The curse of the Black Pearl.  Ho Chi Minh and Vung Tau

Scott tares passed us on his battered red semi-automatic Yamaha.  He eats the hot road and leans into corners as we navigate the oil rig lined coast.  This is a man in his element.

Like us Dan takes things easier.  His moped was probably made before he was, so a little caution is wise.

At least he’s able to speak in broken English to the smiling locals as they cruise past him.

“Where are we going?” was the cry as the four of us take turns in leading the pack.

It didn’t matter.  For the day we were our own tour guides and under the watchful eye of the looming Jesus statue, we are free.

A brief night in Saigon

We made the journey from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City fairly easily.  In comparison to somewhere like India, travelling through SE Asia has been a breeze.

Tickets can be booked online, drops are made in central “backpacker” areas and the Giant Ibiz has leg room and WiFi.  Luxury.

We’re in HCMC to meet my older brother (Dan) and his friend and travelling companion (Scott).  They’re on a two week holiday so we’d all arranged to meet for a few days of fun.

When we arrive on a bustling street in District 1 Scott is not well.  A virus has taken its toll on him for the last couple of days but he’s determined to shake it.

We walk the street hopping between bars and street food vendors.  I take a risk on a dried dangling squid which is rapidly barbecued and then pulverised before being handed to me in a paper tray.  A dry, salty, cotton texture.  It looks like offal.  Not even the sauce could save it.

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We hit a few more bars and indulge ourselves on cheap cold beer.  Soon we’re in a club blasting hip-hop and electonic music, our own keg of Tiger in front of us.  Scott calls it a night and was fortunate enough to miss a lad next to us vomit his dinner onto the already sticky floor.  Regurgitated rice splashes on Dan’s leg.  Time to leave.

We sit in a quieter bar whilst France play Germany on tv, and share stories of our trip so far.  The beer and the conversation flows and in the end me and Dan get into a debate about the “truth” about 9/11.  We argue, disagree and fight our corners because thats what brothers do.  It all ends amicably.

Sinking our last beers we call it a night around 2am.  We’re heading south tomorrow to Vung Tau to enjoy their last 3 days with us by the sea.

The Black Pearl

Because of its proximity to HCMC, Vung Tau is a popular weekend break destination for the overworked of the city.

The quickest way to get their is an hour and a half boat ride which takes you down through the cites river ways and out into the Chinese Sea, docking in Vung Tau port.

The area is famous for oil production so the coast is doted with oil rigs and shipping containers.  Beacons of a modern, industrial world.

On arrival Dan and Scott make their way to their pre-booked hotel.  Me and Hannah are less prepared and ask our taxi driver to take us to the beach and any kind of guest house.

We settle for a nameless guesthouse in a busy part of town.  No frills. Its around 6pm by the time we’ve freshened up and the street is coming to life.

The smell of barbecued octopus, squid and chicken fill the air.  The odd tout makes a pitch for fake Ray Bans.  A small, fat dog in our Guest House begs on his hind legs for scraps.

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We eat a bowl of Pho each and head out to an Australian Bar to regroup and formulate a plan.  The bar was dead and depressed.  My bad.

As it’s low season and not really a backpacker town, it became difficult to find the right area for our needs.  Our needs were simple, music, drink and people.

After a few drinks we get in a cab and ask the driver to head to the coast.  Surely there must be a strip.  Something!  This is when we found the Black Pearl.

The Black Pearl looks like a nightmare.  It’s decorated to look like Cap’n Jack Sparrows bedroom and the bar staff and waitresses all reluctantly don their pirate uniforms and swashbuckling garb.

I gave us twenty minutes before we’d be on the trail to find somewhere else.

Soon though the live house band took over.  They slammed covers of Guns’n’Roses and Journey with a sexy lead singer who’d come and join us occasionally for a shot of tequila.

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The crowd was mostly from outside of Vietnam.  Koreans, Sri Lankans, Americans, Japanese all mingled and punched their fists in the air like this was the only place they could let go.

The amount of money being spent on drinks naturally attracted a calibre of “working girls” to the venue who would swan from table to table in sleak dresses looking for a potential customer.  Their figures drew them attention.  They knew how to play to their strengths.

We danced and drank and mingled with the other punters.  Hannah became the most popular kid in the class by taking photos of smiling groups.  Scott reluctantly talks Brexit with a new American friend.

The night ended as all good nights should, with people wanting more and being ushered out by the cleaning staff.  So happy were we with our experience that we’d return the following night for more swashbuckling debauchery.

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A day on the road

Renting mopeds after an evening enjoying Jonny Walker and sharing street food with locals until 7 in the morning might not seem like the smartest move.

Sometimes though you have to trust your instincts and push past the apprehension.

Our Guest House offered moped hire for 150,000 Dong (£5) a day.  Or at least they said they did.

