Saturday, 27 December 2008

First Sunset Over Burma

I've obviously seen more than my fair share of sunsets over the last 3 months, but this one was special. The skies had been clear but, as dusk fell, banks of wispy cloud became visible, as if drawn to the setting sun. The amazing thing was, as the bloody orb dropped towards the ocean, Burma revealed herself below it in the distance. It took the breath away. I watched this one with Mario, the tattooed fella. Even he said, after 4 years here, that this one was very good. The water looked like Mercury as it gently washed further and further up the shore towards us. The pictures will follow next week, as the bargain card-reader I bought in Bangkok worked once and went on the blink. Bloody counterfeit goods again.

I stayed a while as Mario got up and left. Half an hour later, and the darkness was total. Well, almost. The moon was almost full, and I was quite shocked to look around me and see my own shadow cast on the beach at night, and very sharply at that. The starts were the brightest I'd seen since working in the Lake District, as the air isn't exactly clear over Hackney these days.

I think I'd have been quite happy to sleep on the beach that night, but then I heard a nice piece of music which led me to go for a quick beer on the way home. Little knowing that I'd meet the best person I'd come across in Thailand so far...

Ze Germans

These chaps had seen fit to bring two likely-looking girls from Ranong with them. Probably not Ladyboys, but certainly paid for by the looks of things. I'd given each of the lads a nickname for my own amusement. There was Rutger Hauer, Sting With A Mohican, Jimmy Five Bellies, Droopy, White Bob Marley and Johnny Rotten. The latter seemed to be the biggest nob of the lot, half shaved head with one stumpy dreadlock. Big mouth. All their tats seemed to be fantasy figures, dragons and space monsters and the like, too. They'll look great when you hit 60, lads. Mum must be proud.

So, while most people on the island are lying in the sun, then watching the sun go down and having a few relaxing drinks in the bar as the shadows grow longer, this lot are getting hammered. In the same spot. Who said that Variety Was The Spice Of Life?

The gang looked a little more than grubby. Same kilts, tee shirts and football socks on each day. I bet their clothes actually crawl to the washing machine themselves when things get too much for them. One of the hookers put ice down Rutger Hauer's back, and he cursed away in German. "What did he say? she asked. He said, said Rotten "Fresh air and cold water will be ze death of him."

No shit.

Snake Island: Ko Chang

It's another early start, after a fairly sleepless night of waterfall music. I don't really care, though...on exiting the bungalow it's a hot morning already...with clear blue skies for the first time since Luang Prabang; not a cloud in sight. The Germans with the kilts and tattoos were packed into one bus and left (last I'd see of them), I was bundled into a pickup with a French woman and her English-born husband, who had developed a French twang. He was a diver, we had a good chat. I believe they were off to Phuket.

My boat was at 10am, and we stopped by an ATM; there aren't any on Ko Chang or Ko Phayam. Would my card work? Would it bollocks. I tried both bank cards AND the no avail. So, with no cash to spend...I was going nowhere until the cards would give me some dosh. I tried at another bank later on, and thankfully could withdraw enough for a week's stay.

So, 2pm boat over some pretty calm water and I'm on my way. it took about 1.5 hours on a longtail, and we saw some pretty sinister-looking jellyfish on the way over. Bright orange in colour and about 1m wide. Wouldn't fancy swimming into one of those. But never mind that, Garfield had wished me a pleasant stay on Chang with a one-line comment on Facefuck: "Watch out for snakes." Cheers, mate. No, really. He'd told me a story of his visit a few years ago, when a snake decided to pop into one of the bars one night for a drink and a bit of a boogie. Goof said he knew it was a nasty one when all the locals started scream, brandishing chairs and jumping up on the tables. All while he was under the influence of the local Thai grass. Something to look forward to, eh?

There was a lad called Mario on the boat, sat on his own. Everyone else was chatting amongst themselves, so I went and said he looked a bit left out. Probably something to do with the Polynesian tattoos covering his entire body, including half of his face. We chatted a little about them, and his reasons for doing it. He couldn't recall the first tattoo, but said he'd consciously decided to go for the full body job.

"Everything?" I asked, arching an eyebrow?
"And...?" with another raised eyebrow.
"Ze penis is completely covered, inside and out. In solid black. It is very surprising, because ze scotum causes more discomfort zan ze glans."

I winced. A little bit more information than I needed, but it certainly painted a picture. Vividly. I didn't probe any further. He referred to his "life partner" doing it, and herself, over 7 years. They aren't together any more, though. So much for life partners, I thought. Probably why he's been living on Koh Chang for the last 4 years. Said he gets less hassle here than he did in India, where he couldn't eat a meal in a cafe without looking up to see camera phones in his face. Understandable, does look a little outlandish, but it's his choice after all. He said he got prejudiced reactions, and sometimes even violence, from people who didn't get it. Not nice, really. Each to their own. He's a nice bloke. I really wanted a picture for the blog. He declined, but thanked me for actually asking first. Mum brought me up proper, after all.

So as the boat pulls up for his stop (there's no cars, bikes or taxis on the island, so the boat drops you on whichever beach you require) a woman asked me if I wanted a bungalow. I said Yes, and she jumped off with one of my bags and carried it up the beach. As I followed up and walked into the bar, who should be sat there but the Bloody Tattooed Germans? I took a deep breath and carried on. The bungalow was nice, so I took it thinking they might be off soon.

How wrong I was.

Burma Run

Never mis-read the Rough Guide. It's sketchy enough as it is (hence the title, I suppose. Either that or the mistakes are just lazy journalism) without skim-reading it and costing yourself a few hundred miles and a night in a one-horse town. I got to Samui expecting a month extension, but because I didn't have the printed visa in my passport, just an entry stamp, I was offered 8 days by the girl on the counter. For the bargain price of 1800 Baht (36 quid). Don't think so, love. "You go to Burma, then" Ouch. So instead of Lipeh in the South, I have to run for the boat from Samui over to Suratthani, stay there a night and then up to Ranong. Would have been so much easier from Tao to go to Chumphon. I was gutted, especially with No & starting to ache again under the weight of my pack. But, no was that or Malaysia for Xmas.

The boat ride to Suratthani was quite nice, actually...and I forgot about the inconvenience and just enjoyed it. Stop whinging, you're not stuck at home in the cold. The place was pretty crap, nowt going I wandered down to the street market to eat. The food was great, and very cheap. The old lady shouted over as I tucked into my Pad Thai "You from British?" "Well, English, actually...don't lump us in with the rest of them" and I smiled. She understood little of that, but just brought me a beer without my asking. I didn't argue. Our reputations precede us, and I didn't mind her judging me with a cold Singha.

An early start from there saw me on a bus North. The Krabi region is certainly good enough to take your mind off an arduos journey...all limestone rock and dense jungle. And the sun was out. After hopping off the bus, I made my way to the easiest guesthouse, Kiwi Orchid. They arranged for me to go get a visa immediately as I dumped my bags. Ordinarily I'd have shopped around, but it expred that day, and it was 3pm. 20 quid sounded OK, so off I went to the harbour.

Ranong harbour stinks. It smells like something's died there, it's horrendous. Diesel fumes and dead fish, not a good mix. I gently lowered myself into the proferred longtail, and off we went out of the pier. It sounds more complicated than it is. You get stamped out of Thailand, then stop at the mouth of the river to clear Immigration. Then out across the bay, clear Burmese Immigration...and onto the nearest harbour to get stamped into Burma, and immediately out again. For which the Burmese pocket $10. And various beggars say they're your best mate, they love Wayne Rooney and Posh and Becks, and can they have some money please? No. A kid with a Chelsea baseball cap asked for tip. "Get a new hat." The boat ride is great, Dad would love it. That's why they call him Skipper Don.

I was a bit perturbed to find that the new Thai government, after the crisis recently, had cut the allowance from 30 days to 15 for new stamps. 2 days before I got there. Swines. So, instead of heading for Lipeh immediately, I thought it best to do Koh Chang and Phayam for 2 weeks, then head South. It was my original plan before I flew from London anyway, so I didn't mind.

I got back to Kiwi Orchid, and got chatting to a girl who'd been born in Preston. Leyland, in fact. i laughed...a lot of mates back home are from there, including The Colonel. So we had a good chat, and she recommended another guesthouse instead of Kiwi, with hot springs nearby, waterfalls outside and plants in the room. Sounded lovely. It wasn't. The springs were out of order, the waterfall deafining to the point where sleep was nigh on impossible, and the plants in the room were plastic. Never trust anyone from Preston.

As I'd left Kiwi, there were a group of kilt-wearing, tattooed Germans getting pissed in the lobby. Very odd characters, so I was pleased to change hotels just for that reason. Didn't like the look of them. And they'd cost em money when I'd seen them a few weeks previously on the Khoa San Rd. I'd seen the kilts and remarked to Jocky "Look at the state of these freaks...some of your lot" "Nah" he shook his head "too many tattos...German." "Bollocks, next beers on whoever's wrong, then." I was wrong, and Jocky made a smug drinking motion. But I didn't think I'd run into these guys. Especially a third time...

A Fond Farewell To Koh Tao

Well, it was with a heavy heart that I left this place after 3 weeks. Myself and The Jock hadn't thought much of the place when we arrived in Mae Hat, especially as it was chucking it down and there seemed to be No Room At The Inns. We'd also eaten on arrival, enjoying the chicken fried rice immensely; until I visited the bathroom via the kitchen. Swarms of flies buzzing all over every surface, and a cloud of them dancing around a pile of something unidentifiable in the middle of the floor. I'd gingerly pushed the toilet door open with a toe. It didn't flush, and someone's processed dinner was bobbing up and down in the bowl. Needless to say, there was no soap or a towel. I felt sick. Jocky wasn't too happy, either. Surprisingly, neither of us developed gastroenteritis on the spot. Nasty.

