An adventure in South East Asia. Part 4: Not quite ‘Tomb Raider’, but my name IS Croft.

30 Sep

For a very long time, Siem Reap was a small town in the north west of Cambodia that if anyone visited it at all, it was because of the nearby Angkor Wat, one of the great monuments of the world. People still visit it because of Angkor Wat, but Siem Reap has become a destination in its own right. It has a post-French colonial cool all of its own, which is enough to tempt many travellers. But a word of caution; Cambodia has several micro climates and in this part of the country things get hot. They get very hot indeed.

 

On the taxi journey to Siem Reap, I met Jimi, a very interesting guy from India, who is now working abroad. As I mentioned, his brother runs the guesthouse The River Queen in Siem Reap, which I recommend you investigate.

As for Siem Reap itself, the town’s name literally means ‘Siam Defeated’, which refers to the Khymer sacking of the Thai city of Ayutthaya in the 17th Century, if you ever get the sense Thai people look down on Cambodia, this does nothing in their defence. Imagine Anglo-Euro relations if Manchester was re-christened Germany Defeated. Yeah, see what I mean? Bold and blunt people, those Cambodians. I’m just glad they weren’t on the losing side; just imagine.

 

Siem Reap is quite a nice town, showing off much of its previous French influence and its Colonial buildings and tree lined boulevards do give it a unique charm, although the recent addition of ‘Pub Street’ does remind me more of the more hedonistic sights of the Costa Del Sol.

 

My stay in Siem Reap was at The Dancing Frog hostel, which was a pleasant enough stay. However, while in Siem Reap I finally succumbed to stomach issues, a moment I had been anticipating since I arrived in South East Asia, and began eating the food and just generally engaging with an alien environment. That Khymer Soup I bought from a street stall probably didn’t help either. There were more flies than people queuing up for that business; one of them was so big it could have been thinking about taking a chair. I just wish I’d seen them all before I placed my order, sat down and put the last spoonful in my mouth.

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Anyway, more about the outcome of that later, not to mention my adventures actually in Siem Reap, including the fascinating Nick Dale and his in progress book about his transgender daughter. That was quite a story. But more about him later. The main attraction, while in Siem Reap, is undoubtedly the Angkor temple complex, and Angkor Wat in particular. Angkor Wat, for those not in the know, is the largest religious monument in the world. Its name literally means ‘City which is a temple’ If there’s one thing you’re possibly picking up from this blog article, it’s that the Khymer people tell it like it is when it comes to place names. The Angkor complex is very close to Siem Reap. In a car, if you put your foot down, you could reach your first temples in less than 20 minutes, but this is a journey you’ll want to savour, so speed won’t be your aim.

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Angkor Wat was built in the 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, at the height of The Khymer Empire, one of the great Asian civilizations. It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, with the whole layout based on a mandala, the sacred design of the Hindu cosmos. It is now considered a sacred Buddhist site, having been converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th century. There are three levels to Angkor Wat before you reach the inner shrine, and it’ll take you a fair while to walk there. By that point you’ll have had the experience of walking through the main causeway and into the temple proper, a never to be repeated experience of awe and jaw dropping disbelief. It will stay with you for a very long time, perhaps forever. One of the seminal, singularly impressive moments of my trip, I have to admit. I don’t have the in depth knowledge to do Angkor Wat justice, but I do urge you to investigate it further. It truly is one of the man made marvels of the world. Extraordinary.

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The day before I’d visited many of the ‘lesser’ temples around Angkor, which proved to be on eof the hottest days I experienced in South East Asia. Trust me, if you’re not wearing sun screen, a hat and drinking lots of water you will suffer the consequences.

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Here I am, looking bucket soaked and on the verge of sun stroke, and with an unreliable camera stick, but still willing to do an impromptu outside broadcast for you good people:

 

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Angkor Wat is just one of the many temples in Cambodia. Some are far away from where I was based, and have truly been enveloped by the jungle, but are now slowly being offered as realistic tourist destinations. Other temples in the vicinity of Siem Reap include Angkor Thom, which was the largest city in the Khymer Empire at the time (late 12th Century), and includes The Bayon, an extraordinary structure  featuring 54 towers, three levels and 200 huge stone faces, which may represent the all seeing and knowing Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Try saying that after a few Khymer beers. Elsewhere in the vast complex, Ta Prohm is practically a ruin, but its beauty lies in the way the temple has almost become one with the forest, with great buttresses entwined with the masonry. Many of you will know Ta Prohm from its memorable appearance in the Tomb Raider movie starring Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

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As I explain in the video clip, the usual practice for tourists is to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day. A taxi would be far too expensive, and a tuk tuck means you get to ride around din the fresh air. Well, when I say ‘fresh air’, I am referring to some of the most stifling heat I’ve ever known. Fortunately my man had a seemingly unending supply of ice cold water, so respect due to him.