After a few phone calls were made, one by one our chariots arrived waiting to be tamed.  I’m pretty sure they were just bikes who belonged to locals that were’t using them that day and fancied a bit of extra cash.

It mattered not to us, as we were soon set loose on the streets of Vung Tau.

With the wind in your face and the traffic flowing organically your senses feel alive.

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We circled the island laughing and revving.  Anytime we stopped Scotts bike needed a rolling start to kick into action.  It was all part of the fun.

Eventually we stumbled across a small road which winded up a hillside and gave us a spectacular vantage point of the city we’d spent the last two hours racing through.

We enjoyed a drink on a cafe overlooking the hillside and then returned our machines home.

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One final dinner with Scott and Dan followed by some Mai Thai’s signalled the end of out time by the beach.

We embraced on the side of the road and were grateful for the three full days we’d spent together in Vietnam.

As me and Hannah walk back to our guest house for our final night before heading back to Saigon a taxi speeds passed and two familiar voices shout out at us “Safe Travels!!!”  A lump sticks in my throat.

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The Killing Fields and S21, Phnom Penh

The air is still and silent.

The sky is clear and heavenly blue.

Couples walk together hand in hand.  Slowly.

A man brushes a tear from his wife’s cheek.

The tower of skulls looks down on us.

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The Killing Fields

We arrive in Phnom Penh after a roughly 6 hour Giant Ibiz coach ride from Siem Reap.  The news of “Brexit” sees us explaining ourselves to nearby French and Italian passengers.

As you’d expect the city is dense and bustling.  The dust kicks off from the street and the space that exists in Siem Reap doesn’t here.

We cross the vast Mekong River and cruise past the Royal Palace before catching a tuc tuc to our guest house.  The driver cracks a joke about leaving the European Union before dropping us off.

We don’t intend to stay here long.  Apart from Bangkok our experience so far has steered us away from capital cities.  There are some things we need to see though before we move on.

I had read about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime largely from the eye witness account of Loung Ung in “First they killed my father”.

Like any kind of genocide or tragedy of such magnitude, there is a morbid curiosity to try and understand how and why it happened.

Estimations vary on how many Cambodians were killed at the hands of Pol Pot during the period of 1970-75.  Anywhere between 2 and 3.5 million.  Men, women and children.

Many of the dead are still buried in the roughly 200 mass grave sites which feature on the periphery of former labour camps around the country.  The sites are now known simply as the “Killing Fields”.

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On the morning of our first day me and Hannah book a tuc tuc driver to take us to Phnom Penh’s most famous Killing Field which has now been turned into a remembrance memorial and is a major tourist destination.

After navigating the busy streets of the city centre we are soon in the outer suburbs of Phnom Penh.  The streets are narrower but cleaner and children laugh and play on their way to school.

We arrive early but the heat is already with us.  Hannah is determined to not let her cast stop her and takes the lead on her crutches.

We pay the entry fee and collect our audio tour guide.  Inside the entrance gate there is a noticeable stillness and quiet.

The area has been well kept and maintained.  Lush green grass and preserved structures mark out a circular, numbered path.  In the centre a tall, white building draws the eyes.

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The audio tour is narrated by a survivor of the genocide and former resident of the labour camp.  As we make our way around the points of interest he fills in the blanks with bloody detail.

The open graves which still contain remains of the dead, rags of clothing which still dot the ground, blunt, rusted instruments of torture and the tree of sorrow used to tie screaming children to before.

The experience is visceral and real.  It helps to bring to life a truly incomprehensible time with colour and sound.

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After 2 hours the tour ends with the white building in the middle.  Inside a glass cabinet stretching some 2 metres to the top contains the skulls of many of the people who were found here when the Khmer Rouge were forced out of Cambodia.

Some of the skulls display the evidence of death.  Huge cracks and fractures from blows to the head or worse are a gory reminder of what occurred here.

Me and Hannah leave feeling numb.  We sit outside and wait for our ride and don’t speak.  It seems pointless.

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S21

After a harrowing 2 hours we head back to the city and decide to lighten the mood by visiting S21.

S21 is a former school located in central Phnom Penh which was converted into a interrogation camp during the reign of the Khmer Rouge.

Much like the Killing Field that we visited the site has been maintained as both a tourist attraction and way for the world to remember.

With the UNESCO stamp of approval, S21 is always busy and when we arrive it is no different.

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We are accompanied for two hours by an extremely informative and well made audio guide which fills us in on some of the atrocities that took place within these walls.

We amble from room to room.  Pictures of former inmates young, old, men, women and children line the walls.  Each story as harrowing as the next.

Its hard to listen to and understand but by the end we realise how important this place is. A standing monument to the worst of human endeavours.

A brutal reminder to the modern world.

