On this day in 2011….Football with the locals in Hoi An #Otdi2011

23/01/2011

Cigarettes and Football

Cigarettes and Football

Rented out bikes and after a ride around town decided to head out and explore some of the countryside out towards the beach, where we checked out a lobster farm. On our way back, stopped off at this bridge over a river, where we hung out with these two little kids who counted fishing and fags amongst their interests; that smoking Indonesian baby on YouTube has clearly been an inspiration.

We headed back, but decide to cut through the town and continue exploring the other side. Deep into the rural suburbs, we come across a group of young lads playing football and park up the scooters to join in. We are definitely the cool guys who you look up to when you’re younger, who instantly make you feel safe. That’s the dream anyways. I let one of them sit on my bike with me and let him think he has sole control as we glide around the park. After a knock about, its time to drop the bikes off and board the over night coach to Nha Trang.

On this day in 2011….Doing our admin in a “peaceful meeting place” #Otdi2011

22/01/2011

Today was an admin day; reserved solely for sorting out travel plans, booking daily excursions and doing our washing. We also found out from the locals that Hoi An translates as a “peaceful meeting place”.

Hoi An - Peaveful Meeting Place

We walked to the old town for a look around before going to see what time the coaches left for Nha Trang as rumours had spread that you needed to book way in advance and this was a concern, as we had to be somewhere to watch the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Birmingham. The topic of conversation was West Ham’s bid to take occupancy of the Olympic Stadium after London 2012. Both could see the potential opportunities for the club to expand, although there was no denying it, what essentially would be a retail park would be no match for the buzz of the Boleyn Ground.

A few weeks before leaving for Asia I was there for the Wigan game, and sipping my pint in The Queens I noticed how sad it would be too see one of the last real traditional parts of the East End go. I mean the area changed a long time ago, but one Saturday every other week for 10 months of the year, the old East End returns here to this otherwise normal street in the Borough of Newham. With its fierce yet communal atmosphere, you can almost smell the old sprit of of the blitz – whether or not that was all bollocks or not, is irrelevant. A move to a Stratford would see this lost forever.

I don’t claim to be the biggest fan, and I can remember the pivotal moment when I lost faith in the Premier League. It was shortly after England’s heroic performance in the 2007 rugby world cup, and despite having a weakened team from when they won it 4 years earlier, they showed true determination in getting to the final. In fact all the teams did, and for the duration of the tournament I witnessed blokes taking hits that would probably kill me or you, and getting up straight away, dusting themselves off and carrying on. So when I turned on Match of the Day on the first day of the following season, I was that bit more put off by the diving and dissent.

Of course, not all the players were like that. Mark Noble and Scott Parker were the remaining few I could rely on to restore my faith in the beautiful game. But coming to Upton Park is always special and win or lose it’s a great day out, I just don’t think you would find the same character while having pre-drinks in a Walkabout or a quick bite in Nando’s before kick off.

We collected our washing from downstairs and while neatly folding them back into our bags we analysed which item of clothing would make our team selection for the World Cup. The main talking points around this, were as follows;

  1. Ben’s blue T-shirt which had picked up a hole in it from when he lent it to a friend was forced into retirement, which ran parallels with the career of Dean Ashton who effectively sustained a career-ending injury himself whilst on England duty.
  2. My Ted Baker jumper that had been handed down to me from both my brothers was like Teddy Sheringham when he was at Man United; rather old with many thinking he was past his peak, he still ended up playing a pivotal part in the historic treble winning season. It had ended up on the scrap heap many times, often being saved from the bag to the charity shop at the last minute, but here it was on this epic trip holding its place as my smart-casual option.
  3. The shirt my Dad got me for Christmas was goalkeeper Ben Roberts. With only a handful of appearances, he was now fortunate enough to be on this trip, just as Roberts was when he found himself playing in goal for Middleborough in the 1997 FA Cup final despite only ever making 16 appearances in 7 seasons previous.
  4. This was certainly the swansong for my white vintage adidas T-shirt, also a handy down from an older brother, but he’d had a fantastic career as a journey man getting appearances for my other brother Luke and my Dad. Despite being my most capped player this trip, I can confirm he will be retired at the end. He was my Van Der Sar of the 2010/11 season.

After an explore of the town (I was really loving this town as place to get comfortably lost in), we headed back to Sun Bar after meeting another one of the promoters. We said we would only go if Bin would be there to which he confirmed “Bin’s there, Bin’s there”. We were sold. Watching the Ernie-esq fella (you remember Ernie the guy we met on the way to Laos who was suspected of being a DEA officer but was nothing but an overfriendly gay dude who didn’t know it yet) dance to Jay-Z and Sean Paul, Ben noted that “these American and Canadians probably listen to this music on their iPods. To them, it’s so much more than just cheesy club music. They actually enjoy it”. Its true, but then and I reminded him that it may not be exclusive to our North American friends, as one of our good mates from University had the Baywatch Theme and Summer of ’69 on his most played list.

On this day in 2011….Dishing out dodgy advice in Hoi An #Otdi2011

21/01/2011

We reached Hue around 2pm and had a coffee and sandwich before changing on to another coach to Hoi An. I chatted to a young local boy who collected coins from all around the world. Amongst his collection he had a British 1p, 2p and 20p each with our Queen on them. Where had he got them from? Who had given them to him? Who carries around coppers when travelling around Vietnam? I understand the dollar being carried around; not only are they useful currency but the yanks keep them in their wallet to hand out to locals like business cards on behalf of USA Plc.

Hoi AnHoi An is class, a beautiful little town and I was looking forward to chilling here for a few days. Also, the local people seemed to have warmed a bit, and we no longer felt we were watched by pairs of black eyes everywhere we went like in Hanoi. We had dinner and a few beers at a perfectly lit restaurant that overlooked the river. Next to us was a Mum, her daughter and the daughter’s boyfriend. Could easily be the other way round, her Son and the Son’s girlfriend, but you get the point. A sign of a good place can be found where parents are dining with their mature children.

We were handed a flyer by one of the local promoters for a club/bar called Sun Bar where all the action was tonight. We already had a flyer and just for a bit of fun we told him we already promised another promoter we’d go to his club, showing him the exact same flyer we’d received earlier. He laughed and told us they were the same place but we kept it up “yeah, I’m sure there will be lots of pussy and free shots, but we are already going to this one”.

We got chatting to two young lads Jessy and Mattie who had snuck off from their families back at one of the restaurants (families are another positive indicator of this town) to come for their first alcoholic beverage. Jessy was a sweet boy who was in love with his girlfriend back home, and wanted to marry her and settle down as soon as possible.

Hoi AnNot to sound like Carrier Bradshaw or anything, but is it really possible to make such long-term plans at that age? Preferences change so much through life, and never as much as they do between the transition of teenager to young man. What you perceive as cool in adolescence you soon find yourself looking back at, with disbelief that you ever felt that way inclined. Forget girls for a second, and imagine if I had the money and permission to get a tattoo when I was his age; acting on what I thought was cool at that time I would be sat here with a ghastly union flag clad British Bulldog on my right arm with “made in England underneath” scrawled underneath. Fortunately, most tattoo artists where I lived respected the fact I was underage. Which I was always thought was unfair, as they didn’t reject Laura-Marianne, a girl in my class, who got a large butterfly on her early developed right boob when she was 14. Speaking of which, Mattie (who wanted to be a superstar DJ when he grew up) was in even graver danger as he was adamant he would get “one of those authentic Buddha tattoos that everybody back home has”. Guys, guys, guys. There are more rewarding ways to mark your youthful rebellion. Just wait to your 17 and get arrested for being drunk and disorderly; you’re too old to have your parents informed, but too old to be charged/fined for the offence. It’s a bit of a laugh, and you get to spend a night in a cell. That should do the trick.

Still not convinced, I told Jessie my theory on the perils of settling down too early, which went something a little like this:

“To make a honest man, one needs to be at peace with himself. In order to be at peace, he must be free of temptation, or at least be in with a good shout of resisting it. The only way to be free of this is to get it out of your system, and by this I mean by the time you eventually settle down with the person whose right for you, make sure you’ve had enough experience to ensure that you won’t one day wake up one Saturday morning next to your adorable sleeping wife and wonder what it would be like to be waking up with somebody else, even if for just one time. It’s not a problem thinking about it, but actually doing it is. Once you do, that trust is pretty much gone. And then what? You might have enjoyed it, and realized what you’ve been missing which is likely to lead to it happening again. And again. Hopefully, it wasn’t enjoyable as it is with your wife, and by doing so you realise just how lucky you are. But why run the risk? Just make sure you crack on with as many girls as necessary in your youth (that’s what it’s there for), so when the time comes to call it a day, you’re ready. Of course, this theory isn’t perfect as you may find the right person early, and by delaying a relationship for the above reasons, you may lose out altogether. I used to think Ashley Cole was a bit of c**t for cheating on Cheryl Cole, but in light of this theory, it just goes to show the implications of rushing into a marriage at such a young age. William Blake had it right with “the road of excess leads to the Palace of wisdom, for we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough”.

