Thursday, 1 March 2012

India - Kolkata

It is difficult to explain quite how comprehensive the change was coming into India after 3 months in S.E Asia, but believe me it was pretty much all encompassing. You instantly notice that there is more colour, more noise (didn't think it was possible), more spirit and most of all, ALOT more mustaches. The food is different, the smells are different and even the people travelling here are different. They tend to have more facial hair and more loose fitting cotton garments  but the best way I can demonstrate the difference is that they are the kind of travelers who will be heard saying "during my time in India." People who went to Thailand would say "when I was in Thailand....". I think they feel that saying "during my time" makes whatever they were doing deeply profound. Anyway, lets have more on the colours.

There was a lively feel to Kolkata from the moment we landed in the airport and it seemed everybody was eager to get you involved in some sort of conversation, which after Vietnam was a welcome change. Another thing to note is that these conversations are conducted in nearly perfect English, proving that England's years as an Imperial power here have had a lasting impact. In fact, everywhere you look in Kolkata you can see remnants of England's rule, from the architecture, place names, tea and biscuits lining the road side through to the Victoria Memorial which we saw whilst we were there.

The memorial acts as a museum, covering the history of the Empire and its demise, and whilst I found this interesting there was just too much information to take in all at once.

Yes, unfortunately for Nat, I found a record stall just round the corner from our hostel and spent an afternoon trying to find Bollywood soundtracks that were in half decent nick whilst inhaling more than my fair share of dust. It was all worthwhile though as I found these gems.

Its all about the Hindi Saturday Night Fever vibes on the top left, just a shame I can't listen to em for months.

For Valentines day we took a walk round a graveyard where English dignitaries were buried. I know what your thinking, "good work Casanova" but I did get a Red Rose to up the romance ante. We were only a Barry White soundtrack away from nailing it.

Instead we got an eerie soundtrack of crows hovering and squawking all around us.

We also went to the planetarium but the dim lights and soothing talk about stars was all too much and we both dozed off about 5 minutes in. 

The last thing of note in Kolkata was our trip to the temple of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of time, change and sometimes violence. It is hard to get your head around Hindu deities as there are so many, they interchange and have different incarnations and characteristics. At the the temple you join a gathering crowd who wait until the door is opened, revealing the image you see above and rush to see it or provide an offering to it. After this visit we made our way to the train station where we would depart to Varanasi. Before the 14 hour overnight journey, I learnt a valuable lesson, which is not to trust meat everywhere you go. Nat had warned me as much and since arriving in India my diet had been heavy on the chickpeas and completely lacking in protein. I felt like my appetite wasn't being satisfied so I ignored the advice and ordered myself a chicken curry. Lets just say that a 14 hour train journey wasn't the place to find out the perils of eating meat and since then I have only tried it one more time, from a place that guaranteed the quality of its produce. As I write, i've been in India for almost 3 weeks and have eaten meat twice and not drank a drop of alcohol. I'm pretty much doing a veggie detox without ever signing up for it.

Monday, 27 February 2012

India is imminent.....

And this is my soundtrack.

Assorted Asian Amusement.....

When white supremacy is losing popularity it's time to diversify. "Lynchings not your cup of tea? Well try our extensive range of spa treatments."

No, No, No.

Because nothing says elegant quite like astroturf.

Separated at birth......


Dead mature.

South East Asia (and Japan) in lists..


Difficult to narrow it down to 5 but we agreed on the following........................

1. Kyoto - Tokyo was breathtaking and a little unreal but Kyoto was the real gem in japan with its more traditional and laid back feel. 
2. Siem Reap -  In Cambodia was charming, the temples of Angkor fascinating and Jimmy's School kept us there much longer than planned.
3. Chiang Mai -  In the North of Thailand was a top little city with loads to see and do.
4. Bukit Lawang - If we weren't in the jungle we were swimming or washing our clothes in the river of this tranquil little village in Sumatra.
5. Pai - Massages, hot springs, waterfalls, rolling hills. Need I say anymore?


Thailand wins this one hands down but we will mix it up a bit to mention some Cambodian specialities...

