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An adventure in South East Asia. Part 5: “Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta

26 Nov

So, back to the spasmodic additions to my South East Asia travel blog. Thanks for everyone’s patience; life has been busy recently, so this is a rather belated addition to the story. In the meantime, a good friend of mine has gone over to live in Cambodia, a decision I might touch upon as I give my own views on the place. He’s started his own blog as well!

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Tuk Tuks are not the only way to travel in Cambodia.

Last time I left you, I was in Siem Reap and doing my temple touring. Just so you have no illusions about how great your arrival in Siem Reap will feel, after that huge train journey and tuk tuk riding, here was me sat outside a restaurant in Siem Reap soon after my arrival:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnREkLBM3gU

“I don’t think Cambodia will be as crazy as Bangkok” I am heard to say, which is proof positive that I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about at this stage in the journey. Trust me; this tale is going to get crazier before the end.

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As for temple touring, I would give as much time to this as possible as the decayed glories of the Khmer Empire deserve a sizable chunk out of your visit. You won’t be disappointed. Here’s some extra advice from me, given before I saw the wonders of Angkor Wat:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwIdOT0n2jk&feature=youtu.be

While in Siem Reap I ate some fantastic food, including the delicious noodle dish you briefly see in the first video. I mentioned this previously, but it needs saying again, I think. I’ve been vegetarian for over 20 years, but still found plenty of diverse choice. If you’re a meat eater, then you’ll be spoiled. One word of warning though; I did consume some noodle soup from a street stall, which was partly necessitated by the gargantuan down pour that came from the heavens at that point. So while I sheltered from the rain, I got some food. It seemed sensible. Up to that point I had avoided any stomach ‘issues’, but not this time. I woke up with the worst stomach ache I’ve had in years and the next day spent the majority of my coach journey to Phnom Pehn trying not to move any muscle in my lower regions, less a tragic accident occur. Once I arrived in the capital I was able to get some remedies and my sickness cleared up. You are unlikely to get away with a reaction to the change in climate, food and general environment, but be cautious.

While in Phnom Pehn I found myself falling in with a group of ex-pats and long term visitors. Two blokes were discussing ‘Brexit’ in a bar at the end of Pub Street (the town’s main concession to increased tourism) and offered an opinion. Next minute, I was invited over and seven hours later was still lout drinking.  For those who visit, Phnom Pehn, there is a bar called Picasso’s, which forms the hub of the ex-pat community, and is well worth a visit (it’s very stylish, but be warned, a bit more expensive that the usual). Nick Dale, one of the older guys I was talking to, is a writer who is trying to get a book published about his on-going relationship with his daughter, who is trans-gender, and the issues she faces. It was an extremely poignant and heartfelt story, and I was privileged Nick shared it. I hope all works out for them and the book is a success.

Nick’s tale, and many others like it, give me the impression that Siem Reap, and Cambodia in general, is a place to escape to in order to find clarity. Perhaps removed from the safe and the expected, a Westerner can find a new kind of clarity surrounded by the comparatively strange and unknown, and through that find new ways of seeing.

London belongs to me.

3 Feb

I’m not sure anybody really knows London, least of all the people who have lived and worked there all their lives. London seems to have a deceptive quality of appearing intimate, until you turn a street corner and you really do feel like you’re in a big metropolis. There’s a lot of history there, and London tends to wear it on her sleeve, but the old London is constantly being covered up by the new. So London is like a messy oil painting where some of the paint is still drying after being brushed over the old layer, and yet there are other parts that are still there to view after hundreds of years.

Visitors are constantly discovering new parts to London. I suspect this really annoys the locals who weren’t aware there was a street called “Arsebugger lane”. There isn’t by the way…although at least I don’t think there is.

It probably stems from the fact that the place is so big. It truly is a sprawl, lying there on a map of the south like a big squashed spider.  There always seems to be some lost part of the whole that you never saw on a previous visit….some back street, some club, some secluded park. I always found the suburban outskirts of London to be quite charming. You know this isn’t where all the action is, but there’s a pleasing ambience for a visitor. Well, it would be pleasing if it wasn’t for the fact that being a London visitor in the suburbs often means you’re lost. I ended up at Faislop station one night desperately looking for a friend’s car. In the end we had to ask the local police to get the guy from the car park to come down and unlock the place where the car was…it’s a long story I might tell you sometime.

