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January 22, 2001

Cape Town

We're down in Cape Town today, and the weather is beautiful. The flight down from London was pretty long at 13 hours, and it left from terminal 2 in Heathrow, which must be a sad sight for anyone arriving in Britain. It was fairly uneventful, but I guess that's how you want flights to be! In the morning we arrived in Johannesburg, and took the shuttle bus straight to Pretoria as we'd been warned that central Jo'burg is a very dangerous place to go into. We spent the first night there, and had a lovely cheap meal with some South African wine in a good restaurant.

The next day we packed up and took the 20 hour coach trip down to Cape Town. Neither of us have really been in Africa before, apart from a day or two I spent in Tunisia once, and we were both hypnotised by what was outside the window. The landscapes are huge and the horizon seems so far away that it's surreal. Exactly how you expect it to look really, with a land that goes on forever. At one point I looked away for a second and Nina quickly nudged me to point out a field full of ostriches. When I woke in the morning, the sun was rising over the Karoo (the South African desert), and then suddenly it changed into lush, green vineyards.

Yesterday we took a trip over to Robbin Island, and saw the prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned which lies about 11km south of Cape Town, and today we hope to take a trip up to the top of Table Mountain.

January 24, 2001

Around Cape Town

On Monday we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain after having another truly wonderful meal, this time in an Italian restaurant. The cable car was technically the best I'd been on, with a revolving floor so that no-one could hog the best view. The view from the top was incredible, and we walked around some of the trails before retiring to the summit bar and watching the sunset. After our trip back down, the taxis at the bottom tried to rip us off, but Nina expertly got us a lift back into town from a couple from Edinburgh who were on a 6 week round the world trip.

Yesterday we rented a car, and drove out to exclusive Camps Bay for breakfast by the sea. We then continued south until I realised that I had lost my phone. So we rallied along the cliff-side road back to Cape Town, but couldn't find it in our room or anywhere. Expensively, we called the mobile network in Denmark, and closed the account. At least no-one else could use it now. We got back into the car to continue our day trip, and of course I found it wedged under my seat belt fixing!

Once we finally, got back to where we'd been before that episode, and after lots of laughing from Nina, we continued to Boulders Beach, where there is a growing colony of threatened African Penguins. It's a truly fantastic experience to watch them, and a trip there is essential if in the area. Next we moved onto the Cape Peninsula National Park which stretches down to and includes the Cape of Good Hope. It and the penguin reserve are at cpnp.co.za

After two minutes in the park, we stopped to watch wild baboons by the side of the road. Then as we continued down to the cape, we passed ostriches, bontebok, and made lots of stops for crossing tortoises! The Cape itself was truly impressive, towering up above the sea lanes. Not something you want to try sailing around with the wind against you!

Stellenbosch

We're in an internet cafe in Stellenboch right now after being to two vineyards for extensive winetasting this afternoon, so forgive the spelling mistakes. Boschendal Vineyards Neethlingshof Vineyards We're just waiting for happy hour to begin in the bar upstairs where drinks are 5 Rand (approx 45pence) & we're meeting one of the guys from the vineyard. We spent this morning in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which are allegedly the most impressive botanical gardens in Africa. We were impressed. We do like South Africa so far, especially with the price of the drinks! How will we get home to Cape Town tonight though?

January 26, 2001

Cape Agulhas

Well I was going to tell you how safe and crime free South Africa is today, but we got up this morning to find that someone had broken into our rental car overnight! I'm sure that it was because it was parked right in front of the hostel and it's obviously a rental car. They didn't even bother stealing the stereo, they just smashed the window and looked in the boot to see if we had any luggage worth stealing. It doesn't really matter to us as we were returning it this morning anyway, and we had nothing at all in it.

On Wednesday night, we ended up coming baack to Cape Town with our new found chums, and going to a bar here. I was really beginning to wonder why there were only men in the bar, when I realised that it was a gay bar. Yes, the two guys we had met were a couple! We moved onto a club, and passed a very empty gay bar, which we were told had been bombed the previous month, and hence no-one really wanted to go to it anymore. The club we went to turned out to be very like the 'Blue Oyster Bar', with lots of people who looked like they were in Village People, but sadly the club didn't play any of their songs. I was very glad that Nina was with me!

Yesterday, Nina was quite hungover for most of the day, but she had been seriously partying! We drove along cliffside coastal roads past beautiful white sand beaches with waves crashing onto them to a town called Hermanus. It's main claim to fame is that Southern Right Whales come into it's bay to calve between June and September, so of course none were there now. The town's new claim is that Nina finally managed to find herself a new bikini there after searching for one on three continents! Needless to say, our next stop was the beach, and we went for a swim in the Indian Ocean. It was seriously windy though, and sand was flying as we made our way out into the green, crashing waves.

We continued driving down the coast to make a stop at the lighthouse at Cape Agulhas, the most southern point of Africa. It's quite a windbeaten, barren place; a bit like parts of Scotland, but it also seems to be attracting a new fashionable crowd. The coast road was lined with lots of new, trendily designed houses which seemed to be springing up everywhere.

Today, we're spending the day in Cape Town, and taking in some of the sights as well as hoping to organise our trip back up to Johannesburg this weekend.

January 27, 2001

Yesterday Nina & I took

Yesterday Nina & I took a trip to a diamond cutting factory, and were given a beginner's intoduction to DIY diamond cutting. Jewelafrica.com
It was very interesting, and really one of the things we wanted to see while we were down here. We had brunch in a cafe close to the hostel we're staying in, and it reminded me of the worst things about staying in youth hostels - other backpackers. Maybe it was just that this particular cafe had more than it's fair share of the Bill and Ted stereotype, or maybe I need to start working again and staying in proper hotels.

It's quite interesting sometimes in South Africa. The other day we walked into a restaurant, and as in many of them, you have to undergo a bodysearch with a metal detector. As I stepped in, the security guard politely asked me if I had my gun with me today. Also, when we took a boat trip out to Robben Island, a sign asked passengers to leave their handguns in the company's safe as they were not allowed on board the ferry.

Today we've just come from having lunch in a cafe in town. I had ostrich, but surprisingly it's a dark meat, not like chicken at all! They're farmed here so I don't mind eating it, but I've avoided having shark and crocodile as I think they should be left to roam the wild in peace. We sat inside as we were well aware that street kids might come over and beg from us if we sat at the tables out front, but it isn't too bad as the cafes have security guards to keep any undesirables away from the patrons. Even still, we sat and watched as a drunk repeatedly tried to beg from the tables at a cafe across the street and the guard had to chase him off each time. Of course all of the cafes in Cape Town aren't like this, but obviously the one's where tourists eat get plenty of attention.

July 29, 2001

Singapore

Finally the rain cleared yesterday and we set off with great intentions of finding the aforementioned campsite. After several hours, many buses, and a great deal of walking, however, we instead found ourselves lost in Singapore's suburbia as darkness fell. Rested and refreshed we set off again this morning, and after riding to the centre of the island on the metro, we sweated and dragged ourselves through 34 degrees of heat for half an hour until we reached the beach. One of the great things about the country is that English is the primary language (before Malay, Mandarin and Tamil, or so I'm told), but unfortunately no-one outside the centre of the city seems to understand it. We asked for directions but only received confused looks until finally we resorted to making boy scout signs and playing out the erection of a tent in mime to confused locals in our attempts to be understood. In the end we found a place that rented out bikes and we decided that this may be our only chance of finding if the campsite really existed. On Nina's suggestion, I must point out, we rented a tandem and set off. Now, contrary to popular opinion I can now tell you that there is nothing romantic about sharing a tandem with anyone. It's a bit like two people trying to drive a car at the seem time. Once we'd managed to balance ourselves at the same time in order to set off, we proceeded to wobble and swerve our way down the cycle path narrowly avoiding small children and dogs while we each blamed the suicidal progress on the other. We'd been told that there were almost endless paths in Singapore on which to cycle, but, obviously used to being in bigger countries, we pedalled until we quickly found ourselves on a main road and soon after at the international airport. But still no campsite. We turned around and took the bike back to the guy we rented it from, who will have to get it surgically removed should he wish to rent it out to anyone else, and vowed never to get on a tandem again.

Here's an interesting link for anyone with some spare time on their hands who fancies building a jet powered beer cooler in their shed.

November 3, 2001

Waiting in Heathrow

We've been here in Heathrow airport for hours as we were told that due to increased security procedures we had to check in 3 hours before. Well, there was no extra security that we could see but the airport is packed as everyone sits around for hours waiting for their flights. On top of that we've just seen that our flight is delayed so who knows how long we might be here.

From the Plane

We're finally on the plane now & about 50% of the passengers are buddhists with shaved heads. Not many muslims though. As it's Icelandair, everyone has skiis under their seats instead of lifejackets. Now what's this they're saying about turning off electrical appliances..?

November 9, 2001

Back on Zamindar

We're now at the boat in Titusville, Florida and she seems to fine after being left alone here for so long.

November 15, 2001

Recap of China

Although it happened a month ago, here is the posting of the remainder of my journal from China.

We caught a minibus out of Beijing towards the Great Wall, but as so often happens in China, we later discovered that we'd been ripped off, and they had demanded five times the normal fare from us. The bus stank of exhaust fumes, but we soon realised that it wasn't coming from the other traffic but seeping up through the floor. Part of the exhaust pipe was obviously cracked and leaking directly into the bus - we looked around to see all the other passengers asleep! Nina and I tried to get some air through the window and opened it as wide as we could so that we could breathe through it. After what seemed like an eternity, we were relieved to get to the mountains where the Great Wall was, and we set off to hike up to it. We'd chosen to go to the section at Simatei, which, although harder to get to, is less touristed, and stretches across steep-sided mountains. It was truly impressive, and we spent several hours walking a section of the wall as it climbed up the mountainside, sometimes at a 70 degree incline. We caught a minibus returning to Beijing in the evening, and were given a truly frightening display of Chinese driving. Perhaps because there are so many of them, the Chinese hate to be behind anyone else, and so will fight to push onto a train first and run to an available seat before you. This also means that they are unable to sit behind another vehicle on the road and will immediately pull out to overtake even if there's another car coming or they are going around a bend. We had several near misses on our way back to Beijing, and on some occasions the oncoming traffic was forced to stop to avoid hitting us. Very few bicycles in China have lights fitted, but they still cycle them across the dual carriageway in front of cars in complete darkness. We passed a total of five accidents, which included a flattened cyclist and a bus which had driven into a crane that had been parked on the road.

When we got back to the hotel we opened our room to find it full of gas. Of course, we went downstairs and told reception (eventually, as we had trouble with the sign language for 'gas' and our guidebook didn't list the Mandarin for, "Our room is about to explode"). They came up immediately, failed to find the leak, and so opened the window, turned the extractor fan on, and told us that would sort it out. They initially thought that we were being unreasonable when we asked for another room, but eventually they did agree.

Many of the children in China wear trousers with an open slit in them, traditionally so that they could relieve themselves while their parents worked in the fields. Unfortunately, this isn't such an ingenious solution in a busy city such as Beijing where children suddenly stop to shit on a busy pavement, but it seems to be generally accepted. On the train to X'ian, Nina walked into another carriage to find a father supporting his child on the sink while it shitted into the waste bin on the floor.

We were lucky enough to be staying in a hotel called Redhouse with satellite tv (as well as the gas) in Beijing, and watched the US/UK strikes against Afghanistan on BBC World. Militant groups in Indonesia had been searching hotels for Americans, and British nationals were being advised to leave the country. With the hostility that we had experienced while we had been in Indonesia, I could imagine it and I was glad that we weren't still there. Seeing that many Islamic countries had started to demonstrate, and we were about to travel to a predominately Islamic area of China, we thought it a good idea to contact the British embassy in Beijing to find out if the travel advisories for British citizens in China had changed since the attacks. Unfortunately, however, they only seem to be employing Chinese to answer the embassy phones, and their grasp of English is not too good. I asked about travel in China since the attacks, but they replied, "Tax?", and put me through to an answering machine that I could leave a tax question on. I tried again, and this time they put me through to recorded information on how to get a visa to visit Britain. Finally, I gave up, thankful that I didn't need their help for something like a lost passport.

Iceland

Everyone looked surprised as our plane flew over Iceland and we saw the snow-covered ground below. Although it was the beginning of November, no-one's thoughts had turned to snow yet and most of the clothes that Nina and I had with us were more apt for a Florida winter than an Icelandic one. It was exciting to walk out of the airport into the snow, as we caught the coach into Reykjavik.

We were only in Iceland for 3 days as a stop-over with Icelandair on our way to Orlando to go to the boat. The coach dropped us off at the modern youth hostel where we'd booked a double room. Interestingly, the window had a stop built in so that it couldn't be completely closed, and we later found out that Icelanders like to keep their windows open all year round! We hadn't eaten and so we caught a bus into town and asked the driver to tell us when we got there. Strangely, everyone else got off and the bus carried on into the countryside until finally it came to a stop at a bus station in the middle of nowhere. The bus driver got up, looked at us as if to ask what we were still doing on the bus, and then realised that he'd forgotten to tell us where to get off. And so it was that we spent Friday night in Reykjavik sitting on a bus waiting for it to make it's next trip into town.

The following day, we walked to the supermarket to get some breakfast and were shocked by the fact that it was still -5c. The sun was just rising even though it was 10:00, but the ground was covered in ice as we slid our way down the road. That afternoon we braced ourselves, took our swimming things, and paid a trip to the Blue Lagoon which is about 40 mins from Reykjavik. It's a pool of mineral-rich, geothermal water with an eerie blue colour and clouds of steam that pour off its surface. From the changing rooms, you climb down into a pool of water that leads outside into the lagoon which is surrounded by snow and ice. It's a really incredible experience as you swim through the hot water and steam then climb out and walk through the snow to the sauna. Some parts of the lagoon are hotter than others, and occasionally you hear screams of pain as someone wanders into a particularly hot patch.

Iceland is an expensive destination compared to just about anywhere so we were glad to only be staying a few days. Trips out of Reykjavik are one of the big expenses and even travelling by bus is not a cheap way to travel. The following day we rented a car which came with full Icelandic insurance that covered everything apart from damage to the car itself or any other car, and so we set off into the snow covered interior very, very carefully. After about 10 mins of driving, the major roads ended and we found ourselves in the only Nissan Micra heading out of town on a snowy country road as huge four-wheel drive beasts flew past us. The snow was getting deeper and we wondered if this was a sensible trip to be making. We stopped to look at some Icelandic ponies standing in a field in the snow, and tried to take in the incredible snow scene that we were in. Our plan was to drive to Thingvellir, a valley where part of the Atlantic fault breaks through the surface, and then onto Geysir, where all geysirs in the world take the name from. After that we would carry on to Gulfoss to see the spectacular waterfalls there, and then return to Reykjavik. And we planned to do all of this in lots of snow without damaging the rental car!

It was a busy day, and an interesting refresher course on winter driving for me, but the Icelandic landscape was just incredible. The weather was clear and sunny, and we marvelled at the snow and ice formations, the volcanic geography, and the power of the geysirs. Although it took us all day to make the trip, when we got back to our room, we looked at a map and saw that we'd hardly covered any of the country at all. In fact most of the interior of Iceland is uninhabitable and can only be reached by four-wheel drive vehicles in the summer months. It got me thinking that the way to really see Iceland would be to go there in a 4x4 packed with supplies for a summer...

The following evening we flew out of Reykjavik, but en route we flew over Greenland, the skies were clear, and we had an amazing view. We looked down on icebergs floating near the coast, glaciers, and snow clad mountains and decided that we had to go there one day too.

We'd had a very enjoyable flight but came down to earth with a jolt as we arrived at US Immigration. Nina and I both have multi-entry US visas, which we had to sit through interviews to get, so you would think that getting into the States would not be a problem. Not so. We'd been up all night, and now they insisted on grilling us about what we were doing in the US, why we had been there four times in the last three years, etc, etc. I told them that I had a boat there, but they weren't even listening to my answers and told me that it was "suspicious" that I was spending "so much time" in the States. In the end they stamped my passport for six months, told me verbally that I had to leave in three months, and virtually told me not to come back to the US. I looked over to see an elderly woman from our flight, who was obviously on holiday, getting similar treatment and I wondered how the US expects to get ANY tourists if that's how they treat people. In all the travelling that I've done, I've never been treated like that by any country's immigration, and I have no desire to spend any more time in the US than I have to. America is not the golden land that everyone wants to live in... but I'd better stop before the men in the black van pay me a visit!

After customs, we had to go through another security check, which seemed somewhat pointless as we'd just got off a plane and anyone could have walked into the airport through the front door without going through security. We then rented a car and drove the 40 mins or so to where the boat is in Titusville. I'm always nervous coming back to the boat after I've been away from her for a while, and this time was no exception. A hurricane and numerous tropical storms had passed over her while I'd been away and I was anxious to see if everything on board was still ok. We drove into the marina, and I parked behind Zamindar - she looked fine. We then spent almost an hour looking around the boatyard for a ladder as she was out of the water and stands about three metres above ground. Finally, I climbed on board, opened the hatch, and breathed a sigh of relief to see that everything was ok.

Since we arrived, we've been cleaning and getting the boat ready to go back into the water. Taking care of a boat is a never ending job, and we've been held up for the last couple of days by a storm that's been crossing us. Right now there's a force 8 (30-40 knots) blowing outside and we've had tropical downpours all day - not perfect weather for painting. The boatyard is flooded and the boats anchored outside the marina are really getting thrown around in the waves. We're actually sitting here with the central heating up full inside the boat so it's not what you think of as sunny Florida right now!

January 23, 2002

Flying out of the USA

Back in civilisation. It feels great to be back in Britain and I'm currently in Bristol staying with Chris.

Getting out of the US turned out to be more interesting than I'd hoped for. Due to the increased security in Orlando airport we had to queue for an hour for the security check, during which I advised Nina to get rid of the nail files and other offensive weapons that she regularly carries around. As normally happens, however, I was the one who set off the metal detectors and was taken aside for 'special attention'. After further searching, removal of items from my pockets, and managing to convince the security officers that the smell from my shoes was not hidden explosives, but my socks, I was still setting off the alarms and a portable metal detector was put down my trousers. It was then that I dug deep into my pockets and discovered my long lost pocket knife! Unfortunately, they failed to share my happiness with this find, and went off to update my FBI records to 'suspected terrorist'.

January 24, 2002

Going to Copenhagen

Tomorrow I fly to Copenhagen at 18:40 (arriving 21:30) on BA 0820.
Live arrival info from Copenhagen airport is here.

February 26, 2002

Tomorrow morning I have to

Tomorrow morning I have to get up early to catch the coach over to Sweden, and then fly over to Britain. I'm planning to spend the next week in Bristol staying with Chris.

April 30, 2002

As you may have guessed,

As you may have guessed, I'm still in Palma, but I do plan to leave and sail on within the next few days. I've spent most of the last week taking advantage of the fact that I'm in a marina and getting some work done on the boat. When I haven't been working, and I wouldn't try to persuade you that I've been working all the time, I've been enjoying Palma's lovely cafes. It's really a luxury after being in the USA to be able to walk into almost any cafe and know that you'll get a proper coffee and not brown water. Unless of course you look American, however, in which case, aiming to please, the Spanish will give you a cup of brown water. It is for this and many other reasons, that I have therefore been trying to blend into the local community. This is not too difficult as I don't seem to fit into any of the stereotypes of tourist that seem to be in Mallorca right now.

A strange type of tourist appears to holiday here at this time of year. From my studies there seems to be three distinct types. One is families with very young children, who insist, as always, on sitting next to me, screaming into my ear, then being sick. The second are old people, who not only feel the need to wear socks with their shorts and sandals, but like knee length socks in an identical matching colour to their shorts. The idea behind this seems to be that the casual onlooker will at first assume that the man, as it tends to be men, is wearing trousers, but will then see a provocative flash of elderly knee as he walks down the street. To add to this bizarre mix, the third type look like sixty year old, retired, German porn stars. So as long as I don't wear my long socks, then maybe I can fit in.

May 12, 2002

I flew back into Copenhagen

I flew back into Copenhagen yesterday after spending Thursday night in Stansted airport. The last week on the boat was very rough as the Balearics were hit by a storm, hence the lack of any updates.

May 29, 2002

Sleeping in Stansted airport to

Sleeping in Stansted airport to catch my flight to Palma tomorrow. Lots of people are sleeping all over the floor here tonight.

June 3, 2002

I slept fairly well in

I slept fairly well in Stansted the other night, though I was a bit surprised when I woke up in the morning to find a camera crew filming me.

Colin left today after spending the last four days or so here on the boat
and we had a really good time, though I think I need to sober up for a while
now. I drove him to the airport and he checked in for his Easyjet flight
behind Richard Branson, which struck us as a slightly bizarre thing for the owner of a competing airline to be doing.

September 6, 2002

The English in Spain

Planned to finish packing tonight but instead drank the best part of a bottle of Berberana wine and watched a VCD of Charlies Angels I bought from some Triads on the streets of Hong Kong last year. Yesterday I went for a badly needed haircut; I simply said "Corto", but he misunderstood and assumed I was off to join the National Front, hence I now have no hair at all.

I did manage to find a new favourite cafe today, called Cafe Ars (seriously), which has lovely coffee, a good sound system (Bose - you can hear the difference), and a strange maze of passageways that seem to travel underneath all of Mahon before finally getting to the toilets. So I sat there today, and wondered what happens to British people when they go on holiday. Earlier I'd been passed by an English 70 year-old walking around town in only a bra and shorts, the kind of behaviour that would have her taken straight back to the old persons home if she was in Britain, but obviously fine to do if you're in Spain. A cruise ship was in, and the port was full of very fat people who were too big to manage to walk up the stairs into town, and had given up, deciding instead to sit on the stairs and eat ice cream.

On Saturday, I'm flying to Hamburg, en route to Denmark, so of course I now discover that this weekend is the biggest fiesta of the year in Mahon, with 4 days of partying and celebration for the Fiesta de Gracias, or Festival of Joy and Pleasure, the unmissable event of the year. Typical. Vorsprung durch technik.

September 7, 2002

I was given a lift

I was given a lift ashore this morning in the Port Authority rib, which had a lovely 300hp engine, as I'd lifted our dinghy out of the water yesterday. Then, as I had plenty of time, I walked the 6km or so out to the airport.

The party for Festa de Gracias, Mahon's patron saint is in full swing right now. The air force just did an air display above the city, then made a low-level formation fly past the airport. Last night there were fireworks and festivities late into the night in the old town, and the celebrations are set to continue all weekend. I'm sorry I'll miss it.

September 10, 2002

Arrival in Denmark

I got back to Denmark on Sunday, after spending Saturday night in Hamburg then catching the train up to Copenhagen.

October 28, 2002

Returning to Scotland

I've just booked flights to Scotland for next week and I'm hoping to catch up with all the friends I haven't seen for over a year. My flight from London to Glasgow cost a whopping �1.99 plus tax (under �9 total) with Ryanair.

For flight info click below

Continue reading "Returning to Scotland" »

November 4, 2002

Leaving Denmark

Just leaving to go to the airport now. Looking forward to a night in Stansted Airport!

November 6, 2002

Homeless in Stansted

It's always a bit bizarre sleeping in an airport, and now that it's impossible to get to Stansted before the first flights leave in the morning, more and more people are having to do it. Unless you grab a bench by about 9pm, you'll have to sleep on the floor. So I bedded down the other night, surrounded by snoring people, and slept remarkably well through all the flight announcements. By the time I awoke, however, everyone else was up and the airport was full of people in suits walking around me and looking at me like I was a homeless person lying alone on the floor. Next time I'll take a cardboard sign.

Some of the Ryanair planes are beginning to look their age. On the flight up to Scotland the guy in front of me was sitting in a broken seat that kept falling back into the reclined position and the cabin crew kept coming around to tell him to put his seat back up when we were taking off. He tried to explain to one of them that it was broken but the stewardess just replied, "Don't lean on it then!"

November 13, 2002

Denmark

Back in Denmark now and feeling a bit knackered, possibly due to only getting 3 hours sleep in the airport last night, or the fact that I got a typhoid/hepA jab yesterday from Andrew as he sent me on my merry way. The flights over were fairly unexciting, which is the best way, though I almost missed the Ryanair flight from Prestwick as it left 25 minutes ahead of schedule - they put out a final call for me when I was still lost somewhere in the duty free.

December 20, 2002

Christmas plans

On Monday we're going down to the boat in Menorca for two or three weeks. We fly out of Copenhagen, change in Barcelona, and arrive Monday evening and I'm really looking forward to it - I think I've been in Denmark too long.

January 11, 2003

Airline Chaos

Our flight touched down in Copenhagen last night, 24 hours late, and it was a bit of a shock to see the temperature was -7c and there was a foot of snow on the ground after being used to the mild Mediterranean winter of the last few weeks.

I didn't check my email on Thursday and so I didn't see that Spanair had written to tell us that our flight from Barcelona to Copenhagen had been cancelled. When we arrived in Menorca airport the girl at the check-in desk was busy re-scheduling us onto a series of flights through as many European airports as possible when the phone rang and she was told that our morning flight to Barcelona was cancelled also. Two flights cancelled in one day due to 'technical problems' was beginning to sound a bit like there'd been an air disaster. Initially they wanted us to wait five hours for the afternoon flight and then change numerous times before finally getting to Copenhagen late at night, but after a lot of negotiating they agreed to give us a hotel for the night in Menorca, lunch, dinner, breakfast, cover our taxi costs, and book us onto flights the following day. Obviously, I would miss a day in Denmark, but I would just have to live with that.

So we stayed in the Mirador d'es Port hotel, and we could just see the boat from our window while we took advantage of all the luxuries we'd been without while afloat. The dining room had a panoramic view of the harbour, but dinner itself turned out to be a barely edible deep-fried nightmare that must have been cooked on the floor by one of the cleaners, and we fully expected to get food poisoning from it. The chef was obviously working himself again by the following morning, however, as breakfast was a wonderful, huge buffet that we had to drag ourselves away from to get to the airport in time.

We'd also persuaded Spanair to give us an upgrade to business class for our flights from Barcelona, however, upon getting onto the thirty minute flight from Mahon, we realised that they'd upgraded that instead. So rather than getting the advantages of unlimited food, drink and attractive stewardesses all the way to Copenhagen, we were given a sandwich and a glass of water on our way to Barcelona. When we arrived, I went to the Spanair desk and attempted to explain the mistake through a bulletproof glass window, but unfortunately the girl working there was horribly retarded and failed to understand anything that was going on.

We had six hours to kill in Barcelona before our next flight so we took the coach into the city and had a walk around. It was a few years since I'd last been there and although it's an exciting place, it's still suffering badly from too many tourists and the deformed beggars and con-artists attracted by its rich pickings. As we sat inside a cafe I reached into my pocket to pay the bill. Seeing this from the street outside, a gypsy boy rushed in, asked me for money, then left again when he realised I was Scottish.

By the time we boarded the flight to Denmark it felt like it had been a long day. As we'd been given the seats at the very front of tourist class though, we were able to look through the curtains and watch the wonderful meal being served in business class while the black man behind us snorted and tried desperately to cough something up whilst swearing and attacking the back of our seats with his head.

Copenhagen had apparently been hit by some form of ice-age earlier in the week, with temperatures getting down to -23c. The airport had been closed, people had been stranded, and even now there were thousands of unclaimed suitcases stacked up in the baggage hall. It was all a bit unexpected.

January 28, 2003

Ryanair site

I'm flying over to Britain next week and when booking my flight to Glasgow with Ryanair I was filling my address details into the form when I noticed the following on the drop-down list of countries...
...Puerto Rico
Some country
Somewhere else
Spain
Yet another country...
I guess the developers put them there when they were first testing the system and forgot to take them out again.

Click below for my flight details

Continue reading "Ryanair site" »

January 31, 2003

Moving Out

As Nina is going off to Taiwan to study for five months, she's renting out the flat while she's gone. So today we're in the process of moving out, and we're going to be staying with her parents until I fly out to Britain on Wednesday and she goes to Taipei in a week or two. As I can only get a two month visa for Taiwan and I have some other things to take care of in Europe, I'm not flying out with her, but I plan to go over and visit later. So I'm just about to say goodbye to the adsl connection I've enjoyed having while I've been here and get out of the flat as the new resident has turned up and his things are sitting outside the door.

February 4, 2003

Packing

Just getting the last of my things packed for catching my flight tomorrow. I'll probably be travelling for the next seven months or so and it's quite hard to decide what to take as well as trying to keep my luggage as light as possible.

February 6, 2003

Bombing the Dutch

After not getting much sleep the night before, I was looking forward to some rest as I flew out of Copenhagen yesterday. As usual, however, I was surrounded by more screaming children than Michael Jackson. Behind me they fed a young child stinking salami, then it continued to scream and howl so close to me that it felt as if it was inside my head. Its parents had obviously trained it to kick the back of my seat, and it did this simultaneously while it screeched for the entire trip.

