Monkey Man

Having run out of mainland, we took the inevitable flight across to Borneo: Malaysia’s less glamorous half. We lounged about for a few days, spending by far our most memorable couple of hours checking out the nearby Orang-utan sanctuary.

Viewing these spectacular great apes roaming the forrest cage-less is mesmerising. Leaning in just the right way, they bend their branch, before extending their outrageously lengthy arms in reach of the next one and effortlessly transfer their body across. They shatter coconuts on tree trunks, in order to access the succulent inside and craw casually along high ropes in wondrously acrobatic displays.

Putting Darwin aside for a moment, its difficult to observe these creatures and not spot the inevitable similarities to our very own species: the physique, body movement, hands and facial features are strikingly human. George Bush, Mitt Romney and co should certainly spend some time here; the bullshit that still comes out in places across the Atlantic has to end.

Other than Orang-utans, Kuching didn’t have a lot to offer, so we took a bus through the mysterious country of Brunei (acquiring about 8 passport stamps en route) and back into the other side of Malaysian Borneo. The countryside is scattered with pristine colonial buildings, looking fairly odd amidst the jungle surroundings.

After a few more days doing little, we embarked on a couple of wildlife cruises in the Far East of the country, sighting a host of monkeys and kingfishers, amongst other things. The highlight was spotting a two metre croc – at least until it started thrashing towards our boat, before thankfully submerging.

Malaysia is much calmer than Thailand and co. – giving it simultaneous benefits and disadvantages. Natural beauty exists in abundance, particularly in the sprawling forests of Borneo. It was time to move on however, to possibly the strangest of countries on our trip: the Philippines

Luxury

Tourists and travellers are two radically different sorts of people. Tourists normally go to a specific destination, in which they spend the majority of their time relaxing and blowing off steam – usually in a comfortable hotel or resort. Travelling properly involves a bit more than scratching the surface, as you slog it with the locals in cheap hang outs and on public transport. 
 
Our hostel in Kuala Lumpur, Reggae Mansion, catered for tourists, more so than travellers. Voted second best hostel in Asia is no mean feat; the facilities were top notch and the staff were skilful and attentive. Yet the atmosphere for a self-described party hostel was flat. People here dressed too well – anyone wearing trendy clothes in South East Asia hasn’t been on the road very long (if at all) and skinny jeans are supremely impractical in 35 degree heat.The place also cost twice the price of anywhere else.
 
The city, though cheap by Western standards, felt pricey coming from Cambodia and Vietnam. Still, it would only get worse: our next stop was Singapore – one of the most affluent places in the world. A mere two nights should allow the inevitable burning hole in my wallet, a chance at recovery. 
 
And so we checked in to our very comfortable and calm hostel. Food prices on street corners were surprisingly reasonable, though the bars make central London look cheap. We avoided entering one on our first day; settling instead for bottles of tiger in street eateries. By the end of the night jack was singing stairway to heaven with a local, Ringo, and a Korean Radiohead fanatic alternating on acoustic guitar. Sometimes you just have to love the randomness of travelling.
 
Day two was  a mind warp. Everywhere we have been so far has been cheaper and less developed than England. Singapore is the complete reverse, as smartly dressed bankers return from work in their luxurious cars on the immaculately clean roads. That day  alone we spotted a couple of Lamborghinis, a Ferrari, a Rolls Royce, an Aston…you start to get used it.
 
A trip to Singapore is supposedly not complete without a trip to the Raffles Hotel and its Singapore Sling. We arrived at the 500 pound a night resort and ordered a couple of slings: 16 quid each by the time taxes and service charge is added – it’s safe to say that’s the most expensive drink I’ve had  in my life. We followed it up  with a couple of pricey pints downtown. The live band rocked; so much so that a couple of wasted bankers started wildly airguitaring. Singapore is a strange place.

In Another Land

The island of Penang in Malaysia is a real melting pot. As well as Malaysians, there’s Chinatown and Little India, plus the architectural remnants of British colonisation. The plethora of various Asian cuisine definitely sat favourably with my stomach, however owing to Malaysia’s Muslim status (and Ramadan) the nightlife was quite lacking.

