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.

IMG_2302
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:

IMG_2310
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:

Advertisements
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:

IMG_2289

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.

Posted in travel

Long Bus Rides Through Thailand

After visiting Phuket Island, Krabi Town, and Ao Nang, I decided to head on over to the other side of Thailand – the east coast. I have been to Koh Tao several times and each time I passed through a place called Chumpon, which always looked really attractive from the bus and ferry. From what I had seen, it was just long stretches of white sand beaches with no one around. All the tourists just passed through without stopping.

I bought a bus ticket in Ao Nang and got up early next morning for my pick-up. I was crammed in the back of a tiny mini bus which drove to Krabi. From there, I was put on another mini bus to Surat Thani, and then on another mini bus north to Chumpon. The total distance between Krabi/Ao Nang and Chumpon is only about 270 kilometers, yet the journey took nearly a whole day. I was exhausted by the time I arrived, although conveniently the bus stopped only 50 meters from my hostel.

The next day, I rented a motorbike from my hostel and asked the owner for tips on finding a good beach. He wrote down several places on a map, each of them about 40km north of Chumphon. He called them “real secret” beaches that no tourists no about.

I was delighted, and jumped on the bike, zipping off north past the airport and along the coast. It was a long drive but a pleasant one, as the roads were not particularly busy. I stopped off along the way at one random beach, which was completely deserted, but didn’t stop. Instead, I pushed on in search of my “secret” beach.

In the end, I only found one of the beaches because they were incredibly hard to get to. I support that’s what made them so secret. I followed a series of small roads and then footpaths to come to a small bay with nothing there except perfect white sand, clear blue seas, and coconut trees lining the beach. It was everything the guy had told me.

Thailand Secret Beach
My own private beach.

I was about to jump in the water for a swim when a dark cloud suddenly appeared and almost immediately it began to rain. Another cloud joined it, and another… and another… and soon it was pouring with rain and the sky was black. I hid in a cave at one end of the bay, and read my book.

An hour passed.

And then another hour.

Eventually, the rain slowed somewhat, but the skies were still ominous and no longer felt like swimming. It was actually a little chilly with the wind, and I didn’t fancy getting out of the water and not being able to dry off before a long drive back to town.

Instead, I gave up and headed back towards the main road. Along the way, I found that the storm had blown a tree down across one of the footpaths. I had to drag it out of the way, hoping that it had no venomous snakes or spiders hidden in its leaves and branches.

At the main road, instead of giving up entirely and going back to Chumphon, I headed further north in search of another beach. This was not one of the “secret” beaches that the hostel owner had listed, but instead a small, remote public beach. I found it easily and just as I stepped onto the sand, the rain stopped and the clouds began to part.

Secret beach, Thailand
Another private beach.

The water was impossibly still – not even a ripple on the surface – and the beach was just about perfect. There was no one about here, either.

I hopped in the water and then lay on the beach for an hour, reading my book. A few people came and went but it was very quiet and pleasant. When I finally drove back to Chumphon as darkness began to fall, I was pretty satisfied with the results of my day. It had been an adventure of sorts, and pleasant in spite of it not going exactly to plan.

*

That night, I realized the sand flies had got me. On the second beach, I had noticed maybe a dozen of them and brushed them away, but evidently they hadn’t gotten a good few bites in first – maybe a few hundred, in fact. I was covered in what looked like giant mosquito bites.

Mosquitoes don’t generally bother me. They bite me, sure, but if I ignore the itch for a few hours, it goes away entirely. Sand flies, however, will cause itching that is 10x worse and lasts for days and days and days.

After an itchy night, I moved over from my cheap hostel to a less cheap hotel along the road. It was about $22 per night, which I suppose makes it cheap in the grand scheme, but it was more than double what I usually pay in Thailand. The reason I chose this place was because it had a pool, albeit a tiny one:

Cool hotel design, Thailand
My funky hotel.