Chris was recently telling me about the number of people killed by blue ice, which is basically the toilet waste from aeroplanes which sometimes freezes into a big lump as it drops towards land. When I was cycling in Holland a year or two ago, everyone stopped and laughed at my cycle helmet. I'm not talking about the occasional smirk, I mean, old ladies were falling over laughing in the street pointing at me - I don't know why, it must be a Dutch thing. So as we were now flying over Holland, I decided to take a break from the convulsing child behind me, visit the toilet, and try a little bombing in the form of retaliation. Now they'll wish they were wearing helmets.

February 12, 2003

Our man in Arabia

Colin on a mission
I've been looking into flights to go over to visit Colin who's in Oman at the moment. Air Kuwait have a special offer on right now which includes a free stop-over in Kuwait city, which could be exciting, though I hear the Territorial Army are offering free flights out to the area.

Colin also sent me this map of the world according to the USA.

February 17, 2003

Off to Bristol

Just about to head off to Glasgow airport to catch my flight down to Bristol to stay with Chris for a bit and catch up with Bristol pubs.

February 20, 2003

Tehran Travel

I'm planning to visit Colin in Oman sometime and I've discovered that I can get a ferry from Dubai across the Gulf to Iran, so I'm thinking about making a detour and doing some travelling there. I'm trying to find out about getting an Iranian visa, which doesn't appear to be too easy if you're British or American at the moment for some reason, and can apparently take a month to process. Unfortunately, the website of the Iranian Embassy in London has exceeded it's bandwidth limit and so it's just giving a 509 error "The server is temporarily unable to service your request due to the site owner reaching his/her bandwidth limit." Lovely. It's the same embassy which the SAS famously stormed during a siege in 1980.

March 23, 2003

Off to the Airport

I'm just finishing off packing, sorting some things up online, and leaving here about 06:00 without any sleep to head down to Heathrow. My flight arrives in Dubai about 01:00 the following morning, and though the foreign office is recommending extreme caution to anyone travelling in the UAE, Colin assures me that it's at least 300 miles from the current bombing. Apparently, the land border with Oman is open again, though I have to go to the embassy in Dubai once I arrive to try to get a visa to make the crossing, so fingers crossed.

I'll update this blog as often as possible as I'm travelling over the next couple of months, and hopefully manage to upload some photos, though it all depends on where I can get internet access.

March 25, 2003

Dubai

Chris gave me a lift down into Bristol to catch the coach to Heathrow airport. It was 06:45 on Sunday morning and we were both feeling rough and half-asleep. I stumbled up to the coach driver and tried to buy a ticket, but he refused. I was confused. Apparently, he'd run out of tickets - not seats, there were plenty left on the bus, but his book of tickets was finished. It took quite a bit of persuasion to get him to finally let me onto the coach so that I could get to London and catch my flight. But he did so, and he didn't charge me.

The sky seemed to be clear across all of Europe, and I had a terrific view all the way as we flew over France, the Alps, then past Monaco and over Italy. Eventually, I dozed off and awoke as we flew in over oilfield flames in the Gulf and came in to land in Dubai. Once I'd gone through customs I went to find out what the situation was with the Oman border. The passport information office assured me that the border was open and that it would be no problem getting a visa when I arrived there. I sat down in the airport cafe where everyone was intently watching the BBC World news which was showing a live report from the war in Iraq. Suddenly it all seemed very real and very close.

I managed to grab a few hours sleep on a bench, lying half across my bag, then got up at 06:00 (02:00GMT). The coach to Oman was due to leave at 07:00, so I went off to find the bus station. After a lot of hunting around it turned out to be an unmarked parking space in a back street, which I only managed to find because someone stopped me as I was about to walk past and asked me if I was looking for the coach to Muscat. Hardly anyone else was waiting for it, so I sat down. When it appeared, however, they wouldn't allow me on board as I didn't have an Omani visa. I wasn't having much luck with buses.

I grabbed a taxi and headed to the Oman embassy. I was hoping to get the visa I needed and be back for the coach to Muscat in the evening. The embassy was still closed when I got there as it was only 07:15, but one of the guards pointed me in the direction of a restaurant for breakfast. Around 35% of the population of Dubai are Indian so there's a huge Indian influence in the city. I sat down and ordered what everyone else was having, which turned out to be curry and bread. Afterwards I sat in the shade, out of the morning sun, across from the embassy and waited for it to open. Eventually it did, and in I went and applied for my visa. But after all that effort they just looked at my passport and rejected my application. Two local businessmen whom I'd been talking to also had their applications rejected. Apparently, they'd stopped issuing visas a few days before, and now they weren't giving them to anyone. The situation was supposedly the same at all borders in the Middle East because of the war. Disappointed, I caught a taxi over to the youth hostel and checked in.

The hostel turned out to be one of the most luxurious I'd ever stayed in, similar to a three or four star hotel. There were only two beds to each modern en-suite room and they had satellite tv and a fridge. I grabbed a few hours more sleep before going out to explore Dubai.

Dubai has shops everywhere, selling everything. There's a gold district, a clothes district, a tools district, electronics district, in fact a district for everything. The problem is that if you don't know where you're going, then like me, you end up in the clothes district looking for a flight to Muscat. Allegedly, I could get a visa on arrival at Muscat airport, so although it felt a bit like cheating, this was now my plan. Finally, I found a travel agent. After lots of typing on his computer he came up with a price of 1000 Dirhams, about �200. It was a bit steep so I told him I'd think about it and got up to leave. Then at the last second he said, "You could fly with Kish Air for half the price". This sounded like what I was looking for - a cheap ticket on an unknown Iranian airline. I bought it and couldn't believe my luck.

All that people are talking about here is the war, but still most people seem to be very friendly in Dubai. Strangers talk to you, and cars stop to let you cross the road (before starting again to try to run you down - just joking). I was in a taxi and the driver was talking about the war in Iraq and saying that all people want in the Middle East is peace when he asked, "But where are you from? You could be American or English and here I am telling you this." To which I replied, "No, I'm Scottish. We hate all of them". He paused for a second then exclaimed, "Aah! Scotland! King of the alcoholics!" Obviously, my reputation had preceeded me.

March 26, 2003

Bin Laden Airways

flying kish air
I spent yesterday morning going to see the Burj al-Arab, a huge modern building which is Dubai's most famous landmark and which I later found out was designed by the architects that Colin last worked with. Then I caught a taxi to the airport and checked in for my Bin Laden Airways flight. It was leaving from terminal 2, which seems to be the seedy backdoor of Dubai International. The plane turned out to be an ancient Fokker 50, hidden behind a United Nations jet, and everyone looked anxious as we boarded. I was sitting right next to one of the propellers and we taxied over to the runway past two crashed 737's. Some prayers were said and soon we were in the air. Everyone kept their seat belts fastened all the way as we bounced through the turbulence rising from the mountains below. Soon we were flying over Oman, with it's green irrigated fields surrounded by desert, and finally we landed with relief at Muscat airport. The airfield was full of US Hercules transport planes as they're using it as a base for flying supplies over to Iraq.

Hardly anyone else was getting off the plane in Muscat, so I left them to their fate and walked into the terminal where I filled in a visa application form, had my passport stamped, and was welcomed to Oman by the friendliest immigration official I've ever met. My bag was sitting in the middle of the floor in the baggage claim area on its own so I picked it up and Colin was waiting outside for me. He drove me back to his mum's house, we had a terrific dinner, then we sat drinking locally bought Danish Faxe beer, and Stoli until 4am.

March 28, 2003

Oman Weekends

omani scenery
I didn't realise this but the muslim weekend is on Thursdays and Fridays so Colin and I were out last night in some of the big hotels in town as they're the only place you can buy alcohol in Oman. Being non-muslim, however, we still have a duty to celebrate the normal weekend so we therefore get two weekends a week here.

We caught a taxi which had three young local guys in it, and soon, of course, we were asked about the war. We naturally agreed how terrible it was, and although the Omanis are very friendly, you can detect a heightening of tension out here as Britain and America continue to bomb Iraq. One of the guys in the taxi replied, "Bush and Blair die tomorrow. Saddam is good." We're considering changing our nationalities if things get any worse.

March 29, 2003

Off to Ras al Hadd

Colin and I are going off to Ras al Hadd with the 4wd for the next couple of days and planning to camp down there. In the meantime I've begun to upload some pictures from Oman under Latest Photos.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

May 5, 2003

Thai Cinema

We went to see a new Thai film (with English subtitles) called Fake the other day. One of the bizarre but lovely things about Thailand is that at the beginning of films they play the national anthem, show pictures of the king, and everyone stands up. The film was a black comedy, the cinematography was fairly impressive, and we'd been to almost all the locations in it which probably means that we've probably been in Bangkok far too long.

May 7, 2003

Visa Hunting

I applied for my Laos visa today as I'm planning to take a trip up to Vientiane at the weekend. When Colin arrived back in Oman all the passengers were taken to a clinic and interrogated in case any of them had SARS. After two weeks of drinking he probably looked more suspect than anyone but amazingly they still let him in.

May 9, 2003

Off to Laos

I thought I was getting used to the Bangkok heat but the last few days have been incredibly hot. It's the hottest time of the year here and it gets close to 40c some days and only drops to about 35c at night. That, coupled with the fact that the humidity is near 100% makes it really hard to get around and do things.

Pete Tong was at Ministry last night so I held off my trip to Laos for another day so that I could go, and it was awesome. Fully recovered, I'm just about to head off to catch the train now and I'm travelling very light - only taking a toothbrush, keeping my room here in Bangkok and leaving all my gear in it.

May 12, 2003

Vientiane Drinking

The trip up to Laos on the sleeper from Bangkok turned out to be not at all like the relaxed night I was expecting. I ended up sitting across from Anne-Marie, a lovely, mad Irish girl who forced me to drink all night without any sleep at all and has been bossing me around since we arrived here in Vientiane. We arrived at the Laos border with hangovers where they were busy digging up all of the concrete in sight then we caught a taxi into town with a load of dead fish in it.

May 16, 2003

Return from Laos

The trip to Laos was terrific and far, far more interesting than I expected. Because it's south-east Asia's poorest country it's far less developed and there aren't nearly as many travellers. The roads are chaotic with people driving on any side they like and cows wandering across the main road into the country. I was in fact sorry to leave as I would have liked to have spent more time there but I definitely plan to return.

May 18, 2003

Bangkok Shopping

I've spent most of the last couple of days shopping to epic proportions in Bangkok. It's one of the best places I've ever been to for clothes, electronics and software so my bag is getting heavier all the time. I've also found a place that hand carves wooden panels so I plan to head off there tomorrow and add further to my luggage.

May 19, 2003

Bangkok Water Taxis

Just spent another day power shopping in Bangkok. I took the water taxi into town as it's by far my favourite way to travel across the city. They run through the narrow klongs or canals that criss-cross Bangkok and each boat carries about 90 people. The captains and line handlers are truly skilled, making it all look so easy as they dodge obstructions in the waterway at high speed then roar up to a dock at 20knots, slam it into reverse, then jump off and take a line around a bollard. One of the other benefits is that it means the locals are quite boat savvy as they jump on or off without the fear that most westerners would have on vessels.

This evening I went to see The Matrix Reloaded which was truly spectacular. The martial art scenes are slick, incredibly fast, and beautifully shot. The dialogue is witty, and they've even fixed some of the holes in their clothes. Just make sure you stay until the end of the credits.

May 20, 2003

Not The Last Night?

I was going to write about high-tech Bangkok tonight. Mobile phone chargers in the railway station, going for a haircut, sending a text message, and getting a discount voucher in response, electrically operated chairs and head massages. But I won't.

You know it makes sense to be packing when you're leaving first thing in the morning, but instead you find yourself wandering down Koh San Road at 02:00, pissed, avoiding ladieboys, and spilling ice-cream down your shirt while you buy twenty CDs from Run, your new music consultant. At the same time you're trying hard to believe that tonight is your last night in Bangkok, that tomorrow you're off to Brunei, then back to Europe, and the room you've kept for the last six weeks is no longer your own. No. I can't believe it either, but I'm already planning my next trip here just in case it's true.

May 22, 2003

Lost in Borneo

Yesterday started with the guesthouse staff in Bangkok trying to break my door down to waken me up as I'd slept through two alarms and the minibus to the airport was outside waiting for me. Having no idea how that could have happened after only being asleep for three hours, I pulled on some clothes, grabbed my bag, and ran out.

After a few hours of trying to sleep on the plane, we arrived in Brunei, and it wasn't at all how I expected it to be. I had hopes that it was going to be a bit like Singapore, and having heard so much about the Sultan being one of the richest men in the world, I was looking forward to a slick, modern, Asian city. Instead, it's much more like a small, backwater Malaysian town, lacking the high tech feel of Asian tiger economy countries, and the warmth of travelling in Buddhist lands.

The city is an architectural wasteground, and obviously not much money is being spent on it's infrastructure. The pavements are crumbling and the police are driving around in Protons. I took a trip out to the amusement park last night, which is out of town. It's was built by the Sultan for the people, and up until recently was free to enter. It was like a ghost town and there were only about seven other people in the entire comlex, but it was huge and beautifully built. Obviously, it would have made much more sense to spend the money on the country rather than waste it all on a figurehead amusement park that no-one goes to.

Thankfully, I catch my flight to London in three hours. Brunei is a hard place to spend more than 24 hours in.

May 23, 2003

More Flight Hassles

I walked back to the hostel yesterday, looking forward to leaving Brunei, and went up to my room to collect my bag. All the rooms have shared keys that you have to return to the desk, and so I was somewhat perturbed to find that the key to my room was not there, that I had a new room mate, and that he had apparently pissed off with the only key there was to get into my luggage. I only had a couple of hours until my flight left, so I began looking all over the place for whoever it could be, but I couldn't see anyone. I went to the warden's office to get them to open it but they were all away so I tried the main office, but that was closed as it was now prayer time. Time was going fast and I realised that my only choice was to break the door down if I was going to catch my flight. On the way back, however, I found a couple of cleaners, who, after some persuasion, began to try to find the warden's phone number for me. After a while they managed to dig it out and I called him and explained the situation. He said that there was no way he could get back but he would ask one of his friends to try to come over and open the door for me. This had all taken a long time and it was now going to be touch and go whether I would catch the flight so I walked back to the room and hoped that he'd soon be there. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in Brunei any longer, but worse than that, my return flight couldn't be changed, so if I missed it I'd lose it.

I got back to the room to see that my new room mate had returned and was lying on his bed with a far away look in his eyes. I was ready to kill him. I told him in no uncertain terms what an arsehole he was and how he had very nearly caused me to miss my flight, but he just looked back at me, clearly unaware that he was dealing with a person who could tip into violent insanity at any moment. But there was something in that look that I recognised. I asked him where he was from. "Copenhagen, Denmark", he replied. So I told him exactly what I thought of the Danes, then stormed out to catch my flight.

May 27, 2003

Back in Britain

After an 18 hour flight I arrived in Heathrow where it was cold and grey, and caught the tube into Central London as everyone was going to work, and even though it was a Friday, they all looked miserable. It was all a bit of a shock to my system after being in Asia for so long but I've already begun planning my next trip out there.

I'd timed things badly as Chris had just caught a flight out to Copenhagen for the weekend that morning but his car was parked at the airport, so I spent the day in London then collected it from Stansted car park. I ended up spending the weekend driving around Essex, discovered a lovely village called Wivenhoe with a pub next to the river, did a lot of walking, and spent three days living in Chris's mini. Then it was back to Stansted airport to meet his flight and we drove up to Bristol last night.

June 2, 2003

Scotland Trip

Pleasant as things are down here in Bristol, I realise that I do in fact need to go up to Scotland to catch up with everyone there as well. Hence, have booked a flight up there for next week, though I promise to leave the whiskey well alone this time.
[for flight details click MORE]

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June 3, 2003

Laos Photographs

I've just finished uploading the pictures I took on my trip up to Laos. Still photoshopping my way through the thousand or so of other shots I took over the last couple of months.
Laos photographs

June 11, 2003

Southward Bound

Have decided that I've been back in Scotland long enough so I've booked a flight down south again for this weekend, from where I'm planning to head on to Spain.
Flight details under 'MORE'

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June 16, 2003

Another Chance

Tomorrow I'm going to make a second attempt to escape from Scotland's grip, and take my chances on Britain's dodgy train system. As it's my last night, of course, I do have to meet up with the lads for a large cup or two of beer tonight, but my train isn't until the afternoon so hopefully I should be conscious again by then and manage to catch it.

June 18, 2003

Virgin Ride

The trip down from Scotland yesterday with Virgin trains was actually quite pleasant until we got to Birmingham. Finally, it appears that British trains have caught up with the rest of the world and installed sockets next to the seats which meant that I could mess around with my long neglected laptop on the way. At Birmingham, however, the inevitable happened. A woman with two screaming children sat next to me and the most boring man in the world talked incessantly about life on a council estate in the seat behind me.

Chris picked me up in Bristol and helped rescue me from a security barrier which had closed into my groin as I fled from the platform with bags in both hands, such was my rush to escape from the train. He's just moved into a lovely new flat in close proximity to all the essential bars and clubs in the city with Kryn (and soon to be joined by Berit). The only problem is that they're still waiting for all essential services to be connected (broadband, landline, porn channel...) so I'm having to write this in town on my laptop from a cafe which is covered by a nearby wireless network - 'wi-fi for the homeless', as I believe it's called.

June 24, 2003

Off to Menorca

I'm in Islington right now. Anne Marie just went off to catch a flight to Ireland and I'm meeting up with Simon in the next hour or so to head to Luton Airport, spend the night there, then catch a very early flight tomorrow morning down to Menorca and Zamindar.

June 26, 2003

Back Home

Simon and I managed to catch a coach which we thought went up to Luton Airport, but once we were on board it turned out that it only went to Luton. We were then quite amazed when the bus driver offered to make a 5 mile detour to the airport for us once everyone had got off. We spent the night sleeping in a corner of the airport close to some Irish guys getting pissed noisily in the bar, but we still managed to get some rest.

I passed out on the way down to Menorca, which made it feel like a 20 minute flight, and woke up as we were landing. We caught a taxi into Mahon, and got a lift over to Zamindar. She looked fine, even though a 56 foot Farr had squeezed in as our next door neighbour. We spent yesterday sorting things up a bit on board, launching the dinghy, and wandering around town in the stifling heat. Id almost forgotten how much I loved living on board the boat, being in Spain, and next to the water, and it feels really good to get back home after months of travelling.

July 24, 2003

Beach Bars

Bizarrely, but pleasantly, Formentera seems to be completely devoid of British tourists and northern Europeans in general. You only have to step into one of the beach bars (which interestingly for a beach bar have Dom Perignon and lobster on their menus) and you'll be immediately taken aback by all the attractive, trendy, tanned people sitting there fresh from the beach. Nobody is red and sweaty with their burned skin dropping off in sheets, nobody is wearing football tops and throwing up, and nobody has brought screaming kids intent on smashing the place up. The vast majority of tourists who come here are Italian, indeed a lot of the bars are Italian owned and run, and it's all very cultured and civilised with everyone wearing tiny pieces of designer beachwear on their perfect bodies, and drinking caipirinhas beneath wrap-around shades. Formentera just seems to have been kept secret from northern Europeans.

October 3, 2003

UK Flights

We just booked a couple of very cheap (33 euros) seats to the UK with Easyjet in two weeks time though unfortunately they're the same evening as a huge party we'd been invited to here by one of the record company owners. They also get into London at 02:00 in the morning but I'm sure Chris won't mind picking us up from the airport... will you mate?

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October 17, 2003

Bye Bye Ibiza

After a busy day getting Zami fixed up we dragged our rucksacs through the rain and caught the slow ferry to Ibiza. We're now sitting in the sterile void of Ibiza airport, drinking beer and looking at the flight info screens to see that our Easyjet flight is already running 2 hours late so who knows when we'll get to London.

October 20, 2003

Cold Again

Our Easyjet flight ended up being three hours late when it finally landed in London. Chris, however, thankfully picked us up from Stansted but due to the delay it was 0830 by the time we drove to Bristol so we slept most of Saturday. Currently we're spending our time adjusting to the cold weather and getting back into consumerism and pubs.

October 23, 2003

Pendragon Estate

Simon picked us up from Bristol on Tuesday and for the last few days we've been staying in his lovely place, Pendragon Estate in Cornwall, and he's been busy giving us a guided tour of the area. Today we drove over to Falmouth, which I hadn't been to for years, and visited the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, which was pretty cool even if the boats were all a bit on the small side.

October 24, 2003

Witchcraft in Cornwall

This morning we went along to the Eden Project, two huge biospheres, one of which is the world's largest greenhouse, with 5,000 different species of the world's plants in them. I hadn't been along since it was being built and it was truly impressive to see it fully established now.

In the afternoon we had a lovely drive through the Cornish countryside to the north coast and the beautiful fishing village of Boscastle where we visited the Museum of Witchcraft. It looks like it's simply a small collection in a cottage but as you begin to walk through you realise just how big it is - the world's largest collection of witchcraft artefacts in fact. It was all very interesting and Carita loved it.

October 27, 2003

Going to Scotland

I've just booked a flight to Scotland on Thursday with Ryanair.
Flight details are under 'MORE'

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October 30, 2003

Back in Shortland

Carita and I spent the morning in London together then caught the coach to Stansted before she took a flight home to Finland and I came up to Scotland. Saying goodbye was really difficult after spending all of our time together for the last few months but I will, of course, be going to Finland to see her. Colin met me at the railway station and immediately forced me to go out drinking in a varied selection of Glasgow's wonderful bars - much against my will, but at least I do now feel like I'm back in the motherland.

November 29, 2003

Arrival in Finland

l arrived in Finland on Thursday evening and it was wonderful to see Carita again. Right now I'm staying just outside Helsinki with her and her family and having a lovely time.

December 4, 2003

Get Myself Connected

Finally I've managed to get a Finnish sim card and get my phone working on data over here so I can now update the site again. Carita and I are in the lovely city of Turku right now on the west coast and surpisingly it's not too cold at all!

December 8, 2003

Independence Day, Finland

Saturday was Independence Day here in Finland and Carita and I went along to watch the parade in Turku. Well, to be more accurate we were dragged along by Carita's grandfather and stood for hours in sub-zero temperatures waiting for it to pass. It was great. Afterwards, frozen and shivering, the two of us dived into the nearest cafe and spent the rest of the afternoon desperately trying to thaw out.

December 14, 2003

South-West Finland

Convinced that we should stop wandering around forests and do some serious travelling we spent the weekend driving the south-west Finnish coast. We woke up early on Saturday with a bit of a hangover, stumbled out, and drove to 14th century Raasepori Castle. The west coast of Finland uses Swedish as a first language, much to Carita's disagreement, and bizarely, Swedish speakers tend to get the better jobs in the country. We carried on to Hanko, Finland's southernmost town and it's biggest sailing centre, walked along the beach, and enjoyed one of the worst burgers in Scandinavia.

It was beginning to get dark as we drove through Helsinki and onto Porvoo, one of the oldest towns in Finland and with lovely, wooden houses clustered in the old part of town by the river. We checked into the youth hostel there while Carita terrified the staff with Ira, her rottweiler. It turned out to be one of the strictest hostels I'd stayed in, however, and I was kicked out of the kitchen so it could close at 11pm with my half-cooked pizza in hand.

I woke up and looked out of the window this morning to find everything covered in snow - finally things are beginning to look how Finland should look in the winter.

December 17, 2003

Finnish Friendliness

Finland seems to be one of the friendliest countries I've found in Scandinavia. There is, of course, the shyness that seems to haunt all of the region, but once you get over that people are very welcoming, polite, and helpful. Hold a door open for someone and they'll thank you, people working in shops and cafes talk to you. But the best thing about Finland is that no-one knows the, "I bet you a Euro I can make your breasts move without touching them" trick!

December 18, 2003

Estonia Calls

I'm staying in Helsinki tonight and planning to catch a Baltic ferry over to Estonia tomorrow for a few days. As long as the weather is ok the ferry crossings are fairly frequent as the Finns tend to go over to Tallinn regularly for duty-free supplies and Estonian entertainment. Apparently, they also come back robbed or dead every so often so l've been given stern warnings not to go into any dodgy bars, or eat or drink anything while I'm over there.

December 19, 2003

Eastward Bound

I'm on the ferry to Tallinn now and we've just left Helsinki. Must try hard not to get sea-sick! The Estonians onboard do look like they would mug you for a potatoe - I'm glad I'm not from eastern Europe!

December 20, 2003

Estonian Travels

I called and booked a room in a hostel from the ferry just before we got out of Finland's mobile coverage, which was just as well as none of my collection of sim cards worked on the Estonian networks. It was dark as I got off the ferry and wandered from the port up through Tallinn's old town with it's amazing collection of medieval buildings. Almost every street has stunning architecture and it's obvious why it's a UNESCO heritage site.

Eventually, I found the tram I was looking for, got on it without a ticket, and it sped off in the wrong direction. It took some time, but finally I made it to the hostel. It was part of a multi-storey in a housing scheme and I prepared myself for spending the night in an awful room. The receptionist, a middle-aged woman in a leopard-skin print jacket seemed friendly enough and took me to the room. Surprisingly, however, it was really quite nice, with a double bed and satellite tv, which was just as well as I didn't fancy trying to find anywhere else to stay.

I relaxed for a bit and found VH1 on the tv, but for some reason it was showing just 1980's videos - obviously some time-warp is happening in Estonia or people just like watching Kylie when she was a teenager! After I couldn't handle anymore of it I went out, found a McDonalds around the corner (a Big Mac is only about 2euros here), and headed back into town.

Tallinn really is incredibly beautiful, and it's cheap. After I'd satisfied myself with walking around the streets I found myself drawn into a huge beer hall. I then spent a busy night sampling Estonia's beer supplies and then embarked on a hazy bus trip back to the hostel.

December 27, 2003

EU Expansion

Estonia turned out to be much nicer than I expected. I spent my last evening in a bar there before returning to Finland for Christmas and sat drinking some very large glasses of beer while I watched Estonians enjoying themselves. Lots of the girls were really attractive but strangely enough the guys all seemed to be deformed, as if evolution had left them behind and given them a liking for very bad haircuts and drainpipe trousers. They all shared a liking for 80's music, however, which was just as well as it was all you could listen to in the country, and everyone danced like they'd had an accident in their pants.

Tallinn really is a beautiful town, however, and although the country is obviously recovering from Soviet rule, things do seem to be changing quickly. Which is just as well, really, when you consider that next year they'll be joining the European Union. Which seems a little bit strange. I mean, I do understand the case for expanding the EU - the need for more fit women in it, but surely we should think about it carefully as we're also going to end up with lots of guys with crew-cuts wearing tight trousers.

January 10, 2004

Winter Driving

It's interesting to see how well Finland copes with wintry conditions that would leave Britain snowbound with people dying in the streets. After a heavy snowfall here, there are snowploughs, bulldozers, diggers, and even pick-up trucks with snowploughs fitted to them everywhere keeping roads open. Tyre chains are now banned on tarmac roads due to the damage they cause to the road surface, but from the end of October onwards it's illegal to use a vehicle which doesn't have winter tyres fitted. The Finns think that we're crazy driving around in Britain in the snow with summer tyres, and they are right - studded or winter tyres make an incredible difference to traction on the snow and ice.

Putting salt on the roads was found to be polluting the lakes and streams over time and so Finland now does a minimal amount of salting on their roads. This means that non-major roads are no longer treated; you just have to drive carefully, and on many of the main roads they now use a chemical liquid, which does much less harm to the environment, and appears to work incredibly well, instead of salt.

Tonight it's about -15c outside, a relatively warm evening, and if you want to be able to start your car in the morning, you have to plug it in. Cars here have a mains power socket on the outside, which keeps the battery charged in extremely low temperatures, and heats the car, stopping it turning into a block of ice overnight.

The standard of driving is very high here as well - a year or so after you've passed your driving test, you get night-driving and skid-pan tuition. The roads would be littered with wreckage if the population of Britain came over to drive here for a winter.

January 12, 2004

On the Road

It was really hard saying goodbye to Carita, her parents, and Ira in Helsinki station as I'd started to feel like one of the family, and they'd made me feel very welcome for the six weeks I'd been in the country. I boarded the train, had an argument with an old woman who was sitting in my seat (which turned out not to be my seat), then went to another carriage and told someone else to move out of a seat, which, again, wasn't mine.

In Tampere I had one last Hesburger, and caught the coach out to Tampere's tiny terminal 2 for my Ryanair flight to London. It was hard leaving Finland as I'd enjoyed it so much, and the people all have a very likeable, crazy streak in them that makes them go swimming in ice or sleep in a hole in the snow for fun.

After a flight staffed by complete bitches (is it just my imagination or are Ryanair actively recruiting psychopaths these days?), we arrived in Stansted, and something about Britain felt a bit like the third world after the slickness of Finland; the immigration staff had electric fires at their feet in what is Britain's most modern international airport. I found a quiet corner, unrolled my sleeping mat, and tried to get to sleep. At 0600, myself and another guy were woken up by one of Ryanair's clinically insane, shouting at us and threatening us to move or get our 'heads knocked off' as he didn't like where we were sleeping (or his job). I sat and chatted to the other guy and we found it funny that we both had exactly the same camping gear and jackets. But we were tired. I moved into another corner, chatted to some of the territory's homeless, and bedded down.

