Posted in travel

Final Days in Sri Lanka: Snorkelling and Whale Watching

From Matara to Hikkaduwa

On my ninth day in Sri Lanka, I set out from the Guillet Beach Homestay, heading for the Matara bus station. It was a long, dusty walk in a blazing hot sun, but I soon arrived and people pointed me to my bus. In Sri Lanka, people are usually shy but very, very helpful. Some old men told me I could get a bus directly to Hikkaduwa, but after asking a few of the bus drivers, it seemed I would have to change buses at Galle instead.

The ride along the coast was beautiful, and more than a few times I regretted taking the bus straight to Hikkaduwa, thinking instead that I should stop off at the little fishing villages and port towns along the way. But it was a relatively short hop from one place to the next, and I knew I could always take a bus back down the coast if Hikkaduwa proved to be unpleasant.

First Day in Hikkaduwa

After a brief stop in Galle, I arrived in Hikkaduwa and made my way to my next accommodation – Chami’s Place. It’s a small hostel in the middle of town, near the railway tracks, which had high scores on all the booking sites. I tried to check in but there was some confusion. The staff were incredibly friendly, and eventually I ended up sleeping in the shared staff room with an English bargirl and two Sri Lankan kitchen porters.

I set out to explore the town, walking up and down the beach and the main road that cut through the middle of Hikkaduwa. Oddly, everywhere I went there were Russian people and signs all in Russian. Big fat, classless, red Russian men and busty Russian women crowded the beaches at certain places. I’d seen this throughout Southeast Asia – they all tend to visit the same one destination in a country or province, and there congregate at the one or two restaurants or bars tailored to Russian customers. These places are, generally, well-worth avoiding.

Walking south, making my way between the sea and a wall, I was hit by a huge freak wave and totally soaked. Actually, the wave only got the bottom of my shorts, but it hit the wall and exploded back, covering me quite literally from head to toe in salty water. Thankfully, my camera was in a somewhat waterproof bag, and I was able to yank my phone from my pocket and add it to the camera bag before the water soaked through. But otherwise, I was drenched.

I hobbled to a nearby bar and sat drinking the local beer until I’d dried out sufficiently to walk back home. In the evening I ventured out and explored the nightlife a little, delighted to find that here in Hikkaduwa, there was no shortage of alcohol, unlike all the other towns I’d visited on my journey. It was a tad pricy, but it was plentiful, and that’s all that mattered.

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Lion – the local lager

Snorkelling on Hikkaduwa Reef

When I awoke in the morning, I was completely covered in mosquito bites. It had been a bad night’s sleep anyway, as the staff had woken me up inadvertently when they finished their shifts at the bar, but also there had been a swarm of mozzies chewing away at my flesh for some seven hours. Annoyingly, there was a mosquito net over my bed, but when I went to sleep I really didn’t think there were any mozzies in the room, and it seemed so unnecessary that I hadn’t bothered unravelling it.

I checked out and walked to the nearest ATM that would accept my Chinese bank card, and withdrew more money. I wasn’t sure if I’d need it, but on holiday it’s best not to worry about these things. Then I hiked down the road a kilometer to my new accommodation – Surfing Beach Hotel. This was a little guesthouse on a beach that has grown very popular with surfers due to its huge waves. I checked in and was greeted by a big, friendly shirtless man. He only had two or three misshapen teeth, and his brown belly protruded enormously. He bore more than a passing resemblance to a walrus. He showed me to my room – an old, utterly filthy place where I knew I couldn’t spend more than one night. I actually enjoy bad hotels because they have so much character, and I love travelling around places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos seeing the old French colonial buildings that haven’t been cleaned since the fifties, yet somehow maintain their antique charm. This place really lacked any such redeeming qualities. I noted the following in my travel journal after arriving:

An unsteady ceiling fan circulates warm air in a dingy, dirty hotel room. Two small beds have been placed side-by-side and advertised as a double. The walls are thinly painted and plaster seals big cracks in the concrete. Makeshift metal and plastic and scrap-wood furniture litters the room haphazardly. Everything is brown and yellow with dirt. The towels and bedsheets are the only items that seem to have been washed, and even then not thoroughly… and they are riddled with holes. The ancient windows are hard to open, and look out on construction work in the next door building, spilling dust into the room. The bathroom… you don’t even want to know about the bathroom.

After checking in, I immediately set out to find the next day’s accommodation so that I wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck at Surfing Beach Hotel any longer than necessary. Fortunately, I did, only three hundred meters down the road at Sunny’s Guest House. It was a far superior room.

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The view from my room at Sunny’s Guest House.

In the afternoon, I went snorkeling on the Hikkaduwa coral reef. This required a long walk up the beach because the seas were too choppy at Surfing Beach. At barely more than ankle depth there were already large fish swimming around, and by the time I was knee-deep, I was surrounded with brightly-coloured sea life. Sadly, however, all the coral was more or less dead. But that is true for most of the world and in a few years we’ll be lucky if there’s anything left anywhere on this doomed planet.

I swam about in the warm waters, but it was a little difficult. No matter where you go, the waves are strong and the tides push and pull you. When hovering over coral, that’s less than ideal. I didn’t want to damage the coral, and I certainly did want the coral to damage me. I spent two hours swimming around, and saw a whip-tailed stingray and some other interesting life. However, at a certain point the waves were churning up so much sand that visibility was terrible. I wanted to swim out and find sharks or other large animals, but I knew I would never see them.

