Posted in travel

Back to Bali

My stay in the Perhentians was thoroughly enjoyable, yet it was somehow not difficult to say goodbye. When the time came, after only four days, I felt privileged to have seen such a magnificent part of the world. But staying there four days was enough – sticking around longer would’ve given me no greater experience of the islands. It is a small place, and easy to get a feel for in a short time.

I took the fast boat back to the mainland at 8am and then a coach from Kuala Besut to Kuala Lumpur – two towns on opposite ends of the peninsula, and opposites in a great many other ways, too. I was lucky to have caught the bus at all… I’d been walking in the wrong direction and a taxi driver offered to take me to the station for free. The bus was the most luxurious I’ve ever seen, with huge reclining seats and reasonably fast Wi-Fi. It was almost empty, but a man sitting diagonally from me managed to spoil my journey somewhat. He had a giant hole in his right foot, which he spent most of the journey picking and sniffing and eventually chewing. The bus rolled along the spine of peninsular Malaysia, huge rocky formations shooting vertically up from the jungle into the skies on either side, yet it was hard to enjoy the view while an old man ate his own foot just in front of me.

I’d been told the trip to Kuala Lumpur would take only six hours, but it took almost nine. On the way, I managed to book a flight to Bali, in Indonesia, and a night in a hostel with a cheap airport pickup. I rushed to the airport to catch my flight, but it was delayed. Worse, my flight was with Air Asia – I’d booked on a Chinese app and hadn’t realized. Air Asia is my least favourite airline and the reason for that is somewhat related to the fact that when I checked in I had to pay extra for my luggage, making this budget flight not so cheap.

After an extremely bumpy flight, the plane landed at Denpasar airport at around midnight and I was pleasantly surprised that I was given a visa exemption. Last time I’d visited it had cost me $25 for a visa on arrival, and everything I read online said that was still the case. I strutted through immigration feeling very pleased by this turn of events.

Unfortunately, at customs, I was pulled aside and thoroughly searched and interrogated for a long, difficult time. A strange man with a fake friendly persona went through everything I owned, asked me weird pseudo-casual questions, and went as far as to swab my fingernails in an effort, evidently, to prove I was some sort of international drug smuggler. This was particularly frightening, as in Indonesia being found guilty would land you a minimum twenty years in prison, and more likely a short stint in front of the firing squad. My paranoia grew as the interrogation dragged on, and I became convinced that someone had planted something in my backpack during the bus ride, and the authorities had somehow been tipped off…

Of course, given that I am no drug smuggler, I was reluctantly turned loose around two o’clock, feeling shaken and irritated. Thankfully, my driver was still waiting, and soon we were at Gandhi Hostel, in the middle of Denpasar. I had planned on setting off for Lombok the following morning, but it was three o’clock when I got to the hostel, and I didn’t fancy setting my alarm for two hours later… The hostel owners were outrageously friendly and, although very small and basic, I was thoroughly impressed by Gandhi Hostel during my short stay.

In the morning, I rented a motorcycle from Putri, the woman in charge, and set off for the north of the island. In 2009 I explored Bali for a week or so, and saw most of the well-known tourist spots. Bali had never been someplace I wanted to return – not that I disliked it, but it’s a bit touristy for my tastes, and it had only gotten worse in the past seven years. However, with a day to kill, I thought I’d take a look around from the vantage point of a little scooter, hopefully exploring some lesser-visited places, and getting away from the crowds.

I set off north, through Ubud, and then veered northwest along a circuitous route through the countryside toward Mount Kintamani. The traffic in the south of Bali is nothing short of horrendous. Cars and bikes seem to move frantically, yet get nowhere fast. It is slow and frustrating, yet at the same time incredibly dangerous. All the way to Ubud it was like this, and the short trip took around an hour. Beyond Ubud, I deliberately kept to the smallest roads, and gained some freedom and distance from the oppressive traffic.

Bali is incredibly mountainous, and the roads, while in mostly good condition, feel like off-road tracks, going up and down steep slopes through the jungles and rice paddies. Eventually, I joined a larger road when it had come far enough north to be relatively free of traffic, and was able to open the bike up, heading uphill at great speeds, past the unique Balinese red brick walls towards the volcano.

When I reached the rim of the crater containing Lake Batur I stopped here and there to soak in the view. Sadly, like most of Bali, tourism is rampant, and it is hard to enjoy the spectacular sights because every vantage point is staked out by vendors. Still, there were perfect blue skies and the scenery at this part of the island is incredible. Mount Kintamani was mostly steeped in clouds, but at times the cover broke to reveal the great volcano, which last erupted some sixteen years ago. The crater and the lake are surrounded by sharp green hillsides which on this day were bathed in sunlight.

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I started down the road to the lake and fortunately found a derelict building site from which I could enjoy the view unaccosted. Then I zipped down to the lakeside and drove in a long arc around water to the northern edge, just as the sun was coming down over the volcano. My map told me I could take a road up to the crater rim from here, but some locals told me it was “extreme” and “dangerous.” I liked the sound of it, but upon closer inspection it was actually far more dangerous than I imagined. I made it up only about a kilometre before very carefully driving back down, defeated by the broken, steep, dusty trail, and returning along my route around the lake.

Almost as soon as I got back to the top, a huge cloud swept in and the temperature very suddenly dropped. The sun was gone, and the moisture in the cloud, along with the elevation, made it rather chilly. All the tourists had disappeared and the businesses that catered to them were all now closed, leaving behind an eerie ghost town. I drove back to Denpasar, going past the famous rice terraces, although it was getting dark at this point, so the view was far from optimal. In Ubud I was stuck for a long time in traffic, which persisted the entire way back to the hostel, which I only managed to find with the help of GPS, taking a convoluted route through altogether far too many backroads. Driving in northern Bali can be a lot of fun… but driving in the south is an absolute nightmare.

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Back at the hostel, I booked a ferry to Gili Trawangan, near Lombok, for the next morning. I was satisfied that I didn’t need to spend any more time on Bali. It may have once been “The Island of the Gods,” but tourism has caused it to lose much of its splendour, and while it is still certainly a pleasant place, I prefer my tropical paradises to be a bit more like the Perhentians – quiet, relaxed, and with the impact of humans far less obvious on the natural surroundings. I hoped Lombok would prove to be that way, as suggested in numerous tour guides.

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Posted in travel

That’s a Moray

Or not. This is the story of a moray eel which was not a moray eel.

I’ve been afraid of moray eels as long as I can remember. It probably goes back to a childhood of being fascinated by the sea, and of hearing a story of a man having his faced ripped off by a pissed off giant eel dozens of meters under the sea.

For whatever reason, although I’ve enjoyed being in the sea all my life, the thought of moray eels in the cracks and crevices of a rock face or reef has put me on edge. Even in the past decade when I’ve actively sought out, and often found, sharks in various parts of the world, I’ve never once found myself fearing these atavistic apex predators, and yet I’m always terrified that there may be an eel nearby…

My friends in the diving world have told me that I was being ridiculous, and I believed them, but our fears are not always rational. I’m scared of spiders, too, even though I know most of them to be entirely harmless. (Having said that, I’ve been bitten by spiders many times, including one month ago when a spider in Thailand bit my arse while I sat typing an essay.)