Remarkably, I woke up at 1040, well after all but one of my neighbours had risen and flown off. I grabbed a sandwich, walked outside where it was pissing down, and caught the coach into Central London. There, I had a bit of an aimless wander around, and boarded a coach to Plymouth. I'd been thinking of going to the London Boat Show, but it was just as well I didn't as when the bus passed Earl's Court, Justin Timberlake was playing there instead (though that might have been more interesting than a load of yachties).

Shortly afterwards I passed out and the next thing I knew I awoke with my head on the shoulder of the guy next to me, convinced that he was Carita. As we were now so intimate I thought it polite to make introductions. It turned out he was a trance dj, who heavily recommended a trip to Graz in Austria for its clubbing culture.

Simon picked me up from Plymouth in his lovely new van, and after travelling all day on coaches I realised I could have got a Ryanair flight direct to Cornwall from Stansted for less. But that would have been travelling the easy way.

January 19, 2004

Madrid Museums

I arrived in Madrid, dropped my bags off into a luggage locker, and took the metro into the city. I was lucky enough to manage to get a room in Hostal Cosmopolitan, which I stayed in last time, as it's clean, cheap, and right in the centre of Madrid, Sol.

It's been 7 years since I was last in Madrid and sadly it's no longer the tourist backwater that it was then. I spent Saturday wandering around the city's streets, soaking in the lovely architecture, and atmosphere, of central Spain, and yesterday I got up early and went off to some of my favourite museums.

I visited the Prado first, which in addition to its fantastic resident collection by Velazquez, was showing the first Spanish exhibition devoted to Manet. The most bizarre painting there, however, has to be 'San Bernando y la Virgen' by Alonso Cano, which depicts a statue of The Virgin lactating from the altar into the saint's mouth as he kneels below.

Intrigued, I continued to Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid's answer to modern art. Picasso's 'Guernica' takes pride of place, as well as a suitably large collection of Dali, though the most interesting exhibit for me was Carles Congost's digital photograph, 'A.M.E.R.I.C.A.', a study of American life, as well as several works by Yves Klein in my favourite shade of blue.

January 20, 2004

Back Home

I caught my flight from Madrid, got off the plane, and walked into a deserted airport on the party island. Only one luggage belt was working and most of Ibiza airport was in darkness, deserted by clubbers until the spring.

The bus took empty streets past faded billboards for Amnesia, Erick Morillo, and Pete Tong as old women walked along with their shopping. Ibiza Town seemed deserted, as if there just weren't enough people to begin to fill it in the winter. Even the geriatric and crippled tourists had left. I sat and had a coffee in Mar y Sol, which is always so full of posers that I avoid it; now I was the only person in it, then I caught the ferry over to Formentera.

Having woken up in the centre of Madrid, it was a bit of a shock to now be arriving in the most tranquilo place in Spain. There is something magical about Formentera though, and as the ferry navigated the passage between Ibiza and Espalmador, I could feel the pressure and travel weariness fall off. We came into Formentera's harbour, and I could see Zamindar on the other side, looking just as we'd left her.

After three months of travelling around, sometimes sleeping on floors and in airports, it felt good to be home. I put on some music, sat in the cockpit until very late looking at the water, and finally went to my own bed.

February 2, 2004

Off to Madrid

I've got a flight to Madrid tomorrow morning and then ten days before I have to catch another flight from Bilbao to London. Haven't quite decided where to go during that time yet, but I'll just see how I feel when I get there.

February 3, 2004

Overnight Train to Algeciras

I flew into Madrid this morning, dropped my luggage off into a locker, and bought a ticket to Algeciras. I know it's the wrong direction when I should be heading towards Bilbao, but I just felt drawn south. I'm on the overnight train right now, travelling light, with basically just the clothes that I'm wearing, my toothbrush, and a few things in my jacket pocket. When we arrive in the morning I'm hoping to catch a ferry across the straits to Africa, probably Tangiers, and see what Morocco's like for a bit. Not having a big rucsac or a bag lets me look a little bit less conspicuous when I'm travelling, and also lets me run faster if, suddenly, I need to.

February 4, 2004

Marrakesh Express

One of the nice things about spending the night on a sleeper is wakening up to discover that none of the other people in your compartment have murdered you during the night. Delighted about this I set off to find the port in Algeciras and buy a ticket to Morocco.

Surprisingly, it felt cooler there than its been in Ibiza; it was also overcast and once we had left the port the seas began to pick up. I had forgotten just how much weather the Straits of Gibraltar got; that and all the supertankers thundering past at 30 knots made me glad not to have the boat there. The jagged mountains of Morocco were ahead and it felt exciting to be going somewhere new and different. When we docked, however, everyone apart from myself and an old Finnish couple were allowed off - we had to wait for the Commisarriat to come and stamp our passports.

Eventually, though, we made it ashore as well. I managed to dodge some touts, walked up into town, and suddenly found myself in the middle of the Medina, the only white person around. I felt the shock of suddenly feeling very foreign, surrounded by Moroccans, Berbers, stalls full of brightly coloured crafts, and people trying to sell me hash. My instant reaction was one of wanting to get back to the ferry, but instead I found somewhere to chill out and had something to eat.

After that I found the railway station and booked myself onto the Marrakesh express. It leaves at 2300 tonight and get into Marrakesh, the furthest south you can go in Morocco by train, tomorrow morning. I decided to splash out and get a first class sleeper as it was only about 25 Euros (a second class sleeper is just about 17 Euros) - not bad for such a long journey!

Although the official language is Arabic, many people here understand French. Unfortunately, although I spent four years doing French at school, mine remains appalling. For example, I asked a policeman for directions today and he asked me if I spoke French. "Petit pois," I replied, meaning "Peas!"

Apologies for punctuation, etc. The internet cafes here have French-Arabic keyboards, a huge culture shock in themselves!

February 5, 2004

Marrakesh

I was sharing a compartment with three Austrians from Graz last night on the train and they seem like really nice people and have been to Morocco several times before so they know where they're going. After a pleasant sleep on the train we woke up in Marrakesh with palm trees lining the streets and the snow capped Atlas mountains in the distance. Marrakesh seems lovely, quite different from anywhere I've been before, and I'm sharing a room with my new found chums while I'm here as they knew a good, cheap hotel.

February 7, 2004

Life in Marrakesh

Yesterday we caught a bus from Marrakesh out to a small village near the foot of the Atlas Mountains. There, after a bit of haggling and some cups of mint tea, we managed to negotiate with a taxi driver to take us out to a village close to some waterfalls in the mountains. Moroccans tend to use the entire road when they're driving and being on the right-hand side really does seem to be optional, but eventually, after some fairly hairy driving up a mountain valley, we arrived. There, we had some chicken and vegetables to eat and watched a cow and some sheep standing in the stream next to the outdoor restaurant. Only later did we notice the cook washing the raw chicken downstream from the cattle.

From there we walked quite far up the mountains and past the waterfalls until the sun began to go down. The air felt thin as you breathed it in, and we reckoned we were about 2000m above sea level. The countryside was incredibly beautiful, and felt a little bit like how I expect Nepal looks. There seems to be a lot of great trekking in the Atlas and it would be fantastic to come back with more time and some decent maps. By the time we got back down to the village, all the taxis had left, but we managed to all bundle into an old Transit van for the trip back.

Most of our time here in Marrakesh has been spent drinking coffee (nous-nous, which is half espresso and half milk), eating cake (the French thankfully brought wonderful cake culture with them to Morocco), drinking mint tea, freshly sqeezed orange juice (only the equivalent of 20 euro cents a glass), and eating. With alcohol only being available in the bigger hotels here it's been refreshing to realise that you can go out and enjoy yourself at night without it. The patisseries here are packed on Friday nights with everyone eating cake and drinking fresh mango juice, though I suspect if I spent a long time here I could easily double in body weight.

Urban, Julia, and Barbara, my new Austrian friends and roommates, left for the coast today and tonight I catch the overnight train back up to Tangiers. It's been really enjoyable travelling with the three of them, as, apart from Urban being fluent in French, and knowing some Arabic, they're really cool, relaxed people who don't get stressed about things. Hopefully I'll get a chance to travel with them again some other time as it's always a bit sad to say goodbye.

As I have to be in Stansted airport on Thursday night to meet Carita, whom I haven't seen for far too long, I have to begin heading north, away from the lovely sun and warm light of central Morocco. So in a couple of hours I catch the overnight train back up to Tangiers. I wish I could spend longer in Morocco, but I have to spend three nights sleeping on trains this week to get to Bilbao, from where I catch my flight to London so I have to leave soon.

February 8, 2004

Tangiers to Algeciras

I spent most of today in Tangiers then caught the ferry across to Algeciras in Spain. We passed lots of pilot whales in the straits, including a pod of them feeding in a circle on fish theyd rounded up, then we passed about a dozen dolphins - which always makes a trip.

Algeciras has improved since I was last here but its still a dump. Maybe some places are supposed to be, and no matter what you do, theyll never change. In the short time since I arrived back in Spain, everyone has been incredibly rude and I really feel the difference after being in the friendliness of an Arab country. Luckily, rather than having to stay in Algeciras for a short eternity, Ive managed to book onto the sleeper up to Madrid, which leaves in 30 minutes.

February 9, 2004

Toledo

I arrived in Madrid and, having been there twice in the last month, decided to catch a train to Toledo this morning. Somewhat exhausted from being on trains since Saturday, I got a room and went to sleep for a long siesta. Really, after travelling in the clothes I was wearing for a week and just washing them occasionally in hotel sinks, I was quite lucky to be allowed into any hotel at all.

Toledo is a great place if you want to buy swords and marzipan, but it all seems a bit of a tourist town to me - after hours of walking I still couldn't even find a supermarket. It's nice to sleep in a proper bed, however, and have break before I continue travelling up to Bilbao.

February 11, 2004

Vampires on Trains

Buying a ticket for the night train to Bilbao I discovered that it was in fact the insomniac express, it didn't have any beds in second class, and you were expected to remain awake for the entire nine hour journey. The only other passenger in my compartment was a blonde, Romanian woman from Transylvannia who had been working in a dodgy bar in Madrid. As the train left the city behind she pointed up to the moon, smiled, and my worst fears were confirmed. Obviously, I too was about to become one of the undead, a child of the night, and there was nothing I could do about it. So I made myself as comfortable as I could and tried to get some sleep.

The next thing I knew she was wakening me up as we pulled into Bilbao station. I didn't feel too good; my reflection had gone and I was looking a bit pale, but it was 0730 in the morning. I staggered out, tried to find a hotel room to escape from the daylight, but everywhere I went to told me, if my Spanish translation is correct, to piss off. So I found a cafe and camped out in a corner of it for some hours consuming caffeine until the people of the Iberian Peninsula awoke. Then I found a lovely, overpriced squat with a bed and crashed out in it for the remainder of the day.

February 15, 2004

Back in Scotland

I spent most of Thursday at the Bilbao Guggenheim, the structure of which is a sculpture in itself, then I caught a bus out to Bilbao's impressive new airport and caught my flight to London. There I met Carita, who had just flown in from Finland, and dragged me off to the pub to celebrate our reunion.

We spent a restless night sleeping on the floor before being rudely awoken by Israeli El-Al security personnel (Carita was sleeping under her Yashmagh!) and told to leave the area. Security was incredibly high for the flight with police with sub-machine guns everywhere, even on the gantry above the check-in desk. We caught a Ryanair flight up to Glasgow in a plane with cheap plastic seats that didn't recline and caught up on some sleep when we arrived in Colin's flat, where he very kindly gave up his bed. Time since then has been spent mainly catching up on what's been happening in Scotland recently, mainly in pubs with Colin, and Ged today.

February 18, 2004

Scottish Hangovers

We spent a lovely few days in Scotland, rented a car, drove up to Loch Lomond, spent a night at Aviemore, and drank far too much last night. Today, after wakening up with a horrendous hangover, we managed to catch a flight down to Bristol where we're staying with Chris.

February 19, 2004

Off to Bangkok

Carita and I are in Heathrow right now, just about to board our flight to Bangkok, where we're planning to travel around for a couple of months and escape from the cold weather.

I just tried to look at bronek.org from one of the internet terminals here and couldn't as it's been blocked by surfonthesafeside.com due to containing nudity! Finally it's now officially a porn site!

February 21, 2004

My House Guesthouse

We're now in Bangkok and staying in my old home here, 'My House Guesthouse' - very nice to be back too. When I checked in the staff said, "Where have you been?" as if I was actually a full time resident. The flight over was quite pleasant, with an hour or two in Amman airport where we changed planes. Since then we've just been taking it fairly easy, trying to get over our jetlag (wakening up in the middle of the night), and exposing Carita to the full extent of Bangkok's shopping possibilities, which she's found quite overwhelming.

February 26, 2004

Bangkok Flower Market

We caught a taxi to Bangkok's flower market last night. It starts at midnight and goes on until dawn so it fitted in perfectly with our persisting jetlag. The taxi driver, however, began to give us a tour with commentary of the hooker areas - first of all the part full of girls, then the gay part. Obviously, he'd misunderstood what I meant by 'flower market' so I told him again, but no, he was just taking us the scenic route!

The flower market itself is incredible - with streets full of exotic flowers that are trucked into Bangkok each night from the countryside, and I bought Carita some orchids and lotus flowers; we're probably the only backpackers here with orchids in our room.

March 4, 2004

Chiang Mai

We arrived in Chiang Mai in the far north of Thailand this morning, dazed and tired, after spending almost 14 hours on the overnight train from Bangkok. After doing a bit of hunting around for a hotel we found a tuk-tuk driver who, looking for commission of course, brought us to the Laithai Guesthouse. It's much more like a proper hotel than the kind of places we've been staying in and Carita saw the swimming pool and immediately wanted to stay, so we booked in and crashed out.

March 7, 2004

Scooter Touring

After watching a demonstration of elephants painting, we rented a scooter yesterday and set off for the countryside to one of the elephant camps outside Chiang Mai. I'd expected to ride around the corner and instantly be on quiet, country roads, but unfortunately Chiang Mai turned out to be a much bigger city than I'd expected. It was also a few years since I'd last driven a scooter and it quickly became apparent that this one was a bit of a wreck as I tried to come to terms with it in the city centre. The traffic was truly horrific, as bad as anything I'd driven in before, as I did my best to figure out the one-way system whilst Carita hung onto the back shouting directions.

Eventually, however, we got out of the city, off the motorways, and onto country roads where I could exploit the full power of it's 100cc engine! This involved both of us shouting encouragement to get it up the hills as it almost ground to a halt. After an hour or so we made it to the elephant camp, parked, and walked over to the entrance only to be told that it had closed an hour before. It was disappointing, but I also knew that Carita was intent on doing some elephant riding in Thailand so I knew we'd be back making the same horrific journey the following day.

Rather than returning to Chiang Mai we decided to see some of Northern Thailand's countryside and continued along the road into the Mae Sa valley. It's dry season here right now and the area reminded me a lot of China, which I suppose is very close. The route was quite picturesque as it wove between mountains and through forests with hill tribe villages, however, as we were still reasonably close to the tourist hoardes of Chiang Mai, much of it was spoiled by developments and resorts. One place we passed was busy burning down and bulldozing away a slice of forest to build a resort village, and some of the mountains bore huge scars of deforestation. Once again it made us consider the irreversible damage that our own and fellow tourism was causing to Thailand's environment.

After another nightmare ride through the traffic and pollution, we got back to our hotel in Chiang Mai, looked in the mirror, and saw that we were almost black from the dirt and exhaust we'd been riding through.

March 9, 2004

Elephants in Thailand

The following day we rented a less wrecked scooter and headed once more to Mae Sa Elephant Camp. It's a lovely village set by the river in which all the elephants, staff and mahouts (elephant keepers) live. Each of the 73 elephants has it's own mahout. As elephants often live 80 years, a strong bond is formed between the animal and it's keeper, so this is often a father and son team to last throughout the elephant's lifetime.

After spending time feeding them we watched some of the elephants being bathed in the river and blowing water over themselves. Next, there was a demonstration of working elephants moving and stacking logs, then elephants playing football, playing harmonicas and dancing, giving someone a massage, and painting.

One of the striking things you realise after spending some time up close with these animals is that they are incredibly gentle and graceful creatures. If they walk right past you they'll be careful not to stand on your feet or bump into you. The base of their feet is soft and they exert less force per square centimetre onto the ground than a deer, hence they are perfect for travelling through the jungle and making little impact.We had an elephant ride around some of the grounds and we were surprised by how agile and sure-footedly it could move down steep paths and between trees.

It's always a careful decision whether or not to give custom to tourist sights that are based around animals. The days when we thought we had a right to keep wild animals captive for our own entertainment sadly aren't over yet, as thousands of people go to dolphin parks each year without thinking about the ethics of it at all. We both, however, felt that the elephants at this camp were very well cared for, happy to be trained, and being tended by keepers whose families had probably been tending to elephants for generations. Additionally, there is less demand for working elephants in Thailand these days, and some of the elephants at the camp obviously used to work in the logging industry.

March 12, 2004

Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya

Apart from seeing the elephants in Chiang Mai, there wasn't very much that was appealing about the place. Pollution hung in the air, and much of the town seemed to consist mainly of ugly, post-war, concrete buildings you find in so many provincial Thai cities. Strangely, it was also full of package tourists, lots of whom were American, which had obviously pushed prices up and everything cost much more than in Bangkok. The locals kept bowing and acting very servile, as if to make the package tourists feel important as they threw their money around, which is quite unusual for Thailand where normally they would joke with or laugh at you. Much of the town felt seedy and many of the bars were full of Thai hookers, with whom most of the single Western guys you saw were going around with. We were glad to get away.

We boarded a train to Phitsanulok, and sat in third class with old men who smoked opium for much of the trip, which is pretty common in the hill tribe villages. Eight hours later we finally arrived. Walking out of the railway station I spotted an old, thin man with a rickshaw, and happy to see a keen cyclist, I did my bit for the environment, dumped our heavy backpacks into it, climbed in, and agreed to give him 60 euro cents if he cycled us several kilometres across town to the youth hostel. Carita was looking at me in horror, wondering if he would survive the trip, but he turned out to be quite fit for an 80 year old, though possibly a little shaken by the end of the ordeal.

Phitsanulok youth hostel was really quite nice. Set in a lush garden with a big outdoor terrace, the rooms were made from old teak houses that had been joined together.

The next day we got up early and caught a bus to old Sukhothai, one of Thailand's World Heritage sites. The city was Thailand's first capital in the 13th century and today it's spectacular ruins cover 45sq km. We rented bikes to look around and it was one of the most tranquil, impressive places that I've been to in Thailand so far. The area itself is set in well tended parkland and was almost devoid of tourists. Strange as that may seem, it was lovely as it allowed us to fully appreciate the serenity of the location, temples and huge buddha sculptures. It also stopped fat people in tracksuits from ruining our photographs. Next time, however, I'd go earlier in the morning for photographing, as most of the statues are east facing.

Spiritualised, the next day we continued on to Ayutthaya. Another UNESCO listed site, it was Thailand's capital from 1350 until it was sacked by the Burmese in the 1700's. The new town, however, looks like it's been recently looted. It's dirty, unattractive, and a hard place to say anything good about. It does appear to have several gekkos to each inhabitant though, which is nice if, like us, you enjoy watching lizards (and there's little other entertainment in the city).

The ruins are beautiful though. They're much more interspersed throughout the town than in Sukhothai, much busier with tourists, and feel more like a money making operation, but they're still very impressive. Needless to say, once we'd been around them we went straight back to the hotel, picked up our bags, and caught a tuk-tuk to the station for the next train to Bangkok. The new town wasn't the kind of place you wanted to spend more than one night in.

March 14, 2004

Tick Attack

We were relieved to get back to Bangkok, and after many days of travelling and restless nights, I crashed out unconscious. An hour or so later, however, Carita wakens me up, telling me to get out of bed. Convinced that she's just having another bizarre, psychotic dream I try to ignore her, but she refuses to leave me alone. "The beds are infested with ticks", she says as I stagger up. Looking down I see that she's not hallucinating and the beds are, in fact covered with big ticks intent on finding blood and crawling with larvae. It's pretty disgusting looking but I consider things and reckon I could probably still get back to sleep and just ignore them; Carita, however, seems intent on moving out of the room to somewhere more hygienic.

The rest of the rooms were full so we decide to go somewhere else. I realise, though, that if we wait to check-in for a couple of hours till 0600 we can save paying for another room for the night. So we pack up our things and sit waiting in a bar whilst listening to the deranged ravings of pissed Swedish people at the next table as big cockroaches run around our feet.

Finallly, after a painfully slow couple of hours, it's time to check in and we get a room at the still-being-built Rambuttri Guesthouse. We go through all of our clothes and belongings attempting to pick the ticks out of them then have several frantic showers, trying to wash the larvae off our skin, but still we itched.

Crawling into bed and getting comfortable, I was finally ready to pass out again. At that moment, however, someone begins hammering and a circular saw starts up - it was the builders starting work next door to our room. Obviously, I wasn't supposed to sleep tonight, so I lie awake, scratching and mulling the joys of world travel.

March 16, 2004

Vietnam Plans

We spent yesterday sorting out visas for Cambodia and Vietnam and today we booked flights to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) in Vietnam. We plan to fly out of Bangkok on Friday, spend a bit of time in Vietnam then travel overland to Cambodia, and finally back to Thailand.

I've been trying to do this part of the trip for years but have always ended up enjoying myself in Thailand too much and getting stuck here, so although the overland part could be tough going, I'm really looking forward to it.

March 19, 2004

Off to Vietnam

We're in Bangkok airport right now waiting to board our flight with Vietnam Airlines to Ho Chi Minh, which we expect to be full of chickens and pigs running around.

Last night in Bangkok was made interesting - a drunk guy sitting behind us on the water taxi started groping me and offering me money to have sex with him. Carita, of course, thought this was all very funny and sat there laughing and taking pictures while he tried to molest me.

While we're in Vietnam and Cambodia I won't be able to send any moblog pics to the site as my phone probably won't be working there.

March 21, 2004

Good Morning...

Vietnam's most populous city, the streets of Ho Chi Minh are packed with people. Everyone seems to own a scooter and, apparently, there aren't any traffic regulations - people run red lights and pedestrian crossings seem to mean nothing, so everytime you cross a road you take your life in your hands. Breaks in the traffic are rare and the only way to get across seems to be by walking out into the midst of thousands of speeding mopeds, keep going, and, usually, they part and go around you. But it's stressful and requires Matrix-like belief.

Vietnam is much pooer than Thailand, but ironically most things (at least to foreigners) like food and drink, are much more expensive. There's much more hassle on the streets as well, with touts and hawkers appearing as if by magic as you step out the door, though inevitably, they're never selling anything you would want to buy in your dullest dreams.

March 22, 2004

Saigon Stress

Today was a fairly stressful day in Ho Chi Minh City (or is it Saigon, we still can't figure that out?). Endless noise, hassle, people yelling at you, psychotic traffic; it was all hard work. We made more attempts to get the airline to check their lost property to see if my Palm had turned up but they weren't interested in helping so it took lots of (on the verge of losing our temper) persuasion. In the end, on our fourth visit, after lots of 'go fuck yourself' looks, we were told that they didn't have it.

Carita had a couple of silk dresses made for her in one of the tailors, and then we looked at each other, agreed it was time to leave, and bought tickets for tomorrow's bus to Cambodia. We're both looking forward to getting out of here and getting back on the road. We're also convinced that insects are living, or have laid eggs, under our skin as we're endlessly itchy and coming up in strange blotches and marks all the time, but it could be mild paranoia.

[cut to 'Alien' scene...]

March 24, 2004

Phnom Penh

The promised big, air-con coach from Ho Chi Minh City turned out to be a 10 seat Toyoto Hiace minibus. It only took us to the border, however, where we had to cross over and meet a bus on the other side, which was included in the price, to Phnom Penh. We sat down at the cafe where we were supposed to meet it, and waited... and waited.

After an hour and a half, a wrecked bus finally appeared, but when we went over to board it the driver told us he was hungry and he was going to be eating for the next hour. I suspected they were stalling to get us to spend more money in the cafe so I went out to price a taxi to the capital. It was $25 dollars, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my day hanging around there so I told the bus driver that either he left now or we got a taxi. He then said he had to check with his boss, who was, surprise, surprise, also the owner of the cafe!

So we took a taxi, and we were glad we did. The road varied from having a decent tarmac surface to being a dusty, potholed nightmare. Cambodia seems much poorer than most of South-East Asia, and some of the houses we passed were built from mud and sticks.

The taxi dropped us off in the backpacker district, which is truly a disgusting ghetto, with a dirt road extending down to guesthouses built over a filthy lake, and full of stoned backpackers. We were tired, however, and looked at a couple of rooms but they were too filthy to even think about spending the night in. One of the places had a sign on the bathroom saying "Do not piss on the floor", and outside the wasted staff tried harder to sell us drugs than a room. Luckily, after a short walk around the corner, we found a lovely, newly built place, the Phi Paris Hotel, and booked into a spotless room with satellite tv and a fridge.

Tomorrow, we have to catch the 0645 bus to Angkor Wat, the only bus of the day. We know we're going to be on it for at least 8 hours, we know it's going to be wrecked, and we know they're going to try to rip us off, so we're really looking forward to it.

Meanwhile, this site has some info about travelling in Cambodia.

March 26, 2004

Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat

The trip from Phnom Penh did turn out to be pretty bad, partly because we both came down with a touch of food poisoning shortly after I wrote that blog. We hardly had any sleep all night, spending the whole time lying there with stomach cramps, or on the verge of throwing up.

We were determined, nonetheless, to leave the next morning, and squeezed into an old, wrecked bus for the tortuous trip to Angkor Wat. Although it was pretty close on a couple of occasions, we miraculously managed to avoid throwing up on other passengers or filling our pants en route, until finally we rolled into Angkor in the late afternoon.

March 31, 2004

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was definitely one of the highlights of this trip, and one that made the gruelling overland journey through Cambodia and Vietnam worthwhile. Almost as soon as we arrived we caught a tuk-tuk to the city of ruins to watch the sun setting over them. As it's by far Cambodia's greatest tourist attraction and a revered UNESCO site, entry costs a whopping $20US a day, but it's worth it. Angkor Wat is truly enormous, and can take days to tour if you want to see everything. Built between the 9th and 13th centuries, the entire place was, amazingly, forgotten for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered and then written about in the 1860's in 'Le Tour de Monde' by Henri Mouhot. When you're first driving through the jungle and set eyes on it, you can't help but be impressed, and as the sun set, the stone turned a lovely golden red.

We retired to the nearby town of Siem Reap shortly after sunset as mosquitoes were beginning to appear, and we'd picked "avoiding being bitten and drinking lots of gin and tonic" as our malaria prophylactic of choice since we were only going to be in a malaria-risk zone for a couple of days.

The following morning, 'Mr Ted', the same tuk-tuk driver, was waiting for us outside our hotel, and off we buzzed in what was basically his motorcycle with a trailer, for a high quality day of sightseeing. One of the most surprising things was that there weren't the packs of tourists everywhere that we were expecting, especially at the smaller, more remote temples. After checking out a couple of lovely, peaceful wats we continued in the tuk-tuk to Ta Phrom, the jungle temple made famous in the Lara Croft film, Tomb Raider. Whereas most of the other temples have been partially restored, this has been left almost as it was when the first explorers found it, with trees and jungle growing through. It's only when you look at the enormity of some of the trees that grow through the stones that you begin to realise just how old the buildings are. We stopped off for lunch, then, suitably refreshed and with Carita looking less red and overheated, we looked once more at Angkor Wat, the main temple complex. It was the hottest part of the day and most of the tourists seemed to have sought sanctuary in their hotels as the place was totally deserted. We climbed around it, took lots of photographs, and soaked in the peaceful atmosphere of it's courtyards, and eerie darkness of it's inners. Next we continued onto Bayon, set in what was the centre of the ancient city. Looking exactly as you'd expect an ancient temple in the jungle to look, it has 54 incredible towers, each of which bear the huge smiling faces of Avalokitesvara on their sides. Finally we finished the day off with a punishing climb in the heat up to the top of Phnom Bakheng, a hilltop temple built in the 10th century and bombed by the USA in their hunt for communists during the Vietnam war.

April 1, 2004

Cambodia to Bangkok

We were hassled constantly in Cambodia by children begging, people asking us for money, and hawkers trying to sell things. Everything was much more expensive, and it often felt like people were aggressive and really trying to rip us off. On one occasion when we were desperate for something to drink we bought a bottle of mineral water, took a big gulp, and discovered they'd sold us a mineral water bottle that they'd filled with sewage! So we were very glad to get on the bus to Bangkok.

