Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Slacking/off

I had a job lined up in China, teaching English to children on the western outskirts of Beijing. It fell through when the government refused me a visa, presumably because of my background in journalism. God, I was heartbroken when the school emailed me the news. But you don’t want to hear about a grown man crying.

I started to look further afield and what I found was not encouraging. If I couldn’t go to China I’d check out Korea, which is also desperate for EFL teachers. Or at least it was. Now, from what I’ve read, it’s flooded with them, and as a newbie in his early 40s I‘d be at a distinct disadvantage. Apparently what they go for are good-looking young people with American accents: three attributes I can’t fake.

I’d studied TEFL in part because I thought Asia was going to usurp the West economically. Well, it turns out that plenty of other people have had the same idea. Officially - and this is almost certainly an underestimate - nearly 10% of the US workforce is unemployed at the moment. A significant number of them are heading to Asia to teach English, which isn’t going to do much for wage rates.

I thought about getting a year’s experience in Europe but didn’t fancy earning a pittance. Realistically that just leaves South America, which I plan to explore several years from now. Maybe the TEFL certificate will come in handy then. As I’ve often said, it’s another string to my bow. But my heart’s not in it at the moment, so I’m going back to London to resume my career in journalism.

I’m delighted, actually, which is odd considering how miserable I was the last time I lived there. Look at it this way, though: I’ve recharged my batteries, secured a freelance position subbing a business magazine for three weeks of every month and, with the additional work I plan to do, I’ll be able to save quite a bit of money for the next few years. In tough economic times, that last point is important to me.

Maybe I’m retreating to my comfort zone. The six hours of teaching I did on the one-month CELTA course in Poland last year were certainly rewarding, and brought out interpersonal skills I rarely get to use when I’m sitting behind a computer screen. When the course ended - before I got distracted by a health scare that turned out to be nothing and a six-month trip around Asia - I remember looking forward with enthusiasm to starting a new career. So yeah, maybe I’m making a mistake.

But I don’t think I am, to be honest. Because I’m keen to plug myself back into the capital’s vibrant and diverse culture, rediscover its theatre scene, buy a Cineworld cinema pass, expand my skills through evening classes, get stuck into a magazine that I think is going to interest me enormously and earn enough money to pay for future international slacking.

I’m just glad to be working, frankly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gainfully employed


First the really good news: I’ve found a job! Teaching English, mostly to children, somewhere exotic. For various reasons I’m not going to say where just yet, at least not on a public blog. Only my family and friends (on Facebook anyway) are aware of where I’m planning to go.

I knew that my potential employer was showing interest several days ago, just as I was setting off for Phuket. The next day, after an interview I’d over-prepared for (always the best way), he emailed me a contract to consider. Having chatted again to him today, I’ve verbally agreed to take the job. Apart from a few nerves, I’m really excited.

In truth, I’ve done hardly anything touristy during my time on Phuket and I’m leaving tomorrow. I’ve been too concerned with more important matters (i.e. work and the Doctor Who finale). Mass-market holiday islands aren’t really my scene anyway; apart from a couple of strolls along the beach and round the shopping malls, I’ve hardly left my hotel.

One of the best things about this job offer, though - which stems from me shrugging aside the nagging, irrational fear that if I’m not careful, I’ll wind up in a gutter drinking meths out of a paper bag - is that it’s made me loosen the purse-strings and spend cash almost like a proper tourist, a habit I hope will continue in the eight whole days I have left before I fly home from Bangkok.

Actually, I’d made a start on this before the interview was even on the cards, when I‘d reserved a room over the internet. Since Phuket’s not a budget resort, I’d resigned myself to paying normal hotel rates for the three days minimum I was planning to stay here. However, because of a mix-up on the hotel’s part, the type of room I’d been promised was unavailable, so they bumped me up to the penthouse suite for the same price.

It wasn’t all that impressive - more like a small bedroom with a reasonably plush sitting room attached - but for about £23 a night (three to six times what I’d normally pay for accommodation) I couldn’t complain. Not when I’d forked out nearly as much for a poky room in Heathrow Travelodge six months ago.