Last week, in Malaysia, I encountered many moray eels, and although I was filled by fear and repulsion on the first instance, I began testing myself. I start swimming closer and closer, telling myself that I needed a good photo of these animals… They were all different colours and patterns, and in different habitats, yet they all moved in the same lethargic, rippling fashion. They all swung back and forth on the current ever so slightly, mouth agape, eyes alarmingly alert. But as I moved forward I began to appreciate what my diving friends had told me – that they are quite docile animals, unwilling to strike unless proved – ie you stick your hand right in its face. Sure, they seemed wary of me and I didn’t doubt any of them would’ve bitten me if I’d gotten too close, but they were not threatening; they showed no interest in moving towards me.

Today I saw a black and grey moray eel partially in the open, searching for a place to hide. It was being bothered by dozens of small, electric blue fish, and seemed uncomfortable to be in the open. I followed it for a while before its posture indicated that I should get no closer, and I left.

A little later, I was in nearly the same place and I saw what appeared to be the same eel, and once again it was in the open. It moved differently, and appeared to be much smaller than the first one… so I reasoned that perhaps it was the same kind of snake – perhaps the offspring of the first one.

I followed this new eel for a while, pushing myself to get closer and closer. I was able to take several clear photos as it moved slowly across the seabed, and I swam down nearly to the bottom, satisfied that this eel was entirely passive. Perhaps, without the protection of their dark hiding places, moray eels aren’t willing to attack…

Finally, as I got right alongside, the eel buried its head in the sand. I took one final close-range photo and left the poor animal alone, not wanting to cause it any undue stress.

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That’s not a moray.

Later that day I was sitting in La Moomba restaurant, using their WiFi to post a photo of a turtle that I had taken earlier. As I looked through my shots from the day, I saw the photos of the moray eel and realized that the final eel was absolutely not an eel at all, and that the similarities in appearance were restricted only to colour. The patterns on the animals’ backs were completely different when viewed closely.

I Googled “Lombok sea snake” and realized that the animal I’d seen was a banded sea krait. I searched a little further and discovered that banded sea kraits are incredibly venomous (50x a cobra’s venom) and kill people when they do stupid things like provoke them by swimming too close to take a photo…

Oh.

So that was a lucky escape. I would say that I have entirely conquered my fear of moray eels, although it nearly came at a very steep cost.

Posted in Photography, travel

Snorkelling in the Perhentians

The Perhentian Islands sit almost 20km off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, in a protected maritime area. As you get near them, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d died and gone to heaven. Or, perhaps, that you’d stumbled into some giant, elaborate Hollywood film set. It just doesn’t seem real; it’s too damned beautiful. The waters, the skies, the jungles… it’s all too perfect.

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The islands are surrounded by warm tropical waters which were, during my visit at least, perfectly calm. The only swells come from the little speed boats ferrying tourists from one beach to the next. From these boats, you can see right down to the bottom of the sea at any point between the islands. The Perhentians are perhaps even more impressive when viewed underwater than above. Underwater, visibility is almost always high, and nearly everyone who comes here ends up diving or snorkelling – cruising slowly over immensely colourful reefs, teeming with all sorts of life.

The Perhentians have famously great reefs for snorkelling, and that’s what brought me all the way here. In particular, I came to see sharks. I’ve swum with sharks before, but it’s a thrill that hasn’t yet worn thin. I have an obsession with these atavistic predators. On my right bicep I even have a tattoo of a shark. Moreover, I still hadn’t gotten a good photo of these elusive creatures from the deep… All I had were blurry, partial shots from various expeditions over the years.

As recounted at the end of my previous blog post, I found a shark quite literally within one minute of setting foot in the water, although it was just a baby. The next morning, I booked a snorkelling trip to five different locations around Perhentian Besar (the “big island”). At the first stop, we all jumped out of the boat and almost landed on a big hawksbill turtle. It just calmly fed from the coral at the bottom, completely uninterested in the cluster of Homo sapiens above it.

On the second dive, I asked our guide, “So where are we likely to see sharks?”

“You want to see sharks?” he asked, surprised.

I said, of course, that I did.

“Well, maybe here,” he said, waving at an area of water just behind the boat. He didn’t seem convinced.

I swam around for ten or fifteen minutes (it’s always hard to keep track underwater) and then, when it was time to head back to the boat, I suddenly turned and found myself very close to a blacktip reef shark. I’m not good at estimating size or distance underwater, but it was definitely more than a meter and less than three. Possibly it was about the same size as me. In any case, in the crystal clear waters it made a tremendous sight. These creatures are so graceful, so impossibly perfect after hundreds of millions of years of fine-tuning evolutionary processes, that I am simply awe-struck each and every time I have the privilege of sharing the water with one of them. I snapped a few photos with my GoPro and tried to swim after it, but it was shy and far quicker than me, and in a few moments it was gone.

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Blacktip Reef Shark

Later, we saw more incredible reefs just swarming with staggering arrays of life, and yet that one shark sighting made it worthwhile for me. Later in the day I went snorkelling myself and saw yet more incredible sea life – a few big blue-spotted stingrays, some titan trigger fish, massive bumphead parrot fish, a medium-sized moray eel, a kaleidoscopic plethora of brightly coloured fish… But it was the shark that stuck in my mind.

As the red sun began to set over the horizon, over the faint spectre of peninsular Malaysia, I headed back through the jungle to Turtle Beach, looking to swim here in search of more life – specifically, more sharks. However, as I had half-expected, the tide was far out and swimming was nearly impossible. The sharp coral was only a few inches below the surface at some points, and it stayed this way for at least thirty meters. Any attempt to swim would’ve resulted in a severely scarred torso from the sharp coral. I persevered and walked as far as ten meters across jagged and sometimes slippery rocks in a vain search for some inlet, but there was nothing. As I stood looking out and resigned to a wait until the morning, a small shark shot frantically past my legs and out towards the sea. It was the second baby blacktip I’d seen at Turtle Beach. Indeed, perhaps it was the same one…

On day two, I went snorkelling early in the morning by myself, covering a large area of sea over perhaps two hours. It reaffirmed what I’d learned the day before – that the creatures in the water here are absolutely stunning. I saw many more stingrays (but never did manage to get a good shot – those slippery bastards are not only well-camouflaged, but move a lightning speed when they suspect a paparazzo is nearby), giant shoals of smaller fish, several colourful moray eels and one albino, some ludicrously big bumphead parrot fish, a big hawksbill turtle, and another baby blacktip reef shark, just off the beach at D’Lagoon. I chased the shark in circles for a few minutes before it swam off over coral that was too shallow for me, and said goodbye.

I was particularly happy to see several moray eels. All my life, I’ve had an irrational fear of these animals, and although I’ve seen them on several occasions, I’ve always panicked badly when confronted. This time, however, I first kept my distance and watched, and then later got in close for some photos. Hopefully I have now overcome my fear of these solitary animals who, like me, prefer to keep to themselves.

 

I’ve spent many, many hours in the water here on Perhentian Kecil (“the small island”). I try to fit in as much swimming time as possible, although I do trek around the island a little, or sit on the balcony of my obscenely expensive Rising Sun hillside bungalow overlooking the lagoon, reading Aldous Huxley and Hunter S. Thompson. This has been a sober section of my trip… With this part of Malaysia being deeply Muslim, there isn’t much in the way of alcohol nearby, and what there is is expensive. So it goes. I’m happy to spend a few days just drinking in the view, hiking through the jungle, and chasing sharks in circles around the nearest reef.

