Bombing it in Saigon

Bombing it

Despite the obvious turn of phrase, ‘Bombing it in Saigon’ is perhaps a misnomer, but I must admit taking my rickety old rented motorbike onto the road was a little daunting. It is manic on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and for the first hour I was a little shaky, but I soon realised the best way to get around is to just assimilate and ride like a complete tosser, blending in with all the other suicidal drivers. I barely broke 40kmph anyway, and on the rare occasion I did go any faster, the motorbike began to make the most unholy of noises!

That’s one of the good things about most of the Asian countries; you can pretty much ride as slow as you like (keeping out of the way of course), and I usually give visiting friends that very same advice. Just take it is easy and it will be fine.

I made a list of things that I wanted to seek out in the city:

  • The FITO Museum
  • Thien Hau Temple
  • Chi’s Café
  • Nguyen Plaza & City Hall
  • Emperor Jade Pagoda
  • Cu Chi Tunnels
  • Ben Thanh Market
  • Independence Palace

Parking in the city was a bit tricky to begin with, but after a couple of days I began to get the hang of it. Motorbikes should be left with someone who can watch over the motorbike, and though there are hundreds of places to leave a bike in the city, I struggled to understand the correct protocol. The first place I managed to park was outside a multi-restaurant building housing half a dozen fast food chains, near the City Hall. I pulled up onto the curb and an attendee came over and parked it up for me and then handed me a ticket. I paused for a moment just in case he needed payment but he didn’t say anything so I assumed it was free.

Plaza building

I was pretty sure the Nguyen Plaza is permanently closed off to traffic, and is made up of two roads that surround a central walking area. It was still the New Year and the place was quite busy, though I had read that the place comes to life at night. I walked the length of the walking street until I got to the City Hall. It is quite an elegant colonial building that was built by the French in 1908 and is similar to the former Hotel de Ville’s design, based on the Paris original. However, the public aren’t allowed inside because it is still a functional government building. I headed back to my motorbike and handed the guy my ticket, again, I paused for a moment to see if he required any payment, but it didn’t look like it.

This went on until I parked at the FITO Museum. When leaving, I handed the guy my ticket and he asked me for payment for watching my bike. It was only 5,000 dong (16p) and it is good to know the bike is safe. There is very little information online about parking etiquette in Ho Chi Minh City, but from what I gather the usual price is between 5,000 and 10,000., and it is wise to park the bike with someone wearing official clothing, outside a restaurant or high-street shop etc. I tended to always offer 5,000 first, when returning to my bike, but on occasion I was asked for 10,000. Once I got the hang of it, it became a little easier; though driving around the city looking for a decent spot was difficult. Since the traffic is fierce, it’s not always possible to stop in time, and with so many one way streets it can be difficult to turn around.

Old bags of viet medicine

The FITO Museum was quite interesting. The building itself was built by a local man, whose name I can’t recall. He built the house out of wood and carved many of the building’s features. This was one of the better museums I visited in Vietnam and is definitely worth a look. When I arrived I was asked to sit down and watch a short film about natural medicine and how a lot of it originated in Vietnam, which was then adopted in China by the ruling powers. The methodology seemed quite simple and sensible to me. In the West, holistic medicine is based on getting the right balance. Upset the balance and illness and disease can occur. Correct the balance and people should get better. It’s all about the Yin and Yang, and there are five elements that must be kept in balance, according to Vietnamese medicine, and If one is insufficient then it must be rectified. For instance, if someone is deficient in metal, causing specific symptoms, then taking the correct minerals, foods or herbs to fix the problem is the correct solution. To me this makes perfect sense and there must be some validly to this concept otherwise it would never have stood the test of time.

Medicine cabinet 2

I really enjoyed walking around the house and seeing the old fashion pharmacy that is on the second floor. A lot of the remedies were quite common supermarket items, such as Star Anise, Ginger and Lemongrass as well as unknown ones like black beans that cure ‘Wind Wetness Syndrome’ – I shit you not (pun intended). I’ve always believed in natural cures and remedies, and I found it all quite interesting, and perhaps I might even read a book or two about Vietnamese medicine in the future.

Spiral 3

Despite many of the city’s hotspots being within a two mile radius of downtown Saigon, there are a few sights in the top 50 places to visit, according to TripAdvisor, which were dotted around the city. The Thien Hau Temple received high praise, so I decided to ride across town to go in search of it. In my early days in Asia, I figured once you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all, but nothing could be further from the truth. Most are unique and it only takes about ten minutes to have a look. They are usually filled with the smell of incense and gold leaf Buddha’s, but the couple of temples I saw in HCMC also had light displays which were pretty cool, for a temple. It’s not worth going out of your way to see it, but if you’re into seeking out a bit of culture on your trip then it’s worth dropping by. One of the coolest things in the temple were the burning spiral incense sticks that were hanging from the ceiling. I think they were for sale and I would have had one if I could have got it home in one piece.

