial system.

Thinking about it, I have lived in all these areas. Everyone knows in reality that these places are in fact veritable rainbows of political thought and only loosely pertain to my extremely basic pigeonholing. But the point is, now I’m in Islington I have to philosophise wildly about the world around me until I too hide behind the shell of a beard and possibly a side parting.

Question: So have I found my political home in trendy liberal Islington…?

Analysis: I have been rambling meaninglessly about politics with no discernable direction.

Conclusion: So yes it seems like it.

Analysis: But I have enjoyed thoroughly slating and mocking common folk.

Conclusion: So perhaps not.

Analysis: All of which goes to show I’m confused about my politics.

Conclusion: So actually yes.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

At times being a Londoner in London can be an odd experience. Last night I was at a party in Kensal Rise at which my friend and I were the only two English people present. Swedes, French, Candians, and a spattering of individuals from elsewhere wandered round a large house probing each others social skills. And very weird it was too. I would have thought, having returned from travelling and meeting such people, that I would be comfortable in such a scenario. Obviously I spoke to many people but one finds oneself resorting to old and unoriginal conversation techniques when nothing else comes to mind. Whilst travelling the questions that get all too frequently asked would be:

What's your name?

Where are you from?

How long have you been travelling?

How long are you staying here?

Where are you going next?

What do you do at home?

What's your name again?

Snore. I guess such interrogation gives the questioner a sense of who they are dealing with and a start to a conversation.

Last night these questions got adapted to:

What's your name?

Where are you from?

How long have you been in London?

Do you like it here?

How long are you staying here?

What is your job?

Pretty dull then. I found myself in the hallway in the vicinity of a girl and I decide to find out the answers to such deep and fundamental questions. She is from Norway, she's been here two months, she quite likes London but hasn't really seen much of it, and she is working at her restaurant for four more months. Interesting. I flirted around such questions as "have you visited the Tate Modern?" I tried to ask what sort of films she likes or music she listens to. I am asked about good clubs to visit or cheap places to eat. I wasn't chatting her up; I was probing the variety of my own social skills in an unfamiliar situation. I noticed that the whole evening consisted of asking or being asked questions. I'm sure it wasn't like this on my travels...

Having said all this I did meet some interesting people and did have a fair few more interesting conversations. The party was made up mostly of young Europeans who have come to London and are generally working in bars, as nannys, or whatever else they can get their hands on. In general they don't meet too many locals - and we locals don't often meet them. It's a world away from the London I have known.

In hindsight I wish I'd asked more random questions; it would have made for a more interesting evening:

Toilet rolls. Front hanging or back hanging?

Are you a man or a woman?

Do you find it a bit unnerving doctors call what they do practice?

Does anti-freeze freeze?

What colour does a smurf turn when you choke it?

What are you going to say next?

Why isn't there mouse-flavored cat food?

and so on.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Sorry Everybody is the site that has attracted millions of hits over the past days as Americans photograph their ugly mugs and post them on the internet apologising for the re-election of lunatic leader George Bush. That the American electorate only had the option to choose between a right wing leader and an extreme right wing leader goes some way to excusing them.

In response to this phenomenon, pro-Bush started their own copycat We're Not Sorry site. But it seems to have fallen by the wayside and now leads only to a domain hosting site (although perhaps this is a temporary fault - clicky clicky to find out). However not before it encouraged the piss take site We Is Not Sorry which lists the top states by IQ pointing out that only those states at the bottom actually voted for Bush. Be warned that the photo page contains images that some may find difficult to stomach. Not that I want to encourage you. This site also features an apparent quote from an author who I'm faithfully told by a librarian friend is one of the best writers alive today, Hunter S. Thompson. Which I faithfully plagiarise here:

"We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the
whole world--a nation of bullies and bastards who
would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not
just whores for power and oil, but killer whores with
hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and
that is how history will judge us... No redeeming
social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or
we'll kill you.

Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who
among us can be happy and proud of having this
innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine?
These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and
fooled by stupid rich kids like George Bush?

They are the same ones who wanted to have Muhammad
Ali locked up for refusing to kill gooks. They speak
for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the
American character. They are the racists and hate
mongers among us--they are the Ku Klux Klan. I piss
down the throats of these Nazis.

And I am too old to worry about whether they like it
or not. Fuck them."

- Hunter S. Thompson

We Is Not Sorry is certainly not the only piss take site on the internet oh-no-siree. Others include:

The Flat Earth Society

George W. Bush's Re-selection Site

Psychedelic Republicans

UK Adverts

UFO Abduction Insurance

National Rifleman's Kooky Kids Korner

...and then of course there is the classic and utterly utterly brilliant White House.

Not that any of this signals America's increasing polarisation.... Fuck The South...

Saturday, November 13, 2004

With the Green Cross Code Man as his mortal enemy, Obi Wan tries his hand at road safety...

Two-headed tortoise? I ask yer...

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

I have recently acquired a copy of Football Manager 2005 so you’ll understand why the date shown above is so distant from the date shown above my last posting. Hmm, actually I wouldn’t want my friend Rob to leave a comment revealing that in reality I got the full version of the game only yesterday so I’d better alter my initial comment: I have recently acquired a copy of Football Manager 2005 so you’ll understand why the date shown above is likely to be some distance from the date shown above my next posting.

I’ll try not to let this happen too much.

So, it’s been a while. Apologies. You’ll understand I’m sure that on my return I had much to do. Including getting my old job back – although now in freelance shape and appearance. I had many friends and family to contact and much photography to exhibit. Sadly I returned home in time for… Family Karaoke! But it was good to see the people involved. Out of the usual pathetically poor choices on offer I felt the least offensive was "Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me", I sank to my knees in mockery as I warbled. Seven months abroad and karaoke had loomed large. In a guesthouse in Saigon my room appeared to be situated next to a rather loud karaoke-singing man who was consistently far less tuneful than a cats chorus. Any karaoke CD production company who produces a CD with anything approaching half-decent music rather than this vacuous clean cut middle-of-the-road shit will surely clean up. As will any camera manufacturer who markets a mid-priced camera that actually takes a photograph the moment one presses the button rather than three seconds after. Who wants to capture a moment three seconds into the future?

When that same karaoke-plagued room in Saigon was infested with over thirty cockroaches I took the situation calmly: for it was a silent afternoon. I’ll never forget the cleaner somehow cramming dozens of cockroaches into a cigarette packet before drowning them with ‘roach spray – many legs stuck out the top of the packet all thrashing about furiously as the spray took its deadly effect.