Of course wear protection when going down this road at all times and have your wits about you otherwise you’ll never make it to the Palace. I’ve met quite a few lads so far who are certainly following Blake’s words, but who are not taking precautions, especially when heading down the road of lost innocence. Just remember kids, if she lets you in without a hood, how many other non-hood wearing blokes have been there unprotected? And if these non-hood wearing Blokes have been happy to go in her without one, how many other girls have they been inside without? And if these other girls have let them in without wearing a hood, how many other blokes have they let in without one? You get the point: wear a fucking condom. All it takes is one person in that chain to have something, and “boom”, epidemic.

It particular annoys me when I meet fellow Brits on this trip who reveal their unprotected promiscuity to me. After all, if they don’t care about themselves fair enough, but what isn’t cool, is then recklessly bringing the disease back to Blighty, where me and my friends live. A Thai recipe book for Mum, Samsung whiskey for Dad, Singha beer T-shirt for your little Brother and a letter from the doctor for your girlfriend.

Afterall, you wouldn’t use a public toilet to go for a shit without laying down a healthy layer of toilet roll between your arse and the toilet seat.”

Round about this time, me and Ben had been keenly discussing the concepts of “nests” (the layer of tissue you place around a toilet seat); he opted for a dual layer around the rim, with a solitude sheet running down from the front of the seat down the bowl, which would prevent any interaction between your dangling phallus and the piss-drenched surface. I never thought of the added runway, but it sure does seem more efficient then holding your old boy in your left hand.

Despite my polemic on the lifestyle choice to settle down too earlier in life, I can’t quite say I’m up in numbers myself. In fact I’m a little bit surprised I’ve been here 3 weeks and not even come suitably close to a shag. Though of course when the times come, I’ll be sure to take the necessary precautions. Though saying that, knowing my luck, I’ll be the Roy Castle of the safe sex advocate.

We also met Bin at Sun Bar; a young Vietnamese boy who was severely overweight, but in a good way. He worked behind the bar and couldn’t have been more than 12 years old, chain smoking his way through his shift. To be fair to him, he worked long hours. Needless to say we got a photo with him. Good old Bin. Bin. Bin. Bin.

The boyfriend and girlfriend from the restaurant we were in earlier were both in there having a cuddle by the pool table. Outside was the Mother looking through the glass door with one of the older men who worked there. It reminded me of a scene from the closing stages of a school disco with all the parents waiting outside at the end, waiting for the final dance to finish.

“Yeah, the mum’s even got the look bang on with her car keys and baby photo keyring wrapped around her finger” Ben hit back with.

“I bet she’s had her fair share of Mc. Donald’s happy meal toys and crushed crisps on the back seat of her Ford Galaxy people carrier”.

This is what I mean. Just with the mutual acknowledgment of the life cycle of a Slush Puppy machine in the Chang Mai jungle, we both knew exactly what we meant as we had obviously both seen this very subtle but definitive scene a hundreds time growing up, and could appreciate each other’s rich attention to detail. Following this we went on to discuss the best and worst of Kinder egg pre-made toys. Unfortunately Tiny Terrapins were the only ones we could remember from childhood, which hit our shops in 1992. Unfortunately, we were still trying to think of the other ones when a group of rather attractive girls came in, and walked straight past us. Suddenly it all made perfect sense why neither of us had had sex with any birds on this trip thus far.

We moved on to the river front, where we met a group of girls who were volunteering at a local school. Livvy was from a student from Australia and a dead ringer for Kate Beckinsale. Along with her was Julie, who after a series of failed marriages had decided she would take a trip of a life time and certainly knew how to have fun. At the end of her trip she was to look into adoption from one of the local orphanages with the aim of returning to Australia, a proud Mother. I really liked Julie, not just for her fun loving spirit, but for her good kind nature which had no problem shining through.

We all jumped on the back of some waiting mopeds and raced through this very scenic town (almost Tuscany-esq) to a late night venue on the edge of town where we played pool and got pissed up. Somebody before our time had etched a pair of cross hammers with ‘WHUFC’ underneath it on one of the walls. I pointed this out to Ben, but it was Livvy who was most impressed. Turned out her Dad was from Essex and a huge Hammers fan. Even had the cross hammers logo incorporated into the design of his driveway back in Australia.  A couple of boisterous Aussies lads challenged us to a game, and it felt like we were playing for the hearts and minds of the girls. Although by rights me and Ben had certainly won their minds, their hearts (or in this case, a quickie back at theirs/ours) was still anybody’s game. It was tense, and I remarked to Ben “come on mate, this is England vs Germany, Euro ’96 or Itailia ‘90”.

“Mate, its England vs Australia. That not a big enough sporting rivalry for you?”

Only if your principle sport is cricket or even rugby. My only bantering with the Aussies have come from verbal exchanges to see who can be the most moronic ( “get your shit stars off our flag”) on the back of the N98 night bus before it drops them all off at Willesden Green. Their barman wages have forced them out of Earl’s Court.

The sledging began.

“Not really, you guys are like what Tottenham are to Arsenal. We’re your biggest rivals, but you aren’t ours. We have a lot more deeper and meaningful revenges to seek in the sporting world”.

It went to and fro, and the baiting became bigger than the game. It was a fiercely contested game, played out in the most sporting of manner, between both sides.

It wasn’t meant to be and after several near misses on the black from both sides we went crashing out. Don’t worry Ben, sometimes it’s more poignant to be the loser in sport as long you’ve given a noble account of yourself. Think the England team, after losing on penalties to Germany in 1996, exiting Wembley Stadium in the light rain to the appreciation of gutted yet proud supporters while the BBC wrapped up their coverage with a montage, displaying the teams heroics over Walkaway by Cast. Just keep your chin up, make sure you shake their hand and get the hell out of there.

Those blokes probably ended up with Kate Beckinsale and her mates, which was only fair I suppose as they did win the pool game, don’t forget. Could have been oh so different though. I’m starting to think 19 year old Jessy may have it right, and I instantly regretted giving him that shitty advice earlier.

Back at the hostel after getting a bottle of water from the lobby, I got chatting to a trio of really cool Guys from Melbourne and discussed London clubs back in their room. Mostly about their favourite, Fabric. I didn’t enjoy being the one to tell them that the word on the street was that it’s on it’s last legs and looked like closing down soon.

I went back to my room and fell asleep while watching Gold Diggers; The Secret of Bear Mountain, which matched all the criteria to earn a place amongst Orbiter Lover’s childhood films; two children, from different sides of the tracks, with a bowl haircut and curtains called Josh or Cody, going off into the woods in search of treasure. I actually remember seeing this back in the summer of 1995 at Saturday Morning Kids Club at Staples Corner Cinema (a magician, a film and popcorn all for an inflation defying £3). The club heavily subscribed to the school of thought of Richie Rich, Blank Check, Andre and Fly Away Home. We stopped going when Robert Warburton took up canoeing lessons on the Welsh Harp and I attempted to play football with the local football side.

On this day in 2011….Leaving Hanoi for Hoi An #Otdi2011

We headed back to Hanoi Backpackers to wait for our pickup to the coach station, where we’d board an overnight sleeper bus to Hoi An. The madness and chaos outside on the streets of Hanoi, and the stark contrast in here, made it felt like an embassy and a place of respite and protection. We felt the same familiarity as any Wetherspoon pub. Even the two Vietnamese receptionists felt like they were on our side. A little bit like during the Anglo-Zulu wars, when the British still had Zulu’s fighting for them. Or like Men In Black, as I seem to remember Aliens working in the Intelligence HQ.

DSCF2020_Fotor_Collage

Knowing we had a long journey in front of us, and with some experience of how treacherous these journeys could be, we went on a hunt for valium, which we heard was available from all good chemists. This was not the case, as it hard to convey to shopkeepers what we wanted. We only had the hand gesture of putting something in our mouth and saying “V-A-L-I-U-M” and then doing the gesture to indicate falling asleep. It’s normally used to treat anxiety disorder or alcohol withdrawal pains but that might be a bit hard demonstrate. God knows the embarrassing difficulty girls must have when trying to buy sanitary towels (especially as their is a brand of tissue out here called Tampon). After walking around the city for nearly 2 hours and visiting almost every chemist, we had to settle on some herbal remedy called Rotunda. Now tired and ready to go to bed, I started to wonder if valium was in fact a tangible thing, or if it was the hunt and the quest for it which made you sleepy and drowsy. A concept of sorts.

We got on the coach around 7pm and necked some Rotunda. The coach seemed quiet which was good considering we only had 14 hours to our next destination. But just as I was getting comfortable, with the sound of the coach slowly driving off, I heard shouting outside. The coach came to an abrupt halt to let three guys get on. Now I would expect them to have just got on, settled down and let the peace continue. But no, they get on laughing and talking extremely loud. Two of the guys were of Mediterranean appearance and well built, while the other one was a much shorter pale thin lad with short curly hair. After he was happy that he and his mates had woken the whole coach up, the pale one looked over at me and Ben, and triumphantly stated “We’re Israeli”.

Well done Lads.

“We’re Israeli” he boasted, scanning us for a reaction.

“I thought you guys were Israeli” he said, to which I tried my best to look put out. We coolly told them we were English. Pointing at Ben he said “you do not look English, you look Israeli”.

I thought this was kind of ironic as Ben looked just as Israeli, as this bloke looked like Norman, the little kid who worked in the sweet shop in Postman Pat. They continued to laugh and one proceeded to cough throughout.