When my three days were up I moved to a more basic room, mainly to use the wifi and continue my employment negotiations on Skype.

Now all that’s left is for me to make my way north to Bangkok and come home. Unfortunately, to do that involves travelling along a thin, lengthy strip of mediocrity and I’m bored with beach resorts in any event.

I could do it all in a 16-hour bus ride but that would be knackering and mean another week in Bangkok, so instead I’m going to split the journey into more manageable chunks.

A week on the road, a couple of months in Blighty and before you know it, it’ll be time for me to settle down again. And you know what? I’m really looking forward to those last two bits.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Film fun

How could I have been so wrong about southern Thailand? It’s beautiful here. Amazingly so.

Of course, I have just spent the past couple of days going on trips to its most picturesque spots. Movie locations to boot!

First I went on a speedboat, with about 20 other people, to the island of Koh Phi Phi. The Beach was filmed here at a place called Maya Bay.

Then I went by minivan and longboat to Phang Nga Bay - a national park - and dropped in on ‘James Bond Island’, aka Scaramanga’s lair in The Man with the Golden Gun. (Clip here)

Wonderful stuff.

No slideshows today (a) because I haven’t made them yet and (b) I actually took my shirt off on Phi Phi and photographed myself frolicking in the surf with my Speedos on.

I suspect I did it to record my slimline figure for posterity. The scales outside the 7-11 tell me I’m 83kg (13st 1lb) now. I was 105kg (16st 8lb) when I left the UK. So I’ve lost three-and-a-half stone!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Desert island digs

With three weeks of my Asia trip left I’m more or less killing time now. Lounging around in hotel rooms. Surfing the net. Watching newspaper-giveaway DVDs I brought with me from England. Even a spot of sightseeing.

I’ve been back in Thailand nearly a week. It’s nice enough. With hindsight, my worries that I’d be trapped among permanently stoned beach bums were a little overdone. Although, having said that, my visits to the island resorts have only just got underway.

Crossing the border in a minivan from Malaysia last week, the first thing that struck me was how scruffy everything was. That and the fact that every second or third business was a massage parlour or go-go bar. Picking my jaw up off the floor, I checked my Rough Guide to Southeast Asia and found one paragraph that reluctantly mentioned “the seedy brothel town of Sungai Kolok” right on the border. It’s a knocking-shop for Malaysians, apparently.

Hat Yai, Thailand’s third-largest city, is 60km away. It's utterly characterless but at least it’s a modern city with modern amenities, so I stayed for four days. The one time I went out was to visit the neighbouring coastal town of Songkhla, which is marginally more interesting. Only marginally, mind.

Sometimes I wonder if I might have missed a vocation as an architect, not because I’m interested in designing buildings - I’m not - but because I love to take pictures of them when I’m abroad. If the job of foreign-building-photographer existed, I’d totally be up for it.

Next stop was Koh Lanta, a west-coast island that’s pretty much closed down from now till October due to the rainy season. To be honest I’m not sure what all the fuss is about as regards the monsoon. Sure, maybe once or twice a day it’ll bucket down like crazy, but in my [very limited] experience these showers rarely last longer than a quarter of an hour and five minutes later everything’s dried in the sunshine.

Arriving in yet another minivan, fresh off the car ferry, I was met by a couple of young men from a family-run resort overlooking one of the popular beaches. They gave me a lift there, I liked the look of the bungalow they showed me (room A13 - fortunately I’m not superstitious) and I agreed to stay at least a couple of nights.

I’ve been offline since then because their internet charges were outrageous… as were some of their restaurant prices, come to think of it. That’s what comes of having an almost-captive clientele. In any case, even though the island is low on facilities and choice at this time of year, I did have an enjoyable day exploring the coastline on foot.

So now I’m back on the mainland in the port of Krabi, pondering my next move. I might go to nearby Koh Phi Phi (that's ‘Pee Pee’, not 'Fifi'), where The Beach was filmed. I might even brave the package-holiday mainstay of Phuket, which to my immense disappointment is apparently pronounced ‘Poo-ket’.

