« March 2003 | Weblog Main | May 2003 »

April 3, 2003

Salalah

We're currently in Salalah, close to the border with Yemen in the south of Oman and have been away from internet access for the last few days. There were a couple of instances of Americans being beaten up by groups of locals in some of the big hotels in Muscat just before we left, including in a bar we'd been in the previous night, though so far the worst we've had has been abuse shouted at us.

April 4, 2003

Southern Oman

I left Colin sitting in a bar last night and went for a walk along the beach here in Salalah. Lots of things about this part of Oman remind me of Brazil, and as I sat on the beach I could see fish jumping in the water and crabs running along the shore. Although it was after midnight the beach was busy with people sitting along it, and waiters from the cafes across the road were bringing drinks down to the people on the sand. The Southern Cross was hanging just above the horizon and the air was full of mist from the heat and the breaking waves.

Colin stumbled into the hotel hours later, having taken one of those shortcuts you only find when you're drunk and ended up crawling through a swamp, being rescued by Indians, and finally covering the 4km back to the hotel in 2.5 hours.

According to the hotel staff some locals came to the hotel asking about us last night, and thinking that we were Americans. Luckily we've been telling people that we're Irish as there's a lot of anti UK & US sentiment around, and though we've no idea what it was about, we're glad to be leaving this evening. We're catching the 'desert express' back to Muscat, which means a 12 hour bus journey cross country with no toilet on board.

April 5, 2003

Dhofar

baby camel
We got back from our 2000km round trip across Oman this morning. The Dhofar region, where we were, as well as being the world capital for frankincense, has always had a reputation of being bandit country, and much of the population share their ancestry with the Yemenis, which we were only 50km away from. By the time we were leaving, things were beginning to feel quite unstable. Saddam had called for a jihad a couple of days before and apparently a lot of Yemenis were on their way to Iraq to answer the call. Every cafe we sat down in was showing Aljazeera on TV, with footage of civilian casualties and screaming children in Baghdad. A guy at an adjacent table asked where we were from. We lied. "Ireland? You terrorist? Good!", he replied. We felt like everyone's eyes were burning into us as we walked through town to catch our bus. We had things thrown at us and a crazed old guy wearing camoflage gear and a huge dagger screamed at us as we were boarding the coach.

April 6, 2003

Ras al Jinz Turtle Beach and Wadi Shab

baby camel
We drove over to Ras al-Jinz turtle beach earlier in the week in the 4wd. On the way there we took the inland road through the desert, past sand dunes and camels where it was 40�c in the shade. Oman has had some of the highest temperatures ever recorder on earth and in the summer 50�c is fairly normal.

We'd taken tents with us so we camped in the nature reserve on the easternmost point of the Arabian peninsula, had a big fire, and drank vodka. Late at night the guides came to the camp and took us down to the beach where up to 13,000 turtles lay their eggs every year. By torchlight we watched as an almost metre long Green turtle dug into the sand to bury it's eggs, and another came ashore out of the surf. It was really fantastic to see, though apparently if we were there in June or July there would be hundreds of turtles laying eggs on the beach every night. We had to be careful so as not to stand on any baby turtles which were running across the sand towards the sea. They're attracted to light and if you shine a torch on the sand then they'll turn around and waddle towards it.

Back at the camping site we threw some more wood onto the fire and sat back looking at the stars. Suddenly I saw something crawling past my foot. It was a baby turtle on a suicide mission towards the fire! We couldn't figure out where it had come from as the beach was about half a mile away, but we picked it up and set off down to the sea to set it free. Dozens of foxes eyes reflected in the torchlight while they scavenged and dug in the sand looking for turtle eggs. We put the baby turtle down next to the surf and it swam out then disappeared into the sea. A tiny percentage make it to adulthood but if they do they can live for 150 to 300 years.

