Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mekong Drifting

Well, the planet will not fly off to the sun afterall! I wasn't too far off with the Oscars (well done, Scorsese), though despite giving 'Pan's Labyrinth' a clutch of Oscars for cinematography and art direction, they couldn't give it best Foreign Movie. Idiots.

Things are just getting better and better here. Our slow boat down the Mekong was wonderful. As our really quite comfortable boat chugged downstream, we lazed, watched the scenery, read or played cards. It was exactly the kind of relaxing time we needed.

The scenery itself was stupendous. Small golden beaches separated large outcroppings of volcanic rock, the sandstone in which they had been encased worn away by the water. The Mekong is low right now, so these rocks, which in rainier times would be submerged, towered above us. And then there were the fishing rods sticking out of these rocky masses, bamboo poles, some holding nets, others apparently holding fishing lines. Other nets were floated using old plastic bottles. Occasionally we would pass groups of children who would wave as we passed, laughing and shouting 'Sabai Dii' (hello/goodbye). Then there were cows, wandering strangely on the sand, sand that oftentimes piled steeply behind them. It was the real Asia.

Laos is one of the most backward of all the Asian countries. People still live in bamboo huts along the river banks, and fish or grow meagre harvests of spring onions and cabbage. They are so friendly though. Always happy to see you and never pushing something in your face like their Thai counterparts.

In the evening of our first day boating, we stopped in Pakbeng for the night. Despite being a small village (with a deceptively large population of 2,500), backpackers and other falang were to be seen everywhere. We were warned that our accommodation would be basic, but, despite the water being cold and the electricity being limited, everyone found them far more than adequate. Simple, but clean, and very attractive.

Our meal was had in an Indian restaurant. Naturally I went for the catfish curry, but there was chicken madras, spinach and cauliflower, and naan bread besides. Not to mention the excellent, and very cheap, Beer Lao. After only two large bottles I was in very good form. Right across from our restaurant, a new hotel was just opening and was celebrating with a large party. With an early morning ahead of us though, gatecrashing was not an option.

The next day was one of more relaxed boating. I finished 'Time Out of Joint', enjoyable, and certainly pointing at where Dick was going (it's an early work), but a little mundane in its ending. Worth reading though.

In the afternoon, as Chan, our guide, confused Zooey and me with the rules to some strange Laos card game, it began to rain. And rain. And thunder. And lightning. Our captain stopped the boat fearful of the wind. What wind? Eh, that really strong wind that the storm we now found ourselves in threw at us. All hands on deck sought to close the curtains and then let fall the canvas covers over the windows as buckets of water swept in. Then suddenly the boat started to tip over and everyone rushed to one side to counterbalance the effect. For some reason I felt no threat at all and was almost content to keep on reading were it not for the water splashing over my pages. And I was right. Within five minutes all was back to normal.

We visited a Buddhist shrine in some caves next. Unfortunately I cannot quite understand Chan, our guide, who is enthusiastic, but overestimates his command of the English language. I got snippets about the shrine, but in the end, with a borrowed torch from Charles (of all days I had left mine behind that morning), I looked for bats instead. None to be seen.

Our destination was Luang Prabang and we arrived around 5.30. I will be brief as I am rushing to meet Alastair and Lynn (yes, that Alastair and Lynn). After a brief jumbo (converted truck) ride to our guesthouse, unfortunately a little out of town, I ended up in a really fabulous bungelow. We soon left for the night market, a far more peaceful experience than anything we have encountered so far, where we ate from the stalls. Some girl started waving to me from a table. I obviously thought she was waving at someone else, but as I looked I recognised the guy beside her. It was Alastair and Lynn from Bangkok! They had been travelling in the reverse direction (Cambodia and Vietnam) and were now dreading going back to Bangkok. In fact they regretted spending so much time in Thailand at all. They confirmed what I have been suspecting; the further away from Thailand the better it gets. The rest of the group were happy to sit with them and later we three stuck around for a beer, Charles joining us and went over 'old times'. It was great to see them, but I'd better go now to see them again. I'll talk of today, tomorrow.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Chang Mai, Chang Rai and Chang Klong

