This is the final part of my overland trip from London to Singapore. If you want to check out the other 3 parts the links are below:
London to Thessaloniki by bike -http://howtomeetamillionpeople.com/2013/08/22/how-i-almost-made-it-to-istanbul/
Sofia to Moscow – http://howtomeetamillionpeople.com/2013/09/07/london-to-singapore-overland-part-2-sofia-to-moscow-see-how-i-almost-made-it-to-istanbul-for-part-1/
Moscow to Hoi An, Vietnam – http://howtomeetamillionpeople.com/2013/09/12/london-to-singapore-overland-part-3-moscow-to-hoi-an-vietnam/
The railway going south in Vietnam snakes its way between highlands and the coast, and as we passed by Hue station – in which 90% of the train departed including a very interesting semi retired Canadian who had been telling me about the ins & out of the Australian ballet industry, being theatre manager – you come across little untapped beaches, accessible only by thesea. Unlike the train journey from the China border to Hanoi, this driver seemed a bit more relaxed – so no continuously honking through the night – and my Spanish couple cabin mates were welcomed companion, even talked about the ongoing Vuelta. It was a pity I didn’t have my new favourite coffee – weasel, coffee beans passed through the rabbit munching small animal – to complete my Oreo dinner – serious addiction to those chocolate demons now!
From DaNang station you have to make a 50minute journey by bus/car to Hoi An town, and to save any confusion on buses + make a few more friends, I joined a group of young English lads for a nice, pricey taxi ride to the seaside town. Lonely planet recommended Hoa Binh hotel and for 9 bucks I got myself a 6 bed dorm – never met those roommates in the end…..Being a picturesque town I thought I would play wealthy tourist for the day and so commenced the mixture of French pastries and bartering with the local suit tailors. A team of mother and daughters – I was told the website was http://www.fiveseasonsilk.vn but it is drawing a blank! – spent the best part of the early afternoon searching out THE pin stripped material for my Singapore office ‘gear’ and it was also my first taste of being on the back of a moped in the country – the tiny Vietnamese tailor girl undoubtedly struggling to keep the moped straight with my big fat self on the back – as I was brought around every Cashmere shop in 2 square miles. 150 dollars was the final bill for two of the finest suits I have tried on – perhaps not the 100 dollar target, although my fancy material made that difficult – a marked improvement from the 180 quoted earlier in the day for 1 suit.
In an effort to get away from the constant cycle of tourist hostels and souvenir shops, I had read about the Cham islands off Hoi An and its undeveloped villages, and the next morning set out to make the 20mile roundtrip from the coast before my bus to Nha Trang that evening. I caught the local boat over – being charged even with my protests, 120k dong rather than the local price of 35k, sometimes you have to accept when you are beaten. Plus I wasn’t wasting the 6am start! Mind you I had got a lift off a local guy a minutes before when he couldn’t explain the directions, of which he had refused payment – so I suppose it swings in roundabouts.
The boat was rocky, fragile – this isn’t the sturdy channel ferries you get but was much the same sea conditions – and along with the ‘other’ few tourists on the vessel, wondered whether we would come up as a ferry accident on Sky News the next morning! At least there was other vessels and amongst the jealousy of the tourist speed boats lapping us, it was intriguing to witness the fisherman braving the sea – something they must do, day in, day out. Our ‘ship’ was obviously bringing the daily supplies and following the other tourists who had picked up a hostess/guide we slipped off the side of the boat onto a water taxi – complete with chickens, baguettes and bundles of bananas.
The lawnmower engine took us painstakingly slowly around the bays on the island until we reached the next village. On the shoreline there was a small market, with live fish in pots and not a hint of souvenir shops. This was real, fishing Vietnam. Unfortunately with a bus to catch in the evening, and I obviously was now not on the main boat terminal back to the mainland, I talked my way on to a speedboat containing a group of middle aged Chinese tourists. Gladly this ‘taxi’ didn’t take me straight back to the mainland and I spent the best part of the afternoon laughing at – along with their Chinese colleagues – the futile attempts of a number of the group at swimming/snorkeling off the boat as well as getting the finest plate of seafood fried rice I had ever had off the island restaurant.
Via the wet speed boat ride back and friendly conversation with a motorbike taxi man, I made it just back to hotel; from which a minivan brought us up to the local bus terminal for my trip to Nha Trang. After my day on varying degrees of transport, I sat on my fancy tourist bus and couldn’t help but get the impression that to really ‘see’ Real Vietman that you have to travel by scooter and avoid the luxury booking services of a hotel, maybe next time with a less demanding travel timetable at hand I will plot this!
