Tag Archives: backpacking

Bradt’s Exceptional Visits 2016

24 Jun


My upcoming Ivory Coast guide is featured in this article along with big-ups for Iran, Senegal, Shropshire and the Basque Country.

Eden’s Thrill Ride

11 Jun


My travelogue for of the delightful Pagsanjan Falls in the Philippines is right here, right now on the Selamta site:


2013 in review

2 Jan

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Excerpt from The Hitchers of Oz

22 Jun

The Most Lateral Digit

In 2007 I travelled to eight Asian countries, mostly by air, sometimes by coach and train, less frequently by sea and occasionally by the means of hitchhiking. Getting my thumb out usually resulted in taking my fate in my own hands. I enjoyed the ambiguity – who will pick me up? Where might I be dropped off? – and the freedom to bust out of the safe ‘n’ easy limits of modern tourism, what Guy Debord called ‘human circulation packaged for consumption … the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized’. All across Asia are outposts of the banal catering to Western tastes, colonies of the familiar in which you’ll find American fast food outlets, bars selling European beer, mock-bohemian hostels and – above all – the beach.

I could never spend too long on the beach, even though, as a creative writer, I liked its unreality, its suspension from the normal diktats of time, order and motion. The excess of heat and light distorts your perception of everything around you. You can feel like you’re in an invented world of isthmuses of blazing sand that reach into the lucid ocean through which the naked eye can see coral patterns of alien intricacy. There are newspapers and TVs on the beach but what they report seems so remote. A nuclear bomb could explode ten miles away, but its radiation wouldn’t leak into the hermetic bubble of the beach.

Other people seem unreal too. When you ask them about themselves, their answers seem contrived and implausible: a German whose parents own a huge porn shop in Hamburg, a UN peacekeeper on a weekend break, an undercover drugs agent for the Jakarta police who also happens to be a reflexology masseur.

As the sun sets, you find yourself sinking happy hour beers at a palm-shaded bar playing Jack Johnson. You’re living the cliché (or is it now a myth?) of postcards, TV holiday shows and what every Western traveler is told to want from a foreign trip.

The close proximity to bizarre animals can make you think you are roaming the Lost World or the Island of Dr Moreau. You wait for a six foot monitor lizard, essentially a mini-dinosaur, to cross the path that leads back to your hut where there’ll be a different critter to contend with each night: an audacious monkey trying to steal washing, a mysterious gold-backed spider – straight out of Poe – that takes hours of smothering with towels and insect repellent before it dies, cockroaches – those evolutionary strongarms, flying at your face like an apocalyptic beast – worms, frogs, birds of prey beating their wings against the frame of the window, and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes everywhere.

You lie in your sweaty bedclothes staring at the ineffectual fan on the ceiling, hoping its revolutions will hypnotize you to sleep. You reek of the science fictional smell of DEET that is all over your body to prevent bites. Bites that can give you malaria or dengue fever. Mosquitoes, the most dangerous animals in the world if you go by body count.

At around 4am, locals start burning great pyres of rubbish right outside your hut. Back West this is deemed so eco-unfriendly that it could only happen in a bad dream.

What further adds to that unreal feeling is that, on the beach, no-one has a job, is told what to do or has to abide by a routine. That is, of course, apart from the locals who all work extremely hard to maintain this ‘free space’ for the travelers who play roles like actors in a film. Every beach has its resident crackerjack who’s changed his name to mean ‘god of the wind’ or some such thing in the local language. Invariably he is from white middle-class origins, has dreadlocks and carries around a didgeridoo, even though he is unable to play it very well. He is holier than thou about the milieu – he knows every bar, fishing and diving spot, and everyone.

TS Eliot wrote ‘humankind cannot bear too much reality’, and I wonder if sometimes the opposite is true also. On one particular beach in Malaysia, I came to the decision that I’d borne too much unreality. So I hitchhiked out of there.

Taking his cue from Debord, Will Self makes a point in a Google Authors talk about the tyranny of modern transport, in which the traveler is oppressed by prearranged flight paths or train routes or boat courses.

First published in The Hitchers of Oz (2009)

The Terminal Beach: A British Family Travels in the Wake of Ondoy

12 Jun

Throughout my time in the Philippines, I never got over how early and suddenly the night would fall. Our coach was on Bacoor Bay at 6pm when the rowdy ocean to the west and the brush-covered mountains to the east fell black. The girls were already asleep, Daisy face-down in Donna’s lap. I looked at the other passengers. Some picked their noses, others jiggled to iPods. A huge woman ate a huge buko pie.

