Epiblogue

Well, that’s just about it from us. This is the last post of the blog, the last of a 122 updates. We hope you’ve enjoyed them, and that they’ve made you feel as if you’ve shared some of the trip with us. We’d like to think so, anyway.

If you remember, back in September 2011 we set sail from the shores of Great Britain with the words of Mark Twain ringing in our ears: ‘Explore. Dream. Discover.’

Over the last twelve months we have explored three continents, fifteen countries and over eighty cities, towns, villages, beaches, forests and mountain tops.

A lot of our dreams have been realised: Copacabana Beach, Cristo Redentor, Iguacu Falls, Machu Picchu, the Bolivian Salt Flats, Mendoza’s vineyards, horse-riding in Cordoban, and camper-vanning in New Zealand. We’ve experienced Fijian heaven and Fijian hell, Andy Murray at Melbourne’s Australian Open, snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef, Balinese eco-cycling, Javanese surfing, and climbing Mount Kinabalu. We’ve bathed Elephants in Chiang Mai, slow-boated down the Mekong, rice-farmed in Luang Prabang, volunteered in Siem Reap, explored Angkor Wat, windsurfed in Nha Trang, island-weaved around Halong Bay, and lived the high life in Bankgok.

It’s been an Olympic year for us in more ways than one, and in keeping with the big theme of 2012 we’d like to hand out some of our own medals. Bronze goes to Argentina, a shimmering jewel among the many rough diamonds of South America. Vietnam gets the silver medal for its incredible diversity and glorious contradictions. And gold has to go to New Zealand – quite simply, it is a country that has it all.

Amid all these adventures we’ve had the time to discover the delights of Amis (Martin), Bronte (Emily), Dickens, Dostoevsky, Dumas, Flaubert, Fleming, Kerouac, Lee, McEwan, Marquez, Melville, Nabakov, Proust, Salinger, Steinbeck and Tolstoy.

And although we haven’t read any Twain on this trip, we do know that he wrote: ‘Life does not consist mainly – or even largely – of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.’

Through this blog we’ve already shared some of those thoughts; we’re looking forward to sharing the rest of them with you in person when we return. So although it’s goodbye, it’s also hello.

Finally, we would like to dedicate the trip and this blog to our mothers. Only one was able to wave us goodbye, and neither will be able to welcome us home. But we would like to think that both have travelled with us.

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Days 330-336: Bowing Out In Bangkok

R: This is the blog’s last post but one, and it’s perhaps a little different from the others. You see, there are many cultural sights in Bangkok: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace, the National Museum, the Erawan Shrine, etc. But we haven’t seen any of them. And while I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that on this trip We’ve Seen It All, after three hundred and thirty days of multicultural absorption perhaps We’ve Seen Enough. Plus, I suspect this won’t be our only visit to Bangkok.

So, unlike any other stop on this trip we checked into a 5-star hotel, hid away our backpacks behind beautifully finished wardrobe doors, and threw away our ‘Southeast Asia On A Shoestring’ guidebook. Our six days here have been dominated by huge buffet breakfasts, thunderously large shopping malls, some rather delicious room service inside the hotel, and some rather fine restaurants outside of it.

We’ve also sat ringside at an evening of Thai boxing and hit the dance floors of one of Bangkok’s most exclusive clubs (yes, they let us in; we were surprised, too).

These last few days has made us wonder who it was, then, that toughed it out on Bolivia’s Salt Flats, survived the swamp that was Fiji’s Bay Of Plenty, and braved the cold and wind atop Mount Kinabalu? Not us, surely?

We have only one day of our trip left and only one post of the blog remaining. In the meantime, here are some photographs from Bangkok. Not quite the stuff of high adventure. But, boy, has it been good.

The view from our hotel room – and we’re only on one of the lower floors.

Chilling in our five-star crib: well-earned and surprisingly affordable.

A golf course slap bang in the middle of the city – only in Bangkok.

Siam Paragon: shopping doesn’t come much bigger than this.

Bed Supperclub, Bangkok: DJ Fred Jungo was our host for the night.

Ringside at our first Muay Thai boxing night. A good time was had by all.

Well, nearly all.

Reflections On Southeast Asia

R: We haven’t quite come to the end of our time in Southeast Asia: we have two more days left and two more updates to come, but time is tight so we need to crack on. As a result, these are perhaps more ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to Southeast Asia rather than ‘reflections’.

So, how do you summarise more than six months of travel in Southeast Asia? How do you boil down to a few choice paragraphs all that you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched? Well…

Sight. The number one ‘experience’ listed in our Lonely Planet guide is traffic. Yes, traffic. And it’s true: from the moment we left Bali airport right up to our time in Bangkok we have seen more motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses and trucks than we will probably ever see again.