Despite the poor visibility, however, I managed to spot a few large turtles grazing on sea grass. It was difficult to get any useable photos, even though they were docile enough to swim beside me for a good twenty minutes.

I went out snorkeling again the following day, with the same results – some interesting fish but an overall unsatisfactory experience due to the poor visibility. I saw more turtles and stingrays, but I couldn’t enjoy it while being thrown about on the waves, coming perilously close to being ripped apart on the corals.

Whale Watching from Mirissa

At 5am on the twelfth day of my trip, I was picked up by a tuk-tuk driver outside Sunny’s and driven south to Mirissa. It was a long, cold ride and again I had to wear my winter clothes that I’d brought over from China. It was just getting light as we arrived at the harbor and I was shepherded onto a boat with lots of people of various nationalities, including many Chinese – who were already hiding beneath giant sun hats. As we departed around 7am, the guide informed us that they’d seen blue whales on the previous thirteen consecutive days, so we had “a 90% chance” of seeing one today.

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Mirissa harbor

I was excited as the boat chugged out of the harbor and into the Indian Ocean. I’d wanted to see a blue whale for as long as I could remember. Of all the amazing animals I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my life, no whale was among them. I snuck up to the bow and stood there for the entire journey, being hit in the face by waves every minute or so. The seas were typically choppy and people were being violently sick back inside the boat. I was determined to keep my eyes fixed on the waters to get that first glimpse of a whale… but also I knew that looking out at the sea would prevent me, too, from getting seasick.

It was after about an hour when the call went out. One of the guides on the boat had spotted a water spout and, although it took a while for my eyes to pick between waves and waterspouts, I also found it. I couldn’t tell you the distance as I’m not familiar with doing such things at sea, but it wasn’t terribly far away. A dark shape would emerge briefly from the water and a huge white explosion of water would dissipate in the air, and then nothing as it slipped quietly back under. This happened several times before the grand finale as it raised its mighty tail up into the sky and then went down into the deep.

A great roar went up from the deck of the boat as we saw very clearly that iconic image of a whale’s tail above the surface of the water. Of course, I had my camera, but I was too mesmerized by what I saw to even bother taking it from its bag. I just stared stupidly at the ocean, where the whale had been.

This happened again and again. Incredibly, we saw the whale (or other whales – I don’t really know) six or seven times. Sometimes we’d just see a tiny flicker of a tail as it suck down into the ocean, and sometimes its tail would seem to hang there in the sky between huge waves, lingering before it disappeared. The image was burned into my consciousness, but although I eventually pulled my camera out and started shooting (which wasn’t easy with the giant waves and rocking of the boat) I never did get a good picture.

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Whale poo.

On the way back to harbor, we passed a whale shark. I’ve wanted to see one of these animals for many years, and been to many places where I expected to see one, but this was the first time I had. From a distance all we could see was a seemingly black fin protruding above the surface, very much like an orca, but as we got close we could see the unmistakable colours and pattern – the pink and purple and blue of its mighty back. This would have probably been a more forgettable experience had we not just seen a blue whale – one of only a handful of creatures from the entire history of this planet that could dwarf a giant whale shark! Again, although I could see the animal clearly, I could not get a single decent photograph. And, again, I didn’t care. My apologies to readers of this blog for not better illustrating what I saw, but on personally level I was just delighted to see these amazing animals. I will make sure to get better photos next time.

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It’s a whale shark. Trust me.

Then, as we approached the harbor, another cry went out. What was it this time – an orca, a dolphin, another whale or whale shark?

It was something else that I had never seen before – two large sea turtles mating. I’ve seen more than 100 sea turtles in this past year alone, but never have I seen them copulating. The boat drifted alongside them as they awkwardly propagated their species, before eventually the dozens of voyeurs made them uncomfortable enough to stop, and they went their separate ways off into the dark waters.

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A rare sight – two sea turtles mating.

Final Days in Hikkaduwa

Later that day, as I sat having lunch, I met a middle-aged English man whom I’d encountered the previous day. He had a strong accent and kept referring to the country as “Sreeee Lankaaaar,” and told me he’d been coming here every year since 1992. In fact, he wouldn’t shut up – a common trait among bored alcoholics who spend their holidays in Asia.

After that annoying lunch, I went out snorkeling on Surfing Beach. It was to be a stupid mistake that put an end to my snorkeling for the holiday. I quickly realized as I got into the water that I was being pulled out to sea, albeit not very fast. I had been caught in a riptide in Mozambique a year before, and this was not as terrifying, but it was disconcerting. The tide pulled me out some distance and then seemed to more or less stop. However, when I tried to swim back to shore, I couldn’t. I tried not to panic, and instead made a continual effort to get back to shore, but it was futile. The more I tried, the more I became exhausted.

Eventually, looking at the surfers and trying to figure it out logically, I came to the conclusion that I should use the waves to get back and save my strength. However, the waves seemed to pull me almost as far as far as they pushed me, and soon they were holding me under water to almost the limit of my lungs, and I began to fear that I would drown. As things began to get dangerous, a huge wave caught me and threw me deep under water, ripping my snorkel and mask off my face, though at the time I barely noticed. Fortunately, my GoPro was tied to my wrist and impossible to lose.