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Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Beads of sweat drip down Hannah’s face and back as she navigates the stone. Her crutches are firm but only because of her steely concentration.

The sun has hit us now and the humidity grabs with unwelcome hands. A fat, bristled pig rolls in a small puddle of mud. We are jealous.

“Want to buy guide? Only $1 dollar,” a local asks for the third time. No thank you.

“You come to my restaurant then. I give you good seat. My name Spider-Man.” Spider-Man points to a small cluster of plastic seats at least 100m away down a set of around twenty steps.

Hannah’s look burns through as she raises her crutches like two spears.

This time his Spidey sense failed him, and he retreats back into the shade of his umbrella.

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The sun rises over the moat and illuminates the remains

 

Tourist hot spot

After Thailand our next destination is Siem Reap, in the north of Cambodia.  We’ve come to take in Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Empire and home to many ancient and sacred temples, including Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is to many the pinnacle of sightseeing. Travellers rave about its vastness and spectacle. Crumbling ancient stone meets Lara Croft and Indiana Jones. Lonely Planet said in 2015 that it was the number 1 tourist destination in the world.

But this wasn’t the only thing that drew us in. Cambodian history from the fall of the Khmer civilisation to the more recent genocide of between 2 and 3 million people peaks a morbid fascination.

Me and Hannah want to know more and Siem Reap proved the perfect gateway.

Crossing the Thai border brings you head on with scammers, opportunists and hacks offering a visa stamp, for a fee of course. A strange no-mans land of casinos wandering children and phone shops.

We’re picked up by “Lucky” after our bus journey. He would be our driver for most of our in stayin Siem Reap and couldn’t have been more helpful in getting Hannah on and off his chariot of fire.

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Hannah puts her feet up whilst Lucky gets busy

We stayed at a small guest house next to the night market. Siem Reap isn’t a big city. Neon lights, street food, bad karaoke and western bars.

The town is built for tourism. It feels new. Westerners skip the streets sunning themselves on verandas with $1 Angkor beers, pumping their fists at dripping ceilings to trap music, or seeking shelter from the insanely irrational downpours.

Pub Street needs little explanation. Music competes for attention and blocks the senses whilst buckets and cocktails wash the throats of the wealthy. There’s fun to be had here but not by us.

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Bright lights, big city

Children caked in grit and grime carrying ragged toddlers target the tourists and ask for food not money. Lucky would tell us it was a scam but it didn’t take the sting away.

Our intention in Cambodia was to volunteer at a school or orphanage by teaching English, dance or maybe even how to be tall. Since being there though it’s not quite that simple.

Many NGO’s set themselves up as a way of attracting philanthropic tourists to their “orphanage” for a fee. Often the children come from rural areas and their parents are told they are being taken to a school in the city. Now they just pose for pictures with backpackers sitting on knees with painted smiles.

We visited a co-operative food venture called New Leaf whose aim is largely to bring awareness to the issue. If you find yourself in this part of the world please check it out.

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You Wat mate?

It’s hard to know how to begin describing the Angkor complex.

We chose to set of early (4am) to catch the sunrise over the main temple and with Lucky as our trusted driver we made haste.

The $20 entry charge seemed a little steep at first but once you enter the complex you realise that you could spend days getting lost and finding everything or nothing.

The main temple (Angkor Wat) was built in the 13th century by King Suryavarman II. What is unique about the temple in comparison to many other Hindu temples is that it faces the west as this is the direction associated with Lord Vishnu.

It was constructed to act as a physical replication of the universe. The central shrine is the centre point of the universe with the outer walls symbolising the mountains and the moat the seas and oceans.

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Now, the remaining structures crumble into the extremely well maintained gardens.  Faces of kings and gods, cracked and broken but still majestic and magnificent.

The visit involves a lot of walking and Hannah (still foot in cast) made it her mission to see as much as possible despite the numerous steps and sweltering heat. A few words of encouragement from other tourists egg her on.

After taking in Angkor Wat Lucky then drove us to its neighbouring temple Angkor Thom which has a much stronger connection with the famous Hindu parable “the churning of the ocean of milk“.

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Again we stumble the ruins taking pictures and sweating. Soon though I was time to call it a day. The afternoon sun was upon us and even Lucky was beginning to show signs of fatigue.

What I think we both took from being there was the overwhelming feeling that centuries ago this was the epicentre of South East Asia. A place revered by the rest of the world with technologies, architecture and ideas far ahead of its time.

Like standing in the frozen city of Pompei, Angkor Wat will hopefully remain a time capsule to remind people that Cambodia was not just the land of atrocity that it more recently became.

 

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Lucky’s hat says it best

Wheels on fire, Bangkok.

 

“Its gonna take us ages to get through this lot”, Hannah remarks looking into the mass of drunk in front of us.

