To Travel Or Not To Travel?

UP BOKOR MOUNTAIN (CAMBODIA) IN A THUNDERSTORM

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling over the last few years, especially in south-east Asia, and I seem able to land in one place and walk away from all the “help” the locals are offering me. I check in at the first hotel I like the look of and take it from there. If I don’t like it the second day, then I’ve already been looking at others, and I go to a second I like the look of. I eat local, and I usually hire a motor-bike. I might get some information from an official guide but in general I don’t.

Until recently I congratulated myself on this way of travelling and back-slapped myself for being able to travel to most parts of the world without incident. I was surviving big travel-time unlike some I met, for example the young bloke who went up Bokor Mountain on his second day, fell off his hired motor, and spent the rest in hospital.

I’ve just returned from twenty-five days away from Pattaya where I live.  Pattaya is a holiday-destination but for me it’s home and a holiday is getting away from it.

How did the twenty-five days go? Lady Fortune patted her little boy on his head, said watch out, and let me go. The twenty-five days went okay and saw me in Cambodia and Vietnam, but I have stopped congratulating myself and started to question my sanity.

Here’s why but before the “here’s why” I need to say I’ve been brought up in a ridiculous culture that cannot accept aging and dying. At sixty you are not getting old and at seventy you are not old. All very heartening but just not true. I can pull my face back and implant a new set of gnashers and do lots of other tricks to myself but I firmly believe that at seventy I’m old. I know this belief is not okay in Hollywood and those parts of the world where you fail to accept and take medicine and get face-lifts and inject hormones and work out till the sweat drops off your noble brow but in the end even the greatest out there, living the dream, must realise his testicles are lower than before or her right breast is not in line with her left. Correct, correct, spend, spend, but aging, doesn’t go away.

This time round, on holiday in Cambodia and Vietnam, I found myself frightening myself. On the morning I was to go to Chau Doc, I thought of motorbike accidents and the demented way the Vietnamese drive. On the ferry across to Phu Quoc, I got worried about overloading and blocking exits with travelling bags.

However, it was the sheer inconvenience of it all that got to me early and got me thinking shouldn’t I just accept that I don’t like travelling anymore? Shouldn’t I just gracefully retire, hanging up my travelling gloves forever? Because, let’s admit it, however much you like snakes….when you meet them outside your hotel or under your motorbike, well, it gets you thinking.

I tend to stay in a good hotel for a few nights and then rough it in a cheapie, then back to a goodie. The best hotel I stayed in did this to me : It put me in a lovely, sea-view room but the air-con wasn’t working (36 degrees centigrade / Cambodia). It gave me a sumptuous buffet-breakfast one morning but the next told me there was only fried rice. If I wanted fruit I had to pay. (The morning after, the buffet was on again.) The explanation for these inconveniences was that below a certain number of guests – yes, you’ve guessed it! – no buffet. As for the air-con, just not bothering, I suppose.

So, as with literary masterpieces of the tragic kind, what act, and what scenes in particular, shook me to the core and made me question my lust for travel?

Picture me coming off Bokor Mountain in a monumental thunderstorm with the rain blinding me. A large, barrel-chested monkey runs in front of my motorbike and disappears into the undergrowth. The darkness enlarges and the rain lashes. A sloth-like creature passes my front wheel with only inches to spare, or I pass it with only inches to spare (doesn’t matter which). It seems to be enjoying the shower and bath and is taking it on the dark road.  There is nobody about and I can’t remember where the road breaks up and falls off the mountain and where the levels are so uneven I may fall off at twenty kilometers an hour. Even if I could remember, it’s not certain I’ll be able to see them.

It takes me an hour to get off the mountain and shiveringly I hit the relatively straight road into Kampot, but the hazards don’t go away. They just change. There is a motorbike and car off the road in a field and sirens going. People are still around and walking in the driving rain. Bikes, cars and semi-portable food-stalls still move through it all. A lone lorry, a Cambodian king on Cambodian roads, thunders through, hooting maniacally, mashing spray, puddle and dirt into hazardous gunge.

Anyway, I make it, shower, change, go for a beer, and meet a Belgian guy in the restaurant-pub who explains to me why the rains are so welcome but only after I’ve mentioned risking a lot on Bokor. “You see,” he tells me, “the dry season is about to start and we won’t see rain for months.” He then gives me the phone number of an eminent ornithologist in the region.

My clothes remain wet for two or three days. It’s also the way I travel that causes this.  I have so few things (to avoid weight which might give me back-ache) that rain is a problem. Now, I need to dry clothes and my money, too, alongside already washed stuff and unnecessarily washed stuff like my bird book and binocs, forlorn and out of place on the bed where I’ll need to place my excitable and largely insomniac brain in a couple of hours.

