Guardians of the Galaxy is on at half eight, so I have a finite amount of time to start and finish this, unlike every post I’ve worked on this week, which has basically been me trying to remember how to write about something that doesn’t involve a bus journey or jet lag. I still feel a bit like I’m at home in a foreign land – I nearly came out of a junction on the right side of the road yesterday morning, and I had entirely forgotten that teenagers in Southend enjoy shouting abuse at their elders (me). Usefully, surviving three months in a foreign land has imparted a large dose of self confidence, so I no longer feel it would be inappropriate to shout back. I had missed giving the finger.
My job search is going well, insofar as I haven’t had many rejections. I have not had any interview invitations yet, which is a fly in the ointment, but I had also forgotten how much I enjoy making Excel spreadsheets and striving for professional greatness. By that I mean I would like to land a paid internship, if possible, or a job that offers a salary large enough that I might be able to replace all the clothes I’m throwing out. I had a look in the shops the other day and it might be cheaper to fly to Bangkok with a large suitcase and hang out in the markets until I’ve replaced my wardrobe than it is to visit Topshop. Why are cold shoulder tops still a thing? What’s up with jeans that have been ripped during the manufacturing process? GO BACKPACKING AND RIP YOUR OWN DAMN JEANS.
Oops I’m doing it again. This has been happening all week. I think that subconsciously I’m worried that I’ll fall back into the Great 2015 Blogging Pit of Despair and Creative Frustration if I don’t keep talking about the only interesting thing that’s happened to me since I passed my eleven plus. To be honest, I’m worried that Asia might be the only interesting thing that’s going to happen to me, and that I’ll go back into the Great 2015 General Pit of Despair and Creative Frustration. I like how I felt when I came home. I like that I was relaxed and rested and enthusiastic about everything. Even throwing out clothes! In the 12 days since I’ve been back, my arms have ached from the cold so much that I thought I might need to go back to physio, I’ve forgotten to exercise and meditate virtually every day and I’ve shouted abuse at teenagers in the high street. They were little shits who needed to find hobbies, but still. I don’t want to fossilise into a grumpy, arthritic unemployed old lady. Or not until I’m at least thirty, anyway.
That’s why I’m going to dye my hair purple, go back to my old Pilates class and share my writing more. I’ve just finished working on a thing. It’s a pretty okay thing. I don’t know where I’ll put it yet, but I’ll put it out somewhere before I decide it’s not good enough. I’m going to finish up those blogs I started. I’m going to exercise enough that I won’t need to go to physio. I’m going to keep talking about Asia, probably. I’m never going back to the 2015 Pits of Despair.
I have to go because Guardians is on in a minute and that paragraph ending feels really dramatic. BYE.
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I gave myself a few days to chill out and finish my Christmas chocolates (one perk of leaving the country on 5th January is eating a giant chocolate Rudolph on 6th April) and from today I have been BACK AT WORK. Ish. I’ve been cleaning up my CV, looking for a job and trying to sort out things I’d forgotten about, like hair appointments and recycling and my wardrobe.
My mum took the time I was away to redesign the kitchen, do up the bathroom and install a downstairs toilet, so neither of us know where anything is and for once we’re both in complete spring cleaning mode (usually she wants me to chuck out my grungy t-shirts and I want her to leave me alone). But it turns out everyone was right when they said I’d get back and realise I have too much stuff. When I first had a shower when I got back (and couldn’t work the shower) I couldn’t decide what to wear because I own too many clothes. Way too many. Why did I have so many socks? I only have two feet. I spent three months with five pairs of socks! I have thrown out most of them since I’ve been back because they disintegrated some time between Angkor Wat and Chiang Mai, but whatever. I am a born again non-materialist. I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT. I am giving away or selling what I hadn’t worn or used for more than six months before I left, and although my room looks like a charity shop, I feel, like, free. That being said, a lot of my clothes were falling apart anyway, and I’m a bit concerned that if I get rid of everything I secretly hated/never wore/wore out, I will have no clothes. Which brings me back to looking for a job. The good news is that I’ve been more or less constantly occupied since I left school. The bad news is that although I have discerned a great deal of responsibility in my previous roles, I can’t actually spell ‘responsibilities’.
