travelogue – India

Racing through India in less than 4 weeks was frustrating, trying to do too much in a short time. …

India

My Lonely Planet tells me that India is a litmus test for travellers. I was excited arriving — but it wasn’t easy.

I bussed from Nepal via the unpleasant border town of Sunauli. Crossing can be a drama, but I was lucky this time.

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Towns in the north of India are generally dusty and polluted.

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Travellers come here to visit the Holy city of Varanasi (Benares).

I did too. And had a surreal experience, a good introduction to the sub-continent.

The famous temple city Khajuraho though, is lovely. A hot, dry, flat, peaceful little town.

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It survived the Muslim invasions by being smack in the middle of nowhere.

I had a luxury room with tub at Yogi Lodge for $4 / night. Free yoga lessons from a master on the roof every morning. Breathing and stretching with a view of the temples.

I was here like most other visitors to see erotic carvings. Actually they are carvings of daily life including loads of sex.

Unfortunately it is difficult to see the details of the Kama Sutra from below.

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Entrance to the park cost me C$.02. Postcards were $.04 or less.

Prices have gone up in India. But it was cheap in 1996.

The craftsmanship (950 – 1050 AD) is amazing.

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A desert climate preserved the works.

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Already rushed, I decided to fly as much as I could to save time.

20India is not the country to see in a short visit.

Highest priority was the Taj Mahal.

And it did not disappoint. 🙂

Even the most jaded traveller comes away impressed.

The detail is gorgeous; finely cut marble screens, astounding pietra dura, semi-precious stone inlaid in marble.

Experts from Iran, France, Venice and the rest of the world collaborated on construction.

The Taj looks great from any distance, in any light. I sat on the Taj Khema restaurant with a rooftop view, listening to a sitar player, and drinking (illegal) beer sold in teapots.

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24Shah Jahan built the Taj as tribute to his wife of 17-years, Mumtaz. She bore him 14 children but died in childbirth.

The Shah is supposed to have considered building a black marble Taj for himself!

 

 

One of the great love stories of all time.

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My favourite view of the Taj was from across the Yamuna river. The flood plain on that side was astonishingly undeveloped.

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The Agra Red Fort, built by Akbar, greatest of the Islamic Moghul rulers, is much less visited than the Taj, but I was very impressed with it too.

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I played with monkeys for much of the time I was there.

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The Taj seen from Agra Fort.

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Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son, and spent the next 8 years, until his death, in the Red Fort prison. Jahan had the consolation of a view of the Taj Mahal from his window, which would comfort him until he joined his late wife.

A short distance away is another astonishing site built by Shah Jahan, Fatehpur Sikri, a perfectly preserved abandoned city. Fantastic.

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He housed his harem here, using slave girls as pieces on a giant parchisi board.

It’s a popular spot for weddings.

I bypassed Delhi to Rajasthan which I knew to be the place to be in India in 1996.

I arrived in Jaipur at 4 AM but was a bit disappointed with the famous Palace of Winds. It’s just a facade.

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Much better was Jantar mantar (observatory) one of 5 such installations built by Jai Singh.

He was an inventor and an astronomy nut who built his own giant equipment for studying the sky. These devises were remarkably accurate.

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I moved on to Udaipur to see the luxurious Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of Pichola Lake, formerly the residence of the rulers of Udaipur.

Impressive.

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Best of all was Pushkar, a dreamy little pilgrimage town famed for it’s Camel Fair.

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The colors and energy are wonderful. The air resonates with music from exotic rural instruments, melodious music, folk drama and dance. Villagers arrive in their most colourful garb. Sadhus meditate on the lakeside.

Pushkar has perhaps the only Brahma temple in the world today too.

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The Rajputs are an indigenous warrier class with a strict code of chivalry and honour. They fought to the death. When all was lost the female children were burned in a pyre.

They reminded me of the proud Bedu of Arabia.