That night’s addition of ‘friend of the bus’ was a group of Durham University girls, one of which I hoped we had concluded that the best course of action for her thesis in 3 years was the potential for economic reform in Cuba upon the conclusion of Castro’s rule (i.e. his brother now) and it’s sociological impact of the population; aka Cuba won’t have 50s style cars in a few years so do a thesis that will give you an excuse to get out to the country now. Much like the following bus journey friend – Nha Trang to Saigon – a crew member of Australia reality TV including Next Top Model (and come to think of it I think I have mixed the two groups and buses up), these encounters always added spark to a day when you had particularly been talking to yourself in planning the day’s activities.
I knew at this stage of the trip that if I didn’t proactively plan and with regimental discipline seek out the activities which I had highlighted in my destination schedule I would ultimately spend the short amount of time I had in each stop aimlessly walking around. From the Lonely Planet MeKong Delta guidebook Nha Trang was probably the only place on my trip in SE Asia to have white-water rafting listed at the tour offices (you feel like such a tourist every time you walk into those, but it is quick and easy!). Well the activity wasn’t exactly white water, the Woman river, as it is known in Vietnamese, is pretty calm (at least in dry season) but the guys from the tour group were good fun (we had alot of common ground when the topic of football came up – even with no English, the Vietnamese know the word ‘Manchester’) and cooked up courses & courses at a riverside meal next to a banana farm. Unfortunately only a Russian couple was on the trip with me but I got some good distracting stories of the North Korea border as a Red Army conscript.
I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling down Nha Trang promenade and of course getting a sense of the city’s culture – watching Aussie rules in a bar called Booze Cruise being part of this experience. It was only when I got down to Saigon/Ho Chin Minh via my first flavor of sleeper buses that a good old history lesson was really on the cards. With a former, very animated Vietnamese vet (this guy was from ‘our’ side – and subsequently spent 4 years in prison in the 70s for it) the best part of the day one in the Vietnam capital was spent crawling on hands & knees through Vietcong Chu Chi tunnels. The traps on show were also particularly gruesome – made for some interesting debate in the tour group; would you rather a spike through the thigh (and its artery) or the jewels? Throughout the tour we had the roar of machine gun from within the forest and as hoped we got the chance to fire some automatic weapons before we headed back into town.The war remnants museum was once again striking in its perspective from the side of American aggression but the Agent Orange wall – complete with some pretty shocking photos of disfigurement – will be particularly memorable in this era of Syrian chemical weapons. I think it should be noted that it highlight America as one of the worse agents of chemical weaponization – well at least up to the 80s. Alongside my cultural enlightenment I snub Slyvester Sallone’s truck driving, arm-wrestling film ‘Over the top’ for a massage off a blind guy at the blind association, which was kind of like creepy old high school at night – it was in the guidebook I swear!
On the bus to the Chu Chi tunnels I meet 2 irish nurses (who along with an Italian lad) were my companions for an evening of street drinking and deep-fried chicken feet (the last one being unsurprisingly disappointing).
In the morning I was met with a nasty surprise of dodgy hotel tactics – as Thai Nhi hotel owner (and NOW I see it is 282 out of 300 hotels in TripAdvisor; I was duped by a deal of $10 rooms) claimed I had paid only for the Chu Chi tunnels the day before and not the bill (it was the other way round) and minus a gun I got some stern shouting like something out of the deer hunter. Unfortunately my saving grace, the receipt, had been written out to indicate this (always check the print!) and with a lot of shouting back (he was half my size after all) I reluctantly paid the extra $5 – amazing how much being conned winds you up, even over $5!
I don’t know if you just get better at it as the trip carries on but you manage to meet characters that always seem better than the last. Whilst waiting for the bus to Phomh Penh, got chatting to a Welsh lad, who had previously been a brick layer but had thrown caution to the wind and set up a hostel in Cambodia. His second franchise, a North Face business in the capital was an envy of any world traveller & the whole tale of entrepreneurship reminded me of Lord of War film with Nicholas Cage – starting small but if the guy isn’t driving a porsche in a few years I will be surprised (of course the whole venture wasn’t about guns!).