I didn’t feel like driving for an hour back up the coast and risking getting caught in more heavy rain, and then getting a few hundred more sand fly bites. Instead, I’d just sit by the pool and sip on a cold beer.

The Retro Box Hotel actually turned out to be very pleasant. It is a bizarre design – the whole hotel is made out of shipping containers that have been fitted out as hotel rooms. It sounds awful, but is actually very funky-looking and comfortable.

I explored the town one last time. Chumphon is really not a very interesting place at all, and is only worth visiting if you can get a bike and head out to the beaches. The beaches are all, I believe, utterly stunning. However, the town is a bit drab and boring. On my walk about town, I booked another bus ticket – this time to Bangkok.

*

The next morning, I hopped on big, air-conditioned bus towards the capital. Again, it was a short ride, but again it took an astonishingly long time. The total was, I think, 9 or 10 hours! Much of that was spent battling traffic in Bangkok itself.

Pretty soon I was back on old Khao San Road – the backpacker heaven (or hell) at the heart of Southeast Asia travel. I have always sort of detested it, but this time I finally admitted it wasn’t so bad. It was cheaper than I remember, for one thing. In fact, food and beer were cheaper than any place I’d been in Thailand. Funny, you wouldn’t expect that in the capital city, and I certainly don’t recall it from previous visits…

I spent one night in a tiny hotel room (for just $3) and then hopped a bus to Cambodia then next morning. The ride was supposed to take 7 hours but took 14. By the time we arrived in Siem Reap, I was thinking I’d be happy to never take another bus again in my life.

Posted in Photography, travel

Krabi and Ao Nang

After a week in Phuket, I hopped on a bus east to Krabi. Krabi is a town and a province, but it is also the name incorrectly given to another place – the popular tourist destination, Ao Nang. Where I was headed was Krabi Town, a sleepy little town slightly up river and away from the coast.

It was raining all through my bus journey and so I couldn’t really see the scenery. In fact, I couldn’t see the edge of the road, and I just hoped that the bus driver could see where he was going. When we arrived in Krabi, I walked through the driving rain to my guesthouse, thankfully only 5 minutes away from the center.

It rained on-and-off during my three days in Krabi but that was ok. I spent my time wandering about, avoiding the rain as much as possible, but also used the lightning fast wifi at my guesthouse to catch up on some important work I had hoped to do while travelling. (You didn’t think it was all beer and beaches, did you?)

Krabi is a pleasant enough town, but there isn’t a whole lot to see. It is ideal for a day or two (or three, if you have stuff to do online, like me) but you’d get bored if you stayed much longer.

I explored the mangroves to the north and then Wat Kaew in the center of town, as well as walking all the waterfront and exploring the night markets.

After a few days in Krabi Town, I felt it was time to hit the beach and do some hiking. Krabi Town might make a good base if you had a motorbike, but in terms of just walking, it’s not that great.

I hopped a little white pickup-bus hybrid (which I think is called a songthew, or something like that) and for just 50 baht it took me all the way to a small beach-side town called Ao Nang. Ao Nang is what many people think of when they hear the word “Krabi,” and I guess some people actually refer to it by that name.

It’s not hard to see why people flock to Ao Nang. It is simply stunning. Surrounded by vast jagged limestone karsts and long white sand beaches, this little town may well be have been called Paradise City. Off shore are dozens of picture-perfect islands jutting out of the turquoise waters.

On my first day, I just walked back and forth along the sea, clocking up about 15km as I meandered along the beautiful shore. These pictures really don’t do it justice:

The next day, I hired a motorbike and headed west to Hang Nak Mountain, where I embarked on a long hike to the top. It actually wasn’t that bad of a climb, although the humidity made it rather challenging. Along the way, the forest was alive with the noise of various animals – bugs, birds, monkeys – although I didn’t actually see anything except lizards.

Again, the photos hardly do it justice:

Well, it has taken me an age to upload these photos using the painfully slow WiFi at my hostel. Too much time spent indoors. It’s time to get back out and explore, as I’m off to another part of Thailand tomorrow.

