On this day in 2011…Heading to Vientiane: Early warnings of what was to come #Otdi2011


Johnny 23

Johnny 23

After breakfast, we were ready with our bags and looking forward to boarding the bus to the capital city of Vientiane in the South. Here we would sit on a bus through the night to the border, to carry on the rest our journey through Vietnam up to Hanoi.

Once in Vientiane we swapped over to our sleeper coach, which was kind of like a normal coach but with the seats fully reclined to an almost perfect horizontal position. Ben got a bed at the back, nicely nestled between two nice clean honeymooners. I on the other was perhaps not so lucky, with my sleeping partner a dead ringer for the rapist from Con Air.

We set off into the night, and I eagerly counted down the hours until I could safely be in the company of others, far away from this bloke’s twitching feet and foul breath.


Virgin Atlantic’s onboard apocalypse in 7 films

Where's WallyThere’s a number of inconsistencies with the Virgin brand, in particular Virgin Atlantic. From the Rockstar Service USP, to jokes about Richard Branson’s beard to the Where’s Wally graphic adorning its US-bound Boeing 707s, it’s all quite confusing.

In addition to the helpful red stewards and stewardesses, the only other consistency I could define on a recent Virgin Atlantic flight (the service of which was brilliant) was the selection of inflight films.

Amongst the single episode of Phoneshop and the most recent Will Ferrell movie, the collection predominantly catered for the apocalypse savvy Frequent Flyer. Film upon film chartering the end of the world and its dystopian future.

To be fair, I don’t think Virgin’s Book of Revelation is premeditated. They’ve not scoured the past for this selection (i.e. Deep Impact, 2012), but relied on the current crop of latest releases, which perhaps says more about the state of current cinema and the general consensus that the world is shit. However, don’t let that get in the way of a good list for the Buzzfeed generation…

1. This Is The End

This is The End

It’s everything you’d want and expect from a Seth Rogan film; a house party, various strains of marijuana, excessive use of ‘Fuck’, a Dr. Dre soundtracked montage etc, but with the added incentive of the apocalypse. So sit back and enjoy Rogan and friends try to define themselves as the next Rat Pack.

2. The World’s End

World's End

After finding out Nick Frost used to work in my local Chiquitos back in the 90’s, I’ve found myself having quite the renaissance of his work. Here finds him partnering up with Pegg again in the same vain as Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, so if you enjoyed those you’ll probably enjoy this. Or you won’t, because you’ve probably moved on.

3. After Earth

After Earth

Described in the onboard magazine, Vera, as “set 1000 years after cataclysmic events have forced humanity to abandon earth…” I nearly gave up altogether until I noticed that Will and son Jaden Smith starred. I can do 100 minutes of unaccountable Sci-Fi but nepotism I can’t do.

4. Elysium


“Sci-Fi thriller set in the year 2154…” bore off. I preferred Matt Damon when he starred in his own scripted films.

5. Oblivion


Oblivion by name, Oblivion by nature. This one from 2077, features a wandering Tom Cruise looking lost in a post-apocalyptical planet earth.

6. World War Z

World War Z

“Zombies take over the world”. Nope, not another one from Frost and Pegg but a multimillion dollar production of Max Brooks best-selling novel starring Brad Pitt.

7. Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Undoubtedly the title of this film means it will enjoy an extended legacy as a parody in the title of a homoerotic adult movie, and so some solace for the producers of this multimillion dollar production.

And so there we have it, a comprehensive list of Virgins films, carefully curated to inspire a peaceful and relaxing long-haul flight, while also reminding us that the world is really is in for a shock.

On this day in 2011….Waking up in the Chiang Mai mountains #Otdi2011


After a tranquil morning ride on the train through the Northern Mountains, we arrived around 1pm in Chiang Mai, found a place to stay at The Little Bird Guest House, showered up and was ready to explore. After lunch, we wandered around investigating various jungle trips, finally settling for the two-day hike. We went to a Night Bazaar on the other side of town to buy some supplies for the following two days.
Chiang Mai
I was surprised at how many English teams were represented on the stalls selling football shirts. Man Utd, Liverpool and Chelsea were as inevitable as finding a bogie in the middle pages of a book from your local library, but it was the lower league teams that weren’t as common as the average rate of nasal crustaceans in public literature that surprised me. I would later go onto update my Facebook status as “you know the world is heading in the wrong direction when developing countries not only produce fake Tottenham shirts, but also fake Tottenham training kits and pencil cases. I can understand the original ‘Top 4’ (and Everton and Man City after their extensive marketing campaigns in Asia i.e Chang beer etc), but Spurs? Nah, I can’t have that!” They didn’t really do pencil cases that was for effect, but they did have shirts, shorts and even Spurs TV.

Before you judge, this was to be one of only a handful of status updates over the next four months and hand on heart I am not one of those who force my whereabouts and daily activities on the world via social media. It was more to let friends and family back home know I had arrived safely. It garnered quite a few “likes” and Tom commented “could you grab me a Peter Crouch pregnancy kit” to which Sean replied “is that the one where you pee on a lanky stick?” Big G asked “what about basketballs?” in reference to a Man Utd basketball I received for my 9th birthday.

Talking of which I had brought a pair of Charlotte Hornets basketball shorts before coming out. That must be the equivalent of an American bloke coming out wearing Wimbledon FC ones, as they too are no more since relocating and becoming the New Orleans Pelicans. I like to think somewhere a Hank Miller from New Jersey had simultaneously posted; “You know it’s bad when you see an English Guy wearing Charlotte Hornets shorts. I understand Chicago Bulls and the Lakers, and maybe the Celtics (given the House of Pain connection). But the Hornets? Nah, I can’t have that”.

Ben also bought a Thai style British Military red coat, and we joked about this being the attire worn by the Thai Libertines tribute band. I instantly liked Chiang Mai and as Ben put it “It’s Bangkok in a glass, and purified”, with it’s very friendly population and clean streets, protected by a city wall and moat which housed several fountains. After seeing the obligatory “I love (with a heart symbol) Bangkok” T-shirts, I wondered who in fact could possibly love Bangkok. I mean, an “I’m indifferent to Bangkok” T-shirt would be perhaps more applicable to me. We discussed this as we strolled though the market, looking for supplies for tomorrow’s jungle trek, which perhaps was too soon for somebody who had not had a proper night sleep in the last 72 hours. Anyways we were stuck on what symbol could you use for the word ‘indifferent’? i.e love= red heart, hate= number 8. But Chiang Mai was instantly a hit and we had not even been here a full day.

Thai Boxing

After exploring an enigmatic lantern lit settlement on the other side of the river, we went to the Thai Boxing which was fun, although there was certainly a large fraction of Westerners that were getting restless after the first 3 matches. These were fought by kids. During these fights, the loudest reaction came when 2 kids almost fell out of the ring through the ropes. This generated the same crowd reaction that you’d find at a football match when the ball accidentally hits the referee. Our subtle and inherent sexism was exhibited when during the Lady’s fight we instantly lost interest, opting for the bar or the our own lookalike game instead. Without doubt the “Special Fight” was the best, which involved 5-6 Thai fighters blindfolded and thrown into a ring for a free for all. Often the Ref, a small Thai man about 5ft, would get caught and mistaken for a fighter by one of the 6ft plus fighters and receive a hefty beating. On one occasion the young ref fought back, kicking one of the blinded prize fighters down to the floor, much to the audiences delight. With the cheers ringing in his ears he went onto to deal further blows to the fighter. By far the star of the night and despite calls for “more refs” from the audience it was clear this section of the night was simply designed for the easily bored and entertainment-spoilt Westerners. By the time the headlining international fighters came out, you couldn’t help but sense that the fun had peaked with the fighting back Ref. It’s hard to imagine David Ellery or any other Premier League refs returning to his feet after having his head caved in.

On this day in 2011….Arriving in Bangkok #Otdi2011

02/01/2011- Arriving in Bangkok
After the long haul flight I finally arrived in Bangkok, and after getting the Sky train to Siam Square, followed by an unrequested tour of the area in a Tuk Tuk, I meet Ben at Lub D hostel. Once there, we head to the train station to buy tickets to Chiang Mai, in the North, both quite intent on escaping Bangkok in search of greener pastures. We’ll be back here for a proper explore and Ben has enjoyed it, revealing that last night he saw a Thai tribute band covering The Libertines, which I’m quite jealous of.