We had a late departure this morning, so breakfast was leisurely. Most of the day was taken up with driving, though we did have time to stop at Chang Rai for lunch and a snoop around the very new, very white Buddhist temple. Rebecca seemed to think an American had a hand in its construction and it is very different. Completely white with inlaid fragments of mirror, it glitters like the house in 'Dr Zhivago'. In fact that was the first impression that came to mind and very apt considering that the director,David Lean,had a Spanish landscape sprayed white to mimic a Russian winter scene. At the entrance a mass of hands, some with eyes or faces on their palms, reach up from the ground. The visitor crosses a bridge to pass this strange sculptures. Inside it is stranger still with a standard three-fold Buddha on one wall and a bizarre sci-fi infused painting on the other. Still a work in progress, this strange painting combines ancient Asian demons with images of the Twin Towers, 'Star Wars' and 'The Matrix' (Neo stands astride some demon's shoulder). Bizarre.

I think I should take the opportunity now to describe our group. Our tour leader, Charles, is a shaven headed Aussie, once a financial analyst, but who fell in love with this neck of the woods on a charity bike ride through Vietnam and Cambodia. There is Phil and Helen, a married couple of a year. Phil, a project manager for a web company, chucked in his job, when Helen, a project manager in Switzerland (though she is from Newcastle), was made redundant. They decided to get married and travel the world. Then there is Sabrina, an English Asian girl; Rebecca, an English law firm worker; Zooey and Helen, a pair of hotel and catering students, newly finished; Annabel from New Zealand; Sarah, in IT, I believe, from England; Young, a Canadian accounts manager, who was born in Laos, but has never been back (apparently there is bad blood between her family and those still there after the Laos clan stole their house); and Sian, English, but with Welsh family, I think (also some Irish; the Blaineys).

Before leaving Bangkok, I finished the Silverberg novel and, as I suspected, it was the best work of his I have yet read. Not too much to the story, but then it was more character driven and as such was a well-written account of the protagonist, David Selig. Driving today then, I got a good start (I am over halfway through) on the Philip K.Dick novel, 'Time Out of Joint'. Similar in many ways to a lot of his other work, it is also very close in part of its central concept (or I suspect it will be) to 'The Truman Show' (though it predates that movie by 40 years or so). Having said that it also reminds me of a James Garner movie I saw as a kid called '36 Hours' (again I am anticipating the solution to the mystery as nothing has yet been revealed). Great fun though. After a deceptively mundane opening, it really gets you enthralled, with a nice quintet of central characters, and a lovely sense of all is not what it seems. I won't make any huge claims as, despite its many philosphical references, this is no 'A Scanner Darkly'. It is, however, very well crafted and shows up something like Matheson's similarly themed '7 Steps to Midnight' for the sloppy work it is.

Anyhow we are now in Chang Klong. Our hotel, all teak wood flooring and faulty mosquito screens, is right beside the mighty Mekong. And it is mighty. Children play in its waters, while across its breadth, Laos faces us. At the hotel entrance a small chained monkey scampers back and forth pathetically. I swear I saw it licking its own urine experimentally. Poor thing must be so bored. Apart from this little pocket of distress, the sun is golden, the atmosphere is calm, and we are all very happy. And we have a banquet in 2 hours time.

By the way, I just noticed the Oscars are on tomorrow. What are they?