I am not looking for anything solely concerned with proof reading.
It’s nearly five, which means I need to sit down and nurse a large glass of water if I want to stay awake long enough to eat dinner and wash my hair.
This morning I worked out that if I did one blog per week about each place in South East Asia that I haven’t talked about yet, I would have told you about everything in… 13 weeks. That’s longer than the time I’ve spent in South East Asia. If I do two a week and devote a third post to something else – like looking for a job and being reunited with my pets and re-learning to wear jeans – I will probably have finished up by the time I’ve found a job. Or is six weeks too soon to find a job? I’ve been away from home for so long that I can’t really remember how European time (sorry, sovereign British time) works. How long will I spend in traffic getting to my nan’s? What time do shops stay open until? How long do commercial breaks run? It’s a good thing we’re finishing in Thailand, where motorists drive on the left side of the road, because I’m already fully expecting to try overtaking on a hill while going round a blind bend, tooting my horn and chatting on my mobile. And that’s wrong. Right?
I’ve been trying to think of something philosophical to write about leaving home and traveling and returning home, because isn’t the whole point of going backpacking in your twenties to find yourself but either I’m really unaware or I’m already a salty old lady, because I can’t think of a bean to say. I think the UK might actually feel more alien than Asia at this point; I keep thinking of all the things I want to do when I get home, and how I’ll approach certain parts of my life differently, but what if my new ideas are not okay in Southend? I mean, I realistically won’t drive like a Laotian minivan driver. I also probably won’t barge past people on pavements, because in Britain it’s just not done. And I’m definitely happy to be leaving a region where it’s normal to discard rubbish in the street, where a lot of children don’t go to school, where landmines are an every day occurrence, where equal marriage is literally a foreign concept. But I’m going to miss how friendly people are, how willing they are to help foreigners even if they don’t really understand you. I can hand my phone to a tuk tuk driver so he can look at my map, and I know for a fact he’ll give it back to me. I’ve been leered at once. Just once! I’m going to haggle in every market I go to, I won’t have such a problem talking to complete strangers any more and I’m probably never going to judge other people’s bathroom habits ever again.
Something I’ve become very aware of is that I can walk into a dorm that sleeps six people and hear five languages that aren’t English. Out here the locals can identify me a mile off as a backpacking white girl, and they’re kind enough to indulge my shitty pronunciation and wide-eyed stares and total ignorance. As an British person I’m one of the few foreigners who doesn’t speak two languages; English is the default language for pretty much every traveler I’ve met, from Scandinavians to Ethiopians, while I’ve understood maybe four words of other people’s languages. Again, they’ve indulged me. I’ve even picked up some new vocab, although none of it is usable in polite conversation. Unlike holidays I’ve taken with family, amongst backpackers there hasn’t been a single xenophobic comment about anyone to anyone, and no one’s spent dinner accusing a Brexiter of being a fascist or a German of being a Nazi. Trump supporters are discussed with more nuance than I’ve ever heard in a western news broadcast. The most grief I’ve experienced is when I’ve told people I’m from Essex and they’ve said ‘I’ve heard of Essex girls,’ to which I’ve replied I’m not what they’ve heard of; at home I’ve had people call me ‘exotic’ and ask where I’m from in a tone that really just means they’re asking if they can say something Islamophobic in my presence and get away with it (spoiler alert: no). I’m going back to a country in the middle of a debate about what it means to be British, and I’m not sure how I’m going to fit.
I guess I’m going to learn a lot when I’m home, huh. By the way, how much does a coffee cost in the UK at the moment? I’m used to paying about sixty pence.
