Have you ever been so hot, you could see your skin sizzle in the sun, popping like hot oil in a pan? Could you genuinely hear the marrow boiling in your bones? Has your face ever melted off, dripping from your skull like a Nazi opening the Arc of the Covenant?
Because if you have, you’ve gone quite mad.
However, it feels like those things might be possible in Vietnam during the month of May. Forty degrees centigrade is no environment for a human, and yet, there they are, the denizens of Saigon, wearing hoodies in the heat, and gloves in the sun.
Thankfully, Vietnam has its own Cameron Highlands-style hill station, namely a town called Dalat. Its altitude makes it a blessedly temperate place to visit, and a welcome break for our delirious pores.
Ho Chi Minh City is hectic – let’s just get that out there. The streets are a torrent of traffic, through which you pass like a miniature Moses; while the biblical plagues of rats and cockroaches will have you worrying after your first-born.
But I’ll pass over those minor details and skip to the chase: we were here to meet some mates.
The first was Robbo – that’s his name, not John, as he sometimes introduces himself; just Robbo – who I went to school with and have known for two, long, pun-filled decades. He is almost infuriatingly kind and generous and thoughtful – if that’s possible – and is as funny as his favourite joke:
“Why did the girl fall off the swing? – Because she had no arms.”
As I’ve mentioned before, Swarana and I are not very good at backpacking. No more evident is that fact than in our laborious exploration of Vietnam.
Most people pick a route: north to south or south to north. We essentially did laps.
We had pals to meet, you see; friends were coming over from the US, the UK and South Korea, not to mention a mate who actually lives in Vietnam. And in our endeavour to see them all, we went to Hue twice, Hoi An twice, Saigon twice and Hanoi THREE TIMES.
This makes a mockery of chronological blog-mongering.
So, in an effort to retain some semblance of form in this account, I’ll be merging all three visits to Hanoi in one post, despite many of the events book-ending either side our 45 days in the country.
When you finally breach the sprawling limits of Phnom Penh, the shape of the country becomes apparent: it’s flat, as far as the eye can see.
To me, it’s a strange and oddly compelling sight, to see unbroken steppe fade to transparency. The absence of obstruction – hills, forests, buildings – is fascinating to me, I suppose because I’m used to rolling landscapes and obscured horizons. Continue reading We snook a look at Sihanoukville→
The transition from Singapore to Cambodia’s sprawling capital city Phnom Penh feels a bit like Marty McFly travelling from the pristine future to a Biff-ravaged alternate 1985. There’s not as much on fire, and no one calls anyone a “butthead”, but the relative comparison is sound.
First thing’s first – transport form the airport. March straight past the taxis, with their air-con and English-speaking drivers, and head for the marginally cheaper tuk-tuks beyond – you’re a backpacker now, remember? You don’t get taxis. Continue reading Putting Phnom Penh to paper→
Romance. That’s what I’d hoped for from Melaka, and under different circumstances, it may well have delivered.
South of Kuala Lumpur and sat on the coast, Melaka was once a prosperous trading town with a long history of colonial influence. Now, it’s a quaint little place that’s clearly pushing its tourism potential, with tonnes of museums, tours and guesthouses springing up. You can ascertain the sentiment of the place by its garish tuk-tuks. Continue reading Knackered in Melaka→
We descended from the highlands refreshed and reinvigorated, and reluctantly acclimatising to the renewed heat and humidity of the lowlands. Props to Mr Cameron, and that glorious quasi-English climate he discovered.
First impressions of Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is commonly known) included: Ooh, look at all the tall buildings; Aah, what a lovely clean monorail; Hey, look, Petronas!; and, finally, Titty wangs are great!
The bus up to the Cameron Highlands is as gorgeous as it is exciting. Winding up the mountains, the road teeters perilously on the edge of cliffs, or meanders meekly through the jungle. The views are remarkable, which is just as well, as the bus shunts from side to side as it corners each bend, rendering a book about as enjoyable as a migraine (which is what you’ll get if you try to read).
Getting to Ipoh is a doddle. It’s about a tenner on the bus from Georgetown, including the transfer to Butterworth, which is the town on the mainland facing Penang. The roads are well maintained, and the view of lush rainforest-covered hills gives you something pretty to look at for the majority of the journey.
Yes, the bus terminates at a terminal about 45 minutes from the centre, but friendly staff there will stick you on a public bus that’s going the right way – and which are blessedly air-conditioned. And making your way around the city is easy too, with proper road signs at each junction and a river to keep your bearings. Continue reading Getting deep in Ipoh→
After a month of island-hopping, we felt the need for something a bit different, and Georgetown promised to be exactly that.
Those of you with some knowledge of Malaysia will balk at my error: “But Georgetown IS on an island, you fool!” Yes, yes, I know, but it’s connected to the mainland by a big fat bridge, so it doesn’t count. Continue reading Spicy variety in Georgetown→