In the meantime, I’m adding something new to the blog: musical slideshows. I’ve been making these for months, ever since I discovered I could download Windows Live Movie Maker to my laptop. Each day that I take photos, there’s a corresponding slideshow to go with it.

Here’s one for Songkhla. I‘m not in it, but various buildings are.

video

Koh Lanta, on the other hand, is full of me being a narcissist, and a beardy one at that.

video

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An unspecified malaise

I’m heading back to Thailand tomorrow as I’m fairly close to the border, I’ve run out of things I want to do in Malaysia and I’m tired of being forced into the dossiest dosshouses by the high cost of accommodation here. I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy it, though.

For two days I’ve been in Georgetown, capital of Penang island in the northwest of Malaysia. I like it here, actually, but I’m happy to move on now that I’ve seen the sights. In some ways it reminds me of home, since it was the first British settlement in the Malay Peninsula.

It’s also very Chinese

and has a lively Little India.

So now I’m sitting outside my dosshouse, using the very good wifi - I have to, as there’s no plug socket in my cell-like room - and eavesdropping on some young drifters talking about the south of Thailand. One’s a 25-year-old Frenchman who’s been bartending there for years and knows all about the drugs, the corruption, the scams and the nightlife (to put it politely).

Christ, these guys make me feel old and staid. I also find myself silently judging them, rolling my eyes at the shallowness of their conversations and asking myself if they’ll ever do anything positive with their lives: highly ironic, given that in a moment of facetiousness I named this blog The International Slacker.

I don’t know if I’m going to enjoy the beach resorts. They’re not my scene at all. I may well end up just finding a good-value hotel with good wifi and taking a couple of weeks to apply myself - seriously this time - to finding some work in the autumn.

Long before I fly home, I’ll also buy a razor to replace one that broke a couple of weeks ago. But until then, I don’t mind going across the border with heavy stubble verging on a beard. From the travellers I’ve met lately, there’s no doubt in my mind that Thai immigration doesn‘t discriminate against scruffs.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Not quite my cup of tea

If I hadn’t been spoilt by Vietnam, and in particular Sa Pa, I’d probably have enjoyed the Cameron Highlands more than I have. Green and hilly scenery‘s all very well but, unless you count the bright, cheerful abayas that a lot of female Malaysian Muslims wear, the people and their fashions here are rather colourless in comparison.

Like Da Lat in Vietnam, the towns here were built as hill stations in which colonial Europeans (in this case the British rather than the French) could cool off. But the towns are very small - one-main-street-and-a-handful-leading-off kind of small - with not much to do in them except eat, sleep and set off on hikes.

I’ve been staying in a place called Tanah Rata, watching my beard grow. I’ve been hillwalking once, using a map of the various jungle paths you can take. It was rewarding in the end, but it wore me out and made me worry at times that I was going to get lost.

I’ve also taken a walk to the nearest tea plantation, a couple of miles down the road.

We've just had a public holiday, which meant that Tanah Rata filled up with weekenders and my room rate almost doubled on Saturday night. It was interesting, watching the Malaysian middle classes turn up en masse in their nice cars (shinier and newer than you’d see in a typical British car park, I’d say) and go on a spending spree in the tea shop overlooking the plantation.

I don’t just mean they bought boxes of high-quality tea bags in various flavours, although that was part of it. No, they also partook of tea and scones (or cake), as did I - for the experience, I guess, and despite a price tag of just over £4 that made me balk a little. That’s over a quarter of my typical daily budget! In fact it’s nearly as much as I was paying for my room. On a normal day, anyway.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sea shonky

I don’t quite know what to make of the port of Melaka in south-western Malaysia. During the 15th century, spice trading made it one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world. In subsequent centuries the Portuguese, Dutch and British all had a crack at running the place (as did the Japanese from 1942-45). But now it seems that marketing consultants have taken a quaint historic town and submerged it in bullshit in an effort to make it more appealing. The result is half heritage theme park, half shopping mall.