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The Rajputs are the most visually impressive people I have ever seen. Men have pastel-coloured turbans and soup-strainer moustaches.

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The women’s festival costumes are stunning.

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I was embarrased to tell fellow travellers how long I had to travel India. (It was two and a half weeks, I believe)

I vowed to return to the Gates of India with more time. (Four months in 1999 as it eventually turned out.)

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To the tourist, Bombay (Mumbai) is a modern, affluent, clean world city. I liked it staying at the Salvation Army close to the Taj Hotel.

The highlight of my stay was being offered an extra’s role in a Bollywood film. I was keen to go but, alas, I had a flight to catch.

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Don’t go to India unless you have lots of time. It will just frustrate you.

And be sure to bring your Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s indispensable.

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travelogue – Nepal

When people ask where to travel in Asia, I list Nepal as the best destination.

nepal

South of the Himalaya, Nepal is a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples, & an engaging history. It’s a poor country, but rich in the western imagination.

I’d wanted to go since E de la Nord told me of his Freak street experiences back in the hippy days. 🙂

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I was convinced the girls & women of Nepal are the prettiest in the World. Many are exotic with traces of China, India and Thai.

Many Tibetans look AmerIndian.

Kathmandu is wonderful, popular with tourists. I stayed at Tibet Guest House in Thamel for $6 / night. Excellent!

I hung out mainly at the Blue Note jazz bar.

But Kathmandu is a polluted, congested mess. Frustrating at times.

The city is in an unusual, isolated valley in the foothills of the Himalaya. It almost never snows here.

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Kathmandu’s city structure is a series of interlocking public squares. In places nothing has changed for hundreds of years.

Times were still tough. Life expectancy in Nepal was 52-years in 1996.

Mountain people sling woven baskets suspended from jute headbands. Valley people suspend loads on bamboo poles. Tourists sling packs from their shoulders.

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08It was tough to find a good e-mail cafe in Asia in 1996. The best I found was in Kathmandu.

There seemed to be only 1 bank available for tourists.

A store had recently installed the first escallator in Nepal while I was there, quite the attraction for Nepalis. I watched with amusement as people happened upon this most amazing invention. Many were too nervous to ride it.

Bhaktapur was my favourite square; timeless, clean, spacious. Back lanes filled with kids and monkeys, brick makers, potters, laundry. Dyed bright yarns hung out to dry.

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I cycled there.

Kathmandu is close to the Himalayas, but you cannot see the big mountains easily. I was keen to get closer.

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I first saw fascinating sadhus, Hindu holy men, at Pashupatinath, a busy pilgrimage site, one of the holiest places for Hindus.

Here too I saw my first burning ghat, the corpse covered with wet straw to slow the burn.

Surreal. James Brown played on a public address system.

The smell of sewage overwhelmed the smell of burning flesh.

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The same day I first visited the great stupa of Bodhnath, an impressive Buddhist shrine. It too is a pilgrim spot of Buddhist Tibetans, Sherpa and other highland peoples of Nepal.

I shopped for Buddhas here too — but eventually found the one I wanted at the Golden Temple in Patan.

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Mount Everest was a big draw.

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I had just started reading the first of dozens of mountaineering books at that time. I picked up several in Kathmandu. Just weeks later the May 1996 Everest climbing season turned to disaster. Krakauer’s book was read & discussed ad nauseum by just about everyone I know.

I signed on for a US$99 flight seeing tour to Mount Everest. We were slightly disappointed in Everest — the black pyramid quite distant. Other mountains more impressive from our vantage.

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On the other hand, flight seeing was an amazing experience and one I would recommend. You get personal with the highest mountains in the world.

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Pokhara, Nepal. Wow. I could live here.

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I was disappointed not to have time to hike Annapurna which I had first heard of from EG. The Annapurna Circuit is possibly the best trek in the world.