Ben’s account

One of the worst facets of travelling is spending vast amounts of time in confined chambers with dense concentrations of people in transit. I don’t perceive these people as potential friends but potential vehicles for airborne diseases. I think I’d rather be well in an average place than ill in and exceptional place. As our 50-bed sleeper bus departs, I think I’ve got away with it, but out progress is checked to allow a group of Israeli lads get on. One of whom has an audibly malignant chesty cough…..I hate him. 14 hours! Two berths away from this prick. may try to sleep with a bit of my jacket over my mouth. There is a two-man buffer between me and him, hopefully enough to absorb the lion’s share of malignant molecules before parading to my side of the cabin. ‘Throaty’ colds for Israeli’s must be exacerbated since the coughing up sound is an integral phoneticism in their language.

DSCF1967

On this day in 2011….Boat tour of Ha Long Bay day 3 #Otdi2011

19/01/2011

After breakfast, we jumped back onto the Junk boat that we’d arrived in. Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len came over and gave us all feedback forms to fill out. Alongside such statements as “the quality of the Tour Guide’s English”, there were boxes to tick with ‘Exceptional’, ‘Good’, ‘Average’ and ‘Below Average’. Argggghhhhhhh, I get it now. Below Average. Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len kicked those Malaysian guys off because they said his “English was below average”. Not “below Everest” like we’d thought he had been saying a couple of nights ago. Well considering I’ve just got that now, it was probably a fair evaluation. None of us had forgot his treatment of the French couple on the bus yesterday and he was never going to do well out of this. Me, Ben, Benny T and Andrew Price never marked higher than ‘Good’ and any positive ratings were for the condition of the boat. Ben and Benny T had a field day on the ‘additional comments section’.

day3

We got the group photo before boarding the coach back to Hanoi. Almost every house along the road had the Vietnamese flag fluttering proudly outside just like they do in the States with the stars and stripes – although with a polar opposite message.

“Ben, its Christian, the guy we met on the tubing and his ginger mate”, I noted when we stopped off at a service station.

“How many people over the course of their travelling have referred to them as that Christian and his ginger mate?”  came the reply.

“I wonder if anybody has drawn the similarities between them and a pair of Denis the Menace characters”

“Oh with their noticeable nobly knees?”

“Yeah”.

Throughout the coach trips here and on Catba Island, we kept coming across this American Man, his Vietnamese Wife and their excruciatingly annoying child. Thankfully they weren’t on our boat but they’re here now, standing in front of me in the queue of the service station shop. The kid’s far too intelligent for his age and I’m not the only one to feel that his precociousness is drawing me into a suppressed violent rage. I’m waiting in the queue to buy a box of cookies for the group, when he turns around to me, points and whispers into his mum’s ear in very good English “he plans to steal them”. His Mother forces him to apologise to me although I laugh it off and roll my eyes at the mum. I’m not laughing inside. As if by the power of God, I find his Achilles heel when I go into the toilet minutes later and his Dad is cleaning him up after he’s clearly pissed himself. He must be about 5 or 6 and far too old for this. He sees me and begins to panic, imagining all the respect and love he generated on the coach draining away. I look at him, while his Dad has his back to me, point and mime a very cold and calculating laugh. When we stop off an hour later for dinner, I whisper in his ear that “because of you, the whole coach now stinks of urine”. That should put him in his place. I think I’ve done him a favour though, as any kid his age that intellectually developed is never happy come adulthood. Now he can begin to actually enjoy his childhood and stop being an object that his parents use to get attention on holiday.

Been here under 3 weeks and Ben has already found a way to avoid the attention and constant bombardment of street sellers; Freeze. One Tuk Tuk driver would not stop hounding us for a fare and instead of the usual pleading to go away, we just froze, like statues. They didn’t know what to do, where to look. Our frozen smiles and motionless eyes made them feel very uncomfortable. We did however get caught out with the Woman who tried to dress us up as a brace of rice farmers for a photo. We were clothed in all the gear. Well, a hat and the crop carrier balancing on the shoulder. So we had to donate or buy her bananas. For the next street we walked down we decided to change our game plan.

“Right, okay, for the next one, when they approach you, just pretend you are having a fit”. It worked. Don’t try looking for this technique in the Lonely Planet. You won’t find it.

We met Andrew Price in Hanoi Backpackers for the quiz night and did alright. Most surprisingly was how much we’d learnt on our trip which came in useful. For example we knew that Vietnam’s national sport is the one with the shuttlecock, thanks to my encounter with those lads on Cat Ba Island. Also that the national animal for good luck is the turtle, from the cave tour we did. Felt like Slumdog Millionaire.

Headed for a few more beers and a few games of table football in another bar. Ben is ridiculously good. I didn’t actually know you could be good at this game, but he is. I get my single victory over him when me and Andrew Price take him on and a local lad in a game of doubles.

“No Ben, no rematch, I want to end it on a high. Victory to us. Never playing again. That was a one off. No rematch. Never. Long may me and Andrew remain as champions”.

On this day in 2011….Ha Long Bay boat tour Day1 #Otdi2011

17/01/2011

ha long bay

We were sitting at the breakfast table of the Hostel awaiting our food when interrupted by a Vietnamese man with jet black hair and coal black bomber jacket. But it was his eyes that were the darkest. Shit, was he from immigration? No, but he did order us to get on his mini van in a most aggressive tone. Our tour guide for the next three days around Ha Long Bay? We would never have guessed. We boarded his bus and while he ordered everybody to hand their passports up to the front, we studied the people who we’d be sharing the boat with for the next 3 days. At the back were a couple of Aussie girls wetting themselves with laughter at their friend, a guy, who was doing impressions from characters from Little Britain. I hope they were ironic laughs. Or sympathetic. Next were two guys who looked like they had attended their fair share of Real Ale festivals and Star Wars conventions. I like both mediums, but have never felt the need to be overweight, grow a pony-tail and wear clothes that you get free by collecting cereal tokens. Once the guide decides the passports are okay and we’re alright to travel, he flicks the switch and becomes Mr. Friendly Tour Guide, one that would pass at Disneyland. He might as well of been called that, as his name was to prove quite an obstacle on this trip. His name, I thought he said, was Ryan but everybody had heard something else. He was to be christened several times over the duration on this trip. 2 hours later we were at the pier, discussing immigration with some Malaysian guy who was on holiday by himself. He hated everybody; the Chinese, the Thai’s, the Cambodians. He even hated himself at times. He wanted to know what I made of all the Polish and Indians back home in England. Before I could give him a politically correct answer, we were boarding the Junk boat which would be our home for the next 3 days.

On board with our fellow sailors, we were allocated our sleeping quarters.

Once down in our 2 bed room, there was a knock at the door. Ryan came gliding in with broken English (a dead giveaway bad news was afoot). There had been a problem with bookings and the boat was oversubscribed. Somebody else had to come and stay in our room. It was Andrew Price, an Australian bloke. Shortly after, one of the boat boys brought down a wafer thin mattress for him and dunked it on the floor. So this was his deluxe suite that he had paid for; a small bit of leather and a beach towel for a bed. He was a teacher, and I just thought of the faces of his children if they could see him now. He didn’t give a shit and played the “that’s life, there’s nothing we can do about it” card. He was far too chilled. He took out his guitar and played some tunes. I was happy to have him in with us. It could have been worse; the hate filled Malaysian, the Little Britain fan or even one of the Real Ale Drinkers. Ben suggested seeing if we could get some free beers for the mix up, to which I agreed and nominated him the spokesman for our campaign. I would be the strategist, and Andrew our ‘Joe the Plumber’ figure, since he was the innocent victim in all of this. But we just laughed the situation off instead and talked sports. He told me that the AFL league system was set up in a way which meant the higher up the ladder a team finished at the end of the season, the less of a bonus payout they received from the authorities. The purpose was to help develop the weaker teams and keep the league competitive through increased “fairness”, but with such an incentive, most teams at the end of the season would try to deliberately finish below their opponents as it would be financially beneficial to them. Thus, the result was a contradiction to the aim of the policy, as teams did not have the incentive to develop and remain competitive but go the opposite way. This is perhaps the best way of highlighting the flaws of socialism. Where is the incentive to improve and better yourself if you receive more for less? Of course, in sport the incentive is glory and honours, but this is not always the case in society.

He was reading Lost Horizon by James Hilton and gave us a brief outline of Shangri La, and how this fictional place has been created in real life by the Chinese to attract tourists. I told him about the Shangri La area at Glastonbury, which preceded the obligatory views on China becoming the next superpower. I decided to get some fresh air up on the deck before dinner, stepping on to Andrew’s bed in doing so, having totally forgotten it was there. God I must have looked like one disrespectful bastard, but honestly I just forgot we had some dude sleeping on our floor.

TOP: Andrew Price plays us a melody BOTTOM: Andrew Price's bed for the evening

TOP: Andrew Price plays us a melody
BOTTOM: Andrew Price’s bed for the evening

Up on top deck alone though, I looked around the mountains tops that pierced through the water, some almost at eye level. I often have these moments of pure serenity when I’m left on my Jack Jones amongst such natural beauty, almost feeling drunk with ambition and optimism. I then look down at the floor which is lined with deck chairs; shame we have come at the wrong time of year for sun bathing, given many of the surrounding mountains are lost to the mist. I notice the beds haven’t been used for weeks or months, the moss and damp a dead giveaway. Not much, but the process has certainly began. One has even become an ashtray with several burn marks. But then I notice something else. One of the deck chairs is missing a cover?

