Posted in travel

Driving to Phang Nga National Park

I have been staying in Phuket, Thailand, for about a month and a half, and in that time I have not actually done much exploring. Mostly I stay at home, working, or go to the gym. I’ve been to the beach a few times and I’ve gotten to know the southern part of the island pretty well, but until today I had never really gotten out and explored.

Last night, I looked on Google Maps for places within a day’s drive of Phuket, and decided that Samet Nangshe Viewpoint seemed like a good place to visit. It’s a good few hours’ drive from southern Phuket, especially with weekend traffic. So this morning, about 9am, I set off on my Honda Click, aiming for Sarasin Bridge, which connects the island with the mainland.

Driving through Phuket was not much fun, to be honest. The roads are busy and dangerous, and in places they have large potholes or – even worse – have become completely warped in the stifling heat. You often find yourself sandwiched between a speeding lorry and a row of haphazardly parked cars, hoping no one opens a door and kills you. Other times, you’re going around a bend, being tailgated by a speeding minivan, hoping that the warped road does cause the bike to slip out from underneath you.

After the airport, which is about an hour’s drive from Saiyuan (where I live), the roads get better. For one thing, from the airport to the bridge there is at least a bike lane to drive in. That doesn’t mean that minivans and lorries don’t occasionally veer into it, but generally it’s a much safer passage. By the time I hit the bridge, I was pretty tired and it had only been an hour and a half.

The View from Sarasin Bridge

I stopped and walked part of the way across the bridge. Men were fishing, and I saw a few of them catch some medium sized fish. In fact, I could see that the water was rich with fish, as many of them darted about near the surface.

Then it was time to jump on the bike and find Samet Nangshe. Getting there wasn’t entirely straightforward, but at this point I didn’t care. On the mainland, driving was much more pleasant. Phuket had been busy and the roads were dangerous, but here they were open and well-kept. I pulled off the highway and headed into the countryside on narrower roads that wound through green forests. Sadly, it was not real jungle as all that had evidently been cut down and replaced by – I think – gum trees. Certainly, they were planted in neat rows and had been tapped for some sort of sap. It was sad, but at least I was amidst greenery rather than buildings.

The route to the viewpoint was pretty well signposted, even when seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The only thing was that the distances listed on the signs were completely arbitrary. I had noticed that on the road up through Phuket. I would see a sign that said:

Sarasin Bridge – 24km

Then, ten minutes later:

Sarasin Bridge – 26km

How does that make sense? On the way back it would get even worse, and I had to start completely ignoring the signs or I would go mad.

Near the viewpoint, I saw a small road wind off towards the mangroves and couldn’t resist following it. It took me to a small fishing village, where people hired out long-tail boats to see “James Bond Island”. This island, actually called Koh Tapu, is famous as the location of Scaramanga’s hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun. As with most things in Thailand, a little attention turned into a relentless procession of tourist hordes, and it has been thoroughly commercialised. I was tempted to take a boat there by myself (as they only cost 1,500baht), but decided against it. I didn’t feel like being surrounded by tourists. Maybe another day I would return.

Long-tail Boat at Phang Nga Bay

I returned to the main road and then headed on to what I thought was Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. I found a car park and bought a ticket for 30 baht, then hopped on a little truck, which whisked me up the hillside. On the way, I talked with a Thai family. They enlightened me to the fact that this was not Samet Nangshe Viewpoint. In fact, Sam Nangshe was another 200 meters along the road. I had stopped at Samet Nangshe Boutique Hotel. Oops. Oh well, unperturbed, I alighted and decided to look around. It was, after all, high on a hill and just a few hundred meters from the famous viewpoint. Moreover, there was almost no one here…

Panoramic View of Phang Nga Bay

Well, the view certainly lived up to my expectations. I grabbed a grossly overpriced cup of iced tea and sat looked out at the view. What can you say about a scene like that?

After an hour of watching the view (and admiring the Thais’ tie-dye shirts), I set off again. On the long route back to Phuket, I saw a number of little villages and enjoyed cruising the quiet country roads.

Crossing back into Phuket was a descent into chaos, but at the airport I stopped and went to Nai Yang Beach. This beach is quite famous as the place where you can see planes coming in to land, passing low over the sand. I had read that it was now out-of-bounds and that visitors were met with signs proclaiming the death penalty would be sought for trespassers! However, I could see no such signs and so I went to see if I could shoot a photo of the planes.

When I first got to the beach, I was met by a woman who told me, “This is a National Park, you should pay 200 baht.” I told her I’d think about it and drove away. About 200 meters away, I just parked and walked onto the beach. Evidently, there is only one checkpoint and you can just go around it.

After an hour, I had only seen one plane come in to land and a dozen taking off. The problem with getting a photo was that you couldn’t really see them taking off until they were in the air… They were so damned fast that they were already up in the sky before you could frame the shot. The one that landed did so just as I arrived and was too far away to make it work.

Plane Taking off at Nai Yang Beach

When I got home, it was 6pm and I’d been driving for most of the 9 hours since I’d left. I was exhausted, and my hands were purple from sunburn, but it felt good to have explored a little. I will be in Thailand for a year, and although it’s a cool place to live, sometimes it’s easy to get trapped into not doing much. You have to get out and see the surrounding areas, just like you would if you were on holiday.

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Posted in Photography, travel

Back to Italy

After my slow yet brief trip through the Balkans and Slovenia, I returned to Italy. By an odd coincidence, exactly four weeks to the day – nay, to the hour – after arriving at Treviso airport near Venice, my bus from Ljubljana to Verona stopped off in the car park outside the airport.

It was just a brief stop, though, to pick up more passengers, and soon we were arriving in Verona, famed home of Romeo and Juliet. I checked in to my hostel and then set off to explore the city. For two days I wandered around this pleasant little town, shooting photos of the old buildings.

Verona has a castle and even an arena very similar in style to the Coliseum in Rome (though mercifully not swarmed by tourists and scammers). The biggest tourist trap in town is Juliet’s balcony which, of course, was built in the 1930s simply to attract tourists. I gave that one a miss.