After we get our obligatory greetings out the way, we fall back into the conversations we’re both more comfortable with i.e “do you reckon you’d recognise Tony Pullis if  you saw him out here?” to “what odds would William Hill give you, that this Tuk Tuk driver has eaten from the salad bar at Harvester?”

One question, “are there any Western beggars on the streets of Bangkok”, was answered by a few guys back at the hostel who informed us about some Dutch guy known as the Farang Beggar who has a sign with “Need 10,000baht for flight home – please help”. He’s been saving for that flight for nearly 10 years it’s rumoured. I once saw a guy outside the Rockefeller in New York with a sign that read “Hungry, Homeless and HIV positive”. Let me tell you Kids, that’s no way to try and pull the birds.


The Tuk Tuk drivers make most of their income not from driving people around, but by taking them to travel agents, shops and restaurants where they gain a commission on any trade. So we were often taken to places that promised ‘Asda Price, special price and lovely jubbly’. After several detours our driver finally took us to the central station, but we faced instant disappointment as all the northbound trains were booked up. However, with a last minute cancellation we managed to get the last two tickets for the next and last sleeper train of the night to Chiang Mai.

jim glass“JIMMY GLASS” we chorused with high fives. This would become a common expression for when Ben and me received some unexpected luck, particularly when we thought we were down and out. If you don’t know the Jimmy Glass story, look him up on your next Wikipedia marathon. The ultimate Jimmy moment I’ve ever experienced was when me, Ben and a couple of other mates from University took a random trip to Tampere in Finland back in autumn 2006. After a very heavy night that involved White Russians, Casinos and two local girls coming back to our dormitory to shave our sleeping friend’s eyebrow off, somewhere between I lost my passport. The following day, Sam our group leader fought against the embarrassment of the enigmatic triangle shaved into his head (we played dumb and said somebody must have crept in during the night) decided we would head out to the countryside to rent a cabin. That was when I realized I no longer had my passport, and as a result I would have to head out to Helsinki for a replacement. We traced our steps back from the previous night, and hearts sank when last night’s Casino was closed. The kebab shop next door was open but had no good news for me. That was when Sam remerged from the alley next door, with my passport in hand. I felt a twinge of guilt for the role I played in getting those girls back last night to give him an involuntary trim. How the fuck did it get there? But that didn’t matter and the true extent of the Jimmy Glass element came with hindsight, as our stay in that cabin proved to be one of the best memories us guys will ever have together. I think both Ben and I would agree that trip would easily make the Top 5 moments of our lives…….

With about 4 hours until our Chiang Mai train we jumped in another Tuk back to our hostel, although the trip back was not to be a direct one. The driver told us he would take us back for half the normal fare as long as we paid a visit to his friend’s tailor shop; “Just look, for 10 minute, don’t buy, just look”. So we agreed, and carried out our duly 10 minutes of looking and pretending to be interested. Some great deals on some fine suits and if it had not been my first day, with the prospect of having to carry around a silk suit for 4 months, I would have certainly bought one. Considering I was back in Bangkok in about 6 weeks, I said “I’ll come back next time”, later realising this translates in Thai as “No thanks, I have no intent of coming back, and in fact (more in the case of street markets) I will even go as far as to cross the road on my way back to avoid buying your products”. Climbing back into the Tuk, the driver began pressing us, demanding to know what we bought. We told him ‘nothing’, which lead to a one sided heated exchange. He then swerved down a side street and at this point, I can’t remember which one of us, blurted out we had in fact bought something. His eyes widened a little, but so did his suspicion.

“How much you pay? How much Deposit?” he barked.

“Erm 1000b” I said without a clue as to how much that was, “but we said we’ll go back tomorrow, to collect them, our suits”.

I had only been in the country a couple of hours and already I’m down a side street practically being mugged. He wasn’t too happy, but nonetheless was eager to arrange a time to pick us up the next day to take us there. After being pushed into a corner we agreed to meet him outside our hostel the next day. This has got to be the first time a Westerner has conned a Tuk Driver.

From here we went to Chatuchak Market which was about 10 minutes away on the train. I bought a pair of Birkenstocks for 150b, about £3. They are normally about 30-40 quid in London. We also visited a stall selling second hand football shirts, including an away Burnley one from around the mid-1990’s, which I’d contemplated getting for my Dad.

Burnley FC

I was quite impressed with the lack of hassle from street kids, although the women selling the flamingo puppets had certainly lost faith in her product. White skinned Tourists here are not just ‘other English people’ like when you go abroad in Europe, but Westerners. Even the couple who looked like they had the low self-respect to appear on TV reality shows such ‘builders/holidays/restaurants from hell’ who complain about leaks/cockroaches/rude waiters in some resort in Gran Canaria (shy short fat bald man and his loud blonde wife, think Denise Welch and her husband from Auf Wiedersen Pet) were not just confined to coming from Rochester or Wigan, but Hamburg and Miami. It was just as we were leaving I was approached by my first Lady-boy. You’ll be surprised how many straight and seemingly secure Western men get caught up with them. A few people I was to meet further down the line would argue that due to the fact that they had pretty much converted everything from their genitals to their larynx, they were pretty much good to go. It didn’t wash with me, as she’s still got man’s hands, feet, legs and hair. It’s these little qualities in the woman that you take for granted.

DSCF1596After hand feeding the remains of our picnic to the catfish of Lumphini Park’s main lake, we headed back to the train station and boarded our sleeper train. We had bunk beds, and travelled through the night. Often I got up to sit by one of the large windows as we bombed through the Thai Countryside. Mostly dark woodland only rarely interrupted by the odd little settlement. I was most definitely here.

On this day in 2011…Leaving London #Otdi2011

01/01/2011 – Leaving London

Kingsbury, London.

Still feeling rough from last nights gathering, I have a quick tidy up of all the cans and bottles in the kitchen. The brunt of it was sorted last night after I bid farewell to my friends around 2am as they continued to celebrate the end of 2010 at some houseparty in Queen’s Park, while I did the wise thing and stayed up into the early hours packing and repacking my bag, half cut and half asleep. Of course, doing what I should have already done ages ago.

the george

I’ve not done much preparation since booking my 4-month around the world trip in November, and I only just picked up my malaria tablets, Christmas Eve to be exact. Like I just said, this bag has been packed and repacked multiple times. This is purely down to paranoia. I’m packing light and taking a small backpack, the kind that is more accustomed to small trips and music festivals as opposed to long haul marathons around the world. It is for this reason that I’ve gone through it with a fine toothcomb to ensure no contraband from its hedonistic past is still lurking away in one of its many pockets and compartments. My Auntie, who backpacked around Thailand in the early 1990’s, came round last night to wish me luck and to remind me about the perils of drug possession out there. She was once in a bar in Chiang Mai, only a few miles from its notorious prison, where on the wall were several letters from it’s foreign inhabitants, many of whom were British and Australian. They were loaded with words of wisdom and cautious tales of the pit falls of drug handling in this region. Many of the authors were severing sentences in excess of 90 years. In addition to their advice, they would also ask the reading traveller to come and visit them. Or at least write. This backpack has seen some crazy, crazy, crazy nights that even Kiss themselves would deem excessive, and so I don’t want to run the risk of crossing international borders with its past life. Hence what may appear an irrational obsession to check the bag several times over before packing in my line-up of clothes.

I finally get to sleep around 4am, only to be up again at 6am as Dad gives me a lift to the airport.

On the way to the airport I realise that I’ve forgotten to set up an automated “out of office” reply on my work email account. Oh well, not sure it really matters as I don’t often receive that many personal emails anyways and you don’t need to reply to the Global Markets Weekly Newsletter. As one colleague said to me at the office Christmas party a few weeks back “You’re taking your Leave of Absence so soon?” arching his eyebrows incredulously while straightening the thick black rim glasses on his nose “Well, I suppose it’s not a bad time, after all the company is not going to miss you very much, considering your lack of experience and current skill set”. He’s totally right of course and it is for this reason I’m not going to worry any further about setting up an automated reply to the future’s correspondence.