Karaoke wasn’t the only thing I came back to which cushioned my return. In Asia I had been eating much rice and noodles. And since restaurants are actually cheaper than buying food and cooking it, I hadn’t eaten home cooked food since Australia – and that was my home cooked food. So it probably doesn’t count. So when I met my dear Mama she offered me two options: a trip to the Chinese or a trip to the Indian restaurants. Not that I want to complain – I was very grateful. Actually I had missed a good old English Indian curry. Nothing beats it I assure you. The next day my Mum prepared chicken with rice…

Another reason for my posting ineptitude was that there was a certain laziness there – a desire to lay back and enjoy the comforts of home. So I‘m not too depressed to be back. I actually enjoy a quiet evening catching some television, although I’m disappointed to have spotted few changes for the better. My Playstation 2 was unpacked with great relish, and my bass guitar has been cradled somewhat. Plus it’s been interesting to stalk through London with fresh laser corrected vision. Marvellous really.

I lucked out on my flight home. Cheapo cheapo Kuwait Air aren’t exactly the most luxurious carriers I’ve travelled with and their food was as gross as I have had on a long haul flight, but I had a window to my left and two empty seats to my right. Up go the arm rests, every blanket is taken out of its wrapper and I bury myself under a sea of pillows. Bliss.

And so I’ve seen many of my friends. And almost every one of them, plus many members of my family said:

“You look thinner.”

“I didn’t realise I was fat before.” I replied in almost those exact words every time.

“You weren’t.”

“So do I look very thin now?”

“No. You look good.”

“Did I look bad before?”


“But my stomach was flat then and is flat now.”

“Don’t show me that.”

I still don’t understand. Perhaps it is something to do with the fact that I had a dodgy tummy for about a month before I returned. It was such that I felt both hungry and full up constantly. So probably my present ‘healthy’ condition is as a result of an illness. Such are the pressures of today’s society that one has to become gaunt from sickness to look attractive. No wonder the world is rife with anorexics and bulimics.

Either that or the small bit of facial hair I’ve cultivated on my bottom lip – a kind of Hitler moustache but underneath the mouth – lends a kind of stripy look that helps to make my face look thinner. Vertical stripes and all that.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


In Bangkok and I've just booked my flight home. Not that I'm not looking forward to seeing people, but living and working in London isn't adventuring around foreign soils and meeting excellent new people everyday.

Having said all of this I am especially lucky. Lucky in the standard sense in that I have been able to do all of this, but especially so because being a Londoner means I get the opportunity to reunite with many of the friends I have made on my travels. I have met dozens of fellow travellers who either live in or near London, plan to live there, or plan to visit at least once in the near future. Some of these people I made a real connection with.

And I will go home a changed and improved man. Literally - yesterday I was told I had better than twenty-twenty vision, which is a definite improvement on my myopic astigmatised vision upon leaving Britain. And I'm probably more confident now as well. Which might sound strange to those who know me as I've always been a confident type anyway - not yet aroggant though; not even sure if they are part of the same sliding scale mateys.

So generally speaking this whole adventure has probably been good for me. And good for my personal possesion count. Yesterday I took in Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market for the second time. I try to avoid unnecessary usage of swear words here but: fuck me it's big. The biggest of its type in the world with in excess of 9,000 official stalls covering over 26 acres. Click here for some piccies... It's not enough of course that market stalls cover pretty much the rest of Bangkok which also hosts a superb floating market and a marvelous night market in Patpong (the area that is largely famous for other more lurid trades). The weekend market isn't the cheapest place to buy goods in this city but definitely offers the best choice, and if your bargaining skills and patience are well honed you will find some excellent deals. I bought five excellent quality t-shirts for less than ten pounds and three fake Rolex watches for about 12 pounds each. Always good. Gotta be careful where I flash my supposed bling though in London.

But anyway the point is, Chatuchak Market is insanely big and one could never hope to see all the stalls given even every minute of its opening times during one weekend. But should you want to shop that much - you deserve shooting frankly.

So like almost everybody else who comes travelling in this region, I'm leaving via Bangkok and I'm stocking up on the shopping before I do so. I have met countless people who have done the same - my purchasing is really quite tame in contrast. And my return ticket was a bargain too - 11,300 bhat is about 140 pounds. I think one could buy a flight to Bangkok, spend a shed load at Chatuchak Market, come home and find that money has been saved had the same purchases been made in London.

Well maybe...

Thursday, October 07, 2004

I would have been relatively suprised to learn, when I started this weblog, that I would still be posting entries after two years. Mainly I expect because knowledge of the future is an amazingly unlikely thing, but also because I was not confident in my own determination to write regularly. Yet here I am in a particluarly slow internet cafe in Pai, northern Thailand, writing the 130th entry. Which works out at a dissapointing 5.6 days between each entry - all good things must be waited for I would like to think. (Though I'm dubious as to whether that is true, and even if so it does not follow that all things that must be waited for are good.)

God this internet connection is slow. It doesn't help when others come in to use a neibouring computer although I suppose they have as much right as I do. It does amuuse me though when someone comes into the shop, stands by a computer, spends twenty seconds trying to attract the attention of the person behind the desk, then says "Is it okay if I use the computer?"

So anyway: Pai. Pai is a haven of easy living, pretty scenery, friendly locals (this is an increasingly familar list I'm sure) and cool bars and shops. I would say roughly one in two people here are westerners either visiting or residing here permanently - and many are of my parents generation. And you can see why it's so popular. It's a bit on the hippy side, but not too strongly; the food is varied, bountiful and tasty; there is excellent live music; a host of useful shops which specialise in doing differing things very well; and a nice little market. Nearby there are hot springs, waterfalls at the bottom of which you can have a swim, and picture perfect scenes of varying geography.

I met a sharp 50 year old chap - who's brewing his own wine from oranges of all things - and who has moved here from Blighty. He pretty much summed it up in his Welsh Anthony Hopkins voice: "Home? Why should anybody want to go there? Last time I went back to Britain we gathered about twenty of us ex-pats and went en mass to give each other support." He lives here with his son his wife and his nephew. Family members come to visit him and they love it. I met at the same bar a chap my age with his Mum. None seemed unhappy with their new life.

And so I'm chilling out here for a few days making friends and supping at the cup of life. Maybe I'll do a tour to a nearby village. I haven't decided yet. Need a new book though.

Meanwhile the hit count for this site is nearing 9900. The most popular day for visiting is a Thursday which accounts for 18.91% with a peak of 7.76% logging in bewteen 1 and 2pm. Interesting eh?

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Having established that Laos is both poor and technologically backwards, it is no surprise to learn that it is a country where NGO's (Non Governmental organisations - or in laymens terms: charities) undertake activites everywhere. Walking around the place one can see signs of this on the sides of jeeps - which look out of place anyway; on signs erected alongside completed projects; in advertisements in the local press; or in the conversations of the volunteers who drink at certain bars. So reliant has it become on these organisations however that it appears the peoples attitude there has grown to one of: "let the NGO's sort it out". Nowadays little development of infrastructure is undertaken there that is initiated and completed by government alone.