Landing in Chau Doc in the bleak hours of the morning – it was like 3.30am or something – I was ambushed by motorbike drivers (‘Motorbike friend’ followed by ‘Where you from?’) but was subsequently ‘rescued’ when one of the drivers pulled out his friend who spoke a bit of English – and I could explain the need to just get my bearings and perhaps a morning coffee! The new motorbike driver lead me here & there to the early morning (or shall I say all night) stalls drinking coffee or some funky Cambodian pop which ‘makes you strong’. Chau Doc revolves around a scared temple of one of the Buddhist figures – some lady I believe – complete with a collection of Gods of good rain, strong wind and one with 36 heads – no where to hide the driver told me. I grew quite attached to my new driver as he showed me the view from the town’s mountain (all of this tackled on the back of quite a durable moped) and told me about the village he lived in 30km away with his family and no power. Truthful or not, I tipped the guy well – it came to like $10 dollars for 3 hours work – and wished him the best of luck.
As always strange faces meet me at the ferry terminal – people who were once again soon to be my friends, as goes the travellers mantra. The speed boat journey up to Cambodia was once again not the local experience I had been looking for – I swear I booked the ‘slow boat’ to seek this out – and decided to stop at a fishing farm on the river and a local village – as western tourists excel out we replied with taking pictures at the ‘poor’ but ‘fascinating’ locals.
For some reason, which I never got to the bottom of, once the boat had briefly stopped at a ‘visa production’ pier we continued our boat journey on a mini-bus via a ‘sleeping guard’/third world checkpoint (if you know what I mean). Our first impressions of Cambodia was also that of a young kid – father overlooking – dragging this poor dog on his hind legs to ‘play’ with him. I don’t think my shaking on the finger, as we walked by, got my disapproval across. Sitting on the mini-bus (the vision of the back of a seat seems to have imprinted itself in my head over the course of the 4 days worth of bus journeys) you really see that Cambodia is less developed than it’s MeKong Delta neighbours.
The now formed ‘gang’ – 2 Irish, 2 Americans and I – arrived in Phnom Penh and soon set about finding our £3 cuisine lunch in the bar strip – it’s great, the food really is that cheap. There was the usual exchange of the best stories we had, our Irish friends recalled the highlight of the lot about the time when the bf to ‘pickup’ communion because the girl was sick and the when the priest subsequently said that a ‘take away’ wasn’t possible (apparently there was accounts of witchcraft in parts of Perth) but would drop by their house. And so with a very large, fat priest in a small fiesta the bf returned with the church representative to their unwed bedroom……it was all very funny, particularly with rounds of 50c local beer!
The rest of the evening was spent in the fine companion of a local Irish bar, with the enthuastic Texan owner setting up some makeshift karaoke on his laptop as the night went on (I had to sing Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ for my sins of suggesting karaoke). This all made the group ricks haw tour in the morning all the more painful, as we set out in the early hours to fire guns and have the sobering experience of the killing field.
Before we reached the killing fields we stopped off at a firing range which resembled something out of a fortified rebel camp in the jungle. A moment of moral judgement and with the fact that $350/250 (when negiotated) was the budget for the rest of the trip, meant I didn’t fire a rocket at a cow……if you are so inclined it is very easy to find it. If you want to get kicks out of the explosion of livestock, give it a YouTube! I must also admit that I didn’t like the idea of holding a Soviet 70s surplus explosive!
Unfortunately my camera cut out for most of the day but I couldn’t possibly represent the miserable, depressing atmosphere that surrounds the killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. It was list and lists of atrocities which were represented visually by vivid images of liberated torture cells or mugshots of genocide victims. 1.7million killed over 2 years through murder and starvation…..reinforced the arguments made in the book I had sitting in my bag – ‘The new killing fields: A case for international intervention’.
The 2 days in Phnom Penh was this mix of history and cheap booze & pool games, but it was soon time to set out again as time was pressing; as was the threat of protests which had occurred down the road from our hostel in the days before. The election had just been finalised and from the look of the new razor wire barricades & the news of a few protestors deaths, the opposition was happy!
On checkout the Happy house (our hostel) wasn’t so happy which was really sides appointing because the hola e to that point had been really friendly. We had got a triple room and had hoped that the night that I left that an English guy would take my place. Unfortunately he had a bus so it didn’t happen but instead of just letting it slide and let me checkout at 3.30pm (as we arrived back) – particularly as the others were staying another night, booking travel and eating at the place – they charged me another night. Bit disappointing and lead to all future money being spent next door. Just felt that, along with the tuk tuk drivers who moments before tried to get a days tour to finish 2 hours early, it was a little short-sighted and ultimately they lost out.