Over 3 weeks, you meet some right characters. And make some firm acquaintances. They feel like friends, but you can't really call them that; friends are ones I've been stuck with for 20 years, like Garfield Hodgson. Mates are people I know from work over the years. But these acquaintances are certainly great to hang around with.

Jocky had met a lad on the way down from Vientiene, Dave. On the first day in Bangkok together, he proceeded to regale us with tales of "Rub N Tubs" in Pattaya. Read in a Geordie accent, like Michael from Alan Patridge, to fully appreciate:

"So, like, you picks yer bird, like. An' she takes you into a room with a giant lilo, and starts smothrin' it wi' oil, like. The she strips us off, and gets her own kit off, like. She gi's us a massage all over wi' her body...gettin' all greasy like. Then you have sex, and get washed off in the hot-tub. Only 20 quid, like..." he says.
"Sounds a bit seedy, though? And Pattaya...isn't that where all the Sex Tourists go?" I enquire.
"Aye, well...I kept away from all them lot, like..."
The mind boggles. We were supposed to see Dave on Tao, but (not) surprisingly, he didn't phone Jocky when he got there. Maybe the penny dropped?

So...the first-rate lads on Tao. Red: the Canadian who's obsession with women, and how to lure them in using tactics from "The Game" , bordered on frightening. A good lad, though...despite attempting to kill me on a scooter ride from Hell. He actually said we were almost crashing into things because I, as pillion, was looking at them. I asked if it was nothing to do with the fact he was actually sweating gin, and could hardly see? It always tickled me when I saw him after a party at Sairee Beach, and asked if he'd pulled.

"I got some IOIs" he nodded, sagely.
"What the fuck's an IOI?" I asked, bemused.
"Indicators Of Interest"
"And what about the young Swedish girl you liked?"
"I broke the Three Second Rule with her, it's a goner"
"Never look at a girl for more than three seconds without making a move. It's Game Over."

Put that book down, mate. You're a nice enough fella...don't scare them off, now.

Then there was Seb. Only 19, but really switched-on, and very good company. He said he appreciated the fact that I carried on speaking to him after I found out his age, as some older people didn't bother. Pretty narrow-minded of them. Their loss, mate. Seb's probably still there at the bar, smoking a joint and stroking Lucky (that's a dog, not a Thai prostitute). I hope he hasn't been for any more massages since I left, though. He told me one woman kept "accidentally" touching his balls. "Result" I said "Happy Finish?" "No, mate...she's about 90." Blecccchh!

Danno's a shaven-headed Canadian. Wears basketball vests and has tattoos of skulls on his arm. Me and him would probably pass each other on the street at home and not communicate much. But when you're away, you tend to see through all that, chat to people and realise you actually have stuff in common. Me and Danno both like smoking weed and drinking beer, and that's enough for both of us. He probably doesn't hang out with fat 38 year olds at home, either. But Heavy Ballads is still a shit genre of music, Danno...remember that.

Luke, an English fella, was good for a laugh. He always got all shiny-faced when he was pissed and stoned. A happy drunk, you could hang out all day with him at the pub back at home. Reminded me of Rowley Birkin from the Fast he was quite well-spoken. Sprawled out at Eazy Bar, cocktail in one hand, spliff in the other, is how I'll remember him.

Last, but by no means least, are the Eazy Bar boys themselves, all from Burma. Soe, the effortlessly cool one of the bunch and too bloody handsome with it, was always good for a laugh, and full of stories. English really good, just from speaking to the likes of us...and more recently his English wife Sophie. I told her Soe reminded me of Ronaldinho without the teeth. He told me some Burma stories I'll come to later. Yaou was the quieter one in charge of music, and occupied himself with his German girlfriend and rolling joints most of the time. Both important pasttimes. Zo was my favourite. About 4 foot tall with a loveable cheeky face, he had his spot in the bar pit, just behind the door. He was the only one who could fit in there. The other lads, Wan in particular, used to pick on him, with anything from catapults to fake guns. I think he secretly loved it...bit of a masochist. Easpecially when he'd pull his shirt up so they could get a better shot at his arse. A very funny man.

There was an odd chap there who I didn't take a liking to at first after a drunken, stoned encounter on the way home one night. I thought he was being a bit funny with me. Turns out he just gets drunk with the customers, and he was leathered that night. He speaks around 8 languages, and is self-taught in all...amazing. I don't know why he's working in a bar in Thailand?

So you feel an affinity for these Burmes lads, even to the point where we sat back and watched them charge a very drunk middle-aged English fella called Gareth off one night. He'd asked for a few hits of the bong, then wanted to buy weed. Soe had looked at us, then passed him a bag worth around 500 Baht and asked for 1000. Myself, Danno and Seb smiled conspiratorially. I felt a bit guilty, though...the lad was English. And we felt doubly guilty when he was dishing out bongs for us, and left us some grass as he left for bed. Sorry, was funny at the time. And you were asking for it in that state. Besides, Soe would have pulled his stun gun on me if I'd stepped in.

So I crept away for the 7am boat, a bit of a lump in the throat. Better to leave with no-one around, as I don't like Goodbyes at the best of times. And it's more of a wrench to leave at 8pm when the party's just kicking of at Eazy after the sun's disappeared below the horizon. So a jump into a pickup, a quick grab of some cash before the boat leaves...and it's off to Samui to extend the visa and see what else is out there.

If you ever visit Tao, go to Chalok Bay and Eazy Bar. You won't be sorry. Eat at Tropicana, the Penang Curry is amazing. Stay at Sunshine, and dive with them. I challenge you to leave. It's not Eazy.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Weathering the storm

It never ceases to astound me, the skies witnessed over oceans. I can happily watch them for hours. Especially when actually out at sea. Not for these journeys the mid-level and plain old cumulus formations.

We passed Ko Pha Ngan, enveloped in ominous banks of charcoal sky, torrents of water lashing her hills. Almost volcano-like in the intensity of dark cloud above her. Port-side, and the scene was completely different. Lighter due to the sun attempting to peek through, wispy cirrus contrasted with giant, fluffy cumulus drifting at different speeds...while in the distance stacks of identically-shaped vapour rose as far as I could see. A huge hole appeared above the boat, another universe of contrasting shapes appearing within it's boundaries...seemingly hundreds of miles away. A wall of cotton wool. Stabs of light suddenly bathing the sea in dappled, dancing gold as the light broke free...kissing the edges of the clouds surrounding the ever-expanding space. You cannot buy moments like these and, when they come, you must wring every last second from them. It's almost enough to make me believe in a god. Almost...

Dry land beckons. And I know the Easy Bar crew will be in their usual places, joints passed round, beers drained, stories swapped. Soe, Yao and Zo and their cheeky banter. Seb, Red, Luke and Danno filling the coffers. Only minutes away now. Welcome home, indeed.

Aquatic Rollercoaster and Barf Simpson

I'd developed quite a lump on my left hand, where the needle had been inserted. I asked the nurse if this was normal, and she giggled and said "I no know...maybe hand fall off?" I laughed, albeit a little nervously.

Doc's back to talk through my X-rays, and thankfully there is good news. "England win against Germany last night...2 goals to 1." "Now that IS good news, Doctor. Now, about my ribs...?" The gist of it is, I can leave in the morning. And no diving for 6 weeks. Fuck. I don't know which is worse, not diving...or lugging all my gear around for 6 weeks for absolutely no reason at all. Probably an unhealthy mix of the pair. Ah well...I no die, after all.

DAN's paying for all my care. So I'm unperturbed to be asked to sign a blank form when they dish out my aftercare medicine. "No morphine?" "You silly!" "These will do, I suppose" And I'm out of there, after saying Toodlepip to the nurses. Despite the haphazard care, they've been good to me. It's certainly been an experience. Pad Thai as soon as I hit Ko Tao, that's for sure.

The boat ride was certainly another experience. I don't suffer from seasickness, but plenty of others do. Which makes it all the more fun, no? A little schadenfreude never hurt anyone, after all? Well, apart from those who's expense you're having a chuckle at. This was like Alton Towers on sea. I was on the top deck, I prefer the open air. If I looked at the people at the back of the boat, the sides would pitch up on the rolling waves until I could see no ocean behind them...only to plummet into a trough and I could see water the height of four men behind pale green faces. The horizon shifted giddily in relation to the stern of the catamaran, passengers staggered to get down the stairs without being tossed into the sea. Plastic bags filled with the partially-dissolved remains of lunch. Why transparent bags, incidentally? It's enough to turn your stomach.

The highlight wasn't long in coming up. Literally. There were three monks in saffron robes came rolling out of the VIP room, looking fairly unwell. One grabbed a bag from a steward, and barley managed to throw up in it. One of his colleagues staggered about, people reaching out to help but not quite're not supposed to touch them. Ironic. Third Monk decides to barf into a bag, doesn't quite get it right, and splatters the floor and the socks and sandals of a middle-aged couple at the top of the stairs. I could hardly contain myself, biting my lip. Especially as they were German, and didn't look too pleased at all with Barf Simpson's offering. Jolly good show, old chap.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Ko Samui International Hospital

I'm quickly dumped aboard a fast boat making its way back to Ban's as fast as possible. Jon helped me up the slip, and we jumped into a waiting taxi. All very efficient. First stop was the local clinic and dive doctor for an X-ray and assessment. On the way there, I was thanking the old lucky stars that I'd heeded a BSAC Instructor's advice and joined D.A.N before leaving the UK. Everything would be paid for.