With a great deal of effort, I managed to get myself back to the beach and collapsed on the sand. I was angry with myself for having gone snorkeling somewhere that I knew was not suitable, and annoyed that I had lost my snorkel gear – which I’d only used three times since buying. I had another day and a half in Sri Lanka, but my snorkeling time had drawn to a violent end.

Leaving Sri Lanka

Instead of snorkeling for my last few days at Hikkaduwa, I drank beer on the beach, read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, watched the surfers, and saw the sunset over the Indian Ocean for the final time.

Snorkelling had been a big part of my plan for the holiday, but even without the unfortunate end to that, conditions had not been ideal. I was probably not going to see my shark. And besides, I could not complain about a lack of exciting wildlife. I had seen a blue whale and a whale shark! I was never going to get better than that.

Reflecting upon my time in Sri Lanka, I concluded that it had been a thoroughly successful holiday. Most importantly, after a long and tiring semester’s teaching, not to mention numerous writing and editing projects on the side, I had managed to relax and avoid doing anything resembling work. I had seen a new country, eaten new food, met lots of new people, experienced a new culture, gotten out into nature, done lots of hiking, taken some great photos, seen leopards, elephants, crocodiles, whales, and whale sharks.

Sri Lanka had been a great adventure.

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Matara: Surfer Paradise

From Katharagama to Matara

After a long night’s sleep, mercifully under a mosquito net, as Katharagama is blanketed by bugs at nighttime, I walked to the bus station and looked for a bus to Matara. It didn’t take long to find one, but once I was on the bus, it certainly took its time in getting on the road. I sat in the overcrowded vehicle for more than half an hour, waiting to get going.

Eventually, we did get moving and the bus took off on a long, winding journey along the coast, occasionally moving inland to visit small villages, before returning to the “highway” that leads past white sand beaches and sleepy fishing villages. The bus seemed to stop at every tiny settlement along the way, picking up old women and monks and schoolgirls in their all-white uniforms, so that the bus was never less than entirely crowded. Occasionally, men with tambourines would get on and the blaring rhythmic music from the speakers would cease as the men droned ancient songs for the passengers. At one point it stopped parallel to another bus down a dusty back alley and all the passengers got off and settled into the new bus, which looked almost exactly the same. With no ability to speak the local language, I was left baffled and frustrated.

Some three hours after leaving Katharagama, the bus stopped in Matara and I struggled to get off through the densely packed aisle, practically falling into the bus station. The journey had not been pleasant, and as I stepped out into the heat, I knew I had to choose between a long walk to my next homestay, or else an expensive tuk-tuk ride. I suspected that, as the homestay was in a fairly isolated area, I would be heavily gouged for the ride, so I decided to walk it in spite of the heat and the distance. Annoyingly, the bus had driven right past the street on which my homestay is located some five minutes before reaching the bus station.

I made my way along the waterfront, which was pleasant enough. The beach was very quiet, whereas in town it had seemed rather busy. A number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer me a ride, but I waved them away. After Yala, I needed a few cheap days at the beach to balance my budget. I stopped halfway at a little tea shop and had a sandwich and a pot of tea, which thankfully cost just $0.50 altogether, and then set back out on my long walk. I tried following the beach but it came to a rocky outcrop which, without bags would’ve been possible to climb, but with my luggage was certainly impassable. Instead, I followed a busy road with no pavement up a long, steep hill, with cars and tuk-tuks throwing up dirt and dust.

Finally, exhausted and sweaty, I arrived on a long, narrow street that led down to a white beach. The street had a few hotels and restaurants, but not much else. It seemed like a sleepy suburb that had been half taken over by surfers. Most of the businesses had “surf” in the name, although my destination was called Guillet Beach Homestay. The few people walking up and down the road all held surfboards under their arms, except for one lonely tuk-tuk driver who just grinned stupidly at everyone who passed him.

As with previous accommodations, this was a pleasant little house run by a local family. The chief English speaker was the young daughter, probably about twelve years old, who would talk endlessly whenever prompted. She attended school each day, but in the mornings and evenings she would talk with guests and, as a result, her English was excellent. The rest of the family were friendly but quiet and the father, a tuk-tuk driver called Lucky, was apparently in Colombo for the week. At the house there was a polite young English couple, and a large group of Swedish girls who spent nearly every waking moment on their surfboards.

I spent the late afternoon and early evening walking about the local area. There wasn’t much to see except for the beach, which was clearly the big attraction for the area. The horseshoe bay was beautiful and also funneled waves in constantly at a medium size, making it perfect for surfing. In fact, walking around, I found myself about the only person who didn’t have a surfboard. I sat and watched the sun go down as the stars popped out and began to move across the sky. The waters emptied first and then the beach, and soon it was perfectly quiet.

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Surfing Beach, Matara

Walking Around Matara

The following day, after yet another giant Sri Lankan breakfast, this time eaten in a surprisingly English dining room, covered in floral patterns and dolls, I set off for a walk back into town. This time I intended to follow the coastline all the way around, rather than taking the unpleasant road route. I set off early and clambered over hot, sharp rocks, but enjoyed the peace that came being between the town and the surfers’ beach, completely alone. Even without bags I ended up with bloody hands and knees from the challenging climb.