We were heading for Nasugbu, a beach recommended by Lonely Planet. After only a week in Manila we needed a break from the heat, the noise and the psychotic driving. The journey would take us through both remote countryside and the economic heart of Luzon – a contrast that intrigued me.

Our coach hit the Centennial Road. On my map this throbbed like a vein through the scrotum-shaped peninsular of southwestern Luzon. Nasugbu’s position on the map was arguably the boil hanging off the lower edge of the scrotum. I didn’t know how I’d come up with this nasty metaphor. I hoped it didn’t augur badly for our trip to the seaside.

The driver put on a CD of eighties pop. There was a malfunction and ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ played in fast-motion; Kylie Minogue abducted by the Chipmunks. Donna started awake. “Where are we and what on Earth’s happening?” she murmured, eyes cemented with sleep.

“It’s all right, darling,” I said. “Soon be in Nasugbu.”

The landscape grew taller, more built-up and better-lit. We passed townhouse developments with picket fences and controlled explosions of flowers. Checkpoints subdivided every road. All the curbs were yellow-striped. The coach pulled up at a Berlinesque wall signed CAVITE EXPORT PROCESSING ZONE. Beside it was a hammer-shaped monument with WELCOME written vertically down it. Over the wall were vast slabs of factory and warehouse. Looking at this post-industrial scene, it was hard to believe that the name ‘Cavite’ was derived from the Tagalog word for creek.

This EPZ (as it’s abbreviated) is a semi-independent state with its own tax laws and loose regulations. It has its own governing council and police force. Access is strictly controlled, hence all the checkpoints. Seventy thousand people work here in textiles, food processing, electronics and manufacturing. The pay is low, the shifts are long and the conditions dangerous. Anyone who tries to form a trade union gets kidnapped, hog-tied and murdered by aforesaid police. Only brave people try to form trade unions. Nonetheless, the region has a long tradition of radicalism. As the historian and Spanish-American War veteran James H. Blount wrote in 1913:

Cavite province has always been, since the opening of the Suez Canal,

about 1869, and the agitations for political reform in Spain which culminated

in the Spanish republic of 1873, quickened the thought of Spain’s East

Indies, the home of insurrection, the breeding place of political agitation.

The purpose of Cavite and the other 240 EPZs across the Philippines is to attract foreign investment. Indeed, IBM, Gap and Nike are all here but you won’t see their logos; they use regional subcontractors.

A dozen people left the coach and marched single-file to the wall. They reached for the ID cards around their necks.

We continued south through Silang, Cavite’s quiet, rural fifth district. I saw little but fields and churches with bell gables like decorated gingerbread. My friend, the poet Joel Toledo, grew up round here in the 1980s. Electricity was a rare luxury. His poem ‘Moth’ recounts what happened when Joel’s family switched the lights on for his grandmother’s funeral.

The harsh, yellow light recedes
and bursts around each footstep.
We all go up the staircase.
Moths of various sizes hug the wooden walls.

Joel now lives in a Manila condo with high speed broadband and cable TV. I wondered how many of those EPZ workers earlier had trekked from homes like the one in Joel’s poem to build parts for mobile phones and laptops. Statistically many would have; twenty six percent of Filipinos live with little or no power.

We hit silty terrain close to sea level, moonlit waves licking the road. The coach’s headlights fell on sugarcane spiked up like punk hairstyles and bubbly mango trees. Fish cages zigzagged along a hillside river that widened into a waterfall.

The coach stopped. I woke the ladies. As we were getting off, locals with Cavite EPZ ID cards were getting on. “Why are you going there?” I asked one man with a scar encircling his eye.

“No work here no more, po.”

“How come?”

He pushed past me without answering.

We stood outside Nasugbu Municipal Hall. Streetlamps highlighted its various shades of blue paint. A tricycle buzzed over.

“Take us to the cheapest room in Nasugbu,” I yawned. The driver nodded effusively as if that wouldn’t be a problem at all.

We passed street food stalls called POTATO HUGGER and CHINKY BUCK’S. They smelled stale and had few customers; maybe these two details were connected. Daisy pointed at a carousel – also short of punters – sparkling pink against the night.

We left the main drag for a barangay of shed-like abodes with plank roofs and iron gates. Further along were empty stucco bars with strobing neon signs. Our room was the flimsiest shed in the barangay. A Philippine Tarsier – the world’s smallest monkey – could have broken in.