Let’s take Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon to you, me and Mr Kurtz). In HCMC there are five million motorbikes. That’s one bike for every person in Scotland. And no photograph quite captures the scooter-thick streets; you need to see it to believe it. Crossing the road is a test of both your own nerve and the competency of your fellow man. All you can do is edge forward – never retreat, that would spell disaster – and trust that the approaching two-stroke swarm will weave around you.

In Kuala Lumpur, opposite the Thai Embassy, we stood for a full fifteen minutes waiting to cross the road. This was not a motorway but a road in the centre of the city. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no islands to break up the perilous four lane crossing. If it had not been for a sympathetic embassy guard we would have been there yet.

You see, in SE Asia pedestrians do not have the right of way – not on the road, and certainly not on the pavement. Instead, pedestrians inhabitant that strange netherworld between the pavement and the road: the gutter.

The pavement is a place to park your motorbike or your car, or perhaps your truck; it is an area to lay out all your goods and chattels; and a place to eat your evening meal on Lilliput plastic tables and chairs. It can also be a place where the local authorities choose to plant huge pedestrian-scuppering trees, their massive roots eventually pulling up the surrounding pavings. Whatever the use, just don’t expect to walk there.

But why would you be walking? In SE Asia, if you are wealthy you drive a jeep. If you are upwardly mobile you have a Japanese or Korean sedan. Failing that you have a motorbike; a two-stroke upon which you carry children, dogs, potatoes, huge six-feet high signage, fifty live chickens, a wardrobe, a satellite dish – anything that takes your fancy, really. And if you are old or poor – or both – you may have a bicycle. But walk? Only the poorest, the most pitiful people walk. Or backpackers, which, let’s face it, amounts to the same thing.

But despite so much traffic, so few pavements and the absence of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, it seems to work. It really does. We saw no examples of road rage throughout the whole of our six months. Not one. And little in the way of accidents. We witnessed only a single incident – in Pakse – and heard two others – in Phnom Penh and Nha Trang.

Sound. Traffic, obviously. But more specifically tooting, or honking. In SE Asia you drive with one hand steering and the other hand on the horn. The air is continually filled with the blaring and bleating of competing horns. But it is not done in anger, as it is in the UK; or for no apparent reason, as is the case in New York. It is done as a polite declaration of your presence. It is the soundtrack to safety rather than a prelude to motorised apoplexy.

Dogs barking would be another favourite. Wherever you are in SE Asia you will always be able to make out a dog howling in the distance. And the shuffling of sandals. Yes, it is a strange feature that a lot of women (it doesn’t appear to be a trait of men here) shuffle rather than walk. They rarely lift their feet. Too hot, I guess. Who’d want to use up all that energy raising a leg unnecessarily.

Smell. Probably best summarised as a heady brew of petrol fumes, incense, warm sewage, honeyed lemongrass, mothballs (think benzene and vomit), the sun-baked earth, cigarette smoke, fried chicken (fried anything, in fact), bubbling rice, chargrilled corncobs, coconut oil, and what I can only describe as the smell of catnip. The proportions and predomination of one over another obviously varies, but you get the general idea.

Taste.We’ve been reasonably adventurous. No, we haven’t trapped a live monkey under a table, forced its head up through a hole, removed the top of its skull, and eaten its throbbing brain while it still hoots and hollers. But we have eaten at a number of roadside shacks. And in Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia this is arguably more dangerous than chowing down on simian cerebrum stew.

And although we’ve enjoyed many SE Asian dishes over the last six months, our ‘go to’ cuisine has undoubtedly been Indian. We’ve had some amazing curries in Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, and probably the best ever in Hoi An (New Way Restaurant). A life without lamb madras or aloo gobi would be a poor one indeed.

But it’s not been the content of the SE Asian cuisine which has surprised us; more the delivery. Perplexingly, the majority of our dining experiences have followed this well-worn pattern:

  1. Upon sitting down we are handed a menu as thick as the London telephone directory.
  2. We are given approximately twelve seconds to make our selections.
  3. Pleas for more time ensure that a waiter or waitress looms over our table with pen and pad poised.
  4. Once ordered, we wait no longer than two and a half minutes for the first plate to arrive (rather embarrassingly this is almost always my dish).
  5. Twenty minutes later Sophia’s dish arrives (I’ve usually finished mine by this stage).
  6. If we decide on a dessert (a rare treat) we usually eat from a table still cluttered with empty plates and dirty cutlery.
  7. Once finished it can take up to two hours to attract anybody’s attention and to pay the bill.

We have never managed to establish why this should be. We have asked countless people; but the question itself seems not to register, far less any answer. Perhaps there is some catering school buried deep in the mountains of the north, a secret school which teaches all chefs and cooks The Way Of The One Dish – an ancient, mystical rite which rejects modern-day multitasking. It would certainly explain why Cambodian weddings last three days.

