Posted in travel

Venice: A Pleasant Surprise

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

Or so they said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in Photography

More Photos of Scotland in Winter

Happy New Year!

I have been back in Scotland for one month, and I have been amazed by the warm weather. It has given me plenty of opportunity to get out and walk in the countryside, shooting photos of the local scenery.

After Christmas, my family and I took a walk out along Tentsmuir, a forest near our home. I shot many photos there. Here are a few of them:

Later, my parents and I took a walk out along the Old Course at St. Andrews. The Old Course is, as its name suggests, one of the oldest golf courses in the world. It’s closed on Sunday, and the public are free to walk on the fairways.

Yesterday, we took off for Edinburgh and climbed Arthur’s Seat:

The sunset from the top was beautiful. I shot this panorama in addition to the above photos:

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I’m off to Italy next week. Look out for more photos, or add suggestions for my trip below in the comments. 🙂

Posted in Photography

Best Photos of 2018

Last year, in late December, I made a list of my favourite photos I had taken over the year. It was an enjoyable experience to look back, and I encountered many photos I’d actually forgotten about. In this age of social media, it’s easy to put a good photo online and then just never think about it again, but it’s nice to look back and relive old memories.

My year started off in India, where I spent several months travelling. I had a new camera (Nikon D5600) and I used it to capture all sorts of photos, with mixed results. Of the thousands that I took, some really stood out. Here are a few, with some explanation:

Colourful houses at Mamallapuram

This colourful street is in Mallallapuram, on the east coast of India. I shot this simple photo and someone later told me it was like a scene out of a Wes Anderson movie.

Indian gang

It was difficult to choose this photo because there were so many I took in one afternoon at a small park. For some reason, people kept lining up to ask me to take their photo. I didn’t understand it at the time, but later a boy told me about a rumour that there was a Scottish photojournalist taking pictures for a newspaper.

Gandhi Statue

I didn’t particularly enjoy my time in Puducherry, but I liked the way this shot turned out. The statue is of Mahatma Gandhi.

Pilgrims at Indian Temple

This is possibly my favourite photo of the year. In fact, I used it on the cover of a book I wrote about India. It’s called Crossing India the Hard Way.

Old Man at Brihadishwara Temple

One of my favourite places in India was Thanjavur, where I visited the incredible Brihadisvara temple. I arrived just before sundown, but was struggling with my new camera and all the photos I shot that evening were blurry. I went back the following morning and got lots of great photos, including this one of an old man. There are loads more here.

Indian ladies praying

This photo of women praying was also shot at Thanjavur.

Wild Boar crossing path

During my time in the middle of India, I saw many incredible sights at the hill stations and national parks, including a lot of wildlife. However, upon reflection, none of the photos were particularly outstanding. I did, though, quite like this picture of two wild boar crossing a path in the early morning light.

Fishermen in front of giant cargo ship

When I arrived on the western coast of India, at Kochi, or Fort Cochin, I visited the beach. I was shocked to see this massive tanker travelling past the beach, almost within throwing distance. I have no idea how it could come so close without getting grounded.

Close-up of black kite

My final stop in India was Varkala, where I stayed for about a week. There were hundreds of huge birds constantly flying around the clifftops, and I spent countless hours trying to shoot photos of them. This was one of my favourites. My camera has poor zoom lens, so you can imagine how close this bird flew.

My selfie with the stars

Also at Varkala, I shot this photo (an “advanced selfie”, I suppose) of me and the nightsky. As you can probably tell from the shape of the trees, it was shot on a GoPro.

Colorful bee-eater

This is one of my absolute favourite photos of the year – perhaps joint first. It is now the background pic on my computer screen. Shot in Sri Lanka, this was just one of many incredible animals I was privileged to have seen this year. I also saw a leopard, but the resulting pictures weren’t particularly good.

Lizard in tea field

I saw this cool lizard in a tea field near .

Monk in Kandy

I liked this picture because the colour of monk’s robe stands out. It perhaps could have been edited better, though.

Rainy street leading to the mountainsThis was one of many photos I took at Zhaji, in southeastern Anhui province, China.

Boats at sunset

This shot of long-tail boats on a beach near Krabi, Thailand, was shot on my iPhone.

Me looking out over Ao Nang

Another “advanced selfie” taken after a long hike in Thailand.

Tree in sunlight

I think this photo of tree bark was taken in Thailand.

Beautiful carving

I used to live in Cambodia long ago, and this summer I returned. I was saddened to find the country overrun by Chinese people, but there was still plenty of beauty left comparatively undisturbed.

My favourite picture

This photo of ruins at Angkor Wat is now the background to my iPhone. It is another of my favourites of 2018.

Bangkok sunset

After visiting Cambodia, I returned to Bangkok and shot this photo of sunset over the city from my hotel. It may look heavily edited, but it in fact isn’t. The light was simply sublime.

A handsome beach dog

The island of Koh Phangan made for an enjoyable holiday, but I didn’t actually do much photography whilst there. I did, however, see this rather majestic-looking dog.

Vera swimming in waterfall

In nearby Koh Samui, I shot this photo of my (now ex-) girlfriend. We found this isolated waterfall and spent a few pleasant hours swimming in the cool jungle waters.

Me look at the view

Oh look, another selfie. 🙂 What can I say? I like hiking and am determined to overcome my fear of heights. Contrary to what it may seem, I’m still terrified and every time I shoot this sort of photo my knees turn to jelly.

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I spent four and a half years in Huainan, Anhui province. It was not a particularly photogenic place, but every now and then an opportunity would present itself. I took several photos of sunsets over the city or the nearby hills, including this one.