We went to a resto-bar in the hope of food. Only ‘chicken lollipop’ was available. Daisy liked the sound of that – it had ‘lollipop’ in the title. She was less impressed with the reality: rubbery blobs of low-grade meat wrapped in tin foil. Donna told the waitress she was vegetarian. The waitress just smiled sadly.

A group of young people entered. Each one held a bottle of San Miguel and a cigarette. The boys wore beanies and hoodies. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would wear such garb in forty degree heat. I imagined one of them passing out midway through the set and being carried off-stage by a roadie, James Brown-style.

The girls wore short skirts and low-cut tops. Each one wanted a go on the videoke, but not one could sing. To make matters worse, they all insisted on ambitious eighties power ballads by Meatloaf, John Farnham and Bonnie Tyler. I’ve now heard ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ sung badly in several Asian countries and every time it makes me question the fundamental validity of Western civilisation. But I felt particularly sorry for the Philippines. We were exporting our crappy jobs to their EPZs and our crappy music to their drinking pits.

The trauma went on for half an hour, the poor girls hardly helped by a screen showing a ball bouncing over misspelled lyrics. Occasionally, Filipino beauty spots would also flash up on the screen: the talcum powder sands of Boracay Island, Palawan’s subterranean river, the Pagsanjan Falls, Mount Makiling’s jungle soda springs. But no pics of Nasugbu. “Never mind,” I thought with tipsy optimism. “We’ll find the beach tomorrow and everything will be fine. Just fine.”

One girl embarked on an ill-advised rendition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Daisy liked it enough to dance. Perhaps delirious from the heat, perhaps not, she combined Kate Bush-style twirls with punk pogoing. I had no idea she had ever seen Kate Bush dance or anyone else pogo.

Donna took her eyes off Daisy and opened her mouth to ask me something. Daisy stopped dancing and scowled at us. Apparently we had to watch in respectful silence the busting of Daisy’s each and every groove. Luckily she soon got bored and sat down.

The band came on and asked me for a request.

“Led Zeppelin!” I shouted, more tipsy now, if not drunk. In fact, I would have settled for anything other than more Bonnie Tyler.

Ou la la,” gasped the singer. The guitarist dropped his hands away from the fretboard. The drummer shrugged and didn’t seem to know where to put his sticks. I took all this to mean that Led Zep was beyond the band’s capabilities. Instead they launched into a kind of avant-garde free jazz take on Coldplay. I don’t think they intended to play avant-garde free jazz, it was just that the drummer couldn’t keep time and the guitars were egregiously out of tune.

Nonetheless I went to bed happy. Whether this had anything to do with the nine San Miguels and five Tanduay rums I’d imbibed is, of course, an open question. But all three of us were looking forward to a day on the beach, even if, so far, the portents hadn’t been great.

The next morning Daisy woke me up by jumping on my chest. “Get up, you puffy old man!” she ordered. We put on swimwear and walked the winding path to the beach, passing baubled citrus trees and hovels attached to hog pens. We sped up, raced each other, Daisy speed-talking in anticipation, her little eyes poised to catch the moment when the promised land would shine over the horizon…

…But it was not to be. Splinters of wood littered the sand like rice in between chunks of masonry, crisp packets, sweet wrappers, dented coconuts and ragged strands of rope. Further back from the sea, the trees were twisted into all kinds of nightmarish permutations. Beach huts had wall-sized holes in their… walls. Their roofs were missing every tile and the planks left behind resembled the spines of a fish after its flesh has been picked away. I was reminded of pictures of the aftermath of the battle for Corregidor.

I braced myself for tears from Daisy, but she just grimaced out to sea. No one said anything for a while. We may have been in mild shock. Even without all the debris, the shit-brown sand and squatter’s slum further along the shore wouldn’t have exactly made this place a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It goes without saying that there’d been no mention of these drawbacks in our Lonely Planet.

What had happened here? Typhoon Ondoy had wrecked parts of Manila a few weeks ago but nothing I’d read suggested that it had got this far south.

At that moment, an old Westerner with the narrow, tortured features of a Modigliani painting sloped by. He was holding hands with two Filipinas about Daisy’s age. The trio shared a family resemblance.

“In case you’re wonderin’,” the man grunted in military cadence – I guessed he was a Vietnam veteran as there are so many in the Philippines – “this beach took a real bad hit from Ondoy.”

