So the story begins…

Story begins

There’s nothing like that feeling you get when you wake up on the first day of a long travelling adventure, providing you’ve had a good night’s sleep of course.

I awoke to the dulcet tones of the hotel air-con units. There was a gentle rattle coming from inside the tired old machines that had probably been cooling the Liberty Garden Hotel for decades; a sound that I had awoken to on so many occasions in Bangkok.

It was after 10am, which meant breakfast was off the menu. I could taste Leo beer still strong on my breath from the night before, and my head was as foggy as a misty morning on the Mekong River.

I struggled to my feet. I caught sight of myself in a mirror above the TV. Standing there in my underwear; I looked a perfect picture of bad health. With one eye open, I managed to find a warm bottle of water next to my bed. As I guzzled it down, my mind began to clear – what happened last night?

* * *

The outbound journey was one of the roughest flights I’d ever had; fortunately, we made it in just under 12 hours flight time, plus a 2 hour stopover in Delhi. Once we’d freshened up and grabbed a quick Masala Dosa at the airport, we were ready for our departure.

Once in Bangkok, I hadn’t slept in 30+ hours, but I was in reasonable spirits. I suggested we visit my favourite restaurant next door to our hotel. We both had the spicy pork, which was phenomenal. I felt uneasy on the plastic red seats, that seemed to bow a little too much under my weight, but luckily it kept me upright.

My intentions were to have a few beers for a couple of hours and call it a night, around midnight, but I thought Konrad would enjoy a drink a little further down the road at a place called the Pradipat Hotel, which was just a hotel bar.

We sat in a booth and ordered a bottle of Sang Song whiskey, and got chatty with our waitress. There were people singing on stage: mostly young girls. The girls would come and sit with the customers, though, it wasn’t a place where men can pick-up girls; it was all pretty innocent.

Konrad introduced himself as ‘Sonny’ to the waitress. At the time, I thought he was just having a laugh, so I decided to play along and told her my name was ‘Paulo’. I quickly learned, however, that Konrad genuinely didn’t want anyone to know his real name in case he found himself in trouble, and thought that the authorities would somehow track him down easier with a name like Konrad. I found this to be truly bizarre behaviour.

It was a great night, but my plan was ill conceived, and we didn’t get back to the hotel until 6am, shattering the early night idea. As we staggered back to the hotel the sun was already beginning to rear its ugly head.

Over the first 4 days, I was really struggling to get a good night’s sleep. Though, I would get up early and try and get on with the day as best I could. I would often take the Skytrain around the city, just to have something to do in the morning. When it came to going to bed at night, I just couldn’t sleep a wink.

However, I did manage to get on with some basic chores like organising some laundry. I had an awkward situation when trying to explain to the guy that I had some rather unfortunately placed grease stains on the crouch of my short trousers, and received some dubious looks when I handed them to him. He did do a good job at getting them cleaned though.

On the 4th night in Bangkok, I met up with Terry, whom I have known for many years since living in Spain in 2007. After eating a nice meal with him in another local restaurant, I decided I would have a couple of beers to help me get to sleep. By now, I was at my wits end and was so incredibly tired, I was having trouble functioning properly.

I popped into the Chinese restaurant next to the hotel to have a few more bottles of Leo beer. I stayed for a couple of hours and watched a cheesy movie on a TV with the rest of the staff, but I really wasn’t paying much attention to the TV at all. I was nearing the end of my 4th bottle of beer and decided that was enough, and I would call it a night and try to get some sleep, especially as we were leaving for Malaysia in the morning.

As I returned from the bathroom, I forgot myself and took a seat. The flimsy legs of my chair gave way and I went down like a sack of potatoes, swiftly followed by the entire table with plates and bottles, covering my newly cleaned short trousers in sweet chilli sauce. I looked like a right mess. I was quickly helped to my feet by about 6 members of staff.

Needless to say, it was one of the most embarrassing things too ever happen to me. I paid the bill with great haste and got the hell out of there. The rat-bastards charged me for the chair too! It’s one of my favourite restaurants, but it’s going to be tough showing my face in there after that little incident. I certainly won’t be in there for at least a month.

