As I sit here today, I can’t help but realise that the last two years have opened up a whole new world to me. This post is not at all going to be a been-there-done-that sort of post, because there are just so many places that I haven’t been to so far. Instead, it is going to be about going back in time re living and sharing some of the most memorable moments of the trips.
We all want to travel and see the world, or as much of it as possible, and my opportunity came when one of my cousins asked me to join him for a trip to Europe. We bought the tickets, booked most of the hotels and hostels but sadly, all the excitement came to an abrupt end when my visa application was rejected. So, that left me with a sanctioned three week leave from work, which I can choose to either waste at home or go out venturing on my own.
Before that, I had never realistically planned for a trip, let alone a backpacking trip alone. I chose Hong Kong , Macau and Southern Thailand, probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. All these places either provided free entry or had visa on arrival facility, so I felt relieved to be free from all the visa hassle.
Fast forward to the fateful day when I finally landed in Hong Kong and made my way to the immigration checkpoint. I was stopped by the official and taken into the back office. Confused, dazed and unsure, I sat at the unbearably white and spotlessly clean office. A couple of the immigration officials were staring straight at their computers, punching away on their keyboard, probably even unaware of my presence. They were all wearing very official looking white uniforms, which for some reason intimidated me further. Next to me, sat a few other people looking equally confused. Finally a twisted Cantonese version of my name was called and I was taken to a young official who greeted me with a smile and asked me to sit down. Till this point, I was wondering if someone slipped in some drugs or something illegal in my bags but his smile reassured me that it probably wasn’t that serious. During the next 15 minutes, I was asked all sorts of questions about my trip and what I did for a living. Interestingly, at one point he asked me what exactly I did at the Bank where I worked. And I was a bit stumped because frankly speaking, I didn’t do anything. My week days revolved around the coffee machine and the canteen. I ended up making stories about sales and finance and threw in some management jargons too, just to be sure. Finally, he led me outside and stamped my passport. “Permitted to stay in Hong Kong for 14 days from the date of entry”. Fuck Yeah!
Apparently, the Schengen Visa rejection warranted the harassment. Europeans are jerks!
Hong Kong was great. The night markets, the malls, the food and drinks, Disneyland, the Peak Train and everything else in between, all great. But my best day there was the day when it rained. It drizzled all day long and I had to spend most of the day with a cheap ass umbrella and walked around the markets of Mongkok. Watching local Hong Kongers haggle with the prices in the the bird market, the fish market, the flower market and the electronic market was quite a lot of fun.
Another way to have a lot of fun is crossing the river, going to Macau, gambling and winning. Too bad I did not know the rules, so I basically ended up trying to decipher whether a hand of cards or a roll of dice was good, from the facial expressions of the gamblers. There is a saying that the house always wins, and if the expressions were anything to go by, the house was kicking ass!
All the touristy places like the Senado Square, the casinos and the museums were enjoyable but nothing beats a simple stroll down a street with no agendas. I ate my first weird food at one of these streets. An octopus.
Next stop was Bangkok. More specifically, Khao San Road. Ever since I heard that Richard (from the Beach) stayed here, I knew I had to follow his trail. However, Daffy didn’t pay me a visit. I am still too embarrassed to go into the details, but the incident involved me, “The Club”, a Thai girl, a lot of drinks (hence a lot of puking and passing out), a South African fan of Brian Lara, and a misunderstanding of EPIC proportions. Tsk Tsk Tsk.
I have been to Bangkok thrice since then and visited almost all the landmarks that the city has to offer but strangely every time I go there, I see something new, and experience something completely different. I guess that is the main reason why I love Bangkok and constantly want to squeeze in some Bangkok time every time I am planning a trip.
Pattaya was not for me, even though watching a live late night muay thai event was awesome. I learnt two things about myself while in Pattaya. One, I am incredibly grossed out by old men trying to relieve their youth with young Thai girls. Two, I like cabaret. No, I love cabaret. All those who have seen Alcatraz or the Tiffany’s show will know what I am talking about. I remember thinking during the show, again and again, “Those cannot be guys!”