Touch. I realise that I’m flirting with fromage here, but I’m genuine when I say that it’s the people that have touched us most. Cheesy but true. Two standouts for us have to be the children of Grace House, where Sophia volunteered for a month, and the people of Laos (although we didn’t meet them all).

After six months in Southeast Asia returning to Scotland may well prove a huge cultural shock – that low leaden skyline, the empty streets, the wide uncluttered pavements; but perhaps our month in Laos will have helped us acclimatise. Certainly there’s not much between the two countries in terms of population and geographical size; and worthy of reflection is the fact that Laos is one of the poorest and friendliest countries in world. I guess a lot like Scotland after independence.

Caption Competition Winners

R: It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for – the announcement of the caption competition winners.

It’s been an agonising process for the judges, sifting through thousands upon thousands of entries, and trying to agree on the winners. Sometimes it has been wit, sometimes intelligence, sometimes lateral thinking which has won through. But whatever the reason, the stamp of genius has been the common factor. Mostly.

Due to issues surrounding security, and following advice by Royal Mail, we are unable to announce details concerning the actual prizes. We would, however, advise against making any rash career decisions or large impulsive purchases until you have received your prize. Please allow up to 28 days for delivery.

Thank you all for your entries, and a special congratulation to all the winners.

Brazil

‘Richard prayed that his bushtucker trial did not include rats bottoms, cobras bowels or monkeys weeners.’

– Barry Peebles

Peru

‘I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, to stop my mind from wandering… where it will go.’

– Peter Restall

Bolivia

‘The food was so bad that I lost 8 stone…’

– Alison Jones

Argentina

‘We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind, cause if your friends don’t, and if they don’t dance, then there no friends of mine.’

– Daniel England

Chile

‘You get a good view of your house from here!’

– Campbell Scott

New Zealand

‘Gary Glitter’s new disguise wasn’t fooling anyone, especially the children…’

– Mike Stewart

Fiji

‘Richard makes an early return to Shandwick Place.’

– George England

Australia

‘Strictly Come Dancing kicks-off new season on board the QE2.’

– Kevin Rooney

Indonesia

‘Does my bum look big in this.’

– John Shields

Malaysia

‘Bear England.’

– Shona Galletly

Thailand

‘Richie longs for a Mr Whippy back in the UK.’

– Darran Flowers

Laos

‘The annual oxen prostate exam’s a two-man job…’

– Tom Muir

Cambodia

‘Has the bell gone?’

– Linda Livingstone

Vietnam

‘Spot the dummy.’

– Linda Livingstone

Photo Gallery: The Rest Of The Best

R: We’ve only a few days left, so we thought it would be good to share a few of the photographs that haven’t made it onto the blog.

For the DSLR-owners out there, don’t get too excited – we’ve been using a humble Casio Exilim, which offers only 10.1 megapixels in resolution. But despite its technical limitations it’s done a pretty decent job.

This gallery also means that you will be spared having to sit through hundreds of photographs upon our return. Sighs of relief all round, I think. It will also be something of a boon to those who have only looked at the pictures anyway (you know who you are!).

Happy viewing.

Days 323-329: Halong Way to Hanoi

S: We are pleased to report that our epic 19-hour bus voyage from Hoi An to Hanoi worked out just fine. Along with our journey through the mightily spectacular South American Andes, this was another picture postcard road trip. Vietnam’s east coast served up some sumptuous sights, bountiful beaches and tranquil waters.

It was soon back to the mayhem and madness of Southeast Asia’s mega cities, this time Hanoi. We staggered off our bus and into the lions pit of tour guides and taxi drivers. We promptly picked out a taxi and escaped to our hotel. Upon checking in Richard discover he was missing a bag – a bag which contained his passport, credit cards, mobile phone, netbook, kindle and iTouch. The bellboy raced off down a twisting street and managed to head the taxi off at the pass. Phew! Disaster averted!

Much like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is a bubbling city alive with activity. The only difference between the two seems to be their roads. HCMC had spacious pavements and wide boulevards which almost represent a grid system. Hanoi is a much older city and takes pride in its narrow curling, whirling streets. The locals tend to spill out onto the pavements, hanging out at mealtimes and selling produce in between.

Days 324 and 325…20120821-205219.jpg

We became familiar with Vietnam’s heroic women at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.20120821-211611.jpg

The aftermath of a typhoon – lightning had flattened many huge trees, blocking the main roads.20120821-211844.jpg

St Joseph’s Cathedral – brillo pad anyone?20120821-212917.jpg

Here in lies the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh (no photographs were allowed inside).

Days 326 and 327 were undoubtedly one of the main highlights for us both while in Vietnam. 145 km south east of Hanoi lies the mystical waters of Halong Bay. Consisting of around 1,960 limestone islands, the best way to explore the bay is by boat. Richard and I joined 15 other guests on board our junk and set sail for an overnight adventure.