But what about a Facebook status update, just to let everybody I won’t be around? Anybody who doesn’t know of my trip isn’t really worth worrying about. So that’s that sorted. Also I’ve never been one to brag. It’s a recession after all, and not everybody can afford to take four months off to circumnavigate the globe. It’s a shame Helena Bateman from my primary school didn’t have the same level of subtle consideration when she decided to let the world know she was going Spain for a week with “Magaluf = sun, sea and cocccckkkkkktails!!!! Jealous much, Biatchesssss!!!!!” Plus it’s a bit reckless letting everybody know I’ll be out of the country for an extended period of time. I’m not sure if it would breach my home insurance policy, but I wouldn’t be stopping too short of asking to be burgled. “If anybody is interested, Helena Bateman’s Flat (25a King’s Street) looks like the inside of an Apple shop, it’s got that many gadgets and expensive equipment, though unfortunately the place lies empty for the next week” – could be an idea for a status.

Getting on the Mumbai-bound flight wasn’t a problem. The fact that I had curry for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner was. “Of course, you are going to have curry on Jet Airways: it’s an Indian airline, you’re on an India bound flight and it’s their national dish” I heard a culturally embracing woman say to her husband behind me. No you stupid woman, they’re all the reasons why they shouldn’t be serving curry on this flight. When you’re heading to a country, the first thing you should be thinking of when you land is where to satisfy that craving need for real traditional local food that you’ve been dreaming of since you left the travel agents clutching your confirmation of your flight details. Not the polar opposite, like what I now felt sitting in Mumbai airport impatiently waiting for my connecting flight to Bangkok, fearing the next flight’s meal would most likely be curry-based. I may have it all wrong here and the woman behind me berating her husband’s small mindedness may be spot on. I’m not here long enough to sample any Indian culture anyways as 2 hours later I’m on the plane to Thailand.

INTRODUCTION: Orbiter Lover Tour 2011

The South-East Asian leg of the tour

The South-East Asian leg of the tour


There was a faze on Facebook a few years back, of groups such as “I bet this sausage roll can get more fans than Cheryl Cole” being created. The aim was to see if that food item could overtake the popularity of chosen celebrity and as a by-product, undermine their standing in popular society.

I doubt any were successful, but ultimately begs the question; could an ordinary persons story be that more enticing and interesting than a celebrities?

I’m pretty sure for most celebrities, life only gets interesting after their famous. Take the early years of a famous snooker player “after winning in that junior snooker tournament, I went and played at another junior snooker tournament. In between tournaments, I spent the rest of the time training every day for 8 years in a dark gloomy snooker hall practicing my break….”

Boring. They’re famous snooker players, because they didn’t do anything else but play snooker. That goes for most sportsmen or famous people.

It was incredibly hard to get one of my mates to write an autobiography for this experiment, so I decided to do it myself in the form of writing up my travel notes from 2011.

My notes would also be perfect for sliding across the breakfast table whenever I knew I’d be bound to answer questions by some half-interested party regarding my trip. After which it’ll probably spend the rest of its days in the downstairs toilet replacing the old Nintendo Game Boy that currently resides there as a quasi form of entertainment.

I’d also promised myself I’d keep a little journal for 2011 (“what? Are you some kinda of poofter, or something?”). Over the previous year they’d been a lot in the media about 24-year old Poppy Dinsey, an internet sensation with What I Wore Today. On New Years Eve 2009, she promised herself that she’d upload a daily picture of her outfit. As far as New Years resolutions go, it’s relatively harmless. She’s hardly Colin “the Gay Slayer” Ireland, who at the dawn of ’93, promised himself he’d make more of an effort to take up hate-filled murder sprees on the gay community. Albeit, with more notoriety than Poppy.

Using the little blue notepad that some unimaginative staff member got me in the office Secret Santa of 2010, I sporadically compiled all travel notes. A full write-up was conducted on my return, yet has lived solely on USB sticks for the past 3 years.


I think I’m slightly dyslexic. Never been diagnosed, never got a free laptop at school or an extra 20 minutes in the exam hall. I should’ve brought it up with the school psychiatrist. My school never had a psychiatrist per se, although the caretaker used to double up as one during his lunch break.

I’m not going to worry about my limited vocabulary or incorrect grammar. For Microsoft Word has eradicated most barriers of entry to the publishing world as now anybody can write an average sentence, before using the in-built thesaurus to create far more grandiose one.

This has been the biggest advancement in social mobility since the changing face of the investment banking sector in the 1980’s, where competence to survive a testosterone-laden trading floor no longer required the Oxbridge educated, but also those who possessed the confidence and swagger that only Essex’s finest wide boys could provide on demand; son’s of fruit ‘n’ veg stallholders, creators of wealth, “masters of the universe” and you know the rest……

Of course this power of the Microsoft tool is routinely abused by people using it to sound more witty than they actually are, especially when posting on Facebook. It’s these people who don’t understand extravagant words are there to simplify sentences, not prolong them. Not only do they come across as masters of cacology, but also as if desperately trying to drag out an essay to satisfy the 1,500-word minimum set by an English teacher.

“It’s just ostentatiously convoluted parlance, in essence too verbose and prolix, and the biggest affectation of them all” – I reckon.


In post-analysis my notes from the trip were less about the things we did and places we saw. More so about the people and the incidences that happened along the way. It was supposed to be about the former, but essentially I’d never be able to do justice the beauty of the countries we visited – let’s face it, there’s a million other people who’ve done a better job in the past, and they’ll be a million more in the future.

One book I did read during my travels was The English by Jeremy Paxman. Instantly in awe of his rich historical references and extensive bibliography, I often sat back to imagine a tweeded Paxman below a bankers desk lamp scouring academic journals. However, my references aren’t in Tennyson or Yates but Aussie Paul and Nick Bennet from West Thurrock. My places of reference aren’t going to be Ypres or Waterloo, but Semuc Champey and Bang Kwang prison.

Of course this means my trump card of first hand knowledge and heuristic evaluation is even more pivotal. With the exception of French artist Henri Rousseau, who despite never venturing out of France managed to encapsulate the essence of the jungle, it’s a commonly held belief that one should visit the places they write about. Although of course if I wanted to write about pissed-up Aussies, I’d only need to head down to Walkabout, in Shepherd’s Bush. But just like the works of Rousseau, you’d probably be immensely underwhelmed when you saw the real thing.

When describing places and people, I will play to my strengths and use the ability of film references and lookalikes to describe my subjects, taking a nice break from the cliché “pursed lip” and “long flowing locks of blonde hair” phrases so common amongst budding writers and box room rebels like me who dream of somebody other than their parents reading the crap they put together.

The Trail

Starting in London on New Years Day 2011, I’ll make my way to Bangkok. From here, I’ll meet Ben (who’s flown from Australia via Indonesia) and we’ll head to Northern Thailand before moving into Laos, continuing East into Vietnam. From here we’ll begin our descent through ‘Nam and back to Bangkok via Cambodia.

From here a few weeks in the south Islands before Ben heads back to Oz. Shortly after, I’ll make my way to Los Angeles for a few days, before flying to Cancun. Here I’ll spend nearly 2 months snaking my through Central America, before flying out of Panama City back to London at the end of April.


So, why Thailand, home to the one of the most well-beaten backpacker routes, so much so it’s even got it’s own nickname (Banana Pancake Trail)?

During 2009-2010, Me and Ben had been talking a lot about the pressing need to get South East Asia off our chests. It felt like a rite of passage; the tubing, the mandatory photos of temples, the full moon, the shooting of AK-47’s and the banality of relaying such experiences to everybody back home. My burning desire to be part of the zeitgeist was holding me back from making any long-term plans, as I could not plot for the future knowing I didn’t have this out of my system.

Sitting around at work and listening to others discuss their Thailand experiences made me feel the same gut feeling of exclusion, as I imagine being the only virgin out of your mates at school incurs. Feeling like they’d all done something that you hadn’t; I was always quick and keen to rectify these sorts of things.

It was also important to tick this off before the whole thing became one big joke. The whole travelling and gap year thing had already taken a few knocks, especially after the Youtube sensation “Gap Yah”. Also, at this point, I’d heard Hangover 2 was already in production with the majority of it being set in Bangkok, so time was of the essence if I ever wanted to join Koh Phangan’s fluorescent paint renaissance while it was still relatively acceptable.

Ben shared the same concern, and as soon as my employee referral bonus dropped in to my bank on 5th November 2010, I headed straight down to STA Travel on Goodge Street during my lunch break to book up my around the world ticket, leaving in a matter of weeks.

