Friday, 27 November 2009


Well, here we are in the Philippines. Our second to last destination. In six weeks we’ll back in London. Homeless. Unemployed. Cold. And if I know England in January, probably wet too. But for now, Life is for living, and that is pretty easily done in this neck of the sunny woods. For a while we actually debated whether or not we should come to the Philippines. For one it sounded like Manila was submerged by recent typhoons. The Foreign Office is not terribly optimistic on the subject either, adducing terrorism, kidnapping, tropical storms, swine flu and military clashes as reasons not to come here. Of course there is the recent case of the 79 year old Irish Priest, Father Michael Sinnott, who was kidnapped and made to trek through mountainous countryside for a month. Upon being released the priest went on to say that his captors treated him really well and were pretty cool guys. He ended by saying "I have no desire to leave [my work in the Philippines], although I don't think they'll kidnap me again. I think if they wanted to kidnap somebody they'd be inclined to go for a much younger man because I was not able always to hike with the speed, and keep going - I often had to rest while they were hiking."

The uncertainty about travelling to the Philippines also came about from various conversations along the way. For example, I met a gregarious Filipino fisherman in Borneo and told him I would be going to Manila in a couple of weeks. He looked at me sceptically and said, “Have you ever studied any martial arts?” When I confirmed I had he smiled and said “Oh good, that kind of thing helps in Manila.” In the end though, we decided that we wanted to come here, and what a good decision that has turned out to be. We arrived at Clark Airport in the early evening and made our way into the lobby area where a long row of taxi companies hollered for business. There were maybe a dozen desks, all attended by wildly gesticulating and vociferous attendants. It was all good humoured though, done with broad smiles and with none of the animosity that you sometimes get in other East Asian countries. After messing about for a bit we decided to take the bus into town at a fraction of the price. The sunset from the bus was spectacular, a crimson ball of fire dipping beneath black granite clouds and then sudden darkness. We travelled for a disconcertingly long time.
The Rough Guide mentions that the airport is only seven kilometres out of Manila, yet we had been travelling for about forty minutes. The book came clandestinely out of our bag, we conferred in low tones and looked about furtively. Enormous billboards rolled by the windows, far larger than the ones we see in Europe. The traffic grew denser. And then intervention from a stranger, half obscured by the poor light in the bus. “You look lost… Where are you going?” A conversation ensues between us and our inveterately friendly interrogator and a couple of his friends. It turns out his name in Anthony, and he going pretty close to where we need to get to. We can hop out the bus with him and his friends, have a meal with them and then he’ll show us where we need to go. And all the time I am thinking, “This is just too easy, he is far too friendly… What’s his angle? What is really going on here?” The warnings from a thousand conversations and guide books comes flooding back. I fidget with my camera bag, steal looks at Nipun for her opinion and feign disinterest in the conversation, but then, as the bus stops and the conductor announces the stop we agree to join them. The next thing we know we are in a massive mall at Kenny Rogers Roasters, eating roast chicken and his friend, Leia, is giving us travel advice. She is a director of an up and coming travel company specializing in tours around the Philippines and fills up pages upon pages of travel advice for us. Tells us to be alert whilst we are in the Philippines. Anthony smiles continually and turns out to one of the nicest guys we have met whilst travelling. He is not only incredibly affable, he is also impeccably incredibly trustworthy and helpful. We decide to stay quite local to where we are and get a cab with another of the girls from the group called Jen. Jen insists on paying for the cab, nothing will convince her that we should pay as we are taking her out of her way. And throughout our travels in the Philippines these random acts of kindness have followed us everywhere. We decided to meet up with Leia and Anthony the following night and when we got a little lost, two twenty year old Filipino’s accompanied us for half an hour trying to find the bar we were looking for. Not only did they insist on finding the bar for us, they ended up joining us for drinks then dinner afterwards. And I think back to the Filipino fisherman who asked me if I knew how to fight. In some stage of out conversation I asked him why all the Filipino’s I had met were so damn friendly. He just laughed and said, “That’s it, we are a brotherhood.” That is how it has been for us. Sadly, it is not all like this though. The fanatics have their heels in the ground and 57 people were massacred in South Philippines this week. Included were women, children and 27 journalists. But for the few that tarnish the image of millions.