 So the main thing I like about London is that it looks like it wasn’t thrown up in a year. It looks like it evolved over a long period of time, which is pretty much the truth of it. Some people will have you believe in the quaint notion that London is also a collection of “villages”, which is fine if you know many villages with several parks, a castle, a red-light district and an Underground railway.

Oh, yes, the underground; the biggest in the world. It’s never let me down, although it’s easy to say that when you only use it five times a year. It’s really easy to lose your bearings in the underground as well, unless you look at the wall maps and charts. It’s a whole different world down there with lots of strange noises emitting from the bowels of the Earth. It’s also really windy, so if you think you’ve escaped the London rain by diving underground you might be in for a surprise. Your new hair-do will not survive a visit to the platform undisturbed.

It’s often said that London place names, and in particular those of the Underground, are suggestive of a world far removed from the real London; they fuel our imagination. These memorable station names, displayed in that classic red circle motif, sound like a romanticised version of London. “Maida Vale” still sounds like one of the most exotic places in Britain, until you ascend to the surface.  At “Ealing Broadway” I expect to emerge into a 1950s comedy were all the school children wear neat uniforms and all the business men have bowler hats. Some sound really traditional and quintessentially London like “Charing Cross” or gloriously pro-empire like “Waterloo”. In that sense it’s the most stylish and interesting underground network in the world, and it seems oddly romantic as if it’s trying to paint an impossible picture of what’s going on above. “Bethnal green” makes me think of an abbey and nuns for some reason, and “Island gardens” sounds like a tropical paradise, hidden under a dome in the centre of the city. “Perivale” makes me think of castles and dragons. Sometimes, however,  it get’s it absolutely right- “Mile end” is as dank and depressing as it says on the sign (unless memory cheats- I got there by mistake anyway). You’re also constantly reminded to “Mind the gap”, which is essential advice unless you want to end up under a train with a rat for company. There are plenty of rats in London, and not all of them have tails….but more of that another time!

Also worth mentioning is the 1931 Tube map, which is a masterpiece of graphic design and has conned many people into believing they know exactly where they are while having little resemblance to reality. Deliberately distorted and having no concept of true scale, it makes sense out of the tangled mess of the Tube. Just don’t try relating it to the street layout above- it’s impossible! Very stylish though, and a full scale one has all those wonderful names on it. It’s the only public transport map I’d put on my wall.

London is quite a green city as well, which is a surprising thing to say considering the shitty, slummy mess the place was in around 150 years ago. Thankfully, mainly the best of Victorian London has survived. Not The Crystal Palace, though, which burnt down in 1951. A great loss of what was a great piece of architecture. The beggars, tramps and thieves are all still here as well, and while that’s a problem that’s not going to go away anytime soon, I’ve no doubt it’s far worse in some other cities.

 I normally end up in London at Euston station, but that’s purely down to getting the Virgin train from Manchester. Heathrow airport is quite grim from what I remember of it, and I can’t say I’ve been to any other ‘drop off’ point. Other than that, London is wonderful. It has some of the best theatres and restaurants in the world and some beautiful, tranquil parks. If that’s your cup of tea, you’ll love Greenwich with its rolling park and great view of the Thames.

London could still be so much more, if we’d stop trying to kill it. The fact that so many ‘30s phone boxes were removed is a travesty for a start. They used to be the length and breadth of Britain, and survived so long because they were a design classic. If it has style and works- leave it alone! However, the future beckons and it’s important to take the best of the old with the bold new. The London eye now seems as established as Tower Bridge.

One of my favourite parts of London is Blackheath. It’d cost me an arm and a leg to live there, but hopping around for the rest of my life isn’t such a high price.  Nice bars and restaurants in a bit of a cluttered, hilly area. It does feel like a posh village around there.The main geographical feature is the River Thames, which at one time was probably a mixture of mud, rubbish and tramp piss. Luckily it’s significantly cleaner these days and I’ve had many dreamy moments staring into its mucky depths while stood on Tower Bridge. The Thames neatly divides London into two halves. The good half and the crap half? Ok, I’m only joking there.

 So there are my thoughts on our capital. Slightly idealised perhaps, and coloured by viewing too many ’60s ‘Swinging London’ films, and historical dramas, but that’s it’s beauty; it has something for everyone if you look hard enough… So carry on London, you infuriatingly fascinating, grubby old town.