Which is just as well when you see the clinic staff's little beaming faces as the latest mangled, broken Westerner enters their air-con suite. Welcome, Mister Cash Cow. Some poor sod was getting stitched up on the table, as his card's getting similar treatment by the nurse on the phone "Yes, yes...him pay by VISA, yes..." Cue smiles all round.

And I'm still dripping wet as they wheel me in to the X-ray room. Twenty minutes later, and a doctor tells me what I knew a split second after impact. Broken rib. And a hospital visit. Happy Holidays.

A medic named Wuss, poor fellow, is assigned to escort me over to Ko Samui, a 2 hour boat ride away. No pain on board, but the bumpy road to the pier was agony in the back of a pickup truck. This is not BUPA. On arrival at Samui Pier, I managed to hobble off the catamaran unaided. Imagine my mortal embarassment upon seeing an ambulance at the end of the jetty, with two nurses, and realising it was for me. Oh dear.

An ambulance ride later, thankfully siren-free, and we arrive at Casualty. The nurse who met me at the boat has not let go of my hand yet. Either she likes me, she's getting paid extra for it, or there's a priest waiting to give me the Last Rites and she's feeling sorry for me? I'm wheeled in, Mister Cash Cow. Far be it for me to expect to be transferred to a room straight away. Oh no, first they rifle through your things muttering the two phrases of English now becoming overly familiar. "You have insurance document?" "Where you have credit card?" Certainly not in the bag of dirty washing you're dropping all over reception, my dear fellow. Several sweaty tee shirts and pairs of Calvins later, and I've told them I've got insurance. Why didn't they just apply pressure to my affected area to get this result? Good enough for the Japanese, after all. The DAN membership card is enough to convince them to bring over the pricelist for various rooms in the hospital. I opted for Standard at 60 quid a night, plus extra for Nursing and Food. Just in case there was a problem with the insurance. I'd have been laughing on the other side of my face in the deluxe room if they'd not paid out.

OK. Thai hospital? I can't wait to see the menu for this place. A little R&R all paid for, cute nurses making a fuss of me, and great food, right? Wrong. This could be a great place to shed those pounds, alright. Eggs that had been boiled for around 60 seconds. Instant noodles. Pork when you've asked for fish. Re-fried fries, dripping with grease. Are they trying to kill me, you wonder? La Piece De La Resistance was the chicken soup. Full of unidentifiable lumps, and a very odd consistency when it settled, reminiscent of wallpaper paste. Needless to say, I just wolfed down the fruit and made do with some dry biscuits you get with the tea. When you get some tea, that is. At one point, after asking for tea bags every time a nurse popped in to poke or jab me with something, I needed to take action. If the Mountain won't come to Mohammad. Wandering up and down the hospital corridors pushing a saline drip on wheels is no way for a self-respecting Englishman to be spending his afternoons, but I needed a brew. Job done, after a few giggles from the nurses, and I'm back watching the footy. So far, so good.

The nurses made a fuss of me, and I made them laugh. Particularly when three of them would come in to say Good Morning and ask if I was awake and OK. "I no die" had them in stitches. Easily pleased, obviously.

Day Two, and the drip is getting right on my wick. Taking a shower with your arm outside is no mean feat. You have to tilt the bloody drip to even get into the bathroom. I'd turned down one nurse's request to "Help washee your body?" on several grounds. Firstly, it's a little undignified. Secondly...she was very attractive, and I was afraid I'd get a little excited and that it would show. It probably happens all the time, but getting an erection while receiving medical assistance also falls into the Undignified category. And god only knows what a Happy Finish would have cost, I certainly didn't see it on the cursory glance I gave the pricelist. So I bathe myself, and ask the nurse to take the drip out of the back of my hand. She does so, managing to spray blood all over herself and the wall behind. None on me, though. Get me out of here.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Rescue Diver Day Two: A Clean Break

Farmer continued on the next day. Jon picked him up for putting his breathing apparatus on the tank before he'd secured his jacket to it. Schoolboy error. We were briefed that we were to carry out search patterns on the bottom for a missing diver. This involves one diver navigating with a compass, his buddy counting fin kicks and looking for the victim. It was all clearly explained on the surface beforehand. So Jon indicates that I'm Navigator for the first one, and Farmer counts. He's supposed to tap me when he's counted enough fin kicks, and it's time to turn 90 degrees. We therefore search in an expanding square pattern...very effective. IF your buddy taps you to turn.

The first turn was supposed to be after 5 kicks. After 10, Farmer was swimming alongside me gormlessly. I had to stop and use sign language to say "Count 5...tap me...count 10, tap me" He nodded affirmation. Did he tap me? Did he fuck. I've never had a wobbler underwater, but I was close then. Bloody clueless. Jon wrote on his slate "Do your's his responsibility to do the rest." So as long as I took us in the right directions, I'd pass. Surprisingly, in less than 2 metres visibilty, we passed it all first time. The surface rescues went well too...apart from Farmer trying to give rescue breaths to Jon as the current carried them away.

So...back on the boat. we were just waiting for one of the sneaky surprises they spring on you to test you. We'd already had to jump back in to get Jon and Red 10 minutes yelling instructions to Farmer who'd said "What do we do?" Fuck me sideways, this lad's a potential killer. Could be more prolific than Dennis Nilsen the rate he's going.

Surprise, surprise...Red's 30 feet from the boat and splashing about like a loon. I got my fins, mask and snorkel back on. Had to prevent myself screaming at Farmer. I'd told him to watch Red and point to indicate his position while I swam out. I turned round to see him following me down the boat. "Watch Red!!" He about-faced.

Kitted up, I stood on the edge of the boat. 10 feet up. On putting my other fin on the gunwales, I realised too late just how wet the surface was. I slipped and fell chest-first onto the kayak moored alongside the boat. Look before you leap, indeed. Hitting it, I felt a snap in my ribcage. Rolling into the sea in agony, I momentarily slipped below the waves. I'm confident I hold the world record for swearing underwater. Surfacing, I saw Jon and Red powering towards me "Are you fucking about?". I could hardly breathe, and just shook my head. they pulled me towards the back off the boat, me on my back looking up at concerned faces above me on the boat "That went well, I thought?" I quipped.

Back on the boat, they stripped the wetsuit off. Jon looked concerned.

"Those ribs don't look normal..."
"Believe me, mate...they don't feel normal"
"Speedboats on it's way, fella"
"Any chance of a cuppa, old chap?"

So...brew in hand, I was whisked off back to shore. I missed (sadly) Red tearing a strip off Farmer. But apparently it went a little like this:

"You fucking moron, man. You're on a Rescue course, right? Well, asshole...your buddy's in the sea breathing his last while you stand there holding your dick in your hand, motherfucker!! Sort your shit out."

Quite, old chap. Couldn't have put it better myself. Oh, to be a fly on the wall...

PADI Rescue Diver Day One

Well now. Rescue Diver is obviously a course to train a diver in the safekeeping of his fellows. Everything from First Aid, Decompression Sickness and ruptured lungs is covered. As well as recovering lifeless bodies from the ocean bed. Fascinating course, and a worthwhile one to have under the belt.

I'd started the course alone but, as Ban's owns Sunshine, a later starter was added from their books. I'll refer to this lad as Farmer, because that's how he appeared. Buck teeth, big ears and looked like he cut his own hair. We've all seen the big eared boys on farms.
I suspected the lad was a few butties short of a picnic when we were going through the coursework. Jon stressed the importance of delegating when there are less experienced Rescue Divers on a boat when an emergency arises.
Farmer: "What's delegate?"
Jon: "It's when you divide responsibility between others so you can concentrate on the bigger picture in an emergency"
Farmer: " a boss telling you what to do?"
Jon (looking at me without smiling): "Yes, just like that."
Farmer: "Right"
To be fair, this kid had done his Open Water last week, then his Advanced a few days later. Straight onto Rescue Diver? And he was asking how much an Instructor earns? Oh dear. He's going to have blood on his hands one day.
Pool training, and we had Red (Canadian lad from Easy bar who's a Divemaster Trainee) playing the victim. A good lad. He'd drunkenly promised to "fucking drown you man...I'm gonna fuck your shit up!" in Easy the night previous, before falling asleep on the bar. He turned up sweating gin out of his pores. The consumate professional.
Now this exercise simulates a panicking diver on the surface, throwing away his gear and splashing around...a hazard to a rescuer as they will try and jump on you to keep afloat. The idea is not to get too close, get them to inflate their jacket fully and calm them down before towing them to the boat. You swim up, regulator in mouth, and stay a couple of metres away...asking if they are OK. If they climb on you, regulator back in...sink and swim below them, straddling their tank and inflating their jacket for them. Simple?
Farmer swims up to Jon, asking "Diver..are you OK?". No regulator in his was trailing behind him. So Jon starts panicking, jumping on Farmer as he's too close, pushing him below the water with no means of breathing...while smiling in a rather evil manner. I couldn't stop laughing. This happened 3 or 4 times. Jon told him to approach with his regulator in, so he could submerge and avoid flailing divers and therefore drowning. Farmer did it exactly the same as before. He got it eventually.
Later that night, I saw Red at Easy.
"Red, I sincerely hope that fool never has to rescue ME"
"Or anyone else...the guy shouldn't be here."
We were agreed on one thing...he'd better buck his ideas up, or it'd be wrong of the school to take his cash and pass him. It could cost someone their life one day.