I vowed to return one day … and did. 🙂

Pokhara offers wonderful hostels and restaurants. I stayed at Garden Rest House though everyone was sick there. Seemed to be water related. A nurse told me the most common way to get sick is to drink drops of water on the rim of a rinsed coffee cup. I’ve been very cautious ever since.

Pokara is a surprisingly quiet place on a tranquil lake.

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Royal Chitwan National Park in the Terai was my next stop, perhaps the premiere park in Asia.

To get there I survived the most dangerous bus ride by far I’ve ever suffered. At least half the passengers vomited en route.

Stupid.

Poorly maintained vehicles, terrible mountain roads, suicidal over-taking manoeuvres, animals, children, cattle and unmarked roadworks. You name it. Seemed like a nightmare.

Signs implore drivers to Use Horn Please.

 

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I was psyched for the rhino search on elephant back. Cool!

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(I was reading the book Travels on my Elephant at the time.)

I am so impressed with elephants. What a marvellous, useful beast.

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Due to cost they are being phased out all over Asia, unfortunately.

Up to 4 tourists sitting in Howdahs set out with cameras looking for Tiger and Rhino.

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In 1911 one hunting party here killed 39 tigers and 18 rhino in 11 days.

One guide had only seen 2 tigers in 6 years working in the park! He saw more rare sloth bears than tigers.

I saw a mother Rhino with baby. And later this male who had been wounded in the rear end — punctured by the horn of another male, no doubt.

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The park was terrific. I nearly sat on a scorpion, went early morning birding with a guide & learned the marvels of dung and straw as a building material. It sets like concrete.

Another day we went rhino spotting on foot! Our guide had trained us to scramble up a tree if we came upon a rhino. They are dangerous.

When I spotted one about 20m away, a British doctor in our group refused to climb the tree as instructed. The guide threw his body on top of the doctor to protect him in case the rhino charged.

The doctor was most ungrateful when it turned out the rhino did NOT charge.

99Nepal is one of the last great places on Earth. I’ll go with you any time.

It lingers in your dreams long after you leave.

 

 

travelogue – Cambodia

cambodia

I had never heard of Angkor Wat in Cambodia before I saw John Fair’s amazing photos. It was too Indiana Jones to be real!

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John had visited while a civil war raged with the Khmer Rouge. This was a war zone. John had a military jeep escort.

In 1996 I visited during a lull in hostilities. No major problems though I watched the mine sweepers every morning. The few tourists were swallowed up by the massive site.

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Angkor is the best known of about 100 temples, the remains of a huge centre sprawling over 75 square miles, perhaps the largest religious site in the World. The temples were built between the 9th and the 13th centuries.

Large artificial lakes, the barays & a sophisticated canal system made possible 3 rice harvests per year.

Most of Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century. The temples became cloaked by forest & were lost for centuries.

Angkor is a living temple, not a museum. We enjoyed this annual festival where HUGE vats of food were prepared.

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The mighty Khmer Empire, which ruled much of what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand & Cambodia is forgotten, but Buddhism persists much the same as hundreds of years ago.

I spent 3 days at Angkor with this lovely British couple. We flew in together.

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Our first meal in Siem Riep was memorable. Some sort of cold mush with slightly cooked chicken. When I went back to see the outdoor kitchen I noted the stove was wood fuelled! Electricity was not reliable.

When not touring the ruins, we chilled in their air conditioned room watching World Cup cricket. (Sri Lanka shocked everyone that year defeating Australia in the final.)

For security & safety, it was still required that every tourist have their personal motor scooter escort. Every morning I hired a bike guy for US$5 for the day.

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The people were wonderful in 1996. Happy, smiling, laughing. They knew very few words of English. Charming.

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The Cambodian people in 1996 were about 95% Buddhist. But the ruins are largely Hindu in design.

angkor_trickMost tourist including myself wandered randomly, a surprise found around every corner.

My favourite ruins were those not cleared of jungle trees.