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Isolated beach, separated by two jagged outcrops

I walked around the bustling little town, admiring the Dutch colonial architecture as it clashed with modern shop fronts, but there really wasn’t much of any interest to see there. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t particularly exciting, and so after a visit to the Star Fort and taking a few photos of the Buddhist island temple, I walked back along the beach to my part of town, getting back by 1pm. I’d expected the trip to take up a whole day.

Finding myself back by lunchtime, I ventured next door to a small restaurant called “Chillz” and, after ordering some reasonably cheap food, I enquired as to whether there was any beer available off the menu… The owner smiled and said, “Yes, today we have.” I was beginning to realize that beer is heavily taxed in Sri Lanka and most businesses simply don’t advertise that they have it in order to avoid certain legal requirements. It had been about five days since I last had a beer and even though this one, called Lion, tasted like crap, it was cold and alcoholic – good enough for me.

After lunch I walked along to a quiet part of the beach (not that any part was particularly busy) where the waves were slightly smaller than elsewhere and swam for an hour or two, soaking up a bit of sun. It had been a long time since I’d swam in the sea. The last time had been in Indonesia during the summer. A few small groups of Sri Lankan men walked by, always friendly, shouting, “Hello, sir, how are you today?”

I returned to Chillz for more cheap food (a roti sandwich) and beer, and then sat on the sand watching the stars until the sandflies drove me to return to the homestay, where I taught Hironi, the little girl, English until her bedtime.

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Surfing Beach at sunset

Matara had proven a nice place to spend a day, but it wasn’t someplace I wanted to stay much longer. Unless I learned to surf, there wasn’t much for me to do. With so much coastline, I figured that there would be better places for me to spend my last week in the country, so I picked a destination and planned on going there the next morning: Hikkaduwa.

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Gili Trawangan

The sun has set over the distant figure of the island of Bali, appearing like an eruption of molten rock from the top of Mount Kintamani, and soon the sky is lit instead by the luminous full moon in the east, which comes up over the horizon bright yellow and then moves across the sky an almost blinding white, illuminating the little fishing boats bobbing on the sea, the faint spectre of Gili Meno, and another volcano – Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok, which is always partially enveloped by thick white clouds.

From La Moomba, a little restaurant on the northeastern curve of the Gili Trawangan (pronounced “tra-WANG-an”) seashore – which stretches, unbroken around the whole of the little island – I take in the stars and the smattering of twinkling lights on the water and the nearby islands. It is quiet except for the lapping of the sea on the beach, and the ever-present Jack Johnson and Bob Marley records that ring out from beach bars the world over.

A day earlier, I arrived on Gili Trawangan – the largest of three tiny islands off the northwestern shore of Lombok, which itself lies to the east of Bali, on the Indonesian archipelago. I stayed the first night in a quite comfortable but crowded little hostel, called La Boheme, in the middle of the town, but it was fully booked on my second night, and so I wandered around, looking at the “no vacancy” signs for an hour. Although the island was undoubtedly beautiful, surrounded on all sides by white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and coral reef, with volcanoes and flawless blue skies in the distance, I didn’t feel happy here. I’d been looking forward to visiting for nearly ten years, but I’d naively expected a relatively untouched paradise island, or at least a basic backpacker destination.

Instead, it was fully developed and packed beyond capacity with tourists from around the globe. It seemed almost the entire island was covered in hotels and restaurants. Everything was expensive and gaudy, and the tourists were mostly middle- and upper-class families and honeymooning couples. I wondered why all these resorts needed swimming pools when there were calm sea waters on all sides. Eventually I found Alex’s Homestay in the north of the island, rather tucked away from everything else. Luckily, Alex had a bungalow for me, and it only cost $18/night, compared to the $50+ that seemed to be the going rate elsewhere else. My bungalow was basic but had everything I needed, and was set in a small village, surrounded on all sides by trees and roaming buffalo. Alex, the talkative and affable proprietor, leant me his bicycle so I could pick my bags up from the La Boheme.

Suddenly, I felt quite positive about the island, having been rather depressed for the first 24 hours. I sat and talked to Alex for an hour on his little property, surrounded by trees and cats and chickens, and then went to find lunch. I stopped in at a small beach bar on Turtle Beach and befriended the quiet owner, who told me it was safe to leave my phone, camera, and bag on the beach as I swam. I could barely believe it, but when put to the test it turned out to be true – nothing was stolen. I spent six hours sipping cold Bintang beers and chatting with the owner and his friends, who all reckoned they could do a Scottish accent. It seemed they had Scotland confused with London, however, and instead put on some impressive Cockney accents. Mostly, though, I spent the day in the water.

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Your humble reporter enjoying a Bintang on the beach.

On the northeastern shore of Gili Trawangan, the aforementioned “Turtle Beach” area, the snorkelling is fantastic. Although it can be difficult to get over the sharp coral at low tide, in the morning, when the water is high, it is extremely accessible and there are always several turtles swimming around, munching on the corals. There is a peaceful atmosphere here that is lacking in the crowded south, or on the snooty, rich western beaches. I spent the whole day drinking beer, reading Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt (a fitting title), and swimming with turtles, until the tide was so low that it became impossible to swim. Around this time I began to realize that I was rather sunburned, too, and decided to retire to my bungalow for the evening.

Every place is, to some extent, what you make of it. My disappointment at the gap between what I’d expected of Gili Trawangan and what I’d actually found had darkened my view of this place, but during a happy day spent meeting nice, friendly locals and tourists, and swimming leisurely in the turtle-filled seas, I found a new perspective, and I looked forward to spending more time here.