I ended up last week in the northern Laos town of Luang Nam Tha. There's not much there except the opportunity to partake in the government organised eco-treks, which center around hill tribes. Eco-trekking supposedly limits the numbers of tourists that might engulf a village and ensure the tribes are not changed by it - although how true that last point can be is questionable. I cannot say too much about this personally as I didn't go on one in the end. The cost is very high and since such a project by its very nature makes it illegal for any other trekking firms to operate around the area the government holds a monopoly on this business. I wonder how much is "eco" and how much is economy - the numbers of visitors to this part of the world is extremely low so I wonder how important "eco rules" on group size actually are. We wanted to do one but we were only three and didn't want to cover the cost of the fourth missing person - four being the minimum size to get the lowest price per person!

So I went away from Luang Nam Tha having done little more than research a trek I never did and headed straight for the Thai border by bus. It was a 200 kilometer journey; hilly but not mountainous. The estimated time was nine hours! When I got to the bus station they were replacing the engine and the front of the bus was pretty mangled up. The 9am bus finally departed at 10.45am, the sealed road lasted about five minutes before the long thread of dirt track and mud was embarked upon. A television sat in the aisle next to my feet; further forward lay some large sacks of an unknown grain or cereal; the back seat, always a desirable lying down possibility on any bus, carried luggage and produce rather than passengers. The overhead luggage rack - fastened to the roof by strings in parts - creaked with rhythmical loudness throughout the journey.

By midday we had required our first bulldozer. We all piled out: 30 or so locals and about six of us falang (Westerners) - we stretched ourselves by the beautiful scenery and waited for a fortunately nearby bulldozer to go to work. It cleared a landslide remarkably promptly. We crossed some streams and rode through some large ponds or small lakes over the following hours before one proved too much. For the second time the bus was cleared whilst the bus driver attempted to climb an extremely muddy patch of dirt road which should normally be attempted by four wheel drive, not by rickety two wheel drive passenger bus. After much revving and careering about a rope was produced and tied to the front. In these situations the Western travelers are always the first to eagerly volunteer their services. Presumably for the locals such an inconvenience has long ago lost its novelty and become downright frustrating. There were four of us western males and all of us and three or four locals grabbed the rope and started our tug-of-war with a bus, a muddy bog, and the laws of gravity (helped by whatever horse power our driver could produce). Success and celebration before we all cursed the fact we did not give our cameras to the two Western girls to capture the moment.

A third evacuation occurred for the inevitable flat tyre (to be replaced by an equally decrepit looking specimen) and us four Western lads heaved the flat to the rack on the top to the approval of the Laos locals.

Laos bus tyre changing. A ridiculously common sight. This looks much like the bus we were on, but here there seems to be a dissapointing lack of Western assitance in proceedings.

It was a good journey in truth. When one goes through rural areas, all the kids run out to catch a glimpse of the bus. When they spot some Westerners they all wave and shout "helloooo!!!", and we all try to wave back before we are out of sight. That's Laos for you. We arrived at the Mekong side of the Thai border at about 11pm tired and arguing whether Mekong is properly pronounced May-kong or Mee-kong. I said it was the former, everyone else said I was mistaken and being foolish. But look! Look at this....

Never doubt me!

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

And so on to little Laos. This country is so laid back it's almost horizontal. Boats that leave at 8.30 usually end up chugging away from the dock at 10; used dinner plates will sit uncleared at a restaurant table for hours; citzens lie back dozing in the shady spots; and everyone lazily greets you "sabai di" as you stroll past in the sun. This land is almost entirely jungle with a few clearances for towns and villages mostly along the Mekong. Life here begins early in the morning and peters out in the early evening. There is genuine friendliness here - no wonder everybody loves Laos.

But, like the population of two of it's neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia, the people of Laos went through terrible hardships during the US occupation of the region. Between 1964 and 1973, in direct contravention of the 1962 Geneva Convention recognising Laos' neutrality and forbidding the presence of all foreign military personnel, the US made this land the most bombed in history - in fact more bombs were dropped here in that period than were dropped during the entire campaign of World War II by all sides. Laos was of huge strategic importance and the administration, especially Nixon's, thought that pressurising Laos and Cambodia might shorten the conflict in Vietnam and lead to a less embarrassing US pullout.

To evade the Geneva Convention - perhaps in law, if not in spirit, the US made air force pilots wear civilian clothes temporarily declaring them to be civilian pilots and placed CIA agents in foreign aid posts. The North Vietnamese soldiers didn't even bother to do that. The name "Laos" was banned from all communications - being referred to simply as "the other theatre". Almost every rule of engagement that had to be observed over Vietnam could be safely ignored.

The Laos governemt at this time was nothing less than a puppet of the Americans. The Laos economy was almost entirely reliant on US money and inflation has been rampant. Today, one US dollar is worth 10,000 kip.

The statistics of The Secret War make for sober reading. The number of air sorties over Laos totalled 580,944 by 1973, 50 per cent more than took place over Vietnam - making it one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years, costing US taxpayers US$2 million per day. By the end the bombing amounted to approximately 1.9 million metric tonnes per square kilometer - over half a tonne for every Laotian man, woman and child.

To help them, the US recruited 60,000 Hmong hill tribe villagers to fight in the war. These soldiers were paid with funds earned via CIA-supported opium trafficking, although they were a very poor force which lost almost every battle they fought.

When one visits a country, sees its beauty and meets its wonderful people, it becomes almost impossible to read such histories and avoid the feeling of disgust. Hence my eagerness to describe it here. Very few people are aware of what happened here. The history of Cambodia is arguably even more atrocious. Western governments have been guilty of following abstract political philosophies for decades at enourmous human costs. The ridiculous thing is, these philosophies often turn out to be borne out of a sence of superiority and end in spectacular failure and disaster. In this case communism, poverty and destruction weighed heavily on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the years after the US pullout which in the case of the economies of Laos and Cambodia was akin to pulling the foundations out from under an already tottering building.

I'm currently residing in Luang Prabang - I try to avoid the word, but it can only be decribed as quaint. A tiny town on the spot where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, old buildings and markets vie for the tourist kip.

Monks trudging down a busy Luang Prabang street. A common sight.

This compares with Bangkok which I have just vacated. On my last day I saw 'The Terminal' at a cinema for 600 bhat. That's eight British pounds. Extremely expensive as it is akin to British prices. The difference was that I sat on a leather sofa with one remote control to recline the seat and another to select one of the seat's many massage programs. I got a waitress service, free drinks, and arguably the greatest toilet seats on the continent. Mmmm....

Friday, September 10, 2004

Last week I temporarily vacated Bangkok for the town of Kanchanaburi - a standard looking town three hours north west of Bangkok via a 25 bhat train journey. This journey was marred somewhat by a very drunken local attempting to teach me Thai boxing number one in the world in Thai for the majority of the journey. It was later made more interesting as I had to verbally maneuver around some pleasant but persistent touts attempting to make their commission by convincing me to stay at particular guesthouses. I beat them all by taking myself to Apple's Guesthouse - a place that doesn't need to sell itself is usually preferable I find.