To be fair, I don’t suppose they’d see it as bullshit. I mean, it’s not as if the various museums are lying about anything - on the contrary, those I visited were appealingly laid out and informative. And what’s wrong with housing a maritime museum in a replica galleon anyway? You could argue that it shows imagination and ambition. The problem, I suppose, is that I wanted to get a sense of the real Melaka and what I got felt plastic and sanitised: all ‘heritage trail’ this and ‘visitor experience’ that.

Maybe it's just that I'm prejudiced against the modern world and its reliance on marketing and PR. I reckon it’s partly down to all the freelance subbing work I’ve done on marketing magazines, with their smarmy industry jargon and insistence on referring to human beings as ‘consumers’. Like Peter Finch in Network, I got to a point where I couldn’t take any more bullshit. So I see a tourist attraction professionally presented and advertised and I complain about it not being authentic enough.

In truth, I miss the innocence of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese tourist sites with their clumsily translated and often unintentionally funny signs in English. Malaysia’s too slick for me, I suspect, and all that Western brashness, which I embraced in Kuala Lumpur because I hadn’t encountered it for months, has quickly started to annoy me.

You’d never see a monstrosity like this in Vietnam, for a start. A big neon-lit mall full of Western brands and junk food, where all the posters are in English and it’s almost impossible to find a restaurant serving simple local dishes.

Surrounded by fast-food brands and with nowhere else to turn, I ate in McDonald’s yesterday for the first time in many moons. I won’t be doing so again because Malaysia has something else I haven’t seen in months: fat people.

Anyway, that’s enough stream-of-consciousness angst with a muddled political subtext for one day. Here’s a British colonialist in mannequin form, from one on Melaka’s museums.

I love how they’ve made him look like a bumbling but well-meaning twit, and I’m proud to carry on the great British tradition of wearing shoes and socks with my shorts. Now all I need is a pith helmet (or, better still, a Pythonesque knotted handkerchief).

Monday, May 31, 2010

Five things I don't like

The KL Tower

I was looking forward to taking photos from the observation deck of this telecommunications tower, which is slightly taller than the Petronas Twin Towers down the road. I didn’t realise that, following on from what I was saying the other day about my conflicted capitalist/socialist leanings, the tower has embraced the hardcore free-market dictum of “charge the poor schmucks as much as you can get away with, even if you’re offering them a load of old tat”.

I couldn’t just pay to go up there, oh no. I was expected to pay an extortionate sum for the observation deck experience and four tacky-looking activities I wasn’t interested in. The good news is that in walking away, I got to see all sorts of interesting stuff near the Petronas Towers as day was turning to night.

The banks at Kuala Lumpur Airport

They don’t change travellers cheques (what!?) and I had to try seven ATMs before I could get my hands on any ringgits (that’s the currency here).

Not being allowed into the prayer halls of mosques

Their gaff, their rules, I guess.

The rain

Is this what a monsoon’s like? I’ve never seen anything quite like it, except once when there was a flash-flood outside my mum’s house in Hartlepool.

Luckily I didn’t have much sightseeing left to do today and as the skies darkened during my visit to St Mary’s Cathedral, I decided to head back to my hostel. I’d made it halfway when the hard, driving, pelting rain came bucketing down.

A lot of Kuala Lumpur’s shop buildings have covered walkways along the sides but after nearly an hour waiting under one with no let-up, I decided to make a break for it. I was soggy within seconds but the real mistake was to try to cross a wide main road. Needless to say a car drove through a puddle in front of me and, like some sick tribute to a scene from Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, drenched me from head to foot.

Wish I’d brought a brolly.

This advert in my in-flight magazine

I came into Kuala Lumpur on the budget carrier AirAsia, which is based in this city and last year started offering flights between here and London for £99. You know the sort of thing: you have to book six months in advance, set off at some ungodly hour and sell one of your kidneys if you intend to carry any luggage.

BLIMEY! exclaims the advert. LONDON’S SO AFFORDABLE.

Is that so? Forgive my incredulous snorting. Let’s examine the “8 good reasons to go to London”:

1. The pound just took a huge dip.

Yeah, thanks for reminding me, AirAsia.

2. The famous landmarks are FREE! Pay nothing to see Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and Westminster Abbey.