So, the most visually impressive part of the trip and in some respects a highlight. But there’s still plenty more to come…

Next time: elephants, monkeys and more temples!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 3: Bangkok to Siem Reap by train, tuk tuk and taxi. An (almost) fool proof guide!

29 Aug

If you’re ever paying a visit to Thailand and also wish to include Cambodia in your travel plan, there is a travel method that will offer you almost unbelievable value for money but also a bit of an adventure along the way. Now, if you want a stress free, excitement free journey with no surprises, then this won’t be for you. But with flights at around the $200 mark, a journey costing less than $35 seems a no-brainer, and could also be a lot of fun. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s extremely doable!

 

So, with a few video prompts, here’s my (almost) fool proof step by step guide for getting from Bangkok in Thailand to Siem Reap in Cambodia (which for most tourists, is where you’ll want to go, being near the giant Angkor temple complex).

Buses are also available for this journey, but as with aeroplanes, that won’t offer you the cheapest journey, although it could be quicker. It won’t be as fun though, trust me on that.

 

  1. Get up early.

The train from Hualamphong Station leaves at 5:55am, so give yourself enough time to get up, get ready and get a taxi (unless you’re fortunate enough to be very near the station). Tickets can be purchased on the day for just 48bt. There are separate windows for advance tickets and same day travel. Basically, a reservation is not required for the Aranyaprathet train so you can just turn up on the day and buy a ticket.

Here is me, one very rainy morning in Bangkok, struggling to find the lights, and not wake up my hostel guests at 4 in the morning:

  1. Make sure you’re on the right train and platform at Hualamphong Station. As mentioned, the train to Aranyaprathet leaves at 5:55am, and you can buy your ticket on the day, but get there in time! In the video clip it sounds like I say the ticket is “five baht”, which I can’t remember saying, but if that is what I actually said, it’s wrong. Five baht would be next to nothing, and as I do say later, the actual price is 48bt at the time of writing (which is less than £1).

 

  1. The train journey to Aranyaprathet.

 

There are two trains departing for the town of Aranyaprathet, which is nearest you can get to by train to the Cambodian border. I strongly recommend getting up early and on the 5:55am train. There is a second train, daily, at 1:05pm, but as the jorney to Siem Reap can take up to 12 hours, I would avoid this train; you could be arriving in Siem Reap very late, which could cause problems with hostels, hotels and guest house arrivals, not to mention any delays getting through immigration.

The actual train journey can take up to six hours, so take some food and entertainment with you (books, ipod, etc).

 

  1. The journey from Aranyaprathet to the border.

Once you arrive at Aranyaprathet you are still nearly 4 miles (6km) from the border, so will need to secure a tuk tuk for this part of the journey. I don’t advise walking, particularly in the heat! You will need to negotiate the tuk tuk fare, which will be around 100bt, and make sure your driver drops you off at the actual border. Be warned, as the official Cambodia visa office is located after the Thai border exit (near the rather impressive entrance gate feature).  Until you’re exiting Thailand, do not get your stamp from anywhere else. Do not go in these fake visa offices, as you will end up paying extra, The $30-$40 you pay (either before for an e-visa or on the day) is all you need to pay. Avoid the fraudsters!

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If you can see this, you’re almost in Cambodia!

So, here’s me in a tuk tuk. I look terrible, I have to admit. I’m drenched with sweat, already slightly delirious from the heat and looking like I’ve had about three hours sleep. All of these would be true!

 

  1. Exit Thailand, Enter Cambodia!

At the border exit you will find two queues, so get in the one for tourists, and not Thais. You will then get your official stamp in your passport from an official immigration officer. Make sure it IS stamped properly, for reasons I will share with you later. Depending on the time of the week this could take a while, so be prepared for long queues at certain times.