Kanchanaburi is made special due to its geographical location - near Bangkok and beside the Burmese border; also overlooking the Kwai River - this town was the perfect place for a bridge providing passage for trains passing through Burma and into India from the east. And so it came to be: during WWII the Japanese rounded up their Allied POWs and set them to work on a railway which would serve such a purpose and their srategic interests. Prominence for Kanchanaburi was sealed by the David Lean film Bridge Over The River Kwai which is an inaccurate tale but yet supplies Alec Guinness with the opportunity to produce a stirling performance.

The River Kwai Bridge, Kanchanburi - and the train heading for Bangkok.

Visitors of all ages flock to see the (fairly unremarkable looking) bridge, a well maintained Allied war cemetery, and to partake in the town's other activities. And luckily there are many. Tours take in a series of stunning nearby waterfalls, elephant bathing, more examples of POW efforts on the railway, rafting, a monkey school (which I missed!) and even a tiger sanctuary ran by a Buddhist monastery where I was one of a number of tourists to stroke the fur of a couple of fully grown adult tigers. Such is the beauty and immensity of these animals - one cannot help but be awed into a silenced reverie.

I did this last excursion as a half day trip. I couldn't help but notice on my receipt the very carefully and deliberately written words No Insurance. I avoided wearing red, but it was okay; the tigers ignored me - they were hand-raised from birth, contentedly fat, and probably drugged to the eye balls. Which is morally acceptable if monks are doing it surely...

I petted this. Pretty cool eh?

Typically for a tourist town Kanchanaburi serves up a string of bars and restaurants offering western and Thai fare. And as is usual in this part of the world they saturate the market to the extent that a single traveler finds it difficult to find a bar with the busy hustle of people meeting each other over a drink. Instead customers are spread out such that the average number in a place is between none and three. Classic south east Asia annoyance.

I rarely offer many recommendations on these pages, and it is about time I started. I shall immediately address this oversight with a plug for Apple's guesthouse restaurant - possibly serving the best Thai food I have eaten and deserving of their excellent reputation. Apple's also do a cooking school and their one day tour was superb. The rooms are okay although at a meager 150 bhat per night I have nothing to complain about - but bring your earplugs if you want to avoid being forced to listen to the chat of the residents in the adjacent room to yours.

And I will further compensate for my past ineptitude by recommending a superb guesthouse in downtown Bangkok: Suk 11 is air conditioned throughout, is extra clean, enormously friendly and I don't stay anywhere else in the city I have returned to for the next few days.

Ah, air conditioning... the second greatest invention in human history...

Meanwhile, Stav has put up some picures from her stay at Cool Bananas guesthouse in Agnes Waters, Australia. Don't expect to see me featured too much, but they do illustrate the sort of thing I had to put up with whilst I was there.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

So it turns out I probably don't have X-Men-like hex vision powers. For surely they would have kicked in the moment a team of Thai surgeons attempted to use a laser to burn parts of the top of my eyes off. Naturally this is not all bad for I electively underwent surgery to perfect the vision in my eyes. Yes, on Wednesday I had laser eye surgery or LASIK eye surgery to be more exact at Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital - supposedly Asia's leading private hospital. And quite a place it is too. I shouldn't have been surprised when I walked through the doors to find yet another indoor shopping centre. I strode past McDonald's, Starbucks and a very posh Japanese restaurant to my appointment with Dr. Narurmol Luckanakul (she insisted upon hearing I was to write an account of my surgery that I get her name spelled correctly). A friendly doctor who spoke good English and who liked to draw pictures of eyes in response to any questions.

The lobby at Bumrungrad Hospital

Treatment at Bumrungrad is with the VISX-Star S4 laser system - the latest laser available and treatment for both eyes cost 48,000 bhat - about 650 pounds Sterling. I chose it because of its high reputation. Even foreign doctors from countries with renowned health care systems would fly into Bangkok to have their eyes treated here. Equivalent surgery at such a high class hospital would cost at least double in the West. Bumrungrad kept costs low due to the cheap overheads of building costs and labour that come naturally here plus the pure numbers of patients who undergo this procedure there. Tests were ran through: my pupils were dilated; lights were shone into my eyes; my head was placed in the headrests of countless instruments; I read off wall-charts; I had my blood pressure taken; my pulse was tallied; and my weight measured; nurses came round waiting rooms offering drinks. I spoke to the doctor, asked all the questions I could think of and agreed to go ahead.

On the days before the surgery I did all the usual things (I avoided wearing contact lenses and abstained from alcohol, caffeine and anything else that might be construed as a narcotic), but in my mind I was telling myself "this is the last time you will shave wearing glasses", this is the last TV you will see in glasses", "this is the last shower you will take when the world's a blur" and so on. I arrived at the hospital a good two hours before surgery. I was immediately given hospital pyjamas - decorated with elephants and the Bumrungrad Hospital logo - to wear and put in a bed. More tests were taken - my blood pressure and pulse were measured for about the tenth time in a week. Pills were distributed to my mouth and I popped my glasses - wretched things - into a sealable plastic bag, the sort drug dealers distribute their weed in... I think it was a new one though.

I was wheeled towards the operating theatre, head laid back against my pillow. Lights on the ceiling, blurred to my eyes, passed overhead. It felt like a much overused shot from a film - it was a much overused shot in films. I wondered whether it was used so much because it was such a striking image or if it was such a striking image because it had been used so much by directors. Doors swung open automatically as my bed neared them before I was finally turned into a modern-looking operating theatre. From the top of my vision, and upside down to my eyes, a middle-aged Thai woman dressed for surgery looked at me, smiled, and said "No pain." She was wearing glasses.

Why was she wearing glasses? Did she not trust the procedure. I put it out of my mind. She gave me a dose of anesthetic eye drops. I lay there for ten minutes before Dr. Narurmol came in. "The traffic was terrible" she said.

"That's Bangkok for you" I countered, already beginning to sweat.

For some reason I had a thick blanket over me underneath the green surgical cloth that covered all but my eyes. I maneuvered it downwards. "No pain", the woman with glasses repeated.

More pleasantries were exchanged. If they weren't competent at least they were incredibly friendly. Smiles and laughter were present probably in part to put everybody at ease. In the event they all seemed very competent, and I wouldn't have been there if I thought any differently. I have previously criticised the quality of Thai nursing in chemists on Ko Pangan, however this was a plush hospital and all were highly trained.

I was put under the laser. It would vapourize the middle part of my cornea by tiny amounts at a time until the relevant part of my eye effectively presented a perfect sphere allowing light to focus perfectly onto the back of my eye. At least that was the theory. To do this, the top part of my cornea would have to be lifted up - it cut almost all the way round in a circle and lifted up like a flap. Dr. Narurmol turned on the laser so I could hear what it would sound like. A circular metal instrument was pushed over my eye ball both forcing my skin back so as not to obstruct the eye and keeping my eye still. My eyes were numb but I was fully conscious and able to see.