Strangler Figs and Kapok trees entwine themselves around the ruins of Ta Prohm. Their roots burst apart even the thickest of walls, yet their clinging embrace prevents the walls’ collapse.

Everyone speaks of the victory of nature over the works of man.

My last day I convinced my motorbike driver to take me out to Banteay Srei Temple 25 km north of Angkor.

I was certain there would be no other tourists there. In fact, I was the first tourist there in a week.

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However, locals still jumped me with Coke, cheap tourist knickknacks & offers as tour guide.

I normally chase them away, but this day I enlisted a 10-year-old boy with astonishingly good English and a complete mastery of Khmer history. The site was excellent.

Cambodia is poor. They have none of what we consider essential for civilization. Yet they survive.

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One of my favourite countries visited.

After 3 days tramping Angkor for as many hours as possible, I caught the boat to Phenom Penh. It was a mad scene trying to disembark without being knocked off the rotted dock by vendors.

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I knew where to go — Cloud 9 — a righteously named backpacker hostel with a bar floating on the lake. Bowls on every table filled with free weak marajuana!

… but everyone there was too stoned-lazy to clean and roll any more joints. Almost none ever left the restaurant.

Cambodia was the least developed country I had ever visited. People were unspoiled. There were no electric street lights.

At the hostel I heard that an Australian known as AK Ray (a gun runner) had been killed & dumped in the centre of town as a warning.

For a rush I decided to wander deserted streets in the dark. Scary. The highlight was watching fat pigs eat garbage on what I assumed was a dirt road behind the hostel.

Next morning I noted it was the MAIN STREET of Phenm Penh.

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I read the horrific history of Cambodia. The Killing Fields I opted not to visit — but the Museum of Genocide disturbed me.

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Of more than 20,000 brought to this interogation / torture jail only 7 survived: sculptors who had to produce busts of Pol Pot

If you want to know more, read on. This is a Lonely Planet summary:

The French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.

In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Norodom Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.

In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. American and South Vietnamese troops invaded the country in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push Cambodia’s leftist guerillas (the Khmer Rouge) further into the country’s interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot’s leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative.

Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.

The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh’s National United Front and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.

Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving ‘top level’ Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful. Future stability is also tied to improving the country’s notoriously dodgy economy (dealt a body blow by the devastating floods of 2000), eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption, reducing the size of the military and answering the troubled question of who will succeed King Sihanouk, the last in a long line of Angkor’s god kings.

Rush hour in Phenm Penh.

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Much of the wealth of Cambodia was siphoned away to Bangkok. Cambodians aspired to the western ways of their Thai neighbours.

In the heat of the day I hung out at the Foreign Correspondents Club. At night I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me to the Heart of Darkness bar, the main expat hangout. Few tourists risked the streets after dark. I sat most nights with Hal, an Irish raconteur who explained the scene.

Many expats were there for the cheap prostitutes, an industry much patronized by UN peace keepers. Best deal in town? US$4 for a beer and a BJ.

One morning to the Cambodian Circus School & my route happened to bisect the red light district. It was interesting the see the girls just waking up, washing clothes, chatting like the kids they were. They all waved cheerfully.

Later I toured the tourist sites with one of the girls from the hostel.

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The National Museum is one of the most memorable I’ve visited. A gorgeous building. Limbless landmine victim beggers were stationed on the walk up.

An estimated 1 million bats live in the roof of the museum. They stink and squeal but no one wants to remove them as they control the insect population in the capital.

Australia sent a work crew to build a sub-ceiling so the bat guano would not soil precious heirlooms and tourists. The Aussie workmen reported that every night trucks would loot relics from the collection.

Many are disappointed with Phnom Penh, but I liked it. When I was there the roads still had no names.

We visited a Buddha factory. One of my favourite travel photos ever. 🙂

buddha3_sm

This is another French colonial city. As usual, the French legacy left little … but they do have wide boulevards and good French bread!