So as usual a good start to things; it’s been a week of living in the twilight zone, with terrible sleeping patterns, but things are finally beginning to level out – especially that chair!

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The Mission to India

India

As I sat at the airport, it occurred to me that I’m sick of it all. Since 2009, I estimate, I’ve flown around 50 times, and the novelty of the airport has now completely gone. I know it’s a small price to pay for getting to visit some of the world’s most interesting places, but does that mean I have to be happy about hanging round yet another airport. I suppose the answer is yes, but I can’t help the way I feel. I don’t mind the odd flight, but 3-4 flights a week are getting to be too much.

After a short 4 hour flight to Cochin, we arrived in the southern state of Kerala. It was fairly normal arrival (for India). I was unable to buy any rupees before entering the country because it is a closed currency, meaning it is illegal to move Indian currency in and out of the country. I couldn’t find an ATM so I exchanged £250 cash, giving me around 24.000 Rupees, which I thought wasn’t too bad.

We used a prepaid taxi kiosk which was useful. It cost around 1200 Rupees, which in the beginning I thought was expensive, but considering the distance we travelled, it was OK.

The journey however was one of the most anxious, white knuckle, rides of my life. We were in some old clapped out piece of crap. I paid extra for a car with air-con, but the guy just opened the window. He nearly hit several other motorists on our 40 minute drive through the streets of Kerala at 12am. This is not my first Rodeo, and I have been to India before, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t wait to get out of that car.

After pissing about trying to find the place, we finally arrived. The place certainly didn’t look as it did on the website, but in my experience things always look better in the light of day. As we stepped out of our steal coffin, by now it was knocking on 1am, and there was no sign of anyone.

The hostel was supposed to have 24 hour reception, and even offered airport transfers, which is a load of rubbish.

The driver insisted on a tip, so I gave him a hundred, I think. I just hope I didn’t slip him a thousand by mistake. He wasn’t the best of taxi drivers; he was very abrupt and snatched the piece of paper out my hand when he met us at the airport.

He did hang on with us as we continually rang the door bell, whilst waiting for someone at the Honolulu Homestay to get their arses out of bed, and let us in. But the driver only waited so he could charge us again to take us elsewhere. I had visions of having to go wandering the streets in search of somewhere to stay, which wouldn’t have been the first time, but in the short few minutes we stood outside, ringing the doorbell, I must have been bitten 20 times.

Finally a light came on, and a heavily pregnant woman popped her head out of the door. I explained to her that I had emailed several times about our arrival, but no one replied to my messages. I had even considered cancelling our booking, so we could find somewhere that would pick us up from the airport.

The first thing I wanted to do when I got into my room was brush my teeth and take a shower. As I switched the tap on, there was a flurry of activity around the sink area. There was a family of spiders living within the sink cavity. I had to kill them. I didn’t have any bug spray, so I used my mosquito repellent and then squished the big one. I don’t know if they’re venomous but I wasn’t taking any chances. Weary from travel, I had a quick shower and called it a night.

Say hello to my little friend...

Say hello to my little friend…

Fort Cochin

After a sleepless night, we headed out on to the burning hot streets of Kerala. The town wasn’t what I expected. With so much Dutch history, I thought it would have been more of a European looking town, much the same as Melaka in Malaysia. All credit to the Indian people though for maintaining a distinctively Indian style, though sadly this meant that everything was crumbling and was in need of a good coat of paint.

Walking the streets, it seemed like what I would imagine Jamaica to be like, with lots of examples of reds and greens splashed around the place. Coconut trees can be seen everywhere, which in my opinion is the best feature of the place. Kerala actually means ‘Coconut Land’.

There didn’t seem to be as many people as I have seen in other parts of India, I would say around a 3rd less people walking the streets. It is also a lot cleaner than other parts of India, though there is still rubbish dumped all over the place. In a way Sonny got off lightly, as Fort Cochin is what I would call ‘India light’. There’s very little in the way of homeless people and absolutely no beggars whatsoever.

We decided to stop in a little hotel for a cup of coffee and hide away from the heat of the day. Afterwards we were approached by a guy, who I shall name Rupert, because I can’t remember his real name.