Three become one

The Colonel had headed for Krabi the night previous, and we'd finished the Advanced course. On awaking to torrential rain, The Jock announced he was heading West, too. I had laundry to wait for, so it made my mind up for me...I was staying. Probably for the best, as we needed to travel on our own a little, too. We travel well together, but he's a bloody fidget and thinks he's a good singer. So he can elbow someone else and warble to them for a while. See you on the other side, amigo.

The rain stopped, and the sun came out. So I wandered down to Sunshine Divers in Chalok. Discussed the Rescue Diver course, the next step towards Divemaster with Alice, a DMT, and her fella. After speaking to the Instructor, Jon, I was sold. The place is smaller and a lot friendlier than Ban's. If you're going to dive on Tao, do it with them in Chalok.

So, The Colonel in Krabi. Jocky going West, and me staying with the Easy Crew. More diving, another qualification. What could possibly go wrong? What indeed...

Dive 2: PADI Advanced Open Water

Tao's not the best place to learn to dive. Well, it's cheap and there's lots of variety. But there's more divers than fish. And at Ban's it felt a little like being on a conveyor belt through a diver factory. Our Instructor, Tuff, was a good lad though. Bangkok born, islands bred. Likes his ganja, kind of diver.

The visibility wasn't bad, and the dives passed without incident. As did the qualification over the next few days. We had 25m vis at one point...saw a large grouper fish the size of a toddler. And at 29 degrees centigrade, pretty pleasant conditions.

The highlight was the night dive we did as one of our specialities. This really was like something from The Abyss. I was a little apprehensive, but sinking down into pitch black was strangely reassuring. My shrink would say it was like returning to the womb. Wasn't that warm, pal. Did I just say that? Anyway...we hit bottom, around 28m below the surface. Tuff signalled to us to extinguish torches. Staggering. Without beams of light to illuminate narrow areas, the ocean came alive around us in the dark. You could see the moon in the sky through the waves above, shoals of fish skitting through, almost as if they were in the clouds themselves.

It was actually easier to see without the torches, and we switched off again later as another group of divers approached in the distance, beams of light arcing through the water. To anyone who dives but hasn't done so, I'd implore you to dive at night. Without the light, we could also rapidly disturb the water with our hands, and watch the luminescent plankton dance before our eyes...a bit like he spots you see when you stand up too quickly. Fantastic.

So...after spotting a sting ray on the sea bed when gas supply was up, it was time to return to our natural environment and a nice hot cup of tea...

Exploring Tao

The island's not very big at all, and only has one concrete road...the rest are a network of dirt tracks leading up through the hills to almost inaccessible bays. We managed a few of these on our scooters, despite them not being made for such rough terrain. Mango Bay (on the Northern-most tip) was attempted, and Jocky fell behind as he lost momentum...he got too close to me as I was preparing to take a treacherous bit on. I shouted that I'd be back in a while, and revved the bike as hard as possible to climb this steep track. I got about a mile further on, and was struggling up another hill when a couple of locals came downhill. "Oooh no, no, noooo..." one of them cackled toothily, pointing to the scooter "...very dangerous...crazy" as he pointed back uphill. Mission aborted, then. With almost superhuman effort, I managed to turn the bike around without dropping it down the slope. That would have cost me a fortune, I wasn't worried about knocks and scrapes to my person.

So a more accessible bay was chosen for a rest before we headed back. To Easy Bar, of course.

On the way back to Chalok from Sairee, there's a left hand turning opposite Climax Bar (The Colonel went in here for a pint, and wondered why it was empty save for him and local girls. He soon realised why, drank up and beat a hasty retreat) which leads all the bloody roads a swanky hotel. Opposite this hotel is a small wooden sign, "Eagle View", leading you up some steps to a humble fisherman's abode. A very stoned fisherman's abode, in fact. His wife cooks the food, and he sorts out the smokes "You wan' bong, mista?" I should say so, dear boy. The food isn't great, but the weed's sweet...and the view to imbibe it to is amazing.

Incidentally, one Colonel anecdote which made me howl with laughter. On arriving at Tao, he'd just asked a taxi driver to take him somewhere nice. Not doing his sums, he was quite pleased when the chap dropped him here . Three nights later, not as pleased when he realised it was costing him 42 quid a night. Bit different from the fiver a night bungalow he found himself on the beach the next day. You live and learn, mate. Besides, a bit of luxury was probably required after Vietnam.

So, after settling in for a few days...we had weed, diving booked, and football on the box. Not bad at all...

Island Life

Grabbing another extortionate taxi (how come it's 200 baht for 2 people, and 5 people is 500 baht? No wonder they all have new's more expensive than London) to Chalok Bay, it didn't take us long to find him. You hear the man before you see him...and he was around the bars showing the footy. Cue sheepish grins and big was good to see him, alright.

He'd told me he'd become a bit of a character around the Bay. It's a small place, more peaceful and laidback than Sairee..and everyone knows each other. And almost everyone knew him. The Colonel had become a regular at Easy Bar. Not surprisingly, since they sold spliffs behind the counter "Don't worry, they don't sell Valium here" he assured me, laughing. Easy's run by a gang of Burmese lads, all like a smoke and good music. The best one being So, a skinny, tattooed 24 year old with an English girlfriend. Probably one of the most effortlessly cool people I've ever met. And the banter between him and an occassionally paranoid Colonel were hilarious to witness. All good-natured, though they couldn't understand each other at times. He seemed very relaxed there, though...part of the furniture.

So we're sat around the bar, the sound of waves gently lapping the shore complimenting the soundtrack rumbling from the speakers. The twitters and screeches from our fecund surroundings adding to the atmosphere. Random overheard conversations, and laughter in the fug of sweet Thai grass relaxing my mind and body. Yeah, I like Ko Tao. I like it a lot. Could be here for sometime.

Ko Tao arrival

Well, this is what I'd been looking forward to for 6 weeks. Especially after the disappointment, and filth, of Vietnam's beaches. The place looked beautiful from the boat, golden beaches with forested hills behind. And rain. Lots of rain.

So we disembarked at Mae Head, and grabbed a taxi (pickup trucks here) to a nearby bungalow complex. The easy way in new places when you have heavy gear is a night in the first place you see, followed by a scouting mission the next morning. This achieved, we spoke to Ban's Diving about the PADI Advanced course. A reasonable price, and accommodation free for 3 nights. Sign here. Don't mind if I do. So, all signed up to start the next morning, we went off to hunt down The Colonel...

Fast boat to Ko Tao

The Jock caught me up in Bangkok, apparently refreshed after his Vang Vieng experience. We had a few beers that evening, and decided to head to Ko Tao, where we'd catch up with The Colonel. Him and myself had swapped mails a few times. I apologised for sounding a little patronising in what I'd written about him when we parted. I'd meant to say simply that he needed to go off and do hs own thing, see what he was made of and the like. It didn't come across like that, but I'm not ashamed to hold my hand up. Shit happens, and you can get on each other's nerves when you're in each other's pockets. So, slate wiped clean, I was looking forward to catching up and see what sort of trouble he'd got himself into.

The overnight bus was uneventful. Well, aside from Jocky getting the eye off a ladyboy opposite him. Having told him off for playing a crappy game on his phone, tinny music obligatory, every time Jocky looked in his direction he simpered. I think he may like a bitof discipline. Jocky was nonplussed. Not to mention noncommital.

Having arrived at Chumphon for the catamaran, we had an hour to kill. Killing mosquitoes and eating culinary delights Little Chef would have been ashamed to profer. Two quid for a manky tuna sandwich, madam? I'll take two. I also loved the fact that the two rotund sandwich-makers didn't even make eye contact, and put my change on the counter 6 inches away from my upturned palm. How utterly charmless. Didn't like tourists, perhaps? So I asked if she had some spicy chili sauce, which she passed me "To drown the taste" I smiled. This country.

A quick doze on the boat was required. Not for me, but for the Korean chap who insisted on using my shoulder as a pillow. That didn't bother me, it was more the open mouth catching flies and curling my shirt collar with his rotten sleepy breath. A few further, and firmer, nudges in the ribs rectified this situation, though. Otherwise I'd have hurled in his lap. Violently...

Overnight train to Bangkok

So myself and Jamal escaped the meagre charms of Vientiane. A few hours later, and we were back on Thai soil. Another 9 hours on the train, and were ready to make our respective plans.

The journey was fairly uneventful. And the standard of train and bunk is far better than that of Vietnam's. I picked the bunk at the end by the door, a mistake I was to rue later, and I gave Jamal a ticket opposite an elderly Swedish woman who had been on the bus to the border. She wouldn't shut there was no way I fancied having my ear bent all the way to Bangkok. Not on your nelly, love. I was feeling quite smug for about 5 minutes until I turned to see said old dear giving Jamal fruit, cake and fizzy pop. Eh? We hadn't eaten for about 8 hours, thinking there'd be somewhere to eat at the railway station. No such luck. To top it all, people passing through the carriage kept leaving the door open, so we could hear the rattle of steel wheel on track and point. Jamal fell asleep within minutes. I was left, red eyed, to curse every thoughtless fool passing through that door. As was the American opposite me.

We struck up a conversation. He's half-Morroccan, half Yank. Married to a Thai with a lovely tattoo on her leg, actually. Having lived all over Thailand for years, having never returned from a holiday he took, he had some tales to tell. Some amusing, some downright disturbing. One was related to the tsunami which crushed the Andaman coast. A friend of his was a dive instructor, miles out to sea with a group. They had heard nothing underwater, and did not have a radio switched on. So when they returned to land, an obvious picture of utter horror lay before them. Friends and colleagues gone. Homes and businesses strewn across miles of wasteland. And the grim sight of a dead pregnant Western woman on a beach. How you quite deal with that, I'll never know. Apparently, some Westerners dealt with it by heading for the Gulf and East Coast to continue their holidays. How some people sleep at night...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Best Pad Thai in Bangkok

There's not much good I can say about the Khao San Road area of Bangkok. Brash, vulgar, noisy. And that's just the Westerners. It's OK if you want a suit,'re not short of people trying to fit you up (literally AND financially, I imagine). The street food is pretty good, though...whether it's noodles, rice or the delicious fresh fruit shakes.