Actually it's good to see 'Little Miss Sunshine' get attention (though best movie, I don't think so, and 'The Queen', fun though it is, is just filler in this category). Come on 'El Laberinto del Fauno' for Best Foreign Film, certainly the best foreign movie and in all honesty probably the best film nominated full stop. It is better than 'The Departed' for instance, which probably should get Best Picture, of those nominated. Best Actor, give it to Forrest Whittaker (even if his really is a supporting role), though it would be good to see Peter O'Toole honoured (I haven't seen 'Venus'). Best Actress, I haven't seen enough to comment really, but Helen Mirren does a great job and deserves it. Best Supporting Actor is tough; I'd love to see Alan Arkin get it (because he's brilliant), but Djimon Hounsou is impressive in 'Blood Diamond'. I suspect Eddie Murphy impresses in 'Dreamgirls' too, while Wahlberg does a standard supporting role creditably (Hounsou in contrast is practically the protagonist of 'Blood Diamond' and is certainly its soul). Best Supporting Actress is another really tough one, though Rinko Kikuchi is as raw as an actress can be in 'Babel'. And for Director? It's not a matter of whether 'The Departed' is his best work or not - it's solid, and the best job of those nominated - but if Scorsese is ignored again, the world will spin out of orbit and into the sun. Do not destroy life as we know it, Academy, give him the bloody Oscar!

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Championing Chang Mai

Finally we have left Bangkok. Although there were some highlights in those last few days - Reclining Buddha, great bookshop found, great food, and a good tour of the klongs (waterways) of Bangkok - the truth is it's good to have left it behind. The drama with the Vietnam visa was just that, drama, but eventually the passport arrived to me at Hua Lomphong train station 20 minutes before we left (you cannot believe how relieved this made me; their intial promises to get it to Chang Mai rang very hollow indeed).

We got a night train yesterday at 6 and arrived into Chang Mai this morning at 6 at which point we went for breakfast. The group are a laid back bunch and, because I am the only single man, one other man being married and the other being the tour leader, I have had a room to myself both in Bangkok and Chang Mai. In Bangkok too I was upgraded for some reason and had a delux room. Nice.

After we checked in this morning we went into the country to take an elephant ride. I shared a driverless elephant with an English girl, Sian. Effectively it was a banana slot-machine, moving most easily when fed. At various platforms around the track we could buy a bag of bananas to feed our animal. This was as well as when we began our ride, one of the other elephants stole our bag of bananas, grabbing them, plastic bag and all, from my hands and devouring them. We had great sympathy for our own poor, deprived beast, but once we got another bag and fed him/her (Jun King), it kept throwing its trunk back for more. The elephant behind tried repeatedly to rob our banana stash and dowsed us with water when frustrated.

A mention should be made, I suppose, of the driver of the elephant in front. Throughout he sang his own, very unique rendition of 'Doh Re Mi'. Bizarre, but colourful. The trip then was great fun.

Immediately after we went bamboo rafting. The rafts themselves are very thin and I found it difficult to balance, particularly as I was sharing propeller and steering duties with the guy punting at the front (I was at the back of the boat). We passed snakes and crowds of kids who would dowse us with water (the order of the day here). Again we had a great time.

On the way back we stopped into a market for lunch. At 10 baht per purchase nothing was going to break the bank. My chilli pepper noodles were lovely, but I also got some strange, lukewarm concoction in a plastic bag (most dishes were sold in plastic bags). Although it had green beans, Chinese mushrooms and what looked like chicken, it smelled vile once opened (I am beginning to believe people when they say the Bangkok smell is fish sauce). Our guide wouldn't even touch it. I let my 10 baht go down the toilet rather than myself.

We slept most of the drive back. Then it was time for another hour long drive to one of Thailand's most highly regarded temples, Doi Suthep. Climbing over 300 steps of an ornate staircase, we entered a fairly peaceful enclave of monks. They are surprisingly unpretentious and in one of the more sacred halls, which we were allowed to enter while the monks were chanting their prayers, several varied modern day clocks were mixed among the gold and ornamented furnishings.

Good fortune is something promised in abundance in the monastery. After shaking out a fortune telling stick from a container of many, I was told the number of my stick foretold many favourable things (others did not get such good news). If that weren't enough I was then blessed (as were we all) by a monk sprinkling holy water and given a blessed bracelet which I must keep wearing for three days at least. Regardless of what you think of the whole experience, it is nice to have such well-wishing all around you and the monks certainly seem to be beneficent.