One of the Deck chair covers is in my room, acting as Andrew Price’s sleeping mattress. I have to chuckle and remind myself to tell everyone later. We stop off at a bay to do some kayaking. On the jetty where we pick up the Kayaks, there are some nets with some very interesting fish splashing around. Ben says they are Cobia and when fully grown can look like sharks. He can tell I’ve taken an interest and continues to share with me his deep knowledge of the waters around here. Waiting for our paddles, I ask him about Great White sharks and the possibility that one is in the bay right now. I remember reading about an encounter Alex James had with Sir Patrick Moore, when he was asked to interview him for Idler magazine. After discussing the shape of the universe and the Oort cloud, they eventually get on to the subject of Aliens in faraway galaxies. James goes on to note “He quickly tired of my childish, whimsical wanderings, and really was just being kind by telling me stories”. This is how I imagine it being the case for Ben, a Marine Biologist having to put up with my predictable and unoriginal questions of sharks and likelihood of attack. But anyways, after that I decided that Cobia would be my new favourite fish if anybody ever asked.

We kayaked around the bay during the last few hours of twilight. It really was nice (me, aged 9). On our way back to the boat, we were approached by several women trying to sell us alcohol, but under the watchful eye of Ryan, who had said that anybody caught with alcohol from outside would be fined $10 a bottle onboard, and so had to decline. We headed back to our rooms to get ready for dinner. We could hear hushed whispers coming from outside the door. Opening our door we couldn’t see anybody at first, just the pitch black over the side of the boat. It was only the second time we opened to investigate that we realized the noise was coming from over the side of the boat. Low and behold, the woman from the jetty selling alcohol, was now in a tiny fishing boat hiding under the cover of darkness below our room. She was like a real smuggler with everything we needed. Handing the money over the side, she exchanged it for a case of beers and a bottle of whiskey. The transaction was partly out of respect for the old Woman’s entrepreneurial spirit. We discussed how it felt like being stowaways, despite our deluxe bed suite. “Speak for yourself” Andrew said dryly, and we fell about the place in hysterics.

Water Gypsies arrive at our door just after dark

Water Gypsies arrive at our door just after dark

After dinner, a group of girls from Melbourne and their friend who had been quoting Little Britain earlier came over to our table with a guitar. With Andrew on his, we all had a singsong until Ryan (some people were now calling him Bryan, I think an import from Andrew or one of the Aussie Girls) got the karaoke up and running. The Aussie girls were the first up. The Real Ale drinkers were on the table in front, and I got chatting to them. They were Austrian and presumably father and son. For some reason we got talking about what day it was. They thought it was the 15th but I assured them it was definitely the 17th. “Oh, okay” they said, exchanging confused and worried looks. What else could we talk about? I learnt from the South East Asians that to build a report with somebody, address them with their most famous fellow countrymen and wait for the response (I just normally give a thumbs up when someone shouts “David Beckham” at me).

“Try shouting Fritzl, Jozef Fritzll” suggested Ben.

The Austrians

The Austrians

Jozef Fritzl. I remember it was in my last year of university and I was tidying my room when Winters popped his head around the corner and tells me to come and look at BBC News. We were horrified and decided at the very least the country should be stripped of its right of hosting that year’s UEFA European Championship. Perhaps cancel it altogether, after all England weren’t in it. But there must be another famous Austrian. Adolf Hitler?

“Poor guys” said Ben after telling him about how they got their dates mixed up. “Imagine if they have to be somewhere in a few days having planned that this was the 15th today. And now they’re stuck on this boat, no way back, forced to try to enjoy the karaoke in front of them”.

I finally got up and sang Blur’s Charmless Man and with everybody in full flow this wasn’t going to be hard. However, one of the Aussie girls had lost her camera and just as I was warming up she wanted me to make a shout out to the whole boat to look for a missing ‘blue fuji lumix’. After doing this, and with the whole audience looking under tables and down the backs of seats, I felt less Albarn and more the bloke at a reception kiosk in ASDA. I’ve always had good luck with Karaoke. On my first holiday away with my friends in Greece in 2005, I lost my virginity with a girl from Croydon about 30 minutes after singing Last Night by the Strokes with my mate Andy on the night before heading back to London. I never thought it would happen, with me and that girl from Croydon….”

Ryan-or-Bryan told me that the Austrians were not in fact father and son, but partners. Fucking hell, I didn’t see that coming. I was sworn to secrecy not to tell anybody. “Yeah, yeah of course Ryan-or-Bryan. I’ll keep it to myself”. Haha, guess what everybody, see those two Austrians over there……….

"Ryan-or-Bryan" (on the left) with one of the Austrians, in his jovial phase.....though never too far from switching

“Ryan-or-Bryan” (on the left) with one of the Austrians, in his jovial phase…..though never too far from switching

Ryan-or-Bryan was getting very pissed and was not afraid to show it. A jovial far cry from the prison guard mentality from this morning. Meanwhile, the Melbourne crew turned out to be alright, and it was evidently clear that they were somewhat younger as they were going through their Tenacious D faze, with calls to play Tribute. Benny T, who was doing the Little Britain impressions on the bus earlier, turned out to be quite a character. I’ve always had a lot of time for characters, and care little for the “yeah, he’s an alright” sort of bloke. He had a lot of time for us too, but his affections were initially based on our accents which he loved since discovering Football Factory and Human Traffic – “the milky bars are on me”.

He knew a lot of quotes – which I’ve always got time for. The Melbourne girls were getting a little emotional and I overheard one of them say “If I die and come back as an animal it’s going to be an eagle. Y’know why? They are the most solitary animal”.

Benny T

Benny T

The night was still young, so we made sure the drinking commenced. We all headed to the top deck to drink, smoke, play guitar and listen to Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry (Terry was what the Melbourne girls had believed his name to be) tell us about past guests. He was all over the place. He was telling us about his hate for Malaysians and how one time, when in the middle of the night, he ordered a group off his boat and left them stranded on one of the peaks because they had told him “He below Everest”. What the fuck was he on about? Before his English had been mild, but now we could barely understand him. Like in most cases when a lazy Westerner can’t understand what a local is trying to say, we all just turned to each other with a screwed up confused face and asked rhetorically “What?”. He kept repeating it until we all got bored of him and pretended to go to bed, all heading to our rooms. Unknowingly to Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry, we were going back to the Melbourne guys room for continued drinking without his bad vibes.

DSCF1930_Fotor_Collage

Once there we played ‘I never’, where by you have to say things you haven’t done, and anybody in the circle who has, must take a large swig of their drink. The statements quickly turn to sex or embarrassing illnesses people have never had. You learn a lot of about people via this game. I wonder if they played this game on the Titanic? Maybe on the lower decks amongst the Irish and Polish.

On this day in 2011… Our Jimmy Glass-moment and heading to Hanoi #Otdi2011

hanoi

16/01/2011 – The sky had cleared up and so had our hopes. Sat and had breakfast at a little café across the road from our hostel and discussed some of our more pressing concerns. Everything from “what is the smallest living thing with a conscious” to “are there any tattoo artists who don’t have any tattoos?” to “who’s the most famous person, who remains anonymous?” We went for Andy McNab. For all three questions.

We got a Tuk Tuk to the airport. Out the Tuk Tuk. Got our bags. Walked through the automatic doors. Up to the Lao Airlines kiosk. “Have you got two tickets for the next flight to Hanoi?” “Yes, we have”. “How much are they?” “$120 each”. “Fantastic, JIMMY FUCKING GLASS!!”

To pass time sitting in the department lounge, we listed all the things we’d lost; Ben’s Dead Babies book, a Camera, a vest, dignity and the 15th of January (which was only lost in technical terms). But come to think of it, that was an experience in itself. As for all the other shit, they can be replaced. But in that we had to fend for ourselves, while also seeing the real Laos and the kindness within their hearts which made it all worth it.

We watched a few lads, the Wolverhampton boys that I had seen wasted in the Chang Mai hostess bar, playing a game of one-bounce with a football. This was popular faze back in the late 1990’s, almost as much as Ben Sherman shirts, Kickers school shoes, Nike Cortez and Hit me baby one more time. This was spurred on by the release of the famous Nike advert for the World Cup in 1998. It involved all the biggest players of that era kicking a ball around an airport, through baggage handling, through the x-ray machine etc. I even remember myself and my two brothers giving it a go on while at Heathrow airport on route to Florida that same year. Great laugh.

So we now had a list of things Laos had taken away from us. But what had it given us? Well, our time in Vang Vieng was truly good fun and we could now carry the baton of telling people just how “fucking mental” it is. We wasted no time in making use of this, by regaling a few Geordies who had just landed and wanted to know what our recommendations were. With the surprise to Lak Sao I can also join the hundreds of irritating travellers in rejoicing “Oh, I love Laos. The beautiful scenery and the people are just soooo friendly”. Overall, great country, great people, great times. But then again, you can’t judge a whole country based on just a few people and so don’t want to tar all the other Laotians I didn’t get a chance to meet. Why is it only acceptable to generalise a race of people when it’s positive?

The lads had their football deflated and searched for drugs by the customs official, while we collected our things and boarded the plane. Don’t remember seeing that happen to Roberto Carlos in the original advert.