I started to write up our visit to Danang yesterday, thinking it would be a short ‘n’ sweet kind of post, like the visit, but then I remembered a bunch of funny stories and things we did (some of them might not be that funny but they are at least stories) and pretty soon I was drafting several paragraphs and selecting many photographs and I think it’s going to take me a while to write up two months of travelling. There is so much to tell you. Like the pet pig I saw in a Chiang Mai food market. The time I nearly fell down a toilet in Laos. When I went to a church in Hanoi and realised why people like churches (don’t worry, I’m still a salty atheist with a complex).
I can’t quite believe it, but we go home in eight days. In fact I am writing this during the early evening, so in a week’s time I will probably be packing. Or I’ll be in one of Bangkok’s markets, bartering for a new summer wardrobe and all the souvenirs I’ve denied myself since January. I want a nice set of chopsticks, because I have finally mastered chopsticks (I can feed myself with them, anyway), another pair of elephant trousers because I will look cool and well-traveled if I wear them in Southend high street, a silk scarf or five and possibly an elephant plushie. I have even checked my airline’s hand luggage allowance to see if I can squeeze more stuff in. Our checked luggage can go up to about 30kg, and I don’t think I hit 20 on the way out, but our backpacks are only about 45 litres, so I may have to go all Marie Kondo and roll my bras into my sandals.
Then again, if living out of one bag for three months (with a fair bit of bra rolling) has taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need a lot of objects to get by. In Chiang Mai I kept nearly tripping over a couple of guests’ bags, because they left them open on the floor and holy bats they had a lot of stuff. I refused to scrimp on facial products and underwear, and my bulkiest items have been electrical (which, if I wanted to backpack like a purist, I would have left at home) but otherwise I’ve been pretty bare bones. Aside from clothes and my sleeping bag, most of my items have been things like contact lenses, notebooks (I’ve finished three and started two) and prescription sunglasses. Technically they’re all luxuries, and Maxim thought I had way too much stuff when we started – but he doesn’t need glasses and doesn’t write. He also doesn’t menstruate, and I absolutely refused to leave the UK without a supply of sanitary products, just in case South East Asia did not have pharmacies (spoiler alert: it does). I have a feeling I’m going to walk into my bedroom at home and, after crying with delight upon reunion with my bed, look at my stuff and think ‘what the fuck was I thinking when I bought this?’
To be honest, I’ve thought that a few times already… and yet I still seem to own 7865 pieces of overpriced MCR merchandise, 387 handbags when I use the same rucksack every day until it breaks and I buy a new one and 2567 dresses, most of which don’t fit because my clothing size fluctuates with my IBS.
I’ve just remembered that I have not worn a dress, jeans or a pair of boots for three months. I’m looking forward to putting on my Doc Martens almost as much as I am looking forward to the dogs. And I’m going to get a haircut, and cash a voucher I won in a raffle last October for a mani/pedi and a Thai massage (yes, really). I’ve had two massages in Thailand so far just so I can go in and say ‘Oh, a Thai massage? I was just in Thailand!’
The cafe I’m in legit just handed me my bill, because I’ve been ignoring the fact it’s been closing around me for fifteen minutes. Oops.
Before I tell you about Hoi An, I need to tell you about the journey it took to get there. Until we left Da Lat to head north, our longest night bus journey had been about six hours, from Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bus there had basic but functional bunks, and although we were both zombies the next day, we did sleep for a bit. Cambodia to Saigon was a 15-hour or so set of day buses, but we went to bed as soon as we arrived so it was only a mildform of hell. Saigon to Mui Ne and Mui Ne to Da Lat were four-hour journeys and although they weren’t pleasant, they weren’t terrible. Da Lat to Hoi An was probably the first journey where I should have taken sleeping pills.
The first leg of the journey was down from Da Lat to Nha Trang and took about four hours. The worst bit was looking out at the mountains and realising that if the minibus hit a corner, we would all plummet to our deaths.