Not if you want to go inside the palace or the abbey. Next!

3. Get rooms from £9.50.

For “rooms”, read “bed in a grubby 12-person dorm with people who snore”.

4. Move around London on the famous red buses for only £1.

And take forever to get anywhere. You can try the Tube, but it'll cost ya.

5. Shop till you drop at Primark from 80 pence.

Yes, and encourage Indian sweatshops while you’re at it. Remember folks, they’d be unemployed if Primark didn’t exploit them!

6. 60% off designer labels at Bicester Village.

Where?

7. 70% off selected theatre tickets daily. Catch Mamma Mia, Billy Elliot and many more daily!

Hmm, the subeditor/insufferable pedant in me objects to the repeated use of the word ‘daily’ and the fact-checker in me is dubious about that 70% figure. Even if it’s true, it’ll be 70% off top-price tickets for a show nobody wants to see.

8. Last but not least, fares to London can’t get any LOWER than at AirAsia!

Neither can copywriting.

20 things I love about Kuala Lumpur


The immigration rules

I don’t need a visa and I can stay in Malaysia for three months if I want. Not that I’m planning to.

The old railway station


A British-built fusion of Moorish and European design.


The Malaysian Railways HQ


Opposite the station and if anything more impressive.


Nobody bothers me


There are beggars, certainly, but Malaysia isn’t poor by any means and so there isn’t that overwhelming air of desperation you get in other countries. I’m not offered a taxi or motorbike ride 400 times a day and when people stop me in the street it‘s because they genuinely want to talk to me or, if I‘m looking lost, offer me directions. I feel bad for regarding them so warily each time. Force of habit.

The National Mosque


Modern (it opened in 1965) but nonetheless very beautiful and serene.


The traffic


The roads are wide and uncluttered. The drivers obey traffic lights. It’s such a relief to be able to cross over without worrying that I'm going to, you know, cross over.

The buses remind me of home


English is widely spoken


Which always helps.

Chinatown


Fixed prices


Because haggling is such a bore.

Little India




The food hall in the Central Market

Handy and affordable.


Modern convenience stores


I was sightseeing from 10am to 10pm yesterday and felt grateful that wherever I went, a 7-11 was never far away. Drinks in the fridge. No haggling. Did I mention I hate haggling?

The military put on a display


Just as I was arriving at Merdeka Square, centrepiece of the Colonial District.


The architectural contrasts


Old and new, side by side, and it works so well.


How cool the KL Tower looks in photos



The airiness of St John’s Cathedral


There are two cathedrals. The Anglican one, St Mary’s, is like an English country church.

St John’s, which I assume is Catholic, is much larger and the doors fold back to let the light in.


The cartoon camel on the side of an office block


WTF?


The Petronas Twin Towers


At 451.9 metres, these were the tallest buildings in the world from 1996 to 2003 and featured in that crappy Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta Jones film Entrapment.


It feels safe


As does Asia generally. Look at me, grinning away at 10 o’clock at night. Then again, if I was going to be mugged it wouldn't have been at the National Mosque.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Capital venture

Ohmigod, I’m back in the developed world again and the culture shock is reverberating right through me. I haven’t actually done very much since I flew into Kuala Lumpur this afternoon but I did go for a walk in the rain this evening and was reminded of what a thriving free economy looks like. A swish department store, its shelves piled high with books, glossy magazines and non-pirated CDs and DVDs. Modern conveniences on sale all around me. A McDonald’s restaurant! (Heart-attack food, admittedly, and foul compared to the unprocessed delights I’ve been eating lately, but I grinned on seeing this symbol of Western decadence for the first time in months.)

I’m not going to miss the big posters of Ho Chi Minh and his slogans. Or the songs about Ho Chi Minh. Or the TV programmes about the glory that was Ho Chi Minh. Or the way that BBC World News and CNN are broadcast with a 30-minute delay in case a report needs censoring. Or how, on some days, BBC World News was replaced with a “there is a fault”-type caption. Or having to jump through technical hoops when I wanted to use Facebook, which the Vietnamese government won’t even admit it has banned because that would go against its constitutional commitment to free speech.