There are very few people that annoy me. Sure I get annoyed at somebody who kicks the back of my chair on a plane, or a little baby who chooses to shit itself in my presence, or somebody on the tube who clearly hasn’t had a shower in weeks. But it takes something extra special for me to be annoyed by a person for who they are personally. In most cases those who are deemed annoying by others, I can sometimes see them as interesting characters and their aggravating tendencies as just another facet to their individuality. But the Woman behind me did annoy me. She was just berating her husband the whole flight about not paying her enough attention when she was talking to him. Although it was rather funny as the conversation went like this;

“So when did the war start in Vietnam?” She asked.

“Oh, I think it was in the 1960’s, when the Americans joined. But the French had been there a while”

“Why the French? I’ve never heard about them getting involved” She barked

“Yeah, I suppose so” He sighed

“What? That’s not an answer. I said ‘why the French?’ and you just sighed, obviously paying no attention to me”

A forced conversation at it’s very worst

Me and Ben got through it with a game of trying to list as many football players who shared names with famous bands. Below are ours, see if you can do better;

Roy KEANE

PAPA Boupa (Roach)

Alan (The) SMITH(s)

Steve STONE (Roses)

Paul PeschiSO-SOLID-o Crew

Danny (Dropkick) MURPHY(‘s)

Nigel (House) MARTIN(S)

Kieron DYER (Straits)

Rio (Franz) Ferdinand

Ji Song (Linkin) PARK

Jermain GENESIS

Steven (Elvis) PRESSLEY

James (Phil) COLLINS

(Alter) Wayne BRIDGE

Sylvan PETROV (Boys)

The Morris VOLTZA

(Joe Lean and the) JING JANG de Jong

Scraping the barrel to no end, I know right? But it doesn’t matter, we’ve just landed in Vietnam.

Once in Vietnam, we had more unnecessary suspicion and demands thrown our way. Once in and out of the airport, we jumped into a coach and headed to Hanoi city centre. The trip was blighted somewhat by a plethora of beeping horns, both from our driver and the outside traffic.

However once in Hanoi, the intense traffic and bubbling road rage was rather charming. Nonetheless, the roads were mayhem. Not how like the M25 can sometimes be mayhem. I mean really nuts. It probably took on average 1 minute to cross a tiny slip road, what with several bikes and cars whizzing through it. I quite liked it, this was a buzz. Especially when I saw the old woman cutting corners on her moped with a shop load of flowers and crates attached to her back. Crossing the road was an achievement in itself. This is how I kind of imagined Asia would be like before leaving Heathrow.

After finding a place, Rainbow Hostel, we ventured into town. We had just booked a 3 day boat trip on Ha Long Bay, partially forgetting we were severely due a laundry visit. As a quick fix, I bought a t-shirt with the words ‘good morning Vietnam’ sprawled over the communist star. Like most Westerners my left wing principles are only exercised through my choice of clothing, or acute ability to deface public monuments at May Day riots. I once saw a guy at school wearing a German WW2 trench coat with a picture of Che Guevara on the back. “Che who?” came his reply when I enquired about the odd combination. Although, I suppose the Nazis and Che were both far left extremists, only difference being one was a socialist movement and the other a communist. I had a feeling this country was going to be a good place to explore and challenge my negative views on left wing politics.

The night market was relatively relaxed and user friendly apart from a guy selling books. We had enough literature for the time being, but he got extremely tearful when we tried to explain this after he offered us a bumper deal on several books (5 books for the price of 3). He went from entrepreneur to charity case in under 30 seconds. If we already have enough literature, “the last thing we want is a bumper pack, mate”.

No clean clothes!

No clean clothes!

We got back to our room, watched some of the footy and then caught the end of some film about a young man and girl, whose relationship was under strain by the fact that he was a capitalist, whereas she was not, but a believer of “fairness”. He was okay with the fact that the old evil man in the girls home town was manipulating his position as the sole potato producer (a disease had killed off everybody else’s stock) and was charging extortionate amounts (2000¥ per potato it was rumoured) forcing several families to starve. He was okay with it, as the old man deserved high reward for his position, just as the guy’s dad had been when he bought up cheap housing after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and had developed them to make millions. But the cute, innocent looking girl just could not stand for it, and after a while the Guy released how unfair capitalism was. I didn’t see the ending, but I’m guessing that’s what happened. I doubt the Guy took the girl around certain parts of Kobe to show her how with sustainable and regulated capitalism, social mobility does in fact improve, often enabling children from poorer backgrounds to succeed in sectors which would’ve been impossible before. Never mind, it was late and I needed to be up early for our 3-day boat trip around Ha Long Bay, with no fucking clean clothes.

On this day in 2011….Stuck at the Vietnam/Laos frontier #Otdi2011

15/01/2011

mistyWe woke up at the border gate, and looking past the snoring rapist (admittedly a bit unfair), I could see through the window it had rained heavily last night albeit visibility was limited due to a heavy mist. The digital clock at the front of the coach told me it was 6.30am and through the fog I could just about make out several other coaches parked up on the roadside.

We were ordered off the coach with our hand luggage and ordered to the border control which was about 200m up the mountain. No actually we weren’t ordered, as that would have been a good thing. We were actually just left there while the coach drove off, leaving us to advance into the deep mist on our own without any instruction. The outline of a distant mountain range was just about possible.

We eventually found the passport control and checked out of Laos. Once in the frontier, we took the 5 minute walk across to Vietnam. Everybody had their visa out and were showing them to the guards. Not us, we had done ours online and would pick them up at the crossing. We had it done two days in advance, as recommended, and all was approved. No worries.

At the Vietnam entrance, we waited in small tin hut, while the coach driver called our names from his list to present our documentation to the necessary authorities. When we were called up, we were greeted with a smirk and given our passports back. No visa, no entry. We tried to explain that we booked it online, but they didn’t want to know. They called another set of names up and ordered us aside. A lot of ordering around going on here. We went to the departure side of the border control building to find an empty office to print out our visa but had no luck. Panic was starting to set in now, as all the other guys on our coach were getting through and off continuing through to where presumably our coach was parked. Right okay, maybe we should find our coach and explain our situation. But where was our coach? Not allowed back into Laos, we walked around aimlessly in the fog and rain looking for it. It was nowhere to be seen. Even with no let up from the fog, it definitely felt like there was a lot less people around.

Except for a sole Argentinean lad from tubing, who was anxiously looking for his two other friends. Trading panic stories and predicaments in the cold mist had now replaced the Malvinas/reckless zipwire banter we’d shared while preparing for a trapeze swing on the sunny banks of the Nam Song River only a few days ago.

The three of us decided that we would go back up to the Vietnam border control gate. Walking across a wooden bridge, despite the intense fog, we could see all the locals running across. “Where are the coaches?” we asked, to the response of pointing and laughing. I fucking hate this place already. We managed to get past the first set of security guards and had a few steps in Vietnam when we were hauled up by a guard armed with a machine gun and two dark holes for eyes. We were thrown out instantly; the Argentinean guy said he was off to look for his friends back in Laos. We had now walked the entire length of the frontier without seeing a single coach or anybody who was on it and I can only struggle in conveying, the Microsoft Word thesaurus tool can’t help me here, the dread we felt when it dawned on us that not only were we not getting into Vietnam today, but our coach and everybody on it had. Them and our bags with all our stuff. It’d passed through the border, without us.

Our confusion was compounding. As far as we were concerned, we had the visa and were right to be bedding down on that bus on to Hanoi, not out here freezing our tits off in the rain and cold in no mans land. This was a holiday for fucks sake, not Northern France 1916.

We managed to look as confused and scared as possible to the guard who had kicked us out the first time, but emotions clearly didn’t work with them. So we played the hard game and begged to see our coach driver. Another more senior guard came over and told us he would “take you, take you, than need visa”. It’s important you know I’m not taking the piss out of his broken English, it’s 100 times better than my Vietnamese, I just want you to get an idea of what it was like. He took us into Vietnam, machine gun at the ready, and after a brisk walk we found our coach, the last one left, parked up on a muddy bank. We got on and I was actually very happy to see the Con-Air Rapist perched up in his seat as this was definitely our coach at least. His pock marked face the ever-reliable landmark. We grabbed our hand luggage and went to return to our seats when the Guard ordered us back off, “what’s going? I thought we were safe”. The coach driver was opening the baggage compartment underneath the coach and told us to find our bags. Once found, the driver was ushered away and we were told to follow the Guard back to the border. Which we did, listening to our coach rolling off into the distance, down into the misty magical mountains.

We were taken to the border and promptly kicked out again, with a stern warning. Kicked out of Vietnam twice, with no more than a nasty smile and the tapping of a machine gun. Muhammad Ali justified his refusal to enlist in the US Army as “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger”, following the party line of Private Hook in the film Zulu who argued “did I ever see a Zulu walk down the City Road”. Anyways unlike Mr. Ali, I do have a reason to dislike the Vietnamese, and there I was thinking travelling was supposed to make you less racist.

Though it’d be daft to write-off the Vietnamese just yet. Considering I came within a whisker of ending up on the receiving end of a kicking from a gang of bouncers when I was 15, after repeatedly sneaking into a over-18s nightclub back home in Colindale, violence is everywhere. There was a building site next door, and we would climb the scaffolding, jump over into the beer garden and then call somebody to open the fire exit for us. The risk of falling down and breaking your spine paid dividends when you got in and spent the last few hours drinking snakebite, shouting your heroic story to anybody who will listen over Fat Man Scoop. Problem is the Bouncers on the door would do routine checks and if you got caught, you were out. It’s now an Indian bar and restaurant.