Our stay in Manila was good. The first hotel we checked into had rooms for rent at three tariffs: Four Hours, 12 Hours and 24 Hours. Apparently this is not a knocking shop, after all there is a massive picture of the Virgin Mary in the lobby. Rather there are a lot of travellers in Cuzon who need a place
to wash up and dump their bags for a few hours. Chuck, one of our new companions laughed at this theory, others maintained it’s veracity. We were too tired to care. We got the room for twelve hours, watched the Graham Greene classic “Travels with My Aunt” on the telly and passed out cold. Early the next morning we caught the train across town and then jumped on a jeepney towards Malatte where we stayed for the next couple of days. My impressions of Manila are still numerous and yet still undefined. For one it is massive. Sorry, make that MASSIVE. Between 10 and 20 million massive depending on which statistic you use. The traffic is diabolical and the air is thick with fumes. It is colourful, energetic, has more malls that anywhere I have been before and the trains at rush hour are worse than those of London. McDonalds has long lines of yellow “McDelivery” motorbikes. The restaurants are supernumerary and many of them are Western chains. The Filipino food we have tried is mostly delicious. In fact the only exception to this rule has been Balut, an incubated egg that is boiled and served after seven or fourteen days. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In the case of Belud they come at the same time. After several litres of Red Horse (local beer, seven percent volume and cheaper than chips) I tried one last night. The experience was short and only half completed. I like my chicken with chips, as opposed to egg.

The balance of our time in Manila was spent exploring the immediate area that we were in. The Bay of Manila has spectacular sunsets, but if you walk too far down Adriatico Street then things begin to look very ropey. There are an absurd amount of armed guards around, and our Pension seemed more like a security camp than a guesthouse, complete with a shaved head, shotgunned sentinel. During our stay Nipun and I got separated on a train (the genius that I am I got off a stop too early) and for the thousands of people around we thought we’d never find each other again. It took a frantic, panic stricken hour. Overall I really liked Manila, but it seems like the kind of town where the El Mariachi quote “Bless me Father, for I have just killed quite a few men” might not be that uncommon.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Sabah, Borneo

“There was not one amongst us whom looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.”

Ben Okri - The Famished Road

For about the last ten years (if not longer) I’ve been meaning to read The Famished Road. The winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, it was one of those books that was always on my wish list; on the list of things to read, the self same list of things that never got done. Last week I found a copy of it in the middle of Borneo of all places. It was sitting unloved on a dusty shelf in a guest house looking well thumbed and creased from spine to cover. Set in Nigeria the story centres on the fairly common African theme of a spirit child, that is, a child who is born for a short time and then returns to the spirit world, continually dying at a young age and haunting parents by returning to earth only to depart prematurely again. Their ephemeral lives are cyclical, a curse to their parents at the indulgence of the spirit that would rather dwell in the world beyond: “to be joyful on the eternal dew of the spirit.” The story is beautifully and hauntingly written, rich in surreal imagery and lyrical prose. I find myself reading and re-reading sentences, paragraphs, pages. The extract above seems to ring true for me, for throughout our travels we are constantly confronted with the “simple beauties of the universe,” and in many ways this journey of ours has made me see this world we inhabit in a much clearer and cleaner light. We have both been asking ourselves what we have achieved, if anything, by bunking off work for a year, the ultimate indulgence of wandering the earth at leisure. And in some ways I think the answer for me is that we are learning to see again, breaking away from the routines that made my daily life in London so familiar and predictable. There are many times that we have felt humbled by our experiences and what we have seen, and the enrichment that our lives have gained is beyond measure.

Few places that we have been to so far have been quite as beautiful as Borneo. We spent just over three weeks in the Malaysian state of Sabah and for this period of time we decided to hire a car and make our way around at our own pace. It has to be said that the car we ended up with was more like a motorbike with four wheels, a gutless contraption that we decided not to drive over 80 km per hour lest the wheels came off, literally. Going uphill, of which there were many, we were continually fighting between second and third gears, whilst the down hills were taken with one foot constantly hovering above the brake. The tyres, mostly bald, were cause for grave concern whilst the engine went through half a pint of oil every two days. Having said this though, it was great to drive again and our death trap car did us proud. We travelled to the Tip of Borneo in the North, to Sandakan in the East and then down south as far the town of Semporna. We drove through the Kinabalu National Park, home to South East Asia’s highest mountain. We watched with horror as our punctured tyre was mended by enlarging the rupture and then ramming a pliant piece of rubber into the sundered tyre. “Is that safe?” I asked. Though in truth I did not want an answer. It was a true adventure, and a real highlight of our journey thus far.