After applying for a 4 month ‘Leave of Absence’ from work, I emailed Ben my dates of departure. By the end of the day, my LOA was approved and Ben too was booked up. It was all very quick.

Myself and Ben had come close to Thailand with two other housemates 4 years earlier, as part of an enroute trip to a former housemates wedding in Australia. It never did actually materialise into any tangible. But this time, we not only had one foot in the door, but two. Even if this time there were just the two, not the four going.


Some of the names in this book may have been changed for convenience. If I couldn’t remember/pronounce the names of people of interest, they’d often find themselves being re-christened by yours truly, often with its anglicised equivalent.

Also, to avoid any accusations of liable, slander or character infringement, this account is only 99.9% true – the rest is totally fictional.

And so the story begin…

I do hope this does not transpire to be a complete waste of your time

Dancing with wolves in the Latvian woods

Latvia walks

February 2006: Heartbreak! Latvia’s national Bobsleigh track is closed on Sundays, which means we’ll be unlikely to fulfill our ambitions of becoming the biggest mockery to the sport since Cool Runnings; the only reason myself and a number of good friends from University travelled the 32miles from the capital of Riga to the sleepy town of Sigulda.

It was about this time that the Winter Olympics Games were taking place in Torino, which may explain the lacklustre presence of the nations finest sportsmen.

Oh well, fair enough – this was only a bonus extension of our random trip to Latvia. Our serendipitous peak surely came a week previous back at Liverpool University’s Carnatic Halls, as we huddled around Greg’s laptop in his dorm room and stumbled across Latvia as a Ryanair destination. Student loans had been credited, winter exams rescheduled for a September re-sit and we sobered up in the cab to Liverpool John Lennon airport.

Forget the bankruptcy of New Century Financial or increased LIBOR, if you wanted an earlier indication of the Credit Crunch, you only had to look to 2006 where any old wankey student could flake around Wavertree High Street, walk into a bank with a NUS Card and half-hearted promises to make it their principle student loan account, and walk out with a 0% overdraft of no small amount. Times were good for spontaneous capital and the resultant student travel.

Back in rural Latvia, reassessing our options over coffee and piragi in the only shop open when the owner kindly interrupts with news of a small ski resort that sits just beyond the dark snow-covered woods on the otherside of a nearby gorge.

A brisk walk through the quiet town we locate the cable cart launch pad that we need to get across. The startling surprise by the quirky operator who springs from nowhere offers hope the cart is open for business.

We hop in and away, across the gorge and its vast snowy landscape, the cart’s shadow on the frozen river below a tiny spec, a single wolf prowling amongst the forest as the sole representative of life.

Turaida Castle

Turaida Castle

The words of the eccentric cart operator, something about our return crossing, get lost as we step off and delve into the enchanted forest with its castle ruins and distant smells of burning wood fires.

Eventually we find the makeshift ski resort, seemingly the only ones who had that day.

Given the last minute prep for the holiday, needless to say key items usually required for skiing were not packed, such as gloves. Whilst atop the summit, Greg and myself were approached by a young Latvian couple who lived nearby and out for their lunchtime ski. Her opening gambit was to force her gloves on me. I was a little surprised, not at her concern (they were in the early stages of falling off) but her genuine interest in our motives for visiting Siguilda. Given the lack of engagements from the locals back in Riga, stolid service was thought to be a nation-wide thing. But everybody from the coffee shop guy to the savior of blue hands had been supportive of our plight. Rural Latvia had proved more welcoming than its urban brother.

According to Economist Tim Harford, behavioral economics can answer this. In the Undercover Economist he compares the manners of people in both Paddington in central London and Preston in Lancashire. Arguing that people in Preston were more likely to be polite than their London counterparts, due to the former’s relatively low cost of time. Whereas in London people have an abundance of choice and opportunities, time is valuable, and the tolerance for holding a door open or willingness to strike up a conversation are often sacrificed first. Why would you want and chat to your lonely yet fascinating neighbour, when there’s Priscilla Queen of the Desert to see in the West End?

Of course ignorance may play a part. Here we were a novelty. It’d be interesting to know how this pleasant couple would perceive our value if they knew the true extent of the stag-orchestrated horrors being dished out night after night in their capital city. We’d been pretty well behaved however; one night Greg took all the girls from the strip club below our hostel out for food. For no other reason other than because of the sweet guy he is.

Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006

Us in Riga the previous day, February 2006

The rural woman mirrored the radiantly fresh faces that would represent innocent Norway at the Eurovision Song Contest. A stark comparison to Riga, where they resembled representatives of, well, Latvia I suppose.

So much fun is had it’s not until 5.30pm when the words of the cart operator come back to haunt us – the final crossing leaves at 6pm!

We race back through the forest but are too late to catch it. The last train back to Riga departs at 7pm and if we missed that, we really were in the red.

Sam, as usual, kept cool and decided we’d just have to head down to the river to find a bridge. Time was against us, and we soon found the easiest way down the deciduous valley was by sliding on our backsides through the icy paths created by the prowling wolves of the forest.

We’d had some practice in central Riga a few days earlier iceskating on the frozen Daugava River (the stupidest thing I’ve ever done), but we must’ve been sliding non-stop in single file down the riverbank slope for 10 minutes before we got to the bottom. Once there, Ben pointed out the old iron bridge that stood out from the surrounding snow. Although unsure if it was still in use, it atleast gave us a rough idea as to where the frozen river stopped and the opposite riverbank began below the thick snow. Sod it, our only real option as far as we could see.

Greg and Sean scouted the terrain to confirm where was safe to tread, allowing us to navigate a quasi-safe route onto the bridge. Our stupidity was rewarded with access across, just in time to catch a car bombing through a forest road somewhere behind. Me being the nearest flagged it down.

It’s dark by the time we catch the train back to Riga (with 3 minutes to spare) and we all conk out, woken only by the ticket collector looking for our slips.

Right, let’s crack on with the rest of the trip!

Me and Morrissey’s India Tour 2012

Mumbai, November 2012

Emerging from Mumbai international airport after a very enjoyable flight (see bottom of page for some of the films and shows I watched along with a short review of each) shortly after 1.10am on Tuesday 2nd November, myself and Andy jump into a taxi towards Patrick’s flat. Patrick? No he’s not some botched drug contact, but a friend of Andy’s Mum who’s kindly agreed to put us up for our two nights in Mumbai. He’s Sri Lankan and moved to the Colindale/Kingsbury area in 1980 where he lived until very recently, having moved out to Mumbai for work as an architect.

After snaking our way around town to his gated community in our taxi, passing several armed guards, we were finally escorted upstairs to his lair. He couldn’t have been nicer, waving a hand at our apologies for getting in late and instead, offered us his personal driver for the following day (after he’s been dropped off at work).

Most people shout about London’s multiculturalism and what its residents have to thanks for it; the different cuisines, the variations of skilled labour, Nelson Mandela’s endorsement of the Olympic Games bid. But more pertinently to myself and Andy, is the realisation that hailing from the most multicultural borough in London, means it makes perfect sense for us to rock up in an Asia hub city and get hooked up with a local resident and his driver on a whim thanks to the people we live amongst back home.

The following day, we meet Mohamed, the driver who we ask to take us to the Gateway of India. On the way, we pass what must be condemned as a normal day in Mumbai; men breaking backs and women carrying the equivalent of their own body weight on their heads.

Indian Women eh’, bloody hell. In fact, more specifically old Indian women, the ageing frail ones. Back home I’ve seen their resilience, strong-willed determination, impeccable leadership and their position as silent figureheads of the family. I’m seeing it now on the streets of Mumbai and I’ll see it even more so on my trip to Delhi to come. But stick them on a plane and it’s a different story altogether as I can testify from last night’s flight from London. From the formidable Iron ladies, they’ve a propensity to reduce themselves to a heap of sluggish excuses, shuffling up and down the aisle as an air steward’s nightmare, ageing visibly every few minutes while constantly on the lookout for sympathy, a free upgrade, or an obstacle to trip up on. All the while, ensuring their ever obedient, ever present loyal son feels a pang of guilt throughout about the whole dramatic ride. But off a plane and on the streets they’re as good as gold. The sons I admire. All six in fact.