Next up was a trip to Milan. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I envisioned Milan as a fairly modern city. Indeed, it is a vast, sprawling metropolis with the biggest and most modern buildings I’d seen in Italy. However, there were plenty of interesting old buildings, too, including the Galleria and Duomo. The castle was also quite impressive.

Back at my hostel one night, I made a sudden decision. Though I had intended to continue on via bus and train to Spain, I was feeling exhausted. It had been more than one month of continual travel through seven countries, and I had no energy left. When I looked at my option and saw the time and money and effort required to reach Madrid, I felt it wasn’t worth it. I looked on Skyscanner and saw that there were cheap flights from Milan to Edinburgh the next day, and made the sudden choice to buy one.

As I write this, I am back in Scotland, and my big European trip for 2019 has come to an end. It’s time to get back to work and figure out my plans for the future.

Posted in Photography, travel

Racing Slowly Through the Balkans

If you want to see the perfect hostel, take a trip to northern Greece, and visit Little Big House in the city of Thessaloniki. This quaint business on a narrow and very steep street in the city’s old town is exactly what every hostel should be like – warm, friendly, comfortable, and any number of other pleasant adjectives.

I arrived there after a long train journey up the coast from Athens, and after walking for several miles across the city and climbing a rather large hill—made all the more difficult by its cobblestone streets—I was met by three smiling women, who greeted me like an old friend and offered me a beer.

From the moment I arrived to the moment I left, Little Big House was perfect. From vast breakfasts to the delicious smell of chocolate that wafted from the kitchen all afternoon, it was a treat just to be there. Which was fortunate, as the weather in Thessaloniki more or less precluded my leaving the building. After several weeks’ good weather on my travels, my days in the second city of Greece were marked by rain and even a little snow. I tried to get out and explore, but it wasn’t much fun and there wasn’t much to see. I got the sense it was a lovely place, and on my initial walk from the train station the colourful buildings really did look lovely in the sunlight… but for several days it was grey and cold and miserable.

Ships moored off Thesoloniki

Speaking of grey and cold and miserable, I began to look north to a number of countries noted for their grey, cold, and miserable weather and architecture and way of life: the Balkan states. I had only the vaguest of itineraries, but every road seemed to lead north through a number of countries about which I knew little – Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, and so on.

*

I gave up on Greece and hopped a bus north, over the border, into Bulgaria. As I left, the sun finally peaked out from behind a thick veil of clouds, teasing me. It was too late to turn back, though. I was heading onwards into grey, snowy Bulgaria. The landscape was pleasant but remarkably brown – brown, snowy fields leading to brown forests and brown hills which, for a few minutes at least, glimmered gold in the dying light of the sun, which then set over the mountains to the west.

By evening we were in Sofia, the capital. Snow lay thick on the ground here, and getting from the bus station to the hostel was a tricky business. I had brought a small carry-on roller suitcase instead of my usual backpack for this trip, and it was beyond useless on the snowy streets, so I had to lug it over my shoulder and hope I didn’t slip and fall. When I arrived at the hostel, I immediately headed back out in search of a much-needed beer. I found J.J. Murphy’s – an Irish pub on a little backstreet not too far from the hostel, and enjoyed a good pint of Kilkenny.

The following day I took the free walking tour about town. Free walking tours are a common occurrence around Europe these days, and every city of even moderate size seems to have one. Last year, I took one in Budapest, and learned about disputes over parliamentary buildings and the man who invented the Rubik’s cube. They are typically operated by drama students who have a well-rehearsed routine of self-deprecating jokes and long script memorized about each element of the city’s history. They are invariably entertaining and informative, yet somehow the same-iness of them makes me weary, as every tour differs little from the others. In any case, for two and a half hours I followed a man called Stanislav around Sofia, learning more about the city than I’d learned about any of the other cities I’d visited on this trip. He had a penchant for swearing which only grew with his familiarity with our group, and by the end, just about every second word was “fucking”: “This is the fucking parliament building where the shits get fucking nothing done.”

At the end, I went off on my own to explore further. I headed east to a large park and wandered about in the snow, hoping for something to photograph, eventually stumbling upon a fluffy squirrel. Sofia hadn’t exactly been photogenic, even if the tour was educational, but it was interesting enough. After that, I wandered through town to the Elephant Bookstore and bought yet another of Paul Theroux’s travel journals. Over the past year, he has become my favourite living writer. I took his book to the Fox Bookstore Café and sat sipping a large German beer for an hour, while reading about his journey through Australia.

The following day, alongside an Irish couple, I hired a car and driver to visit Rila Monastery, a few hours south of the capital. It was pissing down all the way to the foot of the mountain, whereupon the rain changed to snow. The temperature plunged as we got higher, and when we were nearly at the top the road was beyond treacherous. The car was, at times, just sliding sideways on the ice and slush. I was glad that there were big crash barriers alongside the narrow mountain road. When we finally stopped, the driver said that normally he’d wait three hours for us, but in this weather we’d be lucky to make it down the mountain alive after even an hour and a half.

When we got out at Rila, I was delighted. It was absolutely breathtaking and, what’s more, there was no one there except for us. I had read online that Rila was a tourist magnet and would be packed, but evidently no one else was stupid enough to brave the snowstorm. I trudged about in the snow for an hour, shooting what I thought were beautiful photos of the lovely old hermitage, but when I got home I realized that getting a good picture in such conditions is more challenging than I had imagined. Hardly any of my photos were useable. They were just blurry messes ruined by flurries of snow about the lens.

Bulgaria is a huge country with so many things to see, but, like Greece, I left after visiting only a few of the more obvious attractions. I felt a strange force pulling me onwards, perhaps towards the end of my journey. Or maybe it was just the fatigue that sets in after several weeks on the road, living out of a suitcase and sharing big dorm rooms with lots of people, moving from city to city and covering thousands mile each week… In any case, I was ready to leave cold, grey Bulgaria and head on… but to where?

