Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Trade, food and love

A delayed Thai train. A perfect opportunity for catching up with some blog writing. Sitting on a bench on Chiang Mai platform gleaning tit bits of information from the Chinese girl who is good at asking officials when we might leave.

It can be difficult to keep up with someone else's travels. In the last six weeks, since leaving Australia I have been around a bit so just to save any confusion - a summary:

I spent the second two weeks of January on the island of Borneo. My bike stayed in its box. The island is made up of three countries: Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. I stayed in Brunei and visited Sabah, in Malaysia. I then flew to Thailand and have been here almost a month. I have cycled for a few days. My decision to slow the trip down has led to less cycling, more trains and buses, less blog writing, a greater appreciation of Thai food, its markets and restaurants and spending time with some lovely people. I have come to the conclusion that three of the most important things that bring the world together are trade, food and love.

Brunei is a small oil rich country of 400,000 ruled by the Sultan. I stayed there with my friend Hilary who is a maths teacher at the international school. She and her husband Tony provided a home from home. Brunei is an interesting country. An oil rich dictatorship, the Sultan rules by decree. Until 1986 the country was a British protectorate. On the one hand Bruneians, as long as they are ethnic Malays, enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. They pay no taxes, have subsidised cars with very cheap petrol - people do not walk in Brunei - everyone drives on the highways that criss cross the country. People are also well looked after with state pensions. I met a group of Bruneian students on a day trip to the jungle. The students were sixth formers studying travel and tourism. Many of them planned to go to British universities, paid for by the Bruneian government before coming back to work in the oil industry. My friend Jaime's dad benefited from a similar programme though when he went to Britain he was not obliged to come back to Brunei.

I was interested in the nature of the dictatorship. It is certainly a strict Muslim country. You are expected to dress discreetly, no alcohol is allowed. Although you can bring in two bottles of wine and 24 beers every 24 hours so there is a culture of booze cruises amongst the expats. Recent decrees include no dancing and nothing is allowed to open between 12 and 2 on a Friday. Hilary and I were also surprised to read in the museum that circumcision is considered 'noble' for a woman. Baby girls are circumcised at 40 days. Female genital mutilation is defended by many and though not as extreme as the type performed in some parts of east Africa still a horrible practice, though done with good intention.

This traditional, family orientated and conservative culture means expats and rich Bruneians live a very separate life. I spent an afternoon lazing around the pool at the Empire Club. An opulent palace built by the Sultan's brother Jefri - the former finance minister - with public cash. Eventually a scandal meant the Sultan had to sack Jefri who avoided prosecution by turning over all his weath to the state. Even in a dictatorship the public have limits. Another interesting part of the expat life is the hash. A legacy of empire, the hash involves men running through the jungle, following a paper trail and ending of course with many beers. So very British.

Malaysian Borneo was quite a contrast from Brunei. I took a ferry to the island of Labuan and then another to KotaKinabalu. Here I met up with friends Xenia and Grace who just happened to be there at the same time. I also met Clare Cave. We had a great time travelling over the next week together in Malaysia. I use Claire's surname because she is a singer songwriter and has just released her first EP - In all good record shops (well on iTunes) now!

For my 10 days in Malaysia I felt I had joined the back packer circuit. This is where people come to climb mount Kinabalu, see Orangutangs, dive with turtles and treck in the leechy jungles. In one hostel I met Danny the German and Nico and Natalie. Nico was Australian and was cycling. Nico had for a long time been on a diet of only raw foods. I learned a lot about Malaysian fruit. The infamous sick smelling Durian may be the king but mangosteen is the queen with a regal purple exterior amd a small green crown, the fruit has a lychee, sweet and soft inside. Natalie his girlfriend was from Denmark and was training as a sex therapist. She said she helped people to 'first love themselves' but unlike some practioners was not one for practical therapies. A fruit expert and sexologist. What a combination.

Britain's Empire on Borneo grew through the trade of hard wood and rubber. Using elephants and Indian workers the British trading companies thrived. It is now palm oil plantations which dominate the landscape and threaten the rain forest and its inhabitants including Orangutans and the famous big nosed Proboscis monkeys. Despite quite a few tourists and its British history walking down the street or trying to communicate often generated much giggling from the local people. This took some getting used to but felt very adventurous even without the bike.

After a few days in the coastal town of Sandakan, Claire, Grace and a German (Danny) headed to a little island called Mabah. Close to Sipadan - a diver's Mecca. No one is allowed to stay on Sipadan. In fact you need a permit to snorkel or dive there. Only a handful can go daily and the permits get booked out months in advance. We stayed in a really friendly, very basic place in the water village. Most of the people on the island were originally from the Philippines. People have moved here for a better life. Tourists bring with them a lot of cash. Trade moves money around.

Aside from a sleepless night caused by a rat in our dorm attracted by the two tiny bananas I had squirrelled away in my bag, the bed bugs that feasted on me for two nights and the trigger fish attack that left a fellow snorkeler with a bleeding toe - Mabul was a fun few days. Our last night ended dancing on the beach with a group of work chums from Kuala Lumpur and a glamourous group of lady boys under an almost full moon. A moment from the road I will try never to forget.