I have been to Phuket thrice now, and sadly, each time I visited it seemed to have gone tackier, and dirtier than the previous time. Even though, Patong which is synonymous with the Bangla Road, is more “happening” in terms night time activities, I probably would restrict myself to Karon or Kata, the next time I visit.
Or I will get on a ferry and head off to Ko Phi Phi for the lazy day times and beach parties during the night. Phi Phi is much more than sea food, parties, body paints or cocktails served in a bucket. The Maya Bay or “The Beach” is just a few minutes away by long boat.
Sadly, as picturesque as it was, I will always remember Maya Bay as the place where I almost died. The small rubber boat in which we were travelling capsized and it is thanks to a Thai guy, who dragged my ass up on a bigger boat, that I am alive enough to write this post. My first near death experience. I have been to Ko Phi Phi once more after that, but like Phuket, it too seemed to have gone downhill when it comes to cleanliness.
Vietnam, even though a neighbour of Thailand, seems like a whole different ball game. The food, the people, the cities and the villages, you will either love Vietnam or hate it. I loved the organised chaos of Ho Chi Minh City. Pagoda hopping on a moto cab was quite an adventure. The Ho Chi Minh roads were filled with motor cycles but surprisingly, there weren’t any traffic jams and everyone seemed to be moving along just fine. To get a taste of history, we visited the famous tunnels in the Cu Chi village just outside of HCMC, where we were briefed by a war veteran. To supplement that, we visited the Reunification Palace, and the War Museum.
I seriously don’t know why people told me that Cambodia is dangerous. It seriously wasn’t. Crossing into Cambodia by bus and stopping at various villages on our way to Siem Reap was enlightening, because we got a taste of how the rural Cambodian people lived, quite literally. In one of the village cafes I tasted my first (and probably last) tarantula. I can still taste their furry little legs in my mouth. Disgusting.
The one thing I will remember about Phnom Penh was the sad conversation I had with my tuk tuk driver, whose father was killed in the Khmer Rouge. Visiting the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum was exceptionally hard for him. It is hard to not feel sad about all the inhuman punishments so many honest, and innocentCambodians were subjected to during the Khmer Rouge.
Phnom Penh has great food. Loved my hotel and its staff….. and the Cambodian Pop group whose concert I attended while roaming around in the night markets.
Seam Reap was exceptionally beautiful. Angkor Wat was all that it is made out to be and more. A lot more. Not only the Angkor but all the nearby shrines and Wats… all beautiful. All etched to my memory forever.
I remember the laughing fit that my tuk tuk driver had when during the early morning trip to the wats, a frog jumped on to me and I yelled out like a little girl. Also remember cycling around, with a map, to the museums, markets and the like all day. At point, I was so lost that I almost cycled out of Seam Reap till a local nudged me in the right direction.
Nights were totally relaxed around the pub street area, where I stayed. Drinking cheap Angkor Beer and trying out the oh-so-yucky Khmer dishes were my night routine. On my last night there, I gave one of the masseuses, a hindi movie DVD. She seemed fascinated by our movie industry. I wonder if she liked the movie.
Even though, I lost my beloved cell phone there, I have nothing but happy memories about Cambodia, and come to think of it, my cell phone couldn’t have found a better place to part ways with me.
The Vietnam-Cambodia-Northern Thailand trip ended with me spending some time in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Infested with western expats, Chiang Mai seemed to be a posh little city with roadside cafes and bars. I didn’t see any Go-Go bars (Amen to that!) but did visit the famous weekend night market. It was an endless string of shops selling mostly the same old touristy bull shit like t-shirts and souvenirs that we can find in almost anywhere in Thailand. It was there where I got to, for the first time ever, had a conversation with a lady boy, who told me I looked gay (not my first time ). In Chiang Mai, I met the Norwegian sailor, Johnathon, who bored the hell out of me and that innocent guy from Osaka with his tales. To his defence, he was very very drunk, so we had no choice but to forgive him for momentarily making us lose the will to live.