Looking up at where the laser would be emitted I could see a distinct red dot. The instrument that was to cut my cornea was placed over my right eye. I could only see the bottom of it but I imagined it to be shaped something like a jeweller's eye piece. It was a machine that made the necessary incision. I didn't feel it, but I knew exactly what was happening. My body's sweat glands would have opened at this point I imagine. It took a few seconds to cut and my cornea was lifted. This was indicated to me as the vision in my right eye swung quickly in the same direction before the cornea cleared my line of sight and the red dot became very blurred almost filling my entire field of view. A minute or so passed presumably as the surgeons checked all was fine before the laser was started. I cannot remember if I was given any warning - I was too busy sweating, worrying, and attempting not to move my eye at all.

Not that it mattered - the metal clamp thingy would have prevented that and the laser supposedly performs several checks of the position of the eye before committing itself to a burst of zapping light. And I had read somewhere that the laser captures 99.8% of all the eyes movement and corrects the position of the laser accordingly. The 'putt putt' sound continued for what seemed like about fifteen seconds - although could have been anything up to thirty or forty seconds. I was hardly in a calm second-counting mood. The cornea was replaced and my eyes was cleaned with the first hand tool I had encountered - a small swab.

Once my left eye was completed (it seemed the laser took longer than for my right eye), the surgeons seemed to take an eternity to bring me out from under the now redundant laser. Probably they were checking the condition of my eyes very closely. Next two plastic gauzes were placed over my eyes with only small holes with which to see through. I was helped out of the operating chair - my Bumrungrad pyjamas were soaked through with my cold sweat. I asked and was told that, yes, I had sweated more than any other previous patient. I suspected they were humouring me with news of such an honour. Outside of the operating theatre then and I attempted to glance through the holes in my eye shields. I knew my vision certainly would still be blurry, but I could perceive... Yes! A definite improvement. I could see things clearly in the distance!

Four days have passed now. The irritation in my eyes was much less than I expected, and every day my vision has stabilised a little bit more. My eyesight is at least as good as with my glasses on, although glare off lights will remain for a few weeks yet. I am being careful with what I do, and I'm not venturing out into the Bangkok fumes, but I am functional and vision is good. Eye drops and antibiotics in my pockets I stalk through the world without a form of crafted lens between my eyes and the world. And it should be bloody marvelous as I venture further afield.

Despite the lack of hex vision...

Now use your eyes to espy some pictures of my group on Fraser Island, Australia via Tibo's website.

Monday, August 23, 2004

One of the benefits of coming to South East Asia are it's cheapness and its copyright laws. Either there is no enforceable copyright law in Vietnam regarding the selling of DVD's and CD's or no one cares enough to enforce them. In shops up and down Pham Ngu Lao - the travelers main hang-out in Saigon - and in the surrounding area, one can wander into stores and select from countless copies of the latest albums and films. In some cases, DVD copies of films are available before the film is itself being shown in local theatres. And here's the kicker: music CD's cost 30p per disc; DVD's 60p. In the last week I have seen DVD copies of Spiderman 2, The Bourne Supremacy, Elephant, Fahrenheit 911, and a number of others. DVD players can be rented for 24 hours and for less than two pounds. Quality is mixed of course; whether it was the player or the discs, some movies would stick, others were filmed by a camera at the back of a cinema (complete with occasional bobbing head off to the toilet), and some copied straight from an original DVD it seems.

The discs and their packaging are very well made although the English language explanations are often laughable in their naivete. A glance at the back of The Godfather packaging will show a carefully designed copy of the official DVD, but read it and the explanation of the film is actually taken from the Disney film Monsters Inc - printed in the Godfather's familiar typeface.

This freest of markets in the biggest city in a socialist country is not exclusively a digital medium thing. Salespeople (often children) carry around heavy stacks of photocopied books. All bound and packaged expertly but certainly not by the official publishers. I have a book called Sideshow - an excellent report on how Nixon and Kissenger's criminal indifference led to the near destruction of Cambodia and its people after the Vietnam War. One section of the book is upside down, in another part the black print become blue ink! Most copies are better though; I've just finished the superb The Life Of Pi, with few problems. Bought for 2 pounds from a lady who sold it to me whilst I was eating breakfast in Gon Cafe.

Across the road from said cafe is a shop specializing in selling reproductions of famous paintings. Not so dodgy or morally questionable perhaps, but a good opportunity to hang a copy of The Last Supper in one's bathroom. These reproductions are of excellent quality and go for between US$30 and $100. I'm not sure of the legality of buying copied books, DVD's or CD's, but westerners buy these goods in their droves.

Of more original interest are the communist propaganda posters that have decorated (or plagued depending on your viewpoint) the streets for many years. Nowadays the posters usually warn against HIV and AIDS or show the image of revered figure Ho Chi Minh. It is quite interesting to note that their is a shop in Saigon entitled "Old Propaganda Posters" - an attempt to pretend the posters are anything else would I suppose by folly. And these posters are really quite cool. Most date back from the Vietnamese struggle against the American's and encourage fighters to be brave or citizens to back up the country by working hard.

Let us not pretend that we in the west are free of copying and piracy. If you are reading this, you are online, and you must surely be aware of the ever growing mp3 collections on the hard drives of computer users everywhere.

Not me however. I've just come from Saigon...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The trouble with these weblogs is that everybody can see what a lazy boy I am.


Saturday, July 31, 2004

It was a funny feeling. I came out of the airport which serves Ho Chi Minh City, negotiated a taxi ride to the travellers area Pham Ngu Lao, and rode through the bustling streets of south Vietnam with relative joy in my heart. Why?

I had come from Sydney, a clean, accesable, English-speaking western city, with countless more services and western pleasures than anywhere in Vietnam. In HCMC I would face heat, humidity, thunderstorms, countless hawkers approaching me in an attempt to flog books, lighters, hammoks, chewing gum, moto rides etc etc etc, language difficulties, various biting insects, dirty streets and so on. Yet I felt good here because unlike Sydney, here I was a big player. In Australia one is a "backpacker", lugging a big bag around in order to live in a dormitory and carefully save money. Here, I am a traveller. I live in hotel rooms and I carry a huge wad of notes around with me and I am relatively wealthy. "Relatively" is the important word here but nevertheless, to the people who live here, I am a rich man.

Which means virtually the entire city is within my financial and cultural grasp - restaraunts, shops and, in fact, transportation anywhere around Vietnam. Here I feel more liberated to do what I want than in Australia where financial constraints, business districts, and a western class system exclude activities from me as long as I have insufficient funds. Let me explain more clearly: in parts of urban Australia I would walk up quiet clean streets which consisted of buildings I could never enter. This is no different from any other western cities, however in this part of the world, as a westerner, all doors are open - even the most exclusive restaraunts and hotels.

Not Sydney.

Meanwhile I can sup a beer in the afternoon without worrying what effect such an adventure might have on my bank balance...