She shifts awkwardly in her wheelchair.

I take the initiative and grab the handles tilting her backwards in one swift motion.

We burn the street and bark at the rabble to announce our arrival.  Moses parts the red sea cackling into the night and joining in the fun.

Letting off steam

Two weeks after Hannah fractured her foot we decide we’ve had enough resting and it’s time to get back on the move.

We fly to Bangkok and despite the fact that the crutches make getting around with all our gear a lot harder, we’re determined to make it work.

Apprehensive at first because of our recent hermit existence, we decide to check into a home stay a little distance from the craziness of Khaosan Road.

An over familiar check in experience and cat litter box in the shared shower room were enough to tell us we’d made a mistake.

The next morning we sharply left and checked into a budget (but clean) guest house a couple of streets down from Khaosan Road. A much better choice as there were plenty of bars and restaurants reachable on the crutches.

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Standard dinner of Thai salad, noodle dish and Singha beer

On our first night we made friends with a young Dutch couple. Their first night away on a month long trip.

Within the hour we were amongst the whords on Bangkok’s busiest party street. The discarded buckets and party debris lined the pavement.

We threw ourselves in headfirst. We were back! We needed this.

At 4am the party was over and our hangovers began. After a snooze we levelled our heads with bloody Mary’s and decided the sensible thing to find a place to hire a wheelchair. A few hours later we return from Bangkok’s Mission Hospital with rented wheels. At 500baht (£10) a day it was well worth it.

Over the next few days we hit some of Bangkok’s famous sites.

Art attack

Taxis are cheap in the city if your driver will take you on the metres. Most were happy to oblige and helped us fold Hannah’s wheels into the boots of their cabs.

We took in some of Thailands oldest, Buddhist artefacts at the National Museum. It was interesting no doubt but the cobbled pavement on the sprawling grounds made the movement particularly bumpy and jolting.

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The remains of an ancient Buddha sculpture at the National Museum

We scorched ourselves in the heat at the world famous Chatuchak Weekend Market. South East Asia’s biggest market and a surprisingly easy terrain to cruise through.

Without doubt though the highlight was a day trip to MOCA (the museum of contemporary art).

Like most modern art buildings from the outside MOCA looks menacing and harsh. It’s sharpe angles and edges dig into the skyline.

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Hannah sitting with her new wheels at MOCA

Inside the space is vast, open and cool. With 4 floors displaying some of Thailands (and in fact the worlds) most prominent and exciting works it is a joy. A lift made getting between floors really easy and for the whole day we felt at ease.

Displaying the work of Thawan Duchanee, the top floor captivated us the most.  His raw, animalistic, bold paintings jumped out at you but didn’t overwhelm and the whole floor seemed to fit together like a beautiful red and black puzzle.

Although we’re hopeful that Hannah’s injury won’t cause long term damage, even in this short time we’re seeing the world differently.

Navigating new and strange cities without being able to walk is hard. The heat makes using crutches exhausting and many places just aren’t accessible with a wheelchair.

A lot of the time though, gaining the motivation to push yourself into a situation can be the most difficult thing.

Bangkok proved to us that it is doable. Let’s see how things go in Cambodia.

Isolation in Phuket, Thailand

Rober Downey Jr gives a heartfelt closing speech to Robert Duvell. Not enough to to save him. The movie comes to a melancholic, Hollywood end.

The tension in our apartment matches the fan setting on the air-conditioner. Me and Hannah don’t say anything to each other.

She reluctantly asks for her make-up bag. Fumbles for a second and then frustratingly asks me to close the curtains. They’re already closed.

“Is it raining outside?” She hopes. “Yes,” I lie through my crooked teeth.

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It doesn’t look like rain

Break a leg

It’s two weeks after Hannah slipped on piece of crumbling pavement and fractured a bone in her foot. A cliche incident in Thailand that we were all too hopeful to think wasn’t serious.

“I don’t think it’s serious…but I know it’s not a sprain,” she reassured us and herself from the back of the taxi.

The attractive Dr at Phuket International would later tell us the next day that its broken. Our hearts and shoulders sank. His positivity in delivering the news of only a 4-6 week recovery do little to consolidate us.

 

Within the hour Hannah was casted, drugged and ready to hobble onwards into our uncertain future. A new pair of crutches support her movement.

The sadness hidden behind her eyes echoes our now changing plans. The reality is more serious. As a dancer and yoga teacher this could be devastating.

Spanner in the works

Phuket is the largest of Thailand’s Islands. An extremely popular tourist destination there is a plethora of beaches and activities to keep busy with.

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Rawai Beach in Phuket

We knew though that for us, for now, the activities would be slightly more limited.

Ironically, Amy’s sprained ankle is on the mend. She’s organised a volunteering gig at a hostel in Bangkok and is ready to thrust herself into the backpacking scene.