Landing in Laos for half an hour to do some shopping during the Golden Triangle tour was nice too. Remember buying the local currency, Kip, from a shopkeeper who gave me the shittiest exchange rate.
This year’s festivities began with the Southern Thailand-Bali trip. Reached Railay via Phuket, Krabi and Ko Phi Phi. Even though, I hate to admit it, I first saw Railay on Samantha Brown’s Asia. It was right there and then that I decided that it was one place that I have got to visit. Yes, it was that good. Getting sun burnt from spending a whole day under the sun at the Phra Nang Beach was one of the bitter sweet memories of the trip. There may not be much to do at night, but trying out delicious food and drinks, served by my Burmese friend-cum-waitor Vinod while listening to live music at the Last Bar will be a lasting memory as well.
At this point, I would like to confess something. I liked the movie Eat Pray Love. Liked to so much that I decided to visit Bali. I don’t know if it was Julia Roberts or the setting, but the movie made a lot of sense to me. Yes, I know it is embarrassing.
Bali was everything I hoped it would be and more. First things first, Denpasar Bali is officially the most beautiful airport I have been to.
Kuta is the party paradise of Bali while Ubud is the cultural centre. During my short stay in Kuta, I made a lot of friends, which is weird because I zero friends in the neighbourhood in which I have been staying for almost a year. Hell, I don’t even know the names of my neighbours. One of the best people I met during my stay there was Bapl, with whom I toured the Mount Batur, rice fields etc. Hate to use the word again, but it was truly memorable.
Another great time was when we watched Hangover 2(my favourite movie) in a bar, and every time something funny happened, everyone would just burst out in laughter together. I found out that night that it doesn’t matter how many cute girls you pay to advertise your bar, nothing works more than a roomful of happy customers. All that night, we saw people entering the bar and looking around to see what the hell was going on!
In Ubud, I arranged a homestay, which was nice because I got to see how the Balinese people lived. Did you know, the Balinese people put offerings to the Gods in front of their main gate every morning? The house in which I stayed had a mean dog, which would bark his ass off whenever it saw me. Ubud was so peaceful and quiet. Love the rice fields and the greenery all around. Cannot wait to go back!
And then there was Malaysia, which I travelled on a shoe string budget. Kuala Lumpur was pretty much a concrete jungle, full of swanky shopping malls and sky touching office buildings. KL was much more than just the Petronas and the KL tower though. I loved the Malaysian cuisine and the sea food.
Some of the best times there were spent sitting in a roadside seafood restaurant in Chinatown and ordering different items from the menu. Alcohol is a bit expensive in KL due to the various sanctions put on it by the government. It is a fact that satays taste better when you have them while doing some people watching in a crowded, chaotic, noisy China Town.
P.S. The KL Bird Park is good, pay it a visit.
Georgetown was the next stop on my Malaysian trip. For the first time I took an overnight train abroad, getting to Butterworth before taking a ferry to Georgetown. It is rightly named as the food capital of Malaysia. Best shrimp dumplings I have had. Mouth watering for sure. Another thing I learnt in Georgetown, is reading maps. Yes, I am pretty good at it now. I roamed around the town on foot, with the map and it was all worth it. Loved the view out to the sea from Fort Cornwallis.
The colonial buildings, the small alleyways and cafes, and the friendly people, make you want to keep extending your stay. But a traveller must keep travelling, so a couple of days later I boarded a ferry to Langkawi.
Again like in the rest of Malaysia, loved the food, especially the chilly crabs. Langkawi can be very quiet during the day. I spent most of my time there lying around in the beach during the day, getting up just for lunch. At night, I hung around at the Raffiis, a seaside restaurant. Did you know that Langkawi is a duty free island and drinks are much cheaper there?
All in all, it has been a great couple of years, in terms of travel, and all the places that I visited were special in their own ways. If given a chance, I will fly back to these places in a heartbeat.
Can’t wait for next year!