Your walk to the border will involve a walk  across the ‘Friendship Bridge’ and under the ‘Welcome to Cambodia sign. At this point you’ll almost be home free! But don’t start kissing each other just yet. Just to remind you: If you haven’t bought a Cambodia e-visa in advance, now’s the time to get a Cambodia visa! Cambodia visas are available on the border for US $20 in the visa office after walking across the bridge. It’s a fixed proice, but this is Cambodia, so if you want your journey speeding up I’m sure you can add a few dollars on top of that for the privilege. What you will learn about this otherwise beautiful country, is that they will happily take your money at any given opportunity.

 

  1. On to Siem Reap!

I believe there is a free bus from Piopet to Siem Reap, but I only saw a bus for $10. Thisis the same amount I paid for an air conditioned taxi, which I shared with two others, One of them was a fascinating guy from India, who was a well travelled individual with lots of tales. This made the two hour journey to Siem Reap fly by. He was meeting his European girlfriend in Phnom Pehn the next day and his brother runs a decent guesthouse and bar in Siem Reap (‘The River Queen’) It’s amazing the amount of wonderful people you can meet if you’re open to the experience. We covered lots of topics, but I do strongly recall talking about tigers in India and how mind blowing India is, even for someone who was born there. If you leave for a few months and return, you’ll need extra time to re-acclimatise to the vibrant culture that is India. Goa is not India, was the final verdict on where to go if you want an authentic Indian experience.

Anyway, I digress! Back to Cambodia and the journey to Siem Reap! You’ll be in Piopet at this stage, and what a treat that will be. No, I’m not being serious. It’s ****ing awful. Piopet is like Mos Eisley in Star Wars or a cheap Western; a dust-bowl of a town with dodgy bars and casinos, and you will be glad to see the back of it. As I will tell you in a later blog, I had the misfortune to return!

Here are a few video recorded words of wisdom from me at the location:

 

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  1. Arrival in Siem Reap.
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One hour out of Siem Reap…almost there!

Hopefully you’ve survived your journey and ultimately arrive unscathed in the French colonial styled town of Siem Reap, which I’ll tell you more about next time.

 

If you’ve followed these directions and it’s all worked out: well done! Go and get yourself a cool drink and relax! You made it!

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The centre of Siem Reap. Get a beer in. Infact, get two, You deserve it!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 2: “Bangkok, like Las Vegas, sounds like a place where you make bad decisions”- Todd Phillips

21 Aug

Nothing prepared me for Bangkok. Perhaps because of the preoccupation with getting there and planning the Cambodian part of my journey, I’d let my first port of call shift to the back of my mind, which is quite something when you’re about to arrive there.

I was actually enjoying the flight so much that I wasn’t thinking too much about Bangkok (Qatar Airways certainly make the travel experience a joy, but more about them on the way back as well as their blatant attempts to remind us of their future stint as World Cup hosts). Arriving in Bangkok from Doha, which is considerably warmer than England, and the first thing I noticed was the temperature. Underneath the air conditioning was a heat I noticed as soon as I exited the plane. Yeah well, I thought I was noticing it then; the hottest was still to come. So, there I was, with my own sweat pouring into my underwear like it’d been raining, trying to broach the language barrier in order to give the tuk tuk guy directions. My Bangkok baptism of fire! To be honest, his English was better than my Thai and he even attempted some rudimentary conversation while we whizzed along the congested streets. I just kept smiling and nodding in the appropriate places, while gripping the arms of the Tuk Tuk seat with sweat still pouring down my bum (I quickly learned that the high speeds make the thing feel like it’s about to go over on one side, but it never does).

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View from my first tuk tuk ride. It almost looks car fume free.

Now, here’s a tip for you, passed on by my very good South East Asia travelling friends (and it won’t be the last). When you arrive at Bangkok Airport, and you’ve got your luggage, keep going down. Follow the escalators as far down as possible and you’ll reach the rail link or ‘skytrain’. For around 24bt, you’ll get a plastic coin token to operate the barriers and that’ll be valid to the final stop in the centre of Bangkok, which is where you get off.