On the beach, there is also a fantastic array of life. At D’Lagoon this past weekend, all the rooms were filled, and some severely overfilled, with many daytrippers stopping by to spend time on the beach and in the water. There have been a lot of wealthy Malaysians – mostly families, but also one large group of young women, all clad in hijabs except for one, who was somewhat conservatively dressed, but nonetheless conspicuous for not wearing Muslim clothing. It is fascinating to me that these young women wear hijabs or burkhas even when snorkelling or scuba diving. Compare them to the countless French women on the beach here (I don’t know why, but more than half the tourists on the Perhentians are French) who wear skimpy bikinis, sometimes thongs, and often go topless. Yet, the wonderful thing about the Perhentians – and maybe this is proof that I have in fact died and gone to heaven, because I can hardly believe my eyes – is that here in paradise, even this epic clash of cultures means nothing. The Muslims girls don’t look at the French girls in disgust, and the French girls don’t look at the Muslims girls in pity. Everyone seems at ease here by the water, happy to show their true colours, whatever they may be.

Posted in travel

A Difficult Journey to the Perhentians

Due to having no internet access on Perhentian Kecil, this post has been delayed by four days. I’ll post updates from the island in the coming days.

Escape from Sihanoukville

After some five nights in Sihanoukville, catching up with old friends, taking care of business, and mostly just drinking beer, I made my move towards the Perhentian Islands. I’ve been obsessed with sharks since I was a child, and in my quest to view them all over the world I discovered that the Perhentian Islands, off the northeast coast of peninsular Malaysia, have plenty of sharks which are easy to see from the beaches.

It seemed foolproof, but of course life is never so simple. First, there was the small matter of getting there – from one out-of-the-way tropical destination to another. How hard could it be?

Leaving Sihanoukville should have been the easy part. I lived there for more than a year and have made the journey from Sihanoukville to the airport at Phnom Penh on many occasions. Yet this part of the journey, much like the rest of it, would be a series of punches to the gut.

I was staying out near Otres, with a rented motorcycle as my transport back into town when the time came to make my move. I had booked a ticket on a so-called VIP minibus leaving from outside Mick & Craig’s, which seemed like a convenient location, as it was just around the corner from my motorcycle rental outfit. However, from the offset, small problems arose. First, my laundry was late in being delivered. (This is the first time on the trip I had someone else do my laundry – don’t judge me.) Then, when it arrived, my bike wouldn’t start. I had to use the kicker over and over to boot some life into the old engine, which was not easy in the fine rain and deep sand, whilst balancing various heavy or valuable bags.

(Several days earlier, when I’d rented the little bike, the owner told me not to worry about it being stolen, which is generally a big problem in this part of the world. “The thieves won’t bother with this one,” he said, confidently. “It’s too old.” That was good enough for me, and indeed until it refused to start at the most inopportune of moments, I saw no holes in the plan. Even the fact that the engine would stop running any time the throttle was released didn’t trouble me – I’ve never been one to go easy on the throttle.)

After I managed to kick some life into the addled Honda Dream, I set off towards town, determined not to stop for fear that the goddamn machine wouldn’t get going again. But the gods had it in for me from the offset and, within a mere thirty seconds of setting off, the skies exploded and an almighty downpour commenced. There was nothing I could do. Thanks to my late laundry delivery, I only just had enough time to get into town and return the bike before catching my bus. Waiting for a break in the rain simply wouldn’t do.

Cambodia knows a thing or two about rain. In this part of the world, every now and then, when it suits the gods in the clouds, they will unleash an unimaginable volume of water, pounding down so hard that it stings your skin, even when you’re not riding into it on a motorcycle. It can rain harder in the tropics than I ever thought was possible back home in Scotland… and believe me when I say Scottish people know a thing or two about rain. When it buckets down in Cambodia, you can fill buckets in seconds. The water hits the street hard enough that it bounces back and gets you on the chin. When it hits water it penetrates like a bullet. Roads turn to rivers, and rivers burst their banks and consume all the surrounding flatland. It comes down so hard and fast that I swear it goes through you – it soaks you so much that even if you went home, changed, and dried yourself thoroughly with a towel, you’d still feel wet for days. Such is the power of a tropical rainstorm.

And it was one of these – one of the hardest and most unforgiving I’ve ever encountered – that commenced literally seconds after I set off from Mien Mien Bungalows on Otres, for a long ride back to Sihanoukville. By the time I arrived, there was nothing on me that remained dry. I was soaked through to the bone. My bags, too, were utterly drenched – everything I had was wet. Somehow, by some minor miracle, my electronics seem to have survived, but my books are mulch, my money and my passport just floppy bits of thin paper, and my clothes all completely drenched.

So, soaked to the bone and with nothing I could do about it, I walked through the driving rain to Mick & Craig’s and stood outside, under a large awning, and waited for my minibus. After forty-five minutes of waiting, I asked a nice girl working at a nearby travel agency to call and inquire about the bus, which then showed up five minutes later, having evidently forgotten about me.

Yes, it was going to be one of those days.

I got into the little bus and had my first break of good luck for the day – it was nearly empty. I had a whole row of seats to myself, so I took off my hiking boots, which were filled to the brim with dirty brown foot-stink water, and spread myself out awkwardly, hoping to dry off a little. The problem with Cambodian buses, however, and indeed buses throughout Southeast Asia, is that they blast their air conditioning relentlessly. The other passenger on the bus was wearing a thick hoody and a scarf, while I shivered in misery for four and a half gruelling hours. I was already fighting a cold, and I didn’t need this to add to my woes.

At Phnom Penh airport, I lost my temper at a tuk-tuk driver. I have little tolerance for these parasitic bastards, and if there is anything I loathe worse than a parasite, it’s an idiot – and this guy was evidently both. After alighting from my bus outside the airport departures gate, the driver approached me and shouted, “’otobike? ‘otobike? ‘otobike?”

“Do I look like I need a fucking motorbike?!” I shouted. “Where do you think I’m going?” I pointed at the airport, but it didn’t seem he understood. “’otobike?” he said again. These people are not all bad, and they’re certainly not all stupid, but most of them are heavily into crystal meth, and that happens to push people a little into both categories. On the twenty meters I walked to the gate of the airport, another half dozen drivers accosted me. The desperation in their eyes as they saw a white man walking outside the airport overwhelmed them – here was a mark they could scam, someone to swindle or rob. Or so they thought.

I went into the airport, leaving the leprous swine behind. First on the agenda was to change out of my sodden boots and into some flip-flops. I checked through my bags and found I had no dry clothes to change into, but that didn’t matter. I was getting used to sitting in these damp clothes and, by the time I arrived in Malaysia, I was sure I’d finally be dry.

Arriving in Malaysia

The flights went quite smoothly, and at 11:45pm we touched down at Kota Bharu airport. I had no idea what Kota Bharu was like; in fact, I knew almost nothing about the town at all. It was just a jumping off point on the way to the Perhentians, as far as I knew. My credit card expired last month and I had been unable to book a hotel, but that was ok… I have a very long track record of rolling into towns in the middle of the night with no reservations and everything turning out just fine.

But this wasn’t going to be one of those times.

The first small problem was that when I got to the arrival gate there were booths for hotels and buses to Kuala Besut – where the ferry departs for the Perhentians – but, sadly, they were not staffed. In fact, as I walked around the airport I saw that it was almost entirely empty. I found a woman who told me there was a hotel nearby, and walked out of the airport grounds and onto a large road with few lights. I walked around for an hour, finding only one guesthouse and a number of pissed off buffalo, but the guesthouse had no one working on the front desk. So I decided I’d return to the airport and either take a taxi into town to find a hotel, or just sleep on the floor in the airport itself.