In the morning we had a swim on the beach then set off on our way back towards Muscat, which was 300km away, on tracks along the coast. I did the driving back and it felt really great to be driving off-road again which I hadn't done since I'd had my own four wheel drive years ago. Pretty soon, however, the track became worse and then we came to some kind of petroleum complex which had been built across where the road used to be. We followed the fence around through the desert, spotted an Arabian gazelle, and after a few rough sections came back onto the track.

We had a break in Qalhat, perched on the cliffs, which is now just a poor village, but prior to being razed by the Portugese it was the first capital of Oman and one of the great ancient ports of Arabia. The only remaining ancient structure is the mosque. A little further on we stopped at Wadi Shab, one of the many oasis-like streams that exist in Oman, paid a young boy to take us across it in a boat, and walked upstream through the steep gorge. It was unbelievably lush after being in the desert, full of palm trees, and locals were tending plants and date plots as we made our way up. After an hour or so of walking we stripped off, waded through rockpools, then swam upstream through clear, blue water for five or ten minutes. Colin had been here before years ago and he knew where he was going, which was just as well, as, typically, the Lonely Planet doesn't mention the place at all. There was no-one else around and everything was silent apart from the sounds of birds in the trees. At what appeared to be a solid cliff face, we dived underwater, swam three metres or so, then surfaced in a grotto inside the mountain! It was unbelievable. Light was filtering in through holes in the roof of the cave, and a waterfall tumbled down the rock face. I treaded water to try to take it all in; it was one of the most fantastic places I'd ever been in my life.

The rest of the drive back continued to be fairly exciting, mainly because we were so low on petrol that the car must have been running on fumes. It was getting dark and there were virtually no other cars on the track as we began to see ourselves getting stranded in the desert and eating each other. Amazingly, however, a petrol station appeared just in time, the first we'd seen for 130km. We celebrated, filled up, and sat and had a coffee and shawarma in the forecourt.

April 7, 2003

Muscat Taxis

We just got back from another night of drinking in the hotels of Muscat. While trying to catch a minibus back, I managed to flag down a police van. So the van pulls over, a policeman in uniform jumps out with a gun, and I shake his hand and ask him if he's a minibus driver. He of course looks at me like I'm either very pissed or very stupid and replies that no, he's a policeman. In the end we caught a minibus being driven by someone completely insane who couldn't understand a word we were saying. He stopped and kicked us out twice, then pulled into a deserted petrol station where I fully expected him to bring out a Kalashnikov, but in the end we all managed to understand each other somehow, he didn't kill us, and we got back alive.

April 8, 2003

Jebel Shams

jebel shams
Yesterday we drove up Jebel Shams, which, at 3000m is the highest mountain in Oman and it's 'Grand Canyon'. On the way up, however, we took a wrong turning and ended up at the gate to a military base. We were just turning the 4wd around when suddenly a crazed looking soldier rushed out of a hut with a panicked look on his face and a machine gun, pointed it at us with his finger on the trigger and motioned to us that we should leave immediately or else be shot. Realising that he wasn't going to invite us in for a cup of tea and give us directions, we took the hint and left feeling a little bit shaken.

After a bit more driving on dirt tracks we came to the top where you can look straight down 1km into the huge canyon of Bir Dakhiliyah that splits through the mountain. The view was incredible and we sat on the edge in the cool, thin mountain air marvelling at it. Out of nowhere some women and children appeared. They were Shuwawis, local mountain people who live in isolated villages keeping goats and making carpets. They persuaded us to buy a rug and invited us back to their village to drink coffee. We sat down under a tree on a carpet with an old man, a younger man, six children and some women spinnning wool. They brought out a bowl of Omani dates and a pot and poured us small cups of cardoman flavoured coffee. Goats were wandering around continually trying to join the meal, and the younger man had to repeatedly chase them away. A goat skin was still hanging on the tree drying above us. We finished our coffee, thanked them, and drove back down the mountain.