Cars and people are flying in all directions, right of way does not exist and even if it did it’d be lost in the sounds of a thousand beeps. Chaos it may be, but god-damn it’s organised. The honk of a horn is used for its intended purpose; to warn of a driver’s presence, and not as a tool for rage and fury. I’m perhaps mistaking it for cultural difference and lack of sleep, but I quite like how people talk to each other. Watching Mohammed ask for directions from fellow drivers, it’s direct and to the point, allowing strangers to extrapolate as much as they need from fellow strangers without wasting time and effort satisfying socially-bureaucratic expectations. Almost child-like, they talk to each other the way everybody does before the importance of good manners are bestowed upon them. That’s not to say their rude to each other, but just talk to each like they’ve been mates for years. Even when they take up grievances, be if for pushing in the line of a queue, they scowl and shout like kids in the playground. Not everybody’s friends, but they know each other well.

On route, Mohamed drives us through a patch of the world famous Dharavi slum, which according to him is not safe for tourists to explore despite several posters I spotted around advertising tours. One in particular irks me somewhat, which boasts of providing the best sights of the slum “made famous by Slumdog Millionaire”. Dev Patel was made famous by Slumdog Millionaire. The lack of working-time directives for Asian child actors was made famous by Slumdog Millionaire. Though I’m not sure the same should be said about the largest slum in Asia. I’m pretty sure it didn’t’ need a summer blockbuster to bring it to the forefront of people’s attention, especially over here.

I don’t really have an appetite for poverty. Sadly, this only means that I’d be unable to stomach a bag of chips walking down one of its sewage strewn back roads, and not an indicator of how I’m going to focus my incredulity into kicking off the next series Live Aid concerts.

Another thing I’m uncomfortable with is haggling with poverty. If I don’t do it with the ticket controller at Liverpool Street tube station over the extortionate price of my Oyster card, why would I do it here in Asia? Though it is recommended, if only to maintain a stable market, and not one characterised by demand pull inflation which could have severe detrimental effects on all the other street sellers and local people, but that’s a different story altogether. One good thing they do here to shelter locals from the tourism-induced inflation is a two-tier pricing strategy which is in full force across the city most notably at the National Gallery of Modern Art and the former Prince of Wales Museum, now renamed to Chhatka Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. What a name. What a country.

Or of course, if you want to be treated the exact same as locals, both in service and in price, the Starbucks that runs at the back of the Taj Palace Hotel does all the same shit you get back home. Equality through globalisation.

As we approach the famous Gateway to India perched on its own mini-peninsula, me and Andy are apprehended by two ‘Holy Men’. Guessing this must be okay, we allowed them to wrap our wrists up in red and yellow bands, synonymous with the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, and then were quite taken back with the wording ‘small tip for Holy Man, a small tip for India’. Okay, you got me, fairs fair. I rifled through the notes I had in my pocket still quite miffed as to the value of each domination, each one adorned with a smiling Gandhi beaming up at me. My only tip for India thus far would probably be to get some more national hero’s, but just what do you give a self-blessed Holy Man. Could give some coins, although the R1 and R2 are the exact same size and weight, the former looking more like a token for an arcade machine if not a credit for the launderette machine with its flimsy appeal and image of a rogue gloved-hand giving the thumbs up, the sole markings save for the R1 sign. We bung them a couple of 100 notes in the end and he blesses us free of negative spirits – the only thing these and will ward off are other Holy Men annoyed they didn’t get to us first.

It’s incredibly hard to find anywhere in Mumbai city centre to sit down, take a breath, tie up your shoelaces, collect your thoughts and check your wallets not been stolen. Therefore it’s a must to get into the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which sits along the main harbour opposite the Gateway of India.

The toilets in here aren’t that bad either. Great in fact, considering Mumbai has 17 public toilets per 1 million people. Given the stereotype, India appears to have quite an adequate sewage system, my first concrete example that this country is ready for the economic opulence the world expects of it. Not to mention sustainable. Greece was never going to be a taken seriously as a stalwart of fiscal stability when their toilet walls were adorned with requests not to flush bog roll down the loo.

Leaving Mumbai was kind of similar to how I felt about Los Angeles; had a really great time and couldn’t really fault the place but for some reason was more than willing to Dunkirk when the opportunity came.

After stocking up with biscuits we headed over to the train station to catch the overnight train to Goa; carriages made up of bunk beds instead of chairs, quite common in high-density, low income countries. Taking logistics into account I volunteered myself for the upper compartment, leaving Andy the spacious bottom bunk with the with window view.

Needless to say he woke first and wasted no time in inviting me down to share the great views of India’s invigorated countryside, him looking radiantly fresh like the housewife who’s had a great day at the spa.

We got off a few stops early at Thivim, as we had a place booked for a few nights in the happening beach town of Arambol.


Now, I’m sure we’d both agree that our time in Goa was perhaps the most eventful and enjoyable and undoubtedly the period of the holiday which we’ll no doubt bore our friends about the most, but it was also the biggest chunk of time devoid of moments of reflection, and consequently will be heavily disproportionally represented in text but in an attempt to summarise we;

Visited spice farms in Ponda, lauded it up in our own penthouse apartment in Calungute, showered with elephants in the jungle, reminded ourselves of orderly chaos in Panaji, rubbed up colonial Portugal in Old Goa, moved freely within the inner circle of the original hippy settlers of ’75, became favoured locals at the Peace, Love and Little Cakes bar in Chopara, floated around Goan-trance parties, floated around on 50cc scooters, discussed astronomy with Shia and exaggerated the size of local snakes with Scottish Gary, named from memory all 50 states of America and the England world cup squad from 1966 (Missouri and Roger Hunt being the final editions), initiated ourselves as honorary residents of Arambol, walked in on a very amateurish rap video shoot atop Fort Chopara, bathed amongst identified jumping fish, came dangerously close to falling in love with some Israeli girls and overall ate so much traditional Goan prawn-based curry that at one stage I thought my dreams of succumbing to gout at such an early age had been realised.

That and the beach life is kind of what we did. Then flew out to Delhi on the eve of Diwali.

See Part 2 for stories of celebrity in Delhi, analysis of the Taj Mahal in Agra and sobering it up with the Barmy Army in Ahemedabad


We emerged from the world famous Chandi-Chowk, its name embedded in folklore for its chaotic and non-stop movement of people, animals, vehicles and fluids. So much so, I even bought a blend of tea named in its honour. This may say more about me, but I kind of admire their perseverance to keep on toiling, battling for no distinguishable reward; no holiday, no pat on the back. What’s the point if it never stops? It’s the first day of Diwali when we arrive and every inch of pavement is covered by workmen or work vehicles. Was it this busy when India faced rivals Pakistan in the semi-final of last year’s cricket world cup? Or did it come to a natural stand still almost like the images of a tranquil Trafalgar Square when England are play in a high profile game – think England-Germany Euro ’96 for example.

The only way to cross the roads here is to wait for a pile-up or traffic jam and using it to manoeuvre across safely. And to think ‘jaywalking’ is illegal in the US. I’d like to see the reaction on people’s faces here if I told them that. I wonder what they’d say if I told them that in the UK people frown on those who shit on your own doorstep, another liberty these people take for granted.

Like Mumbai its incredibly hard to find anywhere to sit and rest in central Delhi, but here’s a tip; head over to the raised partition that runs between both side s of the Netaji Subhash Marg highway. From here you can sit on a grassy verge and dangle your feet off it while watching the traffic fly beneath, and count how many people you can spot on one motorbike/scooter – 2 people, 2 people and a dog, 3 people, a family, 2 families? An infinite numbers of opportunities of reckless transit. As for gathering your thoughts its also a great place to reflect on Delhi’s madness and discuss at length ways to solve the obvious town planning problems; but don’t stay too long, leave when the conversation begins to nose dive towards drastic and often irrational utilitarianism measures.

Directly opposite here, is the famous Mughal building, The Red Fort; pay particular attention to the museum of independence and have a read about how effective Gandhi’s non-violent practices were. If you don’t want your image of him tarnished, Just don’t read about the support from Nazi Europe, the supply of arms from the Berlin Committee or exploitation of the war effort by the Ghadar movement to stir trouble amongst certain factions in Turkey. Peaceful loving Gandhi? Was he balls!