We indulge ourselves with a farewell dinner on Patong Beach. A selection of fresh seafood and chilled wine accompany a dated entertainer and his Casio keyboard.

Me and Hannah make the decision to rent out a self contained apartment at least for the first couple of weeks to get her recovery off to a good start.

It’s a curve ball for sure but the staff at Dungjai Residence near Rawai Beach look after us like we’re part of the family.

We have everything we need. Cable TV, a mini bar, rapid Internet, space to exercise, a cat called Mr Tom and a decent wood-fired pizza place around the corner.

The days can be monotonous, frustrating and hard but we use the time to re-connect. We probably haven’t been spending enough time with each other lately.

For now Netflix is our Lonely Planet and this apartment is our adventure. The trick is to remember it’s just temporary.

Island hopping in the Andamans. Thailand

Hannah sits in the back of the minibus icing Amy’s ankle as we speed up the highway into the pelting rain.

Amy has gone pale. Her leg swells and has started to bruise. We all fear the worst.

Half an hour earlier we arrived in Thailand. The rain that welcomed us would set a precedent.

As we’re loading our bags into the our transport, Amy slipped and rolled her ankle.

Google tells us that nothing is broken but it’s a nasty sprain. This will make the next part of the journey a little bit trickier.

Koh Lanta

We reach the town of Krabi on Thailand’s south west coast in the evening and rest up.

It’s low season in this part of the world. Things are pretty quiet except for the odd popular backpacker hostel. Like us, hopeful travellers are preying that all the talk of ‘the rains’ are a fabrication.

The next day we take an hour long boat ride to Koh Lanta in the hopes of swimming in turquoise blue waters and maybe even some diving.

For the next 3 days it rains solidly. Solidly.

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The dark skies on the ride over to Koh Lanta

Koh Lanta is empty except for a few stragglers and as the island is essentially one long road of guest houses, restaurants and beach shacks the people that are here are spread out.

We try and make the best of the situation by eating good food and shooting pool with locals in an Irish pub (The Irish Embassy). But on an island famous for diving and water activities, ‘the rains’ are well and truly pissing on our bonfire and are now laughing at us as we shiver in the cold.

On our last day me and Hannah hire a moped and the sun actually breaks the dirty grey clouds.

For a few hours the island is transformed and you can see its appeal. In the sunshine the beach shacks and bars come alive.

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Joyous sunshine

People smile again and on the beach at dusk we witness the sun disappear between two distant islands. The sky spreads like an oil painting.

It doesn’t last long though and by the next morning we are racing through the rain in a cab to the port. We’re getting off this rock and heading to Phi-Phi.

Heart of darkness

The boat ride from Koh Lanta to Phi-Phi was without doubt one of the scariest experiences of my life.

With a rough sea, and the tragic news of a speed boat capsizing fresh in our minds me, Hannah and Amy huddle together with 2 other passengers on the bottom deck of the death machine.

The cracked Windows and gaffa-taped hull gives little confidence as we speed through the waves. The boat rocks and sways. This is not the time to be hungover.

Arriving on Phi-Phi is an automatic welcome. Unlike Koh Lanta, Phi-Phi is small and compact. A younger, more attractive sister.

The streets are clean and freshly paved and even in low season there are people, mostly backpackers and exp-pats. We’re glad to see some faces and devour beers and pad-Thai to take the sting off the boat ride.

We gather our bags and head through town in search of cheap accommodation. By now Amy’s foot is still swollen but she soldiers on determined to not let it break her.

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The dozy cat in our Guest House sleeps off the rain

We pass tattoo-shops and tattooed clans of twenty somethings, bar hopping with buckets of cheap Thai whiskey and red bull clutched in their testosterone fuelled hands.

Backwards baseball caps and vests crowd the street and cheap flyers advertising cheaper drinks are soon thrust on us.

Its great to be around people again but something about this place doesn’t seem real.  The younger sibling seems vain and shallow under the surface. Perhaps it’s an age thing.

We try and plan out some activities and even book in a boat ride to visit the famous ‘James Bond island’.  The rain forces us to cancel and instead we find an outside pool with a bar.

The afternoon is fuelled by Jägermeister and Connect 4 with two Swedish doctors on holiday. Me and Hannah piss around in the pool whilst the rain and wind hammer the island. We laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.

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Amy scores serious Connect 4 in the background of Hannah’s rain dance. 

After one more day it’s time to cut our losses. A ferry, this time bigger and far more seaworthy, takes us to the island of Phuket, our last stop before Bangkok.

By now Amy’s ankle is still swollen and hard to walk on. Little did we know that our bad luck was only just beginning…

 

Street art vs street food in George Town, Malaysia

“You have two options”, the young dentist smiles at me.