Rupert told us about all the places he will take us in his Tuk Tuk for only 200 Rupees; he neglected to tell us about all of the ‘extras’ he was going to take us to. I should have known better; in fact, I did know better, but Sonny insisted. He took us to lots of shops trying to sell us overpriced souvenirs and ornaments. He took us to spice factories, scented oil factories and the like.

To be honest, it wasn’t too bad, but after a few hours of it, I was beginning to wane a little. I’d only had around 3 hours sleep and really didn’t fancy anymore shops.

Dutch Palace

Throughout the day he took us to a couple of semi-interesting places, such as the Dutch Palace, which wasn’t really a palace but rather a mansion. Inside was a museum, though I saw little information referring to any Dutch settlement in the past, but what the Indian people had used the building for since the Dutch had left India. There was strictly no photography, which I just thought was petty, and there wasn’t anything of interest to photograph anyway, just a knackered old building with little interesting history – well to my western eyes anyway.

To me, he took us to a lot of ‘fillers’ trying to clock up as much time as possible, so that we’d give him more money though, Rupert was a good guy and, we had a bit of a laugh with him. He took us to lots of old colonial buildings that had been derelict for many years, and held little interest to me at the time. Though the more I delve in to British colonial history throughout Asia, the more I become interested in it.

Old Colonial building

He took us to what I can only describe as the biggest laundry operation I’ve ever been to. All the clothes were hand washed by beating them against a hard surface before being dried in the sun. They are then pressed with industrial Irons, which looked like they were once heated by a fireplace, but have since been converted to except electricity, which of course is not the case, I hope. I didn’t like the place. I’ve never felt comfortable putting people under a spotlight and taking photographs of them going about their daily lives, especially in places of business or worship, but I figured they’re used to it so what the hell.

Laundry

IRON MAN

IRON MAN

All in all it was a good day but, like most sightseeing I’ve done on this trip so far, I was robbed of the full enjoyment of the day because I wasn’t feeling 100%.

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The worst hangover!

Normally, the only place I’ve been able to find a beer in India is at a large hotel with a bar. We found a hotel called the Bristow Hotel, which had a sign outside offering Kingfisher Beer. We popped in for a couple and sat out back overlooking a beach.

Me drinking a beer

By the time I was tucking into my second bottle,  a couple of British guys walked in called Roy and Chris. They were father and son and were travelling around India for a month. We got chatting about our travels and exchanged information about the things we had seen and learnt.

They were good guys and we eventually got together around the same table and spent a few hours drinking with them.

Roy and Chris

I’d had a skinfull and can’t remember what time we said our goodbyes. I tend to walk everywhere, so I decided to brave the unfamiliar streets, asking directions along the way, until I finally made it home.

Backwater Boat Ride

The next day I was awoken by Sunny knocking on my door saying, “Come on Paul, we’ve got our backwater tour today.” Really not in the mood, I quickly got up and had a quick shower. The driver was getting a little annoyed with me because I was in the bathroom too long, and there was a minibus full of people waiting for us.

It was a long drive to where we picked up the boat. I was feeling rough from the previous nights drinking and was slowly wilting in the heat of the day. We got on to the boat that was powered by a couple of guys with long bamboo rods; one guy at the front and one at the back.

Big boat

Had I been as fresh as a daisy, it probably would have been quite a peaceful cruise through the backwaters, but I was in a bad way. It was hot and uncomfortable and my seat was a little old and tatty, and I feared it may give way! .

It was deadly silent on the river when, out of the blue, a song was belted out over some loud speakers, filling the air with an almighty racket. There was no music but just a man singing. It seemed like such a bizarre thing. I don’t know if it was religious in nature, or someone just playing some music at 11am in the morning. It was such an unexpected thing to happen; I couldn’t contain my laughter. Sitting on this boat, still rough from the night before, when what seemed like a number from the Lion King came on. It lasted around 3 minutes with large gaps between the lyrics. Just when you thought it was all over, he’d come out with another line – I waited for the chorus but it never came.

Kon sleeping in big boat

Wakey wakey Sonny!