Spiral 1

On my way out, I tried to ask the attendee about leaving the motorbike in the carpark, whilst I searched the local area for something to eat. He was only a young lad and he gave me the most bizarre of hand gestures, and I couldn’t quite figure out what he was trying to say. It was a kind of camp wave, followed by a disgusted look, which could have meant yes OK or no f**k off. In the end, I just said to the guy, “Forget it,” and I got back on my bike.

Jade Pagoda 2

During the few days I was riding around the city, I decided to dust off my action-cam and attached it to my crash helmet. Unfortunately, like always, I got the angle wrong and all I managed to film was 25 minutes of blue sky and the occasional traffic light, which was a shame because as I was pulling into the Emperor Jade Pagoda complex, a fight broke out between a woman and a security guard (you had to be there). The place was heaving with people and it was still pretty early in the morning. The grounds have been utilised as a car park and the place was filled with people and motorbikes. The temple itself was in use and I couldn’t get inside the building through the masses of people who had come to prey for something. Many people were carrying ‘offerings’ on their heads and were waiting to get into the main building. I hung around for about five minutes to witness the event, but stood out like a gorping tourist quite a bit, which I always hate.

 

After a few hours of riding around the city, it was time to get jacked-up on some caffeine, and I found a coffee shop around the corner from the Ben Thanh Market. Not wishing to sound too much like a connoisseur, I found Vietnamese coffee to be very different from the European brew, with a kind of thick velvety quality that has a hint of cocoa. One of Vietnam’s main exports is coffee but I wasn’t always that impressed, though I did purchase a bag of beans for 70,000 dong. Coffee is for sale in abundance in the Ben Thanh Market, and expect to be hassled from the moment you get in there. It’s not too bad, but it’s definitely worth haggling. I managed to pick up some Chinese tea for 30 percent off, though I was probably still paying over the odds. They also sell snake wine which, depending on the size of the bottle, has a dead snake inside and sometimes a scorpion. At first I wasn’t interested but thought it would make a good souvenir, but I wasn’t sure how customs, in the UK, would feel about me bringing dead reptiles into the country, so I abandoned the idea. There is of course loads of other stuff in the market from food stalls, cloths, sweets etc.

Snake Wine

When I first rented the motorbike near Chi’s Café, I didn’t stop to take a look around the area, and seeing at it is where the main congregation of backpackers and guesthouses are, I figured I should take a walk around. After having the motorbike for a few days, I took it back and retrieved my passport that was being held ransom for the piece-of-shit bike I was riding. There are dozens of tourist agents selling all kinds of tours from river cruises to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I asked around for a few prices and decided to have a think about it. Most tourist locations are near Chi’s Café and many of the sights can be reached on foot, but after handing back the bike, I realised I was hassled a lot more by people trying to offer me bike rides around the city. I was always polite, though on a couple of occasions I had to stand there for a minute or two trying to get away from some of the touts, who were trying to tell me their life story.

Independence Palace

On my way back to the hotel, I popped into the Independence Palace, but I certainly wouldn’t put it at the top of your list of places to visit. I suppose it was OK. It’s basically just a huge government building, which contains some history about the closing days of the Vietnam War, but I wasn’t all that fussed.

Riding a motorbike in Vietnam is something I’ve wanted to do for a few years and there is only one word that can describe it … CRAZY! The biggest dangers are buses and cross roads, and combine the two together and that’s some brutal riding right there. Buses tend to plough ahead honking their horn and everyone is to get out of the way. Junctions mean nothing, and it was common practice to have people pull out in front of me without even looking. I saw a guy filter through a flow of motorbikes coming from the left like it was nothing. Roundabouts are pretty cool. They are kind of like driving around a large car park with motorbikes coming from every direction but everyone is moving quite slow. It all seems a little dangerous, but it’s a lot of fun.

I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Ho Chi Minh City by motorbike and possible saved a few quid by seeing most of the city without a tour guide. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to get out on the open road, but at least now I have broken the seal on Vietnam. I have plans in the pipeline to do a motorbike tour in the next couple of years so I am definitely looking forward to a trip to Hanoi sometime in the future.