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My first experience of being in the centre of Bangkok was coming out of the air conditioned ‘safety’ of the train and covered station and into the dusty heat of the streets. Prior to becoming acclimatised, it felt like standing near a blast furnace. After dropping two layers of clothing which had gamely survived on my person to that point, I hailed my first tuk tuk and off I went! My Guesthouse was near the infamous Thanon Kao San. I say infamous, but it’s more pleasantly edgy than all out scary. Think of Las Vegas having a secret affair with Blackpool front and the offspring being hastily shipped off to South East Asia to avoid any embarrassment to Vegas. That’s sort of what Khoa San road looks like; bright neon signs fight for attention on the crowded walls, there are guesthouses and hostels and bars aplenty and the market stalls never seem to close, with the smell of fresh food permeating the night air. Known as ‘back packer’s paradise’ for many decades, the Koah San Road district was originally an area of canals, now largely built over, and was once a major rice market.

The heat in Bangkok means that although some significant tourist attractions aren’t too far away, you are usually better getting a tuk tuk or a taxi to reach them. The Ratanakosin area is the best place to start your exploration of the city, and offers Wat Phra Kaeo and The Grand Palace, which I’ll tell you about later.

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Wat Intharawihan

Wat Intharawihan, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok

 

So Khoa San road is a good spot to stay on a first visit as it’s not far from Ratanakosin. It is in the Banglamphu area of (Phra Nakhon district) about 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) north of The Grand Palace (more of which later) and Wat Phra Keaw. Journalist Susan Orlaean once called Khoa San Road “the place to disappear” for any travellers wishing to escape the West,  and anyone who has read Alex Garland’s acclaimed novel The Beach, will have an idea of the kind of opportunities for that kind of ‘disappearance’.

 

Ok, there are many tourist attractions in a city as large and as vibrant as Bangkok, but I know what some of you are thinking, so let’s cut to the chase and get the elephant in the room taken back to the zoo…no, I didn’t meet any ‘lady-boys’ and I didn’t go in a place with this type of sign outside:

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That’s not to say I wouldn’t have been absolutely fascinated to do so (‘yeah, I bet you wouldn’t’, say several readers) but I didn’t really see many and didn’t go looking for them. Which yes, I hear you say, would be the right decision, given the misogynistic hallmarks (at the very least) of such practices! Basically, if you want to see Thai woman ejecting ping pong balls from their vaginas, then I imagine you will have an absolutely astounding holiday. Equally , if you want some good food, culture and other adventures, you’ll be equally gratified. Well, ok, maybe ‘gratified’ was the wrong word to use there, but you know what I mean. You’ll be …happy!

So, no…no ping pong balls.

Lots of Bangkok street food though, which you’d be a fool not to try. It’s arguably the best street food in the world. I now have a serious noodle desire, and Pot Noodle will not cut it.

 

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Khoa San Road

According to Wikipedia, which I can back up as fact. Khoa San Road “…is also a base of travel: coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, from Chiang Mai in the north to Ko Pa Ngran in the south…” Visas and transportation to neighbouring countries such as Laos and Cambodia, can also be organised.

One word of warning though, is to veer on the side of caution when dealing with street vendors and tuk tuk drivers and the like. My first tuk tuk trip from Khoa San Road was a minor disaster. An agreement to pay 100 baht for a trip to the Grand Palace and other sites, ended in numerous visits to tailors and gem shops. Because I made a point of challenging this (which is common practice), I ended up walking fifteen minutes to the Pace as the guy had just dropped me off, realising his scam was revealed. 100 baht is no big deal; just a few quid, but it was frustrating. Some tuk tuk drivers are in cahoots with the owners of businesses such as a tailor, and get commission from bringing in tourists. It’s not what you’ve asked for, so don’t be afraid to challenge this. Even better, I’d avoid any tuk tuk drivers down Khoa San Road, and pick one up elsewhere. For 100baht you might even get him to wait around while you explore the various sites. Seriously, they’ll be glad to do it, and before I put you off, most of the Bangkok residents are hugely friendly and honest people.

 

I’d arrived in Bangkok during a Buddhist festival prohibiting all sale of alcohol. Just so you understand, I wasn’t tripping over myself to get plastered and hit the town, but it did make my first impressions of Khoa San Road more subdued than they would normally be. One frustrating outcome was that any bars selling alcohol were closed, including the wonderful Altern the 13th Blues Bar, which I had to visit on my return visit. I’d check in advance about this sort of thing, especially if you’ve got designs on having an ice cool beer when you arrive.