Chang Mai is quite literally a breath of fresh air after Bangkok; the traffic is not nearly so ferocious. What little I have seen so far is all to the good, though admittedly that has been limited. Driving around Chang Mai, you can't help but be struck by the contrast with the earlier city. Lovely fountains erupt from what was once the city moat, everywhere the remnants of the old city wall stand proudly. The red brick of this wall reminds me a lot of the castle and wall in Verona, though this city is far bigger and more lively. Nevertheless there is more of a liveable vibe to this place, maybe it feels more European, but with its many coloured lights and lanterns, it is most certainly more picturesque.

Once we got back to our hotel we headed out for dinner. I have just had the most stupendous crab in yellow curry you can imagine, all to the accompaniment of some terrible cover versions of some corny songs performed by a Thai guitarist on stage. It was a great meal, though I was very, very messy; how else can you eat crab without a crab cracker. I have also consumed more than my fair share of deet given the amount of insect repellent I have used on myself. I wouldn't change it for an instant though. Wonderful food.

I am conscious of the ugly nature of my last posts, but I am not alone in being glad to be rid of Bangkok. Everyone else on the tour, whether they were there a long time or only a day or so, seems to feel the same way. Although we leave Chang Mai tomorrow, I will have very pleasant memories of it and I look forward to the rest of Asia with a lot of optimism. Of course, having an organised tour helps (I don't know what I would have thought of Chang Mai in solitary circumstances), but I breathe more easily in this less polluted air.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

On Sober Reflection

Obviously that last post was written under some alcoholic influence. Nevertheless in the hot light of day I still feel pretty much the same way. I had planned to write another rant, but that would be boring and unfair to the Thai people. I will mention two things though: Firstly for those of you who think I was drunk and disorderly and probably deserved to be pushed down stairs, I must beg to differ. I was surprisingly reserved and helping the second girl out of the club. Suddenly this Indian guy, who must have been something to do with the club, started shouting something about showing me how to push someone down the stairs and began pushing me hard to the door. The manager stepped in, apologised, but we just wanted to get out and we did. Secondly, something Nick mentioned yesterday. he was on Khao San with another Brit, admittedly in the early hours, when they were accosted by two gay Thai guys. When they rejected their advances the Thais threatened to have them shot. A nice warm Thai welcome to Nick.

My trip is looking dodgy now. The hotel has messed up my Vietnam visa and the best they can do is get it to my hotel for 5.30 tomorrow. I am meant to be with the tour group on a night train to Chang Mai at 6.00, so it is going to be very tight. What annoys me is that they still had my passport at the hotel, it hadn't even gone to the embassy.

Last night I had my first Thai massage (nothing seedy, believe me). I expected to come out feeling like a million dollars. I came out with a bad back.

Enough moaning. I'll hopefully be getting out of here soon, if I ever get my passport back.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Can you believe I was actually getting to like this hellhole.

There was a group of us in a nightclub. One girl was thrown down the stairs. Another complained and was thrown down the stairs. She came up crying and we decided to leave whereupon they decided to thrown ME down the stairs. If you are in Bangkok avoid the Gazebo Club. Better yet just don't come to this hellhole. Bangkok is a hole that unfortunately exists on this planet. Ignore it. Forget about it. Never ever come to this sh*thole.

I am meant to go to Chang Mai and Laos etc.. I got back to my hotel to a message to say there was a problem with my visa. It won't be ready until Thursday evening. My passport won't be ready until Thursday evening. I go to Chang Mai by train on Thursday evening. I am f*cked. This hellhole strikes again.


Do I sound negative? Believe me, avoid Bangkok like bird flu! If I save one person from this disaster area I have saved one person. AVOID! AVOID! AVOID!

There's Always Something...

