December 08, 2000

SEAsiaupdate


While trekking in Nepal I met a wise South African who said to me: "Backpackers and package tourists are getting more and more alike - package tourists are becoming more adventurous, and backpackers are following standard trails." Nowhere is this more apparent than Thailand and Malaysia, which teem with sunburnt Europeans lugging backpacks from one clutch of beachfront guesthouses to another. But the intrepid traveller who goes off the backpacker trail can still find remote, exotic destinations away from banana shakes and beach parties.

Or so I hear. But at present I'm not feeling the least bit intrepid. On the contrary I'm growing very fond of banana shakes, and the beaches remain gorgeous even if they are crowded, and...OK, so I've had a very lazy few weeks. Is that so wrong?

I finally got around to getting my PADI open-water scuba certification, just finished a couple of days ago. You may be thinking "aha, you haven't been that lazy after all!" But I think if you are thinking this that you haven't done much diving yourself. For all the posturing that divers (and particularly dive instructors) do about diving being a tough, macho, man-against-nature adventure, it's hard to think of a lazier, more sedentary activity than recreational diving. A typical scuba day; sit in boat for 2 hrs tanning and reading en route to dive site A, float around underwater looking at stuff for 1 hour (they repeatedly stress that you should move slowly and never exert yourself), tan & read & eat lunch for 2 hrs en route to site B, float around underwater looking at stuff for 1 hr, tan & read for 2 hours en route back to base. Not really up there with the triathlon, is it?

However the float-around-underwater-looking-at-stuff part is in fact extremely cool. I took the course around Krabi, which has unearthly limestone crags jutting out above the water and big coral reefs teeming with life beneath, corals & fish & sponges & starfish & jellyfish & sea turtles & (harmless) leopard and blacktip sharks & unidentifiable aquatic life all over the place, every colour of the rainbow.

But I'm getting ahead of my story...

From India I flew to Bangkok, which is the cleanest, modernest, friendliest, most efficient city in the world. Granted, that's not the usual reaction, but you try going there after Calcutta and Delhi and see what you think of it. After a couple days of going from wat to wat to Starbucks I hopped on a bus down to Phuket.

Which is one of the most revolting places I have ever been - horrendously overcommercialized in the worst way possible. Even the once-nice beaches have been ruined. I spent about twelve hours there and moved on. I was planning to take the bus down to Malaysia via the city of Hat Yai, but at the last second decided to ask about direct flights to Singapore, found a cheap one, and took it. This turned out to be one of my more inspired travel decisions, right up there with taking the Ekok-Mamfe road by Toyota instead of truck, for those of you who know the reference: the next day a massive monsoon storm hammered Hat Yai and flooded it to 3-4 metres, killing about 50 people by the time the water finally drained about five days later.

But instead of treading water I was in Singapore. Which as far as I can tell isn't a country, or even a city; it's just a shopping mall grown so enormous that it has its own currency and airport. People complain about its government being fascist and authoritarian, but now that I've been there it's hard to take them seriously; not a real government, more like mall cops. It's all very clean and organized and gleaming with chrome, and a comfortable place to stay for a couple nights, but you really can see everything worth seeing in one of the two-hour tours they run from the (extremely nice) airport.

Headed up to Malaysia for a week, ate sushi & watched movies in Kuala Lumpur, went for an unexpectedly lengthy & strenuous jungle walk in the Cameron Highlands - it's easily to see how the silk baron Jim Thompson disappeared there; he just went for a jungle walk and took one of the locally-sold maps as something other than a work of the purest fiction -and kicked back in a monstrous run-down colonial hotel in Penang for a bit. From there to Krabi and diving, and here I am in Bangkok. My girlfriend arrives tomorrow and we're off to more beaches for the scant time remaining. I should be home for Christmas, and then I plan to take six months to write the Great Canadian Novel, and no, I have no idea what it's going to be about yet. Not to worry. I'll think of something.

This will be the last of my travel updates unless something extraordinary happens before I get home, a pretty unlikely event if you ask me. I hope I have sporadically entertained one or two of you on occasion. (Keep your hopes low, that's my motto; you get more in the way of pleasant surprises that way.)

Until we meet again...

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