Buddhism is, as you probably know, a huge part of Thai culture and is the majority religion by a significant margin. Buddhism permeates the life and culture of many South Asian countries, and the very least you can do before visiting is just educate yourself on the etiquette and customs, more to make your journey a pleasant embarrassment free one more than avoiding offending anyone. Wats (Buddhist temples) will require you to cover up your arms and legs, so simple considerations like that are what I’m talking about. I’ll write more about Buddhism later.

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Laksameenarai Guesthouse

The guesthouse I stayed in is one I heartily recommend. It’s a traditional Thai house, that’s been converted and was a welcome oasis of calm just five minutes from the hustle of Khoa San Road. If you’re in Bangkok you can do worse that book yourself in The Laksameenarai Guesthouse. It was truly great, with friendly service and comfy surroundings. The staff couldn’t have been more friendly or helpful. Now, that’s just my recommendation, so feel free to shop around. There are more guesthouses and hostels in that area than you can shake your keys at. If you want to go upmarket, a plusher hotel room need not coast you an extortionate amount, but again, just spend a bit of time comparing prices and reviews. For westerners, Thailand is still good value for money. As I said in my Istanbul blogs, two years ago, some accommodation lends itself more to meeting people, which I would suggest is a better idea if you’re travelling solo. Even if you’re a bit more introverted, you’re going to want more than going back to the same four walls at some point. I met some nice people at the guesthouse, including a large proportion of Dutch people, who were unrelated, they just happened to all be there at the same time. The first of many late night drinking sessions occurred at Laksammnarai, which half the conversation in Dutch and half in English. Maybe that’s the true meaning of Double Dutch?

http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Laksameenarai-Guesthouse/Bangkok/83003

Bangkok’s assault on the senses means that a few days is not really enough to truly appreciate it, and I was glad to be returning in a few weeks, so this blog will return to the Thai capital in more detail. Bangkok is a relatively young capital, replacing Ayutthaya as the capital in 1782, following the Burmese sacking of the old capital. It now has a population forty times that of the second city, Chiang Mai, and has become one of the most vibrant and fashionable cities in Asia.

 

After a few days in Bangkok, my plan was to leave Thailand for Cambodia, which meant some careful planning on an early morning train and the not inconsiderable challenge of getting to Aranyaprathet, near the border, navigating tuk tuk journeys, border scams and immigration and a trip by bus or taxi to Siem Reap. Next time I’ll give you an almost fool proof guide to getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap without paying a fortune, and having an adventure along the way.

See you next time, on the Bangkok to Aranyaprathet express!

An adventure in South East Asia. Part 1: Destination: Bangkok!

10 Aug

“What am I doing in this place?” was a question to enter my mind on several occasions over the last month, only equal in its regularity to “Why didn’t I come here sooner?” From the highs of seeing the awe inspiring remains of an ancient empire to the lows of being essentially stranded without a plan, I will share it all!

Regular readers will remember my trip to Istanbul two years ago, which I documented here and many of you gave me some positive feedback following those blogs. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d repeat the idea for another trip, this time a much longer one. As I also said two years ago, when I did those similar travel blogs, “…this is ostensibly a blog about creative arts, particularly music and film. But occasionally I do like to submit something a little more personal, which hopefully doesn’t drift too far from the blog’s remit”. Hopefully that still stands, and be assured, that all things creative will feature.

Back in 2014, I made the observation that “…as I was travelling on my own, I didn’t necessarily want to culture shock myself with a week in rural Peru or a sabbatical in Yemen. You’ve got to take these things in easy stages”. Yes, I can wryly laugh at that now (which, admittedly, was a sensible attitude to have for a first significant solo trip), because in 2016 I did go much further and really did aim to culture shock myself. I largely succeeded as well, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I also said that Istanbul was, “exotic and foreign enough without sending my usually high stress levels into outer space with worry about whether I was going to get by with no language or culture in common”. Again, this trip was almost going to be a deliberate attempt to push the boundaries beyond what I would have been comfortable with just two years ago.

Solo travel isn’t, as I’ve observed before, for everyone. It does require a certain level of tenacity and boldness. That isn’t to say I had those qualities in boundless supply, or didn’t make some significant mistakes on my travels, but it did make sure I got off on them in the first place.