There was me getting my bag together for my big Indochina trip tomorrow when I happened to check my travel insurance policy. There in definition of trip was the line 'period of no more than 45 consecutive days'. Oops! I say oops because I wouldn't be allowed on the tour without adequate insurance, and this was late in the day. Frantically I got on to my insurance broker in Dublin. While the bahts ticked away I was passed from one electronic phone message to another, none actually getting me to a helpdesk. Eventually I did get through though only to be told it was 60 days (still no good) and nothing could be done to improve the policy. I checked with Bank of Ireland, but of course they had no online facility. Thankfully the tour company, Intrepid, on one of their webpages that worked (the dynamic pages were just giving errors), had a list of links to insurance company, the first of which did allow me to buy online. Phew!

I met up with Claudio again last night. A Scotsman, Nick, newly arrived, on his own and intimidated by the whole Bangkok thing (he so reminded me of me when I arrived, he even had mistakenly booked a 'good' hotel far from the action for his first two days) joined us as we made a pub crawl. Later seeing some American girls sitting on the curbside drinking buckets of cocktails, we got some buckets ourselves and joined them. Tessa and Amanda were both lovely and on for partying. We attracted another two girls, both Israelis (lots of Israelis here), Talel and Michelle, and headed off dancing. It was late by the time we all broke up, though Nick stayed out on the street with a gang of Brits until 6 or 7.

Everyone seems to be heading off these days. Claudio goes home on Thursday, I join my tour tomorrow and Nick was heading down to Samui at 3 today. We met up at lunch, both of us very hungover. Lots of water was taken, though meeting in the bar we started in last night, the food was poor. After as we strolled around we bumped into Tessa again. She'd just bought a photocopied version of the Lonely Planet Laos guide, though it looked very like the real thing. Amanda had already gone home and Tessa was leaving for Chang Mai at 5, so she had to go, but then I met two Northern Ireland girls I'd met last night too, Jenny and Carina. They might be around later.

Sometimes it really can be easy to meet people. Last night at dinner, for instance, while I tucked into my barbequed red snapper, I got chatting to an English guy, heading by train up north that night. It was only as I was saying goodbye that he suddenly realised that he forgot to collect his tickets and the store was now shut. I was sad for him, but what could I do. I left him scratching his head.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Day of the Locust

Just thought I'd mention that I have ticked another one off the list; I have eaten fried locust (and other assorted insects).

I am now back in Bangkok, having flown back painlessly yesterday. The initial minibus to the airport, in an effort to cram in as many people as possible, as usual, nearly outdid itself, with nine adults and two kids, and all the huge luggage that goes with them, crammed into a small nine-seater. The Swedish family picked up last had to dump their baby stroller to make room. Nevertheless the journey was easy enough to allow me to get some sleep. The flight then was short and the bus trip into the city as hassle free as could be expected (that is I had to miss one bus because it was too full, swap buses and then struggle to get my luggage out of the too small rack). I was in my hotel by 3.

Last night I took a stroll down Khao San trying to distract myself from the twenty odd mosquito bites raging on my legs. When I saw the stall piled high with fried beetles, grasshoppers and grubs, I thought I'd exercise some small act of vengence on the insect world. Firstly I bought a couple of large locusts, sharing with an American girl. They were very tasty, the locusts and the girl, but to concentrate on the locusts. The truth is the seasoning is very tasty, the insects themselves are all crunch and not much else. Nevertheless I got a bag load of more locusts and some smaller grasshoppers and munched on these as I walked the street.

I ended my ramble with a drink in the Irish bar I had been in before. This time, it being early, it was nearly empty. The band on were good, but they were playing to empty tables. I was going to go home, but instead ended up chatting to a German guy from Stuttgart with the unlikely name of Claudio (apparently his dad likes Italy). After that the night turned into a drinking session going from bottles of Chang to Cuba Libres. Good fun though.

This morning I went to organise my Vietnam visa. The cheapest offer I had seen was in a nearby travel agency I scouted out when I was in Bangkok last. This morning the girl at the desk wasn't quite as sharp as she had been before. To be honest I suspect she was on drugs. After a lot of absent-minded felafel, eventually she found the form and I filled it out. 'So I can collect this tomorrow?' 'Tomorrow? Oh, no, no. I made a mistake. It will take three days.' That would be two late, so I made my exit and went back to my hotel who, though dearer, would have it within a day.