Ho chi minh currency vietnam

As for currency issues, It’s quite common to read that US dollars are preferred in Vietnam, and this may be the case in other parts of the country, but in Ho Chi Minh it wasn’t an issue once. The dong is the currency of Vietnam and it is accepted everywhere, however I was often quoted prices in dollars, especially in the tourist agent shops near Chi’s Café, but once I asked to be quoted in dong, it wasn’t a problem. I think it is a misconception by tourists who feel they should take dollars, and therefore the locals expect it. However no local is going to turn down dong if you don’t have dollars.

So technically I’ve done one of the things on my travel bucket list, but it’s obviously not what I had in mind. Still, I came and I done it. I also had my own transport for getting around the city, and I wasn’t beholden to tour guides and taxi drivers. Having said that, it’s not easy to find places, or park, in the city and unless you really want to ride motorbikes in Vietnam, I would recommend getting a tour guide who will take you where you want to go. The best option is to hire a driver for the day and give him a list of places to visit.

Upon reflection though, I found most places without too much trouble; it may have taken a bit longer but I got there in the end. I often saw tour groups being shown around museums or people hanging around their coaches waiting to be taken to their next destination. I have to say it’s not for me. I think the last time I went on a guided tour was when I had the worst hangover last year in India. The only tour I considered doing on this trip would be to the Cu Chi Tunnels. I would have preferred to have gone there on my own, but I didn’t want to risk taking the bike out of the city for fear of getting in trouble.

Getting around Ho Chi Minh City, at first glance, may appear to be a daunting task. With some 3 million motorbikes for its 6.6 million residents, simply crossing the street presents itself as a great challenge. Buses are a popular mode of transport in Ho Chi Minh City, but I have never been one for them because it always seems like hassle. You can be sure the driver won’t speak English, and figuring out the correct ticket price isn’t easy, and trying to explain where I want to go and when to get off is a pain in the arse I could do without. The best taxis in Saigon are Vinasun Taxi and Mai Linh Taxi, which should offer a metered service and are considered the most trust worthy.

Unfortunately Ho Chi Minh is not a charming city; however my initial thoughts were a little misguided since the place was like a ghost town when I first arrived, due to the New Year holiday. Once everywhere began to open up it seemed much more welcoming, and the place began to grow on me, though I think I would need a good reason to come back anytime soon.

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Vietnam Baby!

swim-park

After years of threatening to visit Vietnam I finally got around to doing it. In my early days of traveling to Asia, I was told a few horror stories about the country. None of which would bother me today, but I think hearing rumours about dodgy taxi drivers or currency issues created a deep routed apprehension about coming alone but, on first glimpse of Ho Chi Minh City, I wondered why I had left it so long.

Usually I can find, and book, a hotel on Agoda.com in less than fifteen minutes but, a few weeks previous to the trip, I spent over four hours browsing hotels. I had never seen so many bad reviews for hotels in all my travelling days. Possibly weakening in will-power, I booked a place that only had one review, which of course was impeccable. Like a newbie, I paid for the room straight-up, in line with hotel policy. Afterwards I thought it was probably a mistake to book a place with only one review because anyone could have written it. A week before the trip, I went back to see if there was any other reviews … when my heart sank. A woman had left a review saying that the place was down an alleyway and right in front of the hotel was a building site. She also said that she had been robbed outside the hotel, and the place wasn’t near any of the hotpots. Seeing as I had already paid (with no refund), I was committed and decided to just go with the flow.

I usually try and stay in cheap to mid-range hotels in Thailand and avoid backpacker places unless I’m in a party mood. Nowadays I prefer my own air-conditioned room, preferably with a TV and my own bathroom. My rule is never more than £20 a night, but I normally stay in places from anywhere between £7 to £15. Since I was visiting Ho Chi Minh for a week’s holiday, I thought I would push the boat out a little and book what I thought would be a good hotel.

I always get a little nervous when visiting a new country and reading about places can often be a bad idea. I managed to skip through Immigration without having to queue. My suitcase was the first to come out on the carousel and there were plenty of kiosks to book a prepaid taxi, in the terminal building. Everything was going swimmingly until I enquired about getting a SIM card for my Tablet. The girl wanted to fit it for me and asked me to remove it from its case when … smash the screen went. Absolutely gutted, I didn’t bother with the SIM card in the end. Feigning happiness, I left the kiosk and headed for my taxi.

tablet-broken-screen

My mood was quickly lifted though when I walked into my hotel room which was absolutely amazing, and it’s safe to say that it’s probably one of the nicest hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. It was huge, and the luxury bathtub made everything nice and cosy. I hooked up my media player to the 42” flat screen TV on the wall and now my palace was complete.

