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.


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.


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


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.


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?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The hills are alive

These hill tribe women fascinate me. They’re ever-present here in Sa Pa, forever traipsing up and down the main streets as they attempt to sell trinkets, postcards and embroidered bags to tourists. They’re very friendly, often funny and usually good for a bit of banter. And because they’re women, and ethnic minority women at that, I don’t have the heart to tell them to piss off when they corner me and try out their hard-sell tactics.

This happened recently when I was drifting around town, waiting for the weather to improve. It was the day of my previous blog entry and the morning rain and mist had cleared for a couple of hours, only to return for half an hour and then vanish again within minutes.

I’d had the same conversation about half a dozen times already that day.

“Hello! You want to buy my things?”

“No thank you.”

“Where you from?”


“Ah, England… What’s your name?”


“How old are you?”


“You married?”


“When you see me later David you buy my things, yes?”

“Er, no. Sorry.”

While some are content just to follow me down the street for a couple of minutes, the more quick-witted ones manage to strike up a lively rapport with a mixture of jokes, flattery and sometimes mild flirtation. I have some footage of me surrounded by four of them - each one wearing the traditional female headgear for their particular tribe - having a good laugh as I say to my camcorder: “Ooh, I’m popular with the ladies today.”

Once they’d dispersed I turned into a sidestreet to look around the market, only to find that one had followed me and was trying to force brocaded bags and moneybelts into my hands. “Buy something from me and I can go home,” she said. “Do you have a baby? I have two, they’re ten and eight. You can come to my house and see.” (She looked about 55 to me; I guess she‘d had a hard life.)

The fact remained, though, that I didn’t want any of it and the emotional blackmail was making me feel queasy. So I stood there saying: “No. I’m sorry, no,” for about five minutes.

Oh, the questions this raises. What did they do before Vietnam started letting in tourists about a decade ago? Do they make a good living from it or are they fighting for scraps, as it were? It’s got to be more profitable than working in the fields with the menfolk, otherwise they wouldn’t do it, right?

Every morning they’re gathered outside my hotel, waiting for the day’s tour parties to emerge. Presumably they come here on some kind of motorised transport but what I didn’t realise until I did my trek was that they walk with the tourists all the way back to the Muong Hoa valley, about 12km away. It takes about four hours and when you stop for lunch, they pounce.

The day I went trekking it had rained all night, leaving some of the dirt trails slippery, and I was grateful for the women who looked out for me and occasionally held my hand to guide me. One in particular latched on to me and as we approached the restaurants overlooking the village of Lao Chai she started to drop heavy hints. “I help you, now you help me, yes?”

In the end, with a little haggling, I bought a bag off her. I wish I hadn’t been so churlish about it now, as it’s compact, light, was relatively inexpensive and will make a unique gift for someone back home. I suppose I’m always offended when someone acts friendly with me in a transparent ploy to sell me something. But then I have to remind myself that I’m much richer then her through an accident of birth and geography and that she’s just trying to provide for her family.

A little way past the restaurants we stopped at a school, where a group of girls came out and danced for us next to a wooden box with a label on it asking for donations. One of the tunes they performed to was a cheesy ditty - I’d call it Europop but it was probably Asiapop - with a chorus that went: “Kiss me, kiss me, make me happy.” This all reminded me of Minipops, a profoundly ill-judged Channel 4 show from the 1980s that featured children performing the hits of the day, suggestive lyrics and all.

In the neighbouring village, Ta Van, I had to wave goodbye to the rest of my tour group as I’d booked a place in a homestay for the night. It was owned by the brother of the woman I’d booked the tour with in Hanoi and he phoned shortly after I’d arrived to say he was a couple of hours away and I’d be eating with him and his family that night.

All of a sudden I felt socially phobic and wished I’d stayed in Sa Pa. What was I going to say? I know I used to feign charm with all sorts of people when I was a newspaper reporter, but that was years ago! Still, I needn’t have worried. To my great relief, the guy didn’t make it home and his family didn’t speak conversational English.

That afternoon and the following morning, I went walking on my own in the sunshine, breathing in lungfuls of pure clean air and marvelling at the exquisite landscape of soaring hills and rice paddies. I could have stayed longer but I was missing my laptop, stored in a safe deposit box at my hotel, and was fretting about the mosquito bites I’d received while I’d been asleep in my very spartan, basic room (under a mosquito net).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A view from a hill

This is what I can see from my hotel balcony this morning.

Hills shrouded in mist, accompanied by torrential rain. If this was a video, there’d be the occasional thunderclap as well. All in all, not the best weather for trekking.

Welcome to the market town of Sa Pa in the far northwest of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. The area is home to various protected ethnic minority hill tribes and I imagine it's probably a charming place when the sun is shining.

Having come most of the way from Hanoi on an overnight train, I devoted yesterday morning to having a little lie down in the Summit Hotel, which I‘m staying in as part of an organised tour. The mist was like something out of a Sherlock Holmes film when I arrived - a veritable pea-souper - and, venturing downhill into town in the afternoon, I could see straight away that taking photos was pointless.

