“Beauty is fleeting and arrives on its own terms always.
Holding onto it is little more than caging the wind.”
At long last, I have finally gotten around to framing the pics from the South East Asian adventure. Not all of them, mind you, as 12Gb of printed photos would probably pave a road from here to Krugersdorp (yes, that is how much footage we managed to take off our four or so cameras). As someone who has framed less pictures than he would have fingers left after a horrific machinery accident, a great deal of thought has gone into the enterprise. My general attitude towards framing pictures was that it is little more than a desperate attempt to fill empty space with sickening pictures of chubby nephews and baby photos. Which I would love to record with the same zest and vigour as high resolution images of athlete’s foot.
These pictures, however, scream with all of the depth of experience and unwashed, frequently-hungover and physically destroyed adventure that only a month of solid backpacking could produce. Each frame has been lovingly filled with an iconic image from our misadventures, and garnished with a smattering of tickets, currency, beer labels and other random bits of paper which – taken in together – produce a form of magical visitation into the past that Albus Dumbledore could only dream about. I will now proceed to walk you through each of these artistic masterpieces, because of the pride with which they fill me, and because so very many of the stories contained in each page have remained untold to this point.
A.k.a The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. It should be pointed out, for those intending to go to this country in future, that it is in fact pronounced l-ow (where you say ow as if you had hurt yourself). Getting this correct at the beginning will stop people thinking you are an idiot. This photo has the five of us (John was behind the camera) outside a delightful little pub/restaurant/highly decorated shack which sold liquor, called Lao Lao in the town of Luang Prabhang, some 11 hours by duckling-filled bus from Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Which was, itself, some 18 hours by train from Bangkok. I.e. it was very, very far from anywhere.
We were to spend christmas eve in that fine establishment, partaking of Lao Lao (a locally made form of rice whisky, sold for $2 a 750ml bottle, and not to be confused with Lao Lao, the delightful little pub/restaurant/highly decorated shack which sold liquor). We also drank a sizeable volume of the national beer, known as Beer Lao (yes, everything has Lao in it). This in turn led to the invention of a drinking game which became known by the end of the evening as the Laotian Christmas Desynchronicity Game, whose rules are now more or less complete, and were recorded on our bar receipt and have now been framed in perpetuity. The fundamentals of the game basically involved the timed banging of beers on the table and repeatedly exchanging them while trying to cause them to foam. Not only a spectacular waste of the occasional quart, but also a great way to spread herpes. The rules of the game included such gems as:
“1. Have to use beer quarts of beer”
Which was faithfully recorded by Kelly, minutes before she no longer became secretary, and Sam took over documenting the rules of the game as they were made, with a scrawl that would make GP look twice. The rules include mention of Santa’s Little Helpers, Santa’s Beard and Happy New Beer as various categories of magical chant and counter chant. There are murmurings of a reunion one day, where the original five players can try to remember the finer points of the competition and complete what I vaguely remember to be holes in the original rules, or at least conflicting interpretations of their application in certain instances. A scan of the original document can be found here and here.
Besides the riotous drinking, some shocking disclosures in the subsequent game of I-have-never (which, as a gentleman, I may not share) and Phil gnawing on animal fat, the night passed rather quietly.
Of all the places we had visited during that trip, Laos is by far and away the most special. I reckon it was a combination of the small, perfectly fitting group that I got to travel with, combined with the overwhelming sense of raw reality of the places and events we saw. It is a shockingly poor country, where we saw few old people – I am told due to the ravages of otherwise preventable illnesses. Where most of the country lives on less than a dollar a day, and having your bus guarded by an AK 47 weilding teenager is not considered odd. If backpacking is supposed to be an off-the-trail adventure, away from tour touts and airconditioned buses, then it would be difficult to imagine a more dusty, dirty, fantastic slice of adventure than Laos was for us during our time there.
If Beer Lao and the Laotian Christmas Desynchronicity Drinking Game were emblematic of Laos, then the cultural touchstone of Thailand for the time we were there has to be Khaosan Road. Frequently referred to as a tourist ghetto, it is an alleyway not longer than about 500m, stuffed (in the daylight hours) with every manner of trinket, service or random item that the hippie backpacker could ever desire. Stalls selling T-Shirts in every shade of rude, poi, sculptures, beads, more beads, Pad Thai, pirate psytrance CDs and every other indulgence, legal or not, that the fringes of humanity could dream of. By night, the stalls disappear and you finally realise that along one entire side, lying in wait, were the many Th Khaosan clubs, where you would dance and drink (mostly back outside, where alchohol was half the price) until the small hours of the morning.