After a couple of days strolling around ‘IndoChilaysia’, we caught a bus to capital city, Kuala Lumpur.  Having managed to locate a random hostel, we found ourselves in a four bed room with two Korean guys, both wearing t-shirts with the slogan, “no money, no honey”. Interesting.

We left KL for a few days in Taman Negara National Park; a gigantic area of forrest teaming with plant and wildlife species. Unlike Virachey in Cambodia, this place had a regular influx of western tourists. The result was a spacious and artificial wooden pathway dissecting the jungle, easily negotiated by tubby adults in flip flops and their kids. We spent a day walking these generic trails, before embarking on the less travelled real forrest.

A hide had been booked for the night from the headquarters, so we set off intently in the morning, hoping to arrive around lunch time. After a couple of kilometres the main trail gave way to a slim, meandering footpath, rising and falling constantly in its zig-zagged route over multiple streams. (Guides were highly advised, but not essential). The heat and terrain became steadily more unbearable, as our stops lengthened exponentially. We made it six hours later, feet suitably aching and body suitably soaked in sweat. A wild boar, snake, golden pheasant, several squirrels and lizards had been encountered so far.

The hide would offer an opportunity to see something larger if lucky. Most people seem bizarrely naive when contemplating the sightings of wildlife in the jungle – they are genuinely surprised when these wild and elusive creatures deliberately avoid the loud and clumsy people that enter their domain. Elephants, rhinos and tigers – amongst less eye-catching species – do exist here, though you would have to spend a lot of time silently trekking the rarely trodden routes to have a good chance to spot them.

Despite being devoid of pretty much anything other than a roof and wooden beds, I slept quite well after the day’s excursions. I awoke later in the evening, ready to watch for anything paying a visit to the salt lick down below, in the night. It may have been the ‘dry’ season, but that counted for little when the sky erupted with thunder and spontaneously lit up the jungle with regular flashes of lightning. The storm raged all night, waging war on our basic hut. There’s just nothing like it in England, the weather back home even at its wildest is so tame in comparison.

Physically incapable of making the return journey in three or four hours, (we had to make the bus) we took a boat back to base and returned to Kuala Lumpur. Having spent three days without a drop of alcohol, a well earned drink seemed fair. The prices though – really not cool! Until that is we discovered some dingy shop a couple of minutes from the hostel. Inside was tramps paradise – these beers made UK alcoholic favourites white lightning and special brew look expensive and weak. Sea Horse at 14.8% by volume in a half litre can looked particularly enticing for just over a pound.

We bypassed hostel security and drew the curtains on my luxurious bed (more about that hostel later) and sipped away with an Aussie we met in Bangkok. ‘Another Sea Horse then?’ Yeah why not, what’s the worst that can happen after two cans of beer…

Might As Well Get Juiced

For some, moon parties in Thailand are all the rage; though drunk English teenagers raving to chart beats  isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Since we were spending time on Koh Tao – an island only 90 minutes away – we decided to check out whichever one came next: half-moon it was.

We left our bags in the hostel and hopped on a ferry that afternoon. Accommodation wouldn’t be necessary since we counted on being up most of the night anyway. Oddly, the bars on the island were largely empty; pre-lashing in hostels and holiday bungalows seemed to be the trend. Lacking in such a place, we took to sitting outside the seven eleven, vodka and coke in hand, über chav style.

Thankfully we got talking to an English guy, who invited us back to his hostel. Minutes later we were mingling with many UV paint covered party goers. The actual event itself, taking place under a gigantic tent in the forest, is one I confess to having a rather hazy memory of. Everyone lost each other within seconds amidst the chaos and many hours later I woke up in a random youth hostel dormitory.

Covered in ridiculous paint and inelegantly swaying, I headed for the port, avoiding chuckling onlookers. Unbelievably, I avoided vomiting on the choppy return ferry. I found jack sitting outside our hostel – he’d slept under a pool table for the night. We spent a couple more days relaxing on the island, before busing it to Malaysia. Thailand had been full of pretty much everything I expected; adolescent tourists out to have a good time. Compared to Vietnam and Cambodia its not that cheap or rugged – more grimy and frantic. It did have an uniquely gluttonous charm though.

Having arrived in George Town, Malaysia, (named after King George III) we were horrified to find the drink prices higher than in England. Apparently the place had been colonised by us a while back. We were off the main gap year backpacker trail now. Back home, I believe someone important had just been born. Does anyone really care that much? Certainly nobody in Malaysia did.