The bus left early in the morning, as usual, and we staggered onto it, happy to be going back to civilisation. Everyone piled in until it was full, they tied our bags onto the roof, and set off. Five minutes later, however, it pulled into a makeshift garage and they set about jacking the fully loaded bus (everyone still inside, of course) up on loose sand and changing one of the wheels. It looked like they'd ran over a nail the previous day, but, of course, couldn't be bothered swapping wheels until now. So we sat there for an hour... and waited. Carita got into an argument with a guy who was kicking a dog in the head for fun, which seems to be a Cambodian pastime, and pissed off at being up early to drive around the corner, I complained about, well, everything I could think of. Finally, they managed to figure it out, and with a wheel on each corner once again, we continued on our merry way. But not for long. Five minutes later we ran out of road. Most of Cambodia is dirt tracks or graded roads, and it seemed that they were still in the process of building this one. There was a huge pile of earth right in the middle of it, and we had to sit and wait for another hour while a bulldozer turned up and flattened the road enough for us to pass. We still weren't feeling very well, and once more we had a couple of near projectile vomitting incidents but managed to control ourselves. This we put down to the "tasty" steak we'd had a couple of nights previously, which didn't really taste like steak (possibly explaining the lack of dogs around the streets).

The day dragged on, the roads deteriorated to farm tracks, but finally, we were getting so close to the Thai border we could smell the green curry. We crossed over, had our passports stamped, and bought a banana smoothie in civilisation from a Thai cafe. Another couple of bus changes later, and we were on our way, speeding down the smooth motorway to Bangkok. We stopped for a break at a petrol station and bought noodles with pork and spring rolls from some of the so-clean-after-where-we'd-been food stalls, then before we knew it we were back in old Bangers, walking down Koh San Road, and checking into a nice, clean room. We took badly needed showers - I'd stupidly been wearing a white shirt and it was completely red from all the dust, and we opened our rucsacs which had been on the roof to find they were totally full of sand. But it felt SO good to be back.

April 6, 2004

Long Flight to London

I didn't want to leave Thailand, but finally the time came, and I was dragged, kicking, screaming, and biting to Bangkok airport last night. It was a ten hour flight with Royal Jordanian until we landed in Amman for a stop-over, were taken to a complimentary hotel for a brief couple of hours sleep, awoken, and then driven back to the airport to board our onward flight. Twenty-three hours after leaving Bangkok we arrived in London. Carita's flight to Helsinki is early tomorrow morning so we're spending the night sleeping in a cold corner of Heathrow's terminal one.

April 22, 2004

Baggage Extortion

Simon dropped me off at Newquay airport yesterday at 0630 and over I went to check in for Ryanair's morning flight to Stansted. They've recently cut the baggage allowance down to 15kg and so, carrying the stuff I brought back from Asia, I was told that my bag was 9kg too heavy and this would cost me 30! I of course said that my friend was still outside and that I would leave some things with him and be right back. I tried to call Simon who'd just left but couldn't get hold of him and so, determined not to pay any surcharges I began redistributing my luggage.

1. Stripped off outside and beginning with bottom layers, put on most of the clothes I was carrying until I looked enormous.
2. Removed all heavy object such as books and packed them into my jacket pockets.
3. Packed anything else that could possibly fit into my carry on bags.
4. Returned to counter to find that check-in weight was now fine.

Arriving in London Stansted, however, I had seven hours to wait for my flight to Glasgow and knowing that I was flying with Ryanair again I kept a lot of the clothes on. The day dragged on until finally check-in opened, I once again managed to get my gear on without any surcharges, and eventually we left Stansted airport. By the time I got to Colin's flat in Glasgow at 1900 I was fairly exhausted, though not tired enough to stop me from, traditionally, heading out to the pub for a few beers.

April 29, 2004

The Strange World of Ryanair

I'm in Prestwick airport waiting for a flight to Frankfurt - or rather it would be Frankfurt if only I wasn't flying with Ryanair. After booking the flight to 'Frankfurt Hahn', I checked up how to get to Frankfurt railway station and discovered that what Ryanair calls Frankfurt Hahn has nothing to do with Frankfurt at all and is in fact 110km away from the city, it's main airport, almost two hours away by bus, and closer to Luxemburg than it is to Frankfurt!

If the flight's on time then I should be able to catch the last bus at 00:30, spend the night rough somewhere in Frankfurt, and, everything going to plan, rendevous with Carita who should turn up on an early morning train from Finland with Ira the Rottweiler. Then the plan is to take trains all the way down to Barcelona and catch the ferry over to Ibiza.

April 30, 2004

Frankfurt

Well, the flight from Prestwick went fine and I caught a long bus ride over to Frankfurt's main airport, which is where I am now. Seems like a good place to spend the night and with some luck meet up with Carita in it's train station.

May 4, 2004

Europe By Dog

I slept on a bench in Frankfurt airport for a couple of hours and then went to meet Carita on the 05:38 from Hamburg, which I hoped she'd caught after getting the ferry from Finland. Her phone wasn't working in Germany, so, with no way to contact her I just had to hope for the best. Somehow, however, we missed each other on the platform and it was only when I was walking out of the station that I bumped into her and Ira upstairs. Glad to have found them, we caught a train into Frankfurt centre, had some breakfast, argued with a very fastidious guy on the ticket counter, then boarded a train to Mannheim. It was morning rush hour and the trains were busy, but thankfully having a Rottweiler with you always seems to guarantee you a fair amount of space. We changed trains and continued onto Basel on the border with Switzerland. There we messed up a bit, getting off at the German town of Basel rather than the one slightly further on in Switzerland and missing our connecting train to Bern, but it didn't really matter.

By now, Carita had been travelling for 36 hours since leaving Finland with very little sleep and we were both beginning to feel exhausted. We had to keep on moving, however, as it was Friday and the last ferry to Ibiza for three days was leaving Barcelona on the Saturday night. Basel turned out to be a bit of a nightmare; the station didn't seem to have any signs to direct you to the ticket office, it appeared to be designed like a concrete nuclear bunker and the luggage trolleys didn't take euros so we had to carry all of our bags around the station trying to find out where to buy onward tickets to France. By the time we found the right office we were just in time to miss the next train and so we sat downstairs in the subterranean atmosphere, eating McDonalds at hugely inflated Swiss prices until finally, hours later, the train to Geneva pulled in.

The journey through Switzerland was, however, stunning as the train sped through valleys that looked like they were straight from a chocolate advert, past Swiss cottages, snow-capped mountains, and finally Lake Geneva. Ira, meanwhile, was busy terrorising everyone in the train - refusing to let people past to go to the toilet and demanding all the food that anyone was carrying. Somewhat terrified, most of them paid up. In Geneva, we had another change and happily got onto our last train of the day to Lyon. We had been hoping to keep on going and take the sleeper across France until we found out that because we were travelling with a dog we were obliged to take an entire sleeping compartment in France, costing 400-500 euros. So instead we booked into an Ibis Hotel close to the railway station in Lyon, had a walk around some of the town, then crashed out for the night.

The following morning we made an early start and headed to the train station. It was bad news, however, as they told us the only train going to Barcelona that day arrived there at 2150 - and the ferry to Ibiza left at 2300! Not only that, but taking dogs on trains in Spain was illegal. It looked like we would have to figure out another way to do the last section of the trip. Undeterred though, we headed off to Arcachon, which was at least in the right direction, hopeful that something would work out. Just as we were about to board the train though, I noticed that they hadn't sold me a ticket for the trip so I rushed back down to the booking office, jumped the queue, bought a ticket, and managed to get back in time to jump on the train.

Arcachon seemed to be a better start to the day. Not only was it's TGV station shiny and new, but it had luggage trolleys (the first we'd found in a French station), and the girl in the ticket office seemed more than happy to sell us a ticket on the evening train from Perpignan to Barcelona for Ira (oblivious to the regulations undoubtedly!). We then jumped on and off a series of trains until we got to Perpignan where we sat, waited, got ripped off for two beers, and waited some more. Eventually it was time to leave, the train rolled off, and we caught our first sight of the Mediterranean. We passed flamingos wading in the lagoons by the coast as we approached the Pyrenees and finally the Spanish border. Spanish officials boarded the train, asked to see our passports, but don't even look inside them. The train then sat still for what seemed like an eternity until finally it slowly continued towards Barcelona. We worked out that we were running about fifteen minutes late, and our hopes of managing to catch the ferry began to fade.

At last Barcelona appeared and we rushed out of the train, through the station, and out into the street. Desperately, we tried to find a taxi but it was Saturday night and none of them would stop. We stood in the street for what seemed like an eternity, watching the little time we had to catch the ferry tick away, and thinking that we'd never get a taxi in time. Finally, however, one of them stopped for us, we piled the bags into the boot, Ira onto the back seat, and jumped in. We got to the ferry terminal at 22:20, and the ferry was due to leave at 23:00. We didn't know if the ticket office was still open, but Carita rushed in to try to buy them while I took care of the luggage. Amazingly, they were open and we got tickets and headed for the ferry. On the way, another passenger told us that the ferry went from the third floor and we spent valuable minutes searching for the upper floors that didn't exist before we realised that she was spaced out.

Delighted, we boarded the ferry, glad that we didn't have to wait in Barcelona for three days until the next one, and happy to be almost there. After a stop in Palma the next morning, it was lunchtime by the time we got into Ibiza. There we caught another ferry over to Formentera, and finally, finally, got back to Zamindar, 12 trains and 2 ferries since I'd met Carita in Frankfurt 56 hours before.

May 19, 2004

Mallorca Revisited

I'm sitting having a beer in a harbourside bar in Palma waiting to meet (Belgian) Chris. I left Carita looking after Zamindar and Ira on Formentera and caught the evening ferry over to Mallorca - much faster and easier than sailing over!

I haven't seen Chris, who I used to sail with, for five years, and his boat is in Mallorca now so I'm really looking forward to catching up with him again.

May 20, 2004

Porto Cristo

Chris picked me up from Palma in a lovely Mercedes and I spent last night on his boat in Porto Cristo, which happens to be one of the dullest places in the whole of the Balearics. After sitting around talking most of the night we eventually passed out and we spent most of today drinking coffee until finally graduating to beer.

May 24, 2004

Natural Selection

I'm back in tranquil Formentera now after my visit to the madness of Mallorca. It seemed to be much more hectic than when I had the boat there a couple of years ago - more people, fatter tourists, and much more stressful than Ibiza. It was good to see Chris though. He had his boat broken into in Portocolom during the winter, apparently by someone from another boat as lots of things, including his sails, were stolen. But apart from that he seems to be doing pretty well and has spent most of the last years sailing around with the drug dealers and arms smugglers of Central America.

There wasn't much to do in Porto Cristo so we started drinking too early, and, naturally, went on to drink too much. I don't remember getting back to the boat. The next day I woke up suffering one of Satan's own hangovers. I spent the day in Palma, which I had missed as it's a lovely city, but the hoardes of tourists everywhere combined with the beggars (some allegedly now coming down from Germany) and my hangover made me wish I was back on the beach in Formentera.

There's only one ferry a day between the islands and they run at the strangest of times. The one from Ibiza gets into Palma so late at night that it's impossible to rent a car, and the return trip to Ibiza leaves about 0700 in the morning. Chris kindly got up very early and drove me into Palma so that I could catch it, though even at that time the roads in Mallorca were busy as the Germans rushed to get the best places on the beach.

I squeezed onto the ferry through all the pushing and shoving critically stressed tourists, found a seat, and tried to get some sleep. A deaf old woman sat behind me and shouted incessantly to her friend the entire way to Ibiza, her companion never managing to get a word in, whilst I tried to drown out her drones listening to my ipod.

In yet another example of the world bending to accommodate stupid people rather than allowing natural selection, you're no longer able to go out on deck in case you fall over the side. The sea was totally calm but even still all the exterior doors were locked while the ship was at sea, forcing everyone to mill around endlessly inside fighting for window space - all so that the occasional idiot doesn't go for a swim! Personally, I think it's time to get rid of regulations like that - get rid of the safety fences springing up on top of cliffs and the barriers on street corners to stop stupid people from running out and killing themselves everywhere. Life is supposed to have risks, not be governed by some nanny society that tells us all what is and isn't safe to do.

June 5, 2004

Atlantis, Ibiza

We finally made it to Atlantis the other day. Some of the rock used to build the old town was quarried there and in the last twenty or thirty years visiting artists have carved figures and designs into the soft sandstone, turning it into an outdoor gallery. Set in an undisclosed location by the sea, it's never marked on maps and you have to do a lot of asking around and hunting to find it.

There are only two ways to get there. Either you follow a difficult, winding path down the cliffside or you do as we did and arrive by sea. Even that wasn't so easy as we had to anchor the dinghy in the middle of the bay and swim ashore to prevent it from getting bashed against the rocks. To our surprise there were a few other people there, most of whom were lying around naked on the warm rock.

Many of the original carvings have now been worn away by the elements - figures of men and women coming out of the rock and dragons and symbols; giving the place an ancient feeling like being at the pyramids as you walk through the passages formed by the quarrying. Most of the recent designs are sadly less creative, however, and it runs the risk of being taken over by people carving 'Kev was here 2003' as the old canvas gets washed clean, but it's still a very special place that's typical of Ibiza's spirit.

October 16, 2004

Across Europe With A Rottweiler In Heat

Having been in Ibiza for over five months now is the longest I've stayed in one place for years, so yesterday evening we decided it was time to leave and went off to the travel agents and booked onto the ferry to the mainland for today. Carita has to be back in Ibiza in two weeks and as we don't want to risk flying Ira back to Finland we're going to take her north overland then fly back down here, hopefully, by the end of the month.

We haven't quite worked out how exactly we're going to do this yet. We're on the mainland ferry to Denia at the moment (the more direct ferry to Barcelona was full), and from there we'll head towards the French border. Big dogs aren't allowed on Spanish trains unless they're boxed which may make this a bit more difficult, and just in case taking a Rottweiler across Europe isn't challenging enough, she's also in heat!

October 17, 2004

Stuck in Denia

In the end the ferry took five hours to reach Denia, not two as we'd been told, so everything was closed and it was getting dark by the time we disembarked. We started by checking out if any of the car rental agencies were still open - none were - and even worse, they were all going to be closed the next day, Sunday, as well. So we headed off to the railway station in the hope of managing to smuggle Ira onto a train, but the trainline from Denia only ran south. The only way to head north was by bus to Valencia, and needless to say, dogs weren't allowed on the buses.

It looked as if we were stuck in Denia until Monday morning when the car rental agencies would open so we sat down, had something to eat, and a couple of big beers. Most of the hotels in this dog-hating land didn't seem to want canine visitors either so we called a taxi to go to the campsite. It arrived but as we walked over to it the driver shouted that he didn't want a dog in his car and sped off. It was beginning to get difficult. We called the other taxi companies in town but none of them would take a dog. A local sitting at a nearby table told us that the taxis in town won't even take a child unless you bring a child seat with you.

With no other choice we walked out of town in the darkness along the main road and out to where the campsite was with our backpacks, really hoping it would be open. It was, though they were just about to lock up for the night, and we gratefully pitched our tent on the roughest, hardest, baked ground I've ever camped on.

I'm posting phonecam pictures of our progress on the moblog for as long as I have phone coverage on this trip.

October 19, 2004

Denia to Perpignan Drive

After much queueing, pledging allegiance to Spain, and assuring Europcar that their vehicle was safe in our capable hands, they finally agreed to rent us a Renault Clio - adding on a €90 surcharge for dropping it off at their office close to the French border (they don't allow cross-border rentals). With joy in our hearts we made our escape from Denia and it slowly began to dawn on us just how far away France was.

Much of the countryside was uninspiring and the day was spent either on the fairly expensive N15 toll motorway that runs along the coast or sitting behind trucks on the E340 primary road. Just after nightfall, however, we crossed over into France and drove into Perpignan to find a campsite and something to eat. All the campsites seemed to be closed though, and after hours of hunting around we were finally forced to book into a cheap hotel close to the airport.

This morning I got up early and drove back across the border to Spain to return the rental car, and although there aren't any checks at the border, French customs still decided to stop and question me. Apart from having to hang around for 30 mins as the girls working in the rental office had decided to close and go off for a morning coffee, it all went quite smoothly and I'm not sitting on the train to Cerbere bound for France once again.

October 22, 2004

Mulhouse

We stayed in Mulhouse last night, which is in France but very close to the German border. I'll fill in the details later but right now I'm on the train to Freiburg to try to sort out a rental car to drive to Rostock. Of course I had to get a train down to Basel in Switzerland just to get another train to Freiburg in Germany so it's only 9:00 in the morning and already I've been in three countries.

October 24, 2004

Rostock Ferry

We're on the ferry from Rostock to Finland and very irate at being forced to pay €390 to get onto it. But at least tomorrow night we should be there.

October 26, 2004

Driving Ibiza to Finland

We arrived in Finland last night and got off the ferry into cold, torrential rain. It felt great to finally be here and Ira was delighted to see everyone together, but the three of us were worn out after driving over 3200km. Often we've been travelling until late at night and blog updates were hastily typed from the tent or a gents toilet so here's a bit more detail on our journey.

We could have done the trip faster but we'd wanted to see something of Europe and not just rush through on motorways. We picked up our second rental car in Perpignan - it felt good to be in France but it seemed scruffier and less safe compared to Spain. We made the most of French supermarkets, however, and stocked up on supplies in a huge Carrefour, reminding ourselves of all the nice foods that don't exist on Ibiza. We also decided to commend Quick with our title of burger chain of choice and thereafter ate far too many burgers during the course of the trip.

We drove to the Gorges de L'Ardeche, north of Avignon, which is a bit of a French Grand Canyon - a stunning gorge carved through the French countryside with sheer cliffs on either side. Having never been to the Alps before we then continued over to Chambery, arriving just before dusk to stare in awe at the mountains and Alpine scenery. It was too cold to camp and, unable to find a cheap hotel, we set off in search of a quiet place to park for the night. Thick fog set in, meaning we could hardly see the road in front of us, never mind anything else, Carita, who was navigating, fell asleep, and after almost straying across the border into Switzerland we finally found a lane in some woods just west of Geneva and slept in the car at 1500m with the sound of cowbells in the distance.

The next day we had to drive to Mulhouse, close to the German border, to drop off the car. Mulhouse was a dull town where they were busy digging up every scrap of road to lay tram tracks but we were lucky enough to get there on the last day that the camp site was open for the season and we spent a fairly cold night in the tent.

The next morning I got up ridiculously early in the cold darkness and caught the train to Freiburg across the border (via a long detour to Basel) to sort out our third and final rental car. Germany seemed clean, polished and organised and the people, as always, seemed very helpful but all the rental companies turned out to be an hour's walk from town. Asking for their cheapest diesel car I was given a brand new Renault Megane, which during the course of driving impressed me greatly with it's tech specs - windscren wipers that turn on when it rains and keyless entry and ignition that detects the smartcard in your pocket. I drove back over to Mulhouse, picked up Carita and Ira and we set off for Rottweil in the Black Forest to take Ira back to her roots! The black forest was beautiful, with mountains and valleys covered in golden, autumn foliage and the climate was still pleasant compared to how we'd feel in northern Europe. Rottweil turned out to be a charming German town, though we were slightly disappointed that there weren't Rottweillers running wild everywhere.

After another long drive to find somewhere we could park and sleep without being moved on, we ended up in a forest walk car park at 01:00 in the morning, exhausted, and spent the night there. This had the effect of the brand new car losing it's 'new car smell'. We were getting pretty used to sleeping in cars by now and we awoke refreshed and headed into Wurzburg where we enjoyed a huge, wonderful breakfast.

Later that day, Saturday, we were getting close to Hannover and thinking about stopping somewhere when we realised that the ferry to Finland didn't run on Mondays. So we pushed on, determined to make it to Rostock that night. The German autobahn proved wonderful for making fast progress when needed, though you learn to keep a close eye on your mirrors for Porsches approaching from behind at 250km/h.

Finally, we arrived in Rostock and drove straight to the port to book onto the following day's ferry. Our happiness to have completed the drive was ruined when the ferry company then refused to sell us reclining seats and forced us to pay twice as much for a cabin. It then turned out that there was a football match and a concert in town and almost all the hotels were fully booked so we spent the night in the car, parked in the ferry terminal with the rain pouring down outside.

We spent the next day in town as we waited to board the ferry and were somewhat surprised by how different it was to where we'd previously been in Germany. Rostock is part of former East Germany and it really felt like a different country. The people seemed rude, badly dressed, and seemed to cut their own hair. The town itself was a mixture of old soviet concrete next to new construction and a facade of a new shopping street. We took Ira for a walk in the park and passed a crazy guy shitting openly on the path. Obviously things can't change overnight.

The amount of investment that Germany appeared to be putting into it's eastern promise seemed colossal. Obviously, the infrastructure badly needs to be upgraded as motorways, power stations and train systems are being built everywhere.

Finally, we caught the ferry, and I found sleeping in a bed so uncomfortably soft that I took my camping mat and slept in the kennels with Ira to keep me company. Meanwhile, a Russian prostitute worked her way through the truck drivers onboard - apparently paying for her ticket as the route is allegedly the easiest way for Russians to get into Finland without any papers.

We only have a few days in Finland, however, before we ironically have to fly all the way back down to Ibiza!

October 29, 2004

Cost of Driving Across Europe

Here's a breakdown of our expenses for the trip from Formentera to Finland for both of us and Ira. We took diesel cars, usually camped or slept in the car, and deviated greatly from the most direct route at all times.

Continue reading "Cost of Driving Across Europe" »

Superfast Ferries

We called Superfast Ferries to find out how much their cheapest ticket from Rostock to Hanko was and they told us €80, which their website also claims. On arriving in Rostock, however, we went to the ferry terminal the night before to book them and were somewhat surprised, especially as it was mid-October, to be told that seats were sold out and we would have to take cabins. Cabins were segregated male and female and we would have to pay €155 each to sleep in a cabin with three strangers or €190 each to share a cabin together. We asked which day they would have seats available as we were willing to wait but they replied that they were sold out for the next two weeks!

We decided to look to see if there were any other options for getting to Finland but other than going via Sweden we had no choice so we returned the next day to take the cabins. We were served by another girl on the desk, who, when we again enquired about seats, instead of checking the computer, asked her manager if they were available. It was her manager whom we had dealt with the night before and she replied sharply that we had already been told that no seats were available. We asked if they were likely to get any cancellations but we were told that this was highly unlikely. The ferry didn't seem as if it was going to be busy and it seemed to us that they were deliberately not selling the reclining seats as they could make more money on the cabins.

On boarding the ferry we discovered that not only were most of the reclining seats empty but there was another entire room of reclining seats which remained locked for the entire voyage. We complained and asked to be downgraded and at first the service desk staff were happy to do this although they said they would not be able to give us a refund directly. It was then that the Chief Purser stepped in and told us we could not have reclining seats. His reason seemed to be that they were forbidden to sell them. We asked why they were advertised on their website in that case and he immediately denied what he had just said. He was unable to tell us why so many seats were empty whilst we were being charged double for tickets and his only suggestion was that perhaps there had been a massive, sudden cancellation moments before the ferry sailed.

October 31, 2004

Midnight Crisp Eaters

We arrived back at the boat yesterday morning, totally exhausted, as an old man had sat down where we were sleeping in Stansted, eaten crisps and talked loudly for most of the night. Obviously unaware of how close I was of slipping into violent insanity he insisted that people should get a hotel room if they wanted to sleep somewhere. I diplomatically replied with a string of expletives.

November 10, 2004

Fantasy Island

balearic propaganda
Winter in Formentera is fairly peaceful and somewhat devoid of the social distractions that make Ibiza famous. The locals tend to be quite a tightly knit bunch who don't take too well to outsiders. Now that almost all the tourists have left there are only two bars open in town and people just tend to stare quietly at us when we enter - like strangers walking into a pub on the moors in a werewolf film.

The checkout girl in the small supermarket dutifully keeps all the fresh bread stashed under the till for the locals, refusing to sell any to us although it's our second winter here, which Carita, naturally, had an argument with her about. Hence, we now have no chance of joining that elite club, instead, destined to eat stale bread (on the days we're lucky enough to get that) for the rest of our duration here. Much of the other produce tends to be well out of date, often by months, and hugely overpriced as there's nowhere else you can go.

But the best part is that there's a huge poster just next to the boat that says, 'Fomentera Loves Tourists!'

November 15, 2004

Northward Bound

The last days here in Formentera have been fairly stormy - bad enough to take out internet access on the island, and cause an Italian guy rowing from Genova to French Guyana to get washed up on the rocks here (the locals then looted all of his equipment).

We're off to the big island this evening, however, to catch a flight to Barcelona, where we'll sleep in the airport (inshallah) and hop onto another flight to the UK tomorrow. Maybe using Arabic terms in the same context as catching a plane isn't a good idea these days...

November 20, 2004

Kicked Awake

Our night in Barcelona was fairly awful. We had something to eat in the well named Cafe Ars, which was just how the food tasted, and all the staff wore aprons with 'Ars' printed on the front then, suitably unsatisfied, went off to look for a quiet corner to sleep in.

The airport had a bit of a dodgy feel to it at night, with homeless looking people hanging out for an opportunity to grab something, and not much security around. It wasn't the kind of place you wanted to spend the night but with our flight leaving the next morning we had little choice. All of the seats had individual armrests which, without a hacksaw, prevented us from lying down, but being accustomed to sleeping in airports, we'd come prepared with camping mats and sleeping bags. At the far end of the terminal we found a corner next to a glass partition, bedded down for the night against our bags, and tried to get some sleep.

We both woke continuously, however, with people walking over and staring at us, kids banging against the glass, and at one point a crazy guy running around screaming in the middle of the night. By the time morning came we were both so exhausted that we passed out... only to be rudely awoken. A security guard came over and began kicking me awake then shouted at us in Spanish to get up. Carita replied that we were waiting for a flight connection but he shouted back that sleeping is not allowed in Barcelona Airport.

Once we finally escaped from Barcelona we flew into Stansted, and our plane stopped next to a newly arrived El-Al flight. The security around it was unbelievable with police on the tarmac beneath the plane and policemen with machine guns all over the airport as if Britain was at war. Passengers were checking in for the return flight to Israel at the end of the terminal where the entire bay of check-in desks had been cordoned off with a makeshift security checkpoint and police 'do not cross' tape around the whole area outside. Marksmen were everywhere, even lying on top of the check-in desk roof with a machine gun, and security officials at the checkpoint were arguing with a man, refusing to allow him through. Carita decided it was wise to put her Arab ashmagh away. Obviously, either the flight was under severe threat or Britain's terror paranoia is getting completely out of control as more and more countries worldwide hate it. We walked away to wait for our flight to Cornwall as they announced the boarding gate for the El-Al flight... lucky thirteen!

November 25, 2004

Cracker Smuggling

We had a lovely time staying with Simon in his manor in Cornwall for the last week, waking up to the sounds of cows and appreciating some of the small luxuries of northern Europe like decent supermarkets again. Yesterday we flew back to London Stansted, Carita caught a flight to Finland, and I flew up to Colin's in Glasgow. Carita had bought a load of crackers to take back with her (as they don't exist in Finland) but wasn't allowed to take them onto the plane - she was told that they were explosives and they could go off in the hold! So instead we sat pulling them in the airport, pissing off security, who later retaliated by once again pulling me out for a 'random search'. They didn't look deep enough to find my hidden crackers though.

December 5, 2004

Off To Sweden

Tomorrow I'm catching a flight over to Sweden to spend a week with my old chum, Belgian Chris, who's just bought himself a house over there. Apparently, it's far away from civilisation, deep in the voods in the middle of nowhere...

December 8, 2004

Finding Badabruk

I flew into Gothenburg's (ironically called) City airport, another of Ryanair's special destinations that's so small it doesn't have a cash machine within 10km. So, almost stranded forever without any Swedish Kroner I hunted through my bags until I found enough forgotten cash to get the coach into Gothenburg.

Leaving my bags in left luggage I spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the city before I caught the train to Kil, a one street town, where Chris met me and we got onto a small train into Varmland's forest. An hour later we stepped off into the darkness at Badabruk, the station nothing more than a small concrete platform surrounded by trees. I followed Chris as he led the way through the forest towards his house. Bada isn't so much a village as a random scattering of houses in the Swedish countryside, and as we slid around and fell on the ice with my bags it felt as though we were never going to get there.

After thirty minutes of walking, however, we made it to the front door of Chris's red wooden house, far, far away from civilisation. He lit the wooden stove, we sat down, and there was nothing else to do but open some beer.

December 13, 2004

On The Road Again

Helena picked us up at 08:00 and gave Chris and I a lift into Karlstad from where I was catching the train to Stockholm. It was a cold, bright morning, all the trees were white with frost, and the sun was just rising. We grabbed some breakfast at the station, said our farewells, and after passing out on the train for a bit, I awoke in Stockholm.

Being in a big city was, once again, something of a shock after a week in the Torsby voods but Stockholm is such a pleasant place to wander around, with great shops and lovely architecture that I soon recovered and had a very enjoyable afternoon.

I'm staying the night in the Fridhemsplan hostel which even has cable tv and broadband internet in the rooms (though I left my Mac in left luggage at the station)and tomorrow I catch a flight to Helsinki.