1. Kang Hung Lay - This nearly brought my post NYE, fragile self to tears in Chiang Mai. The slow cooked pork was almost like a Chicken Run dinner and unlike any other Thai food due to its Burmese influences.
2. Amok - If i'm being lazy i'd say its like a Cambodian version of a Green Curry, served in a hollowed out coconut. However it has its own flavours and is distinctly different so ignore the first bit.
3. Lok Lak/Luc Lac - Cambodia is the biggest producer of pepper in the world and they make the most of it it here with some seriously peppery beef with tomoatos and rice.
4. Red/Green curry - Thai classic but well worth a mention along with Pad Thais, Thai Fishcakes and Papaya Salads.
5. Rambutan Fruit - First tried this funky, lychee-ish fruit in the jungle of Bukit Lawang but it re-appeared time and time again.

Special mention has to go to Gyoza dumpling in Japan which were already a firm favourite before coming away.


1. Mens bare midriffs are common - I think it is to show how much you are chilling but never actually confirmed this. Whatever it is its rife.
2. Getting things wrong is funny -  I didn't live down claiming that Charlotte, and not Scarlet red was a colour and Nat asking if I was going to throw the sock and not towel in on the 20" Pizza challenge got a giggle.
3. Vaguely ethnic and garish garms are not cool -  And they don't ingratiate you with the locals, no matter how much you have deluded yourself.
4. No one walks - And thought we were crazy to even walk a couple of miles. I think this is because literally everyone has a moped. I saw everything from a pile of King Size mattresses to a family of 6 on said mopeds too.
5. Religious people love us - The Brahman in Siem Reap loved us and this Buddhist and his posse approached us out of a crowd in Angkor to give us some free CDs and books after we listened in to his prayer about the impermanence of humans.

On a side note, eggs are everywhere and in every plausible form, you just can't escape them. Angry Birds also seems to have taken over and is much, much more than an iPhone game. You can get every conceivable piece of Angry Birds merchandise but these guys were Nat's faves.


1. 7/11 - In all seriousness this was a godsend with cheap noodles, cakes and ice lollies keeping our spending in check.
2. The Food - As you can see from before, we got some belting feeds.
3. Thai Markets - Even if your not buying anything going to one is an experience in itself.
4. The Sounds - Music and noise of some sort was everywhere around us and kept the ears entertained if a little battered at times.
5. Jimmy's School  - And all the characters there.


1. Public Buses - Not that we think India is going to be any less rowdy, the escape from dodgy dance music and beeping horns will be welcome even if it is only fleeting.
2. Russians on resort beaches - An odd, odd creature indeed with all the etiquette of a screaming kid.
3. Being blagged - Vietnam, take your bow.
4. The Food - For every nice meal there was also the prospect of a carteliege soup or similar shocker from a street food stand.
5. Vietnam - Do you think we have held a grudge much? Forgive and Forget ey? Maybe not. My Open Letter to Vietnam looks a lot like this...


Aside from Bob Marley and Jack Johnson these classics kept hitting the airwaves............

1. Black Eyed Peas - Time of My Life
2. Diana King - Shy Guy
3. Big Mountain -  Baby, I Love Your Way
4. Celine Dion - Asian men, it seems, love a woman crooner and Celine was never far away with more than one person having the Titanic theme tune on their phones.
5. Toni Braxton - Un-Break My Heart

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Soundtrack to Vietnam.....

Pretty opposite ends of the spectrum but the music I remember listening to in Vietnam was a playlist featuring Soul 7"s that I am searching for. I have actually crossed a couple of the want list whilst away (I have so much of a problem that i'm still buying records from India) but one that is eluding me is this classic by Carl Carlton. If you ever spot this or own it give it to me please.

I also found Skunk Anansie on Nat's iPod (remember them) and we rinsed some of their tunes on the long bus journeys.

Friday, 24 February 2012


In an attempt to prevent this post from becoming paragraph after paragraph of endless vitriol I am going to vent my spleen as concisely as possible and then move on to telling you how we spent our time in Vietnam. Suffice to say at this juncture, our 3 weeks travelling from Saigon in the South to Hanoi, neighbouring China in the North, was our least favourite leg of the trip so far. However this doesn’t mean it wasn’t without its highlights and experiences, it just means that these highlights and experiences were few and far between and punctuated too frequently with frustration, disillusionment and cynicism.