Normally when I’m approached by hawkers I make it clear straight away that whatever they‘re selling, I ain‘t buying. As long as they’re not overtly hassling me, most of the time I do this as politely as I can. However, when I ran into a couple of hill tribe women in ethnic dress trying to sell me bracelets and trinkets, it put me on my best behaviour. Perhaps sensing that they had the upper hand, they followed me all around the town centre like I was the Pied Piper. I didn’t buy anything but at least we parted on good terms.

(This is what they look like, by the way. I pinched the picture from the interwebs.)

Anyhow, I’ve told the tour organisers that I’m staying indoors today. Sure, it means writing off the money I’ve paid towards a hill trek, but that’s OK. It’s hardly going to break the bank.

With more than two weeks to go before I fly to Malaysia, and practically all of Vietnam’s major tourist destinations crossed off my list, I’m in no hurry to leave. I’ll just sit it out here till the weather improves and pay for a couple of day trips as and when.

UPDATE: It's the afternoon and there's been a change in the weather.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Billy Connolly once observed that children don’t really appreciate scenery. You have to learn to admire nature’s beauty and that process takes years. If I was a kid, I’d probably tell you that Ha Long Bay, in the far northeast of Vietnam, is just rocks sticking out of the sea. I might also add for good measure that the Mona Lisa is just a painting of a moody-looking woman.

As it is, I think that the bay is one of the most magnificent landscapes ever crafted by nature’s hand (and I mean that in the metaphorical, not religious, sense). That's why I’ve happily spent great chunks of the past three days puttering around in a tourist boat admiring hundreds of limestone outcrops. And I didn’t even mind about having to share a room.

I knew this was going to happen, of course, having pondered the question in Hanoi of whether I should shell out the extra cash to ensure my own room on the organised tour. I harboured the hope that I’d be the only single person there anyway but as it turned out, there were three others: a youngish guy called Todd who prosecutes murder cases in Washington DC and had taken the rare step for an American of having a month off work; a 67-year-old Berliner called Joachim, or Jo (‘Yo’) for short; and a young North American whose name and nationality I didn’t catch and who I never really got to know.

It took four hours by minibus to get to the harbour in Ha Long City and we finally boarded a boat at around 12.30pm. For once I’d eschewed the cheapo option and taken a mid-range excursion, figuring that £40 for three days was still very inexpensive. The food they served us on the boat was plentiful and high quality, although the soft drinks and beers, which weren’t included in the package, were at least twice their normal price. The cabins they assigned us were pleasant too and the main guide spoke good English.

During the day we stopped once, to explore a cave full of stalagmites and stalactites softly lit in various colours. The rest of the time we just gawped at the bay and chatted. This was something of a departure for me, as I’ve hardly had a conversation with anyone since January. All I do is walk around, look at things, check into hotels, order food and turn away unwanted hawkers. This time, though, I struck up quite a rapport with Todd and my roommate Jo. Both were fascinating, well-informed blokes.

Next morning we stopped at Cat Ba Island and boarded a bus for the short journey to its national park, where we‘d be doing a two-hour hike. So far, so good. However, I’d brought all my heavy luggage, including a rucksack full of valuables like my laptop, because when I booked the trip at the hotel in Hanoi no-one thought to tell me that I could leave some of it in storage. Now I was told that it wasn’t safe to leave valuables on the bus. So I insisted on climbing a 225-metre hill with the rucksack on.

Were it not for the view, I might as well have exercised on a step machine for an hour with a pile of bricks strapped to my back. Eventually I made it to the top but by the time I’d staggered back to the entrance I was fucked, frankly. Utterly wiped out. To quote Robin Williams: “I was sweating. I was like Marlon Brando eating Thai food.”

Fortunately we had the afternoon to ourselves in Ha Long City and had transferred to a hotel en masse. Not being interested in beaches, I confined myself to my room for a few hours and downloaded photos from my camera.

Over dinner, Todd and I agreed that travelling was a great way to lose weight. “You use up a lot of energy just sweating,” he said, which in my case explains a lot. Here’s how I looked in Bangkok on 15 January

and yet a mere six weeks later, at Angkor Wat on 1 March, I’d gone from Hardy to Laurel.

I think my weight has more or less stabilised since then.

Jo, by contrast, told us he gained weight when travelling and that the Vietnamese were fascinated by his belly and tits, frequently asking if they could poke him in the stomach. The two of us went out for a drink that evening and I listened intently as he talked about his impoverished post-war childhood, his travels in Asia in the 1960s, how he’d taught German to the Japanese and his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Unlike me, with my email, blogging and Skype, when he left for Asia and Australia as a young man he had to pretty much wave goodbye to European society for months and years. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am.

I’ve decided I’d like to get a year’s teaching experience in China and that, for now, I’ll simply carry on travelling until it’s time to fly to London from Bangkok in July. With that in mind I’ve booked a budget flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of this month and will head north from there to sample southern Thailand’s beach resorts and islands. Phuket, why not?