December 17, 2004

Torsby

lake at torsby
Although Torsby is a small place with a population of only 4,000, it felt really good to get back to nature for a while, relax, and stand on Chris's porch late at night listening to the silence and looking at the stars. There isn't much in the area apart from woods and moose but Torsby's claim to fame is that it's the home town of Sven Goran Eriksson, England's football coach, whom everyone there seems very proud of.

Torsby camping and Helena's restaurant
Torsby webcam
Maps of Torsby

December 28, 2004

Zimmer on Skis

mobikick_sivullekuva.jpg

Sometimes the Finns invent strange things.
Take this for example, from a company called Scanmobi.

It's basically a walking frame for old people, crossed with a pair of skis. Why? So you can take your grandfather out and push him down a mountain?

Why not?

December 29, 2004

Off to Lapland

We're leaving in a couple of hours to catch a flight up to Ivalo in Lapland for New Year with the reindeers and really looking forward to it. The flight takes 1hr 40mins so it's quite a bit further north than here and inside the Arctic Circle. Oddly enough Finnair doesn't classify their tickets as economy or business class - instead we have 'Happy Hour' tickets!

Saariselka webcam and tourist info
Lapland map

January 3, 2005

Ivalo in Winter

Ivalo, the closest town, has a population of less than 4000 people and until 1913 there was only a path linking this part of Finland with the south of the country. There was a gold rush here in the 1800's and gold panning is still done in some of the surrounding rivers by a dedicated few. Murmansk is the nearest big city, sitting just 300km across the border in Russia, so this area, although very beautiful, has a real frontier character to it.

The days, however, are really short at this time of year as we're somewhere around 69˚ north and the sun doesn't rise above the horizon from the beginning of December until mid-January. Around 10:30 in the morning there's a strange twilight in the sky which gradually increases until midday then fades into a warm, pinkish light until it's totally dark again by 14:30. Snow is guaranteed for the whole winter which helps to make things brighter, but the long nights mean that the partying begins much earlier!

January 4, 2005

Inari

We drove around the lake to the tiny town of Inari today to visit Inari Reindeer Farm. It was in a lovely place close to Lemmenjoki ('River of Love' translated) with reindeer tied to all the trees around the driveway as we arrived. We hand fed a couple of them and their mouths felt really quite cold as they licked the food out of our hands. Expecting just to be able to see them, we were surprised when they offered us the chance to drive a reindeer pulling a one-person sleigh. Carita was hugely excited as it was yet another entry to add to her list of animals ridden so she went first and I waited until she got back.

Moses, the reindeer chosen to pull my sledge, was eight years old, having been gradually trained since he was one. He set off slowly for the first part of the route, looking back at me every so often, and followed a circular track. About half-way through, however, he suddenly broke into a sprint, moving really quite fast, and kicking snow up into my face as he galloped to the end of the route. Afterwards, we were given coffee in a kota (traditional Sami hut), and presented with our reindeer driving licences before we left for a look around Inari's impressive Sami Museum and Northern Lapland Nature Centre.

January 18, 2005

Ryanair Prices

Here's an odd fact I discovered tonight about Ryanair's online booking system. If the price of a seat on one of their flights for a trip originating in, say Finland, is 59.99 Euros, and you then price that very same seat on the same date on a trip originating from the UK - it'll cost you 59.99 GBP. Almost 50% more.

So, did they just decide it was easier not to bother with the currency conversion (the taxes still convert) or did they choose to charge UK customers more than Euro customers?

January 30, 2005

Formentera Chills

Carita and I flew down to Formentera on Tuesday to spend a couple of weeks on the boat and from the moment we arrived the weather was awful. The ferry trip across from Ibiza was rough enough to have me thinking about pebble-dashing the walls with hamburger, and we stepped out into torrential rain. Thankfully, Zami was very close and looking just how we'd left her, so we jumped aboard with our bags, gave things a quick clean, put the heating on, and soon we were lovely and warm.

The following day continued to be very cold and windy, but nonetheless we went off for a walk to the beach. As we were standing there complaining about how cold it was... it started to snow... then suddenly we were in the middle of a blizzard! Really unusual weather for the Balearics! It looked as if my promises to Carita that it would be warm enough to go swimming weren't going to be true. video (228kb .3gp file)

The cold, stormy weather continued, the other night being the coldest night in Ibiza for 20 years, with the interior of the island getting down to -4c and the front page of the paper carrying a (somewhat pathetic) picture of a small patch of snow in the middle of nowhere. That, combined with me catching some kind of bug and being violently ill, has meant that we haven't been able to haul the boat out to start anti-fouling or get a survey done yet, but we're hoping that the weather's changing now.

February 3, 2005

Sleeping in Airports

As someone who ends up doing it far more often than I'd like, here's a website dedicated to sleeping in airports - which are best, which to avoid, and in which you're most likely to meet a sleep deprived Scottish person who is likely to go insane if you waken him up.

February 10, 2005

Cardless

With all the work completed we flew out of Ibiza during a thunderstorm on Tuesday. After a stopover in Barcelona and a late lunch we got into Heathrow and I nipped into a shop to get some credit for my British sim card. Suddenly, I realised that I didn't have my credit card and my mind went back to the smiling guy in the sandwich shop in Barcelona airport with my card still sitting in the visa machine as he happily waved "Adios!" to me! I hastily called and cancelled the card, which thankfully hadn't been used, and luckily I still had enough cash on me to get around London.

We caught the tube over to Sanna's flat and Carita tried to drag her 50kg of luggage along the street whilst kicking old people and children out of her way. In the morning, after a very energetic Sanna gave us breakfast in bed, I headed out to the bank as the only way I could get cash without my card was over the counter. Needing to be in the airport by 1100, it was somewhat frustrating to discover that the bank was closed for 'staff training' until 1000 and after finally opening their doors and serving me, we jumped in a taxi, rushed to the station, and managed to catch the Stansted Express in time. I caught a flight up to Glasgow to visit Colin and Carita flew back to Finland.

February 20, 2005

Estonian Charms

I caught the late flight down to Stansted last night and made myself as comfortable as I could there, wondering what I was doing sleeping in the corner of an airport when I should have been in the bosom of a nice, warm pub in Glasgow. I had to check in for a sleazyjet flight to Estonia at 05:30, however, so I had no other choice.

After a while I managed to sleep in 30 minute intervals, punctuated by something or other wakening me up, until finally my alarm went off just as it felt like I'd finally settled down for the night. I checked in and boarded the flight, hoping to get some sleep - which of course didn't happen. My natural talent for attracting screaming kids ensured that there was one sitting directly behind me, kicking and punching my seat as penance for my sins for the entire two and a half hour flight.

Estonians seem to appreciate a drink for breakfast. When the cabin crew came around with the tea and coffee trolley just after seven o'clock, the woman on my right ordered a whiskey while the guy in front of her opened his bottle of spirits and continued to down it until he was so pissed that the stewards finally came over and threatened to take it away from him.

We touched down in Tallinn, which was white with snow, and I set off to find the guesthouse I'd booked. There then followed a two hour scenario of me sitting on all of Tallinn's trams, going around the entire town in circles, looking for the fictional tram stop for the guesthouse, which being fictional, didn't exist. I attempted to ask a couple of people for directions but they pleasantly responded with 'Fuck off' looks and left. Eventually, after stumbling across a crazy guy wrapped in a torn polythene sheet, I wandered around through the snow and ice until, almost by accident, I found the street I was looking for.

Decided not to leave guesthouse due to possibility of never managing to return in my exhausted state.

February 22, 2005

Passive Tourism

estonian weather
One of the highlights of being in Tallinn is wandering around the medieval streets and alleys of the old town. That pleasure is somewhat challenged, however, when it's -13c, so instead I've been taking part in passive tourism, which is where you sit down in a nice cafe or bar and wait for the foreign experiences to come to you.

February 23, 2005

Cafe Culture

So partly due to the arctic conditions lately I've been spending some time thawing out in various cafes and bars in Tallinn - and it really does have a great selection to choose from. One of my favourite places is Stereo, a futuristic all white bar with waitresses in short orange outfits and free wi-fi - what more can you ask for? They even have an iMac on the bar for free internet access, though I've seen more people sitting in bars and cafes with laptops here than in any other country. Maybe it's because wireless internet is so ubiquitous - almost every cafe has it, either for free or for 10EEK a day - under 1 euro. Or maybe sitting in a bar with a laptop is the status symbol of the newly rich here as they surf and ignore their blonde girlfriends - which anywhere else would be a geek symbol.

Attitudes can be feel quite cold and unfriendly towards you as a foreigner, which I suppose is a leftover from their Soviet days - yesterday a waitress in another cafe tried very hard to smile back but just couldn't manage it! But everyone isn't like that as they adapt to more tourists arriving to spend money and an increasing number of expats working in the capital. Occasionally some big mafia looking guy will come into a cafe, not order anything, but just sit staring out of the window. Then suddenly he'll jump up and run out after someone who passes.

Estonia does seem to be getting trendier (and more expensive) since I last visited a year ago. Dance music seems to have taken off in a big way here, but unfortunately the clubs really just seem to be open at the weekends so I'll have to leave that Estonian experience until another time.

February 26, 2005

Frozen Sea

I checked out of Valge Villa, the guest house I'd been staying in which had been pretty good - friendly, and fast internet access in all the rooms, and headed for the port to catch a ferry over to Helsinki.

The ferry turned out to be packed. Lots of drunken Finns were taking home cases and cases of beer, and with no spare seats anywhere I eventually found a space on the floor, sat down, and read my book.

As we began to get closer to Finland I went out onto deck to look at the sea and was amazed to find that it was frozen over and had turned to ice! The ship was going through a frozen sea, cracking the ice with it's hull and sending fragments flying out and moonlight illuminating the frozen surface for miles. It looked incredible and felt just like being on the Titanic! Although it was about -12c I just couldn't go back inside and was the only person standing mesmerised by the frozen sea all the way to Helsinki harbour.

February 28, 2005

Life in the Freezer

It's continued to stay very cold for the last week or so with temperatures being consistently between -5c and -20c, which is getting to the stage that even wearing a lot of clothes you start to feel very cold if you stay outside for more than twenty minutes. When the wind blows into your face it's really painful and the dog's drool has been freezing on her chin.

The sea around Espoo has frozen solid, though, so I've been enjoying taking Ira for walks on the ice every day past people fishing through holes in it. Cross-country skiing is really popular here and at the weekend the ice was busy with people skiing, some pulling their children behind them in sledges. Lots of small islands are just off the coast that can normally only be reached by boat, but now of course you can just walk or ski out to them, which is a novel experience.

March 26, 2005

Going to Japan!

I've just booked a flight to Tokyo for next weekend. Japan's somewhere I've been wanting to go to for years so I'm really looking forward to it! I was going to book the flight from London, which was pretty cheap but the Ryanair flight to connect to it cost half as much as flying to Japan so I managed to get a scheduled flight from Helsinki for less than it would have all cost (and no sleeping in Stansted airport!).

March 30, 2005

Trip Planning

Haven't written anything for a few days as I've been really busy trying to research and organise things like accommodation, rail passes, and figuring out where to go, on my sudden trip to Japan on Saturday. I will make up for the lack of writing, honest...

April 2, 2005

Tokyo Bound

I'm in Munich airport just about to board my connecting flight to Tokyo, nursing a bit of a hangover from my last evening in Finland. Hope they have some Bloody Mary on board!

April 4, 2005

Landing in the Rising Sun

After changing planes in Munich's slick airport, I settled into the long flight ahead and tried to get some sleep. I'd just managed to get properly comatose when we touched down at a bright, sunny Narita airport. One of the first things that caught my eye was a girl driving a forklift truck as we headed to customs.

I had been expecting to be dropped into a hysterical mass of noise and people, but instead Narita was calm and peaceful. I bought a train ticket to Tokyo and headed to the big city, which is 60km away but costs less than getting into London from any of it's airports.

For once I'd prepared well and the task of finding my way through Tokyo to my hotel was no problem, with a subway guide & all the maps on my phone and Palm. The trains, naturally, were very modern, with screens showing adverts, plans, and information about the upcoming station.

Soon I was in Asakusa district, where the first cherry blossom of the year had just appeared - something of a Japanese obsession as it symbolises the approach of summer, and people were picknicking and photographing each other under it. I dropped my bag off at the hotel and decided to rejoice in my multi-culturalism by joining them. I bought some lovely looking meatballs from a food stand and sat down to feast on them. As I bit into the first one, however, I almost threw up. They were not meatballs but raw octopus balls. As I tried to hide my desire to puke from the Japanese families tucking into them around me, I looked up to see a smiling picture of an octopus laughing down at me from the side of the stall.

April 6, 2005

Tokyo at First Sight

On the first evening I caught the Metro into Ginza, one of Tokyo's many centres. Climbing the stairs from the station I was stunned by the scene - all around me were polished buildings covered with massive screens and illuminated with adverts. It was literally breathtaking. I walked around trying to take it all in as two sleek bullet trains passed above me on suspended railtracks. It felt like I'd been living in the dark ages all of my life. I stepped into Bic Camera, a truly massive electronics shop on nine floors crammed full of iMode phones and electronics I'd never seen before and wandered around awestruck until I had to force myself out to get something to eat.

After my previous meal, I decided to play it safe, headed to a pasta restaurant and ordered the chicken pasta. It was lovely - apart from the fact that they'd put a whole raw egg on top of it. I attempted to eat around it without breaking it, but didn't manage that for long, broke it, and just had to mix it in.

April 7, 2005

Electric Toilet Experience

I've just had my first electric toilet experience. First of all the seat is heated, which seems quite common even on less advanced toilets here, and I couldn't see the point of it as it's quite warm here at the moment. When you try it though you realise just how nice... and relaxing it is.

There's a control panel at the side allowing you to adjust the water pressure - I had it down at 40% and already it was beginning to feel like a pressure washer, any higher could feel like it would slice right through you! There's also four LEDs showing the current status of your toilet, and my favourite function marked 'Powerful Deodoriser' - which seems to work pretty well. There is, however, a warning on the lid saying that the seat may cause low temerature burns to people of a sensitive nature! I'm on the lookout next for some toilets with a better featureset, like adjustable direction jets and health analysis to test.

Update: I just had a chance to use a Toto Apricot toilet which really put the previous one to shame! The toilet lid automatically lifts as you approach, and it has precise jet controls and a blow dry! Here's a picture of the control panel with an explanation. Apparently, they also do a model that takes SD cards and plays mp3s. Still no internet access on it though?

April 9, 2005

Shinjuku Crowds

The more time I spend in Tokyo, the bigger and more crowded I realise it is. Many of the new parts of the centre have a slick, polished feeling like in The Matrix; everything is so clean and angular it feels computer generated. Other parts, in contrast, are grim, sleazy, and ablaze with neon.

The other evening I went over to east Shinjuku, the area of Tokyo which inspired the film Bladerunner. Even in Bangkok or London, I've never been in such crowds in my life. Shinjuku has the busiest railway station in the world, with over 2 million people going through it every day. At rush hour guards are employed on the platforms to push commuters into the trains just to get the doors closed. Stepping off a train you're instantly in a swarming mass of people heading frantically in every direction whilst you try to figure out which one of the sixty different tunnelled exits you should be heading for. Basically, it's a mad, mad place.

The Japanese are incredibly polite and friendly, however, and don't push and shove, but still, it's the first time I've ever felt a bit freaked out by being surrounded by so many people. Luckily, I managed to find an electric toilet nearby to nip into and compose myself.

April 10, 2005

Ridlng the Shinkansen

This morning I headed to Tokyo station and excitedly caught the bullet train, or shinkansen, bound for Kyoto. This was something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, and I wasn't disappointed. Inside it's more like being in a plane than a train, and as we quickly left Tokyo behind, I opened up my bento box and had lunch as we rushed through the Japanese countryside at over 300km/h. I tried to read a bit of my guidebooks but, very soon, we were arriving in Kyoto.

April 11, 2005

Big in Japan

l dropped my bags off and set off to see some of old Kyoto as soon as I arrived. Kyoto was Japan's capital for 1000 years until it moved to Tokyo. This, and the fact that the Americans considered, but decided not to drop an atomic bomb on the city in a god-like judgement, means there are more ancient temples and shrines here than in any other city in Japan.

What I didn't realise was just how hard work it would be getting around to see them. First of all, they're spread out in different directions around the centre, and closely surrounded by residential areas. Hence, each visit turns out to be a long trek and a hunt to find the temple. Kyoto's always a big tourist destination but it's cherry blossom time of the year right now, and so it's hugely popular with the Japanese themselves, touring the ancient monuments and photographing each other in victory salutes. The pavements in town aren't nearly wide enough for all the people so you end up stuck behind hordes of four foot tall Japanese women who appear to be older than the temples you're trying to get to.

There are some wonderful temples and shrines, however. One of the places I visited today was Kinkakuji Temple, or the Golden Pavillion - so called because the entire structure is finished in gold. Just a shame there's always ten people with cameras and tripods camped out in front of you when you're trying to take a picture of it!

April 12, 2005

Tokyo Tremors

I received an anxious sms from Carita yesterday, asking if I was still alive after the earthquake. Assuming that she'd just been smoking the old peace pipe again, I didn't pay too much attention, but apparently there was a 6.1 magnitude earthquake close to Tokyo sometime during the night that I was oblivious to. Which goes to show just what it takes to waken me up sometimes.

April 14, 2005

Expo 05

As I'm in Japan, I thought l should visit Expo 05, so I caught the shinkansen over to Aichi to take a look around it. As I was leaving the guesthouse, however, it began to rain - it didn't look like it would come to anything though so I chose not to go back for my waterproof jacket. Needless to say it pissed down all day.

One of the things I most wanted to see at Expo was the robot exhibit so I ran through the rain over to the exhibition hall it was in. The first thing to greet me was a Hello Kitty robot sitting behind reception, which shouted at me continuously in Japanese until I walked away. Next there was a demonstration of the PaPeRo child minding robot, which disappointingly refused to get irritated with the brats and begin shouting, "Exterminate! Exterminate!" The next robot looked like it could have - the dalek-sized Actroid security robot, designed to roam around offices and factories at night in search of prey. There was also an impressive two-legged walking dinosaur bot, a reception robot, and a whole bunch of cleaning robots, which are in operation on the Expo grounds every night. Looking a bit like the motorised street cleaning machines you see around towns, these work without any outside control, guiding themselves by gps, and working as a team to clean the site. One robot which was quite impressive was an automatic wheelchair, which they wanted to let me loose in - but the rain stopped that. Guided by gps, it takes the passenger to any destination pressed on it's touchscreen, whilst avoiding obstacles and terrifying neighbourhood cats with it's laser guidance system.

It took me some time to realise that the very human-like Actroid was in fact not an attractive Asian girl - but a robot, so just think of the possible consequences of being pissed when you met one. I've no idea what it does, but it looked and moved like a real girl, and won't drag you around looking at shoes for hours, so that's good enough for me!

Much of Expo was nothing special, however, consisting of national dislays from lots of countries - most of which used it simply as a tourism stand; the joint Nordic countries effort was particularly pathetic. The Thai stand was good for lunch. The Laos stand sold happy pizza. Expecting the worst (lots of pictures of Tower Bridge), the British exhibition was actually pretty good, with lots of interactive exhibits and a message about the environment.

Tho most moving display for me was in the United Nations exhibition, with the UNEP Focus on your World photography contest. Hundreds of the best shots to show the environmental changes taking place in the world were on show, some of which were truly powerful.

The downside of the whole Expo was that you had to queue for each individual exhibit, often for as long as 60 minutes, outside, in the rain, so there was a lot I didn't bother going to see.

April 17, 2005

Train to Kagoshima

As I had a 7 day Japan rail pass, I decided to get some value out of it and head down to the city of Kagoshima in the far south of the country.

After changing trains a couple of times I was on an express, going past old people working the fields by hand, as we approached the town of Shin-Yatsushiro. There, on the edge of town, suspended above the plain of green rice fields, was a futuristic, shining chrome and glass station. Our train terminated there and we all transferred onto a beautiful, brand new, white shinkansen that was sitting alongside. It was like we were going into space. It was the nicest train I'd ever been on - and I obviously wasn't the only one who thought that. The other passengers were all standing around with their mouths open & taking photographs. The interior was fantastic, with expensively upholstered, shaped wooden seats, and bamboo blinds. The railway staff on the platform remained bowed while the train pulled out of the station - if I'd had a corgi with me I would have felt like the queen.

Japan is busily extending it's bullet train lines all the way from Tokyo to the very south, and this line had just opened some months ago. One of the main differences between travelling on trains in other parts of the world and Japan is that here they don't bother laying railway tracks around hills and mountains - they just put a tunnel straight through. So, on the trip down to Kagoshima we were underground about a third of the time, but it was a really fast trip. At Expo, Japan Railways had been displaying their new maglev shinkansen which had just done 500km/h in trials.

I arrived and sorted out a room in a ryokan, or Japanese guesthouse, then jumped on the ferry. Kagoshima overlooks Japan's most active volcanoe, Sakurajima, and that was where I was headed. It used to be an island but during one of it's more recent eruptions the lava it threw out filled in the 70m deep channel on one of it's sides.

I was about 1000km south of Tokyo now and there were palm trees and flowers blooming everywhere. As I was walking along, I suddenly realised something. After ten days of being in Tokyo and Kyoto looking at tourist sights, I had finally come to a piece of the real Japan - and that made me happy.

April 18, 2005

Asses of Fire

The following day I caught a train to the onsen, or hot spring, town of Ibusuki with Shinya, a Japanese guy whom I'd met in the guesthouse. There, we had a huge noodle lunch sitting on tatami mats in a small restaurant I would have missed as all the signs were only written in Japanese script.

We continued on to what the town is famous for - burying people in hot volcanic sand. After changing into robes we walked out to the beach where a team with shovels were waiting to bury us. The whole area is very volcanic - signs warn you that going swimming in the sea at low tide can cause burns; the hot spring water gushing out of the sand is 80c. Being buried feels a little strange. The hot sand is very relaxing, however, and I could have fallen asleep if my arse hadn't soon begun to feel like it was on fire. Ten minutes is the recommended cooking time, after which you proceed to traditional Japanese style communal baths. These basically involve soaping yourself up whilst sitting on a small stool. I went to check out the sauna to see how it compared to Finland, and it was the first sauna I'd ever been to with a big television inside it! There was no way to throw water on the stove, however, as it was all electronically controlled at a constant 79c.

I left the spa feeling like my circulation had been given a good workout, and so relaxed that I slept all the way back to Kagoshima on the train.

April 19, 2005

Turning Japanese

My next destination was a small place by the sea called Hagi but I hadn't realised quite how difficult it would be to get there. It took eight different trains and the whole day before I finally stumbled into the youth hostel.

Having spent far too many nights in hostels over the years, I now realise that it's often a special kind of person who works in them. They're either straight out of the army or straight out of a psychiatric prison. While I was completing the check-in form I noticed the guy on the counter, who was very friendly in a disturbing Graham Norton sort of way, noting down random details about me - like the airline from my baggage tag and the make of my phone. Was he planning to creep into my room in the middle of the night, execute me with a samurai sword then take over my life? If so, I could probably do with a drink, so I left my bag in the coldest room in all of Japan and headed out.

I'd been walking for about twenty minutes, listening to my iPod, and trying to find the centre of town, when a police car pulled up. Rammstein (Matrix soundtrack) was filling my head and I wondered if I'd been walking in an anti-establishment sort of way. Two policemen jumped out and rushed over to me, shouting in Japanese. Maybe I've been here too long but it was only by shining a torch into my face that they realised I wasn't Japanese, and they were immediately very embarrassed to have stopped me. They didn't speak any English but seemed to think it was suspicious that I was walking around in the dark. I showed them my passport and a crumpled map, and tried to look lost to convince them that I was out to find a bar and not to rob one of their temples. With this they seemed happy, thanked me, and went on their way. I suppose this is why Japan has such a low crime rate.

April 20, 2005

Capsule Hotels

After wandering around Hagi's old buildings and temples I caught the first of many trains that would take me back to Tokyo and the big city once more.

It was evening by the time the shinkansen sped past Ginza's illuminated buildings and arrived in Tokyo's main station. I didn't have a room booked as my plan was to hunt around and find one of Japan's famed capsule hotels to spend the night in. I dropped my bag off into a locker and set off to look for my fibreglass coffin for the night.

In no time at all I was booked into the Riverside Capsule hotel in Asakusa district - and very nice it seemed to. You leave your clothes and belongings in a locker downstairs and a towel, toothbrush, razor and Japanese style pyjamas are provided for you. You then take the lift to the top floor where there's a traditional Japanese bath and sauna. Then you proceed to your capsule which has a television, radio, lighting, air-conditioning, and an alarm clock built into it. They're about 2m by 1m by 1m so it doesn't feel particularly claustrophobic inside and it's big enough to sit up in.

Apparently, as hotel prices have dropped over recent years in Japan, capsule hotels are becoming something of an endangered species, which is a shame as I think they should exist in other parts of the world as well. I'd read that they're often full of drunken salarymen who have missed the last train home, but I enjoyed a very peaceful, pleasant night there.

April 21, 2005

Seduced by Sony PSP

I couldn't resist one any longer and as the European launch has been delayed for months, I bought myself a Sony PSP the other day. Though I haven't been into gaming for years I suspect I could get hooked as the graphics and controls are just so good on it. It's also a great screen for watching movies or looking through photos on. Additionaly, there's a lot of rumours that Sony could use it as their next PDA platform now that they've dropped their Palm licence (quite rightly as Palm seem to have just stagnated over the last five years with hardly any imporvements to the OS). It's already been hacked to work as a web browser, ICQ client, and ebook reader,though I fully suspect that Carita is going to steal it away before I get a chance to use it for anything like that.

Update
: Sony just confirmed it won't launch in Europe until September.

April 22, 2005

Emerging Science Museum

I'm in the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation at the moment and it's really quite impressive, set in a futuristic building in Tokyo's waterfront district that you reach by maglev railway over a high, arching bridge. So far I've been in a 300km/hr electric car, and finally got to see Honda's Asimo robot, who appeared to be stoned and just stared at me, nodding it's head continuously. They also have good displays on superconduction, micro-machines, robotics, and 'environmentally symbiotic housing' - whatever that is.

April 27, 2005

Flying Back to Europe

My last days in Tokyo turned out to be really hectic and I didn't get a chance to blog anything before I boarded my long flight back to Finland with SAS. It was a disappointing flight - the stewardesses were rude, especially to the Japanese, and the Airbus seats only reclined six inches, making me feel like I was going to have bed sores across my arse by the time we reached Europe. SAS had been boasting that they had wi-fi on all flights between Asia and Scandinavia but when I asked about it they replied, " Well, we do... but it's not working."

Eleven hours later we touched down in Copenhagen. I'd arranged to meet up with Lisbeth and Jesper for something to eat, and soon enough I'd been persuaded to see Nina as well, whom I hadn't seen since I was going out with her over two years ago. As usual, I'd left it too late to start packing on my last night in Tokyo, had ended up wandering around Japanese supermarkets at midnight, and had only managed to get a few hours sleep before heading to the airport. Hence, I was pretty spaced out by this time, and stringing simple sentences together was becoming something of a challenge. Nonetheless, meeting up with Nina and clearing the air turned out to be one of the best things I could have done with six hours in Copenhagen; but then again there isn't much else to do there.

After repossessing my ice skates and being forced to drink a lot of Danish beer I narrowly managed to catch my onward flight to Helsinki while they inexplicably paged me in Polish over the airport intercom. After flying westwards through seven time zones that day in a desperate attempt to stay young forever, somewhere over the Baltic time finally caught up with me and I arrived in Finland one year older. I felt bad. It was now 24 hours since I'd left the hotel in Tokyo, I was exhausted, aching from carrying too much luggage, and jet-lagged. Or maybe this was just what being 34 felt like. Getting out my seat was difficult. I collected my bags, which were the last on the belt apart from that one bag that no-one ever picks up as the person who owns it has died or been taken away by immigration, and it just spins around in the airport all night on it's own after everyone has left.

It was fantastic to see Carita again, who'd brought Ira to the airport to meet me as well, and it felt like we'd been apart for months. All the airport buses had stopped running by this time, however, and strangely it took us some time to find a taxi driver who didn't mind a Rottweiler in his car and we could finally get back to the flat.

The whole Japan trip was a fantastic experience in one of the friendliest countries I've ever been lucky enough to travel to and, as much of the time I was so busy there, rushing around trying to fit in as much as possible, I'll carry on writing about all the things I didn't have time to blog.

April 28, 2005

Toilet Attack

At the weekend I decided it was time to get to the bottom of Japanese culture, and headed to Toto's main showroom in Shinjuku to check out the home of the electric toilet. Toto are one of the country's main kitchen and bathroom manufacturers and their showroom and sales office is on the 35th and 36th floors of a skyscraper looking out across Tokyo. It was mainly full of young, childless (as seems to be the norm in Japan) couples, discussing the merits of the massive kitchen sinks and small, space-saving baths on display, but my interest was on the upper floor where some of the most advanced toilets in the world lay waiting to be explored.