After a two hour stop over in Nha Trang (I did not, in the end, meet any Russians) we boarded the sleeper for Hoi An. It took 11 hours and I think I slept for three of them; the bus was overbooked so I had a local lady’s elbow in my face for a large portion of that.
We’d chosen our hostel in Hoi An on recommendation from people travelling the opposite way – they all raved about the free breakfast, and free breakfast is not something to be sniffed at. We rolled up at about 6:30am, just in time to plonk ourselves down in the dining area and give thanks for the buffet. Or I did, anyway – Maxim is not a breakfast person, so I ate enough for both of us and took a nap as soon as we could check in to our dorm.
Hoi An used to be a major international port and its Old Town, which is UNESCO certified, is a mishmash of architecture and history from Japan and China as well as Vietnam. Hoi An is also famous for its lanterns, which are so beautiful that not even my terrible photography can take from them.
I got serious sci fi film vibes from the green ones.
You can buy lanterns, but there was no way I’d get one home in one piece. I’ll just have to go back with a proper suitcase and some bubble wrap…
The Old Town is scattered with ‘community halls’ which I thought at first would be town halls like we have at home: nondescript, slightly damp buildings with stacking chairs and terrible coffee. In fact they are essentially temples. Groups of Chinese nationals settled in Hoi An in the 17th century and brought with them their architecture and culture and whatnot. I got a bit confused by all the history, which I was learning from plaques on walls as I went, so possibly you should read more than the Lonely Planet intro before you start. There’s also a ‘Japanese covered bridge’ at the entrance to the Old Town, from Hoi An’s Japanese traders. You can wander around the Old Town all day, basically (the traffic is minimal) and pay a few thousand dong to visit any five designated buildings in between coffee stops at very cute cafes on the river front. I did a few temples and a museum, which featured some local clothes and household objects and a fleet of very creepy mannequins.
I am fairly sure I’ve missed out a fun historical nugget of information – or several – but as I write I’m waiting for the ferry from Koh Tao to mainland Thailand, so I will wrap this up. After Hoi An we went to Danang, which is way better than everyone says. There’s another bridge and everything.
If my maths is right (and it probably isn’t), today marks three quarters of this trip. In honour of this significant landmark, here is a list I’ve been compiling of what I miss about home… and what I could happily never see again.
Things I don’t miss about the UK
Wearing three layers to leave the house and taking both an umbrella and sunglasses
Brexit bullshit (not that I’ve been immune out here. Completely devastated about #IndyRef2 but who can bloody blame them)
The Daily Mail
Going out for coffee and needing to sell an organ for an accompanying flapjack
Neighbours who complain that I park over their driveway, which I don’t, when they don’t even use their driveway
Bible bashers in Southend high street who should go to an Asian war museum if they actually want to see what hell looks like
Turning on the TV for two minutes and finishing Keeping Up With the Kardashians an hour later
How shit everyone thinks everything is even though they live in a country that isn’t riddled with landmines and they have free healthcare and their government hasn’t tried committing a genocide recently and their children are in school and not asking tourists for money outside a famous landmark
Having two-four jobs at any one time
Easter advertising at the end of January
Things I do miss
Leaving my clothes in my bedroom when I go into the bathroom, and leaving my toothbrush in the bathroom when I go into my bedroom
Smoking ban in public places
General public use of seatbelts and traffic lights
Staying in the same place for more than a week
Having a job
Being the only person who has a bed in my bedroom
Waking up to Jon Humphreys ripping the shit out of a politician on the Today Programme
Going down the pub, bitching about the pub, going to McDonald’s after, bitching about McDonald’s
All right children, I know it’s been four seconds since my last post and I was telling you all about southern Vietnam in January, but I’m going to fast forward you for a minute to 10th March, which was the beginning of what I am now realising was a ludicrous journey across central Thailand. I’m going to be retelling it for years to come, so I thought I may as well tell you all now while it’s fresh in my memory (and before I pass out with exhaustion and wipe the shittier bits from my memory).