However, the airport was now closed.

Fuck.

I took stock of my options, and things looked grim. I could try to find someplace to sleep outside, but I’d only just started to feel dry again, and I didn’t fancy the chances of it not raining overnight. In the end, I resolved to walk downtown and find a hotel. My phone battery was almost dead, but the GPS app told me it was maybe 12km along a single road into the middle of town, where there were dozens of small hotels. One of them would surely have staff at the reception desk.

I took off walking along the dark highway, lugging some 20kg of luggage in flip-flops at almost one o’clock in the morning, while the temperature was still around 30’C. Yet the road was not empty. At this hour, in Kota Bharu, evidently the local young men take to the streets for illegal races in ridiculous suped-up cars, firing along the dark road as fast as they can go. For the first few kilometres, though, they just stood about beside their cars, talking, lingering in shadows. There were more than fifty of these ludicrous vehicles amidst a frenzy of testosterone and petrol fumes.

This left me in a nervous state of mind. Besides the obvious danger of being hit and killed by one of these maniacs, there was also the fact that I was a foreigner in this strange land, wandering along the road with all his worldly possessions – or at least a good few thousand dollars’ worth of cash and electronics – in the middle of the night, surrounded by wild-eyed young men in shady groups. Where I come from, this situation would not end well, whether you are foreign or local – except the locals would know better than to put themselves in such a position. We call these people “boy racers,” which is a polite way of saying criminal psychopaths, or the sort of bored idiots for whom A Clockwork Orange is a sort of watered down biopic.

Around three o’clock, halfway to town, I found a small hotel whose proprietor bore an uncanny resemblance to Breaking Bad’s ultraviolent villain, Tuco. Mercifully, Tuco gave me a room for 80RM (US$10), although at this point I would’ve traded him both my kidneys and hoped for a transplant in the morning. I settled into my awful little room and spread out all my possessions in front of the air conditioner, hoping that they’d dry just a bit before morning. It was freezing and the air conditioning aggravated my sore throat, but I soon fell into a deep sleep.

Heading for the Islands

In the morning I slept through my alarm, but woke about 8:30. Tuco said he had no idea how to get to Kuala Besut, and so I continued my walk – this time wearing my soaked hiking boots, which still slushed with every step. My feet were badly blistered from walking so far in flip-flops.

The heat was unbearable even by 9am, and I stuck to the shadows as much as possible. It occurred to me for the first time that I wasn’t that far from the equator. The roads seemed quieter in the daylight, or perhaps they were just less threatening. I noticed that the “boy racer” car – a suped-up little model with a low-slung chassis, spoiler, and noisy exhaust – seemed to be the go-to vehicle for just about everyone in Kota Bharu, and not just young men. Along the road, people stopped for breakfast at little cafes with tables pouring out into the street, and men sat around in dour-faced groups listening to angry Arabic tirades coming from loudspeakers outside various mosques. I saw one or two people who were clearly not Muslim, but it seemed that here almost everyone was. All the women, certainly, wore hijabs and some were even fully covered except for their eyes. It seemed there were three types of social group – large groups of (usually elderly) men, small groups of women, and young families with a single child. There was little mixing of the genders, except for those who were clearly married. This was all very different from what I remembered seeing in Kuala Lumpur, but then this part of Malaysia is devoutly Muslim.

At the bus station, I wandered around until I stumbled upon the bus to Kuala Besut. I kept asking people and getting nowhere. It wasn’t that people were trying to be unhelpful, but rather that they all pointed here and there very vaguely, and told me different bus numbers. I noticed that when anyone pointed, they wouldn’t use their whole finger – I’d heard this was an Islamic trait.

Soon I was on a bus full of women in full Muslim garb, heading on a very circuitous route towards Kuala Besut. It was nice to see this group laughing with one another. In the West, we see very few positive depictions of Muslims these days, and yet here were lots of Muslim women, young and old, chatting and joking and taking selfies just the same as people anywhere else. One young woman of about twenty was reclined across two seats, seductively biting her lip and sucking on her finger, presumably sending selfies to some lucky beau. I suppose Allah is only one of the important men in her life.

At Kuala Besut I walked around the tiny port town and then found the jetty for the fast boat to the Perhentians. At one o’clock the boat took off across the sea, skipping at speed over the waves. I’d been told that the ride would be very wet and uncomfortable, but it was actually incredibly pleasant. Or maybe I’d just become accustomed to wet and uncomfortable rides and this forty minute hop was nothing I couldn’t handle… Besides, looking out over azure waters at the looming islands was enough to put me in a good mood after the difficult journey. I was almost there.

Once again, without a credit card I’d been unable to book a hotel on the island, and so when the boatmen asked me where I was going, I picked a place whose name I’d seen on the wall of a travel agency – D’Lagoon, on Perhentian Kecil. It was, annoyingly, the last stop, and on the penultimate stop someone accidentally took my bag and we had to turn around and find them. At D’Lagoon, the speed boat dropped me on a tiny wooden floating platform and told me someone would come to pick me up soon. And so I stood there, bobbing on the sea, hoping that no wave would tip me over – which would’ve fit perfectly with my luck for the previous few days.

But it didn’t flip over, and a few minutes later a man in a small boat came and picked me up. At reception I asked for a room but they said they only had one dorm bed left. I wasn’t happy about it, but for some reason I’d picked the hotel furthest from any other on the island, and I was stuck with the dorm bed or long hike through mountainous jungle on unknown trails… He showed me to a dark, cramped, dirty little dorm with one fan and a dozen creaky beds. Oh well, I thought, maybe something would open up later.

The Difficult Journey Pays Off

Perhentian Kecil proved to be staggeringly beautiful, and the area immediately around D’Lagoon is particularly stunning. Dense jungle covers the islands save for small stretches of white beach here and there, and a few winding, steep paths lead from one beach to another – although the most common way to travel is by “water taxi.” The seas are an unreal turquoise colour – more like an idealistic painting than a real place. I trekked through the jungle from D’Lagoon to Turtle Beach, a ten minute barefoot walk. En route I saw numerous water monitors, which are thankfully afraid of people in spite of their massive size, some bright red squirrels, and a few long-tailed birds. However, I’d come to the Perhentians for one reason – sharks. At Turtle Beach, which could be used as a set for any movie requiring a tropical paradise, I stood next to the pristine water and looked out over the sea to the Malaysian peninsula, just silhouetted on the horizon. Just then, within a minute of arriving, something caught my eye. There was a small shark just two meters from my feet! It was a baby blacktip reef shark cruising the shallow tidal pools right next to the beach. I couldn’t believe my luck.

And with that fleeting glimpse, a tiny shark in a rock pool undid all the bullshit of the previous thirty-two hours, and made me glad I’d embarked upon this absurd journey. In life, nothing worthwhile ever comes easily.

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The Baby Shark at Turtle Beach
Posted in travel

Return to Sihanoukville

After a few days in Kratie, seeing the famous Irrawaddy Dolphins and exploring the countryside north of the town, I booked a bus to Sihanoukville, via Phnom Penh. The minibus showed up an hour late, filled with Khmer passengers and a large office photo copier crammed in on top. We took a bumpy backroads journey through northern Cambodia to the capital, where I was put on a more comfortable and less crowded coach to Sihanoukville. The whole journey took twelve hours and for most of it my ears were assaulted by the Khmer dance music that seems mandatory for all Cambodian bus companies.