*

The streets of Gili Trawangan, or rather the dusty paths that criss-cross the tiny island, are mercifully free of motorized traffic, in stark contrast to Bali, just across the water. Instead, dozens of horses pull little carts around, filled with tourists and building materials for the numerous little bungalows being built to cater for the huge influx of tourists that now come to Gili Trawangan every year.

Along the waterfronts, small beach bars and larger resorts are filled with bikini-clad young tourists. They serve the local beer, Bintang, almost exclusively, along with tropical cocktails, and the menus primarily offer Western-style food. All except the most expensive resorts will allow guests to sit on the beach for free, sometimes even using their beach chairs and sun beds, and at night the waiters will whisper to passers-by, “You want weed? You can smoke on the beach… it’s no problem. No police on Gili Trawangan!” Which all sits in seemingly direct contrast to the façade the island now presents as an up-market, bourgeois tourist destination.

Gili Trawangan’s main draw as a tourist destination is its waters, and all through the town and in almost every hotel, guesthouse, homestay, and hostel – as well as the bars and restaurants – diving companies and boat-owners offer an array of scuba and snorkelling trips. Despite years of exploitation leaving most of the reefs that surround the Gilis (including the other two islands in the chain – Meno and Air) dead, there is still an abundance of easily visible marine life. On my first day snorkelling, I saw six turtles, and on the second day I saw fourteen. I also encountered moray eels, banded sea kraits, giant puffer fish, and innumerable colourful fish whose names I don’t know.

The beaches are mostly white sand, but sometimes black, giving way almost immediately to coral reef – or dead corals where a reef used to be. (There have been successes in regenerating the reef, particularly around Gili Meno, in recent years.) It is very accessible during the morning and early afternoon when the tide is high, but less so later in the day as the tide lowers and the reef and rocks are exposed. On the northeastern shoreline there is a bed of seaweed that draws huge numbers of green and hawksbill turtles, and just further out is a steep drop-off into the ocean. On the western side there is a dive site called Shark Point several hundred meters off shore, where I found one white-tipped reef shark. The currents all around Gili Trawangan are deceptively strong, and caution is advised while snorkelling or swimming.

*

I stayed another few days on Gili Trawangan, mostly spending time with two friends from China who’d were visiting Indonesia for a few weeks. We explored the island and its waters pretty thoroughly, and I became very fond of the place – having come full circle from my disappointing first day. However, with my summer holidays drawing to a close, it was time to move on and see more of Indonesia. I booked a 4-day boat trip to Komodo National Park through Wanua Adventures for a cool a1.8 million rupiah (U$140) which would stop off in various places of interest along the route from Lombok -> Sumbawa -> Komodo -> Rinca -> Flores. I had no idea what to expect, but an adventure on the high seas, coupled with some time hunting the Komodo’s famous dragons, seemed like the perfect ending to a long, enjoyable stint in Southeast Asia.

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A panorama of the western coastline.
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A Difficult Journey to the Perhentians

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

Escape from Sihanoukville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving in Malaysia

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

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

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

However, the airport was now closed.

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

Heading for the Islands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Difficult Journey Pays Off

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

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

DSCN6467
The Baby Shark at Turtle Beach
Posted in travel

Return to Sihanoukville

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, it was good to be back after all.

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

An Addendum

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

Posted in essay

Making War Movies in Cambodia

It wasn’t the heat that was getting to me. It wasn’t the seasickness, the overcrowded boat, getting jabbed in the ribs by the butts and muzzles of guns, or even the fact my right knee felt primed to explode.

We had been on the boat for seven hours, just drifting around the Gulf of Thailand, the temperature well above a hundred degrees, and us soldiers wearing itchy woolen shirts and trousers, oversized water-filled boots, and backpacks and guns. The only thing we didn’t have were helmets, which might have helped keep the sun off our heads.

It was important to crouch, though. That was stressed over and over. The enemy was hidden in the trees, possibly armed with sniper rifles, and a stray head above the bow would prove very messy. The heat, the discomfort, and this repetition of what it was we must fear had dragged morale to a record low. After long enough, we were actually eager to jump into the water, run to the shore, and throw ourselves onto the sand. What would happen next, no one knew.

*

Cambodia had fascinated me for as long as I’d been in Asia. It seemed more dangerous, more suited to an intrepid traveler, than the likes of Bali, Phuket, or Goa. The promise of landmines, mob “justice,” ubiquitous AK-47s, its de facto dictator, and the potential for a complete collapse back into civil war and the return of the Khmer Rouge all made it sound so very romantic. The town I’d chosen was famous for sexpats, drugs, corruption, and a freakishly high mortality rate among foreign tourists.

I’d bought an Irish bar in May, 2013, and by October I had hardly gone further than the supermarket. Business was good but my sanity was faring quite poorly. I was actually bored in Cambodia – undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting countries.

One day I was writing an article for a French magazine when the editor asked me if I’d like to work as an extra in a movie. “Yes,” I said, rather immediately. He went on to say that it would pay and that it would feature well-known actors and directors. He told me that it was a war movie called Le Soldat Blanc (“The White Soldier”) set during the French occupation, and that the scene for which extras were required was basically a rip-off of the opening to Saving Private Ryan.

I didn’t care. I was already sold.