Our journey started in Kota Kinabalu, the sprawling state capital of Sabah. KK as it is commonly referred to is a good place to stop for a few days. Whilst is not crammed with immediately obvious things to do, it has a friendly vibe to it and the abundant local restaurants serve cheap and delicious food. There is a second hand clothes market that has all the frenetic energy of Harare’s Mbare, and if we were not backpacking I would have been in there like a shot. “Look at this eh! One careful owner you say? Done!” Next to this is a fruit market which joins onto a craft village, and then, the jewel in the crown: the Filipino food market that opens up a six each evening. Here, for far less than a fiver, you can dine on a combination of massive prawns, spicy chicken wings, barbequed tuna steaks. The air is thick with charcoal smoke and redolent of grilled seafood. If it was Europe, Health and Safety would have a word to say. It is not though, and the smoke and the swirling smells combine to create an enigmatic setting. Set on about an acre of land the market is crammed with vendors, each with fresh fish from the harbour and slabs of chicken coated in chilli and lime. Reflecting on it I feel like Pavlov’s dog, the saliva forming at the corner my mouth.

We hired our car from an execrable lady who was overtly intent on trying to get us to hire a car that was way beyond the budget we had agreed. It was a battle of the wills to get what we discussed on the phone with her, and we witnessed the same shameless routine a couple of weeks later between some other travellers and herself. Once we were on our way our first stop took us right up to the Northern most point of Borneo. We travelled through the cloud penetrating Crocker National Park mountain range, through verdant rice fields and finally into plantations of palms that stretched back as far as the eye could see, cultivated for the production of palm oil. After about a five hour drive we reached the town of Kudat and checked into a hotel with no running water which was a bit of a surprise. We ate in a roadside restaurant that was showing European football on one TV and a British B grade horror movie on the other. No one spoke English but the crowd were glued to the gratuitous movie in which a blond strumpet is hunted down mercilessly by a group of hooded up Essex style chavs intent on ruining her day. We drove on to the Tip of Borneo, forty five minutes north, for the sunset. The drive takes you past deserted beaches with turquoise seas and along deeply rutted dirt roads, thick with mud from the equatorial rains and lined with palm trees. The Tip of Borneo is magnificent and being there for sunset, more or less alone, is just one of the reasons why it was so worthwhile having a car for this trip.
Perched on a furthest extremity of Borneo you can see both the sunset and sunrise from the same point, though sadly we missed dawn owing to heavy rain and indolence the next day. Instead we explored Kudat, with it’s broad promenade and clock tower with four clocks, each of them stopped at different, incorrect times. The town is mostly dependent on fishing and the boats were in with the morning catch, the men weighing their catch before it was put into boxes of ice and loaded into trucks.