Rip This Joint

Three glorious weeks in Cambodia left little time for Laos. The visa price and wet season put us off further,  so we headed straight for Thailand – hedonistic party central. Off the back of Cambodian wilderness, it felt good to lap up the vibe. 

 
Before travelling my attitude towards Thailand was one of caution. So many westerners flock there now, it’s authenticity is hard to locate. I didn’t come half way round the world to see posh twats in Jack Wills, downing Jaeger Bombs – I can see that at my university every night.
 
Our bus arrived in Bangkok on the 7th July: 7/7/2013. For the first time I wished I was back in England, slumped in front of the TV for the Wimbledon Final. 77 years our nation has waited for that moment, as we patriotically roared on Andy Murray in a Brit packed bar. With that taken care of, it was time to do what every stereotypical tourist does in the city – get lashed down Ko San Road. 
 
Regrettably, that culminated in me throwing up in some club toilet. Within 24 hours of every country I’ve arrived in so far, that’s happened. Miraculously, Jack is yet to vomit in Asia; if you know the guy it’s even harder to believe.
 
Anyhow I did spend a day checking out Chinatown and the grandiose Thai Palace. My other 5 days in Bangkok consisted of card games, the Ashes and beer – culture and personal development have been put on hold for a while. The flip-side of a hostel filled with cool people is you spend all your time socialising instead of seeing things.
 
On our third night I managed to get kicked out of a bar; quite an achievement in Thailand. I then ran into a Scottish friend on his birthday. It’s a small world really. The lack of food and abundance of alcohol wasn’t doing my body much good, as we headed south for the islands. Bangkok is pure insanity and it’s about the size of London.
 
 
 
 

I Go Wild (Welcome To The Jungle)

lizard Any area of tropical rainforest in South East Asia is hopefully referred to by local touts as jungle. The rapid deforestation and human development however, has left most of these places as glorified woods, suitable for a casual tourist stroll, but little more. I was after the real deal and in Virachey National Park, I think I discovered it. The monstrous 3,325 square kilometres of dense forest is one of the largest jungles left on the mainland of S.E.A.

We hired a guide (Tomy) and set off for four of the most intense, humbling and wondrous days in my young 21 years. After crossing the river, Jack, Magda (a German girl we met a few days before) and I hopped aboard three rugged looking motorbikes, then headed down an even more rugged looking dirt track. While their drivers erred on the side of some caution, mine charged out in front, flying over potholes and skidding dangerously around obstacles. Even for a daring motorbike lover this was bordering on insanity, as we thundered over flimsy wooden bridges and semi-crashed a couple of times, all to the sound of casual laughter from my cigarette smoking driver.

We arrived at his bamboo house, ditched the bikes and continued on foot, with Tomy and the two rangers (the main one being my crazy bike driver) carrying the food and equipment in addition to their own stuff. It wasn’t long until sweat began to pour down my body and face, even seeping its way into my eyes. Every break was greeted with a silent prayer to the jungle gods – my unaccustomed frame being rapidly pushed to its limits.

Around five hours later we made camp by the waterfall. I removed a host of leeches from my legs and feet, then worryingly watched the blood oozing out. Our rangers set to work on building a fire, cooking dinner and tying our hammocks. Food was surprisingly fresh and tasty; the jungle mens’ stomachs can’t handle all that processed chemical junk we consume back home. Despite the mosquito net, I awoke to find myself covered in bites and cramp intensifying in my legs; quite how Mowgli survived this chaos I don’t know.

Day two involved plenty of walking, though the heat was less torturous, since we had reached the denser and barely trodden area. Some of the trees were stretching to bewildering heights, before Tomy and the ranger decided to scale a couple of the larger ones for fun. No branches or safety harnesses, just straight up the trunk barefoot for a good ten metres (at least). We discovered a host of exotically large insects en route, including a poisonous spider capable of dispatching a buffalo with a single bite. Lovely.

Having reached the river and set up base for the night, Jack and I embarked on a spot of night trekking. The absolute darkness – other than a torch each – created an eerie atmosphere, as we stumbled over roots and bushes and tore through thorny thickets in search of wildlife. It was only thanks to the hawk eyes of Tomy and the ranger that we discovered anything at all. By the time we got to bed, I could almost feel the kilos sliding off my body.