The Laotian border guys weren’t too bad, giving the translator software on their Microsoft ’95 a good go, but with little prevail. A brief moment of respite came in the form of a Laotian Billy Mitchell lookalike, who came over to investigate, providing a welcome chuckle and brief distraction, although the rain and mist outside pretty much summed up our hopes. I tried sneaking a picture of Billy for the white pages of my future autobiographical travel book, but this only fuelled their suspicion. After 30 minutes of hoping the translator on the other side could help, the message was clear. We were on our own and we would not be heading into Hanoi tonight.

We had already spent our last kip (currency of Laos), so were going to have trouble getting back into Laos and back to the nearest town to print off our visas. We searched our bags and found just enough Thai baht to convince a truck driver to take us to the nearest town, Lak Sao, where we spent the rest of the morning looking for a place with a printer. Surprisingly hard. Also, as this place was not normally a tour date on the backpackers trail, we could not access any of the ATM. We were now officially broke. Our plan had been to print out our visas and than get the next bus back to the border, but now, neither of these options were open to us. We were pretty much fucked.

The mist had now cleared and it was about mid morning. As much of a stress this was, a little part of me was grateful for the experience. Trauma and drama is often at the heart of a good travel story. A fantastic example of this was when Me, Ben and our two housemates at University, Greg and Winters, headed to Latvia in January 2006 on a last minute whim.

Dancing with wolves, LATVIA 2006

<b><a href=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia1.jpg”><img alt=”Latvia walks” src=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia1.jpg&#8221; width=”604″ height=”453″ /></a></b>It was in the middle of exams, and by means of a break from revision at a nice old English pub near our halls of residence in Mossley Hill, Liverpool. After many great stories of travel, we decided that we should do one together and so when we got back we picked the most random country that we could think of (or one that Ryanair had capitalized on) and booked it for the day after our final exam, the following week. There had been a big gang of us originally and as well as the exams, we were all faced with the headache of sorting out houses for next year. We had placed deposits down for two 6-bedroom houses only a few doors away and the 12 of us were unsure who would live with who. When the rest of the lads responded with “why Latvia?” or “I don’t have a warm enough coat”, we knew there and then that the four us would certainly be living together next year.

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.

Anyways, after a couple of nights in Riga, the capital city, we decided to go and search for the wilderness and boarded a train to Siguilda which is about 55km away. The home of Latvian winter sports, although at the time it was more of a ghost town. On the other side of town was a cable cart that crossed the valley, over the Gauja River and onto the other side. The Woman who operated it came out of nowhere and was the first person we had seen in this large but empty town. The purpose for crossing? As well as ‘why not?’ we had also heard that there was skiing over there beyond the dark snow covered woods. The crossing was amazing, looking down at our cable cart’s shadow on the frozen over river below and the odd spot of a wolf prowling amongst the forest. Once on the other side, we were warned that the last crossing back was as at 6pm. But we were too caught up in the trek through the woods, were we spotted several castle ruins lost amongst the trees and snow, to be worried about that. We found the small ski resort and it seemed like we were the only ones who had. A great day skiing all round, so good in fact we only realized how late it had got by 5.30pm. After returning our equipment, we raced back through the forest but were too late to catch the last crossing. Looking across the valley, we could just about make out the cart. The last train back to Riga was at 7pm and if we missed that, we really were in the shit. Winters, as usual, kept cool and decided we would just have to make our way down to the river and see if there’s a bridge or something. Time was against us, and we soon found the easiest way down the valley was too slide on our arses down through the icy paths that had been made by the prowling wolves of the forest. The day before, we had been in one of central Riga’s parks and had a load of fun sliding down the pathways that had been iced over, and now this practice was being put to good use. We must have been sliding non-stop in single file down this hill before we got to the bottom. Over to one side, we could see an old bridge, but given how old it was, we weren’t sure if it was still in use. Sod it, our only real option and as far as we could see it did make it across the river. Our problem lay in the fact that to get to it, we would have to cross some of the frozen river. We had already some experience in this from yesterday when we bought the official UEFA Euro 2004 ball and played football on the frozen Danube River. Which is perhaps one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done. But we had no other option. Normally I would be shitting myself, but considering I’m with some of the best people I’d ever met and people who will go on to be my friends for life I felt relatively calm. Greg and Winters scouted the ice and indicate where to tread. Our bravery (stupidity) is rewarded by the sound of a car bombing through the forest behind us. They must be crossing this bridge. And they do. Winters is the first there and flags the car down and once we’re all up on the bridge, we’re good to go. It’s quite dark by the time we get to the train station and we all conk out on the train, woken only by the ticket collector for our slips.

Point of that sorry was, it’s surviving the fear and overcoming your problems which make a good memory or a worthwhile story. Not to say that’s a worthwhile story to you the reader, but for me it’s one that will continue to give me joy when I wistfully look back on it, perhaps until my dying day. So here we are, in some foreign town, where nobody really has any good reason to help out a few backpackers who have unluckily landed here.

However, an old Woman on the other side of the road who had been watching us fish out our last Thai baht for the truck driver, could sense a predicament. When our cards did not work at the ATMs, she could sense panic. She was here to help. She offered us the money to take one of the buses back to the border, even going as far as taking out the cash and placing it in our hands. There was no ulterior motive here, and I even felt guilty when the thought flashed across my mind. She just wanted to help two guys, obviously in trouble. Although, we both felt like we needed a plan of action before taking on any loans, we thanked the woman profusely and turned down her offer. She would be around the market, so if and when we needed her help she would be happy to offer it. Not a single hotel, office or shop had a printer. Some guys from a local pool hall took Ben up to their bedsit, which consisted of one grotty mattress and a PC. After viewing our Visa, we still could not print it out. Again, we thanked them profusely. They were good people. Walking along the street, we saw what looked like a second hand repairs shop. There was a printer there, but by no means connected and probably no ink. We asked the guy on the till if we could use it to print something and not only did he agree, but also spent the next 5 minutes connecting it up and refilling it with ink. He happily fired it up and printed off our Visas. That was half the problem solved. The next one was how we would access our funds. Oh, but wait, no we had an even bigger problem. Reading the small print, our visas were only valid if picked up from one of four airports in Vietnam. We now had to fly in. That’s why the Vietnamese at the border had no record of us having one. This meant catching a ride back to Vientiane, where we would have to buy plane tickets and fly into Hanoi to pick our visa up from the airport. Alternatively we could buy land crossing visas, but we would have to wait for them to be approved first, which could take up to 3 days. Time wasn’t on our side.

If there’s one benefit of this detour, it was the invaluable insight to a part bit of Laos that is not normally on the backpacking conveyor belt. Along with this, we got to see the superb hospitality of this little nation (sorry guys to be patronizing). But like most things, economics can describe why your more likely see improved hospitality in the impoverished areas in comparison to the cities or tourist hotspots. One of my favourite economists (yeah, I have a favourite economist), Tim Harford explains this perfectly in his book The Undercover Economist. He compares the manners of people in both Paddington in central London and Preston in Lancashire. He argued that people in Preston were more likely to be polite and friendly, as their time was less costly. Whereas in London, people had choices and time was money, thus, would have less time to hold a door open for somebody or strike up a time consuming conversation as there were more alternatives for them to be getting on with. Why would you want and chat to your elderly and painfully lonely neighbour about the weather when you can go and see Priscilla Queen of the Desert in the West End?

This was a good example of this, as the people here don’t have to worry about getting more buckets for people to drink out of or ensure there are enough rubber tyre tubes for people to ride in.  Also backpackers are not as tainted by the locals here as they are perhaps in Vang Vieng. Again I can revisit that legendary 2006 trip to Latvia for an example. Back to Siguilda, me and Greg are at the top of one of the main slopes preparing to go down when we are approached by a Latvian couple. We get chatting and at first we are surprised they are Latvians, considering how friendly they are. Especially when the woman offers me her gloves to keep my hands warm. Reason for our surprise, was the fact that back in Riga, we had been tarred with the same brush by the locals that had tarred the stag do crowd, all of which had been dressed as Papa Smurf. Fair enough I suppose, and despite our best efforts, we often fell into our own loutish ways. But we also showed manners to the locals. One night, when we returned to our hostel after a boozy one, we noticed a strippers club below. Greg, the kind hearted one of our group, took all the girls out for a burger and chips after they finished their shift. Nothing shifty about it, he just did because that’s the kind sweet guy he is. Not a single one of the Smurfs would have done that. I wonder how we would be received by this nice couple if they knew the true extent of carnage happening in their capital city tonight and the night after, all perfectly orchestrated by my fellow countrymen.

<a href=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia2.jpg”><img alt=”Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006″ src=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia2.jpg?w=300&#8243; width=”300″ height=”225″ /></a> Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006

Back in Laos 2011, we were now on a truck back to Vientiane, the capital city we thought we had left behind. How were we going to get money out? Find a place to stay? How expensive would the flights be? Was Vietnam actually worth it? Sitting in the back of that truck bombing down the dusty road, I began to sing the seemingly appropriate Long and Winding Road by The Beatles, while Ben opted for Why Me Lord? by Johnny Cash. I suppose the most fitting song would be I Got the Wrong Visa and Now It Looks like I’m Stuck in Vientiane For the Next 6 Weeks, if it existed. Maybe we should write it, first single for our ‘difficult second album’. Maybe we can make it again at next year’s BRIT awards following our success on that first proper night in Vang Vieng.