Thailand escaped Empire and has therefore a unique culture combination of vibrant and tolerant that has seduced so many Westerners. In Thailand people consider that women are more intelligent than men. Friends who are looking to adopt here told me adopting a Thai baby girl is apparently close to impossible.

Bangkok was high tech, buzzing and glitzy. Much cleaner and more modern than I was expecting. In Bangkok I stayed with Steph who is another teacher in an international school and her partner James. Once again it was great to see a place through the eyes of someone who lives there. Steph took me to her local floating market. Hardly any tourists and amazing food. I tried little fried quails eggs with soy sauce, green pancakes with candy floss filling and scallops still in their shells. Buying food at local markets is what made me think about the power of trade to bring people together. Both buyer and seller benefit and despite little or no language skills a small connection is made.

Inspired by Thai food, I signed up for two Thai cooking courses. The first was with a lovely lady called Poo whose cooking school in her own community in the Bangkok slums had been financed with a loan from an Australian charity that provides micro loans to fledging businesses. An inspiring woman with a teenage son and on her second marriage she was the brains and the graft behind the slick operation that had kept is soul and brought cash to her own community.

From Bangkok I went north, with still not on the bike. The night train to Chiang Mai was an experience and a half. I had to buy a first class ticket - I had a room to myself. I quickly got to know my neighbours - Tony who had moved from the States to live in Thailand and a Canadian couple on holiday. I convinced my new friends to walk through the train - through staff compartments and sparking tracks to the restaurant car. Opening the door to this carriage was like opening the door to a secret club. Hit by the muggy breeze from the open windows - no air conditioning here, chincy Fairy lights, music videos and the loud buzz of conversation over the roar of the train. I joined Beatrice, a 59 year old artist from France and 20 something Augustine from Argentina for a beer. The night took a more surreal turn when a Thai police officer glugging rum with the best of them joined the group. What a night. And if I hadn't met Beatrice then perhaps I would not have been in the same restaurant as 'Javier', the Spanish cafe owner.

After a few days of coffees, markets and more amazing street food in Chiang Mai I decided it was time to get back on the bike and take on some of Thailand's mountains. The fact that Javier was staying in Pai was purely coincidence.

The ride would take two days. Easy enough I thought to myself.

The road out of Chiang Mai was flat. Easy cycling. And then I turned off to Pai and soon the hills began. Time to stop for a coffee. I probably, as usual, spent too long drinking coffee and didn't realise how soon it would get dark. The hill was incredibly steep and showed no sign of ending. I asked two fruit sellers how far to my intended stop and they said it was far. One tried to get on the back of my bike and I realised he was a bit the drunk side. I stopped at the next place advertising coffee and asked if they knew of any guest house. Owner, Chuchai said I could stay over the road in someone's house. He went to ask the man and he said his wife would be back at 7pm so I could come them. So far so good.

Chuchai then cooked me Chinese duck dinner and cracked open a special box of banana cakes he'd bought in Japan. Seven came and went but no sign of the lady opposite. Chuchai said that when his wife came home I could stay in their house. Everything was getting a bit strange. Eventually his wife came home with another man and two younger females. I slept on the sofa - one of five sleeping in the same room. After sampling one of Chuchai's perfectly timed 25 second espressos (he learnt how on google) I was back on the road to cycle the remaining rather tough 66 kilometres.

Pai is a small hippy town that turned into an even bigger attraction when two Thai rom coms were set here. It is on the backpacker trail so the local pool is awash with tattoo branded 20 somethings. There is also a well established artistic community comprised of Thai artists, musicians and a fair number of older American hippies who have moved here for the low cost of living. Others are drawn by the authorities relaxed approach to cannabis. In fact doing nothing in Pai has become a catch phrase for the place.

After several days of doing not much in Pai, apart from finding a regular breakfast spot, recognising and greeting the locals, swimming in two diifferent pools and eating some beautiful banana pancakes to celebrate pancake day I headed back to Chiang Mai. This time though on the back of a motor bike. Those 742 curves were so much easier with petrol.

One teacher, one chef, one bike, one moped ... who knows where the journey takes me next. Trade? Food? Or ...?



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  2. Hello again from Colorado, USA. It looks like you're continuing to have a fantastic adventure, you and your bicycle. What became of James? I know he went home, but I thought he might have rejoined you by now. I hope all is well with him. Thanks so much for sharing this adventure with us. I look forward to reading more.
    Mark, from Riverside Wy last fall.

  3. It seems that you had a fun and wonderful adventure exploring the island of Borneo, huh? It’s great that it’s breezy there. You know, the last time I traveled out of the country, the heat caused me a lot of stressed. The temperature is so high and our apartelle had no air conditioner. Well, most of the homes and establishments in that area don’t have AC units. I think the people there are just used to extremely hot weather, so it’s fine with them. We have no choice, but to adapt with the situation. Nevertheless, my journey was awesome because the food was great and I met nice people.

    Darryl Iorio

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