Posted in travel

Back in Thailand

Followers of this blog, or, for that matter, my Facebook and Instagram, will know that I often come to Thailand. It’s one of my favourite countries in the world, and it’s only a short hop away from China, where I live and work.

I’ve been to Thailand about once a year since 2011, most recently visiting Koh Tao and Bangkok in 2017. A year before that, I explored Chiang Mai in the north, and I’ve also seen various other places around the country.

This time, I came to visit some old friends who live in Phuket. Phuket has never been of great interest to me because it’s rather touristy for my taste. I once spent a night here on my way to Koh Lanta, and didn’t much care for the traffic. It tends to draw vast numbers of Chinese group tours and drunk English idiots. None of that at all appeals to me.

Still, I flew over from Hefei last week and spent 6 days catching up with some old friends, bitching about our days in China and soaking up some sun. They showed me around some fantastic restaurants, where we sampled local food as well as some international cuisine.

Here are a handful of stories and photos:-

One morning, as my friends were both working, I took a walk up Monkey Hill. It was a hot and humid morning and the steep path up the hill wound on for two long kilometers. As the name suggests, there was an abundance of monkeys:

Monkey

(Note: I don’t know why, but almost all my photos from that morning are out of focus and barely worth looking at. I’ll just post this one of the monkeys, which isn’t entirely bad.)

In addition to monkeys, there were many lovely birds, some interesting lizards, and even a family of wild boar!

Wild Boar

I was thoroughly pleased by the outing.

Later, we hit the beaches, first heading south to Nai Harn and then north to Bang Tao. At Nai Harn we had hoped to go snorkelling, but the waves were massive that day. Still, we had a pleasant day by the beach and then watched the World Cup 3rd place playoff at Sunshine Bar in Rawai. Sunshine is a ladyboy bar, making for a very interesting evening. Almost a dozen ladyboys danced constantly for several hours as two old ladies screamed commentary in broken English into a microphones. It was, amazingly enough, a great evening!

(The above post is from my Instagram, which you can follow if you like random travel stuff and stupid pictures of Chinese menus….)

Next, we spent a day at Bang Tao beach in the northwest of the island. It’s a long, very pleasant strip of sand, although there’s not much there. It’s low season at the moment, which means even the few bars and restaurants that you’d normally find are now closed.

Near the beach is a small island. My friend and I foolishly attempted to reach it in spite of strong currents. We made it to the island, but in breaking free from the current, I swung my foot up from a deep channel, catching a sharp piece of rock or coral, and sliced my big toe open in the three places. It bled profusely and soon began to hurt. I hopped around in pain, landing my other foot on a sharp spike of coral with my full body weight, causing it, too, to hurt and bleed.

Well, folks, I can’t complain too much about any of that. It was sheer stupidity. I was lucky to swim back to the beach and have another friend waiting with a first aid kit. Annoyingly, after a few painful days, I found there was a few sharp pieces of coral actually broken off in my foot. They had to be removed, which was not fun at all.

Anyway… it was a lovely beach:

After the island hopping, we wandered up to a swanky resort located not far away. It is the sort of place where celebrity DJs play to billionaires in a pool with a swim-up bar. It is the sort of places where ESL teachers like myself are certainly not seen.

Except…

Did I mention it is low season?

Thankfully for me and my two friends, with no other customers the resort was more than happy to let us plebs inside. More than that, they were willing to waive the $150 entrance fee (!!!!) and also offer us ludicrously cheap drinks. Needless to say, much tipsiness ensued. It’s odd how easy a drink goes down when you’re floating in a pool with your own private DJ and a team of bartenders and waitresses who normally serve the super rich….

Adam in fancy pool

With an obscene amount of alcohol consumed, in the most luxurious environment I will probably ever know, it was time to head off and watch the World Cup final. What with the sunburn, blood loss, and a half dozen pina coladas (don’t judge me; it’s the tropics) and an equal number of beers, it was a small miracle that I managed to stay up.