And yet, and yet… for all its faults my affection for Vietnam is massive, prompting me to ponder uncomfortable questions about how much if its innocent, open, unspoilt nature is down to an authoritarian communist government shielding it from the worst excesses of capitalism. I can’t say, really (and if I ever start to sound like George Galloway bigging up Cuba then please, somebody shoot me). Besides, two-and-a-half months is nowhere near long enough to get the measure of a country, particularly when you don't speak the language.

Innocent? Unspoilt? I once heard two Americans agreeing with each other that on the contrary, the whole place was one enormous scam, full of chancers on a never-ending hustle for tourist dollars - and while it struck me as a sweeping, racist slur, I could see with some guilt what they were driving at. Oh well. Might as well admit my ignorance.

Before I left Hanoi I went on another day trip - to the Perfume Pagoda, a complex of temples nestled among hills about 60km away from the city - and had to concur with my guidebook that it wasn’t much cop.

I also had two consecutive nights out, which is almost unheard of for me whether I'm travelling or not. First I spent half an hour nursing a pint of beer at Minh’s Jazz Club, figuring that I might as well try listening to live jazz at least once in my life. Then the next evening - my last in Hanoi - I joined the tourist hordes (two of whom behind me would not SHUT UP), at the city’s theatre of water puppetry, which otherwise was good fun. Instead of paying extra to take my own photos and video, I thought I’d rely on YouTube for a change and sure enough, there’s footage aplenty.

I’ve been to Hoa Lo Prison too, known to former American PoWs as the Hanoi Hilton, though the museum there now prefers to dwell on the inhumane treatment meted out to “brave patriots” by French colonialists during the independence struggle. There are a couple of rooms devoted to the Americans, though, with wall displays maintaining that captives such as Senator John McCain were well treated. His flight suit is in a glass case and there’s a photo of him visiting the prison in 2000.

First impressions of Kuala Lumpur (or, to be more precise, the Chinatown area where I‘m staying)? Putting aside the architectural embellishments, the street food stalls and the ethnic mix of Malays, Indians and Chinese, it feels very British to me. The buildings, the road layouts, the buses, the three-pin plugs… Not so very surprising when you consider that Malaysia was a British colony until 1957.

I might add that this is the 50th foreign country I’ve set foot in… if you count Monaco and Vatican City (cheating?), Bulgaria and Romania (which I passed through on a bus, stopping only to eat and pee) and Belgium (half an hour in Ostend, in transit). I’d quite like to celebrate this achievement but I’m a tiny, bare hostel room with just a bed, a desk and a stool. No ensuite bathroom. No sheets, even. Just backpacker austerity measures.

Oh.

Hang on, I’ve had second thoughts about thriving free economies. If this goes on much longer I might well apply for asylum in Vietnam, where I’ll happily sing the praises of Ho Chi Minh if it’ll secure me one of those posh $10 hotel rooms I‘ve grown accustomed to, comrades.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Busy doing nothing

Hanoi’s starting to irritate me now. I’ve spent far too long here and I’ve run out of stuff to do. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were lots of interesting places nearby, but there aren’t. Those are all in the south of Vietnam. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ho Chi Minh (the best communist dictator evah, according to his ubiquitous personality cult) decided to invade because he was bored shitless.

Also, every time I leave my hotel I want to gripe about the traffic. All the pavements in the Old Quarter are taken up with parked motorbikes so whenever I go out to eat, I find myself walking along the edge of a narrow road, wincing as bikes, motorbikes and cars buzz past me. No one takes a blind bit of notice of traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. It’s so frustrating, there are moments when I feel like shouting condescending and offensive comments about this otherwise marvellous country. I’m going stir crazy, I tell you!

Deep breaths.

The thing is, all I’ve done this week is watch the latest Doctor Who (dull) and the Ashes to Ashes finale (twice, it was so brilliant) and go on a day trip to Tam Coc, which is like Ha Long Bay only less dramatic.

Ah well, I’ll be out of here in a matter of days.