I used to live in Cambodia and so, for me, everything there is filled with a mix of memories. Riding down the “Death Highway,” also known by the more prosaic “Highway #4,” from Phnom Penh to Sihanouvkille was a journey I’d taken many times. Once, I’d done it by motorcycle – a hair-raising ride that, on numerous occasions, nearly proved to be my last. Passing through little villages of tin shacks, wandering cattle, and ubiquitous roadside vendors selling coconuts and petrol, I was reminded of so many trips throughout this fascinating land.

For me, however, Cambodia is not only filled with happy memories, nor terrifying memories of wild motorbike adventures into the jungles and mountains. It was a place I went filled with hope, and where all was lost. It was the scene of the destruction of so much of my life; where everything fell apart and I was left with nothing. I’d long known that I would return to Cambodia, and to Sihanoukville, and yet it was something I mostly dreaded.

Yet as the road bends eastwards after the turnoff to Kampot and Kep, and emerges from the mountain valley and into the coastal plains, by Ream National Park, I felt a sense of excitement – of a genuine enthusiasm to be back. Although many of my friends there had died, or left the country, I still had a few close friends alive and well, and lots of places I wanted to revisit. I felt that, having turned my life around thoroughly in the past two years, it would be good to arrive back in town a different person, having overcome the calamities which beset my life there.

As expected, the bus was running late, and yet as we came within a few kilometres of the town, the driver inexplicably reduced his speed to a literal walking pace, and though I could see the Angkor Brewery, whose gates mark one entrance to Sihanoukville, the bus moved painfully forward. I wanted to shout, “You bastard, get a move on!” but eventually the driver came to a complete stop, opened the door, and handed a basket of fruit to a girl who appeared to be his girlfriend. I told myself I was lucky – this had been the driver’s only personal stop. On some routes in this part of the world, drivers will stop to give gifts to their girlfriends in every town along the road.

We eventually arrived at the Sorya bus station, which meant I could walk to the Golden Lions Circle and find a guesthouse without having to negotiate with the cut-throat tuk-tuk mafia. I shirked a few dozen offers and made the twenty minute trek, sweaty and starving. I checked in at Mick & Craig’s mostly because I knew their food was good. The room was fine, and at $7 for a night was quite reasonably priced. Having gone a whole day without eating, I ordered a steak, a rack of ribs, a chicken kebab, a baked potato, and a beer… and was delighted that the bill totalled only $6.

Ah, it was good to be back after all.

*

A few days passed by in a blur of beer. I caught up on all the changes in the town, including the expected gossip – a list of people who’d recently died, fled the country, or been shaken down by the whores or the cops, or, sometimes, both. This town has a bad reputation in many respects. The tourists who come here have long been the adventurous type – and often adventurous to the extent of being entirely reckless, risking their lives for seemingly no reason. The expats who live here tend to be older, alcoholic, with a propensity for prostitutes, and all-too-often they are plagued by some self-destructive impulse. People don’t last long here, and the talk of the town is invariably someone’s death or a horrific accident. There are also masses of Chinese and Russian criminals who come here, and Cambodians whose life of poverty in the provinces compels them to desperation in a town full of easy marks. It all comes to a rather combustible mix, a place where death is never a surprise, and tragedy a part of the weekly routine as much as BBQ Fridays and All Day Happy Hour Monday.

So it was I heard repeatedly in various bars a heart-breaking story of carelessness, callousness, and a life being ripped away in the night for no reason. It was the talk of the town – the latest and greatest tragic story in local circles. This year’s hottest Sihanoukville Scandal. And, unfortunately, it was a story about one of my closest friends.

After a few dark days ruminating on this sad tale, I moved out of town to Mien Mien Bunaglows on Otres Beach – an altogether more relaxing part of town. Only a few kilometres from downtown Sihanouvkille, Otres is the laidback, hippy mecca of Cambodia. While the parties rage and whores work the streets on Victory Hill and Occheuteal, Otres is usually asleep. It may as well exist on a different planet. In the day it is four kilometres of white sand and wild but shallow water, fringed by palm trees and small beach restaurants, and at night just a sleepy village where the guests head to bed early, tired from swimming, sunbathing, and smoking pot in the sun all day. There are no regulars here; no permanent population except for the few Khmers in the local village. Otres is the new backpacker destination – one of the premier chill-out spots in the whole of Southeast Asia. In any bar there are countless twenty-one year old gap-year students with beards, dreadlocks, and baggy elephant print pyjama pants, talking about vegetarianism and volunteering, eating banana pancakes and trying to haggle the price of a beer down from $0.75 to $0.50. Old women walk the beach offering massages, children sell bracelets, tuk-tuk drivers sleep in hammocks, sleepily raising their head at any passer-by asking, “Tuk-tuk?” and fat stray dogs play in the surf.

Otres, like the rest of Sihanoukville, is busier than it used to be, especially for August. This is the rainy season – the extreme low season when it’s not unheard of for a bar to go several days without a customer. Or at least that was what it used to be like. Tourism in Sihanoukville has been on a permanent rise for a decade now, and the Chinese started to get in the on the act about two years ago, fuelling an explosion of activity. The amount of development that has gone on since I left, just two years ago, is nothing short of incredible, and although I’ve never actually been out there, I’m told things are even wilder on the islands – Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The buyers are almost always Chinese and most space is being taken up by giant, sprawling casinos. Yet out in Otres it’s still just small bungalow complexes and beach bars. Here, the biggest change is that they’re moving from cheap wooden beach shacks to luxury stone beach shacks, at least at the far end of the beach, known as Otres 2. But it seems Sihanoukville will continue to grow under the influence of Chinese money, and I wouldn’t be surprised to return in another few years and find it spread all the way to the airport, some 12 km east.

My time in Sihanoukville, while difficult, was largely peaceful and pleasant – especially the days spent out at Otres – and I’m glad I returned. I caught up with old friends and said goodbye to a few ghosts. It has been good to see Cambodia once again – a country I truly adored before it became the scene of a great many tragedies for me. Yet Cambodia seems to be that sort of place. A look back through the country’s history is one of near endless human suffering. It seems unfair, almost like the country is the grip of a brutal curse. But there is, of course, beauty here, and peace in places, and beyond the whores and thieves and tuk-tuk drivers there are some incredible people here. And on a personal level I have managed to forge some new positive memories and dispel some of the dark clouds that hung over the town as it existed in my mind.

*

An Addendum

As I write this I am sitting at Phnom Penh Airport, awaiting a flight to Kota Bharu in Malaysia, the next stage in this journey. Yet before I left, Cambodia had one last trick to play on me. I woke up this morning to a light rain, which is hardly surprising given that this is wet season. However, less than a minute after I got my bags loaded up on my rented motorcycle, the heavens opened and an almighty rainstorm was unleashed. I had a bus to catch and a bike to return, so there would be no waiting it out. In a few minutes I was soaked to the bone, and the ride back to Sihanoukville was miserable. It was the sort of driving rain which hits the road and bounces back to eye level; the sort of rain which stings your skin badly with each drop, even when you’re not riding a motorcycle; the sort of rain that floods roads, causes mudslides, and hides treacherous potholes. I rode half-blind to the rental shop and then walked to Mick & Craig’s, where I was to meet my bus to the airport. I waited for an hour before it arrived, and then sat shivering for four hours in the bus’s freezing air conditioning. I should be able to get out of these soaking clothes and open my bag up to dry its contents when I reach Kota Bharu, in some nine hours…

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Kratie and the Irrawaddy Dolphins

I went to Lao to see the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and yet in the end I had to leave the country before I was able to catch a glimpse of the bizarre purple mammal. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is distributed in discontinuous populations throughout South and Southeast Asia, with the Mekong having one of the larger and more accessible populations. Some viewing can be done above the border, in Lao, just near Si Phan Don. But the best viewing is in Cambodia, north of the town of Kratie (pronounced kra-chay).