They say Vientiane is the ‘most relaxed city in the world’. Not really, it’s just boring. Saturday night everywhere is shut except for the sleazy bar we had scouted earlier as the place to catch the West Ham Vs Arsenal game, the one thing that had got us through the days events. Unfortunately now it was just full of ladyboys, prostitutes and degenerate western men. We called it a night after half-heartedly looking for an alternative.

Went to bed that night, with the horrible feeling only half the problems were behind us. Would we get a flight in the morning? Were they really going to cost $500, as listed on the internet? Would we have to get a land crossing visa and have to stay here for another 3 or 4 days in the process?

In times like this, I try and think about fate. I certainly believe in fate at times like this. Of course in times of victory I put the outcome down to my own hard work or luck. But not now. This was meant to happen, we are meant to meet somebody or experience something in the future and this experience only ensured that happens. How different is out trip going to be now? If we do get a flight tomorrow and arrive in Hanoi, we will only be one day behind schedule. And think of all the new people we will meet and all the adventures we’re going to have. I then thought about Latvia 2006 again……..

On this day in 2011….Our headline performance at Vang Vieng #Otdi2011

13/01/2011

Today I think we saw the legend of Vang Vieng tubing at its best and we could now agree with everybody in rejoicing that it is “fucking mental”. We got the later bus up and instead of jumping off the first point, we continued walking upstream to where we’d been at yesterday. Along with Terry Bundy from Southampton and Dave from Melbourne, we were the only ones there except for a few others who had been in the truck on the way up.

images-1According to Ben, “Terry wouldn’t be too incongruous in a white coat and hat working at the cheese or fish counter at Asda”. With the other two lads (with Terry and Dave replacing Will and Jack as our new pair) our group of names were no longer members of a GCSE math’s question, but locals of the Nags Head.

We did a few jumps and swings before the crowds started coming. They came from near and far. We then headed a bit further up to were the official party kicks off, and again the cheap homemade whiskey came right into play, making an appearance knocking us for six. We even spotted Ernie, the suspected undercover DEA officer we’d met in Chiang Mai, but thought best to stay clear. I did actually call after him purely on instinct, but Ben quickly gave me the look to suggest I was making a terrible mistake.

The four of us spent the rest of the day lounging around on the river or at the swing ropes, and only busy when making lots of new friends. In particular, a group of Aussie girls who I’d seen riding around town the last couple of days on mopeds. They were a good craic. Also we met Augustine from Argentina and his friends who begged us to come visit them in Buenos Aires at a later date. We would be seeing a lot more of them over the next few weeks on the same trail, even if on those future occasions it would be nothing more than a nod of acknowledgment. We had a big crew together and times were good.

tubing

We drifted down the river in our tubes taking it all in, giving all the highest and most dangerous looking swings and drops a go. We lost Terry somewhere, but Me, Ben and Dave had seen enough by sunset and were now going through the woods looking for the main road, tubes in hand. I lost them and was wondering around on my own, slightly worried I was lost forever; never to be recovered from this state of mind, let alone a dark forest. I could hear their calls but just couldn’t see them. My heart lifted as I came into a clearing and saw them in the back of a pick up truck with a load of other westerners. In I jumped and off we went.

Dave was also staying at Otherside, and so after a shower and a change of clothes, he came round and we all headed into town for some grub.

Of course, we couldn’t quite leave the hut without one creative boost of bowdlerized hallucinogenic story;

Mr. Pear Face; can you see his smily face?

“Look, your bag has a face on it” – said one of us, pointing to the rucksack hanging up.

“Yes, yes it does. It looks like a pear. A smiling pear” – said the other.

Laughter ensured for quite a while. For far longer than necessary, actually.

***Before we go and meet Dave for dinner, I hasten to add that I still think to this very day it looks like a smiling pear***

“Whatever happened to Terry Bundy?” was the question on everybody’s lips that night. Not really, we were all lost in one way or another. I had one of the best Thai Green Curries since arriving in South-East Asian and Ben seconded my motion. Dave had the Pad Thai. We met another group of lads and all went off to the Bucket Bar for some buckets and a pool table. These little luminous buckets have perhaps taking over Cassia fistula flower as Thailand’s national symbol and come with a choice of vodka or whiskey along with a can of fizzy pop. Fizzy pop? I used to think this term was used in television programs to avoid breaching product placement laws or clubs that weren’t licensed to use the words Coca-Cola or Sprite. But I think it’s just used as an umbrella description of any fizzy drink. I normally went for the whiskey and sprite, which was served and mixed in a small plastic bucket. There was no real plan tonight and even less so now that the island and all its late night clubs were deemed under curfew. The party island had been shut down by the local police last night in a crack down on all the rowdy behaviour. I had much faith in the owners to have them bribed by now but whatever, this was Vang Vieng, and you make your own fun.

Leaving Dave and the others, Me and Ben said we would go and scout the island to see if we could find anything and report back any findings.

The island was indeed very quiet, and it was clear there would be no repeat of the scenes here from the last few nights. Maybe this was it. The locals had finally had enough. However, I was not disheartened as there was certainly mischief in the air of the night and upon further exploration we came across it’s source in a little clearing which had previously been the centre of one of the dance areas. There was a campfire burning and a group of people around it muttering away. We joined them and after hitting another Shake, the experience became all the better while the scene began to make all the more sense.

vang vieng headline

Not sure how it all started, but I came engulfed into a debate to the nationality of Alexander Bell with a Canadian who claimed that he was Canadian, and at that one of Canada’s finest exports. It was nice to have a friendly debate based on previous knowledge without some dickhead pulling out his smartphone and whacking it into Wikipedia and ending all conversation. It went on until the rest of the group confirmed my suspicions he was born in Edinburgh, but conceded he was one of Canada’s finest imports (he died there). He still didn’t believe me. He then stood up, hand on heart and recited a few lyrics from a Canadian Nationalist song that mentioned Alexander Bell in it, from which he had built his case, with not a shred of irony or pisstake.

“Is that some kind of rap song?” I asked him after he finished the whole thing, much to his fury at my attempt to mock his national heritage.

This was worsened by the laughter of the other campfire attendees, which in turn set everybody else off. Truth is I was actually 100% being serious. Ignorant too maybe, but these shakes were strong. As soon as my mushroom bucket began to remind me of a school caretaker’s mop bucket, I stopped slurping and tried to make amends with the broken Canadian by talking him through some of the zodiac signs that we were seeing up in the sky. All wrong probably, but it’s my interpretation so that’s okay.

We’d probably outstayed our welcome with “this bunch of honeymooners” (as stated by some of the Aussie’s present) and so the two of us and a couple of likeminded lads headed over to one of the hammock areas that encircled the campfire. We were seeing all kinds of lights now, it was awe-inspiring. I find it quite cringe worthy trying to explain side affects of recreational chemical intake, as it feels more like describing the short-lived results of a child’s kaleidoscope (“all these crazy colours man”) but just thought you ought to know. We hung out with another load of Aussies, and I like how within minutes they were all using the phrase “honeymooners” to describe boring couples that you so often meet travelling. One of them though needed to be in shackles, hence earning him the nickname ‘Shackles’ from Ben. They even began adopting that one too. He really did though; he was huge, bald despite being only 19 and was shouting all kinds of obscenities and raucous animal noises. He was like one of the evil monsters from Resident Evil that you have to slay in order to get to the next level of the game. Although, with our uncontrollable laughter and babble coming out of our own mouths, we were like his mini-bosses you have to defeat in the earlier levels of computer games.

We left Shackles and his gang of Pixies and with one of the Australian guys, headed back to the mainland to get some food. He had a broken foot, so we helped him across the bridge, although he was extremely reluctant at first with “I’m fine, I’m fine” in the stubborn way wheelchair bound Lieutenant Dan is too proud to let Forest Gump help him back on his feet when he falls over. But after nearly falling off into the raging river below, we grabbed him and pretty much carried him across. What with him finally succumbing and letting us help him, I remarked “this is just like a Disney film this”. He began to take a turn for the worse and began to trip pretty badly with “what do you mean this is like a Disney movie? Put me down? Get me out of here”. Too late mate, you’re coming with us.

He sorted himself out once on the other side and we got some food and sat on a bench over atop a huge cliff that took a sudden drop to the flowing river below. We were than approached by Lloyd Ingram, the guy who was personally putting one of the street seller’s children through college or rice school (is that racist? I’m not sure), by going through her hamburgers at an alarming rate. He’d actually helped make Ben’s dinner last night when the stall owner took a break to boil some more rice.

We were all chatting shit when approached by yes, another Aussie guy from Melbourne. I use the word ‘Guy’ sparingly here, as none of us knew what the fuck it was. At first, we just thought he was really pissed hence his struggle to talk. Than we noticed he had an extremely deep voice but with feminine undertones. Pretty sure he was a male, given his clothes and choice of footwear. He sat next to me and it was here in the moonlight that I saw it. His face. I was the first to notice.

He looked like Walt Disney’s 1996 interpretation of Quasimodo. He’d noticed our shock at who he really was (and yes, his physical appearance does determine who he really is, don’t give me all that ‘its what’s on the inside that counts’ bullshit), and instantly began trying to justify his physical features.