We meandered our way through some small canals, stopping for a coconut drink. We also stopped off at what can only be described as a scene from the movie Blow, with huge piles of Calcium Dioxide or something like that, but really it looked like a big drug factory hidden in the jungle. The guys explained to us its uses, with it mostly being used during construction.

Man cutting coconut

Blow 2 Blow

Further up the river, we stopped at a house based on the water’s edge. It seemed to be a family business that makes rope, using strands from the husks of coconuts. Again our guide explained the many uses, and where they sell their products locally etc.

Making rope

We were met by another tour group and were taken to a small hut across the river for lunch. By now I was hanging badly, and the hut was stifling hot. We were served a banana leaf meal which was pretty good, though I wasn’t really in the mood for spicy foods.

We then exchanged boats with the guys that had joined us for lunch, which was on a much smaller boat. We were taken through some more canals that passed by lots of houses, while watching the local people going about their business. On our journey we were disturbed by an Iguana that made us all jump, as it was spooked by our presence. We also saw a wild snake sat by the edge of the water.

Me in small boat

We stopped off at a spice plantation and were shown around lots of different plants and trees growing ginger, cloves, kaffir lime leafs, cinnamon, nutmeg and many more.

It was an interesting day but was spoilt by the way I was feeling, but I manned up and got on with it. To be honest my biggest worry during the whole day was, ‘what if I suddenly need to go to the toilet?’ We weren’t given any opportunities to go throughout the entire day. There was a toilet on the big boat in the morning, but that was out of the question!

After we made it back, we grabbed a quick curry and called it a night.

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Wonder La

Wonderla-Amusement-Park-Kerala

After researching the local area, I discovered that there is an amusement park called ‘Wonder La’ in Kerala. I hadn’t seen much in the way of swimming pools or beaches so far on the trip, and thought it would be nice to check out some of the water-rides, and then spend the afternoon relaxing pool side.

The drive was long and hot, but fortunately after 20 minutes or so, the driver put on the stereo, and we listened to ‘Radio Mango‘ for about an hour, listening to some lively Hindi tunes.

I was in two minds whether to buy the normal ticket, or a Fastrack entry, which was double the price at 1160 Rupees (£12). When we arrived, the place was already heaving with coach loads of school children, so we decided on the Fastrack option.

At first, it seemed that we were the oldest people there, and we were for the most part, but eventually some older guests arrived, and of course parents were also in tow.

It wasn’t like the sort of water-park you’d get back in Europe. There was no area for sunbeds, and everyone was wearing clothes to go into the water, and the children were going into the pools wearing their school uniforms.

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We headed for some of the water-slides. It was still quite early and the queues weren’t too long. Over the course of the day we had a go on around 10 rides in total. We had lunch at one of the food courts, but not a cup of coffee, or a freshly cooked donut in sight – something I always enjoy at water-parks in Europe.

The Fastrack ticket in the end was a godsend. Very few people had them, and we jumped straight to the front of the queue, which in some places was a 30 minute wait. I felt a little guilty, jumping straight to the front, and the huge crowds of people waiting for their turn would cheer and taunt us every step of the way, as we waited to get down the chute. I had a go on the rubber rings, and right at the start I toppled over, much to the amusement of onlookers. As I went over I heard the crowd roar, and then I got stuck at the top of the slide – which was a little embarrassing.

So without an opportunity to sit and dry out in the sun, and nowhere really to relax, all that was left to do was head for the wave pool. By now the place was pretty busy, and looked a little intimidating with approximately 400 people in the water, I’m guessing. Throughout the whole day people would approach us and say hello and shake our hands, and the wave pool was no exception. It was men only and the woman had their own wave pool across the way.

Once we’d managed our way through the crowds of people, splashing and having a thoroughly good time, we made it to the deep end, which was still pretty full of people. Once the waves started coming, everyone went crazy, shouting and hollering, it was total carnage – I imagined, this is what it’s like Sunday morning on the Ganges.

Throughout the day we only briefly saw another couple of European’s, the rest of the time, it was just the two of us. I suppose it’s about as close to celebrity I’ll ever get, with people wanting to say hello and shake hands.

It was a fun and tiring day, and probably the most exciting experience I’ll ever have with my clothes on.