The Royal Palace was not open to tourists, though we could look in from outside the fence. The Thai and Khmer architecture is evocative.

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A tourist couple I was travelling with took me to the market. Huge bales were displayed. We were unable to communicate with the sales woman.

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Eventually one tourist offered her a US$1 bill. She proceeded to stuff a plastic bread bag with herb.

I still look back fondly on Cambodia. More tourists are travelling there since overland transport opened.

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No one leaves this unique country unmoved.

travelogue – Malaysia

I travelled to Thailand from Singapore overland as quickly as I could. Later I came to regret my rush. Under-rated Malaysia is a much better country for the tourist than Thailand. …

Malaysia mapMalaysia has a superb expressway which runs the length of the peninsula from the Thai border in the north to Johor Bahru in the south. I was impressed with the terrific bus service.

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02I had no interest in stopping in KL which I perhaps wrongly assumed was another polluted Asian megalopolis. But I did glimpse the 88-story Petronas Twin Towers. The architecture was inspired by the Five Pillars of Islam protecting it, I assume, from terrorist attack.

Malaysia is considered a Muslim country but I found it a charmingly pluralist place, including a fusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous cultures and customs.

We spent some time talking to a Muslim student, son of the owners of a guest house. What I remember best of what he told me was that his most important class was morality (religion).

I headed directly to Cameron Highlands, in the centre of peninsular Malaysia, a series of hill stations at altitudes between up to 1800m (5904ft). The climate is wonderful here when it is sweltering on the coastal plains.

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Hill stations in Asia have a rural, colonial, relaxed ambiance. Nice.

Attractions include jungle walks, waterfalls, beautiful gardens & plenty of wild flowers.

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Malaysia was my first experience in touring tea plantations. I learned this lesson: wherever tea grows, tourists are happy.

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Tea trees look quite normal unless workers start trimming them to the height of bushes. It is an amazing, labour intensive process.

Some trees are hand picked, some trimmed by scissors and workers even use a simple machine trimmer.

Intensely scenic. Textured trees on steep hillsides, terraced, irrigated steps.
My only other stop was Georgetown, on the island of Penang, off the northwest coast, the oldest British settlement in Malaysia.

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Everyone enjoys Georgetown.

Georgetown is an appealing contrasting hodgepodge of influences. The compact town is a delight to wander. Old Chinese houses, vegetable markets, temple ceremonies, mahjong games.

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I‘ll remember just hanging out, playing my Big Dave McLean cassette at the Sidewalk Blues Café.

Farewell Malaysia, the most pleasant country in Asia.

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travelogue – Singapore

I flew to Singapore unexpectedly much against the advice of backpackers.

Unexpectedly, I quite enjoyed the city state.

Though Singapore is only 100km from the equator, the weather was lovely while I was there.

It’s ultra-modern, ultra-clean and impressive to look at. Many credit former leader Mr. Lee for steering Singapore to juggernaut economic status.

Many blame Lee too for creating a police state. I chewed gum when I was there — a crime in Singapore.

000It’s known to be expensive — but not if you if you stay in Little India & eat on Arab Street. Masala Dosa at famous Komala’s. And the street food at the night markets is the best I’ve ever found.

Raffles Hotel Singapore.

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All the fables of the exotic East.

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Cockatoos

The Russells told me to visit the zoos of Singapore, perhaps the best in the world. The beautifully landscaped Jurong Bird Park expanded my appreciation. I’ve been a closet birder ever since.

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Jurong Bird Park is very well done. Beautiful landscaping.

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At the excellent raptor show, I was first to volunteer. A number of impressive carnivore birds landed on my gloved fist. They pack a surprising wallop.

Pat

Singapore Zoo is best known for its orang-utan enclosure. They are so human, even super-human, that it’s scary.

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Singapore Zoo allows close contact with animals. I spent all day there, following the feeding schedule. A fantastic place.