OK, so the typhoon had come this far south. Nice of the travel agent to tell us about that. And the coach station staff. And the coach driver. And the hotel clerk.

I could hear the EPZ worker in my mind’s ear: “No work here no more, po.” Now it made sense. Of course there’s no work in a place that’s just been ruined by a natural disaster!

“It’s also off-season anyhow,” said the vet. As if the meteorological system itself wished to support his point, rain began lashing down.

“Just to add to the disappointment,” said Donna through gritted teeth.

“Most of the resorts are closed but you could try Casa,” said the vet, and walked on with his kids.

So we checked out of our cheap room and checked into overpriced Casa. The staff could not have looked more bored and when you ordered a pineapple juice they brought you a glass of water and a sachet of pineapple-flavoured powder even though there were actual, real, fresh pineapples hanging from all the trees in the garden. The only other guests were a log-nosed German and his pubescent Filipina squeeze.

We spent the rest of the day in the hotel garden, miserably going down the waterslide as the rain fell. Each time we climbed the steps of the waterslide we got to see the best view in Nasugbu: the rain lashing down on the typhoon-obliterated beach. Just as my mood had reached a hellish nadir, Daisy patted the slide with her little hand and said, “It’s nice sliding in the hot rain in the hot country, isn’t it?”

Somehow this comment from a sweet, innocent 4 year old seemed to compensate for all the disappointments of this doomed trip.

Originally published in the Philippines Free Press, April 2012

Mat Sellahs With Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

7 Mar

Mat Sallehs with Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

Francois Truffaut said ‘every film should say something about life and something about film.’ Since the 1930s and the golden age of B.S. Rajhans, Malaysian films have had much to say about Malaysian life. But what happens when Westerners get behind the camera? Have their portrayals of the country been positive, negative, fair-minded, inaccurate? How have such movies changed over the years?

One of the earliest offerings was Four Frightened People (1934) directed by Cecil B DeMille, Hollywood autocrat and master of the biblical epic. Four Americans wash up in the jungles of Borneo, having left their collective sense of shame on the boat. Cue plenty of close-up kisses and half-naked frolicking in waterfalls – about as racy as the movies could get back then. Four Frightened People taps into a long-held Western delusion that the East is just one big steamy, licentious free-for-all. As we’ll see later, this delusion persists today. Despite being set in Malaysia, Four Frightened People was in fact filmed in Hawaii and the native characters played by Japanese…

Film noir is a genre one usually associates with American cities, not rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. However, The Letter (1940) stars femme fatale Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the homicidal wife of a colonial administrator (Herbert Marshall) in Singapore. The opening montage – beautifully shot on location – is all cockatoos, coolies and rubber trickling from branches. Based on the play by W Somerset Maugham, The Letter climaxes with Marshall announcing his plan to buy a property in Sumatra. The problem is his wife has paid all their money to a blackmailer in possession of a letter that incriminates her…

In the 1950s and ‘60s, World War II became a favourite subject. Filmed in both Malaysia and Australia, A Town Like Alice (1956) was based on the bestselling Nevil Shute novel and starred Virginia McKenna and future Academy Award winner Peter Finch. Jean Paget (McKenna) is living and working in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invade. She survives the rest of the war thanks to her fluency in the Malay language and desire to engage with local ways. After the war is over, her ‘Malayophilia’ prompts her to return to the country to build a well for the orang asli.

The Camp on Blood Island (1958), made by British B-movie studio Hammer, has the politically incorrect strapline: ‘Jap War Crimes Exposed!’ That sort of sums it up really: allied POWs endure torture and humiliation in a prison camp in occupied British Malaya – not the greatest advertisement for the country! Although not a classic, The Camp on Blood Island’s graphic realism was very much ahead of its time.

Jumping ahead in time, the thriller Turtle Beach (1992) remains the most controversial Western flick to have engaged with local politics. Greta Scacchi plays a journalist investigating the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Pulau Bidong. Both the Malaysian government and elements of the Australian media lambasted the scene in which refugees are murdered by Malaysian policemen. While noting the talents of the lead actresses – Australian Greta Scacchi and Chinese-American Joan Chen – the critical reception was generally poor.

Entrapment (1999) is an altogether more light-hearted – and superficial – affair. A confused mixture of romantic comedy, Bond rip-off (apt then that Sean Connery stars) and crime caper, there is at least a gripping heist beneath the Petronas Towers and some stunning shots of attractions like KLCC, Bukit Jalil Station and the Malacca River. One wonders if Entrapment works better as a tourist information film.