Our general plan for the trip was to do Bangkok-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-Thailand. We both want to see the southern Thai islands, and to see Chiang Mai in the north, and we fly home from Bangkok, which is conveniently located in the middle. Or inconveniently, if you consider that we have three weeks to visit two opposing sides of the country.We got to Vientiane, the Lao capital, on Thursday (I promise I will tell you all about Laos soon) and realised that it was more practical to go to south Thailand before we went north, partly because the Maxim wants to be in the south for a party thing in the middle of March and partly because Lao public transport is generally lacking in options. Flying anywhere from Vientiane was expensive, so we booked a sleeper train to Bangkok and planned to get another train and a bus down to Phuket (pronounced ‘pooket’, for the record, not ‘fuck it’). Surprisingly, everything went to plan. Unsurprisingly, I wish someone had knocked me out on Friday afternoon and woken me up tomorrow morning.
Vientiane’s train station is about 12km south of Vientiane, so we reached there on a bus from our hostel, via about five other hostels. I had purchased two snacks for the journey, some disappointing crisps and a bar of overpriced chocolate, and I made it through most of the crisps before we reached the station. I should add that we left the hostel at about 3pm, so we’d had a full day of doing stuff in 35 degree heat and already needed a shower. When you cross from Laos to Thailand, you pay 10,000 kip to leave Laos and have your visa stamped, then get a shuttle train to Nong Khai in north-east Thailand, which takes about fifteen minutes and crosses the Friendship Bridge (nice one, politicians).
We’d booked a sleeper train from Nong Khai to Bangkok – you can also book a regular train that travels at night, and we soon learnt the difference – and paid a few thousand kip extra for lower berth beds on recommendation from everyone. We’d booked late, so we were in different carriages; my neighbours were a Lao man who snored loudly and got off a few stations before Bangkok, and a Japanese girl and her Korean boyfriend who were told off by an official for sitting on their bunks before he’d made them up (he also confiscated their beer; alcohol is prohibited on Thai railways). Until I was on the train, munching my chocolate and watching as staff transformed the bunks into beds using foldable mattresses and hospital corners, I hadn’t really thought about living in hostels for two months. I mean, I miss my bed and my privacy and my space, but as I took in the working reading light, working plug socket, curtain and folding table (complete with drinks holder – the lower berth was definitely worth it), then cleaned my teeth in a little cubicle with a lock, liquid soap and toilet paper I thought ‘this is the most privacy and the most luxury I have experienced since that beautiful yet pricey hostel in Hue, if not since London’. And then I thought, ‘I am very much ready to go home.’
The journey was from 7pm to 7am – we left on time and everything – but unlike on sleeper buses, they didn’t turn out the train lights at all (that explains the curtains) and the background noise is spectacular, so when my Lao neighbour got up for his stop at 3:30am, I did too. Staff roused the troops, and converted the bunks back into seats, around 5am, so by the time we got into Bangkok station I was starving and wished I’d taken diazepam the night before.
Kids, if you ever have to get from Bangkok to Phuket, ignore the environmentalists and the purist backpackers. Ignore your money concerns and desire for adventure. Book a flight. By 8am, we’d sussed out the ticket office, consumed various overpriced coffees, used a terrible wifi connection to Google our options, consumed various breakfast foods (a chicken leg at 7:30am was a new culinary low) and booked another train. I can’t remember if we were too tight to fly or just forgot that we could, but we wanted to get the hell out of Bangkok as soon as possible so we booked the soonest available train to Surat Thani, which is the end of the railway line, and a bus on to Phuket, which I had just learnt is an island and has no railway.