 

Ok, so for one reason or another, for three weeks in July and August 2016, I ended up in Thailand and Cambodia in South East Asia; a long way from home basically, but fortunately with a plan. Sort of. What I was to discover was that having a plan isn’t the all ensuring preliminary against disaster I might have thought. When you’re in a very foreign land, with potential language and culture barriers, shit can, and often will, happen. Hopefully this series of blogs might help prepare any would be traveller to South East Asia, and hopefully we can have some laughs along the way.

 

My first advice would be to book your flights well in advance, if possible, in order to get them (much) cheaper. Prices apparently tend to drop nearer the time as well, but that’s not a gamble I would personally take. I left my purchases a bit too late, but you should be able to get cheaper flights than that. I booked through Qatar Airways, but I’ve been told Emirates have some good deals. Once you’re over there, things are generally quite cheap (and in comparison to some of the locals, you’ll have the money reserves of a king). Speaking as a westerner, that’s good news for a potentially cheap holiday, but those costs can rack up pretty quickly unless you’re mindful of what you’re spending. I’ll go into that in more detail later, but be assured that it is hugely affordable, but as with anywhere, it depends on how much you want to spend. You can make it as expensive as you want, in other words (or as cheap), depending on the type of holiday you want. Bear in mind that 1 Thai baht equals 22p or thereabouts, at the time of writing, and it will give you an idea of any comparative prices I might mention.

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Palm trees and a giant cyborg teddy bear/lamp. Welcome to Doha International Airport.

My first connecting flight took me via Doha airport, in Qatar, which is an experience in itself. Looking like the set of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century or a ‘60s Bond film (it even has a monorail), the whole modernist expression is topped off by a huge sculpture of a yellow teddy bear with a black lamp shade up its arse. Created by Urs Fischer, the sculpture was previously on display in New York and was auctioned off there, at Christies, going for $6.8m. The Qatar royal family have a vested interest in modern art, so that goes some way to explaining its inclusion at the airport, which only opened in 2013. It’s certainly an eye catching talking point, and often photographed by passing travellers. As for Doha Airport as a whole, it’s an excellent airport, and all the expected facilities are in place. However, I still have no idea of how you get out of the main hub. The crystal clear maps and signage tell you where everything is, except the exit. I did think of asking, but lethargy overtook me. I believe you could see a fair bit of Doha in the seven hours I had to wait, but I played it cautious on the way to Bangkok, considering that any risk of missing my flight wouldn’t be a smart move.

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But for me it was still exciting stuff: half way to Bangkok!

 

Next blog title: Touch down in Bangkok! Or…”You wanna tuk tuk?” Or… I love Bangkok long time! Or “…what the hell, it’s raining and I’ve got sunburn”

20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #10 Beth Orton: ‘Trailer Park’ (1996)

9 Jul

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My introduction to the music of Beth Orton sticks in my mind as it was quite random and quirky. I was stood in the local WH Smiths looking through some music magazine (that detail escapes me) and a female friend I knew from the local indie-rock club appeared next to me, saying ‘Hello’. She then spots a photo of Beth Orton in the magazine and tells me, “Oh, that’s Beth Orton. She’s great. She also looks like you, if you were a woman”.  Before I had chance to respond to this amusing and mildly audacious opinion, my friend said, “she’s great, you should give her a listen”. Gender swap considerations aside, I did, and nearly 20 years later I’m still listening.

Beth’s original mixture of folk and electronic is now a bit blasé, I suppose, in the sense that everybody else has done it since, but taken on its own merit this album still satisfies. At this point in her career Beth had already recorded a song written by her idol John Martyn (“I don’t wanna know about evil”), and Martyn’s influence looms large on Trailer Park, with the style never being completely folk, but blending into a beautiful ‘other’. The combination of acoustic guitars and beats leans more to the traditionally folky than the dance arena, despite the input of Andrew Weatherall and William Orbit. So Trailer Park is essentially a folk record, and its modern trappings don’t detract for a second from the fact that it’s a very British folk product; even the American desert landscapes in the videos can’t dilute that

The opening track “She cries your name” always evoked images of surf battered Scottish islands to me, and the slightly eerie sound staging used to put me in mind of a more electronic Wicker Man soundtrack. It’s a highlight of the album, and while Beth has always been lyrically vague, being able to project your own interpretation onto some of her songs has always been something of a pleasure.