Back then I was working on a novella or novel (it never got finished, and looked like it was heading towards being the latter) about several generations of the same family who had fought on the Southeast Asian peninsula. I had done a lot of research into French Indochina, and it fascinated me. I was also going through a year-long phase wherein I wanted to get into film-making. The opportunity to see behind the scenes on a big movie was too much to pass up.

*

The day before shooting began, I was required to go for costume fitting at a swanky beach-side hotel. I was busy, and in an odd mood – perhaps drunk – and when I arrived there was a queue of drunken Russians outside. These, I soon learned, were my fellow extras. Despite having spent months trying to find suitable candidates in a town with as many Europeans as locals, the casting director had noted that it was nigh on impossible to find someone in this town that fit the criteria of being A) under thirty, B) not fat (ie thin enough to pass as a soldier), and C) believable as a French person.

Long ago, I could speak French very well, but now I hardly know a word. When I arrived the Russians were waiting in the sun, and a handful of French people – looking to be in charge – were standing at the doorway. I walked immediately up to them and barked, “I’m here and I don’t have much time. Where do I go?” It was quite out of character, but I really didn’t have much time and I didn’t fancy standing in line for an hour.

I was taken through labyrinth of hallways to a few joining rooms that had been taken over by the production company. A very flamboyant man gestured at me and spoke in French until he realized I couldn’t understand him, and told me: “Dear, you don’t look like a soldier at all. You’re too skinny. You’re what we’d find if the movie was about breaking into Auschwitz.”

Alas, I was one of the few “French-looking” people they could find, and certainly the only person in the target age-group. The costume department, then, spent the next hour trying to make me look less like a concentration camp survivor and more like a kid who got mistakenly drafted a few years too early.

When I walked out of the building the line hadn’t moved, and my fellow extras stared daggers as I drove off.

*

The following morning, at 4am, I got on a bus with a few of the Russians. The casting director looked about ready to tear his hair out. He had needed forty extras, and had ended up with less than a dozen. It was also a French production, and most of the people on the bus could neither speak French nor English. It had “disaster” written all over it.

The film was being shot in Ream National Park, almost 20km east of Sihanoukville, but a good hour’s drive. The producers had more or less bought the rights to use the beaches and mangroves from one end of the park to the other, and had gone to the trouble of cleaning every piece of trash, leaving it nothing short of idyllic.

We filed off the bus to meet our new co-stars – the Cambodian Navy. Thanks to the impossibility of finding a semi-sober, non-obese, under-thirty Caucasian in Sihanoukville, this part of the script had been rewritten to include more “local” help. What the Cambodian Navy hadn’t been told was that they were actually playing the Vietnamese. No one dared tell them.

Amusingly, all the soldiers from both sides were equipped with supplies clearly labelled as property of the US Army.

From the get-go, I was fascinated by the flurry of activity going on around me, but left somewhat in the dark by my inability to speak much French, or any Khmer or Russian. The casting director, however, seemed eager to keep me – as the closest thing to a believable French soldier – and informed of what would happen.

The schedule was set up like this:

The scene involved a unified Vietnamese-French invasion of Indochina at some unspecified point in the region’s turbulent history. There would be one boat (others would be crudely added through CGI later) and everybody would have to crouch down and wait for the order to storm the beach. The actors would go through their lines as the dialogue was filmed from every direction, and then we’d just jump off the boat.

That was it, except it would take two whole days. I couldn’t believe it. We would probably have hours of free time to roam the beaches….

They say that Rule #1 of making movies is that, no matter how interesting the final product, the process itself is soul-crushingly boring. I didn’t know this, or else I might have thought twice about agreeing to spend several days in the jungle with a film crew.

We began by getting into our uniforms which, outside the air-conditioned hotel room were rather uncomfortable. Before, I had been concerned by the itchiness. Now it was the sweltering heat. I was padded out because apparently being a 50kg man doesn’t make you exactly frontline material, and even at 6am it was unbearably hot.

*

Soon we were crouched on the boat. I kept being pushed to stand next to the lead actors, who went through their lines many dozens of times over many, many hours. My knees were giving way, and people were complaining loudly in their various languages. A woman was employed to put sunscreen on our necks, and another to pour water into our mouths. (We couldn’t be trusted not to hold the plastic bottles on camera.) The real actors handled it well. They were young, wild, friendly, strange people. Mostly it was their unbridled enthusiasm that got me. I didn’t know how they could keep doing their lines over and over. One man, obviously a method actor, positioned himself as leader of the extras, and would scream at us as though we were real military: “Come on, motherfuckers! Let’s take the fucking beach, motherfuckers!” His English was pretty good, though evidently he thought “motherfucker” was a requisite part of any grammatical construction.

In the beginning, I would take cues from the director on how to act. I was just an extra, of course, but in the West extras usually make some effort. It is their job, after all, and they probably hope that it will lead to a speaking role. Here was an assortment of hungover people who didn’t want to be there anymore, mixed with the Cambodian Navy, who were busy sword-fighting with their guns.

At first I would try to convey a look of fear through my face. I never realized acting was so hard. “The enemy is on the beach. They will kill you when they see you,” the casting director – who had the best English – instructed me. I tried to look scared and probably failed miserably, but after a dozen or more takes, I just knelt there and hoped that I didn’t do any long-term damage to my knee.