Sunday, July 25, 2004

I've left 1770, and very sad it was too. It is always hard to leave a place where so many friends are made. On my last night the whole town went to a deserted beach for a huge party. Although the party had little to do with me, it was a fantastic opportunity to have a last drinky with some new found friends. The scene consisted of a generator, some decks, an MC from East London who couldn't rap but who tried anyway, more 4x4 vehicles which provided the only means of entry and exit, fire jugglers, and various drunken revelry. Typically, locals would hang on to the roof rack for dear life as our 4x4 made its way back to reality. Heaven knows how none fell off. The following morning the people I made close friends with all got up early to dispose of any remaining narcotics with me and wave goodbye before my 8.30am bus out of there. They all took pictures of us outside Cool Bananas whilst I chastised myself for locking my camera away in my rucksack and missing it all. Stav was one of the picture takers - get those piccies up girl. Hopefully I'll get copies of those photos somehow.

Meanwhile, and quite marvelously, Stefan has come through and posted some piccies from Fraser Island up on his website. I don't feature particularly prominently in them, but you can espy me there, the rest of "Group B" plus the 4x4 I drove around on the huge sand island.

So back in Sydney then. To be frank, I'm not a huge fan. Sydney is very picturesque and the people are generally friendly, but it's a city which holds little interest for me. It's western - so nothing new there, it's quite pretty, but I'm not sure it offers anything exclusive maybe apart from surf, and I'd much rather surf in Noosa or Agnes Water. Which is why I'm only here briefly. Monday is Vietnam day. It will take me nine-and-a-half hours to fly to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon), and I won't leave Australian airspace until after seven of them. It's a damn big country. And I haven't seen anywhere near enough of it to be able to truly say that I know Australia; my travels took me nearly 600 miles up the east coast and that is barely half of the distance up to the north east tip - let alone into the outback and the west coast 2,000 miles away. I wanted to visit the central Australian "town" of Boulia (pop. 290) - famous for its regular UFO sightings - to see a camel racing festival. I looked on the map - directly west of me and also in Queensland! Distance: 600 miles! Fuck that then. I'd have to convince someone with a car to take me and it would them quite a while.

Boulia's well-kept sign.

So back I go to SE Asia. I've already seen Vietnam but there are a couple of places that I missed due to the dastard time constraints - Na Trang being foremost of them, plus the Chi Chi Tunnels near HCMC where I can have a tiny experience of what fighting for the Vietcong might have been like (bloody difficult is my prior estimation). Plus I get to revisit my friends Jon and Clair, and the new water slide in Damsen Park, "Black Thunder", oh yes. Then back to Thailand to see its north side, then onto the tiny country of Laos - famous only for having more bombs dropped on it by B52s during the Vietnam War than were dropped during the whole campaign of World War II. Should be good folks... back in the tropics.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Occasionally there arrives a moral dilemma for me and this weblog. I'm in a place which is small, untouristy but which is easily the best place I have visited. Do I advertise it and add to the increased talk about this place or do I help to preserve its uniqueness with silence?

Predictably of course I choose to advertise. I realise of course that presenting my argument above only adds to the mystic but I choose to keep the paragraph for reasons of style and presentation. It is the tiny Town Of 1770 and its slightly less tiny neighbour Agnes Water that I find myself writing about here. These streets contain the most sought after real estate on the east coast. Ten years ago there was no tarmaced road here; developers came to build homes and some shops and they undoubtedly now preside over even larger bank account as a result. House prrices are high, although mid-price homes have gone down. Of course compared to London, houe costs are pathetically small, and the area fantastically more pleasant. A sprinkling of travellers are now finding themselves surrounded by a few hundred residents, a variety of beaches - most deserted, fields of kangaroos, a mainificent selection of the best bits of the Great Barrier Reef and staff intent on providing increasingly interesting times. Seven of the top ten reefs, according to Lonely Planet, are based here.
The place to stay is called Cool Bananas - you'll make plenty of friends here and you'll always have something to do. Agnes Water/1770 has a number of characters who are friendly and interesting, one is Rod who runs the Street Beat Scooter Co. If you come here, do say hello. Rod also runs the free 4x4 trip from Cool Bananas every morning at 11am where one will be escorted up dirt tracks, to empty beaches and to places of interest. Everyday is a new adventure and their seems to be an extra excitement about spending time in a place that is so young but seems to hold so much promise. "The next Noosa", "the next Byron Bay", are terms I've heard - but for me this is the first "Agnes Water". As it gains popularity I wonder how it will fare; as part of its attraction is it's cosiness. No wonder then that many of the people I have met here have stayed for far longer than they originally intended.

Yesterday I took a boat into the ocean to snorkel around Fitzroy Reef Lagoon....

Fitzroy Reef.

Our boat was the only one that operated at this huge reef - the second largest of its kind in the world, and licenses to see it are only granted to two boats, one of which operates elsewhere. We saw turtles, dolphins, thousands of fish, dolphins, and the best of all two huge humpback whales. They stopped the boat and they, being huge and incapable of being intimidated came to investigate us. A close pass and they were huge! Even the guides on the boat were amazed and jubilant.

Before all of these malarky I had been at Fraser Island - the biggest sand island in the world, containing fresh-water lakes, rain forests, cliffs, sand dunes, the clearest views of the southern sky I've seen and miles of beach. All in all: marvelous. Placed with a group of ten and given a 4x4 car, tents, food, various other camping equipment and a terse set of instructions we had a great time driving up beaches and up dirt tracks. Well actually two of us did, the others had to sit and say their prayers.

Lake Wabby, Fraser Island. The sand blow on the left presented a huge and magnificent playing field.

I was a bit concerned about driving what was tantamount to a van around challenging and treacherous conditions and a wall of accident photos in the nearby "Hotel" (or pub to the rest of the English speaking world) didn't help - but actually it was the proverbial piece of piss.

We had what was referred to by others in a different car "the good group." Damn straight.

We had the loudest stereo. But it's the people that always make it. Here are the websites for two of my group.....



Tibo's is in French, Stephan's in Dutch. Use Babel Fish at the bottom of the left hand bar to translate. Which will be exciting for you.

It was the tip of Fraser Island which Captain Cook sailed past and lost Australia. He had to turn east to rediscover it and he hit 1770 - hence it's odd name.

All in all then, quite a couple of weeks. Australia has gotten better and better.

Well done to it and all that.

Friday, July 02, 2004

I had a great time in Byron Bay but it is always important to keep rolling. So up I traveled towards the sun. That's north in this part of the world - and eventually a small town called Noosa. And very nice it is too. I was recommended a place called Dolphins, but it was full when I arrived so I had to settle for a couple of nights at the local YHA. Noosa's YHA is supposedly one of the best around; it's a lovely building and the staff are friendly. But I have to say one thing about YHA's - they seem to be full of weirdos. Not everyone of course, but far too many people who are too afraid to try any other backpacking resorts. I shared a room with a guy who was visiting for ONE DAY - and as a result of this decision faced a 16 hour bus ride. And a middle aged South Taiwanese couple who presumably hadn't slept together in months since they were sharing dorms with others throughout their trip. Don't get me wrong - lovely people, but not really the sort I want to be meeting...