Also, it’s imperative to follow in mine and Andy’s steps in making the mistake of sitting down in the comfy and spacious women-only compartments on the Metro system before being told to leave and join the perverts and cheats further down the carriage.

By the time we get back to our hotel, the fireworks are off. Kids and older kids hastily light bangers and whirl around uncontrollably with Catherine wheels in their hands. The sounds that greet us when we emerge from New Delhi metro station is too loud to think, though I manage to observe how many of the participants are kids out in the street on their own. From my experience, I thought Diwali was strictly a family occasion, though these street kids seem happy in each other’s company. Just as well, as orphans can pick their families, just not their friends.

After heading down the main bazaar towards our hotel for our shower, we head to Connaught Place for some dinner.

After a fine meal of Indo-Thai food in a plush place, we went in search of something for dessert. Being Diwali, and most places being closed, we had to settle for a Krushems from KFC. It was here we saw the full extent of the divide and conquer of the emerging classes. Waiting patiently in the queue behind some local students, in barges the town bully who goes out of his way especially to push his way to the front of the line in the most literal sense, followed shortly by his gang of younger and less cocky foot soldiers. Cartoonish in every way, he’s dressed in black trousers, white dinner jacket and heavily laden with gold jewellery. He rests his arm on the counter using it to pivot himself round to greedily take in the faces he’s taken advantage of. Then he sees the pale and inexperienced Rob and Andy, stops and comes over leading with his big meaty hand wishing us a ‘Happy Diwali’. Generously, he allows the students to rightfully take his place at the till. He’s quite nice, to us, and after telling him how much we appreciate his country he wants a photo with us – throwing his camera at one of his boys to do the honours. He’s definitely atleast the 3rd hardest person in Delhi. Based on the fact he’s the hardest person we’ve seen and I’m sure we’ve seen atleast a third of the 11 million people that live in this City today.

Good lad.

For all the talk of India’s position as the emerging power house, it’s very hard to get this when walking around New Delhi. With the exception of Connacht Place, there appears to be very little to accommodate for the vital role that the City plays in these aspirations. Unless India is to rely 100% on recruiting internally, I cannot immediately see what they are offering to attract foreign investment aside from perhaps a dedicated skilled work force and generous tax relief (just speculation). An enjoyable holiday experience, I’m not sure the world’s talent would have an infinite tolerance for it. But unlike London and other global cities, Delhi’s power will not stem from its centre, buts its periphery. Its new towns, its Milton Keynes. Noida. Gurgaon.  After a while these settlements of glass buildings and gated communities will become the new city centres, and after that, the only city centre. New Delhi will become Old Delhi. A Newer Delhi will evolve, reinventing itself and giving up on its traditional beliefs and values, rebranding its appeal hoping nobody notices, all in search of a new type of Delhite. Newer Delhi abandons Clause IV. The Sun Backs Newer Delhi. Newer Delhi victorious after landslide victory in the polls.



The following day we rent out a driver who comes fully equipped with his own car, in which he uses to drive us to Agra, 200km south Delhi and home to the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal; Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘the embodiment of all things pure’ while its creator Emperor Shah Jahan said it made ‘the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes’ – The guides research, not my own. Nonetheless, would it have the same profound impact on us? Afterall we’ve already seen it in pictures and film and fo this I’m slightly worried this will just be another opportunity for what I liked to call Photo Tourism; Take picture now, upload soon, enjoy much later. Facebook and the need to share everything being the main catalyst for this type of tourism. Also, Kipling and Jahan had a far greater wit and came equipped with a far superior lexicon to explain such feelings. I was worried our only surprise would rise from its size (“it’s much bigger than I thought”) or its alignment with faith (“Muslim? I thought it was a Hindu thing”). But, it did have the intended gaping effect, though I’m just not aswell endowed with the necessary argot to tell you just how much so. So we’ll leave it there.

Lurking somewhere behind my left shoulder I heard a vaguely familiar voice, nobody specific just no doubt from film and TV, say to its company “wow, my first visit to one of the greatest man-made wonders. After this, my second must-see is the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil”.

Now, I’m not sure of what actually constitutes the Seven Wonders of the World anymore, what with all the derivatives and categories, but if I’m on a tour of man-made wonders, the hand-carved Inca trails of Machu Picchu would definitely take priority over a huge concrete statue of Jesus Christ – but that’s me.

After a good few hours at Taj Mahal, jumped into some kind of hybrid wheelbarrow/rickshaw to Agra Fort.

Alex James from Blur said that the stares you get walking through a supermarket with a wailing baby is the closet thing you can do to knowing how it feels to be recognisably famous. Well neither of us have much in the way of a proxy, but the last few days we’ve certainly been novelties and in some form celebrities over here, especially in the national parks and monuments. By the time we’d finished the Taj Mahal I’d lost count of the number of times we were approached by groups of Indians wanting their photos with us.

The national parks, such as Taj Mahal, Fort Agra and The Red Fort, are mainly made up of Indian tourists who have travelled from places less accustomed to westerners – hence our strong celebrity pulling power here more than ever.

It was mainly groups of lads, shuffling their way towards us, egging each other on to be the one to ask for permission until one plucked up the courage to come over. Normally bounding over like the kid at the school disco first to approach the girls, armed with his brother’s oversized jumper and his Dad’s overused chat-up lines. Sometimes, parents would give us their babies to hold for a photo. It was always harmless and good natured, though much to my surprise the novelty of being a celebrity worn off after a while – even on me. After a while, kids would just secretly take pictures of us, thinking we weren’t looking.

Though we couldn’t understand the language, we always knew when we were the core of their muffled jokes. Take it from me, all those times when you joke about somebody you see on the tube or at a music festival, whether it be questioning their gender or just their looks in general, there’s a very good chance the victim knows you’re fun is at their experience.

Only once at Agra, outside the world-famous Mausoleum was I asked to take a picture of somebody else. I actually volunteered as a very large family were looking around anxiously for somebody to capture them all in front of the great monument. Sadly for them it was an old Nokia, one of the pioneer camera phones. Nonetheless I took it. But Christ, I think they’re planning on getting it enlarged and putting it up in their homes as a heavily pixelated family photo; no doubt they’ll all look like the early Super Mario characters.

Once back in Delhi, we headed back to one of the city’s finest curry houses, United Coffee House (poor name, great food), feasting it up with India’s new wealthy. Eating at a relatively exclusive restaurant in the rags you’ve been wearing all day can do wonders for a man’s self-esteem.

Our last day, before we got the train to Ahmedabad, we paid a visit to the Lotus Temple. Completed in 1986 as a house of prayer for multi-faith it sits outside the melee of Delhi, amongst a soothing national park – “It looks just like the Sydney Opera House”.

It’s a lot less hectic than other monuments we’ve been to and for that reason one of my favourites. The steps besides the eight surrounding water pools that surround the temple make it an excellent vantage point for people watching. I’m surprised, impressed and disappointed by the lack of ambition the native kids have of pushing their fellow peers into the pools; it’s probably why India don’t do aswell in the Olympics as they probably should. On the flipside it’s probably why they, relatively speaking of course, manage to live in harmony with each other despite so many conflicting belief systems.

Unlike the crouching quartet of Chinese students, who are all crowded around one corner of the pool betting on whose coin will reach the bottom first. Chanting and egging on sinking coins. China won 88 medals at the last Olympics.

Inside was nice and neutral, looking strikingly like the interior of the English Martyrs church at the top of Blackbirds Hill in Neaden, with its wooden beams and semi-raised alter worshipped by rows and rows of oak benches. Having to be silent, it felt more like a school exam hall than a place of prayer, complete with their own Mr. Kent ushering in and out the packs of nervous students, his pointed index finger rather leaving his pursed lips.

The atheists definitely have the debating halls and the support of the comedy circuit, but no doubt religion will always have architecture.


Another sleeper train, which we stayed up most of the night with new friends Nick and Jana playing cards all night. This time the destination of Ahmedabad, a city just north of Mumbai and often labelled the ‘Manchester of the East’ owing to its industry and textile business. This in itself is not reason enough to visit such a city on such a short stay in a country, but we were actually hoping to secure tickets for the 1st Test match of England’s cricket tour of India.

After arriving at the train station we part with Nick and Jana, with vague plans of meeting at the match and head to our hotel for a quick check-in. After which we zoom in a cab to the Sardar Patel stadium which has a capacity of 54,000 but is not to be confused with the other Sardar Patel stadium in Ahmedabad some 7km away which only has a capacity of 50,000. Seriously, sometimes I think the planners of these towns want to fail.