*

My research on where to go next left me baffled. Contradictory information about trains and buses to other countries left me uncertain of where I should go. However, a sudden impulse caused me to choose Belgrade. One cold morning, I got up and walked to the train station, and boarded a tiny little train that was supposedly going over the border to Serbia.

This was going to be an exhausting journey. The relatively short hop from Sofia to Belgrade was set to take an astounding 14 hours. How could this be?

At the border, the train was stopped for an hour as immigration and customs from both countries boarded and inspected the train. A Bulgarian man asked me, “Do you have anything to declare?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“No drugs or guns or anything?”

“No.”

He winked. “Ok, I take your word for it.”

As he left the train, he asked, “Hey, where are you from?”

“The UK.”

“I see,” he said. “Have a good day, my friend… and GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!!!”

Beyond the Bulgarian border, the train not only moved slowly but stopped off at seemingly every farm house and wooden shack between the border and the capital. At each of these rudimentary stations, an old man or fat little women, wearing a bright red hat and a sad blue suit, stood beside a bored dog and waved a little stick to tell the train it was time to rumble on. A handful of people got on or off, but the train never filled, even though it was just two small carriages stuck together. This was not what I expected of the only train heading for the capital.

Serbian train station

From the window, I could see that Serbia was similar to Bulgaria, except even more Soviet-looking. In Bulgaria, there were little dilapidated houses spewing coal smoke into the sky, old boxy Russian cars, and even the occasional formerly red star, now turned brown. In Serbia, the houses were all sad, Soviet-era buildings, simple and functional, yet possessing the purely communist sense of soul-sucking conformity. The snowy fields were eerily beautiful, and I even saw a big orange fox playing in the snow, but the country seemed sad and lethargic.

We stopped for an hour in Nis, a small city in the middle of the country. I got off the train in a fit of restlessness and wandered off into the city. I had no Serbian currency on me, but managed to find someone who would trade me dina for euros, and then traded my dina for a sandwich and a bottle of wine, which I brought back to the train. We were soon off again, racing slowly towards the capital city.

Belgrade is not conventionally attractive.  It is no Paris or Venice, that’s for sure. It is certainly not the sort of city one would see on a postcard and declare, “My god, I must add that to my bucket list!” You would not snap a photo of it and stick it on the front of a travel magazine, expecting floods of tourists to descend upon the city. Belgrade is more like a Soviet version of Dundee… and not the good parts of Dundee, but the parts you steer clear of after dark, or few several hours prior to a big football game. It is littered with pawn shops, betting shops, and the sort of shitty bakeries that just need a Greggs sign above the door. The buildings alongside the main roads are blackened, presumably by pollution, and everything has the functional-but-not-remotely-pretty look you often find behind the former Iron Curtain. The people walking the street have a special look in their eye – or maybe it’s better to say that they’re missing something, rather than possessing something. As you find in Cambodia and other countries that suffered war or genocide in their recent history, there is a blankness behind the eyes, and a certain step in their stride that belies the knowledge of true human misery, and that holds back memories of horrors the likes of which most of us thankfully will never know.

Yet somehow Belgrade is a genuinely nice city. It may not look it, but it is. Once you get past that deprived inner-city look, you find it’s really quite charming, and the people, despite that despondent outward appearance, are genuinely very friendly. I had been told to expect the coldest people in Europe, but everywhere I turned I found nice folk – reserved and almost afraid to smile, for sure, but nonetheless helpful and friendly people.

In Belgrade I stayed at an incredibly nice hostel for two nights and for one long day I walked about the city. When I left the hostel, my charming host told me in a very serious tone, “We like to laugh in Serbia,” but I had not seen anyone laugh or smile.

*

The train from Belgrade to the border at Sid moves at little more than a walking pace. You look outside and see a small village ahead with a little church tower, and thirty minutes later it is still ahead. Little old Soviet-era cars and rickety buses pass you by on the adjacent road, and when such a road intersects the railway line, the drivers and passengers look bored, as though they have been sitting there for hours, waiting for this ridiculous little train to move on by, letting them finally speed off.

Mercifully, we soon reached the border with Croatia, after which the train gained speed, finally moving across the landscape at a respectable pace. It skirted the border with Bosnia before cutting up to the capital city of Zagreb, and from there on to the border with Slovenia, my next destination. It was dark by this point and I could see little except for patches of snow here and there. I was weary of train travel, after spending some 24 hours in just 3 days travelling through the Balkans.

Late at night, I arrived in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, whose name is not quite as hard to pronounce as it may look from that odd cluster of consonants. I checked in at my hostel and again took a walk around the city, rather impressed despite the rain. I had no idea what to expect, but Ljubljana was quite cosmopolitan – a very modern version of, say, Budapest. A raging river runs through the middle and around a castle on a steep hill, underneath which sits an “old town” that is really rather gentrified now – in some respects a tourist town. It looks like someone took Prague and Budapest and Bratislava and smashed them all together.

The next day I woke and spent several hours editing essays for some students on my online IELTS writing course. It was pouring down outside and I didn’t fancy going out. However, by lunchtime the rain had not let up and I decided I may as well try to see some of the city, so I stuck on a raincoat and ventured out. I trekked through the city centre and up the hill to the castle, which was uninteresting, and then around the hill on which the castle sits, eventually circling most of the small city. The rain and fog and clouds made it hard to see anything or enjoy anything, but I did get a few decent photos, much to my surprise:

After my walk, I found a small pub/restaurant and went into sample the IPA they advertised outside.

“It’s only available in the summer,” the woman behind the counter told me. She seemed angry that I would be stupid enough to ask for something that was advertised on the door. “But we have mulled wine.” She gestured to two huge vats of bubbling liquid.

“Ok, gimme some mulled wine, then.”

“Red or white?”

I had never in my life heard of mulled white wine before. As far as I knew, mulled wine was red wine. Sticking to my prejudices, I elected of the traditional red wine, and drank the delicious – though far too surgary – hot beverage. About halfway through, I asked myself if I would ever get the chance to try mulled white wine again, given that Slovenia was the only country where I’d ever encountered it.