Flight Cancelled

I'm supposed to be on my way to Bangkok right now, but instead I'm still in Oman. I turned up at the airport this evening and looked up at the departure board to see that my return flight to Dubai with Kish Air had been cancelled. No-one had called to tell me so I went over to the travel agents that dealt with them to find out what was happening. Nobody was working there but I managed to get a telephone number and called one of the agents who basically told me that it was nothing to do with them, which I of course argued with until he finally agreed to come in to discuss it with me. I only had a few hours until my Bangkok flight left from Dubai, so I needed to get there fast. It turned out that there was an Oman Air flight leaving for there in an hour so when the travel agent turned up I did my best to get him to transfer my ticket to Oman Air. After lots of arguing, shouting, and being ready to drag the guy out across his desk, airport security were beginning to pay me a lot of interest and he still wouldn't transfer my flight. I'd gone into the same travel agents office last week to reserve the flight and apparently the guy I'd spoken to had written out my ticket but had never called the airline to make the booking. Hence the airline wasn't liable as they'd never received the booking, and if the travel agents transferred me onto another flight then they'd have to pay for my ticket so they were arguing, lying, and saying anything they could to avoid it. In the end he agreed to book me onto tomorrow night's flight and called Air Brunei and managed to change my ticket to Bangkok to the following night, but it all took over an hour of arguing.

April 9, 2003

Kish, Kish

I'm just about to head off to the airport to attempt to get to Dubai for the second time. We drove across town to Royal Brunei's offices in Ruwi this morning to check that my reservation to Bangkok had in fact been changed as my ticket isn't supposed to allow travel over easter from the 11th April (i.e. when I'm flying). I also have the added problem that my visitor's visa expired yesterday so immigration may give may some hassle for now being an illegal immigrant. When we were driving back, the Sultan's private, shortened jumbo jet was circling overhead, gleaming in the sun. It's been really lovely staying in Oman, especially with Colin as my expert local guide, though it's been getting hotter every day since I arrived. It's so warm now that only hot water comes out of the cold taps and when the wind blows it feels like a hairdryer, so I'm glad I didn't come in midsummer.

April 11, 2003

Suspected SARS on flight

I successfully managed to fly out of Muscat airport this time, where they were playing 'Winter Wonderland' in the departures lounge bizarrely. On the flight I ended up sitting next to a guy fleeing from Iraq (can't mention any names but he did look familiar). As we flew over Dubai, the pilot put the plane into such a steep dive that I felt all the blood leave my legs while he made an announcement in Iranian, which worryingly sounded as if he'd started praying. For some reason an extra passenger had turned up for the flight and he had to stand all the way - the first plane I'd been on with standing room. We landed on the runway and the Iraqi guy next to me started struggling to get out of his seat. He didn't know how to unfasten his seatbelt (which is incredibly funny if you've seen Eddie Izzard's 'Circle'... but, I suppose, not funny at all if you haven't) so I had to give him a demonstration and help.

Due to different Muslim laws the women in Dubai don't have to be covered up, which after two weeks in Oman seemed almost pornographic. The following day I wandered around 'City Centre', one of Dubai's huge shopping malls, being shocked by them, then headed off to the airport to check in. Dubai's famed duty free didn't impress me too much and didn't seem to be very cheap, but the new terminal is very slick; the best part being that the announcements are made by a soft, sexy computerised voice with a slight echo that sounds as if it was taken straight out of Bladerunner. A man fell down the escalator (maybe his first time on one) while I was figuring out what kind of alcohol I could afford to buy with the rest of my UAE change (settled for some Nepalese rum, which was cheaper than a bottle of shampoo). I sat down and a guy sat down beside me with two hunting falcons on a perch. I'd once flown hunting birds in Scotland, but these were beautiful, powerful killing machines in comparison. While talking on his mobile he slipped his sandals off, and began playing with one of them with his toes.

I moved to the departure gate and waited for the flight to come in. There were only a few other passengers boarding from Dubai and eventually the plane landed and all the transit passengers disembarked and joined us in the waiting room. They were all Germans, one of whom stood in front of me wearing a leather waistcoat and talking loudly, opened a big can of Tuborg, and downed a pint in one gulp.