“Number 1, we anaesthetise you and pull it out removing the problem forever,” I can see this is his preferred choice.  Sick bastard.

“Number 2, I can give you more antibiotics and we can hope they do a better job than the last course”

I think for a minute and roll my tongue over the swollen gum of my lower right wisdom tooth.  I feel another pang use of sharpe, intense pain.

“Let’s get this out of my face doc!” I plead, and then the needle comes.

Street Food

We’re in George Town in the state of Penang in North West Malaysia.  After spending a few days picking strawberries and sauntering through the Cameron Highlands we made our way here before crossing the border north into Thailand.

The first day of our arrival is well timed with the celebrations of Wesak Day or the birthday of Lord Buddha.  The town is awash with smiling, welcoming faces of Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.  We join in the celebrations but it isn’t the reason we’re here.

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Organisers of a Wesak Day float looking pretty pleased with themselves 

George Town has a bit of a reputation as a foodie paradise.

Named after King George III the streets of old town and colonial architecture give a glimpse into a colourful past.

Like many port towns George Town has become a melting pot for many different cultures and nationalities which give some insight into why it’s now famous for food.

As you walk the busy streets in the evening the hawkers and street sellers come to life with an array of dishes and delicacies from all over Asia.

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A woman waits patiently for her order of something delicious

 

Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese and of course Malaysian dishes are whipped up in a frenzy before your eyes and dashed with lime juice and chilly.

My favourite was Assam Laksa, a sweet, sour, spicy noodle broth infused with tea leaves. Slurping our way through bowls, haunched over a small plastic table me Hannah and Amy wash our food down with a few bottles of Chang as the hot night hums on.

I try and ignore the pain in my mouth.

 

Street Art

On our 3rd day in George Town the grey clouds have dispersed, taking the rain with them. We make the most of the sun and hire a 4-seater bike to conduct a self guided street art tour.

Like most cosmopolitan cities George Town has its fair share of graffiti.  The locals are immensely proud of the reputation it’s garnered as an artistic hub, and the quality is high.

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Artists generally stay away from such well known phrases as “Gaz woz ere” and opt for a more refined, skilful tone.

With Hannah in the driving seat and me and Amy providing the extra thrust, we navigate the narrow streets stopping for photos and the odd beer to quench our thirst.

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Hannah and Amy pausing to get some direction

Much like Banksy’s kissing policemen in Brighton, many of the paintings have taken on an almost mythical role at the centre of George Towns culture.  It makes the place feel open and modern.

As we tick off peeping kittens and wide eyed, larking children I realise that our route has flowed between a number of temples, churches and mosques.

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It may be the art, or perhaps the beer, or even the groups of people laughing through the streets filling their bellies, but George Town to me seems to cater for all and exclude non.

In what is overall a majority Muslim country, the city has once again affirmed my belief in people co-existing peacefully regardless of faith.

My tooth still fucking hurts though.

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Fried frogs and jazz in Kuala Lumpur

“You’re supposed to be a vegetarian,” Amy said as I picked up the splayed frog using the stick it had just been barbecued on.

Hannah winced as I bit down on the caramelised brown flesh. Oil and juices dribble down my chin.

“Tastes like chicken and fish,” I mumble going in for more.

“No it doesn’t,” Hannah is quick to correct as she attacks her skewer of mystery meatballs.

A night on the tiles

The previous day we arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian capital and gateway to South East Asia.

We’re joined for the next month or so by the truly excellent Amy Turner, a pal of ours from London who fancied an Asian adventure.

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Joined for a while by Amy T.

We’re only in town 2 nights before we make our way north towards Thailand. We plan to get loose.

Our airbnb is in the heart of Bukit Bintang, a central hotspot popular with travellers. The air is charged with electricity and excitement and the buildings rise high all neon adverts of modernity.

After spending an afternoon dodging monkeys at the stunning Batu Caves our night begins as most tend to; sipping gin and tonics whilst larking around in the rooftop pool on the 27th floor.

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Rob and Amy at squaring up to monkeys at Batu Caves

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Hannah and Amy taking in the view

The traffic far below rages on but we have no worries as the sun sets behind the Petronas Towers and the lights of the city begin to illuminate the space around us.

At 9pm we’re nicely lubricated as we leave the apartment building. Our first destination is a little jazz club called No Black Ties about 20 mins walk away.

The streets are alive with giddy tourists, local hawkers and the sweet smell of Asian street food. We walk through the buzzing Jalan Alur just as its finding its stride.

Rows of skewered fish, pork, chicken and frogs marinated in sweet spicy sauce await the smouldering bbq’s.  Colourful dim sum rests in woven nests.  People crowd round tables of rice, noodles and beer.  A man resting on crutches mimes to a karaoke machine.

We’ll be back. After the music.