I was checked in by 10.00am so I still had the whole of the first day to go and explore, so I spent an hour on Tripadvisor and Google Maps, whilst I figured out my next move. I then took a walk around the city for a couple of hours, but I was slightly out of the tourist areas and was the subject of many a bewildered look, as I followed the map around fruitlessly trying to find an HSBC bank. I found myself walking through some local alleyways where there were loads of people playing cards and gambling on games I had never seen before. All shops seemed to be closed. It was a Tuesday and I was wondering whether it was a public holiday (Chinese New Year). After a long day of no sleep and too much caffeine, I took solace in relaxing in my fantastic, spacious hotel room and had and early night.

Hawain shirt

I know … nice shirt! No wonder I was getting looks …

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The Bangkok Blues

Paul Raftery in AsiaThe first week of the trip was the worst I’ve ever had, with regards to jetlag, and for some reason I just couldn’t get on Thailand time. When I arrived in the city, around 9pm, I discovered that my usual hotel was closed. I had never needed a reservation before and normally I’d just turn up. I was met by a guy who was manning the car park, and he told me that the hotel wasn’t accepting anymore guests because they were shutting down. Slightly disappointed with the end of an era, I managed to get a room in another place called the Condotel. It was slightly more expensive but it was OK, or so I thought …

Although superior to my old hotel, I quickly learned that they were doing some refurbishing, and I was woken to the sound of an angle-grinder and hammering every morning at 8.58am. Breakfast was between 7-10am, but I never made it down in time for the first five days. Even though my wake-up call was less than perfect, I was glad to be getting up at a reasonable time, but the constant hammering throughout the day, until 6pm, was often infuriating.

This year, I decided to adopt a policy of drinking alcohol for the first couple evenings to help me sleep and it seemed to work, but by the 3rd night I’d had enough and just wanted a quiet night in. But for several days following, I just could not get into a regular sleeping pattern. The real life saver was my new media player that connects to almost any TV, which is packed full of TV shows and movies to keep me occupied during those nights of insomnia. Jetlag tends to turn me into the 19 year old I once was: Drinking too much; not getting enough sleep, then getting up and doing it all over again!

MBK.JPG

By the 3rd day, I decided to take a trip out to one of the large shopping centres in Bangkok called MBK via the Skytrain (BTS). It’s a good place to visit for a few hours if you like to do a bit of shopping. As I was leaving, I found the Bangkok Art Exhibition Centre and decided to waste some more time in there. Last year on Langkawi Island, I had an amazing time photographing wildlife in Malaysia, and since then I have developed a mild interest in photography (mostly as a pastime). I was quite impressed with some of the black and white photos, on display, of some of Thailand’s lesser known regions. They were setup by CameraEyes, school of fine art photography, by Somchai Suriyasathaporn. The display was of mountains, trees, streams, waterfalls, islands, sea, rainforest, mangroves and old forests. Some of the photos were quite spectacular.

B&W Photos.JPG

There was also the Exhibition Water Colour of Asean: A collection of paintings featuring areas of Melaka and Penang in Malaysia: two areas that I am very familiar with, and I recognised many of the places in the paintings.

Studhays, Melaka

Studhays Building, Melaka

By the Friday night, I was ready for another night of boozing and met with a friend of mine called Terry. He is a member of the World Hash Harriers: an organisation that was setup for expats to meet with one another and go jogging in various places in Bangkok, or anywhere else around the world. He first got involved with the organisation when he was living in Spain, and then continued to meet people when he moved to Thailand. My blood is too thick for Bangkok, so I declined the offer to go for a run, but I decided to come along, just for a drink, and meet a few people at the Kiki bar, near Nana station. It was a great night and I met some wonderful people from around the world, including some local Thai’s.

Kiki Bar.JPG

Five days deep and I still hadn’t managed to get into a regular sleeping pattern. Still, I persevered and decided to take a walk to the Queen Sirikit Park: a beautiful recreational area near the Chatuchak Weekend Market. As I approached through the main gate, I could see there was some kind of event being held in the park. It was run by the Bird Conservation Society in Thailand. It was mostly all written in Thai, but I could see a banner showing what kinds of birdlife can be found in Bangkok. Fresh from my experiences in Langkawi earlier on in the year, I decided to take a stroll around the park for an hour and try to snap some wildlife, but I didn’t capture much. I found little information online, in English, about the event, but I got the gist of what they’re all about.

Sirikit Park.jpg

I originally intended to stay in Bangkok only for 5 nights, but in the end I was there a week. I was still knackered from upset sleeping patterns that would ultimately continue well into the second week. I really didn’t fancy traipsing across Bangkok with my suitcase, so I booked a taxi to take me straight to Pattaya for 1500 Bhat (£30) and so the next leg of my journey was about to begin …

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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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