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I took a break for dinner, then returned to enjoy the zoo at night. You can both walk the enclosures and take a small, slow train.

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Some day all zoos will be like the one in Singapore.

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An important site for me was the Changi Prison memorial, out near Changi airport.

James Clavell’s King Rat, based on his own experiences as a Japanese POW there, is one of my favourite books. It was a pilgrimage for me, inspired by instructions from IB.

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travelogue – Thailand

I was really looking forward to Thailand in 1996, undoubtedly the most exciting destination in Asia, in my mind. It was my first visit.

Great beaches, sexy women, great food, breathtaking natural beauty & ruins of fabulous ancient kingdoms.

Right?

But transport from the airport to the backpacker centre of Khao San Road was insane, one of the least pleasant airport runs in the world. It was an inauspicious start.

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Bangkok is one of most polluted and congested cities in the World.

The climate is great — between November & February. The rest of the year it is either sweltering or flooded.

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Sooner or later, every Asian traveller arrives at Khao San Road.

Khao San Road is one of the three Ks of Asia: Kuta Beach (Bali), Kathmandu and Khao San Road.

I was overwhelmed at first. But later grew to love the scene.

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I met Sin on Khao San Road, a lovely guy & very organized 26-year-old Japanese backpacker who was travelling 50 countries over 3 years. Sin was the first serious traveller I spent time with.

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I was impressed. He definitely influenced my growing love of travel.

Sin’s girlfriend had caught malaria in Africa and was suffering a flare-up in Bangkok. Every second day she needed to lay in bed. Alterrnate days she toured with us, completely healthy.

The Japanese doctors advised her to stay in Bangkok for treatment rather than return home as the doctors here were far more familiar with the disease.

The infamous Tuk Tuk, symbol of Bangkok.

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A louder, smellier, more dangerous mode of transport is hard to picture.

Beware anyone who offers you a free Tuk Tuk ride. There are scams aplenty in the sleazy city.

Khao San Road grew up because it is close to major tourist attractions of Bangkok; the National museum, the Grand Temple & Emerald Buddha, and my favourite, Wat Pho.

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Wat Pho.

The second largest Buddha image in Thailand is housed in this, the oldest and largest wat in Bangkok.

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Built around a brick core and covered with plaster that is finished with gold leaf, the eyes and feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

This Buddha is huge. And the first reclining Buddha I had come across.

Wat Pho is my favourite temple complex because it is alive, full of monks, kids, students, festivals, soccer games, yoga classes & massage tables.

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It houses a bizarre collection of salvaged Buddhas and statuary.

I read more about Thai culture than any other in Asia. Fascinating.

Insects are a popular treat though I passed on the fried scorpion.

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Kids catch huge flying insects with butterfly nets, then roast them over the open fire as snacks.

I first saw a Mantis in Thailand, easily the most impressive insect. (Might be tasty too, I wouldn’t know.)

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I was keen to visit Patpong, the famous Red Light district of Bangkok.

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But by 1996 it had become more tourist attraction than brothel. Families wandered about clicking pictures.

I had a beer in one bar featuring Kick Boxers as entertainment. And I saw the famous clubs where bored topless girls sit behind glass walls watching TV — identifed by felt pen marker like triathletes.

But I left only with fake designer watches. Patpong has become the best night market in town.

Shopping for Buddhas is a popular pastime.

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My strong interest in Buddhism started here in Thailand. I like the philosophy & was struck with the contrast between the tolerant Eastern God symbol of the wet paddies as compared with the harsh, unforgiving God of the desert.

I loved a tour to Ayuthaya, one of the ancient capitals.

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It’s easy to day trip from Khao San Road. Buses and vans roll in day & night.

Wat Pra Sri Samphet in Ayuthaya, Thailand.

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I prefer ruined ruins. They are more evocative of the past than those restored.

The lovely and bizarre Bang Pa-In Palace in Ayuthaya .