Finally, they announced that boarding could begin, but as they did so the airline staff began to hand out a stack of notices. I took one and read it. Apparently, someone on the flight was suffering from a suspected case of SARS, and due to this we were now all suspect carriers. It asked us to give the airline our individual details so that we could be reached if the person did turn out to have SARS, and said that the destination country would decide what action to take on our arrival. It also instructed us to take our temperature daily for the next ten days and to contact a doctor if it rose. The thought of getting SARS didn't bear thinking about, but worse than that, being rounded up and put into a sealed room with 300 badly dressed Germans was terrifying. The Germans were all standing waiting to board by this time, but I looked at one of the other guys who was joining the plane from Dubai and he looked back at me as if to say, "Shall we wait in the bar for the next flight?" Out of interest I asked one of the Asian staff if we were being given a choice of getting on this plane or not, but he just replied, "You get on plane!", in an imperialistic Japanese kind of way. I boarded, but had a nagging "Cassandra Crossing" feeling in the back of my mind.

We were all a bit conscious of anyone who was coughing on the flight, but I did get some sleep in the end. When the plane landed in Bangkok we were met by airport staff wearing masks and there were signs saying that everyone would have to undergo a medical. Seeing this, some of the Germans around me pulled out their masks and put them on as if this was perfectly normal on arrival in a foreign country. I got a bit lost in the airport after this, but didn't have to undergo a medical or anything unless I somehow missed it. Now I'm off to find someone to shove this thermometer up my bum.

April 13, 2003

Songkran

Half dazed from the flight to Dubai, it was a bit strange to suddenly find myself in Bangkok again, walking down Koh San Road dodging taxis and tuk-tuks. I checked into the same hotel and bizarrely ended up in the same room I'd stayed in when I was last here.

It's Songkran, Thai new year today which means that there are huge waterfights everywhere in the streets - something to do with cleansing out last year's bad spirits and the fact that it's the hottest time of the year. I'd been hoping to make it up to Chiang Mai for the event as they have huge celebrations but all the hotels there are fully booked - I can't see how people could be taking it any more serious than they are in Bangkok though.

I managed to get 10 metres from the hotel yesterday before being soaked! They mix talcum powder with water and smear it onto your face, then drench you with water, which combined with the fact that half the people are carrying around huge water pistols, gives the whole thing a surreal 'Apocalypse Now' feeling as you wander past all the whitened Asian faces. I attempted to get into central Bangkok yesterday, but by the time I arrived I was soaked and looking very white, which gave all the sales girls in the stores lots of amusement. Everyone seems to be a target, with water being thrown from windows and even the army and police being attacked. There are fundamentalist units going around in the back of pick-up trucks, loaded with oil drums of water and soaking people as they drive past. I seriously had myself believe that I wasn't going to go out and buy a water pistol for several hours yesterday, then I finally gave in and went out sniping. It turned out to be a long, crazed night with en masse partying in the streets and it was only when I got up hungover late this afternoon that I discovered that it goes on for five days! Oh dear. Coming down with some water-borne disease seems much more likely than SARS at the moment!

Paul Oakenfold is playing in Narcissus, one of the big clubs here tonight so I'm off to try to get tickets. How I'll manage to arrive there in a decent state to be let in is quite another thing though!

April 14, 2003

Paul Oakenfold at Narcissus, Bangkok

I managed to get out of Banglamphu district as clean and dry as I could, defending myself as I went, and running across some of Bangkok's famous 16 lane roads firing at on-coming traffic. Ok, so I was maybe a bit pissed. I managed to make it down to the river boat stop which takes you into town. These are the long-tail boats that Roger Moore ended up in a high-speed chase in through Bangkok in one of the Bond films (which one? answers in comments please!). There I chatted to some young locals who go to the university here. They spoke perfect English and had all spent time studying abroad in the US, Singapore or Hong Kong. They were getting on the same boat so we sat and talked as it flew through Bangkok's canals with about six inches of freeboard.