I woke early and headed for Don Det’s north beach, which serves as the island’s port, and waited around for half an hour with a group of travellers until the boats were ready. It was only the first of many irritating periods of waiting that day. The next would come on the other side of the river, on the mainland, when we had an hour and a half to wait for the bus to the border. Of course, this is perfectly normal in Lao. It is incredibly rare for a vehicle to leave or arrive on time, and there is, of course, never an honest explanation given. The journey from Don Det to Kratie took some eight hours, and yet there was only about three hours of actual travel time.

So it goes in places like this. I spent the past winter in Africa, where everything moves at a leisurely pace. But at least there they have the decency to say, “We’ll leave eventually. There’s no rush, man.” In Southeast Asia they’ll always try to bullshit you.

Despite the extended periods of unnecessary waiting, and being ripped off at the border by corrupt officials, the journey went largely as expected, and I alighted from the bus at 4pm on the scenic riverside of Kratie. Once again, I was standing on the eastern bank of the mighty Mekong. The nearest hotel was Oudom Sambath, and I checked in for $7 per night. I knew I could’ve gotten a better deal someplace else, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth it for what would’ve ended up being only a dollar or two.

I love hotels in Southeast Asia. Outside you so often have a French Colonial exterior, and inside there are remains of the original building – ornate windy staircases and intricate cornices – but then of course it’s also fused with the local flavour, and all too often left into a state of total dilapidation. The rooms are invariably dingy and unclean, yet with just a faint reminder of former grandeur.

**

I woke up at six o’clock without an alarm and headed down to the lobby to negotiate the hiring of a motorcycle for the day. I managed to rent a Honda Dream for $7 and soon I was flying up the road towards Kampi – the little village where the locals thrive on dolphin tourism. It felt exhilarating to be back on a bike again. Between 2013-14 I lived in Cambodia and rode my motorcycle all over the south of the country. By that point I’d been riding motorcycles for seven years across countless countries. You see, I have a major addiction to these machines, and the only reason I don’t ride them anymore is the fear that perhaps I like them too much… There is no greater thrill than pulling back the throttle and bolting along the road, overtaking trucks and dodging cows, potholes, and the like.

I rode a bike last year for a few nights in Thailand, but I was on a small island and I hardly had any use for it. I would just take it out after a few beers and feel the chill night air rush by, taking dark corners and blind hills with the confidence that comes from being on holiday in a strange land, feeling invincible. Here, though, on the banks of the Mekong River, I started off slowly. I had a lot of road ahead of me and after a few kilometres just getting a feel for the bike, I opened it up and started to enjoy myself. Periodically I would slow and take in some of the sights, but the experience of the bike itself was enough to keep me entertained. Roads in Cambodia are notoriously dangerous. Where do you even start in describing the dangers – the dry dust and the wet mud are equally fatal; the drunk drivers, the herds of cows wandering unchecked; the children and adults alike sauntering into the streets; giant potholes and bridges with slats rotted through… I could go on. When I lived here, I’d hear nearly every week of someone who’d died on these roads. Yet a mix of caution and confidence makes these stretches not only rideable, but fun.

Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie I found the dolphin boat dock. It was not signposted, nor did it make itself at all visible. There was only a large empty parking area, which attracted my attention, and then a small stone dolphin. Once inside, I had to ask around, but was eventually pointed to a man in a little yellow boat. He didn’t speak a word of English except for “hello,” which was used every time he wanted me to do something. His long boat was painted bright yellow, with the number eleven painted on the front. I gathered that in the high season, or perhaps even later in the day, there were enough tourists to fill at least that many boats. For now, though, it was just me. I had come early because I figured that’s when it would be best to see the dolphins – on a tranquil river without other boats.

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We puttered out onto the river and headed north for forty-five minutes against the fast flow of the water. It was an overcast day, but beautiful in its way. Ominous clouds hung over the trees on either side. We saw men fishing with large woven baskets. The river seemed high – I suppose this is wet season, after all – and there were seemingly tall trees only just sticking out above the water level. The fishermen used these to anchor their boats or baskets.

Eventually my boatman pointed and shouted “Hello!” which I took to mean there was a dolphin. Indeed, as I stood and steadied myself, I saw a large purple shape briefly protrude above the water’s surface and then slip back into the thick brown water. I hurriedly snapped some photos, but fortunately the dolphins – I believe there were three or more – stuck around for several minutes. The boatman said “hello” again and waved me to the back of the boat, from where I could see clearly. These odd alien creatures took turns breaching and making snorting sounds, then disappearing. Unlike their oceanic cousins, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are shy and don’t seem at all playful. They look more like small, purple Orcas with their bulbous protruding foreheads than dolphins. Sadly, these weird and ethereally beautiful animals are endangered and badly in need of protection. I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitat before it is too late.

The boatman seemed content that he had successfully delivered a dolphin – actually, at least three of them – and took me quickly back to shore. It was still early and I had achieved my goal for the day.

So what next?

I point the bike north and continued up along the eastern bank of the river, mostly going slow and admiring the beautiful wooden homes on high stilts, sometimes painted blue, and always in a flurry of activity. Kids, chickens, old women, and cows came and went freely, though all careful to keep out of the rising sun. As I headed north, the roads became quieter and yet more treacherous, in their own way. Though hardly perilous, the thick, wet mud made it a challenge to keep the bike upright, and made the going slow. On several occasions I had to support myself with my feet just to keep from falling over, and my legs were covered with mud up to the knee. I never strayed from the road, yet it was at times very much like off-road biking.

Sometimes, though, I was able to unleash the power of the little bike and whip up the road with the wind in my face, causing streaks of tears beneath my sunglasses, which dried in an instant. There were great big dragonflies in the air and periodically they smacked into my face. Once one got stuck under my sunglasses and nearly blinded me for a moment, and elsewhere, when going fast enough, one crashed into my head just beneath the helmet, and left an small, dark bruise.

I passed through small villages and towns and eventually came to Sambour, where I took some backstreets and ended up at a small temple, called Vihea Kaok. There was a mighty tree stretching in all directions, giving much needed shade to weary monks retiring from the heat. Many child monks were practicing in a building nearby, and a huge golden Buddha sat upright in the main temple building. I moved on quickly, finding another temple – this one evidently more important than the first. Whereas Vihea Kaok was sleepy, this temple was positively buzzing with activity. This was the “100 Pillar Temple,” so-called because there were many pillars holding the building up. A swarm of children begged me for money but quickly gave up and fought each other over a coconut.

I had an early lunch at a street-side restaurant near the temple, where, miraculously, the proprietor spoke enough English to take my order, and then I took off once again, heading further north. The road continued endlessly along the bank of the Mekong. Sometimes it was possible to ride fast, and at other times it would’ve been suicide. Sometimes there were just empty fields or trees, and sometimes more houses on stilts. Always, though, the big brown river to my left, the red road underneath me, the blue sky above, and dark green to my right.