But there's one place any visitor should go. Top of KS Rd, turn right, and there's an open air kitchen 20 yards further on where you can sit down. This little old lady's got some serious skills with the local food.

So if you're in her a visit. Mention the lardy Englishman who gave her a kiss on the cheek as he left, and I may just get commission...payable in Pad Thai Shrimp please, Missus...

A Bright Shining Lie

I'd been meaning to read this book for years, ever since I was a 17-year-old shelf stacker at Asda and my friend and mentor, Billy Broad, had recommended it. We used to play tunes over the in-store sound system while we worked, much to the annoyance of the middle-aged women working there. Billy was about 15 years older than me, maybe more. So he got me into the Stones and other 60s stuff...I turned him onto Public Enemy and House. Fair swap. After listening to Paint It Black, I said it was the theme tune for Tour Of Duty, a Vietnam War TV drama.

I said I'd read various books on the War, and was very interested in it. He recommended this one. I wish I hadn't taken 20 years to finally read's a masterpiece which describes the War and it's background with the French Indochina Wars, concentrating on one military advisor with the US Army. He's a flawed character, but one of the few people who understood the mentality and mindset of the Vietnamese and, ultimately, why America was doomed to lose before she started. A fascinating book. If you like that kind of thing. Oh, and this cover is shit compared to the original print with Tim Page's photograph on the cover...

Don't bother

Ah Vientiane. Why this is the capital, rather than Luang Prabang, I'll never know. OK, so it's a little bigger. But it is truly devoid of anything of interest. The food was good, but that's about it. It didn't help that we got there late, and there was no bloody accommodation. The place we got was the pits. There were that many brown splashes across the walls, it looked like Peter Sutcliffe had been having a drunken party. He'd have lost his deposit on the place, let's put it that way.

So we decided to have a few beers and stay out to avoid going back there. Any excuse. On returning, we drank the guesthouse fridge dry, sitting outside playing some tunes. And being accosted by ladyboys. A Canadian-raised Dutch fellow approached us and sat to have a natter. Just turned 60, apparently. Mohawk haircut and serious tattoos. I'll post some pictures later. He was a proper character with some great stories. Some of them a little tall, the SS shooting at his mother when she was carrying him in her arms during WWII. He'd been brought up in Canada, and regaled us with allsorts of tales of failed marriages to local women, beer, drugs, tattoos and the like. I said "Papillon" and pointed at the butterfly on his chest when I first saw the tats. The youngsters in the group didn't understand, so I started telling the story of Henri Charriere's escape from French Guiana and Devil's Island. He said "I'm glad you're telling the story...I thought people didn't know". So I carried on for a few seconds til he interrupted and told it himself. This went on a few times, until I gave up. And there was me thinking I was a bigmouth who wouldn't shut up? Christ on a bike, this boy could talk. Very entertaining company, though...and I got some great shots of him. It's the characters you meet who make travelling what it is...

Thankfully, myself and Jamal were heading for Bangkok on the overnight train in the morning, the rest heading for 'Nam and Laos's Four Thousand Islands.

So the gist is...don't bother going to Vientiane. Luang Prabang and North, I would suggest.

On to Vientiane

A heavy night out on the booze, followed by The Jock looking a little green next morning when I woke him for the Escape Bus out of Vang Vieng. "I cannae move, man". Fair enough, catch me up my little bald friend...I can take no more. I was shipping out with the gang we'd had in Luang Prabang (we'd had a chance meeting on the street with them as myself and Jocky were searching for people to make a trip to the waterfalls a little cheaper...inseparable after that).

Jamal, a 19 year old cherub with a mop of brown hair and big green eyes...popular with the girls, and even more popular with some of the Laos boys who Play For The Other Team...was also having a rough morning. The kid is on a mission to piss his shrivelled liver out one day, I swear. At the start of tubing, he has a coke bottle mixed with Thai whiskey...and had finished it by the second bar. Leathered. He continued on into the evening. Even more leathered. Feeling confident, he approached a girl he fancied. The pair hit it off. Until Jamal burped and decided to do a little sick into his cupped hand. Classic. Game Over, mate. I'd have styled it out, I reckon: "Anyway, where was I?"

Another bumpy bus ride to the capital(?) Vientiane...oh joy.

Hell On Earth

Well, after the cultural magnet that is Luang Prabang, what was I to expect of Vang Vieng as the bus wound its way across the mountainous jungles, bumped along the potholed track they call a highway?

We meandered downhill late at night, the eerie glow of the moonlight on the limestone karsts which line the route casting a bluish tint across our way. I'd been warned that this place was beautiful in its surroundings, and less than beautiful around its centre. Can't be that bad, I thought? Surely it'll just be a slight step down from Luang Prabang? I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd been involved in a foursome with Gary Glitter and Michael Barrymore.

This place truly is the armpit of Asia, never mind Laos. It looks like Vegas before they built roads. Neon signs and crappy bars. Bars which have beds to lie in and watch Friends. I hate Friends. I hate their stupid, vacuous little faces and the crap they dribble out of your TV set. And I hate these simple fools who sit and watch episode after episode all day long. Who's idea was this? Adolf Hitler's? Pol Pot's? I feel sorry for the poor bastards who work there, not understanding it, but having to put up with that godawful racket of a theme tune every 30 minutes. It sets my teeth on edge, andmakes me want to chew my own ears off. Speaking of Pol Pot, if his Khmer Rouge thugs had burst into the bar and hammered pencils in my ears, they would have been puzzled by my grin of gratitude. I digress.

People say to put it out of your mind, and just enjoy the tubing. Well, yes...there were ten of us doing it, and jumping off big rope swings and death slides is great. But does it need the shit music at each bar on the river? The pouting, flabless goons in giant sunglasses pumping their little bums to the commercial house, nodding at no-one in particular and pointing at the sky? And that's just the blokes. The locals pull you in with bamboo poles as you float downstream between bars.

A young Irishman was bouncing about, pissed out of his nut, with "22" written on his chest in black marker pen. When I asked what it signified, he gleefully informed me that he'd been tubing for 22 days non-stop, and apparently held the world record (?). I quizzed him about where else he'd been in Asia, and he said he was off to Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, for a Full Moon Party the next week, before coming back here to beat his own record. Wow. He'll certainly have some amazing stories for the granchildren about his time in Asia, won't he? Well done, mate.

Without wanting to sound too my like my hero (opposite), I did enjoy some of the experience. Several of the platforms you deathslide down are 30 feet+...and I preferred to just leap off them into the river. Especially when some Yank shouts "Yeah, man...WHOOOO...fucking awesome, but this slide ain't big enough!" while he's waiting for the slide to come back up. I suggested he jump off with me this time. His little face dropped, but he'd dug his grave with his remark. So at the count of three, we went for it. And it's a long way down, so much so that your feet sting as you hit the water (it's preferable to keep the feet together...doesn't do much for the old Nobby Stiles if you don't.

We were tubing with some of the gang from Luang Prabang. We had a right old laugh, despite the rest of the company (in particular a 50-year old stalker from Northern Ireland who looked frighteningly like Steven Berkoff. The Jock was perturbed when the guy rubbed all the water off his peanut head while he was pouring us beers and obviously had his hands full. When the hand started upon his shoulder, Jocky had had enough "OK...stop touching me now, please?" I chuckled to myself. Berkoff went off to do a sex on someone else.

As night fell, we set off in the inner tubes to try and get back within curfew...they charge another wad of cash if you're late. We linked up, around 15 of us going downriver towards the town, various locals houses lit up alongside us. Most bottled out in the dark, and headed for a local house to get back to the road and hail a tuk tuk. Myself and a plucky Yorkshire lass named Helen were having none of it, and drifted along on our own. It was lovely. Peace and quiet, looking up at the starts and the limestone karsts, chatting about this and that. We ended up at one of the local bars, knees scraped from getting out in the current under the shallows, to have a butty and a beer to celebrate. Some turd had nicked my flipflops at the final bar, so a walk home over stony ground for me.

To sum up, it comes to something that the best bar in this town is the Irish one. I detest sitting in them usually, "enjoying the craic" and that bollocks. You don't enjoy smoke it and then it becomes a necessity, for fuck's sake. The lad who owns it is married to a Laotian. He'll let you play your own music, and smoke weed upstairs. That's good enough for me.

Now get me out of this shithole.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Night bus to Vang Viang

Here we go again. A 6 hour journey by rickety bus, supposedly a VIP coach with aircon. Well, the windows were open, so by Laos standards it had aircon.

The scenery was stunning, and the weather changed with every valley we sank into, every mountain we climbed. The locals don't seem to enjoy travelling along Laos's bumpy, potholed roads. Even when it was raining in, I had to keep the window open to avoid the smell of vomit. The conductor was walking around handing out plastic bags as people emptied the contents of their stomachs around us (not literally that close). He asked us if we'd like one, and I cheerfully replied with a grin "No ta, but do you have any beer?"

So I was soaked, and drowning out the gurgles and splashing noises with my own music. The driver seemed intent on making us listen to his, which was dreadful to say the least. I was pleased to get a brief respite when we stopped at a ramshackle cafe about halfway. Though less pleased when I'd been ripped off by the old lady for a packet of pringles about 5 years out of date, which tasted like they'd been stored near strong detergent. I asked to exchange or get my money back, but she just laughed. The horrible old witch. I hope her shack falls down in the wind.