Jazz hands

The bar is hidden away from the main strip and looks quiet from the outside. As the doors open the familiar wail of a saxophone greets us and groups of friends and lovers tap their tables along to the rhythm.

We order cocktails and smile at each other as the 6 musicians on stage take turns in showcasing their skills, and they all have skills.

Soon the main act joins them on stage. A soul singer from west London mesmerises us with her numbers. Her long legs command the stage and her strong vocals lead the harmonies.  The room sways and swells.

We move on wanting to take in more of the night.  After curing our desire for street food we’re on Chagkat amongst the dirtier bars. Arsenal play on screens hanging over the drinks offers. Shot glasses slam on tables.

We end up in a  faceless club.  The entry price and mirrored walls aren’t the only similarities to an Oceana. After claiming our free, watery drinks we’re on the dance floor pulling strange shapes to Beyone and Missy Elliot.

Hannah beams in her sleek, red party dress. This is the first time she’s had a chance to show it off and she owns the floor.

We don’t stay long. Our “bust a move box” is ticked and we hit the streets again.

We pick up some cold Asahis and more street food on the corner of a 7/11. A rusty looking band is playing sketchy blues and the round checkout girl from the shop occasionally nips out to join them and stretch her lungs.

Me and Hannah twist on the pavement whilst Amy chats to a guy from Estonia. The band are fun and let us join in on improvised backing vocals.

The Estonian guy gets odd expressing his hatred for Asia and Asians.  Strange place to come travelling. Our cue to leave.

The night ends at 4am back at the airbnb.  More gin accompanies us as we diss each other in a rap battle.  Hannah claims a squeaky flip-flopped, justified victory.

The next day we make our way to the main bus terminal for a 4 hour journey to the hills. Our heads are deservedly sore but through our dark sunglasses our eyes are happy as we think about the fun we had in KL.

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Monkeys rule the roost at Batu Caves

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We didn’t take our camera out but hopefully this makes up for it

Tuk-tuk Safari through Yala National Park

“See!? Only driver recommended by Lonely Planet,” VJ said smiling at us over our milky tea.
He proudly presented a crumpled photocopy of a page from the 2015 travellers companion.
We haggled a little and agreed on a price for the 200km journey south as long as he took the B35 road through Yala National Park.
“Aaah…you want to see elephant?” he smirked confidently. “I show you”.
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Rob and VJ assess an obstacle in the road

Folding like napkins
Our destination was the small beach town of Mirissa on Sri Lanka’s south coast.
After spending 4 days sunning on the beach and failing to surf we wanted to get active again. We’d read about blue whale watching in Mirissa so thought we’d head there on the way to Galle.
The train tracks haven’t yet reached the east of the island so to get south using public transport meant heading to Monaragala where you can catch a bus pretty much anywhere on the island.
At the bus stop we were approached by a few different tuk-tuk drivers (as is usually the case) all curious to know where we were from and where we were headed.
Usually we put up a solid front of resistance but VJ penetrated that with his kind eyes and semi-believable Lonely Planet shtick.
We also had decided to skip a proper Yala Safari because of stories of overcrowding and our experience at the stunning Gal Oya National Park.
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Safari Hannah at Gal Oya

Road block
Stocking up on fruit and roti for the journey we hit the road in VJ’s blue beast. The engine rasps beneath us and the sweet smell of rain on hot Tarmac leaves us behind as the clouds start to break.
After about 45 minutes we reach the northern entrance to Yala section IV. A colourful road sign of a mother elephant with her baby reads “drive slow to keep me alive”.
On either side of the road a thick mass of jungle with the odd opening and discarded waste.
The road is new and seems like a foreign object here. Stretching out like a thick line of lead between the emerald wildness.
“Oh my god!” Hannah points ahead as I’m scanning the bushes on our left. “It’s an elephant!”.
Directly in front of us, in the middle of the road was a giant, grey elephant. He stood confidently as mopeds and buses dodged his presence and flung handfuls of fruit in his direction.
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A little perspective

Apples and oranges
VJ turned around and beamed, happy that he hadn’t let down his international reputation.
“You got any food?” He asked as me and Hannah started fumbling for the SLR.
“Yeah. We’ve got apples and oranges,” I answered. “Shall I roll them over?”
“No oranges, just apples and hold on to them, we’ll feed him from the car,” VJ said as he started up our makeshift safari jeep.
With heart rates increasing and stories of wild elephant deaths racing through my mind we ambled towards the apathetic looking, apparently picky giant.
As we pulled up next to him his fumbling trunk felt it’s way around the vehicle to Hannah’s out reached, Granny Smith holding hand.
We giggled like school kids as he took both our apples and raised them gracefully to his mouth.
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A blurry shot of Hannah feeding the road warrior