On the way to the bar, I did see another unusual sight:

Cat vs Spider. #thailand #phuket #cat #catsofinstagram #spider

A post shared by David (@huainanman) on

 

Yeah, that’s right. It’s a stupid little cat playing with a very, very large spider. I filmed this two minutes before the beginning of the match and ran off midway through the fight, so I don’t know who actually won. My money’s on the spider, but then I also thought Croatia would win….

**

This morn I took off for Krabi. I’ll hopefully get more chance to take photos in the coming days and post them soon. Stay tuned.

Posted in travel

Weekend Trip to Zhaji

I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.

Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.

If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.

Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:

Vera Enjoying a Business Class Seat from Hefei

We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:

Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.

Old woman washing clothes
All the woman in Zhaji wash clothes in the stream that runs through town.

We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:

On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.

IMG_1471It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!

After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.

Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.

And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:

Chinese fire safety for children

Posted in travel

10 Years

Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.

I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.

In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.

IMG_1588_0295

In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”

China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.

After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.

China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”

But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.

David with Mount Fuji and Ice Cream

Posted in travel

Beaches, Animals, and Mountains: Why Sri Lanka is the Greatest

I love Sri Lanka. It is absolutely one of my favourite countries. Back in January, 2017 I spent two weeks travelling around the south of the country and had such a great time that after my long journey through India, I thought I’d pop back over for another visit, this time bringing my girlfriend, Vera.

We arrived separately in Colombo and stayed at the beautiful Canes Boutique Hotel. After more than a month of hostels and cheap guest houses, it was pure luxury. I had some time to kill before Vera’s flight arrived, so I spent a day exploring Colombo by myself. I had totally dismissed it during my first visit, but it was actually quite a nice city – though it indeed doesn’t offer much more than a day’s worth of sightseeing.

Colombo Waterfront

The next morning, we headed south to the beach town of Unawatuna. On my previous visit to Sri Lanka, I’d taken the bus from place to place. It is outrageously cheap and, honestly, it was quite fun. However, this time we had time-constraints and so opted for taxis.

At Unawatuna, we spent two days exploring the beaches, finding that Jungle Beach was far superior to the main Unawatuna Beach. It was pleasant for swimming and snorkelling, whereas the main beach (as with almost everywhere else in Sri Lanka) was quite choppy. While swimming, we were lucky to see a number of small sharks enter the bay and scare the hell out of the Russians who were swimming there.

DSW_1181
Unawatuna Beach

Nursing some minor sunburn, we opted to move on from Unawatuna to our next destination – Yala National Park. Actually, we were heading to the nearby town of Katharagama, which is a pleasant little place right by the entrance to the park. We took another taxi, this time driving for four hours across a big chunk of the country. It was a beautiful drive, though.

In Katharagama, we went to the Katharagama Homestay, where I’d stayed last year. The owners are really friendly and the room is very clean. I had no qualms about going back again, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the area. We explored the town for one evening:

The following morning, we set off to explore Yala National Park. Not long into our safari, we had a very, very close encounter with a leopard:

Of course, there were numerous other incredible animals in the park:

After Yala, we took another taxi north to the little town of Ella, where we spent a couple of days walking around the hills on the train tracks. The town itself isn’t much, but the surrounding mountains are beautiful.

Finally, we spent a day in Kandy on our way back to the airport at Colombo. We explored the forest park and the lake, and walked about the bustling little city.

Finally, our time came to an end. We hopped in one last taxi for the ride to Colombo airport and journey back to China, stopping off for a day in the southern city of Guangzhou.

Posted in travel

Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

DSW_1085
Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

Backwaters north of Varkala
The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

Posted in travel

Confusing Colonialism in Cochin

I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.

DSW_0918
Much has changed, but the sunset would have been just as beautiful centuries ago.

Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.

One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.

My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India…  or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems

After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.

On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.

The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.

IMG_0711

At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.

As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.