Health issues creep in. It’s not just remembering to bring your prescription medicines, your creams, toothbrush, electric, and charger, mustn’t forget that! It’s the knowledge that you are at risk, that the sun is not your friend, that the food is not your friend, that the mosquito is not your friend, that the rain is not….and that road kings can squash you without so much as two hoots.

BUT is routine and life in Pattaya and good meals and cleanliness what you want? Must those travelling gloves be hung up once and for all?

I reflect that I loved Bokor Mountain and Kep and sea-swimming but all those plastic bags, all that rubbish, all the rip-offs, the shouting at you to take a service you don’t want??? And what about the Khmers who don’t like you and stare at you? The ones cutting down trees in national parks or the ones gathering forest plants that are protected and feed the trees and animals that help the hornbills and the eagles to live?  Those Khmers and their stares have a weight and become a demoralising force.

Is dust, pollution and extreme heat in your face really a pleasure or the guy who hoots and hoots because he won’t overtake conventionally by moving out but expects you to hazard the dirt track on your right which might cause you to fall?  It’s the Cambodian way but boy is it dangerous!

What about the good guys? The ones you can relate to – the Aussies, the Europeans, the Americans? One time I stayed in a jungle-lodge. It cost $35. There was a very large spider sitting on the toilet, and the owner said I wouldn’t be needing two small bottles of water because I was one not two. When I let the mosq. net down, a cloud of insects, mosqs included, dead and alive, tumbled lustily on to my dirty bed.  That’s the same owner who is advertising a set of chalets long since closed just beside his noble abode. Why? I imagine to get unsuspecting tourists who want to stay in a chalet to go there, get disappointed, and may be drop in on him? Go to any place where a European or developed-world face lurks, and surprise, surprise, you’ll be charged more. Yes, by the same businessmen who pay their local workers the minimum wage which they in philanthropic moments acknowledge to be next to nothing.

I didn’t just travel on a motorbike. I also used mini-vans. I got uncomfortable fast. Some young backpackers are just odd – like the  Brit with the tattoo on her right breast who said hello cheerily, then didn’t speak for the rest from Sihanoukville to Kampot (100 minutes or more) but did say fuck in a loud voice just before she descended on to one of Kampot’s little streets.

When you do tire of hearing the locals call you a foreigner or request your attention, when you contemplate your mortality more than your immortality, that is probably the time to stop travelling.

I’ve been back in Pattaya for three weeks. I haven’t had a mosquito zeeing in my ear. They’re kept away by sprays and gadgets.  I’ve been riding my car around and haven’t felt my life’s in danger. I’ve enjoyed perverse moments when I’ve put other riders’ lives in danger for the sheer hell of it and to empathise with that lorry that wanted to squash this sensitive guy writing this sensitive stuff on that straight, wet road into Kampot after escaping  thunderstorm-night on Bokor Mount  I have sent shudders down Pattaya motorbike riders’ spines and I do give a damn, a little damn, but it’s been worth it. Who indeed doesn’t hanker after power?   My lovely Thai partner has returned from a stint of work and has been giving me marvellous meals. I don’t need to think about my six to ten fruit and veggies a day.  My lower intestine and all the others are well and truly functional. I am near doctors and I just toss my lisinopril and my felodipine down my throat with never a second thought, not forgetting 75mg of baby aspirin to thin the bad blood and help the uncardiac-arrested heart pumpaloid. The prices are the ones I know.I’m not going to get ripped off on a daily basis or have to live with the thought that I might be getting ripped off.

I begin to wonder about that long snake that was frightened of me as I watched it slithering into the broken rubble by my hotel on Phu Quoc Island. (Yes, the hotel with the radio music just outside my bedroom window that woke me at five every morning. Yes, the island that has a marvellous national park protecting 114 different bird species – according to the Aussie experts – which you can’t enter because you just can’t. Yes, the island with the white outlines of accident victims left on the road just to remind you that the spot you happen to be passing claimed two victims…when? You can’t know because the police neither date nor sign their artistic work.) Why should a snake be on an island and why did it swim there in the first place? Those enormous watery wilds I saw outside Ha Tien where the black-headed ibises fifty or more gathered must hold wondrous bird life. Yes, the rebel, restless thoughts just start coming back!

“La,” I shout, “another cup of your marvellous tea!” (which I couldn’t get in any hotel or bar in any part of south-west Cambodia or near-attached Vietnam). “Can you bring me my bird book and my snake book and my monkey and red-tailed squirrel book?”

Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m immortal, well, and contemplating another trip!

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