I was in a bit of a mess - soaking and covered in white talcum stains so I bought some new clothes in town and went off to find Narcissus. After a trip on the skytrain (Bangkok's overhead metro system) and a walk through one of the dodgier areas of the city, I finally found it down a side street off another side street. It looked like a truly impressive place, housed in an old Georgian style mansion. Security managed to find the water pistol I had hidden down my trousers and confiscated it, but they still let me in. Narcissus is arguably the hippest of Thailand's nightclubs where Bangkok's models and the rich and famous hang out. A beer cost about as much as a room for the night, but it was worth it. The interior is still Georgian, but with a wonderful sound and lighting system fitted - truly a world-class club. I grabbed a couple of drinks and waited for Paul Oakenfold to come on. When he started the crowd just erupted and the energy in the place was incredible. It was all a seriously good night, everybody seemed to be having a great time, and due to the Thais being such amicable people there was none of the drunken violence that you so often feel in clubs in Europe. I had a chance to meet up with the Paul Okenfold afterwards, though he wasn't too big on conversation.

April 15, 2003

The Party Continues

Banglamphu, the backpacker's district of Bangkok seems to have been taken over by partying Thais as most of the westerners are having problems keeping up with the pace of the partying. Songkran has been going on continually for five days and nights now, and I've become completely nocturnal. It's truly a party that deserves to be right up there next to Rio's Carnival. Every day it's been getting bigger and bigger, taking over more and more streets, and becoming wilder all the time. The roads are thick with the white slush of talcum powder and water and even the fire brigade are joining in soaking everyone with their high-pressure hoses.

The whole street around the Democracy Monument has been turned into a huge water and light display with a deep, booming Thai voice shouting across the proceedings. It's a bit like a cross between a Jean Michel Jarre concert and the cult Japanese tv series Monkey.

April 16, 2003

Thai Gangs

I managed to keep partying right through until the end of Songkran early this morning and it was all really incredible. By the early hours, however, most of the revellers had either passed out or gone home and I found myself in the middle of two rival Thai street gangs. Suddenly machetes got drawn and bottles started getting thrown down Koh San Road and I had to dodge for cover. My water pistol didn't seem like adequate self-defence anymore! It didn't last long though as the police were nearby and once they fired a single shot all of the fighting stopped.

April 17, 2003

Tonight's Mantra

Tonight's mantra for dealing with soo many USA backpackers...

These people do not have informed opinions
These people are good people
Take deep breaths
Violence is not the answer
Getting too much?
Ok, leave the building
Leave the building now...

...am probably too pissed to be blogging ;o)

April 18, 2003

SARS, Lies and Videotape

SARS doesn't really seem to be a problem in Thailand - either that or the Thais are just too laid back to care. Only the truly paranoid foreigners are going around wearing facemasks so it's lots of fun to go over, ask them directions, then pretend you're about to cough up a lung. As far as I'm concerned it's just another media frenzy that's been blown out of proportion and wearing a mask only serves to make more people anxious.

I'm off to check out Ministry of Sound tonight, or M.O.S. as the locals call it, after having another fairly lazy day wandering around Bangkok.

April 19, 2003

Ministry of Sound Bangkok

Ministry of Sound turned out to be pretty cool last night, and has really good sound and lighting systems - I ended up sitting close to speakers for a while and my shirt was moving to the bass. One of the nice things is that if you sit down at a table with some people then security will keep those seats for you for the rest of the night and move anyone else who sits at it. It's lacking more ambient lighting though and it has something of a bare 'student union' feel to it than the opulence in Narcissus, but it's a huge club.

April 20, 2003

Thai Menus

One of the joys of travelling for me is reading foreign menus that have been translated into English. After a couple of beers last night in a local Thai bar called 'In Ning' I ended up in hysterics trying to choose between these mouth-watering choices...

fried rice with carb
rice with fried poke
rice cook in an oven
spicy soft bone salad
fish fried in three-teste sauce dressing
deep fried chicken knuckle
grapes shake

Colin's just emailed me to say that he's flying over to join me here on Wednesday for next week's Festival of Joy and Pleasure. Looking forward to it.