So I ordered a mug of mulled white wine. It was fine; the red was far superior.

Later that night, after much walking in the rain, I traipsed back to my hostel and the girl on the reception desk asked, “Do you want some mulled wine?”

She did not ask whether I’d prefer red or white; here, evidently, there was only white wine. She handed me a two litre jug of reasonably pleasant mulled wine, which I sipped until it was gone. By the end, I was beginning to doubt whether I had been right in my initial prejudices. Perhaps white wine was the way to go in terms of mulling – it lacked the ludicrous amounts of sugar inherent in red wine, and with a healthy dose of cloves, it lost that sour bite and became actually quite pleasant. Or maybe I was just pissed.

*

The next morning I set off on a bus for Bled, a well-known lake an hour and a half to the north of Ljubljana, right on the border with Austria. On the way, I noted just how green Slovenia was. In Bulgaria and Serbia everything had been shades of brown, but here it was bright green that broke up the snow. The mountains soared into the clouds, which obscured their snowy tops.

The bus pulled up in a small, touristy town, and we poured off. I walked quickly down to the lake and then began to circumambulate it, before finding a hidden hiking trail leading steeply up a hill. After hauling myself to the top, I was afforded several beautiful views over the lake, the town, and the surrounding areas. Sadly, cloud obscured most of the nearby mountains, but it was still an attractive vista nonetheless.

When attempting to get down the mountain, I managed to get hopelessly lost and had to descend much of the climb off-trail. This was somewhat difficult, but did allow me to see a family of deer pass by. At the bottom, I continued my trek around the lake, getting back just in time for sunset. Alas, the heavens suddenly broke and any hope of a nice sunset photo over the lake frittered away. I walked back to the bus and it took off for the capital.

Posted in Photography, travel

Exploring Athens

After Napoli, I wasn’t sure what to do, so I headed to Bari on Italy’s eastern coast. Before you open up Google Maps, perhaps I can explain: it’s at the top of the heel.

Bari isn’t much of anything, but it’s a nice enough little place. There’s a pleasant old town that’s good to walk around and a reasonably attractive seafront promenade. It is clean and orderly compared to other Italian cities, and mostly free from scammers and beggars. There aren’t many tourists because there isn’t much to do, but that’s ok. It’s charming in its way, and I suppose you could say it does have one weird attraction: the bones of Saint Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.

In Bari, I dithered further about where to go next. Should head on down through the toe of the boot to Sicily, the rustic and volcanic island, or go north through northern Italy? But there was a third option – to jump aboard a ferry headed for Greece, across the Ionian Sea.

I was keen to stay in Italy a little longer because the country had really impressed me, but as it turned out I’d painted myself into a corner with the travel options in Bari, and getting a bus or train anywhere else was surprisingly hard. So I turned to the sea and booked myself a ferry for Patras. One bright, sunny morning, I headed to the port at the eastern tip of the town and boarded a big ship called the Nissos Rodos. It sounded oh-so-Greek.

The journey across the sea took some sixteen hours, but the departure was delayed by three or four hours for reasons I never did understand. The ship could’ve held a few thousand people, but there were only eleven passengers on board, and by the time we arrived in Greece we had been whittled down to just three. Whether we stopped somewhere in the night and some folks disembarked, or they went mad and jumped overboard, I have no idea.

img_3802

I was surprised to see, as the mists parted and the sun rose, the mountains of Greece covered in snow. I always thought of Greece – at least the coastal regions – as a very hot place, yet there was snow all over, and nearly down to sea level. The wind off the Mediterranean was also nearly freezing, and as I moved towards a destination I had always associated with excessive heat, I was wrapped up in winter clothing.

Patras seemed a nice enough town, but I couldn’t find any cheap accommodation, and so boarded a bus immediately for Athens. The ticket was 20 euros, which surprised me, but I would later find out that travelling in Greece is actually fairly expensive. Certainly, it was pricier than in Italy.

A few hours later, I arrived in Athens and made the long walk with my luggage from the KTEL bus station to my hostel, just south of the Acropolis. I was stunned by the beauty of Athens from the moment I arrived in the old town. The Acropolis stands majestically above the city, gleaming white in the bright Mediterranean sun. Although I had enjoyed Italy, the streets were often filthy and dangerous, but here it was clean and safe. The nearer I got to the Acropolis, the nicer everything looked.

I soon checked in and then headed out to climb Filoppapou Hill, a small slope that rises just higher than the Acropolis. I was able to sit and look out at the whole of Athens, spread out over a vast area 360 degrees around me. The sun went down, casting lovely light across the city and the nearby mountains.

*

The next day, with a friend from the hostel, I set out to explore the Acropolis and other archaeological sites in the area. We first took in the Acropolis, slowing winding our way up the slopes past the theatre of Dionysus to the Parthenon and Erechtheum. We both had our cameras and spent several hours shooting the ruins. I regretted having not paid more attention to Greek history in the past, but it was nonetheless impressive and fascinating to see all these ancient buildings and monuments. There were quite a few tourists milling about, but it was not grossly overcrowded as in Rome.

Afterwards, we headed down the hill, north to the nearby Agora Park, where there are more ruins. We spent the rest of the afternoon shooting photos there, including some of the local cats. In Athens, people seem to spend an inordinate amount of time feeding the local cats, which have become fat and friendly as a result.

The following day, I met up with a Greek friend, Michael Limnios, and he showed me some more obscure places, particularly pertaining to countercultural figures. We saw places visited by the likes of Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg, and looked at bookstores which sold translations of Burroughs’ novels. Of particular interest was an anarchist section of town – somewhere very definitely off the tourist trail.

That evening, I hiked up Lycabettus Hill to see a final Athenian sunset, but it was too cloudy, and so I wandered back to my hostel, ready to move on to the next place. Having ruled out the islands for being slightly out of my budget, I elected for a long train ride north to Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Posted in Photography, travel

Naples – the Greatest City on Earth

Everyone says not to visit Naples. Even my Italian friends told me, “Don’t go there.” It is a city riddled by crime, apparently, where anyone foolish enough to walk the streets will be robbed by passing gangs. Yet something drew me there. It was the part of Italy I most wanted to visit, and after exploring Venice, Florence, and Rome, I headed south on a bus towards this apparently infamous city on the coast.