The atmosphere outside the ground is electric – which in most cases means lots of flag waving and even more shouting, and now not an exception.  Speculating our chances of securing tickets for this will be about as slim as reservations at Dorsia, we set about looking for the first tout. In doing so, we stumble across a ticket booth for foreigners only; if you ever see a queue in India, rest assured there’s a strong possibility there’s a much smaller one made up of Westerners nearby. We approach with caution but end up with a brace of tickets with the Barmy Army in the lower pavilion.

There’ s more people outside the stadium then inside, rather surprising given it’s the last few minutes of lunch when we enter. We see India declare and England lose 3 wickets in quick-succession before close of play.

We had great seats, but there was no denying the distinctive smell of piss and shit secreting its way from the nearby toilets. It really was basic for such a renowned sporting venue and definitely makes you think twice about romanticising the rough and ready of sport stadia gone by. Whether it be lamenting terraces and reasonable ticket prices at the footy, it’s probably safe to say the reality of the raw element of football has been effectively lost underneath a veil of nostalgia.

The stadium’s not quite full, though there’s certainly a great atmosphere present. The assault rifle-clad policemen encircling the boundary  juxtaposing the benevolent and peaceful village setting playing out behind them, almost as well as the loyal sing-songer of the Barmy Army returning to his seat with a round of waters; Gujarat is a dry state, strictly no alcohol consumption. The whole scene throwing up images congruent with Banksy on some east London shop shutter.

We find some seats. Seating is non-assigned which is great for the real fans who get there early and have the pick of the lot, but not so great for us who have to make do with the unannounced waft of shit every so often.

The 3rd day of the test (our 2nd) is much better both in terms of atmosphere and entertainment. With a bad start, England are bowled out and asked to follow on for the 2nd innings with a loss looking inevitable. However, heroics from Prior and Cook see an impressive comeback with a draw looking possible. The day ends on a high, all suspecting we may see one of the great test comebacks. Even the kid who’s obviously been forced along for the ride by his Dad (and possibly psychiatrist) occasionally looks up from his phone to inspect the scoreboard. He has unnecessarily long finger nails and according to Andy this is a sign of an unloved child. Crickets a good laugh.

The 4th day (our 3rd) sees again a very promising display from the partnership of Cook and Prior. I agree to go ahead of Andy and meet him there, purposely choosing to sit behind guy who looks like Billy Connolly, using his flamboyant appearance as a meeting point if necessary. All this man’s life in public he must hears murmurs of ‘Billy Connolly’. Nick and Jana join us later on.

It’s quite something watching an event unfold no more than 100m away, especially when its being projected all across the world. All the lager soaked carpets it been discussed, or the back seats of cars its being followed and yet here we watching it live.

We leave shortly before the end to catch our flight back to Mumbai, where we will then transfer to our flight back to London.

Sitting at the airport, half expecting to everybody to break into dance like the  culmination of a Bollywood hit, one side with the ‘baddies’ from our trip (the cheats, the queue jumpers, several uncredited Tuk Tuk drivers) and the other with  the ‘goodies’ (Matthew from Little Cakes, Mumbai resident Patrick). The fact that the baddies of our trip were no worse than a pantomime villain is testament to how much we enjoyed our time in India. It’s a great country, really is, even if my notes have not fully illustrated this. But then again, nobody wants to hear the positive aspects of ones experiences. For these, I urge to make the trip yourself if you haven’t done so already.

Visiting a British Inmate in Bang Kwang Prison; Robbo’s big day out at the Big Tiger

_39556203_michaelconnell203In mid-November 2003, 19 year old Michael Connell boarded a flight from Manchester to Bangkok with two tubs of moisturising cream, each discreetly containing 3400 ecstasy pills. He was arrested at the airport only minutes after landing and after a grueling trial was sentenced to 99 years in the notorious Bang Kwang prison, the setting for some of the darkest stories I’ve ever heard. Locals, and various online news sources, refer to it as Big Tiger; it prowls and eats. Today, I’m going to visit him. Today would also be the day that most people would ask me about when I got back home from my travels.

25/1/2011: I’ve wanted to visit Bang Kwang ever since reading about it in The Damage Done; a compendium of horrors compiled by Warren Fellows who served time there between 1978-1990 for heroin smuggling. For every documented story about desperate junkies in Thai prison cells, injecting the remains of their heroin from the rotting entrails of a pig’s intestine it was smuggled in, there are probably a thousand more like it.

I know what I’m doing. I know this isn’t some kind of display of humbling humility on my part as only a fool would manage to convince themselves that visiting a prisoner abroad is a selfless act borne 100% out of concern for the inmate’s wellbeing or basic human rights. I’m under no illusion, and fully accepting of the fact this won’t count towards my karma-credit nor will it be something that proudly occupies the ‘key achievement section’ on my CV. My motives for this are 50% selfish intrigue, 40% concern for the lad on the otherside and 10% to fill the time between catching my evening flight to LA.

Word has it that an inmate’s daily diet consists of rice and fish heads, and so I earmarked a batch of goods and grub to bring along with me to give to Michael. From the backpacking safe houses of Khao San Road, I got up early and walked down to the river to catch a boat upstream to Nonthaburi, the final stop. On route I popped into a small supermarket. Like Louis Theroux stocking up on supplies and gifts before going to visit one of his subjects I scanned the lackluster shelves for potential gifts. I was very limited in what I could bring (no tins or foil) so loaded up on bananas, apples, dry foods, some spices, biscuits, chewing gum, toiletries and cigarettes. I wanted to get him something British, something he might be missing. Perhaps some West Country cider, strawberries and cream, triangular cut shortbread. Then I thought of a great point Jeremy Paxman makes in his book The English; when the British wistfully look back to Blighty, we don’t tend to miss the buzz of the cities, but the rolling fields and village greens. The British soldiers on the frontline during World War 2 were sent postcards of the British countryside with the stern reminder “this is what we are fighting for” to boost morale and a sense of duty, despite the fact that it was the cities that were constantly under threat by the Nazi’s nightly air raids. What relevance would a slice of Wensleydale cheese have in bringing me and a lad from Greater Manchester closer together? Naturally, I opted for a multipack of Snickers instead, which of course melted into one big sorry state of affairs on the boat ride up there.

I examined my motives once again on the boat up the murky Chao Phraya River. It was a bit like in that episode of Friends where simpletons Joey and Phoebe discuss the possible existence of a selfish act. If you haven’t seen that episode of Friends, don’t bother, that’s pretty much it.

Once off the boat a brisk walk was had through the half dead town before I reached the large prison.

 The watch out towers can be seen from the river pier but it’s when approaching the  outerwall that runs 2,085 metre around the 80 acre prison site do you get a full sense of how big it is. The main road that runs alongside it is surprisingly quite, which somehow perpetuates the feeling of muted screams coming from the otherside of the walls. In Fellow’s book he talks of how when he first approached the prison, even in the confines of the police truck, he could feel the hatred humming from within it. It’s kind of true I suppose.

Opposite the visitors entrance, on the other side of the road, is where you go to register and hand in your passport. Two young Thai girls were there to help me, who presumably are volunteers. I was pointed the way to Building 12 which was back on the otherside of the road, where I handed my slip of paper in along with all my personal belongings to a guard at the front desk. I was escorted through a large iron gate and into a room which at first I found incredibly dark and cold, but only in appearance and colour. Temperature wise it was sweltering; things can’t be looking good for the inmates in this heat.

The dim light of the room was sourced from overhead light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, the only natural light seeping through the cracks of the two iron doors that sandwiched the room; one to the outside and the other to the prison. I was given a boiler suit to wear, due to wearing shorts, by the next set of guards. Before going to have my bag of food checked, I saw a sign telling me there were 7500 prisoners here with 754 of them being foreign. Membership to this prison requires you are sentenced to at least 25 years. Also written on the whiteboard (numbers are easily edited and erased) was the number of foreigners on death row; 264.