The seaweed crisps made up for it, though. And the piss stop the driver let us have later on, too. Feeling the breeze on the old Family Jewels as you trickle urine down a mountainside and look out over eternal jungle is a sensation not to be missed...


Well this had to go down as one of the best experiences of my life. I've always loved these leviathans of the jungle. And even at $60 for a day, the chance to get up close to them was not to be missed. We chose a reputable company, or so we thought, to do it with. They allegedly take care of the creatures, and the money goes towards conservation.

After riding them early on (I felt a little bad doing must be boring for them, and I need to lay off the cakes and pop, too) we took them down to the river for a bath. Feeding them later in the afternoon was the best bit, though. I wasn't interested in the trekking...I just wanted to be near them. They seemed more interested in eating The Jock's camera than the fruit, though. The mahouts were pretty pleased when I spotted a snake half out of the bushes later, and they leapt off the elephants to kill it. I was worried the elephants would panic if they saw it and we'd go charging off towards the Thai border. Kill it they did, and I asked our guide what it was, as a mahout had disappeared with his prize...for dinner or snake whisky. He asked the other mahout, who said "Cobra". "How big?" I asked. He touched his right shoulder with his right hand, and held his left arm out. I shuddered.

It's definitely the way to see elephants, as a zoo is no fun. Though after reading the linked article above, I'm not so sure it's much different. Seeing them shackled to trees by their legs wasn't too pleasant. I think a sanctuary would be the way to go in future.

Lazy days in Luang Prabang

I adored this place. After the madness of Hanoi, being dropped off at night in Luang Prabang was a joy. There were no constantly beeping horns, nobody following you down the street hassling you every step of the way. Even the tuk tuk drivers...if you wanted a ride, you had to wake one of them up.

It's a tiny place on a peninsular on the Mekong. And nothing much happens here. in fact, nothing at all. We soon found a quiet little guesthouse with no frills at the far end of town. Intending to stay a couple of days, we soon lost a week to it's charms and lazy pace.

First day consisted of getting the sights out of the way...various temples and the like. Once you've seen one, though. We had a chat with a couple of young monks there. Very friendly, and their English was very good, too. Prayers in the morning, clean the temple, then laze around all day until prayers and chanting in the evening. Sounds like a job for Goof, though I doubt he'd cut his hair for it. It's a strange sight watching the monks wandering up and down the streets under gaudy parasols to ward off the sun. We come to get a tan, the locals try and avoid one.

We took a trip upriver on a speedboat to see some caves filled with discarded Buddha imagery and carvings. The boat ride was far more exciting than the caves, which were pretty shit to be fair.
One afternoon, we were looking to get to Kuang Si waterfalls. A tuk tuk sounded expensive, but on passing a group of English lads bartering with a driver, I asked if they were heading for the falls. They were, and we tagged along. Result. They proved to be a very sound bunch of lads, and we spent the day swimming in the rock pools and jumping off the 12' fall above. Although The Jock took an eternity to take the plunge. So much for Braveheart, eh? Myself and three of the lads climbed a very steep path up to the top of the biggest fall. We stood on the top as light began to fall, looking out at a breathtaking view of rolling hills and jungle. Returning in pitch black, we found a worried Jock wringing his hands and cajoling some locals into forming a search party. We were bang on time, but I think he is yet to fully trust Compass Crawford. He'll learn.
Aside from that, we spent the evenings drinking at a few nice little bars. There's a midnight curfew though, so the only place to drink was at the bowling alley out of town. This place was a hellhole, frequented by pissed Brits, Irish, Aussies, prostitutes, drug dealers and ladyboys. Just your average Saturday night out, eh? One woman took a shine to me, and kept winking. I saw her around over several nights, and she would not leave me alone...chatting me up in broken English. We were outside one night, the group of us waiting for a tuk tuk home. The Laotian chick followed me out, and was trying to get me home. Repulsed, she wandered back inside. Time to confirm my suspicions. 

I said to one of the locals "Ladyboy, right?" and pointed after her. 
"How you know?" 
"Big hands" I grinned.
"You clever man!"

Friday, 24 October 2008

Flight to Laos...Squeaky Bum Time

Old Fergie couldn't have put it better. We booked Laos Airlines, despite the guidebook telling us not to. They don't publish their safety record, apparently. Probably don't understand the term or, if the Vietnamese are anything to go by, couldn't give a flying fuck.

An electrical storm hit Hanoi as we departed, and my horror was compounded by the sight of this plane on the tarmac "Fucking propellers??!!" I exclaimed involuntarily. The elderly pilot worried me a little, too (experienced, or senile and myopic?). he looked like Mr Miyage from The Karate Kid...a nice friendly face. So that settled me for a while. Until he gave his pre-flight speech....which included "...and I hope you have a successful flight with us". Successful? I should bloody hope so for 80 quid. Easyjet is cheaper, and I wouldn't need rubber undercrackers. Just you be successful flying this outdated fucker, please. Thankyou.

Needless to say, it was OK in the end...if a little bumpy. I'm still here. Luang Prabang awaits...

Goodbye, Vietnam...a summary

Well...I wouldn't rush back, Hanoi and Sa Pa aside. North good, South bad. Everyone wants your money. Everyone coughs and gobs up phlegm in the street, even old ladies. Beeps their horns incessantly. Everyone tries to rip you off. Run you over. Sell you shit. Friendly people have an agenda. I'm pleased to be heading for the peace and quiet of Laos, to be honest.

We got back on the overnight train again. Spent a day bumming around Hanoi, and sat by the lake. We had two lovely girls doing a survey for their tourism course talk to us (we taught them the English expressions "You 'orrible git" and "Do one, mate"...they loved it), and a nice chap called Huin who came over to talk. Initially sceptical at his approach, telling us United had beat Celtic ("What's this cunt want?" The Jock murmered out of the side of the mouth as he sat down), Huin turned out to be a great fella. An Economics mature student, he just wanted to chat and practice his English, which was very good. Spent a good 40 minutes with him, in fact. Not all Vietnamese are out to get your cash, but it certainly feels like it 90% of the time.

It's been interesting. But do yourself a favour...just visit Hanoi.

The H'mongs

Sa Pa's majority tribe is the H'mong (pronounced Mong). Some of them look very smart in their traditional dress, others are a little more pikey. One old lady was asking Scott about his marital status and, him being unmarried, his virility. He was backing away, not due to the personal nature of her questioning...more to do with the breath we estimated could stop a water buffalo dead at 50 yards. maybe she'd been kissing one earlier? A kiss for granny? Deary me...poor kids.

I'd heard of the H'mong in Hanoi. An overzealous bookseller, who'd also pestered me the night before, told me all I needed to know (for my own amusement, naturally).

"Hey, how are you...can I help you please?"
"Ah yes, it's you from last night..."
"Where you from, friend?"
"You obviously don't remember trying to ponce books on me last night, then?"
"Where a you from...Engrand?"
"Yep..." (trying to walk away)
"You stay Hanoi?"
"Yes, but off to Sa Pa tomorrow"
"Ah, me from Sa Pa...I am H'mong" (sounds like "Mong" to my ears)
"I am a H'mong"
"A mong?"
"Yes, a H'mong from Sa Pa...all my family are H'mongs..."
"Yes, well...that would explain a lot. Now I have to go, old chap...goodbye"
"You no wan' book?"
Yyyyyep...gotta go.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is a tiny little town in the Loa Cai disrtict of Northern Vietnam, 1600m above sea level...sitting below 'Nam's tallest mountain, Fan Si Pan...which is 3142m. Enough geography. It's a quiet little place, populated by the Hmong tribe in surrounding villages. They come into town to sell you anything from woven goods and bracelets, to opium and hash. Obviously, it was the woven shut and bracelets which caught my eye. One old lady took a shine to me, and followed me round town all day long, sniggering and going "Hash? Hash? Good hash, yes?" I was tempted to purchase from the toothless hag, but you hear horror stories about being turned in as soon as you've I'll save all that for Laos.

As it was, we spent a pleasant day treking through the hills on a tour. We'd gathered at a shop on the hill in...myself and The Jock, two Korean girls and an Italian lass. About ten minutes later, around another 20-odd people showed up. Including a Canadian (large yawn) who one shall herein refer to as Gobshite. He wouldn't shut up. You could hear him above everyone else. Yanks are mouthy fools. Canadians are mouthy fools, too. Boring ones. Our guide, Mimi, asked us if we wanted the harder route, or the easy road? I said "Which way is that fool going? We'll head the other way." She laughed. They took the easy road, which I was pleased about...and we set off over some ridges with some seriously big drops below...maybe 250m. "It is best to be careful" Mimi said. No shit. The Koreans fell over a few times on the slippery path, but we came though unscathed. And nobody died.

The villages were interesting, we walked through a couple. After lunch the people were clamouring to sell us their tat. One little girl, who I'd taken a pic of earlier up the hill, had said "You buy from me later?" I'd said "Maybe". They have long memories when it comes to squeezing cash out of you. I bought some friendship bands and a bag for my niece, and was just coughing up when I heard a wailing "You buy from her, you buy from buy from her, you buy from meeeeee..." In fact, if you drop the spaces out of that sentence, it would sound about right. "Youbuyfromheryoubuyfrommeeeeeeeee...."

I turned around, expecting to see another cute kid. And jumped back, unintentionally, as Basil Fawlty did on encountering the black doctor in Fawlty Towers . This girl was about 12, and had the eyes of a dead fish, cloudy and grey. I got quite a fright, especially when I tried to move away and she followed me (can't be that blind, I thought?) down a track. I headed for The Jock.