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The glory of Halong Bay looms into view.

On our first day we enjoyed a traditional Vietnamese lunch while our junk navigated its way to our first stop. Inside one of the islands we were able to explore the many nooks and crannies of a cave. Unaware of her surroundings, one fellow girl was heard asking “is it dark in the cave?” Her sympathetic guide informed her that “there is now electricity in the cave”.

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Halong Bay

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The captain of our ship, Thang.

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How can I get closer..?

To get even closer to the islands we hopped into some kayaks and weaved in and around the bay. The waters were calm and the breeze gentle – perfect conditions.

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Perfection untouched

After a quick dip in the salty south China sea we went off for a shower and soon it was time for dinner onboard. After-dinner entertainment was thoroughly enjoyed by all: Top Gear Special – in Vietnam.

Day two we journeyed further into the stunning islands and were taken to the location of Top Gear’s final scene.

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Not a bad set for a closing scene.

We also visited a floating village, including a primary school, before returning on board to make our lunch. Spring rolls are big business in Vietnam, they are eaten almost every day by locals. Our guide Thang gave us his own secret recipe and helped us prepare some rolls by hand.

Soon it was time to depart as our Halong Bay adventure had came to an end. Back to Hanoi we travelled by bus and there we spent our remaining two nights in Vietnam.

To conclude our time in Hanoi we made a visit to the Hanoi prison, aka Hanoi Hilton.

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Hanoi’s hostel’s aren’t what they used to be.

Only too quickly has our time in Vietnam come to a close. We leave with nothing but praise and applause for the country. A country which has beautifully diverse landscapes and sits at the vanguard of Southeast Asia’s future prosperity, it has been a pleasure.

Tomorrow we take an early flight out of Vietnam and on to our last location of the trip – Bangkok. We keep hearing of the disorder and chaos which Bangkok spits out to innocent travellers. Having experienced Rio, Lima, La Paz, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City and of course Hanoi, we would be tempted to say that we are well prepared for Bangkok. But this trip has taught us that as soon as you think you’ve cracked travelling, it slaps you firmly in the face. We are, however, as ready as we’ve ever been…

Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

R: The White Whale and I have become great friends on this trip; and although I finished reading Moby Dick nearly four months ago, I thought it a fitting book with which to end my literary odyssey.

I’m not a great reader on the bus, suffering as I do from text-induced motion sickness. Planes and trains are no problem, but buses (and Fijian boats) are necessarily prose-free areas for me. With this in mind I left the UK with an unabridged audiobook of Melville’s classic.

Through bursts of Frank Muller diction the whale has followed me along Brazil’s Costa Verde, through Peru’s Sacred Valley, around Lake Titicaca, across the Altiplano, down the Chilean coast and twice over the Andes. And it has helped break the monotony of overnight rides from Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Byron Bay and Bali to Java. In Singapore Moby Dick disappeared amid the gloom – the backlight of my iPhone packed in – before resurfacing in Thailand, where, in Kindle format, I eventually made it to the book’s climatic final scene.

So what of the book itself? At first Melville’s style – long sentences, archaic language and florid descriptions – is a little difficult to penetrate, but as the mist clears you are soon pitched headlong into a salty, oily world of whales, whaling and harpooners.

But Moby Dick is as much famed for its verbosity as its virtuosity, and there is no denying that Melville’s prolixity can often frustrate and even defeat the pluckiest of readers. Arguably, nearly half of the one hundred and thirty-three chapters do not concern the main narrative, exploring instead the history, science and culture of whales and whaling. In fact, a more appropriate title for the book may have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whales But Were Afraid to Ask.

But the hardy reader is rewarded, as the accumulative effect of each digression serves to both build suspense and enhance the central metaphor of the whale. I say central metaphor, as there are probably as many meanings as there are chapters in the book. But what does the White Whale itself symbolise? God, nature, immortality? And what is the significance of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest? Sin, hubris, or just plain old-fashioned revenge? Arguably, the key meditation of the book concerns the limits of man’s knowledge: that no matter how many ‘facts’ we gather about the world – about nature, about life, about ourselves – there are some things which remain forever unknowable.

Elsewhere I have lamented the attempts of others to write The Great American Novel; and it is from Melville that any aspirants must wrestle this title. In Moby Dick Melville does not speak of America but of the world, not of a whale but of life. This is why he takes his rightful place among the literary heroes of this trip.

But it is in the metaphorical richness that Moby Dick achieves its greatness. Its layers are so numerous, its weft and warp so tightly packed, that the reader is free to invest his or her own meaning. For me, Moby Dick is a metaphor for both the limits and the glories of travel. And I will leave Ishmael with the last word on both.

On the limits:

‘Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.’

And the glories:

‘How vain and foolish for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly livingly found out.’