I got back to the capital on Friday, having spent ten days in the Sa Pa region. Unlike most tourists, I made the 11-hour train journey during the day because I much prefer it to travelling at night. Next to me sat a young woman and her little boy, who I guess was six or seven. Since neither spoke any English, I concentrated on my guidebook and my mp3s for the most part.

Then an hour or two before we reached Hanoi, I took my headphones off and put my book away. This was my neighbour’s cue to offer to share some fruit with me, for which I was very grateful. Apart from a French loaf I’d bought from an old woman who’d shuffled down the carriage clutching half a dozen of them as we were setting off, I’d had nothing to eat all day.

Her son took a bite of his fruit and smacked his lips together. I did the same with mine and they both laughed. He did it again for effect. I let out a comical slurp and in no time at all, the little Vietnamese lad and the overgrown kid from England were engaged in a prolonged face-pulling competition.

Not far away, a boy of about eight or nine was looking on enviously and after a while he too became involved. I mimed fisticuffs with him and punched myself in the jaw. Suddenly it dawned on me that I had, in effect, become a part-time children’s entertainer. God knows what the other passengers thought, watching this white guy clowning around with a couple of kids while their mothers sat back and laughed.

I did enjoy it, though, to the extent that if I do end up teaching English in China, say, I’m more open now to working with young children. I think it might be quite rewarding, actually. For me, that’s a huge change in attitude.

The older boy’s mother, a Vietnamese woman who teaches primary school English, was dumbstruck when she found out I was single and childless. She reacted like it was the saddest thing she’d ever heard but told me, as I was getting ready to leave the train, that she thought I would return to London, get married and have kids. “It’s very enjoyable, when they cry, when they laugh…” I wasn’t at all convinced, though I appreciated the sentiment behind her comments.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Well, that's my Christmas shopping done


I’ve been on a trip to the Sunday market at Bac Ha, surreptitiously taking photographs of women. Actually, it wasn’t that surreptitious. I was a white tourist with a big camera and people notice that. So I’d snap-snap-snap away and then they’d spot me, with a look in their eyes that said: “Oh, another one.”

Bac Ha has the most colourful market in the region and, being a good two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Sa Pa, attracts a different array of hill tribes. To date I’d met Black Hmong, Blue Hmong, Dzay and various others (I’m not always sure which is which, to be honest) and here was my chance to see Tay, Dao, Nung, Giay and Flower Hmong in all their finery. Yes, I did just copy those names from my guidebook.

To atone for being a blatant rubbernecker, I decided I’d spend some money this time, despite the slide of the pound. (I wish I’d brought even more dollars now. But things here are still pretty cheap and besides, the hotelier across the road from the Summit Hotel, where I’d been staying for the rip-off rate of $15 a night, had offered me a nice room with a balcony for $8.)

So I bought a few bits and bobs for the women in my life and, each time a deal was done, asked the lady I’d been haggling with if I could take her photo.

My one self-indulgence was to buy a pair of green ethnic trousers in a moment of madness. I’d been travelling with just one pair of long trousers and one pair of shorts and the previous evening, for no obvious reason, the trousers (bought in Siem Reap, Cambodia in early March) had suddenly ripped just below my left buttock as I was walking to the loo.

Outside the restaurant where various tour groups were meeting at lunchtime, I tried the trousers on over my shorts. “They’ll do for sitting around the house in,” I said to my fellow tourists, using an old phrase of my mother’s. Then I took them off. Two minutes later, I noticed my knees had turned green and for a moment thought it was something medical. There were green patches on my shorts as well. Bugger.

I was chatting to our guide (a very petite, bubbly 19-year-old called Mee who speaks excellent English and is, I suspect, an example of how Vietnam is going to Westernise one day) when a fight broke out between two local men. As they stumbled out of the restaurant, one struck out violently at the other. The punch connected with his torso, carried on and clipped my arm, though by this point its impact had faded. After that we just stood back and watched them brawl until they were dragged apart.

Keep out of trouble, that’s my motto. Or one of them, anyway. Did I mention I’m supposed to be flying out of Bangkok Airport in just over seven weeks?