The boat was spinning in the water as the sun rose, and as the day progressed morale dropped to abysmal levels, and I think the only reason that they stopped shooting was because it had become apparent that most of the extras wouldn’t return the next day if it went on much longer. I was certainly thinking that.

When we got back to the camp, the extras filed quickly onto a bus, where the driver had been sitting since 5am. It was now 5pm, and he’d been enjoying the air-con and doing a bit of karaoke. Predictably, when he tried to start the engine, the bus just spluttered and died.

After twelve hours of sitting in the sun, the extras had to push the bus along a jungle track until the engine ticked over just enough to start, and we managed to slowly wind our way back. It was evident that most people wouldn’t be returning, even to collect the money they were due.

*

The following morning I awoke and got back to the bus to find that indeed the majority of extras had bailed. Film-making isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and in a town with as many bars as alcoholics, it wasn’t difficult to drown one’s sorrows.

I didn’t really know why I was there except that I’d become reasonably good friends with the casting director and would feel guilty if I let him down. Also, a certain vanity told me that having sat next to the lead actors for their speeches, I’d probably be featured prominently again, especially with fewer white people around. I certainly had no aspirations of a career in acting, but it would be cool to have maybe gotten a line or something to show my parents.

We were told the schedule for Day #2:

  1. Jump off the boat.
  2. Storm the beach.

It was more or less that simple, except that just jumping into the water once wasn’t enough. We’d have to do it over and over in order for the cameras to capture everything just perfectly. We did a few practice runs in our underwear, screaming and running with guns held above our heads, and it was actually fun.

This went on for a few hours, and then a few more. People started complaining about blisters from having water in their boots and everywhere else, and people were slipping on the metal and hurting themselves, or jumping on top of other people already in the water. One of the main actors got cracked in the mouth with a gun butt and bled. It was, fittingly, carnage.

After six hours of jumping into the water and running to the beach (which was only 10 meters away) the director decided that it would look better if the boat stopped at 50 meters out, and we ran from there. In order to ensure that his inexperienced extras looked sufficiently afraid, the director had instructed the effects team to carry out their work secretly, and when the first soldiers were only 5 meters from shore, one man began triggering explosives buried in the sand, while another opened fired with a paintball gun, spraying red paint into the water. People threw themselves to the ground, genuinely terrified, and it was probably the best take of the day.

But then it was back to the boat, and back to repetition.

*

Along Cambodia’s coastline, the water is ludicrously shallow, and so you can sometimes walk a half-mile out into sea. In this case at 50 meters I was chest-deep and it didn’t seem a problem. However, that soon started to change. Between the heat, the weight of the gear, the padding I was carrying to make me “less-Auschwitzy,” my months of drinking and smoking, and having effectively sprinted through water repeatedly for more than six hours, I struggled.

I struggled badly.

I kept it to myself and just did as I was told, but sprinting 50 meters through water is not easy at the best of times. In fact, some people would say it’s impossible. But, when you have an entire film crew watching you, you can’t be the last one there. You can’t trail behind. You have to get it right, or people will be angry.

The extras were carefully spaced and positioned, and for some fucking reason, I was the last man. I was at the 50 meter point, while some were at 15 and 20. As the takes went on, I started to feel light headed. I started noticing myself getting to the beach later and later, and started throwing myself down into the water instead of the sand.

At one point, one of the extras asked me, “Hey man, you okay?”

I couldn’t reply, so I waved his concern away and smiled, but he looked unconvinced. Other people were starting to watch me, too. It was embarrassing.

*

On the next take, I got most of the way to the beach and then woke up in the medical tent, slumped forward on a chair with the casting director and a doctor, and a girl giving me a head massage. (Khmers believe head massages can cure just about anything, and it certainly does feel good.)

After asking a few questions and getting some vague, confused answers, the doctor told me he was sending me back to town. “Exhaustion,” was the diagnosis. The casting director was red in the face, shouting about the director. “I told him, I told him,” he said. “It’s too much!”

I was helped back through the jungle and stuck in the crew’s temporary ambulance. My friend kept apologizing, and then handed me my money. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I got paid for the entire two days, even though I’d made it only one and a half.

We took off back towards Sihanoukville, and I kept feeling a mix of relief and guilt. I didn’t really care much about my lost career as a movie star. I felt bad for the casting director, felt contempt for the director, and quite pleased that instead of getting home at 9pm, I’d be home at 4pm with full pay.

I was worried, too, about my health. Working behind a bar isn’t exactly conducive to a healthy lifestyle. I had dropped a lot of weight and become very sedentary. That thought triggered a memory – one of the first from my time in Cambodia. It was the story of another French production company who had attempted to recruit “extras” from the local expat population. They were shooting a reality TV show that was purportedly filmed in Thailand, but to save money they’d come here and hired local drunks at a fraction of the price. The overzealous director had demanded these random barflies swim from one island to the next – a large distance – and had ignored the protestations of the various crew members, including the doctor. Predictably, one of the extras died. How they expected these poor men to make the swim, I don’t know, but the doctor and the director both killed themselves in shame.

That story was, perversely, one of my favorites when I first came here. It embodied the wildness of Cambodia – the fact that this is a place where anything goes, where everything is tinged with danger. Yet I had forgotten it, and in the end it was the lesson I should have remembered, rather than repeated as a bar story for a few months.