Back in the car we headed through to Kinabalu National Park, along roads that were lined with the road kill of countless dogs. One, standing over the fresh cadaver of it’s friend, ran straight at our car, rabid and crazed and frightening in it’s aggression. We narrowly missed it, but I got the feeling it’s days were numbered. Mt Kinabalu (4095 metres) is the highest mountain in South East Asia and the journey was marked by a fairly steep and consistent incline. As we got closer to the mountain we became enveloped in cloud and the car engine faltered between second and third, inexorably climbing slowly uphill to the high pitched scream of an engine that is enormously unhappy. Alarmingly there were no road signs indicating that we were on the right route so it was some relief when we pulled up in the National Park. We found accommodation half a kilometre away and explored the immediate area around the mountain. The ascent is open to any that wish to climb the mountain. Typically it takes roughly two days. In our case we came, we saw, we said “no way.” There are many who take this climb very seriously however. Each year Mt. Kinabalu is hosts an international Climbathon, the current record being 2 hours and 45 minutes to ascend and descend the mountain. It has to be said that these athletes’ are made of far sterner stuff than your humble narrator. That evening our neighbours were boisterous and noisy. At about two in the morning I ventured out onto our balcony to have a word. A thin layer of cloud lay below us obscuring the land below, whilst above the sky was clear and bright with stars. It was beautiful, and our neighbours had gone to bed anyway so the tranquillity was complete. The next morning we did a walk of the botanical gardens and one of the numerous trails in which an abundance of orchids and pitcher plants flourish. We met a couple who were about to climb the mountain, laughed at their expense (though no doubt the climb is an unforgettable experience) and then we were on our way again. Our journey that day was an easy one, a mere hour and a half to Ranau. We stopped at the War Memorial which commemorates the Sandakan Death Marches of World War II, for further information. The Death March, which saw the deaths of about 1800 Australian and 600 British Prisoners of War, is sometimes referred to as Australia’s Holocaust. It is a fair point, the cruelty and loss of life was immense. But Australia’s Holocaust? That does kind of overlook the estimated 10 000 aborigines murdered in Queensland alone between 1860 and 1930 by colonial settlers. The War Memorial is beautiful though and has been loving reconstructed from the disrepair to which had fallen by a Thai living in Sabah. In the entrance area he displays the somewhat poignant legend “The Difficult Takes Time, The Impossible a Little Longer.” Under the impression that my mother had lost a brother in a Japanese POW camp we went to a few War Memorial sites in Borneo and searched for his surname amongst the plaques. It turns out that after all it was her uncle and I had his name wrong anyway, so needless to say that bit of family history went undiscovered.

From Ranau we continued our drive through the lush countryside of Sabah, across wide muddy rivers and hills lines with palms. In places one side of the road would have completely disappeared, having subsided and crumbled away. We passed through the dingy town of Telupid, contemplated lunch there and out of respect for our stomachs carried on driving. After a few more hours we reached Sepilok, the sanctuary which cares for orphaned and psychologically fragile orang utans. We watched these beautiful primates feeding for a couple of hours and then continued onto the town of Sandakan. Sandakan is a fishing village which is known to be quite beautiful, though as we drove into the town it was impossible not to notice the shanty town on the outskirts. The next morning I went down to the docks at about five o’clock and marvelled at the abundance of sea food that was being hauled in from the boats. Every type of fish I could think of was on display, including (rather sadly) some large rays. They look a lot more graceful in the ocean.

We set off once more, went to another War Memorial where we continued looking for the wrong person, and then drove through to Semporna. A new feature to the drive were the supernumerary fruit stalls that lined the road in places. For about 20p we bought enough bananas to keep us going for three days. We finally got into Semporna that evening and then set about trying to arrange a dive for the following day. Our confident approach of “We’d like to dive at Sipidan Island tomorrow” had us laughed out of town. As one of the world’s premier dive sites you need to book a couple of months in advance. We did however manage to arrange three dives at nearby Mabul, which were fantastic. The highlight for me was an artificial reef where enormous schools of jacks and barracuda swam amongst the constructed structures beneath the waves. The dives were really good and the variety of fish and coral was fantastic. Next dive site, Apo Island, the Philippines! Having spent a bit of time in Semporna it was time to start heading back to Kinabalu. This entailed largely retracing our steps as many of the roads in the South of Sabah are in very poor condition owing to logging vehicles and heavy rains. Along the way we stopped at Madai caves, famous for it’s harvesting of birds nests which are then used to make birds nest soup. Predictably the caves stunk of bird excrement and we stepped in many dark and dank puddles that I am happy to forget about. We had planned to stop at the coastal town of Lahud Datu, which received a favourable appraisal in the Lonely Planet. After an hour in the town however it became apparent that the place had the charm of medieval dentistry. We got going immediately after eating and drove straight through to smelly Telupid. By this stage night had descended and the driving became a bit unpleasant. For long, sinuous stages of road we would get stuck behind long trucks carry palm oil, upon overtaking we would be reminded that our car had the acceleration of nonagenarian and then suddenly the road the would turn to rough gravel or a long backlog of traffic would indicate a section of road where only one lane was usable. There was the usual problem of people not dipping their lights and the sight of Telupid was greeted like an old friend. The friendship was brief however and we set off early the next morning and made our way back into Kota Kinabalu in torrential rain. Our trip around Sabah was at an end, but it was such a memorable expedition. That night we dined at Pizza Hut, which is even worse in Kota Kinabalu than it is in the UK. After a few more days in KK we were back on the plane and flying to our next-to-last destination: The Philippines.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