What do you do if you have twelve hours in the biggest city in South East Asia? If you’re Maxim, you find a cafe and chill out with food and/or (or and/and) a beer. If you’re me, you find a cafe, eat another breakfast then walk to the nearest market and get a Thai massage. On your return to the cafe for lunch, you discover that an American couple there is also waiting for a night train, and they’re stoned. They’re so stoned that they laugh at everything at a volume normally reserved for raging arguments and compliment your elephant trousers. ‘They’re from Luang Prabang,’ you say. ‘Laos,’ you add, because you know they’re new to Asia. They nod. Your patience extinguished, you walk to the nearby metro and pay 50p to go three stops to Lumphini Park, which is one of the places you didn’t get to visit when you came to Bangkok back in January. You get lost twice between the station and the actual park, stop at Starbucks in an air conditioned mall, pay £3 for iced coffee and hate yourself for it, then Google directions to the park, brave crossing a couple Bangkok’s roads and arrive in the park so exhausted that you have a nap on the grass until it’s time to get the metro back to the cafe, then haul your bags to the main station and eat a couple more chicken legs for dinner.
The only part of that I really recommend doing is the massage and the park; stoned tourists are to be avoided unless you’re in Vang Vieng, Laos, where many people are stoned at best (seriously can’t wait to tell you all about Laos).
As we had booked a regular train that happened to travel at night, for the journey from Bangkok to Surat Thani we were back to shitty seats (mine actually fell off its frame when I leant back too far) and the desire for a quick death. The train left about an hour and a half late and either a window was left open or someone had turned the air con on to the ‘sub zero’ setting, because I ended up digging out my hoodie, a pair of socks and the emergency foil blanket I brought from home in case we stayed in open fields. I also took a diazepam so at least if I was cold I wouldn’t be conscious to complain about it (self medicating to survive overnight journeys is not the same as smoking weed in Bangkok. I did not speak to one human post-consumption, although I did have some weird dreams).
This morning I woke up naturally about fifteen minutes before we arrived in Surat Thani, bought a coffee from the service staff and forgot to take my socks off before I put my sandals back on. I also forgot to take my eyemask off from around my neck before we left the train; I like to imagine that I sat in the cafe waiting for our transfer bus to central Surat Thani looking like a seasoned traveler… possibly I just looked like someone who’s started to rely on diazepam.
We had a half an hour wait for the transfer bus, and while we sat there it dawned on me fully that we’re back in tourist territory. When we left Vientiane, we’d virtually seen or spoken to the same twenty people since we arrived in Laos; it’s the most ‘undiscovered’ of the four countries we’ve visited, with the smallest number of westerners and the highest number of people willing to go off the beaten track. South Thailand isn’t just a backpacker’s staple, it’s a regular tourist’s staple. About fifty people crammed into two cafes, waiting for transfers to Krabi or Koh Samui or Phuket. Some had been on the road for years, with compass tattoos and authentic local jewellery made a thousand miles away; some had clean western clothes and actual suitcases. I can’t actually remember why short term travelers use suitcases. Why bother with those shitty wheels and creaky handles when you can just carry your stuff on your back and walk around like a normal person?
It is possible I am becoming a purist backpacker.
I remembered to take off my socks when we were on the transfer bus, and bought a Hershey’s while we waited for the main bus – I will at least be grateful that Thailand does chocolate better than Laos does – and passed out as soon as we were on it. Five hours and one rest stop later we pulled up in central Phuket, which turned out to be about half an hour away from our hostel. No longer interested in building our backpacker credentials and unable to read English, let alone Thai, bus maps, we hailed a taxi. By the time we stumbled up the steps to our hostel at 5pm, a full 50 hours after we left Vientiane, we were also unable to remember why we wanted to come this far south, or leave Laos, or stay alive.
It’s 9pm now; I’ve had a shower, eaten, done some laundry, messaged a few people and Facetimed my mum. I’m going to add photos to this and go to bed before I forget where my dorm is. Then I am totally going to tell every tattooed backpacker wearing authentic jewellery that I’ve done a 50 hour journey across two countries and three cities (four cities?). I might leave out the socks and sandals bit though.