Some part of Noosa no doubt.

Within half an hour of getting to Noosa however I had befriended a couple of local lads. I was eating dinner in the YHA - hungry after my bus ride from Byron Bay and at the bar (the cheapest in town, hence their presence) I espied words on the back of a t-shirt:

Put on the mask and dance for daddy.

I had to know. I finished my food and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Alright mate? Is that a Tomahawk t-shirt?"



And the conversation went on from there. His name was Chris; his equally cool mate Ryan. We spoke of Faith No More, Mr Bungle and Fantomas - the last two bands obscure enough to create a connection with anybody one meets who also knows of them. I name-dropped Secret Chiefs 3 - that impressed them, although I know little about their music except from a time when my mate Chris played them to me. We rocked the YHA by insisting they play the Faith No More songs The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies and their collaboration with Sparks This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both Of Us. The last the boys had never even heard of, and they loved it so much they immediately invited me back to theirs for a drink and some music listening. I cursed the oddity of such a place as the YHA for being so dull yet providing me with such generous and friendly natives.

Chris and Ryan also had an eight track recorder, two guitars, a bass guitar, keyboard and PC with various music software. The next day we made a tune. It sounded okay, but bits were out of tune. It involved us shouting Australian nursery rhymes down a microphone. I utilised their X-box and N64. It felt like home. Their coffee table had the same paraphenalia that mine did when I lived in Elephant and Castle and in Camden with some friends. Marvelous.

Arthur Thacker - the funniest man since Bill Hicks found on the Internet alive and well!!!

And more genius here...

Note folks: Arthur has a bit of a potty mouth. The crazy fucker.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

I took a plane from Sydney on Tuesday to Byron Bay. To my relative delight I discovered I would be flying by a propeller-driven aircraft which meant low altitude and another (albeit not amazing) first for this blogger. It was a fifty seater - there were about 35 passengers. And the flight was a fantastic experience. The start of the flight was over Sydney and the harbor looked terrific from the air. I saw the northern beach town of Manly where I spent much of my time and I proceeded to followed my map as the plane flew up the East Coast towards Byron Bay - a gorgeous town half way up the coast and the most easterly point of mainland Oz.

Byron Bay - at least a tiny bit of it; with a stupid tree in the foreground.

It's quite touristy here but very pleasant nevertheless. It does seem that the traveling scene is quite different here than it is in South East Asia. For a start there are a damn sight more English people here (although there were still many in Asia) and the travelers seem to be younger and more inclined to drink beer and attempt to have sex with members of the opposite sex. Here you'll meet far more horny eighteen year old boys looking for some sexual adventure than anywhere else in the known world (except Ibiza probably).

So I've got to grips with Australian culture. It took me about three minutes. Shit, shit, shit television; meaty foods; beer; sport; and a love of life - which all the previous things in the list point to. Bad television is a sign that the population are actually doing things rather than watching the box, so that's good. It's easy to travel here, the most difficult thing is that there is too much to choose from. Everywhere can be found countless brochures, magazines, books and leaflets advertising methods of travel and things to do. Everybody has tips on where I should go. I just want to see a bloody kangaroo and a koala. That's it.

And the football. I must see all the football...

Hero's come in all shapes and sizes...

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Australia really is a strange country. Because it is an island continent that has been seperated from the rest of the world for millions of years, it has spawned its own branches of evolution that have created plants and animals that are alien to the rest of the world. European colonisation has bought with it much foreign life (and therefore familiar to me); but merely strolling around even a major metropolis like Sydney has caused me much nature-related consternation. The plants are weird, the trees even odder, and there seems to be a completely different animal hierarchy than what I am used to. There are these huge and fat long beaked birds waddling around the city called White Ibis'...

The Australian White Ibis

....and odd odd odd looking trees....
The Queensland Bottle Tree. Stupid tree.

Sydney is a very beautiful city, although the traffic lights have ridiculous sounding pedestrian crossings, pubs are called 'Hotels' although few actually rent out rooms and the prices here are extremely expensive . So much so that I wonder how much time I dare spend here before flying back to the cheapy cheap south-east Asia. The meat pie looms large here and nationalism is strong. I have to say the "100% Australian Owned and Managed" signs on some shops are disturbing to say the least but in general Ausralians are extremely friendly and approachable.

One of my last nights in bangkok was an interesting one. A Canadian chap I was travelling with from Cambodia for a couple of weeks idioticaly accepted the invitation to smoke a joint whilst in the Khao San Road area. Which is an idea even more stupid than Australia's animals and fauna. The Thai government has really been cracking down hard on drugs (overdoing it in fact, much to the consternation of the world's civil rights groups) and being caught in posession of even a trace of narcotics of any kind brings with it a long spell in a dark and unpleasant prison, followed by deportation and a criminal record. And so Brandon (for that is his name) was inevitably arrested with spliff in hand and marched down to the local police station. I saw the police surrounding Brandon and I followed them as he got taken to the station along with a couple of other concerned friends. But Brandon was a fortunate boy as members of the International Red Cross happened to be drinking at the pub and witnessed the whole thing. One of them came down to ensure things were conducted properly and to help Brandon say the right things. In the end I had to run off to a local 7-11 (great places - air conditioning and massive Squishys for only 20 bhat) to buy a bottle of whisky for the coppers. Classic SE Asian bribary.

Lucky Canadian git.

Thinking about going to Byron Bay next - but must be careful regarding the Euro 2004 fixture list.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

I don't have access to Photoshop, nor do I have any of the patience or time required to change the banner at the top of this page. Which is a bit of a bummer because I'm leaving to fly to Australia tomorrow and that is not, strictly speaking, or actually in any sense whatsoever, in the tropics.

I have departed from Cambodia now and I am currently writing from Bangkok. My last stop before entering Thailand again was at the town of Siem Reap, situated near the Temples of Angkor which is easily the most amazing place I have ever visited. My second World Heritage Site, the Temples are situated in a beautiful forested archeological park about 400 square kilometers in size. The temples are the remains of structures built between the 9th and the 15th century and include Angkor Wat - the world's largest religious building:

A rather fetching picture of Angkor Wat

Some temples are in a better state than others, but all are covered with exquisite carvings and intricate patterns. I spent three days exploring the temples - and I felt like Indiana Jones. In fact the Indiana Jones inspired film Tomb Raider used most people's favourite temple Ta Phrom. Why should this be so?

Here's an example:

Small bit of Ta Phrom

The archaeologists discovered the site of the temples in the first half of the twentieth century and since then have undertaken a massive clearance and restoration project. However they decided to leave Ta Phrom of an example of what the jungle had done to the temples over the many centuries. So they half cleared it and left some amazing examples of wood clasping stone. I wondered around this site open mouthed.