Since the last post from Johor Bahru and it’s “seedy appeal” as Auden would have put it, I went through a brief stage of feeling really flat and unenergetic. I had brain overload, I felt fatigued and generally run down. Like I had been in an art gallery for too long and my brain had cramp. I am not sure if this had anything to do with arriving in Singapore. For one our hotel there represented the best accommodation we have had in months. A proper hotel with glass elevators and posh restaurants and air conditioning. A shower with hot water at such good pressure that it could be used for sand blasting. A bed so large you could have set up a six man tent on it and still had room for a game of volley ball. Plush carpets and movies on the telly. A kettle. You get the picture. It was hard to leave that room. But we were on a new island, in a new country and in a new city, all three falling under the name of Singapore.

We made the crossing from Johor Bahru and across the causeway into Singapore by bus. On the Malaysian side the new Immigration, Customs and Quarantine complex is very much trying to keep up with the Jones’ next door in Singapore. Costing a mere US$293 million (or there abouts, who‘s counting?) and completed in 2006, the exterior of this enormous edifice is sleek and modern, whilst inside water cascades down a sheet of backlit glass and marbled floors gleam as you make your way down through customs and towards the waiting buses. Upon arrival on the other side of the border everyone was turned out of the bus to go through customs and immigration on the Singaporean side and have their bags scanned for contraband. And then onto a second bus which took us to Queen Street bus station. We thought we would stand for the journey into town, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Singapore maybe small but it was still well over an hour before we reached our stop. Our bus driver was wildly erratic to add to the adventure, braking and accelerating at will and cursing anyone audacious enough to jaywalk in the road ahead. “Jaywalking… Hmmph.” A maddened shake of the head. And then rapid acceleration towards them and sudden breaking to make his point. At first it was amusing, after an hour just wearisome. And my mind continually returned to the Paul Theroux remark that a city without jay walkers is like a city without artists. For good measure, jaywalking is illegal in Singapore. Freedom of speech and thereby expression is much the same.

Singapore still confuses me a little. In some ways I liked it, in other ways the sterility of the place seemed all too apparent. The typical complaint is that it is a bit clinical and has no sense of history or culture of it’s own. In some ways this is an apposite criticism, but then you get out what you put in. And because we were primarily there to meet our friends Keith and Monique for a bit of a knees up it has to be said that we did not put enough in. We did not for example, see any of the sculpture that is publicly displayed around the island. There are works by Salvador Dali, Henry Moore and many acclaimed local sculptors. Nor did we see the Buddhist cremation rites or make it to the Hindu temple or any of the famous churches. The world renowned Singapore Zoo went unvisited. And we missed the break dancers and in line skaters at the City Hall MRT. Nonetheless we did spend a bit of time exploring the city, which consists of wildly opulent shopping mauls, hotels and restaurants. I am sure that we spent most of our time in places that most Singaporeans would not be seen dead in. One of our first thoughts was that Singapore is not cheap, but like most places, with a fistful of money it could be a blast. And it seems this is a concession that most tourists to Singapore are happy to make. We went to Raffles Hotel with Keith and Monique and drank a jug of beer that cost 66 Singapore dollars, or to put it in context £33.00. Yup, that's right. One jug, thirty three quid. Thanks Keith, Monique!
It is safe to say that if a bar in London tried to charge me that amount there would be talk of fisticuffs. Raffles, however, was so rammed with punters swilling cocktails that we could not get a table inside. Likewise beer prices vary throughout the day, between 12 and 3pm a pint will set you back £2.50. The price goes up throughout the day and by 8pm the same drink will cost you £7.00. Must be that it gets more expensive to make it as the day goes on!

It is all too easy to carp on about the negatives of Singapore, but there were many good things about the place that were immediately obvious too. Poverty levels appeared to be quite low. The food could be cheap, plentiful and delicious if you avoided the quayside restaurants. It was clean. It felt very safe. And in places it was wonderfully colourful whilst architecturally elements of the place are amazing. Of personal interest there looked to be a massive and healthy photography community. For all the things that I liked about Singapore though, the same niggling doubt kept on returning to me. That was that it felt like they had taken the Asian out of Asia. And that was enough to keep the wind in our sails as we flew out to Borneo.