"Get her away from me...she's doing my head in"
"Oh fuck..."

Poor girl. I can understand her predicament, but there's no need to go scaring the tourists into buying something. I can imagine her going home, and taking off the false eyes while saying "Tight bastards, didn't sell much today....these scary eyes are just a gimmick."

Night train to Sa Pa

Train travel is the way to do Vietnam, bar the trusty scooter. They're slow, but you get to see lots of beautiful scenery. IF you travel during daylight hours, that is. Night trains are a different story. Myself and The Jock booked one to Lao Cai in the North, near the border with China. We bade farewell to The Colonel, and he went off into the humid Hanoi evening, fag in mouth and beer in hand. He later got into trouble with a couple of cheeky young ladies, one of whom nicked his phone; I've been forbidden to give further details.

Now, back to the train. We got a 'hard sleeper', which is basically a cabin with 6 bunks...all of which have about as much leg/ headroom as a Messerschmidt bubble car. And are probably stuffier. We had the top bunks, which involve climbing into a cramped space whilst attempting to injure yourself with every protruding item on the way up. These Orientals certainly understand torture.

As for sleeping? Forget it. The Jock sleeps soundly enough. The twat. But for me, with the train rattling and rolling through the hills, bumping along over outdated points and's a living nightmare. Eyemask on, earplugs in...still no good. I'd liken it to being rolled around in a darkened barrel, while someone gleefully smashes a biscuit tin full of nails with a tambourine. Not the best, you can imagine.

So, morning breaks after the best sleep ever. Not. We are treated to the stretched-cassette caterwauling local music as the announcer welcomes us to Lao Cai. I wish I'd had my camera out as we looked out of the corridor windows. The rolling hills and streams. Lean-to houses with their inhabitants stoking the early morning fire. Peasants cajoling water buffalo along dusty roads with their sticks of willow. The best moment being the schoolkids careering down the rocky path alongside the train, shouting and waving "Hallo, halloooo!". It's good to be alive. And I've never felt more so.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Hanoi Rocks

We flew from Hue to Hanoi with an Irish couple we'd met in the city. Steve's only 24, but a very switched-on fella. We'd had a good chat about the Vietnam War, S-21 and Cambodia's conflict. I like well-read people.

The Colonel, the Jock and myself were apprehensive about Hanoi. We'd heard some bad stories. A few girls told us the maids at their hotel were stealing from them. The guidebooks warn of aggressive touts and physical violence. Indeed, a rather large Scouser called Charlie (his first name was Kenneth...can't blame him for using his middle one) told us about his experience:

Apparently, a taxi driver had taken him and his Indian wife to a different hotel from the one he'd asked for. The staff had laid on food, and tried to get them to stay. Chas wanted to pay no more than $18, and the manager wanted $40. So he tried to leave, saying it was too expensive. The manager tried to grab his rucksack, and a struggle ensued. A chef joined the fray, and Charlie said he just wanted the fuck out of there. He pushed the manager over, and the next thing he knows...he's pulling out a meat cleaver from under the counter as the chef produces a knife. So Charlie's having a less than good time by now, and his wife ran into the street to grab a policeman as Charlie brandished a chair to fend off the screaming fellows. He looked her up and down and turned away. Fellow travellers adopted the "it's not happening to me" attitude and moved on. Eventually a Vietnamese calmed things down and smoothed it over. As Charlie went to leave, apparently the manager sai "Ok, Ok, OK...18 dollars." Not likely.

So, you can understand we were a little on edge. But we arrived by taxi with no hassle. The Northerners are curt and businesslike. A little on the brusque side, but it beats the false friendliness of the South. Although I did have one simpleton of a scooter driver who would not stop following me around one afternoon offering me a tour. Waited two hours outside the Army Museum for me and almost cried when I told him I was still not getting on his fucking sccoter. Don't give me those puppy dog eyes, mate. If you're not a're on a hiding to nothing.

Besides the usual touting, Hanoi's my favourite place so far. The diversity of the old quarter is amazing. I think it'd take a year to get sick of photographing's incredible. Each street has a speciality, whether it's hardware, flowers or tombstones. Unreal. I got some great shots, but saw another 50 a day I missed in a split-second. Especially the variety of things these people carry on the back of scooters. The best two being a naked mannequin of a child (the guy had it stood on one pedal, his hand holding it steady on top of it's head), and a guy in Nha Trang with a huge 5' tuna on the back of his. You could sit on one corner all day and have a portfolio by the end of it. I could live here for a year or feels very European. The French did some good here.

The Colonel's getting tired of the constant sales pitches. We were sat at the junction of Ha Tien and Hang Bac, where the beer hoi stalls do beers for 10p (you don't get that in Hackney), and one guy wouldn't give up...the usual plethora of (badly) photocopied books. Now, The Colonel is still struggling to make himself understood to the locals...he doesn't try to reduce the Lancashire twang in order to make himself clearer. So a puzzling exchange began.

"Ere, mate...I don't want any books" (looks at me) "Fucking hell fire..."
"Ignore him, Mossy...he'll go away..."
"Mister, you wan' buy book? I have good book"

The Colonel points at the books, sweat dripping off his nose onto one of them. "What rhymes with 'book', and then 'off' on the end of that?" He recived a puzzled look in return and "I have Mister Nice, Vietnam phrasebook...yeah?" "No, no, no...what word rhymes with 'book' and then 'off'?"

Don't confuse the guy, mate...just tell him to Fuck Off?

Saigon know the score by OldBoy London.

The Ancient Capital...Hue

Another day, another coach driver trying to kill us. What is wrong with these people? Would it be too much to have a few more traffic lights, roundabouts which are more than a lump of concrete in the middle of the road, and to lay off the horn a little? honestly.

This particular fool was trying to overtake coaches of equally terrified fellow travellers, faces blanched in fear at the windows, on uphill roads and blind bends. One a few occasions, there were near head-on collisions with other coaches barrelling down the hill. I was sat near the back on the driver's (left) side. It was with black humour that I laughed as the people further forward scuttled to the other side of the bus with each imminent death scenario. One missed us by barely a foot. The Jock said I needed to relax and not watch the road ahead. I simply replied that if I was going to die, I at least wanted to see it coming and have a few happier moments flicker across my mind beforehand. Grandad acting the fool. My Yorkshire Terrier Callie, now croaked, trying to run up a wall in the house. Mum's macaroni cheese. Getting Dad stoned. Andy Saville's second goal at Leyton Orient when North End won promotion. Things like that.

But no, we survived. For now. Arrived in hue to the usual melee of touts "You see my hotel? Is real nice." Get fucked. We're hardened to it now. It's like the rudeness you develop in London after 6 months. Very useful. So we found a nice place opposite Thu's traveller's cafe. She's the woman to ask questions in Hue...a mental local with a variety of party tricks. Some painful (like the one I suffered...a cocktail stick inserted into my cranium and lit like a candle) and some not. Just humiliating. Beer's cheap as in there...25p a bottle. So we were there quite a lot. Her and the family do tours around the area, usually on scooters...but we did a car as it was lashing down.

The downpour made the place seem more atmospheric. We saw singing and praying monks in beautiful pagodas...all saffron robes, drums and fingerbells. Beautiful. The dedication thses people have to Buddhism is absolute. I'm not religious, but I still admire it...and it's a very peaceful religion, after all. This monastery was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who self-immolated in protest at President Diem's treatment of Buddhists in the 60s. His car he used to drive to Saigon that day is still preserved here. He never flinched or moved a muscle as the petrol he'd doused himself in burned, and the flames consumed him. A brave man, indeed.
David Halberstam wrote of the scene: "I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think... As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." The horror...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Goodbye To Rainy Hoi An

Hoi An is a lovely, French-Colonial town of tailors midway up the coast in the Central provinces. Really friendly place, if a little touristy and full of noisy young Australian girls who wanted to sleep with us. Had they been less stupid, and more attractive, I would have lied about my age when they said they were 20. The Jock said "24" when they asked (he's 32). I pointedly said "I'm 38, and he's 39", scuppering The Colonel's chances. Without even asking him. How very rude. Needless to say, their interest in us waned.

We saw them in a bar a little later. Leathered. I was chatting to a young lad at the pool table. He asked where I was from, and said he was from Rome. I'd hardly had the chance to say "I've been there" before one of the Antipodean Floozies just walked straight up to hiom and stuck her tongue down his throat. God Help Him, I thought as I walked off.

Nothing much to report, really. Bumped into some girls we met in Nha Trang, and had a nice little dinner down by the rising river. Great little scruffy place with the best Vietnamese Spring Rolls yet. Would make a fortune if they transplanted it to Hoxton. to Hue on a bus this afternoon. Probably more rain to come, but all sun would be boring. And at least it's nice and cool today.

Toodle pip.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Diving Nha Trang

I can hardly be bothered to write this bit. Wasn't good. If that, as they claim, is the best Vietnam has to offer....I'd rather dive in Wales.

On to Nha Trang

An eventful bus journey saw us reach Nha Trang from Mui Ne after 6 hours. Three changes of wheels, and a near-fatal collison with a cow who had somewhat unwisely decided that a good place to chew the cud was the centre of Highway 1. I nearly shit myself, I don't know about the cow. I don't think we'd have stopped had we hit it...the drivers are maniacs. Constantly tooting the horn to bully scooters, cars and other buses to let them pass. There's no way this clown without make-up would have got work on the Brighton-London run for National Express.