That I survived my own war story is a matter of luck. When you land face down, unconscious, in the sea, a victim of extreme exhaustion, and survive, you have to count yourself lucky. And hey, like I told the casting director as my jeep pulled away, “I think I’ll have the most convincing death scene in the movie.”

Posted in travel

The Night Sky from iSimangaliso

A few weeks ago, while I was staying at St. Lucia, I took a trip through iSimangaliso Wetland Park at night. On the night safari we saw a leopard, owls, a porcupine, some hippos and buffalo, and various other interesting animals. On the beach we were tracking turtles but found only their nests. The honey badgers had gotten to them first.

What stayed with me from that night, however, was the night sky. The density of stars, so easily visible, stunned me. Only in the Philippines had I seen a prettier view of the cosmos.

*photos taken with a GoPro on 30sec exposure.

Posted in travel

Praia do Barra cont.

The following day I decided to walk to Tofo. I had downloaded maps.me for offline directions, and so even without wifi I knew the way to town. I could either walk along the road (14km) or the beach (10km). 

It was a no-brainer: I had to walk the beach. 

I set out early I avoid the harsh midday sun. It was cloudy, thankfully, and I made good progress. But as I neared the lighthouse between Barra and Tofo beaches, I saw a big storm sitting over Tofo. It was a tough call – to go on or go back?

  
I decided to go on. I walked two km down the beach before the storm swept north and hit me hard. There was nowhere to hide. Just beach and dunes. I turned and reluctantly headed back, but when I got to the lighthouse the storm passed and I could see sun over Tofo again. 

I turned and walked back down the beach once again, arriving at a place called Dino’s Bar about 11:30, which was much later than I wanted to arrive. I was desperately thirsty and tired. 

After a brief beer and lunch, I continued on to explore the town. However, by now the sun was blazing. Very soon I could feel my skin burning and sought shelter. I visited a supermarket to buy cooking supplies, then another restaurant for a beer. 

About 3pm I tried walking back to Barra but the sun and fatigue were getting the better of me. I had to rest twice, and when I finally made it home I’d walked 25km. 

My feet were badly blistered and my shoulders scorched by the sun. The trip to Tofo had been a huge mistake and I hoped it wouldn’t affect the next days of my holiday. 

—-

Alas, the next days were spent in major pain and discomfort. My right foot became very difficult to walk on and my shoulders were burned badly so that sleeping was difficult. 

  
With no public transport nor any form of taxi, and with my foot turning black from the blister, I was trapped. 

I tried to relax and wait for the foot to heal, but I’m not good at relaxing. I kept waking small distances which turned into longer distances. Boredom drove me on. 

I was a little disheartened. I’d come to Mozambique to snorkel, yet the surf made it impossible. I couldn’t go to Tofo for activities because it was too far and the beach near my hotel was pounded by huge waves. I tried to sit and read but after a few hours I needed to walk about. It was frustrating. 

Also, I’d booked six nights at Palm Grove for some reason. 

I busied myself cooking dinner and reading, and walking to the nearby Neptune’s Bar, which was mercifully open. There I met other frustrated visitors who’d planned fishing trips which the waves had made impossible. 

After a few days I walked as far west as the beach went (near Pansy Island) and saw some flamingoes. 

 

 
On my last full day at Barra I ventured into the big waves to test out my new GoPro and the blister on my toe exploded. It was a miracle. Very soon after the foot began to heal and I set my sights on an escape from Praia do Barra. 

Posted in travel

Praia do Barra – Day One

After a night in Maputo, I headed to the airport for my flight up north to Inhambane. 

The plane was one of the smallest ice ever flown on. It had propellers and from my seat I could see right into the cockpit, where the pilots seemed to be navigating via the sort of gps device you might have in your car. 

We flew up the Mozambique coastline – hundreds of miles of unbroken white sand – and landed only an hour later at the tiny airport near Inhambane. 

I got my bag and found a taxi driver who took me to my accommodation – Palm Grove Lodge at Praia do Barra. On the way I couldn’t help but notice how similar it looked to Cambodia – red dirt roads, palm trees, blue skies.

I checked into my little house. I hadn’t realized it would be a house with kitchen and living room rather than just a simple hut with a bed. But this meant I could save money by cooking for myself. 

  
After checking in, I walked past the hotel bar/restaurant to the beach. It was paradise – white sand and blue seas as far as the eye could see in either direction. 

I turned right – east – and walked for a while. I met a man selling cashews and bought a huge bag of them. He probably ripped me off but I like cashews and usually pay 6x this price. 

I had a beer at a nearby bar and then continued along the beach to a lighthouse. I walked too far and my feet hurt a little. I realized how far I was from anything else…

In the evening I had beer and pizza at the hotel restaurant. It wasn’t great and wasn’t cheap. I looked forward to finding a shop where I could buy my own basic cooking supplies. Even a loaf of bread. 

At night I lay under the stars on the beach and looked at the galaxy. In China you can seldom see so many stars but from here j could see everything. I grabbed my GoPro and shot a reasonable picture. You’ll have to click the image and zoom in.

  

Posted in Photography

Waves at Anstruther

Since getting back to Scotland on New Year’s Day the weather has been atrocious. In fact, for five days I couldn’t leave the house. There’s been flooding and high winds consistently. A few days ago, however, I got to visit the seaside at Anstruther, where, it seemed, even the sea was trying to invade the land.

Photos taken with iPhone 5s.