From then until now I have done very little else, staying in my room reading and listening to Tom Waits for most of the morning. I finished Salinger a few days back (it didn't really get any better) and am now on Robert Silverberg, a science fiction writer who consistently disappoints me. Nevertheless this book, 'Dying Inside', which I picked up in Sydney is one I have always wanted to read since I saw it on the shelf in Waterstone's many years back. The tale of a 'telepath losing his powers', it is actually more about growing old and I suspect contains a lot of autobiographical material. It is easily read and far more satisfying than some of his other work.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thai Whiskey and Fish

Koh Lanta and the islands in general are regarded as malaria free. This is just as well because whether I am taking my tablets or not, I have been bitten unmercifully. This despite the fact that I smother myself to the point of vomiting with insect repellent, that I use mosquito coils continually (and why do mosquito coils always break in the middle, right at the point that rests on the little stand), and that, up until I had to change room yesterday, I was using a mosquito net. They take it out of you, I tell you.

Apart from the insects, and the incredible heat and the hangover I have been nursing all day, Koh Lanta is by far my favourite place in Thailand so far.

Sometimes I don't give myself enough credit with regard to meeting people. Yesterday I visited a remote beach called Kantiang. Soon before I had to leave (it was a half hour journey back and the afternoon was over), I met and had a lovely conversation with a nice Swiss French girl called Camille. Working in one of the resorts as part of her tourism studies, she told of dodgy food, bad transport, low wages (though she gets paid more than her Thai compatriots), an initial lack opf friends and ultimately a pretty good time in Koh Lanta.

I had gotten a local taxi to the beach for 200 baht, but getting back was not to be so easy. The only taxis at Kantiang were of the car variety and would cost 500 baht. Thumbing my nose at the travel agent who suggested this, I nearly had to eat my words and return to him. There really was no way of getting back. Luckily I spotted a courtesy minibus leaving one of the resorts and hitched a lift.

Something should be said on the matter of transport. Local taxis are motorbikes with sidecars. No, not like you're imagining, not like that at all. They are more like the tuktuks of Bangkok with the cabin attached to the side. If you don't feel like using these, you can instead hire a motorbike, and indeed it sometimes seems like the whole island is on two wheels. The one main road that circles the island is buzzing with motorbikes, a lot ridden by tourists, but most by indigenous people. Everytime someone is about to overtake someone else (all the time), they beep to let them know. The constant sound of the road is the beep.

I headed out along the beach to dinner, spurning the Rough Guide recommendations for my own instinct. Some of those Rough Guide recommendations have proved mediocre. 'Sayong', for instance, had excellent food marred by dismal service. I ate there twice on account of the food, but the second time, when after half an hour or more my squid eventually arrived, it was cold. There are a lot of waiting staff, but they are all taxi drivers getting some extra work, and end up standing around more than serving. Another recommendation, 'Second Home', had better service, but the food, though lovely, didn't compare. My choice last night was exceptional though. A local fish called the tama, something like a snapper, was served with lime and garlic. It was wonderful, though in my fervour to devour it I bit what I fear was part of its digestive tract. Apparently gutting a fish is not done as thoroughly here as elsewhere.

The restaurants and bars are all strung along and sometimes on the beach. Each one is lit up with lots of coloured lights and you can still find Christmas decorations hanging, such as an occasional dangling Santa. Look closer and you may even see a gecko walking around the inside shade of one of the many lanterns. At the far end of the beach, and requiring a taxi, stands the Reggae House.

The Reggae House is something of an institution here. A ramshackle collection of wood and straw, it hosts festivals and Bob Marley tributes all the time. Last night a Thai reggae band were performing, strangely. It wasn't like any reggae I ever heard. A Swedish woman got up to do a little karaoke, performing an impromptu Bob Marley medly. The fact that she hadn't a note in her head didn't detract from her performance which was drink-fuelled and gutsy. The band, strumming the same note for the majority of her performance, eventually stopped giving her as unfair a hint as they could. At one point she asked the (small) audience where they were from. A sinister group of three girls and a guy confessed to being Czech, but most of the others were Swedish. When I shouted out my nationality I was waved over to join a big group beating drums. On one side I had a Swedish nuclear specialist, on the other two very young, very sexy English girls who had just been accepted to Goldsmith's in London.