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Back in Bangkok, I learned to commute by river taxi. Quick, convenient and scenic. The only way to go.

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Somewhat disappointed with the crush of Bangkok, right up my alley was the lure of a hill tribe trek in the rugged north.

Our guide was Tien, a former kick-boxer who had travelled in France, fought the Lao in the army, worked for the mafia, & shot tiger with a head torch.

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He led us on a three-day trek in Doi Inthanon National Park; Meo country.

We had a good group, all pleased to be getting out into the jungle. This is a very popular tour — over a million take it every year!

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The raft trip is a blast. We floated and poled our way through jungle for several hours.

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After sleeping in an authentic Karen village, the big highlight was an elephant ride.

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Later I travelled to South Thailand and visited a butterfly enclosure. Wonderful.

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I’ve taken every opportunity to commune with flutterbys ever since.

I made every effort to avoid it but still somehow found myself in sleazy Phuket, haunt of European sex tourists.

Actually I quite enjoyed a day trip from there to James Bond Island, one of the striking limestone formation typical to this part of the world. We stopped at a Cashew factory & a unique Muslim fisher village on stilts. Sea food dinner was great.

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In 1996 the next big thing in Thailand was Ko Tao, a comparatively unvisited and undeveloped island known only to scuba freaks.

I love snorkelling so it immediately became my destination.

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Wow. Ko Tao.

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The Koh Nangyuan Dive Resort is paradise — the triple bay layout of the island means good snorkelling regardless of weather.

I floated many wonderful hours here.

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On a whim I decided to kayak around Ko Tao, a trip which took me about 8 hours.

Unfortunately I got sunburned, so badly so that I felt I should seek medical attention in civilized Singapore.

Farewell Thailand.

I would return many times.

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Last word: Thailand is often noted for the warmth of the people. I had the opposite experience. I found the Thai cold and aloof, perhaps sick of tourists. The folks in Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar are much happier & more patient with us.

 

 

 

photos – Hong Kong

I consider Hong Kong my home away from home in Asia. I could live there.

01hong_kong

In 1996 jets still landed at the infamous Kai-Tak Airport (closed July 1998). This approach over densely populated apartment buildings was scary spectacular!

I was forewarned of the high cost of travel to Hong Kong. Backpackers held the city state as a place best missed.

Wrong. I loved Hong Kong instantly and found it quite affordable for the careful penny pincher. This was the first of many trips here.

02

A typical scene in the tourist ghetto of Tsim Sha Tsui, at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula. Shops, restaurants, pubs, topless bars and camera stores.

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Kowloon is also home to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, the Space Museum, the famous Peninsula Hotel and the Museum of History.

The Promenade, in East Tsim Sha Tsui, is a great place for a stroll, and has wonderful views of Victoria Harbour, particularly at night. The liveliest night market in the territory is on Temple St in Yau Ma Tei.

06I stayed first at the infamous Chung King Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui.

I ended up on a top bunk bed with a window looking down 45 floors. What if there was a fire? An earthquake?

It’s amazing these buildings have not been torn down.

I made every excuse I could to hop on the Star Ferry, an inexpensive commute across Hong Kong harbour.

East meets West here. It was the confluences and contradictions which most attracted me.

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The public transportation system is terrific. It is easy to get anywhere quickly.

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I made the manditory tourist pilgrimage up the cable car to Victoria Peak. 552m (1810ft)

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The vista is amazing.

My second night in Hong Kong I moved to Mt. Davis Hostel, high up on Hong Kong island with a harbour view. What a discovery! It became my hostel-away-from-home in Asia on many future trips.

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At the hostel the talk was much focused on the hand-over from the British to the Chinese which was to happen a year later in 1997. Many residents were nervous. Affluent Chinese families bought homes in Vancouver and Sydney … just in case.