I began to feel the sun had taken its toll on me and, at a random bridge – just one of many I’d crossed that day – I turned and headed back. The thought struck me to put my GoPro on my helmet and film the ride. It had been pleasant – scenic, even – on the way up. I stuck the camera on my head and took off back down the road. Halfway down, I realized it was pointing up at the sky, and then it flopped down and filmed my forehead for a while, but eventually I got it filming straight ahead. Driving in Asia has become so normal for me in some ways. I wonder if in 50 yrs I’ll look back at the insanity and laugh…

My ride came to an end when I pushed the bike too hard on an empty tank and it sputtered and died on another rickety bridge. I was able to roll it off and then push it to a nearby shop, where an old woman sold me a litre of petrol. The bike still wouldn’t start easily, and I had to kickstart it into action.

I intended to go all the way back to the hotel without stopping, but I spotted an interesting pagoda – Sombok Pagoda – on the only hill for miles around, and had to stop and take a look. I brought my bike to the bottom of a flight of about a hundred stairs and climbed very slowly to the temple. It was eerily quiet – or at least it was eerie until I spotted a sign that said this was a place of silent meditation. In any case, there were no people around. I wandered about and climbed yet another two flights of stairs to the very highest point for many miles around – a small pagoda with a few stone buddhas littered about. The view was obscured by trees growing from the hillside, but through their branches you can see for miles over the flat lands surrounding Kratie, and across the vast Mekong.

After the pagoda, I finally returned to my bike and gently encouraged it back to town. It limped and whined and eventually rolled up onto the pavement outside Oudom Sambath, completely empty of petrol and encased in solidified mud. I had dinner at Red Sun Falling and then watched the sunset from the roof of Silver Dolphin.

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Posted in travel

Been There, Don Det

In the middle of sleepy downtown Pakse, I managed to find a small travel agent who booked me on a morning minibus south. The journey, he said, would take three hours. I didn’t believe him, because in Lao there is a terrible tendency to lie about the length of a journey. I remember it from my first trip here, five years ago. An eight hour bus ride turned into fourteen hours. Granted, it was partly because our bus was caught in a mudslide and nearly lost over the edge of a cliff, but this is not merely my own observation – this is the consensus among travellers to the country: Make yourself comfortable, get a good book, and prepare for a long, bumpy journey.

At eight o’clock the following morning I was standing outside my hotel in the baking sunlight, waiting for the minibus. I was prepared for a ten hour ride, squeezed in to a grossly over filled vehicle between sweaty, hungover tourists. Half an hour later, though, I was still standing there, quickly turning red from the obscene sun that simply shouldn’t have been so strong at such an hour.

“Had this been another scam?” I pondered. Was I doomed to stand here half the day, only to find I had been sold a bum ticket?

The little bus eventually showed up a half hour late and it was indeed crowded beyond capacity. I was the last in, which is usually a vile curse, but this time I was given the cherished front seat, and enjoyed my ride in comparative luxury, listening to loud music from my iPhone to drown out the groans from the back. Southern Lao slipped by in all its laid-back glory, and, amazingly, the bus pulled into the small ferry village on the banks of the Mekong at exactly the forecasted time.

Soon we were zipping across the muddy waters towards a tangle of islands. Si Phan Don (that means 4,000 Islands) is located right above the border with Cambodia. Here, the mighty Mekong river can reach 14 km in width and rises and falls between 5 meters from season to season. At its lowest, it is said there are four thousand islands here, hence the name. Accepted wisdom, however, is that four thousand is a generous figure on a particularly special day, and involves counting any rock protruding above the waterline for a moment or two between ripples as an island. But it is wise not to question an Asian nation’s interpretation of an island these days. Between the Koreas, Japan, China, and the Philippines, the smart gambler would bet on the apocalypse beginning right around this part of the world, and on a matter as seemingly trivial as asking what exactly constitutes an island.

When we arrived on Don Det, I hopped off the boat and marched quickly up the small beach. In Southeast Asia, you have to assume that when you disembark from any mode of transportation, you will immediately become beset by an army of tuk-tuk drivers, women selling bananas, beggars, and kids looking to rifle through your pockets while you find your bearings.

There were, however, none of the above. I marched up and off the beach and into “town” – which was a small, unpaved street with a few businesses along either side, all of which appeared to be closed or open but unstaffed. I kept walking south at a brisk pace, partly looking for a place to stay and partly just getting a feel for the island. I really didn’t know what to expect. Some places you can get a good feel for even from guide books, blogs, YouTube videos, and countless other second hand reports; most places, however, are impossible to understand until you’re there.

I passed a few bars and many little convenience stores. It all looked run-down, sad, and dingy. I didn’t have a particularly good feeling, but I was more interested in the island itself – the beaches, the jungle, the hills. I had come here to unwind, to decompress from a month-long CELTA course. I didn’t care what the “town” looked like. All I wanted was a hammock.

After a few minutes of walking down the east of the island, along a little mud path in which I sunk about ankle deep, I was accosted by a voice. A tall, thin white man was leaning over a spade in a garden. “Lookin’ for a room?” he asked in a thick Yorkshire accent. Before I could reply, he continued, “I live with this here family and, if you’re interested, they’ve got a few bungalows right on the water here. Basic backpackers fare, like, nothin’ special. Does the job for me.”

I said I was interested, and he slowly started to move in my direction through the thick red mud. He complimented my Bob Dylan t-shirt. “You like Bob Dylan, do you?” he asked, which I thought was a slightly redundant question. But I suppose there are any number of people wearing Rolling Stones and Ramones t-shirts right now who’ve never knowingly listened to a song by either band.

He showed me a very basic little bungalow – a dirty looking bed, walls covered in hundreds of blood splatters, and an unspeakably evil-looking bathroom. The place seemed to have never actually been cleaned before, and had only ever been swept out once the cobwebs made living there unbearable. There was, however, a little balcony right on the water, with two hammocks and a little table and chair looking out at the Mekong as it slowly wound past on its way to Cambodia. A wifi password was scrawled on a wall in blue marker.

“I’ll take it,” I said.

The man nodded and shambled off in search of the register. He came back with a jumbled pile of papers five minutes later, and took long drags from a joint as I filled in my details. “If you like weed, you’re in paradise,” he said. “You can find it anywhere here. Can smoke it anywhere, too. No hassles on this island.”

I gave Adrian, as he later introduced himself, 40,000 kip ($5) for the room and he shambled off again with the register, muttering something incoherent about coffee. Southeast Asia is full of men just like Adrian. It’s either booze, drugs, girls, or a combination of those three that brings them here and keeps them here. Within a minute of meeting him, I could tell Adrian had been wandering this part of the world for more than a decade, and had burned himself out on near infinite quantities of cheap bushweed. He walked around shirtless, his skin a rough tanned leather from the tropical sun, with the unmistakable confused steps of a man who’s spent several decades getting stoned. When he spoke he did so with conviction, yet rambled incoherently before fading out mid-sentence.

I took a walk down the east side of the island to what Adrian had called “the village” – a sign that said “Don Det” and a half dozen wooden houses. The path there was narrow and muddy from the night’s rain. To my left was the impressive river, or at least a small sliver of it, and beyond it more islands and mountains. On my right were rice paddies and people’s homes on wooden stilts. There was a distinctly unfriendly atmosphere. After leaving Chiang Mai, where in every village it seemed I was greeted with shy smiles and bows, here it was frowns. I’d read online that relations between the locals and tourists had been frosty for a few years, but I didn’t know exactly why. It’s not hard to guess, of course. Don Det has worked its way onto the so-called “Banana Pancake Trail,” and everywhere that trail winds, there follows an attitude of irresponsibility, entitlement, and unbridled hedonism.