The place smelt like a 1980’s public baby change room. Not necessarily of shit, but the pungent eye stinging chemical that was used to eradicate the smell of human waste, which can be just as unpleasantly overbearing and stomach churning than raw sewage itself. The fact I haven’t smelt this since my own days of crapping my pants, is testament to how instantly recognisable the stench is. I say 1980’s, because office maintenance in Britain has come a long way in recent years, but that’s not to say the Far East has. Back home the only place you’d smell such an odour is in a classroom or bus garage after some cheeky chappy has let off some farting gas or a stink bomb. If Bangkok is still using the reserves of chemicals that have probably been exported from the West after compliance with EU regulations, I hate to see what they were using back when Warren Fellows was an inmate in ‘78.

Maybe their reputation precedes them, no thanks to the abundance of books about life in Thai prisons, but it’s incredibly hard not to feel on constant alert around the prison guards. Even the fat jovial one who selects my jumpsuit from a dirty damp pile in the corner of the room looks like he has more than a capacity to distribute some serious misery on someone. A few weeks back, myself and Ben (my mate who I’d spent most of the last 2 months with backpacking South-East Asia) were in the north of Vietnam, in which our initial reaction to the locals was this;

“With many of the native people we have met in Vietnam, there appears to be a thin veil of geniality and chivalry while beneath they could all potentially be hard face, mirthless and stolid bastards working behind a pain of glass at a border control checkpoint.”

The border control simile was in reference to a particular frightening experience we had on the Laos/Vietnam frontier but that’s a different story altogether. Of course, the further south we travelled in Vietnam the more our opinion changed towards a population of pleasant, and genuinely sanguine in temperament, people but the above sentence resonated with me in particularly when standing there in the decompression unit of Bangkok’s central prison with only the unpredictable, certainly unreadable, prison guards for company. These boys do not mess about.

After passing the final pat down test (cameras are strictly forbidden), they unlocked the huge thick metal door and I was in, entering back into the sunshine and through into a large rectangular grey courtyard. At the far opposite end was a guard who I was told would take the bag of food and eventually pass it on to the inmate.

On each side of the courtyard, running up the side walls towards the drop-off guard, were two sets of corridors – running parallel to the plant pots pathetically dotted around in the middle of the courtyard’s void. It was incredibly quite, so I walked to the top and dropped Michael’s things off, which was followed by instructions to wait inside the corridor on the left hand side of the courtyard.

 Inside the corridor, entering via a mesh door, were a row of chairs side by side facing inwards towards a pain of glass; I plonked down on the first one, with my back to the outside courtyard, grateful to be out of the sun and in the shade. Alongside each chair was a telephone wired up to the window. This humdrum routine ran the entire length of the corridor. It was only on closer inspection could you see through the glass to the other side. Through the smears of various oils and indistinguishable stains, you could make out an identical row of chairs and telephones. But there was a catch. Between me and the opposite row of vacant seats after the first glass sheet, was a row of thick metal bars followed by a gap of about 1.5 metres before another sheet of even thicker glass. Beyond was where the inmates sat, looking back out towards the visitor and the courtyard. Aside from me, there was only one other visitor present on this side of the glass; an Israeli who was overcome with grief as he tearfully argued through the phone to the shackled man opposite. One must not stare at trauma.

Those serving life here wear cast iron shackles around their legs. This also goes for those new to the prison, as everybody must endure them for the first 6 months regardless. I’m guessing the inmate on the other side was pretty new to it all, but clearly the guy in tears on my side was also struggling to come to terms with his friends predicament.

Eventually Michael, my host, entered from his side and sat down opposite me, picking up the phone in one swift action, while I did the same my end. If this scenario evokes images of a particular scene from American History X then you’re on the same wave length as me. I didn’t even notice him from the photos on the BBC News website which taken from his trial some years ago now in which he had been depicted as a skinny 19 year old. He now had a full beard, a bigger build and a pair of second hand glasses.

After the initial honeymoon period, I searched desperately for topics to discuss, mutual interests or at least some kind of game that could be conducted through four different formats of separation; glass, bars, passage, glass. I started off by asking him how he was keeping, rather apologetically on my part. Small talk; nobody deserves to be put through that.

“Not too bad considering my circumstances” he joked. He’s a real nice lad and I can’t help but hope everything works out for him.

Knowing he’s a united fan from many of the blogs I read, I started there. Then last year’s world cup and England’s embarrassing performance. He too thinks there’s too much money in football and thinks it’s a comical farce what some players get up to off the pitch.


He volunteers in the pharmacy. He gets a batch of vitamins sent in from the British Embassy each month. He gets 2 hours visiting time twice a week, Wednesday and Friday. He shares a cell about the size of an average family living room with 30 other blokes. He sleeps under constant surveillance and bright lights. He hasn’t seen his mum since his arrest although his Dad has been over once. It’s all really hard to take.

I meet Gale Bailey and her daughter, who come in from the courtyard a little after me, both originally from Leicestershire. They regularly visit the British prisoners along with many others from Thailand and around the world, bringing them nutrition and necessities. She is a committee member of the BCTFN (British Community in Thailand Foundation for the Needy – http://www.bctfn.com/) and now lives just outside Bangkok doing vast amounts of charity work. She’s certainly one of life’s good people. Her daughter and Michael talk like old friends (she hasn’t seen him for some time) and Gale tells me about the prison. The Israeli guy next to us, now in tears, is visiting his Brother who is doing life for heroin trafficking. I see an extremely attractive woman standing outside in the courtyard. She was stunning and looked out of place in front of the dreary background and drab framework. Gale tells me that she’s the wife of the Israeli guy on the other side of the glass and has subsequently moved over to Bangkok with their two children, who of course were just toddlers when their Daddy was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport carrying a Euro-bound suitcase of skag. I glance at him through the glass and hate him for what he’s done to his family. It’s the innocent relatives who pay a higher price.

Gale introduces me to Jag, who sits next to Michael. A very cheerful and witty Malaysian. Actually clever witty, not just comical because of his Malaysian novelty or his pronunciation of some english words. He’d been in here since 1991.

Christ, I started in Primary School in 1991 and for every moment and memory I’ve accumulated since then he’s been in here rotting away. Don’t know why, but I start reviewing some primary school memories. I’d put it down to the half-hearted attempts to grant vitality to the depressingly decaying visitor centre with the plant pots, a half arse attempt to look like a primary school perhaps. Maybe the fact that I’m surrounded by an abundance of wasted life, forces reflection on a much simpler time.

Considering everything, Jag didn’t look too bad actually. He was sentenced to death after he was found packing heroin into concealable packages at a friend’s house in the South of Thailand. He was guilty and freely admits it, although he tells me not everybody is. A French man he knows was arrested when a drug trafficker was caught at the airport and the police searched his phone and called the last 3 numbers that were on the call list. Unfortunately the French Guy was on the list and although obviously did know the trafficker, had no involvement in the operation whatsoever. Nonetheless, the Thai police tracked him down, set him up and had him arrested. He had been on holiday with his family and had probably made friends with the trafficker in one of the local bars or something before the arrest and exchanged numbers. He was now serving 90 years somewhere in this vicinity. Before Jag’s arrest he had run a successful shipping company in Singapore, although it went downhill and he soon found himself lured by the appeal of the drug trade. In 1996, his sentence was reduced to life. I wanted to hear more about him although he was particularly interested in me, asking me lots of questions. I told him about some of the marketing material for a Chinese washing detergent I’d spotted in Vietnam, for which I had written the script for the online commercial. He was clueless to the digital age. Books were not a problem to get hold of but the internet was a no go. He could speak 5 languages, but could not tell you how to setup an email account. He was optimistic that he would be out in 2016, at the age of 49 and hoped to go and help his sister who ran a nursing home or apply his experience with a logistics company although was very concerned about “how the world will view me”.

The guards had entered the corridor on the prisoner’s side and made it clear it was a wrap. Michael wanted to thank me for my time and I asked him if there was anything I could do for him back home, I would be more than happy to do it. “If you can get a helicopter on the top of the roof, that would be brilliant” he said with a chuckle before the guard gave him the eyes, and he got up and walked back to his cell, to continue his 99 year sentence.

Gale and her daughter went off to find a nice place to have lunch. I was going back to catch my flight to LA. These were our choices, a luxury up until now I have its fair to say, were taken for granted. Walking down the road back to the water bus, it struck me that in those few steps, I had gone further in this world than most of them people in the building behind me had in decades. Fuck ‘em? Some would say. But its easy to judge from outside.

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