Before arriving, I had a keen interest in the country and its history, and started off on our path with high hopes for what was in stall. Unfortunately, what I experienced did not live up to my expectations, as I was shuffled from one underwhelming sight to another and treated as a walking Pound sign (or Dollar in these ends) for people who on the whole were hard faced and unwelcoming. Like I say, there were points that with hindsight do stand out, but 3 weeks of contending everything you pay for, being lied to, stared at, harangued and talked about gets tiring in the extreme (it’s worth mentioning that this impression had been set in stone before we returned to Bangkok to find the £150 of Thai currency we had in our luggage for Indian and Nepalese visas had been stolen whilst in Vietnam). I can’t recall how many times someone attempted to overcharge us for something and will not go on any further as many moons back I remember promising that this would be concise.


Or Ho Chi Minh City as it is also known, is a sprawling city whose indelible and encapsulating image in my brain is that of the moped (it is estimated that there are somewhere between 4 and 5 million bikes on the road). Crossing a road becomes a bit of an artform and it takes a bit of courage to throw yourself in amongst it. Sensible advice would be to give up any notion of zebra crossings meaning anything and just crack on.

Aside from dodging traffic, the highlight from Saigon was our day at the waterpark for Natalie's birthday. What better way to see in your 24th year than spending an afternoon splashing about, going on rides with names like Kamikaze that made you wonder if Vietnam has any health and safety regulations whatsoever.

We also took a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnel network, which were dug by the Viet Cong during the Vietnamese war with America. The underground tunnels were where the Communist fighters and their families would hide to escape detection and raids. Allow me to demonstrate how it works.

 Now you see me.........

Now you don't!

Before getting out to Cu Chi we stopped off at the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh. Caodaisim was formed as a religion in 1926 and brings together many different influences and schools of thought, with Cao Dai literally translating as the highest platform where God reigns. But you know how to get on wikipedia so i'll leave the rest to you.

Oh, and on a side note before I wrap this chapter up i'll tell you about our first Vietnamese misadventure in an amusement park next door to the waterpark, which we had been led to believe was home to some impressive sculptures made out of scrap material. Walking through the gates we found ourselves entering a parallel universe with old, empty rides and Disneyesque dance routines going on but not a sculpture in sight. We walked around to make sure weren't missing it only to find more eerily empty amusements, scrap heaps and a small zoo full of depressed looking animals to top it off.

Mui Ne -

In a word, RUSSIANS. Some hook up between Communist Governments and the arrival of the newly rich in Russia means that any beach resort you wind up in in S.E Asia is guaranteed to have their fair share of odd Russians parading around in speedos and garish beachware. Nothing, we found, screams out "I'm on Holiday" more than an ensemble of bright, floral and horrificaly clashing clothes resembling 90s tablecloths. To avoid this and the throngs of Aussie wind surfers, we headed a way out of town to a fishermans village which was more peaceful and much more affordable. The smell of freshly caught fish reminded me of my times in Cornish harbour towns too which was a comforting scent to have around.

In an attempt to inject some adventure into our time there we drove out to the sandunes to try our hand at a bit of dune boarding. Without any instruction on how to actually use the bit of plastic we had hired to slide down the hill, our attempts quickly descended into farce. I did once crack it and flew down the dune so fast that I almost broke my thumb trying to stop myself, but that was one attempt. What your about to see was not that occasion but one of the many failed attempts, followed by a grueling run back up a red hot incline.


Next stop was Dalat which quite quickly weighed in with more than its fair share of utterly shite "Tourist Spots". Take for instance the much fabled "Crazy House" built by Russian educated, Vietnamese architect, Dang Viet Nga. Lets not beat around the bush, its pants. It looks like Gaudi got commissioned to make a shit amusement park and just couldn't be arsed. There was nothing "fairytale" about it as promised and was just another example of guide book authors making a meal out of a bean. 