The scenery wasn't as nice as it was Saigon-Mui Ne, either. You can't have it all. Got chatting to some nice Germans. A contradiction in terms, eh? Especially according to a beach-seller trying to hawk us some paintings The Colonel could have created better with a paintbrush up his arse in a darkened room. This chap said he liked the English because they always said Sorry when they didn't want to buy a painting. The Germans are rude, and the Isrealis arrogant. With that, he showed us his wares. "Sorry" said The Colonel "...I don't want to buy a painting."

Aside from this, nothing much happens in Nha Trang. We played pool, drank...and I got 100 km/h out of a sccoter down the beachfront street. No, not after drinking, Mum.

We did ride out to where the highway disintegrated into rubble one afternoon. It was a very poor area, but a few passing farmers let me take their photos with their ox-drawn carts. I saw a great photo opportunity as an old lady walked up towards me, mountains in the background, wearing a conical hat and carrying fruit. I asked if I could take her picture, using sign-language. She coughed and gobbed in the street as she walked on.

I took that as a No...

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Sultan Of Brunei: An Official Apology

The travel guides advise you always to have a toilet roll handy. Caught short away from the apartment, I'd headed over to the cafe on the beach we're frequenting. My relief was short-lived, as had no sooner had I sat down, that I realised that there was no loo roll there, either. Arse.

Looking across at my rucksack, I had a frantic rustle for serviettes. To no avail. On spying my Rough Guide,'s fine, silky, thin pages soon became appealing. Flicking through, I found the section on (reputedly) the most broing, least-visited part of Southeast Asia: Brunei. Rrrrrrrrrrripp!!!!

So I hereby apologise to the Sultan and his people. Not for calling it boring. It is. Merely for having the temerity to wipe my bum on your country. Metaphorically-speaking. Incidentally, I can't praise The Rough Guides enough. Never leave home without one.

(The pic is the Sultan with a printout of this blog)

Mui Ne

I forgot to mention. They had TV screens on the train, and were showing some Vietnamese slapstick comedy. You could just about get the gist of it from the expressions, obviously. But I was just laughing at the passengers laughing, it was quite infectious. I'll upload a pic when I empty the camera. I think people here enjoy life, despite not having a lot of money.

Mui Ne is a 21km beach. Not much to report about the place, except that it was red-hot and we spent a lot of time swimming and generally taking it easy. It was pretty touristy (I'm a backpack snob already) and not cheap. But I had some amazing fish dishes here, and it was still only a few quid.

Anyway, on to Nha Trang by bus...and wait for The Jock to catch us up from Saigon.

Vietnam Rip-offs Pt 2

Ah yes, here we go again. Just when you think you've turned a corner in Vietnam, one of them tries to kick you in the Family Jewels. We disembarked the train, jumping down to the ground off the steps...just like in the films! This station was in the middle of nowhere, and we organised Honda Om's to take us into Phan Thiet, a sleepy fishing village on the coast (where else?). The drivers were trying to confuse us with figures, and our pleasant streak through the countryside, narrowly avoiding running over snakes and small children, was tempered somewhat by the maths running round my head. HOW much? Needless to say, a 12km ride here should not be relieving myself and The Colonel of 17 of your English Pounds. The cheek. As the sea came into view, and that lusty salty smell bit my nostrils...I formulated a plan. The bandits dropped us at a luxurious hotel. Now, I had no intention of staying here, but knew there would be a good English speaker (if you can call catering for Americans, Seth Effrickens and Aussies as requiring English?) on reception. I grabbed my back and gestured that the men should follow me in. The Colonel proceeded to wrestle with his driver, who was clinging onto his rucksack as insurance of payment. I garnered from the receptionist that the ride should have cost us 400 VND at most, not 1,000,000. So Isaid the men should call the police if they wanted more than 600 VND as meeting them halfway over the misunderstanding (misleading, more like). One of them squatted in the street, holding his head in his hands. I thought "I've just not let you rip me off as much, mate...not gunned down your entire family". Unbelievable. After they'd gone, the girl shrugged and said "Welcome to Vietnam". Indeed, love. Indeed.

Slow boat to China? Slow train to M'uonng Man, more like...

We left Saigon, slightly disappointed that Kim's wouldn't do us the shrimp curry we fell in love with for breakfast. If you're ever in Saigon, try it...nothing tastier has passed my lips this trip. It was a relief to escape the madeness, as we boarded a 50s Soviet-looking train. I was biting my lip trying not to laugh at the music being piped was obviously on a very old tape, which had been stretched beyond limits over the years. I wish I'd have been able to record was hilarious.

The train moves's a 70km trip to the second stop out of Saigon, and it takes an unbelievable 4hrs. We picked up speed as we exited the city limits, the crawl understandable as the huts and lean-to dwellings were literally feet from the track in places. I waved at a gap-toothed old man in a tin bath as we picked up speed eventually, and he raised his scrubbing brush in salute and grinned.

The scenery past the city limits seared my retinas. Verdant banks of lush vegetation flashed past my eyes in the foreground, mountains and hills in various tones of grey moving more sedately beyond. This was just how I imagined Vietnam. The Colonel beamed, face glued to window like a child as we snaked through valley after valley...each vista more incredible than the next. Hills shrouded in tendrils of mist, the sun streaming through trees which stroked the carriages as they passed by. Tuco was becoming more pantomime villian (he's behind me?) and less thriller spectre by the moment. Although I was half expecting him to appear above the rim of the train window, hunting knife clentched between bad teeth, at any moment.

It's amusing watching The Colonel's reactions. I mean, I'm no Phileas Fogg, but he's only been to Amsterdam, Dublin and France as a child. So it's actually quite rewarding to see him over-excited about things. He managed to refrain from jumping up and down on the seats on the train, though. Which was nice.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Good, The Bad...And The Very Ugly

The afternoon had to take a wrong turn somewhere. On walking back from the ferry, we were accosted by an over-friendly (ie Not To Be Fucking Trusted) "Tuco", so named as he had all the sneaky personality of the villain of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. You could almost smell the evil emanating from his pores, although the blue Hawaiian-style shirt covered in guitars lent him a comic egde.

"I am good guy, I have many western friends. I take you tour. I show you snake farm. You need ATM? I ride you to ATM" He proceeded to show us snaps of him with his Western "friends"...all of whom, The Colonel quipped later, were probably now dead.

We decided to ignore him after a while, as out polite declines were obviously water off a crispy duck's back. So Tuco got on the phone, wandered off 50 yards, and "Sharkeyes" turned up. This guy didn't look very nice. Middle-aged, thick-set...he came and leaned on the wall and watched us while Tuco disappeared on his bike, only to return with a couple of other unfriendly-looking types. One acne-riddled youth we named "Pockface", and a guy on a scooter with an aluminium helmet we gave the moniker of "Bullethead".

Now...I was facing these guys, The Colonel had his back to them. I nodded, and he turned to see Sharkeyes around five metres away, glaring at us (I had a brief vision of myself and The Colonel in a bamboo cage, up to our necks in water while Sharkeyes poked us with a stick...and Tuco gleefully threw hungry rats on us while attempting to guess our PIN numbers with one of those remote terminals you get in the shops these days). It was clearly time to leave. We moved inside the bar to the Tourist Information building, as Bullethead followed us on his Om. They showed us another exit, and we used this rapidly, as our hotel was only 200m away. A short run ensured we made it and, as we got upstairs, we could see Bullethead and Tuco circling outside...looking at our place and the one next door, obviously confused as to which one we'd scarpered to. Fools!

Our hotel staff didn't speaka da lingo, and the police are often corrupt round here. So I got a mate back home to get me the number of the Consulate in Vietnam (cheers, Neil). He said much the same as I was thinking...don't go out, ring the police as a last resort...and get out as soon as you can. helicopter rescue? I'm a UK taxpayer. Send the SAS, my good man. Oh, OK...I'll get a taxi and risk death at the roadside, shall I?

So, as I awoke at 5.30...I moved quietly so as not to wake The Colonel until necessary. But he was already conscious and raring to go. Passports collected, and taxi ordered...we were on our way back to the relative safety of Saigon by 6.10am.

The Early Bird Catches The Worm, Tuco. Yer louse...

A pleasant afternoon in Ben Tre

Well, myself and The Colonel ventured further South this morning. We'd read that not many people go there, so the attitude was "Fuck it...we'll go, then". A 40-minute ferry ride took us across, and it was a hairy 20 minute Honda Om ride through the countryside from there.

Ben Tre is very poor, but the people inversely friendly, ready smiles and cheeky catcalls followed us up the street; laughing children ran up to touch our skin before running away screaming. Such a strange experience, but we were grinning from ear to ear.

We had a wander up the bank of the river and were accosted by a right bunch of characters selling fruit. Roughly five women of various ages, and a couple of roguish chaps. We sat down, and from then on in tried just about every fruit available in Vietnam, some tasty...some not so tasty. They were howling with laughter watching us try and peel and eat them.

We communicated via sign language and facial expression. They asked our ages, and how tall we were. Cue laughter when I wrote down that I was 17. They all shook their heads, and erupted when I added a 1/2 to it. One of the men flicked through our Rough Guide until he found the phrases section. He pointed at one of the women, and cackled as he pointed at me...then his finger jabbed at the Vietnamese for "hotel". Rum bugger. I was sorely tempted to point at the phrase "How much" a few rows down, but the woman might have been his sister. And he was chopping fruit for us with a chipped machete. I kept the joke to myself and grinned.

They wouldn't even take any money off us afterwards, and gave us some fruit to take home. They waved, smiling, until we were out of sight down the road. Utterly beautiful people, one of the most pleasant afternoons I've spent in a while.

After that, it was a Om ride back to the ferry...for our run-in with Tuco and Sharkeyes...