The story went…He was a crack addict back in Melbourne but would often shoot himself up with testosterone to boost both his body and his high. He would compliment building up the muscle in his arms by giving hand jobs to the boys at school – but he wasn’t gay. He was something else. He promised he could make all the lads in Vang Vieng come in a day if wanted to.

Thankfully the story was diverted as he went on to explain that he was doing really well in Australia, winning lots of weightlifting competitions and was number 1 in the country. In turn, his mum had placed his photo on her fridge, an honour he was very proud of. By the third repeat of this story, he was now the 3rd best in Australia. Now he was not on his Mum’s fridge, but his Grans one. At the time, I had this funny theory, or maybe more of an observation, that as he was sliding down the ranks in Australia, he was sliding down the ranks within his family members. His Mum probably kicked him out once he was no longer the champ, and now he’d turned to a life of handjobs and hypodermic needles. I stopped listening when he was now 24th best in Australia and I dread to think which family member has him on their fridge at this current stage of his flailing career. Maybe his old Uncle that gave him all those tips on building up those biceps?

I tried explaining this to Lloyd and Ben but I just couldn’t make them see my point about the relationship between failure at sport and its correlation with how many photos of you there are in your family members kitchens. Despite the side-splitting laughter, they still couldn’t get it. I don’t blame them really, I was talking and thinking a load of breeze

Sad to say, but in Vang Vieng he was known as the ‘The Monster’, according to a passing group who interjected to give us some backstory when he went for a piss. It did seem a bit out of order and especially with the talk of his Mother and Grandmother, as it would take a heartless bastard to ignore the fact that somewhere this guy is somebody’s Son and Grandson. Okay, I’ll admit. It was me who first labelled him The Monster but I did manage to atone for my unpleasant branding of the Guy by saving him from falling off the cliff face and impaling himself on the rocks below. He started to talk about killing himself and I was selfishly annoyed that he may start ruining my mushroom trip that was in full flow. My selfishness didn’t stop there. If he did plunge to his death, it would make one hell of a selling point for this story. “Somebody’s Son, somebody’s Son, somebody’s Son” I reminded myself as I grabbed him back from the ledge.  I better wash my hands was my first thought, after he’d shaken it and begrudgingly thanked me for saving his life.

Me, Ben and Lloyd headed back down the hill discussing what the name of that guy’s autobiography would be if he ever chose to write one. Monster: My Story was the obvious choice, but I think we’d a winner with “Have you washed your hands mate?”

The other question had been “what if he actually did jump and kill himself?” To which me and Ben agreed on the hypothetical outcome; “Lloyd, you’ll have to go and inform the Australian embassy and track down his parents. After all, he’s one of your lot”.

We bid our farewells to Lloyd with exchange of Facebook details and plans to meet up in Vietnam and crossed the bridge back to our peaceful oasis on the other side. Ben would later learn that Lloyd was best mates with his next door neighbour back in Townsville. Despite the dark, we could still make out the bridge and were it split off towards the Launderette. The dimly lit area where we’d picked up our BRIT award looked a far cry from the glitzy podium it once seemed, and despite our success we would now be joining past winners such as Lemar, A1 and Ms Dynamite into pop star obscurity. Our time had been and gone.

It had been a mystery the last couple of nights; where was the party that started up around 4am and lasted until dawn? Many people had heard it, but the problem was nobody had seen it. Almost after every night, walking across the bridge to our Bungalows just as day was dawning, we could hear whooping, laughter and cheering somewhere in the deep mountainous forest, as if Vang Vieng was calling us back. It’s hard to go to bed, even after a full day and night’s session, when there might be another party elsewhere. It could be my generations Spike Island and I’d never forgive myself if I missed it for the sake of a kip in a wooden hut.

It’s one of my biggest fears, turning down an invite which ultimately leads to me missing out on some life-defining event. I’m sure I would have done a lot better in my GCSE’s had somebody just told me in advance that I, nor any of my mates would lose their virginity before sitting them. For a start, there would’ve been a load of parties I would’ve been able to have rain checked on. When I was about 8 years, I stayed around my Nan’s house one week while my parents had gone away. She lived on a main road that happened to be the nucleus of the neighbourhood where most of my friends from school lived. Can’t remember if it was actually a nightmare or my imagination, but I seem to have this vision of looking outside, not longer after going to bed and seeing a big group of school friends walk past, all of which had snuck out from under their parents noses to get up to their midnight mischief. Me excluded. Also a bit like in the summer when you had to go bed at your usual time, but given the longer days it was so much lighter. Struggling to sleep in the heat, made worse by the sounds of kids outside in the neighbour’s garden having loads of fun. Although at least my Parents came up with a good excuse for my absence when the older kids knocked on my door to see if I fancied coming out for a kickabout. Also when they’d call me in for bedtime, they’d open with something like “Rob that action movie that was banned at the cinema is on now if you want to come and watch it” to disguise the fact I was actually being called for my bath and bed. Turns out the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side, especially towards the end of the summer when Lynch’s lawn was cut to shreds from all that football. On that point actually, I can’t remember the last time I heard kids out playing in the garden or out in the street in my neighbourhood. I suppose who wants to throw water balloons at passing cars or set fire to a dog turd after leaving it on somebody’s doorstep, when there’s Call of Duty to complete on the Xbox.

We bumped into the Weymouth Boys once we’d made it to Otherside Bungalows. After asking them about the noise, one of them said “That noise? That’s a cockerel isn’t it?” He was right, cockerels placed up in the hills by the locals to try and coax people away from their beds and back to the party town, just like the Pied Piper of Hamlin did with all those German kids? No, they were just cockerels. I felt silly at first, but then more reflective on the state of mind I’d taken up since arriving here and the things we’d indulged in within this town and along its river. All things considered, it was hardly surprising I’d mistaken the cry of a farmyard animal for something completely different.

And even if it had been people, did it really matter? We’d had our fun here and it was perhaps a good thing we were moving on in the morning. Saying that, I will miss this place dearly.

After a smoke with the Weymouth Lads, who’d taken advantage of their medical insurance and claimed a load of laughing gas canisters from the doctors on behalf of a mate who’d broken his foot on the tubing, we stumbled back to our cabin and recorded on my camera an advert for keeping belongings safe from burglars (aimed at households of 1960’s Britain), inspired by the fact that we’d all our valuables under our mattresses. The first place that every thief/burglar looks according to reconstructions on Crimewatch. It may have worked in the last millennium, but not now, so why do we still utilize the mattress as a safe haven for our things?

Yeah, reading that last paragraph, I don’t have a clue as to what we were trying to convey at the point in time either. I was now more sure than ever that we were making the right decision in heading to Vietnam tomorrow.

On this day in 2011….Kayaking in Vang Vieng #Otdi2011

12/01/2011

Kayaking today, although the real attraction for the trip was the chance to go tubing through a river that cut through a cave, with nothing but our headlamps and a rope guide to keep us on track. Which we did, and it was laugh. A nice bit of effortless fun before heading down river in our boats. It was only when we got to the first few populated spots on the river that we realized how much we’d missed out on our first trip down in the tubes and why it had been relatively quiet on our first day. Most people start up here around 2pm boozing it up until they have to make their way down at rapid speed. Or alternatively pay no attention to the 6pm curfew.

kayak

Our entrance into the melee from the stream was far from being a good one. We had done so well over the last few kilometres but as soon as we came in front of all the crowds, we got caught on a submerged shingle bay in the middle of the river. The instructor was calling at us, but we could not hear him for the jeers from all the pissed up onlookers leering at us from the bamboo platforms above on either side. This is a nightmare. One lad (American I think), a right proper fat fuck, jumped from the nearest ledge into the river. At first I thought he was on his way to help, and I gladly handed out my paddle for him to get on with us. But no, he jumped on our boat turning us over. Luckily all our belongings were safe and wrapped up, but he didn’t know. Once we got back in, slightly miffed at being bullied by a Sceptic (and one with ginger hair too!!), I looked for my paddle. While the oath clambered back up to his wooden throne (where he’d now be heralded a legend throughout the day), I gave the thumbs up to the crowd with big stupid ‘oh-you-got-me’ grin.

It was pretty funny, more so had it been somebody else, though I still dreamed of how good it would’ve been had I not responded with smiles but a crushing paddle knocking all his front teeth out, and then raising my oar in triumphant before cruising down the river to cheers from all the understanding onlookers. For the sake of this journal it would’ve been great – but of course I didn’t, that would’ve been totally unnecessary..

Would people blame me though? What if I told them I had lost or damaged my camera? I certainly could have won them over. God I hope there weren’t any Bainos up there. At the age of 23, you’d think I was out of the woods of being a victim akin to that of an episode of Inbetweeners.

Once safely drying off at a fire by one of the other bucket bars, we swapped mushroom stories with two Northerners. I exchanged my Brit awards experience for theirs, which involved staggering around Vang Vieng thinking they were both cowboys in the Wild West. It was a fare trade I think and as it was nice and warm, I threw in our humiliating capsizing ordeal.

The only river obstacle on the way home came in the form of a horde of swimming cattle that engulfed our tiny flock of kayaks.

It was decided; tomorrow we would come back up with our tubes and start from here. This is where it was at. Today was our Dunkirk. Tomorrow would be victory.