A brief look on its wikipedia page explained that it had started to charge people to enter and also rented rooms out at around $35 a night to alleviate some of the 30,000,000 VND debts the builder had incurred. Now that sounds pretty serious until you realise that it only amounts to 1,000 English Pounds and much more than that seems to have been pumped into some work that Dang has been getting done on herself. Pictures of her as a student were almost unreconisable from her more recent portraits. Now I wouldn't mind funding her little vanity project so much if she had actually managed to finish the building she started in 1990, but the further you looked around, the more apparent it was that she had given up and started her new rebuilding project. Crrrrraaazzzzzzzzyyyyyy!

Next up on our tour of Dalat was one of the millons of waterfalls you are implored to check out. What treats did we have in stall here then?

Ah, you know, just the usual, a horse painted as a zebra, a waterfall with so much scum it looked like it had been attached to local sewage works and the obvious shit sculptures of Red Indians dotted about the place. We did make a whole army of fans though who insisted on all having their photos taken with us and showed us around the rest of the million lakes and waterfalls for the day.

One waterfall had a free fall rollercoaster down to it that you controlled yourself with a lever break system but the camera died as I was filming my ride on it so you can't see brief interlude of enjoyment i'm afraid.

This had all got too much of a bizarre joke for me as it was so far removed from the Vietnam I expected. In a attempt to save the trip we booked a 3 day motorbike trip through the Central Highland with an outfit called Easy Riders. They promised good English speaking guides and insight into Vietnam you wouldn't get anywhere else. Tired and downhearted, we agreed to the asking price and got ready to set off.

The Central Highlands - 

The first thing I learnt on my educational bike ride through the Vietnamese countryside was that the promise of English speaking tour guides wasn't necessarily wholly truthful. Nat's driver could get by and explain the essentials whereas mine replied to any questions with a nod and enthusiastic "Yes!". Once I got over the initial disappointment and changed my expectations of the trip, my driver (Hung) became one of the highlights of the 3 days on the road. One thing we have noticed from our time away is that some of the inhabitants of Islands and Mountain towns some times lead you to wonder about the strength of gene pools in said areas. Hung was all big hands, big eyes and a big heart but a wee bit simple if we are totally honest. He took to squeezing my thighs at regular intervals on the journey and called me nearly every name under the sun before settling for Towan on day 2 ("Towan are you hungry?" and "Towan are you tired?" being his two conversation starters). Like I say, I was a bit let down that the trip wasn't going to be as informative as I had hoped but it was nice to get away from Zebra Horses and hustlers for a few days and do nothing but takes the views in. 

Some of the things we saw were - 

Ferrets that ate coffee beans to then shit them out and be sold on at massive mark ups. Then in the same building we tried some Rice Whiskey that burnt your throat. Bit much for 10am.

No. Really? A Waterfall.

And a temple?

A floating fishing village.

A massive snake.

A war memorial.

A traditional house of the Minority mountain people. One thing I did learn was that Vietnam has 54 different minority ethnic groups from all over Asia.

An old Vietcong bridge.

A hot spring where we also met some locals who fed us beer and sang songs at our request.

And yes, ANOTHER waterfall with Ol' Hung in the background.

The last stretch of the tour from the mountains to the coast at Nha Trang was pretty epic and it was good to end on a high. The following video really doesn't capture the scenery but have a look if you fancy anyway.

My favourite part of the trip was seeing the Communist propaganda posters scattered around the countryside. The sense of confusion was palpable when I kept asking our drivers to stop when we passed one so I could snap it but they did anyway. Unfortunately my plans to have an album of sun bleached, aging billboards to remember Vietnam by came undone when another camera (this time Nat's film camera) malfunctioned and didn't tell us when the film had run out. This gives you an idea of what i'm talking about though.

Hoi An -

A lovely little traditional looking town by the river where we saw in Tet, or Vietnamese New Year. Nice to ride a bike around, take a boat trip down the river or just potter.  At New Year they lined the river with glowing lantern sculptures and set out a fair of rubbish games for people to enjoy.

Saved our personal favourite til the end for you there. Have you ever seen a dragon look so camp and playful? Everyone was in pretty high spirits for Tet and this video clip really captures it all perfectly. Top marks for the tunes and extra points for the use of props i'd say.