Or was that really it? As the day went on I explored more of the island on foot, and found more unfriendly faces. Even in restaurants where I stopped for food or beers, I was greeted with abject coldness. It ranged from a complete disinterest to outright unpleasantness. This was not the Lao I remembered from my previous trip, five years ago, to the north of the country. There were many differences between northern and southern Lao that I could see, but in terms of tourism I did notice one thing that made me wonder: there were innumerable bungalows fallen into disrepair, bars clearly closed for several years, and even in the businesses still open and with a handful of customers, everything seemed dilapidated. Could it be that relations turned frosty when Si Phan Don failed to capitalize on its tourism boom? Did these islands ever prosper from the tourists who’ve caused so much change to this place? On Don Det there is nothing to suggest any wealth was gained here. The people seem impoverished. Businesses are merely hanging on. The resentment in the air, it seems to me, is the same as is felt throughout dozens of towns and villages in Thailand and elsewhere, whose way of life was irrevocably changed by an influx of young Western hedonists, yet in this case there are few benefits to temper the displeasure that arises from the clash of cultures.

Still, it takes more than a cold shoulder to make me feel put out. After a long day of walking in the hot sun, I settled at a small restaurant on the west side of the island to watch the famous sunset. The sky changed colours every few minutes for an hour, as the sun dipped and eventually slid behind the horizon, far over the Mekong and the jungles of Thailand. It started a light yellow, became a fierce orange, and then an impressive purple that took over the whole sky until darkness fell, and thousands of stars shone faintly in the dark jungle night.

*

In the morning I awoke early and sat reading on my balcony in the calm morning air. A voice called from the hut two down, “So you like reading books, then?” If I hadn’t guessed from the Yorkshire accent, the ridiculousness of the question told me that it was Adrian.

He didn’t follow up with anything conversationally useful like, “What are you reading?” but instead he told me that he’d written a book and that he was selling copies. “Come over here and I’ll tell you all about it,” he said. It was an invitation, but somehow not entirely optional.

I walked around to his little bungalow – different from mine only in that he had plants on every conceivable surface – and he told me immediately to sit down. He broke into a long sales pitch, not even hiding the fact that his story was recited from memory. “This is the most unique story you’ll ever hear,” he said. “It’s the most original idea you’ve ever heard.” He went on and on, stopping to tell me things like, “it only took me six hours to write it,” and “writing’s so easy,” and “the grammar may not be, y’know, entirely accurate but you’ll know what I mean.”

I awkwardly flipped through the book, wondering how I could get out of buying a copy. It was absolutely unreadable and, as far as his originality went, as an editor I’ve seen hundreds of these books pitched at me from people who care too much for their own story and too little for the craft or business of writing. He then showed me a small folder in which he’d recorded a copy of every book he’d sold over fifteen years – allegedly a total of more than 7,800. “I even sold one to a Scottish person one time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just bought a load of books in Thailand and I really can’t buy any more. This looks great though…”

He immediately stood up and stormed off the balcony and into his room. “Alright, then, well you’d best be going. I’m a busy man.”

That awkward encounter expedited my decision to get out and explore, and so I found the nearest bike rental, and rented a small, fixed gear bicycle with two flat tires and a loose chain. The seat may as well have had serrated edges, the basket at the front was torn almost in two, and when the bike moved it let out an ungodly squealing that warned the children on the path to get out of my way, which was probably for the best because the brakes did absolutely nothing.

Although it was hot out, I knew it would only get hotter, so I set off along the east of the island and cycled all the way to the long concrete bridge that leads over to Don Khon. I paid the 35,000 kip admission to the island, and then fallowed a sign for a waterfall. Don Khon is bigger than Don Det, and emptier, too. Like Don Det, it lacks paved roads, and it has only one wide dirt tracking running through the very centre of the island, with a series of small paths running up the east and west coasts. I started down the west, as that’s where the waterfall was located.

When I parked my bike at the waterfall, I wondered about locking it, as I’d been given no lock at the rental shop. I looked around and there were a few other bikes, none of which were locked. I supposed that in a place like this it would be too difficult to get a stolen bike to the mainland. It probably just wasn’t worth the effort.

The Tad Somphamit Falls are not breath-taking, but they are impressive. All around the Mekong moves sluggishly, but here a huge volume of chocolate brown water is forced between the island of Don Det and a few smaller islands, where there is a modest drop, crashing furiously down in a large horseshoe before seemingly collecting and moving on at its own leisurely pace once again. From a few close viewpoints the sound is deafening and the power of the water awesome, yet soon it is back to tranquillity. I stopped for a beer nearby at a small beach, only 100 meters down river, and watched the water roll by slowly, as though its path had been completely unbroken.

I cycled around the rest of Don Khon very slowly, stopping several times to have a beer, take some photos, or, more often than not, fix the chain on my bike. Then I took an unfortunate trek up the east of the island, thanks to my reliance upon the GPS app on my phone. I suppose when tourism to the island was greater, this track may have been suitable for cycling, but now it was tremendously overgrown, and some of the bridges had become downright treacherous. On the absolute worst bridge on the route, where most of the boards were rotted through, I tried to go fast enough that my weight didn’t bring the bike down through the missing and broken slats and into the jungle below, but unfortunately my provocations caused the bike’s chain to slip again and I was stopped, balancing perilously.

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When I emerged from the path less trodden and crossed back to Don Det, I found a small restaurant called Crazy Mama Piang’s. Here, I was finally greeted with smiles and friendly service. I ate a small dinner and watched the family sit around watching a Thai drama on TV. The two small boys played with the family of cats which lived there. They ran around carrying two very tolerant kittens, whose mother looked on sleepily from under a wooden table.

When I stepped outside, ready to return to my bungalow for the evening, I found that the bike was missing. The friendly old woman – who I assume from her wild, unpredictable laughter was the Crazy Mama Piang, or at least one of her equally crazy relatives – told me that someone had just left and had taken my bike by mistake. She showed me the other man’s bike, and it was pretty much identical, except that it had a sign saying it was from a different shop.

“Same, same,” said Crazy Mama Piang. “Bike just same. You take it no problem. Shop not care”

I had little choice, so I rode this bike back to the shop at the north of Don Det. It was the same colour as the first bike, and a similar design, but it was a far better bike. If only I’d had this one on my long ride around Don Det and Don Khon. I cycled it to the door of the shop where I’d rented the first bike and walked hastily away. I saw a woman come out and acknowledge the bike with indifference. I could see on her face that she was thinking, “Same, same.”

After that I returned to my bungalow, where I was met with a familiar voice. “D’you like fishin’?”

I turned to see Adrian standing on his balcony with a fishing rod in one hand and his joint in the other. “Er, yeah…” I said.

“Well I lend me fishing gear to anyone who wants it, like, but y’know I can only really give it to ones who’ve bought me book.”

I laughed and turned to go inside for the night. I could still hear him talking as I closed the door: “So y’know, as much as I’d love to give it to ya, I really can’t. There’s lots of people round here would love to do a bit of fishin’ but I just can’t be givin’ it to everyone and so y’know…” He went on as I turned on the noisy ceiling fan to drown him out.

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