During my time in Siem Reap I also visited the Aki Ra Landmine Museum which was the most fascinating museum I have ever been to. Please, please, please take some time to read Aki Ra's story. I have used a lot of what might appear to be hyperbole in this entry but I assure you I have chosen my words very carefully. And without exaggeration I also tell you that his story will leave you in utter amazement:

My Story - Aki Ra

Aki Ra still clears mines and uses them to fill his museum, but since his website was written the Cambodian government has confiscated his metal detectorand has tried various times to shut him down. Not being an NGO (although trying to secure NGO status), Aki Ra is not permitted by law to clear mines - he currently uses a spade tied to the end of a long stick. Whilst NGO's clear mines at an agonisingly slow pace and at the cost of $500 per mine, Aki Ra has been clearing mines quickly and very cheaply. His museum is filled with various mines he has recovered and made safe, plus bombs dropped by US planes on Cambodia (very, very heavy) and various other miscellany.

The museum survives on donations and Aki Ra uses the money to educate local farmers about the dangers of mines and to look after orphan children who have been the victims of mines themselves. What is most striking about the issue of mines is that both sides laid them and victims would be as likely to get injured by mines laid by their own side as those placed by the other - although the Americans also laid many mines in Eastern Cambodia when they secretly bought the Vietnam War west over the Vietnamese border. The US' actions during this period and their indifference to anything except their own ends is largely, if not entirely, responsible for the horrors that Cambodia suffered after the US withdrawl from the region. The American's called Cambodia their 'sideshow' - yet their interference with the country's entire infrastructure had direct consequences that are still being felt to this day. I'm currently reading a history book regarding Cambodia and the US' involvement there. I'm almost ripping my hair out with anger at what I have been learning. I promised myself I wouldn't write about this until I finished reading the whole book, so more about this next time....

Sunday, May 30, 2004

In accordance with the fundamentally cyclical nature of travellers everywhere I travelled to the south coast of Cambodia last week and a town entitled Sihanoukville. I went there expecting sun, surf, white sandy beaches and interesting people.

What I saw was: MONSOON!

In a way it was a blessed relief. Phnom Penh has a kind of permanent cushion of humidity surrounding it. Every night I've spent in Cambodia's capital has featured a thunderstorm on the horizon but never above my head. So to travel to underneath the storms was nice in that I could sit, in one place, and not find myself drenched in my own sweat. In Sihanoukville I soaked up the weather like a person used to the cold might soak up the sun. I had gone to the coast and I was rain bathing. It was not what I had expected but that was just fine.

I do like Cambodia; the people here are so chilled out. As you might know if you have been following my travels, I have come here via Vietnam. In Vietnam, if a local approaches a tourist (us Westerners stick out somewhat) with goods or a service to sell and receives the answer "no", that salesperson would continue to follow you. I get the impression that "no" is seen as a bartering step, meaning "yes, but not at tht price". Here in Cambodia, "no" means "no" - which as a tourist is much more pleasant. While Vietnam could feel seedy and with a few dodgy characters, Cambodia has none of that. Even the chaps at the shooting range - where you might expect it to be a bit dodgy - were the salt of the Earth. I'll be sad to leave here as the pace of life is so relaxed and the people so happy, even despite the poverty here and the recent history of this country.

Seventy five per cent of the Cambodian population is under 25. The future of this country will rest almost entirly with this generation of kids; and it looks to my untrained eye like the future will be alright. There appears to be no adolescent revolution against the older generation, the teenagers are savvy, clever and friendly; and the society is increasingly liberal and content (although some parts of the culture is conservative, like attitudes towards couples kissing in public, or nudity - definitely both frowned upon, I know this due to books rather than any bad experiences).

Tomorrow I leave Phnom Penh (again) to travel north to Siem Reap and the site of the most furious period of temple construction anywhere. This includes Angkor Wat, the biggest religious building in the world. Angkor Beer meanwhile is the most cheap and delicious beer in the world. 28 pence per glass? Yes please...

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Here I am in possibly the world's hugest adult adventure playground. Not that that is necessarily a good thing. Somewhere in this land resides Gary Glitter including his desire for young children - and I bet he can get them here too. Not that I've seen any of that sort of thing, but the law here is just a word - actually I don't even know if there is a Khmer word for 'law'. Anyway, should one drive down the wrong side of the road at night with your headlights switched off and a huge reefer billowing pungent smoke everywhere, you might solicit a smiling wave from the police - but probably not any hassle. The pizza restaurants here serve "happy" pizzas. Pizzas are inanimate so as such aren't happy, but the consumers of them certainly will be after half-an-hour or so...

Now most politicians might have you believe that such a situation is a recipe for crime, murder and general mayhem; however Phnom Penh is a laid back and friendly city where the locals smile and say hello but occasionally try to dislodge monkeys from the trees around Wat Phnom by shaking the trees and laughing. Which isn't very nice. But at least they aren't shooting each other which is pretty good news for any philosophical anarchists as the sheer amount of weaponry left over from the years of the Khmer Rouge is huge (so I'm told).

Phnom Penh in all its sprawling glory

The average wage here for many is $20 a month so some creative military types have used that military surplus to their advantage by setting up shooting ranges for tourists to try hand guns, M15s, Rocket Propelled Grenades, and various other miscellaneous weaponry. I can't remember the prices but one chap who has already visited it told me that RPGs are $200 and that the cow is an extra $50... Shocking. I've yet to meet anyone who thinks that murdering a cow or chicken for a laugh is actually funny or fun - but I don't speak to the hunting types who populate Britain's countryside. The most visited range is near the Killing Fields - and anyone who's seen that cannot possibly relish the idea of bloodlust. I will take in this horrible scene of human suffering on Monday or Tuesday.

Backed by the Chinese and the Thais, the Khmer Rouge murdered two million Cambodians in a period of radical Communism starting from 1975 until 1978. In Cambodia in 1975, Pol Pot declared the calendar should start again at year zero. If one spoke a foreign language or even wore glasses you would be for the chop. Which is almost literally true as the cost of the bullets was beginning to get too costly. Babies would frequently get bludgeoned to death because they were not born into a peasant family. Thankfully the Vietnamese invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge at the end of 1978. And so bitter were the Americans towards the Vietnamese that they actually helped the most extreme Communists in world history maintain a guerilla war through the eighties merely because it was Vietnam who had brought it all down. The British backed the Americans through all this of course, and the Chinese as usual were throwing money towards the cause of evil as well.

Elections did not return to Cambodia until 1993 and the Khmer Rouge did not disappear until as recently as 1998 with the death of Pol Pot. Murders from the years of Pol Pot are estimated to be as high as three-and-a-half million. Cambodia is now an up and coming country, which is youth dominated and which wears a smile. It is really uplifting to see the people getting back onto their feet and enjoying life. That is why Phnom Penh is one of the most exciting places I have ever been to.