In particular, on this trip, we spent nearly (no, actually every) night in a club known simply as The Club. With free glow bangles on entry (as many as you want, and you can tie them anywhere), and thumping electronic music until the late night, it was for me what I had expected the urban bangkok backpacker experience to be. I realise that there are many other attractions to the city, and we did indeed see the temples, the King’s palace and so very much more of the city and surrounds – even so far as to go and see Pattaya, my opinions of which are shared by my brother (though with infinitely more expressive language), and by nearly everyone else who went to see the town. Despite these amazing and beautiful sights (I mean, what words can adequately describe a 45ft gold buddha?), Th Khaosan will remain in my head as the defining memory of that place. The morning after the first night there, I woke up in a state that could only be described as physical, psychological and emotional brokenness.
Unable to raise myself from my bed, I did nought but stare at the ceiling for the better part of… um… a while. I still remember, very clearly, hearing the voice of Johnny Depp from Fear & Loathing in my head, being able – for I think the first time – to truly understand the sort of devastation that the morning after can wreak upon a person’s soul. Yet we were to go back to those clubs, traverse those markets in search of poi, henna tattoos and tailored suits, time and time again. I think it was because Khaosan, for me, was a place where a massive variety of humanity – travellers all – just got along, creating and upholding a magic in that place that would swim through the steaming Pad Thai woks, the sounds of haggling and laughter, and a thousand bright lights – all promising adventures, late nights and the company of strangers who were out for nothing else but a good time. No dancing in little friendship circles, no accusing glances or immature angst, just pleasure and enjoyment in every form. As Hunter S. Thompson wrote:
“My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings… not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .”
From the heady highs of hedonistic revelry that was Pattaya (well the evenings in Jomtein, at any rate), Cambodia was a very clear morning-after. Stories of happy pizza aside, Cambodia is a land that I felt had so much to share, but which is still recovering, emotionally and psychologically, from its terrible past. The sheer, awe-inspiring majesty of the Angkor Wat ruins is beyond description. Yet the same nation that was so unified in its history as to produce such an imposing wonder had turned on itself so completely as to produce the likes of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng. To actually find yourself walking on the grounds where some 20 000 dead remain buried, their teeth, bones, and clothing protruding through the ground – is something that no amount of sadness, no amount of anger could ever communicate. It was just a weight, a deeply, crushing weight and disappointment at the inadequacy of the human heart to be able to feel what should be felt at such a place.
It is a country, I believe, with a great deal to share, and so many experiences for travellers to take in beyond the stark poles of Angkor Wat and terrible genocide. It just seemed that so much has been lost in the destruction – in lives and in the minds of so many people – that it will be decades before Cambodia will rediscover the things that made it beautiful before. That said, it is a place that we could not afford to have not seen, as the very human lessons and reflections that it past hold are something that we left changed for having seen.
There was also sunburn. Severe enough that I am glad still to have my legs – having learned lessons about the severity of doxycycline in causing acute reactions to sun, and about my own idiocy in sitting atop a boat for six hours in full sun without applying cream to my legs. But that particular chapter of the trip has already been reflected on, and there is little more to add to that sad chapter in my trip.
Our time in Cambodia was short enough, that I feel there was a great deal we should have, but didn’t get to see. This was even more acutely true of Vietnam. Memorable mainly for its very well maintained city hospital and the burns unit that so caringly saved me from the premature loss of my legs to infected second degree sunburn, as well as communism and coconut candy. And the traffic. Like a flowing river of steel and rubber, hundreds of tiny scooters would push through every road – oblivious to traffic lights, each other and human life.
If you have crossed a road in Vietnam, then you can cross a road anywhere. Hell, you could navigate a warzone with comparative ease. Getting to the otherside was an exercise in swallowing your fear and walking straight into the traffic. No waiting for a gap, no slowing down, no pausing or looking around except to stare down the nearest oncoming motorist. And so you continue until you reach the other side – the scooters flowing around you like a ballet, judging your every move and steering to within a hair of you, instead of into you. If you stop, however, you may just be killed.
Overall though, we never got to see or experience much of Vietnam at all. Partly because we were all so tired after a month of travelling, packing, sunburning, laughing, crying, thinking and getting fleeced that the energy to explore was starting to expire. I had promised John, who couldn’t come with to Vietnam, that when he returns there one day, I will do the trip with him, and properly. From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, it looks like there is enough to see there that it would take a lifetime. Between the war sites, Ha Long Bay and a myriad other experiences that most likely lie buried in the buzz of life in that nation, I look forward to one day seeing it again, and properly. With the same small cameraderie and energy that made Laos in the beginning of the adventure so particularly special.
To say that I came back from that trip changed would be an understatement. I think – and some of the comments from others would indicate I am not alone in this – I was fundamentally altered at the level of my psychological and emotional DNA, to the point that just thinking about the stars in Laos, the dance floor in Khaosan, the red Cambodian dust or the buzzing streets of Saigon makes me want to go back and do it all over again, even more thoroughly than before. I have come to believe that travel, once you have done it properly, is the emotional equivalent of crack cocaine – just that it happens to have a number of positive long term after-effects, makes you smell funny and gives you a residual high every time you look back on it.