Did you think I was being unnecessarily mean about the fair games before? If so, check this...................

I love how someone has obviously said "I'm not sure the bottle of Coke on its own is a lucrative enough prize. Get old boy to strap a bottle of water to it." Simple as that really. Sorted.

From Hoi An we caught possibly the least relaxing bus yet to Danang where we would catch a train on to Hanoi. We have dealt with all sorts of madness on public buses but the horn happy driver of this one topped it all. Below is a 1.30 minute taster of what we dealt with for an hour or so.

Hanoi -

We arrived in Hanoi at 3am after 21 hours sat on hard wooden benches with nowhere to stay.

We killed a couple of hours drinking Vietnamese Coffee and eating Pringles before walking to town to see if any hostels were open. We arrived in the hostel district around 5.30, by which time the coffee and pringles had worked their way through my bowels and the kids most certainly had to be dropped off at the pool. Just my luck then that the streets were empty and had no signs of anyone stirring for a little while. In my hunt for a public toilet we passed a Cathedral and Nat suggested we tried in there as it seemed like it was open and that "they can't turn you away, thats the deal". We snuck in to find a morning mass under way but no toilets in sight. I sat down and listened to the service but I have to say it is quite difficult to show the right amount of reverence or connection to a higher spiritual plane when you are touching cloth.

Hanoi was actually one of our favourite parts of Vietnam but this was probably because it was pretty much a European city so no bonus points there. We could get Kebabs from street vendors and walk around a lake. We were reminded how at home we felt in seasons after nearly 3 months in the tropics. It was so cold that I had to buy a wooly hat and wear layers in bed as you could see your breath in most hostel rooms. I couldn't help but be reminded of the classic Bill Hicks sketch about smokers passing out in cold weather because they don't know when to stop exhaling.

I had fun looking around Communist Poster shops and we went to see the Water Puppet show which was so good i'm going to include 2 songs from it.

We also went to the a temple where I sat looking at an empty stage for an hour as I had been told there was going to be a traditional music concert taking place.

This never transpired but outside in the courtyard the Tet celebrations were still in full flow.

On my hunt for a shop that reportedly sold old vinyl we stopped off to get a bite to eat. After our meal we were called over to a table of Vietnamese men who bought us a beer and dished us up bowls full of food despite our prostestation. After this they broke out the Russian Vodka and pretty much filled our shot glasses every time there was a problem with communication, which was pretty often. It turns out that your first customers after re-opening after New Year are your lucky customers and it is traditional to give them such treatment. When the bottle of vodka was done and we had been invited to their party a few days later, we hit the streets to find our way home only to find ourselves at an establishment serving 15p beers, chewing the ears off a poor couple who politely nodded as we drunkenly rambled anything that came into our heads. I don't think we were that bad as they agreed to meet us for a drink later but I still cringe a little bit when I think of that afternoon.

Oh, I almost forgot that we popped into Fanny for a wee sorbet too.

Ha Long Bay (Sponsored by Sacombank)

Recently voted as one of the 7 wonders of the natural world, Ha Long was supposed to be Vietnam's saving grace. Oh what massive let down that was, it turned out to be further proof of Vietnam's shit approach to tourism. It is literally impossible to do anything for yourself, I don't know if this is a Communist influence on restricting  freedom but we weren't keen on paying somewhere in the region of  $100 for a tour and tried to bypass the middle man and do it ourselves. To cut a long story short we had stress and hassle at every point and didn't save much money trying to do things for ourselves. Oh and the visibility was awful. Result.

After being taken round a cheaply lit cave and told that the rock formations definitely looked like animals and gods (utter nonsense), we were afforded rare moment of excitement as we escaped our boat to explore on our own in a Kayak. The exploring was limited to half an hour so us and a similarly disillusioned Aussie by the name of Edward splashed away to a rock and back

Loads of other rubbish stuff happened but i've had my fill of berating Vietnam. If you want to hear me and Nat rant for half an hour like we have to anyone who will listen (including a poor Vietnamese kid who got it both barrels in a Bangkok bar) feel free to call.