The clichéd appraisal of Trailer Park was that it was the mid to late ‘90s clubbers album of choice when on a ‘come down’ after a night of raving. I’d say Trailer Park has more to offer than that, and remains an engrossing listen whatever your state of mind and body. Beth would follow this up with a more accomplished album (1999’s Central Reservation) and her talent has matured nicely over the two decades since. Still, Trailer Park still offers an aural comfort blanket of considered calm, and Beth’s sometimes fragile and haunting vocal gives the ambiguous lyrics some touching human quality. Trailer Park is an album that isn’t often shouted about, but one that I don’t think suits such bawdy advertising.  Go and give it a listen and you’ll be eagerly captured by its quiet charms.

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Beth Orton’s sixth studio album ‘Kidsticks’ was released on ANTI Records on the 27th May 2016.

20 favourite albums (in no particular order). #9: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: ‘Nancy and Lee’ (1968)

8 Jun

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I’m pretty sure I got introduced to this album when I borrowed a batch of a mate’s Nancy Sinatra albums around 1995. Well, I say my mate’s albums, but they were really his mum’s, who’d actually bought them in the ‘60s. I rated Nancy, if only for her collaboration with the great John Barry on the You Only Live Twice soundtrack. It was the side of ‘60s music that I adored as much as the twangy guitars and hippy antics. Full wall of sound orchestras and emotive soundscapes, but given a slightly surreal and psychedelic twist; it was easy listening, I suppose, but not quite what Andy Williams was doing. Additionally, Lee Hazlewood looked like my Dad, which makes Hazlewood’s appearance in numerous video clips all the more surreal and amusing to me.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra was an odd combination, but that was the point and why it worked so well. More recently Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have shown us a similar dynamic over three albums (as did Nancy and Lee), but Nancy and Lee was the first and here it feels like a series of fresh and unique takes on the duet. Hazlewood was the gravel voiced, world weary cowboy character and Nancy was the sweet but sassy girl next door, and the contrast brought the songs alive in a slightly subversive way that just wouldn’t be there if they were traditionally matched up. The story goes that Frank Sinatra asked Hazlewood to rescue his daughter’s recording career, and pen and produce her some certain hits. With this being Frank Sinatra, perhaps he made Hazlewood an offer he couldn’t refuse; either way, Hazlewood rose to the challenge and ‘Boots’ was a universal number one, quickly followed by the likes of ‘How does that grab you darlin’?’ and the start of a winning collaboration. That Lee Hazlewood would eventually come from behind the mixing desk isn’t as inevitable as you might think, as the man had a nice career of his own, but I’m so glad he did. Lee and Nancy sound like they’re having so much fun here, that when it’s not being strange and surreal, it’s all out goofy and slightly ridiculous, with Nancy playing up to the stupid blonde stereotype (which at no point truly convinces me) and Lee ramping up his sardonic drifter act.

The album isn’t a faultless product though, and I can admit that, no matter how much I love it. Their version of “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’ verges on the cringe worthy, and the fact that it opens the album does not bode well. But things improve and four tracks in we get the first Hazlewood original: ‘Summer Wine’. ‘Summer Wine’ is captivating, an oddly dangerous sounding and utterly sublime ballad. Once they stop goofing around these two metaphorically rip my heart out and throw it a few thousand feet in the air. It’s a brilliant tune, and it’s not the best here either. The two delights on side two of the original vinyl (‘Some Velvet Morning’ and ‘Ladybird’) are often cited as examples of psych-pop or dream-pop or something of that nature. Basically, they’re both slightly weird, by the standards of pop music in 1968, and probably now as well, and that edge (along with their epic wall-of-sound arrangements) makes them two essential listens. The ‘psych’ tag is misleading, as Nancy and Lee isn’t a psychedelic album as such, but then again, it is an album with psychedelic leanings. It’s just a few other things as well; it’s a strange little package if the truth be told, and that’s why I like it so much. Its easy listening made a bit hard. Like Nancy’s solo albums of the time, the orchestra and arrangements were by Billy Strange, who managed to elevate the music to a special, occasionally mystical, aural place of emotive class, somewhere between Phil Spector and a James Bond soundtrack. This is the more refined side of ‘60s pop, but with enough far out posturing to make you wonder what Lee had been putting in Nancy’s tea (and let’s be honest, it was probably that way round).