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At the beginning of December, I quit my job in China and returned to Scotland. This was the first photo I took, while walking in the fields around Balmullo. It was icy cold, but after months of breathing toxic air in China, I was happy to take in that fresh Scottish air. I have spent time exploring the local area, but this first photo reminds me of that feeling of being back home, and having escaped the dank, grey hellscape of eastern China.

Posted in Photography

Winter Photos from Edinburgh, Dundee, and St. Andrews

At the beginning of December, I left China and came home to Scotland. I’ve been enjoying the fresh air and beautiful scenery that I always took for granted living here. After many years in polluted, grey China, it really is pleasant being back home.

Since my last post, I have visited Edinburgh to see an old school friend. I didn’t take a camera, but I did shoot one nice photo on my iPhone 7:

Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street Gardens
The newly painted fountain in Princes Street Gardens, with Edinburgh Castle looming in the background.

Next, I headed over the Tay to Dundee, where I spent more than four years living prior to my move to Asia. Dundee is exactly known as a beautiful city, but I have always loved it in its own weird way, and it was nice being back. Waves of memories washed over me as I walked about the West End, along Perth Road, Magdalen Green, and so on.

In addition to that, I have also been walking around the village and nearby St. Andrews. Here are a few photos I shot on the West Sands yesterday:

Posted in Photography

Back in China… again

This morning I was teaching a lesson when a piercing noise began not far from my class. It quickly rose in volume to the extent that it hurt my ears, and I could see from my students that it pained them, too. I have been in Asia long enough not to panic at incredibly loud, sudden noises, but as the sound got louder and louder, I began to feel rather uncomfortable. Not only was it interrupting my classes, but I wondered if it was also damaging my hearing. My eyes began to water. Could this be some sort of sonic attack? Were we at war? Of course not. No one seemed particularly surprised. Life went on as normal outside my classroom window, except that people were covering their ears as they continued walking about.

Many hours later, I learned that this siren marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Apparently it happens every year, so I suppose I must have forgotten that, or maybe it just wasn’t so loud last year. It’s easily done. After all, teaching in China – or in fact just living here – involves a great amount of tolerance for idiotic bullshit like eardrum-destroying sirens. In fact, every day I feel as though I’m subjected to a sonic assault. If it is not a siren, it is surely fireworks or someone drilling into a wall.

China is a place where nothing really happens for a good reason. There is a phrase here – “meiyouweishenme.” It literally means “there is no why”. More idiomatically, it means “just because.” It is a good answer for anything that goes on in China.

“Why are you walking down the middle of a busy road with your child in a stroller?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why are you lighting fireworks outside my window at 5am?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why are you encouraging your child to take a shit in the middle of this supermarket?”

“Meiyouweishenme.”

“Why is that large butcher’s knife lying in the middle of a playground?”

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A knife drying in a kids’ play park.

“Meiyouweishenme.”

And so on.

So, the hell with it: This is China. The Chinese will do as they have always done, which is to act in a way that is utterly baffling to the rest of the world. They will commemorate the Japanese invasion by inflicting more pain and suffering on their own people. Anyone who tries to find reason in this will be driven mad, for there really is none. It’s just China as it always has been and always will be.

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I got back to this odd place three weeks ago. When I left in early July, I wasn’t even sure whether I would come back at all. Part of me was so sick of it that I thought I might just wander off into the world and find somewhere new. Could there really be a place as terrible as Chinese Tier 3 city? Surely not, although perhaps certain warzones or malarial swamps might come close. And, no I think about it, Cleveland was pretty unbearable. But the last thing I saw before setting off for Thailand was a woman holding her baby out to defecate on the floor of Hefei International Airport…

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There is nowhere in China you can go to escape the scourge of public defecation… even the international airports.

…ahe first thing I saw when I arrived back in Hefei was a man lying over two “courtesy seats” that are reserved for disabled people, the elderly, or pregnant women.

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I suppose in China, it is extremely polite to remove your shoes before taking up two courtesy seats. 

I think you could safely hashtag these #onlyinchina. Hell, you could probably study these pictures in a Chinese culture class, as they are utterly representative of the good citizens of the Middle Kingdom, for whom no act is too selfish to commit.

Coming back, then, was a sort of resignation: an admission that I will do literally anything for a paycheque. After all, what is more demeaning than living among a billion and a half chronic public defecators?

Well, whatever. I am back, and like I said last year: “This is my last year.”

And, as I say every year: “This time I mean it.”

When you live someplace, you have to find ways to cope with the unfortunate elements, no matter how overwhelming they seem to be. You can find a hobby, throw yourself into your work, or maybe take up meditating. Different people cope in different ways.

I chose to get out into the countryside on pleasant evenings once the sun began to go down, and practice photography. This forced me to look for something beautiful in an otherwise grey and smoggy landscape:

In addition to that, I hit the gym four days a week and spend most of the rest of my time working. It keeps me sane until the next time I escape…

Posted in Photography, travel

Koh Samui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A storm moves quickly in from Lamai beach.

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

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

 

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

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

Posted in Photography, travel

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in travel

Kampot

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

So here goes…

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

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

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Night bus to Kampot

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

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

Chinocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for that.

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

It didn’t look too bad, either:

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Sunset over Bokor

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

There was in fact one negative to Kampot.

The weather.

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

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

Here are a few photos from around Kampot:

Posted in travel

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

I was talking about Siem Reap…

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my photos:

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

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

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

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

Oh well.

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

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

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

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.