Many of them I'd had the pleasure of using already, however, I particularly liked the mp3 playing model with a wireless LCD control console for all of it's features and optional plug-on speakers. Another toilet had a 'flush sound' button which, when pressed, played a recording of a flush to protect your modesty. I began to think seriously about buying one, with prices from around £150 and the entire mechanism built into the toilet lid, most could be retro-fitted to normal toilets and would surely make a huge improvement to my quality of life given the amount of time I spend in the bathroom. I somehow resisted though, and headed for the aptly named, Trylet Zone.

This was my big chance to actively participate with any Toto toilet of my choice. The problem was that I didn't really feel the need, but of course I resolved to do my best or else I would have just appeared rude. I chose the most advanced model I could find, with an entire armful of buttons and control knobs, and as I sat down the heated seat kicked into action. With so many controls, however, there was no room for the explanatory graphics that I had become used to; instead there were only Japanese characters, so I decided to play around and try to figure it out. After a couple of button presses I found an interesting looking one and hit it. A pressurised jet of heated water shot out, hit me in the balls, causing me instinctively to jump up! Such was the force that it sprayed my legs then flew across the cubicle, and pissed water all over my jacket hanging on the back of the door whilst I tried frantically to shut it off!

It was certainly time to leave the showroom. I tried to attract as little attention as possible as I sneaked out but several people noticed the trail of water behind me and were obviously wondering how I managed to get myself soaking wet.

May 1, 2005

Japan on a Budget

One of the most surprising things about Japan was that, contrary to popular belief, it's not such an expensive country to visit. Overall, it turned out to be very similar to the cost of travelling in Europe, with meals and food being much cheaper. In fact it's quite common to hear Japanese people who have been to Europe complaining about the high costs of travelling in Britain.

One of the biggest costs in Japan is long distance travel, though again, it's not really any more expensive than a lot of European countries and buying a Japan Rail Pass makes it very reasonable if you plan to embark on even a few journeys in the country. Local travel in towns and cities is not particularly expensive and all the transport systems are very fast and efficient, although Tokyo's metro and rail map is terrifyingly complex unless you really know where you're going - even the locals get lost!

Another major cost is accommodation, but even here prices have dropped considerably over the last ten years or so. This, together with the fall in value of the yen means that, once again it isn't really any more expensive than Britain or other major European countries. A bed in a youth hostel or a capsule hotel costs around ¥3000 (€21) a night and a cheap business hotel or guesthouse might be around ¥5500 (€39). Buying or renting property, however, is still very expensive, especially in Tokyo, where simply renting a car parking space outside your house can cost ¥40,000 (€285) a month.

Food in Japan, like elsewhere in Asia, is remarkably cheap. It's easy to find a bowl of noodles for ¥300 (€2), a filling meal for ¥700 (€5), or you can fill yourself up in a cheap sushi bar for around ¥1000-¥1400 (€7-€10). Many restaurants often have lunch specials, and these are the best times to try somewhere more expensive. Another good option for lunch is a bento, or Japanese lunchbox, traditionally consisting of rice, fish, or meat, with one or more cooked or pickled vegetables - they tend to be very tasty and good value, especially if you're heading off on a long shinkansen trip. If you're really trying to eat cheaply there are 24hr convenience stores on almost every corner where you can buy a cup noodle and there's usually a flask of hot water to fill it from on the counter.

Going out drinking in Japan is generally expensive. A pint tends to cost ¥700 (€5) and upwards, but a beer in a supermarket is only about ¥200 (€1.50). One thing to be aware of is that some of the nicer bars will hit you with a ¥500 service charge, even if you've only dropped in for a small beer - this tends to be obvious when the 'free' sushi arrives shortly after you've sat down!

Electronics tend to be cheaper in Japan, partly due to the low 5% sales tax and the fact that a lot of them are manufactured in the country. It's worth knowing the price of whatever you're shopping for back home as sometimes there isn't much difference, but the biggest temptation to buy something is because of the selection of new models that won't turn up in the rest of the world for months - if ever. Often warranties are Japan only. Western goods, and especially designer items tend to be more expensive.

May 2, 2005

Vending Machine Madness

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, like they're taking over the country, their fluorescent light giving side streets an eerie glow as they sit quietly outside shops throughout the night. With Japan's very low crime and vandalism rates they're unmolested as they dispense everything from burgers to used schoolgirls underwear 24 hours a day.

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association there's one machine for every 23 people in the country. People use them as well, often even preferring them to queuing in a shop as, unlike many vending machines in the western world, they simply do work. They accept notes as well as coins, always give change, and the whole time I was in Japan they never once spat out one of my coins or refused to take a banknote. Anyone who's tried repeatedly to feed a dollar bill into an American vending machine only to have it spat back out understands how psychotically maddening that can be.

Every floor of the Tokyo hotel I was staying in had several machines, or jidoohanbaiki, dispensing beer, soft drinks, toothbrushes, and access cards for the pay-tv channels. Apparently, there's even one on the remote summit of Mount Fuji. Many cheap restaurants have vending machines installed. The first time I walked into one of these and sat down the staff said something to me and pointed to the door. It took some time before I realised that they weren't asking me to leave but were pointing to the vending machine at the entrance. There are photographs of all the dishes available and you simply make your choice, put your money into the machine, and it gives you a ticket which you hand to the restaurant staff. Your meal is freshly prepared and none of the staff have to deal with the cash.

Vending machines really began to appear in Japan for the 1964 olympics when large numbers of people needed to be provided with goods in spite of a shortage of staff and space. Since then they've flourished into selling such things as noodles, pornography, vegetables, clothing, books, fresh flowers... the list goes on. Here's a couple of links to a selection of Japanese vending machines...

Vending machines of Japan photos
More wierd vending machines

Japanese Game Shows

nas-1.jpg
Japanese tv has been infamous the world over since news of Endurance first made it to the west, and some of the programs are as crazed and colourful as we're led to believe. Sometimes I just sat, staring at the screen without any clue of what was going on. There's lots of chat shows on psychedelic sets with a host who appears to have drank way too much coffee, but every so often the Japanese networks come up with something truly revolutionary.

Take, for example, a show called Nasubi. In this a contestant was chosen in an audition without being told what it was about, then stripped naked and locked in an apartment alone for over a year without any food, furniture, or entertainment. Whatever he needed he had to win by sending postcards off to magazine competitions. Once he'd won $10,000 in prizes he'd be released. Another show, Namidame, is about crying. In it, ten young women in a house compete over one week to see who can cry the most, collecting their tears in test tubes, and slapping and insulting each other.

Japanarama is a collection of "psycho TV from Japan" available on video, and some of the highlights listed include;

• A game show in which a grandmother has to answer questions about pop culture in order to prevent her grandson from being catapulted into the air by a bungee machine--the man screaming "Grandma, Graaaandmaaaa!" and the old woman bowing in apology just before he is launched hundreds of feet into the air.

• A beachside wrestling match pitting hulking pros against 90-lb. weaklings. Said weaklings are always tossed out of the ring, either onto an electrically charged platform or a giant glue trap.

• Martial Arts movies where the camera looks up the woman's skirt whenever she does a kick.

• A man with a chunk of meat strapped to his forehead sticks his head into a corridor, whereupon a hungry komodo dragon is unleashed toward him.

• For more violent wake-up calls, men with machine guns surround someone in a peaceful slumber and open fire.

• Stripped of his clothes, a man is smothered in butter from head to toe and placed in a cage with a half dozen dogs.

Quirky Japanese TV programmes
Scenes from Japanarama

May 3, 2005

Dahon Helios P8

Dahon Helios P8
Before I went to Tokyo I'd read that cycling was the most popular way of getting around in the city and this I found it hard to believe, given the traffic. Many streets have cyclepaths, however, and those that don't everyone rides on the pavements - even through crowds, avoiding pedestrians with a zen-like talent.

On my last week in Tokyo I began to notice that lots of people were riding folding bikes - a type of bike much liked by people with boats whom I've always ridiculed as I overtook them on my mountain bike; their little legs spinning the undersized wheels like crazy. This time, however, I looked again and noticed that a lot of the bikes had larger bmx sized wheels, proper gearing, and were keeping up with their bigger rivals.

I soon found some bike shops with huge selections of folding bikes. The fact that Tokyo is such a crowded place and most people live in small flats means that they're very popular for buzzing through crowds then folding up and carrying into your room. Soon I was hooked on the idea of getting one and spending my last days in Tokyo cycling around - and it would also be perfect for keeping on the boat. After a couple of days of research I decided to buy a Dahon Helios P8 and headed over to a big bike shop in Shinjuku called Joker.

It was packed to the roof with lovely, expensive bikes and I just stood drooling for a long time after walking in. One of the staff spoke English well, and when I told him I would take the Dahon he replied, "Thank you." I think it was the first time anyone had ever thanked me for asking to buy something and it was far from being one of their expensive bikes, but such is the politeness and respect in Japanese society that it's just normal. He asked me to come back in an hour while he set the bike up.

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When I returned he went over the entire bike with me, took it downstairs in the service elevator, carried it outside, bowed to me, and asked me to be careful. The service alone was worth the price of the bike - which incidentally was two-thirds of the price it would have cost in Britain. I sat on the saddle prepared to cycle off into the Japanese sunset; but the problem was that this was Shinjuku - one of the busiest parts of Tokyo - on a Saturday evening! The streets were so packed with bodies that it was hard to even walk through them - but you can't buy a new bike and wheel it away! I bowed back to the guy from the shop, and as I cycled off, the crowds parted like the Red Sea.

I did 25km that evening and ended up cycling back to my hotel at the other end of Tokyo. The bike turned out to be perfect for crowded streets - the handlebars are shoulder width meaning you can squeeze through anywhere wide enough to walk, and the gearing is flexible enough to let you go very slowly behind people strolling, or accelerate away fast when you get onto open tarmac. In the last days I saw much, much more of Tokyo than I would have walking, and cycling somehow makes you feel more like you belong in a place. I'd highly recommend cycling in Tokyo - either with your own bike or renting one, as it's a great way to get around such a fascinating city.

This bike also introduces a new way of cycling to me as, weighing less than 11kg, it's easy to fold up and carry onto a bus or the metro when you don't want to cycle anymore, and it's much less hassle to take on a plane than a full-size bike. Being able to do some cycle touring in combination with using public transport could prove to be an easy way to travel compared to my last big cycle trip. The tyres are low profile slicks, which are really meant for fast commuting on smooth tarmac so I've let the pressure down a bit to give a slightly softer ride - probably I'll change them over to an all-round touring tyre that'll handle the rough better.


List of Tokyo bike shops
from IAC Tokyo

May 6, 2005

Downloadable Origami

this is paper!
For someone who's all but forgotten how to use a pen I still have a strange fascination with stationery shops. Whilst in Ginza's massive stationery store Ito-Ya finding Carita a hanga woodcarving set I came across some amazing origami kits of lions and birds with life-like curved features.

Luckily I didn't buy any, however, as this evening whilst looking at outboards on Yamaha's website I bizarrely stumbled across downloadable origami. Not only do they have boring lions and 'rare animals of japan' but they also have realistic models of Yamaha motorcycles including an origami garage set complete with grease and a Snap-On tool chest! Just download them, print them out, and start putting them together!

"The challenge level and your satisfaction guaranteed!"

May 8, 2005

QR Codes

qrcode code for this site's url
One of the things I'd never seen before I went to Japan were strange blocks of black and white dots that seemed to be in lots of magazines and adverts there. Eventually, I found out that they were QR codes, or 2-dimensional barcodes.

These can hold up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters compared to the 12 digits that conventional (UPC) barcodes can hold. Many of the camera phones available in Japan are able to read these just by pointing the camera at them, and they then decode the data which often includes website addresses to click through to, or company information to store in the address book. This site will automatically encode any information, such as your contact details, into a QR code that can then be placed onto a business card or website. Up to 30% of the code can be damaged or obscured and it'll still work. It seems like a really good way to store and transfer contact information and they've been used in Japan for years - I'm just surprised that European phones aren't equipped to handle them.

QR codes Wikipedia page
QR code reader for Mac OSX in Japanese
QR code reader in java
UPC barcode reader for Symbian series 60 phones
Barcode designed as pizza graphic

May 11, 2005

Japan Photos

shinkansen
Sometimes there's too much to see on a trip, you take too many photographs, and when you get back and have to go through them all, spending days in front of iPhoto and Photoshop, you regret it and yearn for the days of slide film again. A selection of the photos from the Japan trip, however, are finally up on the site, my eyes feel like they're on fire, it's late, and I really have to go to bed.

Japan photos

May 24, 2005

10,000 Hippies Can't Be Wrong

The guilt is overpowering for my lack of blogging in a week in which someone threw a live hand grenade at Mr Bush, and the most successful film ever hit the cinemas. All I can do is claim to have been busy and stressed, and promise to make up for it.

I left Finland last night just as summer suddenly arrived. After a winter in the shadows, I spent the last weeks trying to adapt to a lack of darkness in Espoo. Attempting to get to bed - and usually failing - in the hours of dusk between midnight and two, before everything is, once more, bathed in sunlight, has proved just as hard as the dark, winter days.

I flew out of Finland with Ryanair for the same price as a flight with a real airline would have cost, simply for the love of arguing with the staff to get my bag onboard without a surcharge, then the pleasure of sitting, unable to sleep, in a solid plastic, non-reclining seat, getting haemorrhoids and being bombarded by non-stop marketing for three hours.

I then had until 04:00 to check in for my Sleazyjet flight to Ibiza, which allowed me several hours to perfect the art of sleeping on a cold, steel table in London's most remote airport before boarding the plane in a zombie-like state and getting pulled out for yet another 'random search' on the way (must get this chip out of my neck somehow).

The flight was full of numpties, whom I'd forgotten were now Britain's single biggest export, and it took intense concentration to ignore their yelling and pie eating enough to manage to pass out. I finally woke just as we flew past the myth enshrouded island of Es Vedra, and came in to land in Ibiza airport. It wasn't until later, however, when the ferry approached Formentera, that the magical power of the island finally possessed me again and the high, once more, kicked in. 10,000 hippies just can't be wrong... Can they?

July 15, 2005

Ithaka

Ithaka, by Constantine P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that one on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfumes of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

July 20, 2005

The Fly

Fly-t.jpg
If there's one thing that strikes you about Almeria, it's the flies. They're everywhere. And they want inside of you. They continually fly into your ears, land on your face, keep you awake at night, and are too fast to swat. Maybe there's so many of them because of all the fruit and vegetables grown in the region - the landscape is a patchwork of plastic greenhouses. They seem to have grown genetically resistant to poison; I pumped half a can of fly killer into one before it even began to slow down, and even that was probably just because it was getting too heavy to fly. As soon as you sit down outside with a drink they're in it, and you spend your social time picking them out and studying your glass of red wine for insects swimming across it.

So you spend your days brushing the flies away that are trying to land on your face until you don't have the energy to do it anymore. They land in your eyes, lay their eggs, the eggs hatch, and you go blind.

July 22, 2005

Granada and the Sierra Nevada

granada.jpg
Carita had a flight back to Finland booked from Granada so we rented a car for a couple of days to spend the weekend there. Almeria's arid landscape has been used in many Wild West films over the years including The Magnificent Seven, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and we drove past Mini Hollywood, an old film set which has now been turned into a tourist attraction - though we decided to give it a miss until sometime when we're truly bored.

Instead, we chose to detour from the main autovia and instead cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range, at 3481m, the highest peaks on the Iberian Peninsula. The narrow mountain roads twisted and swung into hairpins as we climbed higher and higher, often with a sheer drop down the mountainside right next to them, making it really exciting when onward coming trucks appeared on the wrong side of the road. We stopped off at the lovely village of Trevelez, which clings to the mountainside and is well known for it's Serrano ham, and continued on through Lanjaron, famed for it's medicinal water springs.

Finally, we arrived in Granada, which, with it's mighty Alhambra sitting high above the city, far exceeded our expectations and proved to be a lovely destination for the weekend. However, we didn't manage to enjoy the splendour of the Alhambra as Carita was intent on visiting all of the shoe shops in Granada instead. Nevertheless, the city finally made us feel like we were in the cultural heart of mainland Spain as we wandered the narrow streets, enjoying it's interesting mix of Moorish and Catholic architecture and baking in the 41˚c heat.

July 24, 2005

Escape from Almerimar

I stayed down in Almeria after Carita left, checked out some of the other marinas, and got the boat ready to haul out as I planned to head up to Finland. Almerimar turned out to be somewhat disappointing and had less facilities for getting work done on the boat than we'd been led to believe, but after checking out the other options on the coast it still seemed like the best place to keep the boat for the moment.

The one thing that Almerimar is notable for is as an impromptu drinking place. All the youth for miles around head down to the harbour on Saturday nights in their souped up hatchbacks, open the doors, crank their stereos up, and spend the night drinking next to the marina. The quay was packed with people, with probably about 100 cars, and rows of bottles set up on the wall as makeshift bars. I was pleased to see some life in the area but I'm sure most of the yachties being kept awake didn't share my view.

After the boat was hauled out I sorted up a few last things, packed my bag, and caught three buses to Almeria airport. Construction cranes towered along the whole coastline, building apartment complexes to sell to British tourists convinced that property prices will continue to soar.

I boarded my Ryanair flight, earphones sealing out the screams and howls of the other passengers and children onboard, and kept my iPod on until we landed in Stansted. There, I camped out on the floor, ate some sushi from Boots, and tried to get a few hours sleep before checking in for my early morning flight to Newquay.

August 4, 2005

Major Security Incident

My mountain bike had been living in Cornwall since I'd gone cycling there a year or so ago and, as I wanted to do some cycling in Finland this summer, I decided to fly it back with me. Luckily, one of Simon's friends was going up to Heathrow on the morning of my flight and agreed to give me a lift in the company's van.

After the bombings in London, security was verging on paranoia at Heathrow airport, and as the van was too high to drive into the car park they drove in front of the terminal building to drop me off. Immediately, we were stopped by two huge policemen who looked as if they were straight out of Baghdad, with machine guns, bulletproof vests, sidearms, and eye protection. None too happy to have their secure zone invaded by an ominous white van, they agreed to let it stop at the end of the terminal to drop me off.

I jumped out with my assortment of suspicious looking black waterproof bags and carried out the huge cardboard box with my bike inside and the van sped off. There weren't any baggage trolleys outside the terminal, however, so I walked a few metres away to look for one. A car pulled up and two more armed policemen jumped out and began inspecting my luggage for bombs (as you do). I owned up to it being mine and one of them began screaming that they'd already had a complaint about it and I'd apparently "caused a major security incident." I shouted back that if there aren't any trolleys outside the airport then it's physically impossible for me to get one without leaving my bags.The police then stopped shouting and agreed to go off and find a trolley for me. There was an El Al flight to Israel checking in nearby which no doubt added to the tension over my WMD luggage.

On arrival in Helsinki I discovered that, once again, my bike had been damaged in flight. It appeared to have been dropped and dragged along the ground, breaking some of the chainring teeth and bending an axle in the process. Seeing it, I wondered if it could have fallen out of the plane while we were flying. Filing the damage report took forever and the airport was almost empty by the time I surfaced out of baggage claim and finally met up with Carita.

September 15, 2005

Cycle Trip Photos

The photos from my cycle trip are now up on the site. It's also running Gallery 2 now with some nice improvements which I'm migrating all the photos over to.

Cycle Trip Photos

September 23, 2005

Back in Scotland

On Wednesday I caught a flight to London then flew up to Scotland to catch up with things here. Last night Colin and I went out for a drink with Andrew, which was very pleasant, then we went back to his massive new house in the West End of Glasgow and relaxed in his 12 metre long living room.

Colin and I are flying down to Murcia tomorrow morning, from where we plan to head over to Almeria then get the ferry across to Morroco, if everything goes to plan, for a couple of weeks of travelling and chilling out there.

Though maybe we should just sail here instead?

September 26, 2005

Lost Passport

We flew into Murcia, caught a taxi to the bus station, and managed to just catch the only coach to Almeria that would get us there in time for the evening ferry to Morocco. Being so close to Zamindar, I decided to quickly head over to check up on things, and after a couple more buses and a taxi ride I´d seen that everything was fine on board and I was back in Almeria to get the ferry with Colin. Everything was going really smoothly.

Just before we went to buy the tickets, however, I noticed that the zip on my backpack was open so I had a quick check to see if everything was still in it and discovered what all travellers fear. My passport was gone. Maybe I´d just lost it, or I suspect someone could have gone into my bag when it had been in the luggage compartment of the coach (passports are much sought after in this area, being so close to north Africa), but wherever it had gone to didn´t really matter now. We decided to head over to Zamindar and stay there for the night, but after slowly walking over to the bus station we just missed the last bus by five minutes and had to pay €45 for a taxi.

The following morning we decided that heading to the consulate in Malaga was the best idea to try to get an emergency passport when they opened on Monday morning. The coach stopped everywhere on the way, however, and after four long hours we finally arrived in Malaga very tired and hungry. After finding a cheap hotel we grabbed something to eat, I went to the police station for a police report, then we crashed out.

After about three hours sleep I was at the consulate just after they opened where I was told that an emergency passport was €69 and would only be valid for travelling back to the uk. I couldn´t use it to go to Morocco, or for my connecting flight from London to Finland. Instead I would need to go to the main consulate in Madrid in person to apply for a full passport.

So currently I´m exhausted and we´re about to catch a coach to Algeciras, from where Colin is taking the ferry across to Tangiers and I´m getting the overnight train to Madrid. With some luck I hope to get a replacement passport issued tomorrow and make it across to Morocco on Wednesday but right now nothing would surprise me anymore.

September 27, 2005

Quest for a New Passport

We left Malaga shortly after discovering that our beds were full of bugs and Colin's arms had swollen up in reaction to all the bites. After managing to grab an hour's sleep on the coach, we said our farewells in Algeciras and I caught the overnight train to Madrid. I was incredibly exhausted and was having more problems than usual with simple things like telling the time. I had a peaceful night on the train, nonetheless, with earplugs in.

I had to make it to the Madrid consulate before ten o'clock in order to get my passport today, so, needless to say, everything conspired against this. Train late, metro station closed, no taxis, and running through the rush hour streets of Madrid trying to find another metro station.

Finally, with veins bulging out of my head, I made it, only to go through rigorous security screening, have my phone and bag confiscated, then allowed to join the queue to talk to someone through a bulletproof screen. Thankfully, British citizens were given priority over all the bloody foreigners, and I handed over my stack of completed forms, police reports, and � 128.

There could, however, be a problem in granting my passport today, I was told. The applications were processed online, and although the consulate was in the offices above the telephone company's headquarters, their internet connection was down. Without it there would be no passports today. They did, however, say that this was fairly normal, and that it was usually working again by the afternoon. I hoped it was as my return train tickets were booked for tonight, and I'd very little cash left until a bank transfer would go through later in the week. Anyway, the weather was good and I could always sleep in the park.

I returned to the consulate in the afternoon, however, and was delighted to find that their internet connection had come back, and that there was indeed a passport with my smiling face inside waiting for me there.

September 30, 2005

Madrid to Marrakech

I caught the overnight train back down to Algeciras, the ferry across to Tangiers, and literally walked into Colin on the street there. This was just as well as we were each heading to a different cafe, thinking it was the one we had agreed to meet up in and we'd probably never found each other. Colin was as pleased to see me as he'd ever been, having been getting hassled by guides since he'd arrived. In the evening we decided to catch the overnight train down to Marakech; my third night in a row sleeping on a train; where we booked into Hotel Afriqiua and we've been just chilling out and taking in the souk since.

I'm writing this in an internet cafe; using a hellish French and Arabic keyboard, hnce this has taken ages to type.

October 2, 2005

Moroccan Generosity

After a few days of sitting around in the patisseries of Marrakesh and getting lost in the souk, we caught the coach to Essaouira. The landscape was dry and parched, with the odd skinny goat wandering helplessly around. The coach stopped midway at a cafe, and, seeing an old truck overloaded with hay, I went over to take a photo of it. The driver and passenger waved me over, and after saying hello, they insisted I take an audio tape from them. I tried to refuse (partly because I don't own a tape player), so they played it on the old truck's stereo which sounded so distorted that you couldn't hear anything then again insisted that I take it as a gift. Once you get away from the big city touts, real Moroccans are incredibly friendly and generous.

October 5, 2005

Rif Mountains

We're in Chefchouan, a town in the Rif Mountains now, and the trip here was pretty risky. Off back towards Spain tomorrow so I'll fill in the details later.

October 10, 2005

The Beer Run

beer runWhen we first arrived in Morocco I was intent on getting into the local Muslim vibe, deciding that I could exist perfectly happily without alcohol, content with the country's fantastic patisseries and mint tea for the duration of the trip. This state of nirvana lasted two days.

The only bar we could find was a depressing hole with old tourists drowning their sorrows, so, unable to handle another night in the heat without a beer, Colin and I set off on a quest across Marrakech in search of an alcohol shop. Once again we made the mistake of trusting the Lonely Planet's crackhead authors and their hallucinogen inspired maps so what should have been a quick trip across town turned into a three hour, traffic dodging epic.

Most cities in Morocco have a shop that sells alcohol somewhere, but invariably it's hidden, unmarked, down a side street, in the bowels of the town. In Marrakech this means risking your life dodging, Frogger-like, through manic traffic until finally arriving at the shop to find that it closed ten minutes earlier. After much more searching we eventually found somewhere that was open, stocked up with two black carrier bags of Heineken cans, and made the long trek back to Hotel Afriquia. There, relaxing on the tiled roof terrace and looking out at the floodlit Koutoubia, warm beer never tasted so good.

October 11, 2005

Essaouira

EssaouiraArriving in Essaouira, we ended up in tow with some Australians and a Norwegian, and, as the hotel we'd planned to stay in was full, we all rented an apartment together. It turned out to have one of the best views in town, looking out over the town's fortified ramparts to the Atlantic, and at only 500 Dirham (€50) for the seven of us, was a real bargain as well.

Essaouira turned out to be one of the prettiest, laid-back places we had a chance to visit in Morocco, set by the sea, with it's small, winding alleys, and mixture of Portuguese, French, and Berber architecture.

Spurred on by stories of peace, love, and Jimi Hendrix's favourite beach, we set off on the hippy trail for a walk to the village of Diabat, where he allegedly spent some time. It turned out to be an empty, depressing, concrete place with scruffy goats eating rubbish from the bins. Across the road, men were digging up trees from which many of the souvenirs on sale in Essaouira were carved, but with no replanting taking place the entire area was being transformed from forest into sand dunes. We cut across this semi-wasteland to find the famed beach, and it was, indeed, beautiful. Stretching for 10km down the Atlantic coast with fine sand blowing down it's dunes, it was far enough from town to be tourist and tout free - deserted apart from an old man fishing next to his donkey.

After our long walk we retired to Patisserie Driss, a lovely, mosaic tiled cafe with Arabic columns and drug fuelled paintings hanging on the walls - one showed a giant croissant floating high above the town's ramparts. Thanks to it's French history, Morocco's cake culture is as good as anywhere in Europe, and with abundant, freshly-squeezed fruit juices we spent much of our time chilling out in cheap cafes.

Lots of people we met travelling in Morocco fell ill with upset stomachs in Essaouira, and, although we were very careful with what we ate, we were both hit by Moroccan Arse Syndrome there as well. The entire town is often covered in a fine mist from the Atlantic breakers crashing on the rocks below the ramparts. It was only on our last day that we looked out to see a huge slick of untreated sewage discharging into the sea close to the town - maybe shit spray in the air isn't too good for your health?

The False Hedrix in Morocco Claims
Essaouira webcam

October 12, 2005

Tetouan Video

Here's a short video I shot with my phone (so apologies for the quality) from the bus in Tetouan's crazy bus station full of beggers and touts. The voice you hear is a preaching, old woman who boarded the bus to shout a sermon to everyone. Notice also the great name of the bus company, and the old man trying to stuff chickens into his bag.








October 13, 2005

Tetouan Touts

On the overnight train back to the north, we found ourselves sharing a carriage with Mustafa, who owned a lingerie shop in Marrakech. As he was unable to speak any English, Colin and I somehow managed to stumble through our longest pigeon French conversation in history, and we enjoyed discussing everything from Moroccan town planning to politics with him. It was yet another example of just how friendly real Moroccans are. Unfortunately, our remaining days in the north of the country would be characterised by being hassled by desperate touts.

It began in Tetouan, where, after our chilled experience in the south, we arrived somewhat unguarded. Travelling by local buses, we got off to change for the service to Chefchaouen, and were immediately met by a guy wearing what appeared to be a bus company uniform. He led us outside towards the souk to 'get tickets' for the connecting bus and alarm bells began to ring. Realising he was probably taking us to someone with a fake book of tickets, we tried to get rid of him politely, telling him we were going to spend some time in the town instead, but he was impossible to shift. Continuing to follow us, and now deciding that he would be our guide, we just couldn't lose him. The touts seem to go through a series of emotions to beat you down. First they're friendly, then when you tell them that you don't need a guide or drugs or whatever, they're offended. "I am not a guide, I am your friend from the hotel", they will tell you. Finally, when all else fails they become angry, and sometimes start insulting you. So this guy turned angry, telling Colin, who'd been polite to him, not to talk like that to him in 'his' country, then began screaming, calling him a Jew.