The next day was spent idyllically floating down the river on bamboo rafts, built the night before. The rangers skilfully meandered us past jagged rocks in the rapids, despite a few close shaves (including Jack falling in the river). We then spotted a sizeable reptile swimming up ahead: the ranger paddled furiously forward, leapt into the water and remerged seconds later, clutching the squirming creature in his hands. He tied it to the boat and we resumed our journey, knowing full well the fate that awaited the poor lizard.

Swimming in the river felt like the only moment when my significantly vaster and bulkier mass was of any advantage in the jungle. These short, muscular rangers hiked daily in flip flops; rarely sweating or tiring in the extreme conditions. They didn’t use mosquito nets, insect repellent or sun cream, as their jungle hardened bodies made astonishingly light work of something preposterously difficult. Supremely nimble, flexible, stealthy and fearless; they were some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met, and yet to them it’s all normal.

We spent our last night in a bamboo farmhouse, sipping down some well earned homemade rice wine, with some rather good reptile meat. I discussed jungle politics with the farm workers and rangers, listening to extraordinary tales of death and survival. An unlucky girl was lost to the jungle when only four years old, before being discovered 17 years later, scrambling around naked on the edge of a farm. The ranger meanwhile, who I had come to view as some kind of turbo-charged Tarzan, had killed a bear with his brother, armed with only a knife. Was there anything this guy feared?!

It turned out possibly. These highly capable jungle people specifically avoided certain areas of the rainforest, since something even more subtle and deadly lurked there. Stories of banished ancestors and an in-fortuitous Khmer Rouge led night mission in 1975 leave the deeply superstitious locals afraid as ever of the tiger. When you spend time in the jungle, particularly at night you begin to understand why. Even a trained marksmen, gun in hand, stands little chance against these nocturnal predators. Hinduism and karma are strongly prevalent in their society – if you do something bad, the tiger will get you.

I awoke triumphantly on the fourth day, ready to hike the final stretch before returning to civilisation. We made our farewells to the ranger, as he motorbiked away, beer can in hand: the ultimate lad. The immense animal and plant metropolis had been survived. The regular sound of chainsaws however, leave its own survival in the balance.

China’s unstoppable surge to the peak of the global food chain is coming at a heavy price. The Chinese may be getting richer, though the natural world they inhabit is becoming rapidly smaller and more polluted. Illegal poaching and logging is rife; fuelled by opportunistic Chinese businessman and ridiculous beliefs in hocus pocus medicine, such as tiger bone and rhino horn ‘healing powers’. The West has been there, done that and got the t-shirt, but somewhere down the line our attitudes have changed. Preservation projects globally are Western funded as we desperately try and undo the calamity we started. As money tightens and budget deficits increase in Europe and North America I wonder if we have the  power or the will to stop Chinese driven deforestation and extinction.

It’s something worth fighting for. The jungle goes far beyond magnificence on an emotional level; there’s all sorts of scientific and geographical reasons behind preserving these great forests. The latest plan  from Beijing is to build a gigantic highway through the place; that 1.1 billion dollars handed to the Cambodian government from china may help to sway them too. I bloody well hope not. The jungle people and their ways of life are primitive? Yeah right.

This Place Is Empty

 
Angkor holds such a vast and impressive collection of temples, it was used as the setting for Tomb Raider. Some maniacal 12th century king probably had a rather grand vision; 35 years and 4000 elephants later the worlds largest temple was complete. We hired bicycles and spent a couple of days peddling around the picturesque setting, before once again being soaked to the bone from a standard afternoon downpour.
 
From there we headed for the wild East of Cambodia and specifically for the Elephant Valley Project. All over South East Asia these powerful creatures are worked tirelessly in logging and tourism, while being underfed and inadequately treated. Instead of watching some stressed out animals performing unnatural circus tricks, I chose to spend a day watching elephants being elephants. Observing these gentle giants at close quarters, as they eat their way through the forrest and bath in the river was without question one of the most enjoyable experiences so far. ‘Buffy the banana slayer’ in particular wowed us with her friendly and highly intelligent personality – not bad for a 3 tonne animal approaching her 70th birthday. Elephants are simply brilliant; so much more fascinating and sophisticated than horses.
 