 

travelogue – the Middle East

Aging Disgracefully

Sept 1995

This is a laugh riot I penned (after returning from the Middle East) for a friendship newsletter put together by Ron Shewchuck and Kate Zimmerman.

red-eye_logo

rick_mugHere comes the end of the World.

This is no “Howling Down the Middle East” but rather “Howling Down Middle-age”. The Lifebeat Man should deny aging as he denies death, winter, and the dangers of aspartame.

But, in the fall of ‘94 I started to feel old. I don’t know why. The receding hairline? The steady decline of body functions? Or the fact that I really am old? After all, we’ve been running this fu¢k!ng planet for a long time; the novelty is starting to wear off.

When I reminisce of youth, I think of Mason — that great jumper-off-cliffs. Did he die at 19? Or did we all live forever like I thought at the time? Where has youth gone?

I left Calgary in 1990. Now it is ‘95 and I live in icy Saskatoon, where all forms of sexual deprivation are practiced. What have I done for the past 5 years?

Well, I have become a student of LIFE — which may be preferable to actually having a life. In preparation for this missive I read Maugham and Hesse. I watched The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day. I re-watched The Big Chill and re-read Time Enough for Love. What better sources of life wisdom are there?

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that I’ve gotten any closer in my pursuit of life wisdom. I’ve had a good time trying, though.

And I’ve done a few things right. I traveled to visit with friends who had seemed to disperse in some weird Brownian motion. I’ve traipsed some damn fine golf courses. After all, no one on their death bed wishes they had spent more time in the office.

I’ve had the best possible mentor in Keith Russell who taught me to pay a little closer attention to detail, along with everything else.

And I’ve traveled the World. If you’re going to tread water, you might as well do it in the Nile.

step pyramids

I liked the Middle East; the spectacular desert landscapes, peerless architectural sites, the haunting call to prayer, and the fantastic starry, starry desert night.

The people are wonderful, especially the proud Bedu. Camel-herding desert nomads, the Bedouin are a cultural, not an ethnic, group. Their poverty and hospitality is legendary. In the land of baksheesh, they refuse money with contempt. They are untaxed, ungovernable, and free.

Our perception of the region and religions is laughably wrong. “Islamic fundamentalists” are the most honest, charitable, and least hypocritical people in the world. Jordan and Syria vie for the friendliest people in the guidebook awards every year! (Mohammed did muck-up when he included, in the Koran, that straight-to-Heaven Holy Jihad clause.)

Indeed, the evil Syria is probably the last best tourist destination left in the world. Jordan was even better until King Hussein opened the flood gates to Israel in ‘94. It is already too crowded with neo-crusader, white trash tourists.

I’d recommend travel in the Arab countries to anyone who has a stoic tolerance of raw sewage and intense cigarette smoke.

My main complaint is the plight of women in Islam. It is still 1100 AD for Muslim ladies there. I now realize that the single greatest advance of man is the emancipation of woman.

The study of Egyptology is the study of death preparation. The Pyramids were ancient when the Biblical Abraham got there. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any secrets in the tombs nor from the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”.

Another Western seeker entreated a monk at Mount Sinai, Is there anything I can send you?

The monk replied, with a smile, What I want, you can’t send.

So, is it game over? No fountain of youth? No loopholes? No back door to Heaven?

Well, …I’ve checked out Hinduism and Buddhism and plan to report back. Perhaps there’s something in this reincarnation business.

In the meantime, did you notice that old age is mellowing the Lifebeat Man? That this is a kinder, gentler Lifebeat column? Devoid of personal attacks. No exposé by way of exaggeration and selective grotesquery. No libel.

Nah, I ain’t mellowing. It’s simply fear of the looming Day of Atonement. I don’t want to have to answer for additional sins to a vengeful Western God. That’s all.

May your moisture not be fled.
Ma sha Allah!

Apologies to Rob Glaser, Keith Russell, Ramses II, some monk, Mohammed, & Konwicki.

mcsphinx

masterful Photoshop work by Ron Shewchuk 🙂