Somewhat shocked by this turn of insanity, we managed to finally lose him but immediately picked up another 'friend'. This guy was bigger, more menacing, but drooling just as much. Were we from Spain? His brother lived in Malaga. Were we from Britain? His father lived in Gibraltar. He only wanted to be our friend for life. Until, of course, we made it clear that we wanted to be alone, and naturally, he began trying to sell us hash.


We were drug country now; the Rif mountains are the biggest marijuana growing region in Morocco, and wasted people were lying around on the pavement and in parks. Tired from travelling all night, we must have looked like easy targets for the touts, and the manic hassle they were giving us was becoming quite frightening. We decided to get out of Tetouan as fast as possible, marched back into the subterranean bus station, side-stepping the zombies, and tried to find the right ticket counter. We were immediately surrounded by junkies, all desperate to con some money out of us, but trying hard to ignore them, we got the tickets, and sought sanctuary in a nearby cafe until it was time for the bus.

We sat there, watching the hordes of touts mobbing new arrivals, but even the cafe was a little like something out of a horror film. The toilet floors were covered in sawdust, and cockroaches ran around the grimy walls. Nervous, with the feeling that the whole town was after us, we made a dash for the bus, ready to fight off the grabbing touts if we had to, and jumped onto the bus to Chefchaouen where we hoped things would, once more, be chilled and relaxed.

October 16, 2005

Chefchaouen

ChefchaouenThe local bus finally arrived in Chefchaouen and the touts were waiting. Still a bit freaked out from our manic friends in Tetouan, Colin and I pretended not to speak English, and although this helped get rid of many of them, our backpacks simply attracted more as we walked through town. The touts were mainly guys in their twenties, tough, but unhealthy looking, with puffy faces from years of hard substance abuse, and their offers were always tinged with a touch of implied violence. It was impossible trying to get through town without being harassed by them so we sought refuge in a cafe once more, Colin stayed with the bags, and I went off to find a hotel room.

It was like being in the Village of the Damned. You could hardly move without someone trying to sell you hash or be your guide, and unfortunately, we'd now taken to ignoring most locals who spoke to us, as almost always, they would turn out to be touts. We were relieved to eventually get into a room, throw our bags down, and close the door. It had been a long, tough day.

We'd come to Chefchaouen as several people we'd met had described it as the most beautiful and laid-back place they'd been to in Morocco. It is indeed beautiful, set high in the Rif Mountains with a quant old, cobbled square, and blue painted alleyways, but the continual hassle from drug pushers ruined it for us. Many different things give two people a completely different opinion of a place, making it either paradise or hell; the weather, someone who insults you or is helpful, or just how you're feeling when you arrive. Probably being stoned out of your face for your entire visit changes your perception too.

As soon as we walked out of the hotel, someone was immediately trying to sell us hashish - and the slogan of the town seemed to be, "You have the paranoia" if you turned them down. Even a waiter said this to us when we didn't eat in a restaurant. It was all far from the chilled experience we'd been told about.

We did, however, find another favourite in the series of dodgy Moroccan restaurants we'd been eating in. Absolutely filthy, but packed full of locals, and very cheap, it made fantastic chicken and chip sandwiches with an added edge. You had a 50% chance of choking on one large, sharp chicken bone hidden inside them. Inshallah.

As Ramadan had just started, it was impossible to find any beer - but, of course, drugs were still being pushed everywhere. The only option was the depressing Hotel Parador bar, in which the barman seemed to hate everyone, so after hunting around the entire town we finally gave up on finding a drink and returned to the hotel. Usually, we went to bed fairly late, but we were in for a surprise here. Just as we were falling off to sleep, someone started walking around the streets banging a huge drum! This, we put down to the glue sniffing kids we'd seen at night from our hotel window, but it's, apparently, a part of Ramadan. The Misaharaty walks around the town at 03:00, banging his drum to awaken the inhabitants to eat their sohor (the meal eaten before fasting begins again at sunrise). Shortly after this the mosque gives it's first call of the day, so needless to say we didn't get very much sleep at all in Chefchaouen.

October 24, 2005

Out of Africa

Leaving Morocco
Even getting out of Chefchaouen wasn't easy. After walking to the bus station, which seemed to be halfway to Tangier, we were stopped as we walked in, told the ticket offices were closed, and that we could only buy tickets from the guys running the bus. It was Ramadan, and a lot of things didn't seem to be open, so we bought our tickets from them and tried to board the bus.

The bus was surrounded by the customary combination of touts / thugs, and as usual it was hard to figure out who actually worked there and who didn't. A dodgy looking guy with a social problem told us to put our bags into the luggage compartment, and as we were doing so, ordered us with, "Give me money!" Naturally, as no-one else was having to pay for taking their luggage and chickens, and we hadn't had to pay on our way there, we refused. We expected he would let it go at this point, but a ten minute argument ensued; we stood our ground, and he became more threatening. In the end, we were on the bus, sitting in our seats, and he was still screaming into our faces. Obviously, he wasn't going to give up, and rather than taking the risk of our bags disappearing into the landscape, we gave in and handed him a euro. We were on our way towards Spain today, and we'd done pretty well avoiding being ripped off during our time in Morocco.

Early in the afternoon the ancient bus rolled into Tangier. Strangely unable to find a taxi that would take us, we walked to the port, grabbing some fantastic cake and pastries from Patisserie Paris on the way. Sometimes it's hard to understand why, if Morocco is trying to encourage tourism, some things, such as Tangier's ferry terminal, aren't cleaned up. Arriving there, we were first hassled by groups of touts hanging around the ticket offices, hoping to get a tip or cut of the ticket price. The ticket agency, whilst being very unfriendly, then sold us tickets for a ferry which was allegedly due to leave in thirty minutes. As we walked up to passport control, however, the ferry was closing it's doors, then we were refused through immigration as the ticket office hadn't given us departure forms to fill in. The guy on immigration couldn't give us them, of course, so we were directed over to 'officials' (well, they wore name tags if that means anything) who agreed to provide us with the forms and 'help us' fill them in for a fee if we wanted to catch the ferry. We now realised that it was these forms that the touts outside had also been trying to sell to us. It was like the entire ferry terminal was corrupt - a very bad first or last experience for any visitor to Morocco. Naturally, by the time we'd gone back out to the ticket office, got the proper departure forms and bitched at them, the ferry had left, and we had to wait almost two hours for the next one.

The ferry, when we finally boarded, did turn out to be fast, and we stood on deck, watching the sun set as North Africa faded into the distance across the Straits of Gibraltar. We'd been told the boat went to Algeciras, but unsurprisingly, it went into Tarifa instead, from where we had to board a bus to Algeciras. By the time we finally got there, we'd just missed the last coach to Seville, which we were due to fly out from the following day, so we booked into a cheap hotel, and went out to celebrate being back in Spain.

I'd always felt that Algeciras was the ugly armpit of Spain, a grimy port town wedged below Gibraltar, and I wasn't looking forward to spending the night there. Soon, however, we found a lively bar, enjoyed the wonderful freedom of being able to buy beer again, and stuffed ourselves on tacos before finally staggering back to our hotel and listening to one of our neighbours apparently dying in the room upstairs.

October 27, 2005

Northward Bound

The following afternoon, we caught the coach, hung-over, to Seville. Since we'd left Scotland there were only three days in which we hadn't been travelling so we were feeling quite exhausted. It was my first time in Seville and it seemed beautiful with it's wide boulevards and old buildings, but with only a couple of hours to spare we made the most of it by having coffee and stocking up on beer for the flight. Flying back with Ryanair, the beer was essential, helping to numb the pain of their hard plastic seats.

Back in Britain, I spent a restless night trying to sleep on the airport floor then caught an early morning flight back to Finland. Stepping off the plane into the northern sunlight, it looked so different - the light was soft and blue after the bright sunlight of Morocco, and the autumn trees were full of orange and red colours. Dropped back into the luxury of the developed world, I spent the next few days seeing everything as an outsider. I would catch myself standing staring at motorways and neon signs, and watching people who had everything, going around looking absolutely miserable.

The trip had turned out really well, and I think during our time in Morocco we saw some of the best and the worst of the country; the intense friendliness of the people, and the desperate aggression of the touts. Although the Moroccan government have been trying to tackle some of the problems by introducing tourist police, it's hard to say whether, as tourism increases, things will get worse or improve. I'd definitely go back but I'd probably try to stay off the beaten track and maybe travel further in the south, where the atmosphere seemed more chilled.

November 11, 2005

Morocco Trip Map

moroccomap.jpg
Google satellite map of the Morocco trip including my massive detour around Spain to get a new passport. Clicking on a pointer zooms in on that area.

November 21, 2005

Off to Britain

I'm just on my way off to the airport to spend the next couple of weeks in Britain. I'm spending tonight in Hotel Stansted, then jumping on a flight up to Glasgow in the morning to catch up with everyone and spend a week or so there.

January 16, 2006

Tampere Airport

Carita and I are waiting in Tampere airport's godforsaken terminal 2 for our Ryanair flight to London - but we're very happy to be travelling again and escaping from the cold and darkness of Finland in winter. We're spending tomorrow in London then flying out to Bangkok on Wednesday morning for a month of badly needed daylight!

January 20, 2006

City of Angels

After a night in Gatwick airport we enjoyed a very pleasant flight over to Abu Dhabi where we changed planes. Abu Dhabi airport feels classically Arabian, with a domed central atrium covered in bright red and blue mosaic tiles, and sheikhs drinking strong coffee in a small, smoky cafe. In the short time we were there, Carita was taken by the warmth and friendliness of the Arab people we came in contact with - something I've always been struck by, and contrary to how the western media usually like to portray the Arab world.

Our flight touched down at Bangkok airport early yesterday morning before sunrise. Although we hadn't slept properly for three nights we were both very excited to arrive, hurried through the airport, and caught the shuttle bus through the rush hour traffic to Banglamphu.

It was so early that the backpacker mecca of Koh San Road was deserted as we made our way up it with our backpacks and sat down to have breakfast at My House Guesthouse. Dazed from the long flights and a serious lack of sleep - we'd been travelling since Monday and it was now Thursday morning - we sat eating our banana pancakes outside in the tropical heat as it gradually sank in that we were in Thailand. Flying somewhere is just travelling too fast for my brain to comprehend; it was difficult to grasp how we could move from Britain to Asia, from winter to summer, from cereal to banana pancakes, so quickly, and things felt surreal, like a vivid dream in the middle of the night.

Due to a small incident with a bug or two on a previous visit to Bangkok, Carita had made it clear that she didn't want to stay at my usual, cheap, friendly guesthouse this time, so after breakfast I set off to find some superior budget accomodation. Although we know the area pretty well, things develop so quickly in Thailand that new guesthouses had been built where old wooden houses had stood on our last visit . Soon, we had a newly renovated room in the terrifically named Happy House, with a balcony and more luxury than we needed, and we lay down for a siesta for a couple of hours.

The noise was so loud it felt like it was inside my head. Builders were working above our room, drilling into the concrete ceiling and it felt like being at the dentist, waking us violently. Unable to sleep we headed into Siam, Bangkok's centre for some food and retail relief, and returned to the hotel in the evening. There, we sat on the balcony drinking beer, watching a ladyboy in long boots dancing in one building, and a hooker hard at work with a foreign client in a hotel room. It was good to be back in Thailand.

January 24, 2006

Changover

According to backpacker lore Chang beer has amphetamine in it, and though this probably isn't true, strange things do tend to happen after drinking it.

The other night I ended up having a few Changs with some Thai guys on the street, then returned to the guesthouse, and fell fast asleep. Some hours later Carita woke to find me hunting for something in the dark room. I apparently told her I was looking for the air conditioning remote, then walked out of the room with her hair balm in my hand.

As far as I know I don't have any history of sleepwalking but the first thing I remember is standing in the corridor in my underwear, clutching some hair balm and having locked myself out of the room.

January 26, 2006

On the Train to Hat Yai

We're on a hot train with all the windows open to let the cool air blow through, having just left Bangkok, and heading down to Hat Yai in the very south of Thailand. When we arrive there in 19 hours we're planning to head out towards the islands of Koh Tarutao National Marine Park and relax after a busy week in Bangkok.

February 3, 2006

Out of Touch

We've been on the National Park island of Koh Taratao for the last week, enjoying unparalelled tranquillity, and completely cut off from mobile phones, internet, and email. Yesterday, we took the ferry to Koh Lipe, where I'm writing this over an expensive satellite connection, so I'll have to wait until we return to the mainland next week to fill in the details of all the incredible wildlife we've seen and what's been happening.

February 8, 2006

Bangkok to Koh Taratao

We've just arrived back in Bangkok after a fantastic trip down south to Taratao National Marine Park. We took the sleeper train down to Hat Yai - which courteously stopped as it was leaving Bangkok to wait for a girl running along the platform late. Eventually, the never-ending suburbs of Bangkok gave way to lazy, one street villages with dogs lying in the shade. The sun went down, silhouetting palm trees against the pink sky, and in the morning we looked out to see limestone karst, thick with bamboo forests, as the train made it's way on a single-track line through the jungle.

We were the only westerners getting off the train in Hat Yai, possibly because of recent violence in the south, and a passing pick-up truck, the back of it full of soldiers with machine guns, reminded us of the tensions in the area. After a quick lunch we took a minibus to the port of Pak Bara, from where the ferry left to the islands.

We were both a little disappointed to see how full of tourists the boat was - scruffy backpackers dressed in their near identical outfits, a girl with a child, and some old people including one man with a fan in the brim of his hat. The fantastic wildlife, however, began as soon as we were getting close to Koh Taratao, first with the appearance of a dolphin, and then the splash of a ray jumping out of the water. When the ferry stopped in deep water off Taratao, only six of us transferred into the small, rolling longtail boat that would take us to the island and the National Park headquarters - all the other passengers were heading to the rowdier island of Koh Lipe.

February 9, 2006

Taratao National Park

Although I've been to Thailand on several trips, this is the first time I've made it to one of the country's 100+ national parks. Taratao National Marine Park covers 51 islands but only three of them have any kind of accomodation or facilities. Koh Taratao is the largest of these, with bungalows and tents to rent or you can pitch your own. There isn't much nightlife, no internet or mobile coverage, and only six hours of electricity a day, but it felt really liberating to get away from all of that and get back to nature.

The island's an important site for turtle breeding, and although we were too late in the year to see any, it's still packed full of wildlife. It's also the best island in the park for hiking through the jungle, with several full day treks and four restaurants scattered around.

The sand was so soft it squeeked beneath our feet as we walked along the beach on the first evening. Crab-eating Macaque monkeys watched us from the edge of the forest, waiting to feast on the big crabs that would come out at sunset.

We soon found ourselves getting into a natural rhythm of wakening at sunrise and going to bed after dinner - something that never happens in Northern Europe. On our first early morning walk we stood below a tree with about forty monkeys in it as they jumped to other branches and ran into the safety of the forest then we continued along to the river and were amazed to spot a 1.5 metre monitor lizard run for cover.

Awed by so much wildlife I then managed to lock myself in the bungalow whilst Carita was at the beach. The lock had failed on the door and it took some time for anyone to hear my cries for help and come to my assistance.

Revitalised by my new found freedom, we spent the following day walking to the waterfall near Ao San beach. The last hour or two was through dense jungle and climbing over boulders as we followed the river towards it's source, but it was worth it. Finally we emerged at a waterfall cascading into idyllic rock pools, and as we were alone we stripped off and took a swim to cool down. The fish nibbled at our skin, making me more than a little anxious about being naked in the water with them, but it was one of the most fantastic places I've ever been.

Lunch with the Monitor Lizards

After several fruitless walks back to the river to see if we could spot the monitor lizard again, we were finishing off our lunch one day just after the restaurant had closed when we had some unexpected company.

A massive, two metre long, grey monitor lizard came wallowing in from the trees, went around the back of the building, and walked into the bin room. I went off to grab my camera, and whilst Carita was standing watching it a passing ranger shouted to tell her that there was another one coming up behind her.

It seemed that all the animals in the jungle knew when the restaurant closed and soon it was full of monitor lizards and monkeys, with hornbills sitting around in the trees watching the feast. A couple of the restaurant staff came over but seemed particularly concerned about the komodo-like lizards and beat a hasty retreat.

We slowly crept around, close to a large male monkey, to get a good shot of all the action. As I pressed the shutter, however, it instantly looked up surprised and leapt at me, screaming angrily and showing it's teeth, thinking that I was after it's food. With less than a metre from being monkey food myself I dodged away and we ran around the corner from it, but realised too late that we were now surrounded by hungry, large monitor lizards and a pack of monkeys. Suddenly feeling like the hunted, we had to stop and take a few deep breaths to compose ourselves before carefully moving between the animals and out of danger.

We stood watching all the beasts munching their way through the rubbish for over an hour, feeling very lucky to be able to watch such powerful, wild animals so closely. Eventually, a warden came over to the restaurant and we warned him about the huge monitor lizard in the building. He just laughed and said, "I know. They come every day."

Koh Lipe

On our last day in Taratao the sky turned dark and it began to rain. Carita and I had just returned from a long walk to Ao Taloh Wow on the other side of the island so we went for a swim while the tropical storm poured down. There was a sudden boom as we walked out of the water as lightning struck a cliff 200 metres away and instinctively we both ducked for cover.

Although the storm only lasted an hour or so it was bad enough that the ferry from the mainland to Koh Lipe couldn't go any further and put all the passengers off on Taratao. That evening we had our first taste of what Ko Lipe would be like.

We hadn't realised it until then but most of the people who visited Taratao were either peaceful and chilled or they couldn't stand the place and would catch the first ferry off the island. Suddenly, the tranquillity which we'd taken for granted was shattered as stressed out people shouted and complained all around us. Why was there no ice? Why was there no power? Why did they have to sacrifice their first born to the monkey god?

The following morning, after a week on the island, we boarded the crowded ferry to Koh Lipe. A French guy with pink beads in his goatee beard told me how he hoped the next island would have, "More enjoy!", rather than a lack of electricity. I tried to point out that it was a national park but he seemed adamant that they should be generating power from oil, or leaves, or possibly a small nuclear power plant.

We arrived in Koh Lipe and checked out the optimistically named Porn Resort for a room. It was scruffy and run-down, like most of the places on the island, and we eventually settled for the Pattaya Song Resort, run by two big, scary, ladyboys, and booked into a concrete bungalow in a building site. Lipe was hard to handle after Taratao. Although it's technically in the national park it's been destroyed by illegal development over the last four years and has something of a lawless, mafia controlled feel to it - a young girl working in a shop had a revolver casually lying next to her behind the counter! The main part of the island consists of a crescent of white sand, but a continuous line of bars, restaurants and bungalows have been built along it's entire length, ruining it completely. Apparently, the national park is unable to do anything to stop the development - they need the government to step in, but the government doesn't.

We spent two nights there, trying to adapt to the sounds of wasted backpackers, but in the end we gave up and escaped on a longtail boat to Koh Adang. Why come to a tropical island just to get pissed and sit watching Sky News in a restaurant?

February 14, 2006

Longtails

The longtail crossing to Koh Adang was wet and rough, with waves breaking across the bows, soaking both of us, but I was in my element - being on a boat and escaping from Koh Lipe.

Longtails are traditional small, wooden boats, often about ten metres long, with high ends and a partially flat bottom, made famous by the chase scene in the Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. They feel quite unstable when you first get into one, but having seen them now in rough seas they seem really seaworthy and are used across Thailand by most of the inshore fishermen, as well as for ferrying people between nearby islands. They're powered by the most bizarre outboards ever - 100hp truck style engines mounted on a five metre long driveshaft the driver holds onto, steering like a tiller, even lifting the propeller out of the water and turning it 360 degrees over the top of the boat to maneuver out of shallow water.

February 15, 2006

Sharks of Koh Adang

We were lucky enough to get the very last tent on Koh Lipe - all the other accomodation was booked by three hundred Thais who were visiting the otherwise uninhabited island for the weekend. Maybe lucky isn't the best word; the tent seemed to be a remnant of World War II, full of holes and of the ancient triangular school of tent architecture, with a central pole at each end to hold it up. I wished I'd brought my own tent on the trip, but we had a beautiful pitch at the top of a tropical, white sandy beach, our nearest neighbours were almost out of sight, and Carita set to work sowing up the assortment of holes in the tent.

One of the reasons we'd come to Koh Adang was to go snorkelling on it's coral reefs, which we'd heard were terrific, so once we'd pitched the tent we dived straight in. The sealife was amazing, with brightly coloured parrotfish, angelfish, and triggerfish everywhere, and it felt wonderful to be swimming over coral reefs again, floating weightlessly with so much action going on below us. We watched a huge, black pufferfish swim away and hide beneath a rock from us, and the water was so warm it felt like we'd never get cold.

We swam out to deeper water where the coral began to shelve, hoping to see something bigger, and suddenly the dark shape of a shark appeared about ten metres away. Powerfully and effortlessly, it slid through the water with hardly any force at all. We didn't feel frightened, just in awe of this majestic creature, though we were a bit on edge. A black-tipped reef shark, less than two metres long, it just swam over to check us out before disappearing back out of view. This experience was worth the entire trip by itself. Even still, we spent quite a bit of time checking behind us on the rest of our swim, just in case it reappeared!

It was really windy that night, and we were woken regularly by the gusts and lay wondering if the fragile tent would be blown away to Malaysia. The following day the huge party of Thais left and we moved to a bamboo sheltered tent. This was really lovely - a cross between a tent and a bamboo hut, shaded from the sun and built on a raised wooden platform off the ground.

Koh Adang has a couple of good treks, one of which is a near vertical 500m climb up a cliff face, which passes through bamboo forest and emerges out to a stunning view across to Koh Lipe. At one point whilst walking I heard a loud squeek from the undergrowth and spotted a rare mousedeer running for cover. The other notable forest trek takes you to Pirates Waterfall, and whilst returning from this walk at dusk a large, black snake slithered across the rocks next to us, and out of our way. We decided to watch our step after that.

On our last morning in Koh Adang we awoke to the sounds of a cockerel and looked out through the mesh door of the tent to see the sun rising behind the Malaysian island of Langkawi. We're convinced we're going to return with camping gear on our next trip to Thailand and spend a lot more time staying in the national parks as we had such great experiences and got close to so much wildlife.

February 18, 2006

Out of Paradise

Catching a longtail a bit later than we should have to take us to the fast ferry to the mainland, I couldn't really care if we missed it or not. The longtail driver seemed to share my feelings whilst, very chilled, he slowly loaded dive tanks onto the boat and detoured to pick up more passengers - who anxiously checked and re-checked their watches and questioned his short cuts across rocky outcrops and dry sandbars. The fast ferry left thirty minutes late as it turned out anyway, it probably always did, and soon Koh Adang was just a memory.

After a two hour trip of endurance squeezed into a tiny minivan with a dozen other backpackers and their luggage, we arrived back in Hat Yai and caught the evening sleeper north. Sinking into the luxury of a bed again, I was soon unconscious, and woke as we rattled into the vibrant, tropical megacity of Bangkok.

The shock of being dropped right into the hustling hordes soon wore off and it quickly felt more like coming home. We had lots to do in the following days preparing for our trip to Laos; I had my camera serviced, treated myself to a lovely new lens, booked tickets, and checked out the visa situation.

March 1, 2006

Back in Europe

We flew back into a cold Gatwick airport last week, Carita continued on to Finland, and Simon met me at the airport and we drove up to Scotland. The last days in Thailand I was too busy to update the blog but I'll get around to bringing it up to date, writing about the rest of the trip, and posting the photographs from the trip now that I'm back in Europe

March 10, 2006

Welcome to Finland

Within thirty seconds of touching down in Finland I'd had an argument with a drunken Finn who seemed intent on preventing me from getting my luggage out of the plane. I was then greeted by Arctic temperatures of -17c and forced to spend an exhorbitant amount of cash to get a taxi out to Espoo as the bus drivers were all on strike. Carita and Ira, however, were outside waiting for me, oblivious to the mind-numbing temperatures, and after travelling for 25 hours the long way from Cornwall, it all felt worthwhile.

Travelling without a laptop on the trip to Asia, I spent far too much time enjoying the break and trying to cram as much as I could into it rather than sitting in internet cafes blogging about it; and the guilt is overwhelming. Now that I'm back in Finland and it's a choice of going outside to freeze my nuts off or sitting in front of a screen, I can spend the time wisely, blogging about the rest of our time in Thailand and Laos, and uploading the hundreds of photographs I took - overcoming my Catholic guilt in the process.

March 12, 2006

Laos Laxatives

We boarded the 2045 to Nong Kai - the last station before the Laos border, and settled into another night of Thai railway hospitality. After a long, peaceful sleep, I woke to one of the train staff beating me on the back trying to waken me and looked up to see everyone leaving the train at Nong Kai station. We staggered off the train half-asleep into the bright heat of another day and were instantly surrounded by hungry tuk-tuk drivers itching for a kill.

Ill-prepared and still asleep we got into a tuk-tuk with a pleasant Japanese couple and an American woman so huge that the suspension lurched to one side as she boarded.She was one of those people who could never stop talking - and told the driver she needed to get a Laos visa. This, he was delighted to hear, and immediately took us to the "visa office." Unable to remember this from my last visit to Laos, and looking strangely like a Thai travel agents, it was suspiciously situated in the centre of town rather than at the border. Assuring us that this was the 'Visa on Arrival' we'd been planning to get, Carita and I filled in the forms, handed over our cash, and they considerately gave us each a glass of water, which we would soon regret drinking.

Realising we were being stung but too late to do anything about it, we were now taken to the proper border where everyone else from the train was now collecting their visas for a few dollars less. As we stood in line, queueing to get through, I suddenly began to feel very bad. The water I'd drank in the travel agents was starting to have it's effect, fermenting inside of me, and unsure of which end it was going to erupt from, I tried to hold everything in and hoped the queue would move quickly.

The fat American, who by now was sweating profusely in the tropical heat, joined us, the smell almost making me vomit in the never-moving queue as she continued attempting to have a conversation. I began to expect the worst, and realised that if I did throw up, the only way I could avoid hitting anyone with it was to run out of the queue and across the border, which would probably result in being shot. With this in mind I managed to keep control of my bodily functions just long enough to get my passport stamped and rush across the border into the nearby toilets. My first experience back in Laos was that of a filthy squat toilet which looked as if it hadn't been cleaned since the French had run the country.

March 15, 2006

The Rise of Vientiene

Vientiene signWe found ourselves in the familiar situation of all the taxi drivers insisting on hugely inflated prices for doing the trip from the border to Vientiene, and, banding together, they refused to drop their prices. Eventually, we were lucky enough to find a one-eyed tuk-tuk driver who, strangely enough, was much cheaper, and we jumped in the back as he squinted out through the dusty window with his good eye, and drove hesitantly out onto the road.

As we meander the twenty kilometres or so to the city I'm shocked to discover just how much more developed the country is since my last trip here in 2003. The main road is now surfaced, rather than the dirt road it was last time, and as we pass two suicidal surveyors working in the middle of oncoming traffic with trucks roaring down on them, swerving away at the last second, it's obvious that progress is continuing non-stop.

Arriving in Vientiene I'm astonished to find that what used to be a backwater town of muddy roads is now a fast-developing city with air-conditioned, glass-fronted boutiques and trendy cafes. On my last trip it was so rare to see other Westerners that you would say hello to each other - now it appears to be firmly on the Lonely Planet Indochina backpacking circuit with American teenagers hanging around the convenience stores and hostels on every corner.

Our half-blind tuk-tuk driver, whom we now suspect is also deaf, is unable to find the hotel I stayed at last time, so we walk down a few streets with our bags and soon stumble upon a lovely new hotel with rooms full of creature comforts for $20. We're both exhausted, I still feel awful, and so we crash out in the cool, air-conditioned room for a few hours, waken up feeling much better, and head out for that all in one travel meal of lunch/brunch/dinner.

As well as being full of backpackers, the city seems to have Landcruisers on every corner. Long the preferred vehicle of NGOs and foreign corporations, it's hard to say whether they're used here to provide aid or lay claim to the country's valuable resources as it opens up for business. The new cafes and boutiques are full of well-paid westerners throwing their salaries around, while locals sit begging outside in squalor, the stark contrast making it seem like the colonial times have returned to Laos.

March 16, 2006

Vang Vieng Express

Vang Vieng ExpressAfter a long, lazy breakfast the following morning, we decided to head north to Vang Vieng, which we'd been hearing lots of good things about, to do some trekking. Vientiene bus station was a crazed, hectic, concrete square of a place, with hundreds of people carting sacks and parcels around, shouting and yelling to each other.