Arriving in Naples, I wasn’t immediately impressed, but bus stations usually aren’t the most charming places. I walked quickly towards my hostel, keeping my head down and trying to act as though I were a local in spite of my bags. I soon arrived at the Hostel of the Sun, and my opinion of Naples began to rise. The place was charming, and the staff incredibly friendly. A man called Luca spent 25 minutes explaining everything there was to do in Naples and the surrounding areas, passionately telling me where to eat and how to get to the best viewpoints.

That first night, I ventured out and tried my first genuinely Neapolitan pizza… it was magnificent, and cheap, too. Walking to the restaurant and back, I didn’t feel the streets were any more dangerous than any city back home in Scotland. After a night’s sleep, I headed out the next day to explore the city. Along with a friend from the hostel, I walked nearly 20km around Naples, taking in the sights and sounds. We were both utterly overwhelmed. There were a few obvious attractions, like the castles and panoramic views, but what really got us were the narrow, winding backstreets filled with colorful people. Laundry hung from windows and tiny old Italian cars and Vespas whizzed by, screeching on cobblestones. Marketplaces appeared in random corners of the city, where people sold vast wheels of cheese and all sorts of fish, even moray eels, which I did not know could be eaten.

The next day, we hopped a series of buses and trains for Amalfi, a tiny town south of Naples. The Amalfi Coast is famous, and for good reason. The road was much like Route 101 down the Californian coastline, and in particular quite like Big Sur. Except, unlike the US, the roads were tiny, and it was genuinely frightening when two buses had to scrape by each other, hundreds of feet up above the ocean. We were glued to the window, incredulous at the scenery.

Amalfi itself had little to see. It is more a village than a town, and there wasn’t much there except a handful of restaurants. We instead sat by the sea for a few hours, and then walked some of the dangerous twisting clifftop roads, before heading back to Naples on yet another series of buses and trains. We got back in time for dinner – which, in Italy, means we got back by 11pm. Dinner comprised of an incredible pizza, a bowl of mussels and other assorted seafood, and a bottle of white wine than cost just THREE EUROS. Seriously. Three Euros for a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Naples is the greatest.

For our final day in Naples, we talked the city streets again, with no real destination in mind. By the third day (which was in fact my eleventh day in Italy) we were exhausted from walking so much, and again found a rock by the sea to sit on for a few hours. We stopped in a few places for gelato and paninis, and then said goodbye. She was off to Bologna, up north, and I to Bari, in the east.

*

Naples (or Napoli, as it is really called) is my favourite place in Italy by a long stretch. It is a stunning city filled with genuinely nice people – helpful, friendly, warm, interesting folk with odd habits and a curious passion for life. The food here is beyond description, and quite cheap compared to elsewhere. Though some parts seemed rather sketchy after dark, it certainly appeared no more dangerous than most cities, and a lot safer than Rome… as long as you can avoid being hit by a tiny speeding car on a blind backstreet alley.

Yes, Napoli is the very best of cities, in my humble opinion – not just in Italy, but in the world. Travelling here has been a pleasure.

Posted in travel

Venice: A Pleasant Surprise

I hadn’t heard much about Venice that was very kind, at least not recently. Years ago, the famed city on the water was world-renowned for its beauty and sophistication. Nowadays, it is swarmed with tourists, plagued by criminals, and the once-glorious canals stink to high hell.

Or so they said.

*

My flight to Venice was painless enough, particularly when you consider that the airline was six-time winner of the dubious “Worst Airline Award”, Ryanair. I loathe Ryanair, but when you get see a flight to a city you’ve never been before for just £10 (ok, £40 including bags), it’s hard to say no. I’ve sat on Indian buses for whole days at a time, so I figured I could just about cope with two and a half hours on a plane.

Ryanair actually doesn’t fly into Venice… In fact, Venice doesn’t exactly have an airport; the neighbouring cities, which are not built on water, have them instead. As such, I flew into Treviso, and from there took a bus (which was far nicer than the plane) to Mestre. Mestre is another neighbouring city – the one directly across the water from Venice, and joined by a bridge and a number of boats. I had found a well-reviewed hostel for much cheaper than you’d get on the island, and so that would serve as my base.

In the morning, I hopped a train to Venice. The train cost a euro and took about five or ten minutes. When I stepped off, I was still not expecting much. But when I got out of the station and saw the Grand Canal for the first time, I was nearly overwhelmed. It was a shimmering turquoise, busy with little boats, and surrounded by regal old buildings.

As I ventured over one of the bridges and into the labyrinthine passageways of the city, I found the streets to be quiet, largely devoid of tourists. I was able to meander at my own pace along the sides of smaller canals, and over quaint little bridges. Where were the hordes of screaming tourists, pushing and shoving? This was far more charming than I expected. Most of all, I loved the old buildings. So many “ancient” towns and cities are completely restored so that very little of the past actually remains. Venice is a real, functioning city and some buildings have just fallen to bits. That actually adds to the charm. (Though maybe not if you live there.)

Eventually, I came to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), which was much busier than elsewhere, but still not as bad as I expected. I took more photos and moved on, finding a bench near the sea to sit and rest for a while.

Colourful houses on a canal
One more image: Some very cool looking buildings near the Venice Arsenal.

Wandering back through the city to the train station took most of the rest of my day, and when I returned to my hostel in Mestre, I had clocked up 16km. That’ll help shift some of that Christmas weight!

My brief visit to Venice has been a real unexpected pleasure. Tomorrow morning I’ll head for Florence, a little south of here and towards the opposite side of the country.

Posted in Photography, travel

Koh Samui

After a relaxing two weeks in Koh Phangan, I encountered a bit of a problem. My Thai visa was about to expire. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did. You see, when British citizens travel to Thailand we are given 30 day visas on arrival. However, this does not apply when you travel overland from a neighbouring country… like, say, Cambodia.