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20 favourite albums (in no particular order): #8 Blondie: Eat to the Beat (1979)

3 Jun

Eat to the beat

When I was about five, my exposure to popular music was slight, but I was aware of Blondie, although I’m not clear if I actually knew them by name, it’s just that ‘Sunday Girl’ had filtered through to my consciousness and its melody was quite addictive.

Childhood nostalgia wouldn’t be enough to keep a band high in my affections though. I really discovered Blondie in my teens. The ‘gateway’ album always seemed to be Parallel Lines (which is a very good album), or the 1981 Best of Blondie. After that, their back catalogue was a fascinating, but short journey from punk wannabes and Ramones mates at CBGBs to MTV pop stars releasing increasingly sanitised and uninspired material (I love some tracks off 1982’s The Hunter, but it’s clear from some of it that the band were on their last legs and Chris Stein clearly wasn’t well). As overjoyed I as I was when they returned in the late ‘90s (quickly scoring a sixth UK number one single in 1999 with ‘Maria’), the band’s defining output was definitely from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. If you’d asked me a few years back I would have cited Plastic Letters as my favourite Blondie album, and if you were round my home you’d probably clock the framed copy of it on my wall, signed by Debbie Harry herself. You’d figure I might like it a bit. But revisiting the band’s fourth album time and time again speaks more about my affections than an album sleeve in a frame. Eat to the Beat is, I reckon, Blondie’s finest hour. Not even Parallel Lines quite comes close to giving me the joy I get from this, and as much as I’ll always have a soft spot for Plastic Letters, it now sounds a bit tinny and unadventurous next to Eat to the Beat, where the album lets loose their most vibrant and confident collection. Sure, Plastic Letters is perhaps the last album where Blondie really sound like a garage band, and that’s a thrilling sound, but by Eat to the Beat they had refined their talent into something else. It’s got ‘Atomic’ on it, for crying out loud, and I’m not even sure if that’s the best track. Yes, ‘Atomic’ not the best track. That good an album!

Blondie were, and are, a far better band than quite a few music fans would have you believe. One criticism I often hear, is that they weren’t really punk. Well, that depends on your definition of punk (and in attitude I’d argue they certainly fitted the bill), but give me a band that can remain true to its own self while successfully experimenting with different styles and crossing genres. Blondie are that band. Who gives a stuff if that’s punk or not? Whatever sound they were making by this point, I’m not sure the band warranted the swelled ranks it had by 1979 with Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison on guitar and bass, and I can grudgingly understand why the Plastic Letters line-up of Harry, Stein, Destri and Burke spearheaded the 1998 reformation. Still, judging from the music, perhaps the extra musicians gave both Parallel Lines and Eat to the Beat their notably ‘bigger’ sound; not quite in a Phil Spector sense, but you wouldn’t be far off the mark. By this point Parallel Lines producer Mike Chapman knew how to get the best out of this occasionally ramshackle band, with its eclectic list of influences. On Eat to the Beat we have what you could call commercial pop, but we also have punk, reggae and funk. Yet, it all sounds full of the passion and irreverent sense of fun that characterise Blondie at their best. A couple of years later and it would all get tired, but here was a pop machine operating at its peak. Everyone brings their ‘A game’ and there isn’t one duff track (so much so that the band even made a video for every track, whether it was released as a single or not). From Burke’s emotive drum intro to ‘Union City Blue’, through the Motown homage of ‘Slow Motion’ and the art-punk of ‘Victor’, this is a cracking album.

I still love Plastic Letters though (and it really does have the better cover. The cover of Eat to the Beat is alright, and I love the cross hatch design, but Frank Infante looks way out of place on that cover and three of the band members got relegated to the back. I felt duty bound to put both sides at the top of the blog). As for the Plastic Letters cover I love it so much I’m going to put it here. It’s New Wave cool personified:

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…but you know… it’s great for a lot of different reasons, but Eat to the Beat is the pop behemoth. It makes me happy in the moment and yearn for better days before and ahead, and isn’t that the best thing about good pop music?

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