April 21, 2003

Lizard Lounge

I seem to be sharing my room with a lizard at the moment which appears to be living under my bed. When I least expect it, it suddenly decides to run out across the floor, scaring the crap out of me every time!

April 22, 2003

Pantip Plaza

This afternoon was spent in Pantip Plaza, Bangkok's huge electronics and computing shopping centre and one of my favourite haunts. It has hundreds of shops spread over six floors selling hardware, pirate software, and parts, and it takes over two hours just to walk around it all. One of the good things about Thailand is that, unlike in the West where everything is becoming disposable, you can still get things repaired cheaply here. My phone had suffered badly from a wet ride with Kylie when I was back in Britain so I had it rebuilt and the screen replaced yesterday for about ten pounds.

April 23, 2003

Colin Flies In

I met Colin at the ungodly hour of 10am this morning in Bangkok airport. It was the first morning I'd seen since arriving in Thailand and after 3 hours sleep I wasn't feeling my best. It was good, however, to see Colin, and he brought me a new shaver from the Middle East, where they appear to have a special offer running due to the recent fall of the Taliban.

April 24, 2003

Jim Thompson House

After stumbling out of bed sometime this afternoon with a stunning hangover, I took Colin along to see Jim Thompson's house - our tourist destination for the day. It was built by Thompson, an American architect, out of six traditional Thai teak houses in the 1950's, which he joined together to make into one large structure. It's fairly impressive and a great example of traditional Thai architecture. After that, of course, we ended up back in the bars.

April 25, 2003

Thai National Palace

Today we went to see the National Palace then took a ferry across the river to the Temple of the Rising Sun. By the time we got there the sun was setting and we met a friendly local called Peter, who, after showing us around the temple complex, invited us back to his house where we ate local Thai food, met his family, and drank white Thai whisky. Later I brought in my 32nd birthday in a bizarre Thai club dancing to local music until Colin and I decided to head off to somewhere else and got a taxi to Narcissus.

April 26, 2003

Palm Post

I'm posting this from a Palm Tungsten W at a big mobile tech roadshow in the centre of Bangkok with lots of new technology including Nokia's new observation camera. Bit of a hangover.

April 28, 2003

Bangkok Partying

My birthday on Saturday turned into a mammoth 19-hour drinking and partying session. First of all we went out to a big local restaurant in the centre of Bangkok and ate freshwater crocodile (though crocodile farmed in accordance with protected species regulations so it's ok) then we moved onto some other bars, then Narcissus, where we continued partying until a power cut forced off the music and drove all but the most determined clubbers away. The staff brought out candles which gave the place a great atmosphere and half an hour later the power came back on. After a bit of chanting, the DJ returned and cranked up the music, even though it was nearly closing time and then I have vague memories of dancing on a podium for a long time after that, convinced that if I stopped the party would end.

When the club finally did close, long after it should have, we took a taxi back to Koh San Road with good intentions of going back to the hotel. For some unknown reason, however, we found ourselves drawn into a makeshift bar which consisted solely of a few red plastic chairs and a carpet on the side of the street. We settled in fairly well, and began recruiting passing strangers into our new private club. After that things are a bit blurry. Spoke to some odd people. Ended up in a high-speed tuk-tuk journey drinking red bull and Singha beer in the heat of the morning. Sat in an expensive Bangkok tailors looking at suits then went back to the street bar again where the local toast was now "SARS!" rather than "Cheers!". Finally wandered quite drunk back into my guesthouse at 12:00 where everyone sitting eating lunch went silent and stared at me (still in clubbing gear and carrying a big beer). One of the staff asked, "How are you?", to which I replied "Fine." "Are you sure you're fine?" she said with a smile.

I stumbled out of bed sometime yesterday evening after it was dark, had breakfast, and after a quick meeting with Colin we took a taxi to Ministry of Sound and started partying all over again.