Vera and I looked at our options. We loved Koh Phangan and didn’t really want to leave, but I could either extend my visa or we both had to leave the country and go elsewhere. It would have been nice to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, or Cambodia… but travelling with a Chinese passport is rather difficult, and indeed expensive. It would also have taken time that we just didn’t have, given my own visa situation.

Looking at our options, the cheapest thing to do was to head from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui, where there is an immigration office in the town of Maenam. Vera’s visa was set to expire not long after mine, and we could extend both there, squeezing as much time out of our summer holiday as possible.

Soon, we hopped in a taxi to Haad Rin, at the southeastern end of Koh Phangan, and from there took the Haad Rin Queen ferry over to a place aptly called Big Buddha, on the northeastern end of Koh Samui. The journey took just 45 minutes and cost only 200 baht each.

Koh Samui was immediately very different from Koh Phangan – or, for that matter, from nearby Koh Tao. It is a lot bigger and much busier. Several planes zipped in low over our boat as we approached the harbour, and there was heavy traffic right outside the pier. We quickly felt regret at having left behind peaceful little Koh Phangan.

I had expected the immigration office to prove a tedious challenge, but in fact it was very simple. We filled in a set of quite basic forms, had our passports photocopied, and handed over a large amount of cash. I wasn’t too happy about the money, but it was cheaper than flying to another country. From various online sources, I got the impression that this might have taken up a whole day, but altogether it took less than an hour.

We found a little hotel five minutes’ walk uphill from the immigration office, on a quiet little dusty road. It was beautiful, if a tad expensive compared to what we were used to in Koh Phangan. “Oh well, we can stay one night and go somewhere cheaper,” we said.

In fact, the hotel was so comfortable, with such lovely staff and a nice 24-hour swimming pool, that we stayed a full week! The location wasn’t great (aside from the convenient proximity to the immigration office), but it certainly was quiet compared with most of the island.

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The oddly named, but very pleasant, Wazzah resort on Koh Samui.

At the hotel, we rented a little motorbike and set out to explore the island. First we headed counterclockwise to the town of Nathon, and inwards to the mountainous interior, where we found a stunning waterfall in the jungle. We had the place to ourselves for an hour, and spent that time swimming in the cool waters.

Next, we ventured clockwise through Chaweng to Lamai, in the southeast. Chaweng looked pretty awful – a big, busy tourist trap. However, Lamai was a little nicer, and we had a delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant. Yes, that’s right – a Jamaican restaurant in Thailand. The food was very expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but still only totaled about $20 for an incredible meal with drinks. Not too bad, all things considered.

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A storm moves quickly in from Lamai beach.

Our other ventures around the island took us up and over the middle, exploring dangerous little mountain roads on the trusty scooter. Some roads were so astoundingly steep that I was left genuinely baffled that the bike’s breaks managed to hold out, and on more than a few occasions it looked like the engine was going to die when hauling us both up rocky roads. We ran up hundreds of miles just zipping around, and found some more beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views out over the Gulf of Thailand.

Vera’s favourite part of the holiday, though, was the walking markets. In both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, we found ourselves spending our evenings eating at street food stalls where you could get food for two for just US$3, and it was fantastic! She became somewhat of a curry snob after consuming several dozen massaman curries. Our regular market was by the pier at Nathon, but the best was in China Town, where I had a wonderful mango cocktail for about $2, and a whole pizza for just $3. Bargain! (As an odd sidenote: China Town contains two Austrian restaurants, a Swiss restaurant, a Swedish restaurant, several French and Italians restaurants, and a host of others… but not a single Chinese one.)

 

Time flew by and soon it was time to leave Thailand. I had spent damn near an entire summer there – exploring Phuket, Krabi, Ao Nang, Chumporn, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. All I am familiar with Thailand, these were all places I hadn’t really gotten to know until now, and I’m glad I did.

Our last day was spent on a series of ferries and buses headed back to Bangkok, and the next morning, at 3am, we were going to the airport to board a direct flight (thank god) to China.

Posted in Photography, travel

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

As recounted in previous blog posts, I spent most of July and early August travelling alone through Thailand and Cambodia. However, after four or five weeks’ solo journeying, I undertook a long and painful bus ride to Thailand’s vast capital, Bangkok, to meet my girlfriend, Vera.

I arrived first, a day ahead of her. On my first visit, some weeks earlier, I stayed at the ultra-cheap Khaosan Art Hotel, but this time elected for the comparatively pricey Rambuttri Village Plaza, a place I’ve stayed before. I had a whole night and a day to wait for Vera, and as I’m not particularly fond of Bangkok – or cities in general, come to think of it – I chose a hotel with a rooftop pool so I could spend my time reading a book and soaking in the sun.

Of course, I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing:

Vera’s flight was meant to arrive around 8pm but it was delayed and she didn’t arrive until after midnight. That gave us about three hours’ sleep before we had to get up and hit the road, as I had booked bus tickets with Lomphraya for the following morning. Alas, bleary-eyed, we ventured out into the darkness before sunrise and off on a day-long journey to Koh Phangan.

The journey was actually not bad, as we were so tired we slept through most of it. By early afternoon our bus had decanted us at the Chumporn ferryport and we were soon skipping across the pristine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, headed for a tropical paradise.

When we arrived, I walked about looking for a hotel, and stumbled upon the oddly-named but rather pleasant Lime ‘n’ Soda, where we spent a few pleasant days. After that, we moved to the nearby Hacienda, to a much cheaper but much better room.

Our time on Koh Phangan was spent mostly on the southern coast, looking out at Koh Samui to the south. We awoke each morning to stunning views over the waters, and long walks on the empty beaches. There were a few kitesurfers on the waters but it was exceptionally quiet.