Snubbing the $3 coffees at the local Costa, I decided to crash out at the bus station in Phmon Penh for an hour – also distracted by the Giant bike store which was situated next door (the first ‘professional’ bike store I had seen since Italy; which unfortunately doesn’t ship its cheap stock to Singapore) – and was the subject of curiosity for the locals; so much more interesting getting amongst the real people in a country! Additionally a iced coffee and a pack of Oreos cost $2 :p The bus that pulled up was a throw back to 70s Ireland (I suppose) and on the crammed top deck we had a nice bit of Cambodian karaoke film footage bluring out. Fortunately the stereo that was also pulled out by the girls next to meet got rendered useless by a fall from the armrest and soon I meet the ‘other’ foreigner on the bus – a french guy who reared horses in the Australian outback. He was travelling back down to Kao Thao island (a destination coming up on the list) and made the absurdly long bus journey – 12hours for like 400km – a little more bearable with tips of my planned diving course (he was looking to qualify for an instructor in the near future). His missus on the island was also a Muay Thai instructor – I noted that on my ‘to-do’ list. Although with dawn we saw the hopeful signs of the Thailand border – casino signs from the Cambodian businesses on our side – the bus just decided to stop 1km before the border we shared a tuk tuk the rest of the way and shared the misery of border queues (only opened an hour later at 8am) on the Cambodian side. Much to my disgust my camera had ran out of battery since about the bus station so I hope I am painting a good picture here – notes of the night’s activities consist of some very rough notes on scrap paper/receipts! Fortunately the french guys camera hadn’t, and I have a new found inspiration for trekking in the Cambodian jungle, staying with the local families and riding elephants from a set of fairly impressive photos.
As with much of the trip the local bus journeys always seem to conclude, at least in part,with the inevitable ‘tourist minibus’. Not really authentic local travel but I suppose that is what you get for travelling at pace through SE Asia and consequently using one of millions of street side tour operators as you plan for the next stage of the journey. On the Thailand side of the border we rocketed through the last 250km by mini bus to the great city of Bangkok. I headed for the tourist capital of Khaosen Road upon the advice of my French bus buddy and managed to find a suitably grotty & cheap hostel – Marco Polo – within spitting distance of the market stalls & cocktail bucket distributors.
With the intention of spending only 24hours in the Thai capital, I made a whirlwind visit – lots of aimless walking and casual references to a street map really – coming across the old temples, protest sites in the parks capital and even taking a peek in the local bikes stores. The one important goal on my list was a Muay Thai of which I had heard being Thursday was ladies night – ladies fighters that is. Alas that day was the Full Moon festival and the fighters had a day off. In an effort to squeeze the most out of the capital I jumped into a Tuk Tuk and told the driver ‘ I have one night, take me where a tourist needs to go’. As punishment the driver took me to some dodgy bar with lady dancers and a celebration box audience of drinkers including young couples & sleepy old men. At the bar I meet an Aussie miner and his Scottish missus, who adopted me for the night and ordered whiskey by the bottle……..………the next morning I missed the early morning bus to the islands.
On Koh Tao, we searched for the dive site recommended by my French bus mate from Cambodia, but eventually went with one of the top providers listed in Lonely Planet – Big Blue Diving – and we weren’t disappointed. For 9000 baht, about 180 pounds sterling – we got a 3 day SSI open water course plus free accommodation (all the details of the course can be found on this great blog http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/the-complete-guide-to-diving-in-koh-tao/ (it also has some pictures of the actual diving which I placed in the blog below and which through lack of a underwater camera unfortunately I can’t put my ugly mug up). Contrasting the professionalism at the dive school was the notable absence at the local clinic – which I had been sent for a brief checkup and clearance before diving because of a previous head injury from cycling. Apparently all doctors need to do is check your ears and listen to your breathing – and seemingly from the other divers feedback, any injuries!
Unfortunately my roommate James couldn’t join me on the course – apparently any form of asthma and diving is a no no because of the cold, dry hair – but it was funny to point out whilst we had classroom lessons and struggled with the new equipment in a deep swimming pool, the guy was diving to 20m on a rope (all on day one!).