We checked out some rare river dolphins further down the road, then made for the tiny town of Ban Lung in the ultra desolate North East Cambodia. As you move ever further from civilisation the tourists, prices, tarmac roads and spoken English gradually decrease. 
Cows and dogs linger in the streets, lazily watching the world pass by.
 
This is true Indochina territory: Cambodian culture, cuisine, philosophy, religion and its people are a fusion of the two Asian giants; Vietnam has been comparatively far more shaped by China than India. Not a lot goes on here people wise, though it was never meant to. It was time to head even deeper into the wilderness, to do what I really planned to in South East Asia;  it’s time to see the jungle. 

You Got Me Rocking

 

Communism in its most literal form has proved a hopelessly tragic way of organising human society; the reign of Polpot from 1975-1979 and his Khumer Rouge army in Cambodia provides an alarmingly recent empirical example.

 
Over one quarter of Cambodia’s citizens died under his radical regime, as people were forced to labour for hours in the countryside on a few spoonfuls of gruel. Academics, professionals and anybody else brave and/or smart enough to question the government was sentenced to imprisonment and torture.
 
They arrived by the truck load to the ‘killing fields’, knelt down one by one and were hacked clumsily to death with an axe or a stick – bullets were too expensive. Babies were held by their legs and smashed skull first into trees, while a speaker would play music to drown out the moans of dying victims. As you walk around the place, soaking up the information in a zombie like trance, the whole saga is barely possible to comprehend. This was just over thirty years ago; PolPot himself was only captured and put on trial in 1998.
 
Despite the mayhem, Cambodia is staging an impressive recovery. Capital city, Phom Penh proved a cool place to chill for a few days: friendly people, a vibrant hostel, pleasant architecture and decent night life. We headed for the supremely named ‘Zeppelin cafe’ and spent a night in classic rock heaven. A few drinks are always required after visiting places that showcase extraordinary humane brutality, otherwise the mind can become too bogged down. 
 
Jack doesn’t seem to do a few however; he worked his way through an impressive 18ish beers one evening, before face planting ungracefully on the side of the road. I shoved him into a tutut and told the driver to take us back to the hostel, where he proceeded to fall out of bed in our dormitory. A regular splutter also implied the capture of what I like to call ‘Asian lung’ – the cough a westerner inherits in parts of Asia through the combination of high pollution and regular smoking of cheap and heavily toxic fags. 
 
We toyed with the idea of shooting a bazooka or ak47 at the range, before deciding it cost too much and head for the jungle temples of Angkor. So far 21st century Cambodia rocks.
 
(Ginger count: 14)

Sympathy For The Devil

One of the greatest aspects of being on the road is meeting fellow travellers from a variety of countries. With a little practice, a person’s nationality can normally be figured out from merely their physical appearance and dress sense; if that fails you move onto accent.

Despite these differences, the ability to understand English is shared by all – as Europeans and Asians everywhere converse in the world’s de facto language. The Dutch and Scandinavians are phenomenal at it – to the extent that I suspect they are better than half our population; I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Having avoided the perils of motorbiking, we switched back to night bus and encountered a very different type of danger: Jack’s iPhone was stolen. Since it was a Sunday the city’s police station was closed. In our next destination they told us reporting it was invalid, as it wasn’t the location of the crime (I wonder why petty theft is so common in Vietnam).

More biking through the mountains, with less getting lost, on a more powerful semi-automatic once again proved fun. You just have to get used to raod rules being ignored; whoever has the biggest vehicle (or balls) usually has right of way.

Our last stop in ‘Nam was the rapidly expanding Ho Chi Minh city, now almost the size of London. The war museum displayed a thorough collection of mutilated victims from mine explosions and chemical weapons, looking like an all too realistic horror movie.

Despite being informative and moving, the constant use of propaganda irked me. The USA certainly cocked up big time, though the Vietnamese government was hardly innocent. American imperialism isn’t my cup of tea, but neither is a one sided account portraying a draconian aggressor and a peaceful victim. More research will be needed before long and intensive verbal jousts can be fully operational.

What the Vietnamese Communist Party endorsed in Cambodia however, was incomparably more gruesome. Goodnight Vietnam