Sometimes we rented a motorcycle and ventured to other parts of the island, but nothing really matched the loveliness of the area we had randomly stumbled upon that first day. The hilly roads provided an amusing bike ride with stunning views, but we didn’t venture off the main roads onto the rather intimidating-looking dirt roads leading to remote waterfalls and other sights. Instead, we went to little beach areas in the northwest and northeast, including Haad Mae Haad and Haad Yao.

After almost two weeks on Koh Phangan, it was time to leave. My visa expired and the immigration office was on nearby Koh Samui. I had never really wanted to visit Samui, but it seemed like the thing to do – a quick jaunt across the water and then a day at the immigration office, followed by some time exploring the largest of the three main islands in the Thai Gulf.

Well, that’s where I am as I write this… I’ll post more next week.

Posted in travel

Kampot

This is just a short post. Right now I am in Thailand, having more of a traditional holiday than the usual solo exploration/adventure I usually do. As such, I am not devoting much time to writing or photo editing.

So here goes…

After about a week at Siem Reap, I hopped on a night bus to to Kampot. Many years ago, I took a night bus in the opposite direction, and I recall it being a pretty decent experience. This was to be nothing of the sort…

I was crammed into what essentially was a single bed, except it was for two people. Many years ago, that other person was my wife. This time it was a random Cambodian man.

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Night bus to Kampot

The bus was also not direct. It stopped in Phnom Penh at some ungodly hour and I was herded onto another bus, where my bunkmate was a French man. I managed maybe an hour of sleep before we got to Sihanoukville, where there was a three hour layover before switching to a mini bus headed for Kampot…

Ah well, I am accustomed to the pains of bus travel in Southeast Asia, so it was not that big of a deal. It was certainly nothing in comparison with the shock of arriving in Sihanoukville, an experience which prompted me to write the following 1,000 word diatribe:

Chinocalypse

When I first came to Cambodia in 2012, I fell in love with the place. I spent a week or two at Sihanoukville, some time on Koh Thmei, and then just a day at Angkor Wat. I was enchanted by the place. Sure, it wasn’t perfect… but it was perfectly imperfect. When I got back to China, I dreamed constantly of being in Cambodia. The lush green jungles and bright red dirt held a magical hold over me that kept calling me back.

In 2013 I went to live there with my wife. It was a difficult life, as I should have expected. We ran a small business until our relationship fell apart, and she left. When I left after 13 months, I hadn’t exactly fallen out of love with Cambodia, but it was the scene of the very worst memories in my life. After I was gone, I didn’t much think about going back.

However, in 2016, finding myself in Southern Laos, it made sense to hop across the border and check in on some old friends. First I headed to Kratie, in the north, someplace I’d never been. On the quiet red dirt roads of the backcountry, I found myself again face-to-face with the Cambodia I loved. But when I went back to Sihanoukville, things were harder. I was suddenly in the place where my life had gone catastrophically wrong – a place that was the same as it was when I left, and yet somehow different. Still, after almost a week there, I had stared down some ghosts and felt at peace with the place I used to love.

I decided a few months ago that I’d come back to Cambodia this summer. I had no intentions of visiting Sihanouvkille because, although I had come to terms with what had happened there, there really wasn’t all that much to bring me back. The beaches aren’t that nice compared to those in Thailand and in general the positive things you find in Cambodia are rather missing in Sihanoukville. Instead of friendly faces, you have cut-throat conmen and aggressive tuk-tuk drivers. So instead, I headed to Siem Reap and Kampot.

On my way between these two towns, though, my bus made a surprise stopover in Sihanoukville. I took a few hours to stroll about the town, and I was horrified. I had heard things online about the Chinese taking over – building casinos, funding ridiculous construction projects, etc. I had seen some changes back in 2016, but it wasn’t significantly different from 2014.

This time, however, it was like visiting an entirely different place. For a start, all the businesses in the central area (where my bar was located) had been closed down. Every single bar, café, restaurant, or guesthouse that existed just a few years ago – some of which had been there for more than a decade – were now shut. In their place were Chinese casinos, Chinese hotels, Chinese restaurants, and Chinese shops.

I walked around and around, stunned by this sudden and hideous transformation. Awful little chain restaurants from China had bought up everything in town. Every bit of free space had been purchased and marked for construction, and even at 7am the roads were jammed with traffic as busloads of Chinese were ferried to their casinos.

Sihanouvkille had always been a small town with an edgy charm. It was like the Wild West of the Far East. It was big, yet small. It was sprawling but quiet, with few buildings more than three storeys tall. Now, everything is high-rise and fast-faced. Where once the town, for all its flaws, was exciting and cool, now it looks grey, drab, and ugly – just like all of China.

There is homelessness where locals have been pushed out and their homes destroyed, and the infrastructure is suffering heavily under Chinese wheels. Even little Otres, the hippie enclave on the far outskirts of town, which was at the end of an unpaved road just four years ago, is now just one vast construction site for Chinese buildings.

After I got to Kampot, I spoke to a friend about what had happened to Sihanoukville. He told me that it was far worse than I had seen. It wasn’t just the town center and Otres. Everywhere had become Chinese, as locals and long-time expats were pushed out. Most of the expats had chosen to leave, some losing all their money and other getting decent payouts, but for the locals it was devastating. Rents have soared, and in some cases people have even had their homes leveled by bulldozers.

Sihanoukville is now dead, as far as I am concerned – and the same goes for countless others who knew it and loved it. The Chinese have colonized it and sapped up any charm it once had, crushing it into oblivion. They will continue to do this wherever they please, as it is the next step in establishing their new world order. First it was Tibet and Xinjiang; then came Hong Kong, whose freedoms are already diminishing; Taiwan probably has less than a decade before the C.C.P. backs its absurd claims with military action. All across Southeast Asia, the Chinese have spread their pernicious influence and it is only a matter of time before each government is brought under their control and the cultures stamped out. The Chinese will spread into every corner, eventually outnumbering the locals. It is how they will conquer the world. It is the Chinocalypse.