Return to Paradise (1998) plays on the greatest fear of the hedonistic Western backpacker: getting busted for drugs. A suspenseful set-up is marred by poor research – the loose local women, gang violence and drinking culture make you wonder if writer Bruce Robinson has confused Malaysia with, well, somewhere else entirely. Robinson may well have brought his own interests into this script – he was, after all, responsible for the the cult British comedy Withnail & I (1986) which follows the (mis)fortunes of two alcoholic actors. Like other Western movies before it, Return to Paradise exoticises Malaysia as a sensuous land of easy thrills, yet when the protagonist (Joaquin Phoneix) falls foul of the law, we are presented with an authoritarian hell. Anyone who’s spent half an hour in Malaysia knows both conceptions are bunk!

Jungles of carnal abandon, mysterious plantations, brutal prison camps, island paradises – Western films have imagined Malaysia in many different ways over the last eighty years. But whereas Malaysian-made films have tended to say something about Malaysia, Western films about Malaysia have tended to say more about Western preoccupations.

First published in The Expat, October 2011

Dangerlust: An Interview with Tony Giles

3 Mar

Tony Giles has done a remarkable thing. 80% deaf and completely blind, he has travelled solo across the US, New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia. His account of the trip, Seeing the World My Way, veers from tragedy to comedy, disaster to epiphany, near-death experience to life-affirming moment. By the end of the book, I felt more exhausted than if I’d actually travelled the route myself – but also uplifted.

My first question is, ‘How on Earth (no pun intended) did you do it?’ While there’s plenty in the book about concentration, fortitude and trusting the senses he does possess, I still can’t get my head around his achievement. ‘My cane was essential,’ Tony tells me. ‘Without that I would have been run over many times. Spare parts for my hearing aid were useful too, as was learning how to count money by touch.’ He makes it sound easy.

Having lived and travelled in Southeast Asia myself, I know that the infrastructure isn’t really geared towards disabled people. How did he manage in Vietnam and Thailand? ‘It was definitely harder, and the language barrier was a real problem. But when I got into trouble, I knew that people would look out for me.’

Indeed, the kindness of strangers is crucial, with everyone from Irish backpackers to Saigon pimps helping him out. Random people tell him train times and describe famous sights. More seriously, he puts his life in the hands of guides when trekking in the Outback and hiking up treacherous mountains. It’s enough to restore one’s faith in humanity!

Robert Byron wrote that the traveller ‘can know the world only when he sees, hears and smells it.’ With that in mind, I ask Tony how exactly he experienced the places he visited. ‘When you’re deprived of one sense you improve another,’ he says. ‘My sense of taste and smell were highly developed – not always a good thing!’ Food is certainly a good thing in the book, and it’s rendered in lavish detail. When he tucks into a bowl of Vietnamese pho (noodle soup), the reader tucks in too. Tony learns to make character judgements according to tone of voice, scent, even by feeling the features of someone’s face. He navigates busy cities by counting the roads he crosses and feeling his way along blocks.

This self-reliance plus the altruism of others sees him safely across 280,000 miles.

Even so, there are near misses on almost every page, compounded by Tony’s hard drinking and dangerlust. In the States alone he knocks himself unconscious, unwittingly gets into a fight, almost crushes his leg and nearly gets shot. The crisis point comes in Melbourne when a doctor tells him he has acute kidney damage. ‘I guess I was in a Jimi Hendrix/Jim Morrison sort of mindset. I didn’t care if I lived or died then.’ But he adds, ‘If I’d known a bit more about kidneys I may have come home!’

Instead he goes to Cairns and takes a 14,000 foot skydive. This, however, is not as thrilling as his favourite moment of the whole journey: bungee jumping off a bridge in Taihape, New Zealand. He writes, ‘the danger, the fear, the madness – I loved it all and wanted more’.

Tony’s self-destructive streak began in his teens as a reaction to ‘the stigma of blindness’ and the loss of his father. Travel offered ‘a way of escape’ that made sense of his life and the world. It’s still his main passion, and he’s given up drinking to stay healthy for future adventures. Next spring sees the release of a sequel, Seeing the Americas My Way, and soon he’s off to Africa. Mind how you go, Tony!

First published in the Bristol Review of Books Summer 2011.