We moved on and watched him from afar and felt privileged to be in his company. As one of the roughly 600 wild elephants that inhabits Yala park, he was a beauty.
We folded ourselves back into the rickshaw and the safari continued.
Stopping occasionally to startle families of white spotted deer, jungle fowl and peacocks. We also managed to get a couple of photos of two of the angriest looking buffalo.
After 30 minutes though we were at what seemed to be the main entrance to the park.
The wild jungle had now made way to guest houses and restaurants.
VJ continued to rev the accelerator and we left the wildness behind.
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Bloodsucking on Ella Rock

“Aaaaahghhgh!!! Get them off me! Get them off me! GET THEM FUCKING OFF ME!!!”
“Hang on a sec…try and calm down and I’ll try and help you”
“They’re EVERYWHERE!!! Look Rob! LOOOK!!! They’re in my fucking shoes and on my shitting socks! Get them OFF MEEEE!!!!
Rolling into town
We made our way from the busy Hatton station with sore calfs and aching quads after our climb up Adams Peak. The town of Ella in the heart of the hill country is our next destination.
The train soon lifted us high into the hills.  Soaring above tea plantations and the former pride of the British colonies in Sri Lanka.  The journey was pure joy.
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Best seat in the house on a train journey through the hills

The waxy fertile jungle soon gives way to a slightly darker, spacious landscape entrenched in mist but not lacking in clarity. The humidity has all but gone and we smile as postcard after postcard develops before our eyes.
6 hours on a relatively busy carriage and we reach our destination.
Ella is a popular tourist spot within the Uva Province of Sri Lanka.  It boasts easy access by train and some of the most stunning views of the hill country including the famous Ella Gap.
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Our fellow travellers alight at Ella station

We head to our budget guest house, remove our stinking clothes and watch as the clouds tighten and burst with fat rain.  The air is charged with dense electricity and the thunder rolls in the distance.
Its not really tourist season when we’re there but that doesn’t stop a steady flow of European travellers making their way through.
Like us, many of them are planning to make the climb up Ella Rock which overlooks the town like an ominous blade.
We set off at 6am (sunrise) looking to be down before the afternoon heat hits.  Armed with water and Rotti we head to the railway tracks where the trek begins.
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Image courtesy of “Stand By Me”

Creatures from the deep
Unlike Adams Peak, the route up Ella Rock is not stepped and barely signposted.  There are plenty of resources online to help find the path and local guides loiter on the train tracks to offer their services at a nominal fee.
Like much of our travelling though, me and Hannah decided to wing it.
A pair of mangey dogs acted as our companions along the empty rails.
Soon we took the necessary turning off the track and into the tea bushes.  With a confident swagger we breezed on.
After 10 minutes of walking the tea bushes made way for tall rubber trees.  We continued and the small track we were following disappeared along with the sky as a thick forest enveloped us.
20 more minutes passed and now we were scrambling amongst reeds and the damp.  We were lost.
It’s at this point that the real problems started as the ground beneath us began to move and twitch.  Looking more closely and then at our shoes and legs we saw them.  An army of leeches.
“Shit! shit! shit!”  Hannah  panicked.  This was her first leech encounter and she stabbed at them violently with a small stick.
We fumbled in the dank, dark forest ripping the small bloodsuckers from our shoes and socks.  They made their way into our footwear and up our legs.  We were surrounded and outnumbered.  They were hungry.
A pair of dogs start barking up a steep hill and what sounded like a human whistling.  Surely help was not far away.
Another ten minute climb through thicker grass and foliage brought us face to face with our soon to be heroes.  Our hearts sank and we turn on our heels as we realise they are guarding this place.  Murder filled their eyes.
Running down the hill we stumble and slip.  We’re soon back in the leech zone and formulate a plan.  “Lets run as quick as we can through this patch and then pull them all off when we’re out the forest” I suggest.  Hannah is already running ahead.
We breathe the clear air on the opening and cleanse each other with probing teaser fingers. The leeches are massed around our ankles.  Some are fat with our blood.
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Ankles and feet post leech attack

After ridding ourselves of our parasitic compadres we continue our leisurely stroll.  Luckily some friendly locals point us in the right direction.
They laugh as we set off, possibly because we’re the cause of the overblown shouting and screaming they’ve just heard.
The trek itself isn’t too difficult if done the correct way.  Within an hour we were atop Ella Rock.
An elderly Sri Lankan man and his dog welcomes us with cups of sweet tea made on his open fire.
The horizon stretches out in front of us and the vastness of the hill country becomes more clear.  The sun is high now and we take a moment to breath in the view.  Totally worth it.
We remove our socks and wash the leech marks with a bottle of water.  I remove a final fat leech which escaped my earlier pincer attack.  The old mans dog ambles over and hoovers it into his smiling mouth.
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Hannah surveys the scenery of the Ella Gap