After hunting around and asking a few people, we found the old, dirty, wreck of a bus for Vang Vieng, and clambered aboard over sacks of rice and garlic - the employees joking they were there to keep the vampires away. The bus slowly filled with happy Laotians speaking an alien language and piling ever more sacks between the seats, but apart from a few Thais, we were strangely the only backpackers on the bus. Vendors walked up and down outside the buses, trying to sell the most bizarre products through the open windows to passengers; calendars, posters, and all the things you need least on a bus journey through the country.

Finally the bus left, and after a long grind as it found it's way out of Vientiene's expanding sprawl, we were at last going through the Laos countryside, passing villages of bamboo huts, green fields, and climbing up into the steep hills. I was delighted to be looking out through an open window as new places slipped by, and the atmosphere on the bus was lovely as the happy locals headed back to their villages after a morning of buying and selling in the capital.

March 20, 2006

Vang Vieng

We got off the bus not knowing whether we were in Vang Vieng or just on a dirt road. Guesthouses and bars lined the muddy street but there didn't seem to be anything else to the place - it just appeared to be another ghetto of scruffy, pissed, and wasted backpackers. The mountains, however, on the other side of the river, towered above us, and although we were fairly appalled by the town and it's travelling occupants, we reminded ourselves that we came here to do some hiking, not to make friends.

Everyone travelling in south-east Asia these days seems to carry a Lonely Planet, treating it as their bible, and following the suggested highlights exactly. So you find the vast majority of people going to exactly the same places, travelling on the same buses, and staying in the very same guesthouses like herds of sheep. Lonely Planet Laos refers to Vang Vieng as a 'stop on the Indo-China backpacking circuit' and notes that 'almost everyone' rents an inner tube and floats down the river. By helping to create this backpacker package tour culture, ordinary villages like Vang Vieng, which were probably once quite pleasant, have seen a ten-fold increase in visitors and have now become overcrowded, ruined tourist towns that anyone travelling around Asia with a Lonely Planet heads straight for. The book even goes so far as to criticise the culture they've created, crying foul of all the restaurants and bars in Vang Vieng continually running episodes of 'Friends' and playing loud music to entertain their new found foreign market. Simply reading a Rough Guide description of a town and comparing it to Lonely Planet's opinion can give you a whole different perspective of a place.

After finding a hotel and dumping our bags we set off in search of some food. The town has long been famous for it's happy pizzas and opium dens and everywhere we tried was full of arrogant backpackers getting pissed and stoned, and rude staff. In the end we found a beautiful restaurant down by the river, which was deserted and strangely happened to be cheaper than the backpacker places on the main road, and we sat down to some lovely steaks away from the mayhem of the town.

March 21, 2006

Across Laos in a Plastic Chair

Across Laos in a plastic chairWe waken up in Vang Vieng to the sound of rain battering against the windows and look out to see grey, overcast skies and flooded, muddy roads. Hoping that the rain will stop, we sit in the Organic Farm Cafe, enjoy a lovely, long breakfast, and chat to a couple of cyclists on a 4000km round trip of south east Asia. As we'd been unable to find any other guidebooks in Bangkok, we too ended up with a Lonely Planet, and looking through it we discover that apart from a few local walks, it doesn't cover any treks in the area.

Finally, after watching the rain pour down for a long time we come to the conclusion that it's going to be raining for the whole day, and between the awful weather, and our lack of trekking info, we decide that returning another time on another trip with local maps is a better option than hanging around in the hope that the weather will be better tomorrow.

When we enquire at the guest-house about the departure times of local buses, we're told that there aren't any - they only want to sell us tickets for the vip buses; and there aren't any of those for hours! Looking down the road, however, I see a vip bus sitting there, and going out to ask, they tell me it's about to leave for Vientiene. We grab our bags and jump aboard, but there turns out to be little need to rush, as, after going around the corner, it simply stops in the car park for an hour.

More and more backpackers gradually get on, until finally, the bus is packed, and they come around collecting tickets. Discovering that we don't have any, the crack-head staff, who always seem to work on backpacker buses, go crazy - screaming at us, and insisting that we buy tickets. Of course we'll buy tickets, and we give them the money. Still people keep coming on board, and the staff now return, realising that they don't have enough space, screaming at us again, that we now have to give up our seats. Trying to remain chilled, as we don't really care where we sit as long as we get to Vientiene, we get out of our seats, wondering what they've got in store for us now. Even we're surprised, however, when they bring on board two plastic chairs from a cafe, put them in the aisle, and tell us to sit in them! I burst out laughing, asking if we get seat-belts and making jokes about it being vip transport, but no-one seems very amused.

Finally, the bus leaves, while we try to hang on whilst our hard plastic chairs bend and roll from side to side as the bus goes around bends. There's only backpackers onboard, no locals at all, and although we're travelling through beautiful countryside, everyone just seems absorbed in their own little world - reading and listening to music, with no-one looking out of the windows enjoying the scenery. It's like we're insulated from the real Laos on an air-conditioned package tour for backpackers with everyone being bussed from guest-house to the door of the next guest-house, then sitting in front of a television every night; going across the world to find everything they left at home.

After a long four hours in hard, uncomfortable, plastic seats we're glad to reach Vientiene. It's still raining, and Carita immediately suggests heading back across the border to Thailand; I readily agree. We grab our bags and walk away from it all through wet streets and catch a minibus to the border. There we're lucky enough to grab the last two sleeper spaces of the day on the train back to Bangkok, and we're delighted to be heading there, even though we have to sleep in different carriages.

June 15, 2006

Off to Le Mans

Since flying into Britain three weeks ago it feels like I've been on a manic, rollercoaster tour of the country. London, Oxfordshire, Glasgow, Bristol, Cornwall, and now today, back to London. Three weeks of too much drinking and too little sleep.

In Scotland I started off yet another long-distance route to add to my uncompleteted collection, and walked the first section of the West Highland Way with Colin. In Cornwall, Simon and I added another 28 miles onto our total of the South-West Coastal Path, along clifftops and past packed surf beaches.

In four hours, Nick and I take off to catch the dawn ferry from Dover across to France, driving down to cover Le Mans over the weekend, so I should probably try to get some sleep!

July 17, 2006

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Faye and I flew off to Sri Lanka last weekend from the crazed gridlock and crowds that Heathrow Airport becomes in July. Trying to tell myself that 36 hours of travelling wouldn't be too much of an ordeal, we boarded the new, comfortable Qatar Airways plane and settled into reading the papers and chilling out for the first part of the trip out to Doha.

Stepping out of the plane in Qatar, the heat blasted us like opening an oven door, even though it was only 06:30 in the morning. With only a few hours until our connecting flight to Colombo, however, there was no time to explore the city or check out Al Jazeera's head offices, so we sat drinking coffee and eating croissants in the still-being-built sterility that's Doha airport.

We boarded the connecting flight through a sandstorm, hiding the flat desert from view, and were immediately told that the flight was delayed. The tiny, cramped Airbus sat on the tarmac for ninety minutes with its doors open whilst the air conditioning struggled to cool things at all and appalling comedy ran on the in-flight monitors. The full ordeal of the trip had begun.

Somehow, by jamming earphones deeply into my head and managing to contort into very odd positions, I managed to get some sleep in the massively uncomfortable seats. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I looked out of the window and caught my first glimpse of Sri Lankan coastline; white waves crashing onto a golden beach before the view filled with hillsides of lush, green palm trees.

As soon as the aircraft ground to a halt on the runway, crowds of old Sri Lankan women who, until then, had been well-mannered and lethargic, sprung into a sudden, desperate scramble to get out, pushing and standing on me and anything else that came between them and the exit doors.

Asanka was waiting for us outside the airport and we jumped into the minibus and sped off southwards. Within the first few minutes, I knew I was going to like Sri Lanka, as we passed palm trees and bright exotic flowers growing by the side of the road and the air was full of exotic smells. It felt so good to be back in Asia. I'd expected the roads to be fairly crazy in the country, but it wasn't long before the depth of that insanity was fully revealed,
with vehicles weaving in and out of streams of oncoming traffic, swerving back in at the last second - narrowly avoiding a collision, and suicidal cyclists and dogs thrown into the mix that's Sri Lanka's traffic system. I'd thought I was used to Asia's frightening driving habits but the trip south was a white knuckle ride with my hair standing on end!

We screeched to a halt and Asanka jumped out to buy mangosteens and rambutans from a roadside stall, which we busily munched in the van until our next stop further down the road for rotis. The roti shop turned out to be a fantastic, grim, run-down dive of a place, and while a young boy showed me to the dim toilets in the back we passed bread baking on an open brick oven and stacks of long, straight firewood lying next to it.

Before I knew it we were back in the van eating fantastically spicy rotis and heading down the coastal Galle Road through the dark night with the air full of salt spray and the smell of the sea. Several hours after leaving the airport we arrived at our hotel, Mama's, and piled out with our bags past a bar packed with people drinking beer waiting for the World Cup Final to begin. We grabbed a quick shower then went down to join them, Asanka, and the boys in our exhausted state.

August 1, 2006

Sri Lankan Time

On one of my first evenings in Sri Lanka, we were invited to a small farm by a lake in the jungle. The farm was a tiny shack overlooking the water, surrounded by papaya and palm trees with a chicken shed and ducks, goats and dogs running around it.

They brought out some plastic chairs and a coffee table and we sat in a small clearing and I drank my first Arak, a Sri Lankan spirit made from coconuts, as flocks of green parrots flew past and the sounds of exotic birdsong echoed through the jungle. The sun goes down fast here. One minute it seems to be high in the sky, and the next it's completely dark. The boys lit a fire, and brought out a lovely meal of fish curry and sweet potatoes as darkness fell. The Arak seemed to be playing tricks on my mind as bright sparks of light began flying around the trees. I asked Faye if she could see them too and was somewhat relieved when she told me they were fireflies.

It was a truly wonderful atmosphere but after several Araks we finally had to leave as we'd agreed to go to dinner somewhere else. We piled back into the tuk-tuk to go, but there was a problem; it didn't have any lights that worked. After a long, long time spent trying to fix them, we finally ended up shining my torch out one side as a headlight, and someone else doing the same on the other side. Not that this caused the driver to slow down - we flew down tiny jungle dirt roads, dodging past other tuk-tuks and people walking.

After a long pit stop at another house our driver eventually emerged triumphantly with a tiny bulb, fitted it and starting the engine.... and it produced virtually no light at all. Off we flew again, obviously guided by Buddha, and pulled out onto Galle Road - where we were immediately stopped by police for not having working lights.

We did eventually make it to dinner but we were very much on Sri Lankan time - very, very late.

August 21, 2006

Life in the Jungle

After looking around at several places in town we found a 2 bedroom house just outside Hikkaduwa to rent for Rs10,000 (about £50) a month, with a lovely garden overlooking paddy fields and a back door that opens out onto the jungle.

The garden's packed with wildlife - yesterday we had monkeys in the coconut trees behind the house and huge ratsnakes fighting on the lawn. Just while writing this, a mongoose and a couple of monitor lizards have wandered past the front door.

Hearing that one of the big snakes from the garden often likes to come into the house for shelter when it rains, we had all the holes in the window mesh repaired before we moved in. Within days, however, they were all destroyed again as the family of palm squirrels that has a nest in a corner of the living room likes to be able to run in and out of the house from different directions.

The garden's filled with exotic plants, and has papayas, breadfruit, chillies, peppercorns, bananas and dozens of coconut trees growing in it, with brightly coloured kingfishers and sunbirds flying around them. After a rainstorm, the noises from the jungle are deafening, as all the frogs and insects come to life, making it almost impossible to get to sleep some nights.

Our first night turned out to be quite exciting - Faye's scared of spiders and I have a deep disliking for cockroaches, so naturally, we returned from dinner to find a massive cockroach and a huge spider on the living room floor! The spider, being as big as my hand, was enough to even scare me, but after a head to head with it I finally managed to chase it out with a broom, and Faye took care of the cockroach with a big can of Baygon spray!

Since that first nervous night of little sleep, things have improved and lots of geckos have moved into the house, controlling the insects, and chasing madly around the walls and ceiling while we adapt to living next to the jungle.

November 20, 2006

Back in Ceylon

After a few days in Colombo we caught the charity's van down to the house on Saturday - a three hour journey just to cover 100km due to Sri Lankan driving and the amount of traffic on the road. What was once a nerve racking trip down the coast against suicide drivers has now become a mundane weekly occurrence for me, occasionally livened by police roadblocks (looking for terrorists) or sometimes an elephant on the back of a truck.

Faye and I were quite worried about what we might find in the house after being away for two weeks. Monsoon season has gone on longer than anyone can remember this year, with the rain still falling in torrents every afternoon, and this seems to have caused a small mudslide in the back garden. With visions of snakes, spiders and families of cockroaches living happily in the house, we entered cautiously, not knowing quite what to expect, but things turned out to be all right with only a collection of dead bugs lying around on the floor, and our family of geckos on the ceilings. The garden's still full of wildlife, however, and not long after opening the back door a huge snake appeared, looking like it wanted to come in, before thankfully changing it's mind and disappearing away into the jungle.

November 23, 2006

Loft Inhabitants

We seem to have finally discovered what's living in the roofing space in our house. We've heard footsteps and the occasional fight coming from the ceiling for months and had been guessing that it was either palm-squirrels or a mongoose.

Tonight, however, there was a loud thud on the ground and we looked out the front door to see a small bundle of fur sitting there dazed, and a bunch of big eyed, inquisitive faces looking out from a hole in our eaves! The mother, black and white and about the size of a small fox, jumped down to rescue it and they climbed back up the peppercorn tree outside our door amidst lots of squeaking from the others. Later, one of the adults walked casually along the phone-line like a tightrope, high above us, before disappearing into the trees.

From the books we've looked at so far we think it's a family of Common Indian Palm-Cats, which look like a cross between a mongoose and a cat, but they're something we've never seen before, and we're constantly surprised by how many animals we seem to be living in close proximity with here.

January 27, 2007

Buddhist Squirrels

We came back to our jungle house last weekend after a week away in Dambulla and Colombo, unsure, as always, as to what we might find living there in our absence. Opening the door we saw a huge nest had been built in the alcove where the Buddha statue is - the squirrels had moved back in! We've always had one squirrel nest in the living room above the window, in which they have front and back doors so they can leave their nest to go outside or come into the house, but they've never gone over to the Buddha statue before.

During our first days back they didn't seem to come in. It was only on Thursday evening, just after 5pm, that I was sitting at my laptop and a face appeared looking around the curtain at me. After running up and down the curtains, sizing me up, it leaped onto a chair and then onto our bookcase edge, shimmied up that, along a tiny ledge at the top, and up into the Buddha alcove. There, it stood on it's hind legs checking that it's nest was still ok, before jumping into it, pulling it down over itself, and didn't reappear until noon the following day.

February 20, 2007

Trip to Bangkok

I flew out to Bangkok on Wednesday on a Sri Lankan visa run. Since the immigration department in Colombo have had Faye's passport for the last month she couldn't come with me.

After a short, overnight, sleep-deprived flight I landed in Bangkok in a daze and staggeredout into it's stunning new airport. After months in rural Sri Lanka it felt more like we'd landed on the Death Star with it's glass, steel and concrete structure.

I'd had enough of turning up at guesthouses trying to get a room in previous years so this time I booked a hotel on the internet. After a quick trip on the airport bus I was dropped off right at the hotel door, checked in and passed out on the bed.

May 1, 2007

Stuck in Singapore

We've been put up in a very nice Singapore flight tonight as our connecting flight from here to Sri Lanka was cancelled. Singapore Airlines are now only flying into Colombo during daylight due to last week's airport bombing there so we're very happy to have a stopover in Singapore until our rescheduled flight tomorrow morning!

Airlines cancel Sri Lankan flights

Look's like we're not alone with our travel problems...

Sri Lanka National Cricket team stranded in London due to flight cancellation

October 26, 2007

Slow Boat to Guernsey

I'm sitting on the slow ferry to Guernsey as it slides past Alderney on the smoothest crossing I've ever made to the island. Everythig outside is shades of grey; the water, the sky, the land - and completely still apart from the slightest movement of the ship.

I caught the train from Cornwall up to Chris and Berit's last night and we had to get up about 04:30 this morning to drive to Portsmouth to catch the morning ferry. This meant a two hour drive curled up on the back seat of Chris's lovely Audi TT as there's no headroom or legroom in it even for me. Still, I managed to sleep.

It feels good to be back on a slow ferry again - especially one that isn't rolling wildly in the English Channel - and takes me back to summer holidays years ago. Back in the days before fast ferries and everyone being in a rush. If only I hadn't had to get up so early!

November 8, 2007

Bouncing Back to Sri Lanka

The lightning over south India became more concentrated until finally it was flashing all around the plane. Our aircraft bumped and juddered it's way through, then plummeted several metres so suddenly that my stomach rushed up through my body. By the time we came in to land, the storm was all around us - shaking the aircraft and surrounding it with cloud so thick that I couldn't see the wing out of my window. With sweaty palms, we finally bounced down onto Katuniyake runway in the wet, 4am darkness. I was back in Sri Lanka. And glad to be on the ground.

November 14, 2007

Flying Tigers

We woke up in the early morning sweltering - the power had been cut so the fans in the apartment had stopped. It was only later we read in the news that the government, fearing an attack by Flying Tigers, had cut the power to the whole of Colombo... again. Surely the Tigers don't have GPS.

Flying Tigers trigger Sri Lanka alert (AFP)

December 11, 2007

Curry Express

I caught the train to Kanchanaburi to see the Bridge over the River Kwai and get out into the countryside for a while. One of the best things for me about Thailand is the fact that you're never very far away from food, and that's just as true on the trains. There's a constant stream of food sellers who get on and off at stations, walking through the train with delicious, freshly cooked food for sale. Chicken satay on a stick, chicken or pork green curry in small folded banana leaf bowls, fresh fruit and cold drinks.

So, as the package tourists on the train stared at me in horror as if I was braving salomenella, I ate far too much, sampling my way through dish after dish.

December 13, 2007

Death Railway

My guidebook notes that most people are disappointed when they see the River Kwai Bridge, which is odd as it looked exactly how I expected it to look. Maybe they expect it to have more architectural merit, like a Sydney harbour bridge dropped into the jungle, or maybe I should have more of an imagination the next time I head off to look at an unknown bridge. Ironically, the movie about it was filmed in Sri Lanka so I guess I could have gone to see the fictitious bridge without even leaving home.

In the centre of Kanchanaburi, the Death Railway Museum covers the atrocities involved in the construction of the railway line and it's interesting and informative. Then, once you've finished going around it you walk into the cafe which has a panoramic window that looks out across the prisoner of war cemetery. Nicely done.

What surprised me about the whole thing was to discover that most of the people who died building the railway line into Burma weren't prisoners of war but Asians forced to do it by the Japanee; Tamils, Malays and Chinese brought up from Malaysia, an workers from Burma. 42,000 workers brought from Malaysia died, 40,000 Burmese died, and around 13,000 Allied prisoners died - but the Asians, who are in the vast majority, are hardly ever mentioned at all.

May 27, 2008

Talangama

Last weekend Faye and her mum treated me to a couple of days in Talangama Villa - a lovely, modern villa next to Talangama Lake and nature reserve, which Faye and I had all to ourselves. Duleep, our regular tuk-tuk driver took us there through the maze of tiny roads that wind between huge houses, and we wondered if he would ever find his way back to Colombo alone.

The shock of suddenly finding yourself somewhere serene and peaceful with only the sound of birds after a week in the pandemonium of Colombo is incredible. It really felt like we'd gone far, far away rather than just a tuk-tuk ride - it was so relaxing.

We spent most of the time evenly divided between swimming in the pool and eating the fantastic food their chef seemed to continually prepare for us. Gehan dropped by in the evening and we did a bit of bird and bat-watching at his nearby hide. Very generously, he left his 600mm lens for me to use for the rest of the weekend - which is just about the biggest lens that Canon make - and very easy to get used to!

Hungover from too much good wine and terrific food as we were, I therefore had to make good use of it and get up the following morning to photograph some of the birds on the lake. We then spent the rest of the day chilling out and eating too much before returning to the dirt and pollution of the city.

October 11, 2008

Asia Bound

After what feels like an eternity back in Europe, I've just booked my flight out to India for Friday. I'd been hanging around waiting for last week's agency meeting in Paris - which was good fun and went really well - and now I'm more than ready to get back to Asian life, hot weather, and the best the third world has to offer.

October 18, 2008

Near Destitute in India

I landed in Mumbai just after midnight to discover that my bank had placed a security block on my card and I was unable to get any cash out. I'd been meaning to use the ATM when I was in Heathrow but had instead hung around the Apple store waiting to see if their new Macbooks would get delivered before my flight boarded. They hadn't, and here I was now in a different world, in the middle of the night, fearfully digging into my pockets for leftover cash.

After changing those meagre funds I caught a wrecked old taxi with a wrecked old driver and we rattled off slowly to the hotel I'd booked. On the way I tried to call my bank to sort things out but was frustratingly put on hold until the credit on my phone ran out.

It was 02:30 when I finally arrived at the hotel, knowing I was about to find out whether or not I'd be spending my first night back in India sleeping on the pavement. I explained the problems I'd been having to the receptionist when he asked for my card and thankfully he handed me the room key and told me just to sort it out in the morning.

From the room I called my bank again and within five minutes my card was working. It's hard to explain the excitement you feel when an ATM whirrs, counting out your cash, and your fears of being destitute in India vanish like a bad dream.

October 23, 2008

Off to Jaisalamer

I'm just about to head to the station to catch the midnight train to Jaisalamer, a 13 hour trip to the most western point of the railway line in Rajasthan.

Jaipur has been interesting, although bigger and more hectic than I expected; maybe I should have expected that with a population of over 2 million. Things are particularly busy in all Indian towns these days with the approach of Diwali, the biggest festival of the year. Celebrating the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, it's a time of giving gifts and giving thanks - a bit like Christmas but without the reindeer and bad music.

November 27, 2008

Not in Mumbai...

For anyone having seen the news about the killings in Mumbai and wondering if I'm there... I'm chilling out on an idyllic beach in Goa called Palolem. The pictures from here won't be quite so exciting though...

Troops confront Mumbai attackers

December 12, 2008

Palolem

I've spent most of the last weeks in Palolem, a beautiful, long sandy bay in the south of Goa that's lined with bamboo huts but lacks the big hotels and package tourists that fill other parts of the coast.

Strangely, I happen to be reading the Bourne Supremacy at the moment and I've just discovered that this is where part of it, including his run along the beach, was filmed, which makes my morning runs a bit more atmospheric.

Cafe Inn, just back from the beach has free wi-fi and a chilled garden to sit in - but watch out for the mosquitoes at sunset!

January 26, 2009

Making for the Border

I'm sitting in Vista Cafe having just spent a lovely week here in Vientiane with Leila, who's just gone off to Vang Vieng. It's Chinese New Year so all the trains back to Bangkok are supposedly full and the only sensible option seems to be getting on a bus from here. Still, something inside is forcing me to jump into a tuk-tuk, head to the border on my own, and figure it out from there, so that's what I'm going to do.

January 27, 2009

Don't Believe the Hype

I persuaded a tuk-tuk to take me to the border for 200 baht, jumped in with my bag and sped off towards Thailand at 10mph. The afternoon sun was beginning to sink across the Mekong and the warm light softened the buildings of Vientiane as I headed south. It felt right.

After the border formalities, a pickup dropped me off at the railway station and I hurried in to see if I could get a ticket. 2nd class was full but they had space in 1st class so I bought a ticket, grabbed some food and a Singha, and delightedly boarded the train to Bangkok as the sun set.

February 19, 2009

Temple of One Million Bottles

Ok, I have to blog this as it's online everywhere, is today's most viewed story on The Telegraph website... and I shot it.

The Sun - and their slideshow of 17 images
The Telegraph
Daily Mail
Mirror
Metro
Google news

March 12, 2009

Mosha the Elephant

Here's a few quick links to a story I shot last week...

BBC News
The Telegraph
The Sun
Daily Mail
Metro
Sky News
B-Z Berlin
Metropolita.hu (Hungary)
Expressen (Sweden)
Radio China International

My favourite quote about it comes from the Guardian as they proclaim this the Best Week of Animal Stories Ever...
"You could focus on the landmine issue here, of course, but let's not. Let's look upon Mosha as a rare symbol of the good we can do - or at least the harm we can undo - if we put our minds to it."

April 8, 2009

Sayonara Tokyo

I dragged myself out of bed just after 05:00 after drinking Asahi and chatting online with Nina until 02:00, and checked out of the hotel.

The sun had risen, the city was wakening up, and it was going to be a lovely day in Tokyo. The sky was blue and the air had the cool, crisp feel of a hot day brewing - chasing away the cold of the night that you never feel in the tropics.

I was going to miss Tokyo. It looked like spring was kicking off and soon it would be a hot summer in the big city. Thinking of everything that had happened on this trip that I hadn't expected, I pulled my camera bag into the elevator and disappeared into the subway beneath the city, wondering when I'd be back.

April 29, 2009

Koh Pangan

After the stress of shooting the Bangkok protests I headed down to Surat Thani to photograph a Monkey Training College there, planning to only be away from Bangkok for a couple of nights.

I finished the job at lunchtime, but really didn't feel like heading back to Bangkok and the big city so I made a snap decision to head out to the islands if there was an afternoon ferry going to Koh Pangan. I made my way into Surat Thani itself, had a pizza for lunch, and the women in the restaurant told me there was a bus that went to the afternoon ferry at 14:30. One of them even took me to it on the back of her scooter with my enormous backpack! It was one of those sudden decisions and it felt good.

The ferry left at 16:00, gliding away from the dock into the smooth blue gulf as the sun gradually sank on the port side. I called a couple of guesthouses on the east coast, thinking I'd head to somewhere chilled, but they warned me that it would cost a fortune to get there by taxi by the time the ferry arrived so I opted to spend a night in Coco Huts near Hat Rin instead.

In the pickup taxi were a bunch of Canadians and a Scottish guy called Woodie, and the Canadians asked him what currency we used in Scotland and we both started laughing! It turned out that he'd lived in Dundee for a few years, we started chatting, and he was living on the island and working in one of the bars.

The next day I left my room just to buy sandals, but ran into Leila in 7-11 and ended up going off for an extended trip around the island. Back in Hat Rin, I took advantage of Woodie's offer of some cheap drinks and sat at Cactus Bar chatting with him and watching the firedancers on more than a few nights.

The last days I moved to Lighthouse Bungalows, a collection of huts built on stilts above the rocks at the very south of the island, looking across towards Koh Samui. The following morning, I decided it was time to go and check out Koh Tao and maybe return to Koh Pangan for my birthday. I packed my bag, caught a minibus to the ferry and walked ashore onto the much smaller neighbouring island in the late afternoon.

May 1, 2009

Free-Diving Course

I was chilling out by the beach in Blue Wind, trying to get some work done and failing, when I overheard Kester, the Scottish yoga teacher, telling someone about a free-diving course on the island. Immediately interested, I asked him where it was, and a couple of days later I found myself sitting excitedly in a classroom learning the basics of free-diving.

After working on our breathe-up, we headed out on the boat in the afternoon and began diving in deep water. I'd gone down to 12m before on my own, and that was our limit for the day, so I knew I could do it. I dived right to the end of the line, touched the weight at 12m, and swam back up.

The following day was a bit more challenging. Looking down from the surface, I couldn't even see the end of the 20m line, the maximum depth you can swim to on the course, and it still didn't appear when I was swimming down. After a few tries, however, I pulled myself down the rope using my arms and as little oxygen as possible, reached the marker, turned around, and pulled myself back to the surface.

Next, was swimming down next to the rope, which is tougher as it uses up much more oxygen. I kicked my way down to about 17m, clearly saw the weight, and decided to go for it, knowing that if I passed out my instructor would take me to the surface. I hit the 20m mark, but out of air by this time, I turned around, knowing I was risking a blackout and began finning back to the surface. Trying to keep my mind focused and calm I was suddenly hit with cramp in both my thighs, but knew I had to force myself to keep finning through the pain. My Argentinian instructor met me at 10m (most blackouts occur within 7m of the surface), with her big, brown eyes staring at me, and I kept pushing until finally I broke through the surface. Low on oxygen, with bad cramp in both my legs and things beginning to spin and blur ever so slightly, I recovered and gave her the OK sign. Although everyone who blacks out free-diving describes the feeling as euphoric, I was glad not to experience it.

November 18, 2009

Bangkok Apartment

After a few days of hunting around, I moved into a nice, new apartment in Bangkok today. It's about a mile from Koh San Road so I can still head over to my usual bars and restaurants whilst having a base to leave all my gear at while I travel around.

January 1, 2010

On the Move in a New Year

I'm sitting in the True Cafe off Koh San right now, the sun's going down outside and I'm just about to head out to get some dinner then catch the 21:00 bus down to Koh Tao. I reckoned there was no point hanging around in Bangkok and spending money on guesthouses when I've got the house down there so I crashed out about 02:00 last night after celebrating New Year fairly quietly and checked out of my room this morning.