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Exploring Fort Cochin

fort-kochi-nhh-map

From day one, I was keen to go and explore the local area on foot. I decided to keep it easy and follow the main curvature north of the Island. I checked my map, and the Indo-Portuguese museum was just around the corner, so I thought I’d see if there was anything of interest.

On my search, I strolled down a small back-alley heading towards what looked like a few interesting shops. There was a music store selling all kinds of instruments. I told the guy I wasn’t going to be buying anything but he said “OK come in, its free to look”. It was a small place that reminded me of the shop in New Delhi where The Beatles visited, and bought their sitars in the 1966.

This place wasn’t nearly as grand, but it was an interesting little music market. The guy really wanted me to buy something, and continued to showcase me lots of instruments/toys, as I was trying to head for the door. To be honest, I was tempted to buy one of them. It was a one string instrument called an Ektara, but I already had my Ukulele with me, and I’d hardly played that since I left the UK. He also showed me a Tumbi which was pretty cool.

Further on, in my quest for some culture, I saw a small clothes store that seemed to sell predominately female clothing. I asked the ladies outside if they “only sell garments for woman?” They said no, and beckoned me inside. I spoke to a young guy and told him I was looking for something similar to what I was wearing, which was a typical white Middle Eastern shirt.

I found a suitable blue top but it was long sleeve. He told me that it was “No problem, we can fix it in 10 minutes”. After a rudimentary measure of my existing top, I said OK. I’d been looking for a comfortable pair of trousers, but I don’t like the hippy-look that a lot of travellers adopt – on their journey to find themselves – such as ‘Castaway‘ beards etc. But they did look comfy, so I asked if he’d do me a discount for the pair – he only knocked off 50p but I didn’t mind, and paid £9 for both items.

When it comes to haggling in India or Thailand, I really don’t bother too much on clothing, when it only costs £4-5, but I do try and get a discount for multiple items. When I’m looking to buy clothing that is £20 or more, then I’ll try and haggle a little, and try to get at least 30% off. Someone recently told me that if in doubt; always start by halving the initial price offered, especially for taxis and Tuk Tuks, which is not a bad way to go.

I discovered a little book shop and had a quick browse. I bought a couple of books on India and Fort Cochin. A woman came in and spoke to the lady behind the counter. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but from her reaction, and how I read the situation (no pun intended), she cracked a joke and said something like, “Still ripping off the tourists I see, Geeta?” I could see some of the books were second-hand, but she was selling them for the price they had on the back, though they may just have been dirty – but then everything is dusty in India.

Feeling hungry, I wandered over to a large hotel and restaurant. I suppose they cater for a more Western pallet in hotels, but I always found the food to be much better quality and taste much nicer. I ordered one of my favourites, a Half Tandoori Chicken, two Naan breads and a bowl of Cucumber Raita. It was absolutely fantastic, and washed down with a couple of decent cups of black coffee – I was absolutely stuffed, which made a nice change from my usual small curry and a chapatti.

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My expedition took me down a road less travelled, and soon, I stopped being harassed by Tuk Tuk drivers and other tourism vendors, which lead me to believe I was leaving the tourist zone. I carried on for a while looking around when I found a 300 year old Mosque. I saw a garden area with what looked like graves. I asked a man that was standing next to me what the place was, and it was indeed a cemetery. I asked him if he knew somebody buried there and he replied yes. Not wishing to pry further, I didn’t ask him for anymore details. As we stood by the side of the road, it was a rather solemn 2 minutes, staring at the final resting place of a hundred or so lives that have since past.

Muslim graveyard

I reached a bridge, and then a main road to the right. I figured this was my best bet at finding my way back, but I decided to carry on into the abyss. I walked for another 25 minutes, talking to people in shops and taking photos. I was harassed by a couple of school kids, asking for money, but nothing too untoward.

I finally found another right turn and figured it was time to change direction. I had pretty good bearings and a tourist map in my pocket, so I was fairly confident I was heading the right way. Sure enough, after 20 minutes or so, I found a restaurant that I recognised and knew my way from there.

I had been out exploring the town for about 5 hours, and it was the first time I got the chance to do what I normally do, when travelling alone, which is to explore the local area, single handed and without compromise – going wherever the wind took me.

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