Long ago, China had its own vibrant culture and its own vast and beautiful landscape. Then along came Mao Zedong and the C.C.P. and they decided that uniformity was best. Nature needed to be paved over, culture obliterated, and a population of billions of mindless drones created to do the Party’s dirty work. They succeeded mightily, and as we watch America collapse in on itself at a terrifying pace as Europe disintegrates, it is clear which way the wind blows. The Chinocalypse is all but upon us, and the future is bleak.

So much for that.

I arrived in Kampot around mid-morning and my anger and sadness at the Chinification of Cambodia dissipated somewhat as I found myself in a sleepy old town that seemed to have changed very little in the preceding decades. It was a happy mixture of local and European cultures with not a single Chinese person in sight. The beer was cheap, the food good, and the air clean.

It didn’t look too bad, either:

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Sunset over Bokor

I spent about a week puttering about. I rented a bicycle one day and cycled many miles through the surrounding countryside, visiting little villages where children ran out to scream “hello!” and everybody seemed to have a smile for the visitor. I also rented a motorcycle and attempted to drive up to the top of Bokor Mountain although…

There was in fact one negative to Kampot.

The weather.

Kampot is rather famous for having horrific weather. It sits between the sea and some mountains, and during the rainy season it seldom seems as though an hour passes without a massive downpour. These downpours are bizarre in that they are confined to very small areas. You can be caught in the heaviest rain you’ve ever seen and then walk 50 meters and find that it hadn’t rained at all…

Despite all that, I had a very pleasant time in a lovely little town, but it was soon time to return to Thailand, and that meant another long bus ride, this time to Bangkok.

Here are a few photos from around Kampot:

Posted in travel

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Back in 2012, I visited Cambodia for the first time and immediately fell in love. It was Sihanoukville and the nearby coastline that captivated me, but I managed to squeeze in a day at Angkor Wat before heading to the airport and leaving the country. I loved it, and knew that one day I’d return. Indeed, I’ve been back to Cambodia several times since then (once to run a bar/hotel for a year) but last week was my first time back at Angkor Wat.

The bus ride from Bangkok was long and difficult, ultimately taking 14 hours instead of the 7 that was promised. Oh well. No harm done, except to my spine and sanity – and who needs those?

When I arrived at my hotel, the wonderful Tropical Breeze Guesthouse in the quiet southeast of the town of Siem Reap, the friendly lady at the front desk asked me if it was my first time in Cambodia. Skipping over my days in Sihanoukville and a visit to Kratie, I told her that yes, I had visited Siem Reap and Angkor Wat about 7 years earlier.

She replied, “Oh, you lucky. You come before Chinese destroy everything. They so noisy and rude!”

I laughed hard because it’s so true, and yet so few people are willing to say it out loud. The Chinese are awful. They behave like animals back in China but hey, that’s their country and that’s their prerogative. If your culture permits spitting on tables in a restaurant and then shitting on the floor, so be it. If it permits beating children, pushing strangers out of a queue, and shouting at the top of your lungs as a means of conversation, then fine. It’s your country, it’s your rules.

But when they bring their despicable ways with them when they travel, it crosses a line. And boy, do the Chinese like to travel now… Well, maybe like is the wrong word. Travelling is just something they now have to do. They are miserable most of the time, but Chinese society is all about checking the boxes and being seen to do certain things.

But I digress.

I was talking about Siem Reap…

The next day, I set about exploring Siem Reap, which is actually a nice little town. Many people overlook it entirely in order to see more of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap is not without its charm:

After a day of exploring town, I got a good night’s rest and then woke up early for a full day at Angkor Wat. I rented a bicycle this time, whereas on the first visit I took the more conventional approach of hiring a tuk-tuk and driver.

I set off about 6am, although I had originally planned on 4am in order to see the sunrise. Upon waking, it occurred to me that – A) It’s dark out and cycling with no lights would be dangerous, and B) It’s cloud so the sunrise wouldn’t be that great.

Instead, I cycled and got there about 7am, when there was still good light. It was also pleasantly quiet then. At least, it was quiet for a while. I wandered around Angkor Wat first (confusingly, Angkor Wat is the name of the entire park area, as well as one of the many temples), and then headed on to the other temples.

Here are some of my photos:

I spent the whole day cycling and walking, cycling and walking… According to my phone, I cycled almost 40km and walked nearly 15km! Not a bad day’s exercise.

I was delighted to get some beautiful photos and it is always lovely to see a place of such massive historical importance, but honestly the woman at the hotel had been right – the Chinese ruined it.

There are several “main” temples around the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and at each of the big ones, the Chinese swarmed like mosquitoes. They were loud and rude and disgusting. They spat in the temples and stuffed rubbish into cracks in the walls. They refused to speak a word of Khmer or English, and instead just screamed Chinese at the baffled Khmer staff, and then threw fistfuls of Chinese money at waitresses after their meals, even though that is not an accepted currency here.

At the temples, they pushed and shoved and acted like idiots. They even insisted on calling everyone around them, “foreigners”!!! One Chinese woman even had the audacity to speak to me in Chinese and then use “foreigner” in English. I refrained myself from using the wide arsenal of Chinese swearwords that I know.

Oh well.

This wasn’t meant to be a rant about Chinese people.

I got stuck in the rain for several hours, which rather hindered my exploration, and then at five-thirty the park closed and I headed back for Siem Reap. It was meant to be a relaxing, happy day, but in the end it was stressful and often unpleasant. Still, there were peaceful moments. There were quiet, lesser-known temples with no Chinese, and moments of serenity in the morning before it was hot and busy. And cycling there early in the morning reminded me of why I loved Cambodia in the first place – the red dirt roads and thick jungles, and kids zipping around on old bicycles.

Back in Siem Reap, I made the most of my hotel’s pool:

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It’s not a bad hotel for $4 a night! Check it out if you’re in town – Tropical Breeze.

Then I explored the town some more, finding wonderful little restaurants selling incredible dishes for dirt cheap prices… not to mention the ubiquitous $0.50 beers.

In the end, it’s good to be back in one of my favourite countries. I’ll just have to be careful and avoid those places the Chinese gravitate towards.

And so… next up is Kampot.