In the midst of this diving course for 3 days there was also the banter of island night life, including a memorable 4:1 defeat for Utd at the local Aussie bar. On the last night we got to witness the trial by fire of newly qualified dive masters which included lots of spanking, nudity, public announcements of shame, and many bottles of cold water and pee. All of which was alcohol fueled and ended in bar dancing, as you can see below. Unfortunately I didn’t get to witness the lady boy show as the underwater pressure from diving played havoc on my ear drums and lead to a very sickly night on day one of ocean diving – the world was literally spinning – boring right? I can also assure you that there is an awesome, compact local stadium for Muay Thai on the island – although yet again I missed this as fight date was on on the night of departure. However not to sound to boring, drinking out on the beach with fire jugglers sure made Koh Tao memorable not just for the diving but also the ‘craic’ with the other divers. I certainly got a new found interest for diving – and hope to take on free-diving (one breath to the same depths as scuba, if not further) – including lining up an advanced course with night diving and ship wrecks. All this to come in Bali in October!
With the final morning dives completed and open water certification gained, I prepared myself for the 29 hour trip down to Kuala Lumpar – much of which involved a gathering of the days divers to check out the film which had been made over the course of underwater submersions and sea sickness. I will try to pull it up the diving video but for those underwater buffs out there the final dives had included Chumpion, a legendary sight in the islands which had teasingly witnessed some whale shark visitors a few days before.
After refusing Koh Tao islands cowboy taxi drivers a quick days wages by driving the whole of 2km down a beach front, I stubbornly lugged by rucksack down the coastline and I climbed on to the coffin/sleeper boat to the mainline. In the cattle ship, there was two rows of leather mats with 30 number tags on the head rests – it was a bit like the song ‘there was 60 in the bed and the little one said roll over’. So along with about 50-60 tourist straight out of the full moon party, we embarked into the night on a rickety old boat, each calling dibs on just a handful of lifejackets on board.
Awakening with some relief that we had reach Surathi port alive, I was packed onto a crammed, tiny truck for delivery to the local bus terminal/large marble living room (complete with a staircase of children toys behind the counter) as these commercial places always tend to be – multi purpose, make sense! A fellow course diver and his wife happened to be at the terminal and it was good to share stories, as well passing on a few tips for the Mekong delta, nice people.
For the journey down to Hat Yai in southern Thailand we were loaded on to a mini bus filled with Spanish tourists as well as a French father & son who were based in the islands. The French mans tales of colonial America and Europe interfering with the affairs of SE Asia made for a welcomed distraction for this stage of the trans-thailand journey.
GUN MEN. 140km from Hat Yai (this was meant to be the safe area right? I mean the other tourists were off to Krabie, that’s like a Thomas cook-esque resort, not off the beaten track!) 2 gunman had pulled a tree trunk across the dual carriage way and our driver calmly went down the intended detour. All of this was done in an uncomfortably comfortable fashion and I began to wonder what I had missed as I dozed for the last air. Whether the masked men on the road were armed is subject to memory recall but what was clear was the second point and it’s revolver on a pole, pointed into the passenger cabin. Granted this was no UN mission and we were quickly waved through (they don’t bother tourists I’m told) but it certainly gave some deep thought on getting a plane the rest of the way from Hat Yai. I was reassured by an Aussie at the next rest stop that indeed as I had read, the trouble was really flaring up in the 3 most southern states – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – and a quick trip north of these were fine. All this didn’t stop me feeling a little bit annoyed at the spainards behind me who had no idea about trouble in the region and seemed pretty care free soon after our roadblock.
After the sardine can minibus journey for the last 6 hours the coach from Hat Yai was luxury and before I knew it I was drinking an iced horlicks in an Malaysian hawker, complete will public displays of karaoke. On the islands I had asked the gf to help me book a capsule hotel in KL – really had to get some unique stories right?
£9 per night for my luxury ‘room’ in the UFO capsule hotel and with that I had a firm base for a blitz of KL before the last hurdle to Singapore the next afternoon. It was very much like a beginners introduction to Singapore, my new permanent home in the next 24 hours. Malls, malls and more malls and oh yes the Petronas towers.
Now fully equipped with business attire for ‘real life’ I jumped on my final bus for the 7 hour journey to Singapore. Much like a modern Boeing the bus for equipped with a personal entertainment system and apart from my casual networking with the neighboring Australian and Singapore passengers that was little ‘adventure ‘ in the final stages as I watched film after film like a 10 year old boy!
And with that I had made it. London to Singapore overland. Even got a spot of wake boarding on arrival.
And what of the next adventure…..well I’ve already got a new bike…..