I think it is a little scary to report that a nuclear scientist was trying to convince me that Hitler got a raw deal in comparison with Stalin. That was what my Swedish friend ended up proclaiming. All politeness aside, I just couldn't agree, so we settled on banging drums to the music instead. This, I might add, after segueing seamlessly from discussing property prices in Thailand to describing the merits of Brazilian prostitutes (I don't know what his wife, a beautiful blonde, thought of all this).

The Swedish have made Koh Lanta, and some of the other islands, their own private playground. Many bring their families and stay for six months at a time. To cater for this trend then, there are apparently three Swedish schools on the island. The nuclear engineer was obviously well off and could afford five months off a year, while his father-in-law, evidently richer, wanted to buy property on the island. That was what led his discussion on to Brazilian hookers. (I don't know either.)

Tamsin and Phoebe, for those were their monikers, took up most of my attention when I disentangled myself from the Nazi. Phoebe had a very becoming scar on one cheek and a Devon accent like ambrosia. Tamsin, a little bit drunker and more nervous, had studied philosophy and was going to study English literature. She liked D.H. Lawrence, but then we all have our idiosyncrasies. Later when the Nazi had left, a former cameleer from Australia, now a youth worker with aborigines, joined the fray. He felt we should all stop having kids in order to clean up the environment. This time Thai whiskey, a flask of which he had, soothed everyone's feathers and we went to the beach. Unfortunately for my English aspirations, two young German guys also joined the group and were probably more to the girls' tastes. By 6 o'clock I decided to call it a night and walk the beach home. As I have said before the beach was long and without a majority of its lights finding my turn off to the resort was not easy. Nevertheless I made it back in one piece and with only a little backtracking.

This morning, or afternoon given that I got up at 12, I had a banana pancake for breakfast. Not quite like the pancakes I am used to, this thing was an inch and a half thick and tasty.

A nice swim was the next order of the day and again I got talking to the local blonde. Her accent sounded strange. Swedish? German? Try Kerry. Anne Brosnan was from near Castleisland and doesn't seem to have been back to Ireland in 12 years. She worked as a bartender in New York and a rock climbing instructor in China and was staying in Thailand for another two months having been here four already. She was also childhood friends with a good friend of mine from DCU, namely Kay Fitzgerald. It is, as I have seen again and again, a small world.

Anyhow I must now pack. Tomorrow I am being picked up at 7.30 and fly back to Bangkok.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Koh Lanta

This is more like it. Lanta is a great deal more relaxed - in some ways - than Haad Rin. But I'll get to that. I want to be brief as the beach is calling.

Firstly my booking to get here supposedly involved a minibus to the port, a night boat to Surat Thani on the mainland, a bus to Krabi and a ferry to Koh Lanta. All in all I was looking at 15-16 hours travel. The minibus packed to capacity, most of the packing being done by three drunk Danish guys and one drunk Canadian. The Canadian wistfully hoped he would get a bed on the night boat with the three Irish girls from the night before. "They can really pack away the drink!" he said. As it happened he did, or certainly a stretch of mattress near them. The night boat had around six standalone beds and then 60 places on the floor, each space occupying half of a thin mattress. To be honest we were really sleeping on the wood floor, the padding being minimal. Naturally a monk got one of the standalone beds, though I wondered what he made of the perpetual jabbering of the Irish girls righ next to him. We landed, not at 5 a.m. as stated, but 4 a.m., and from there we were taken by open backed truck to the bus depot. It opened a few minutes later. As an aside let me tell you that all that guff about Thai hospitality is guff. Sure there are nice people, but by and large they're the same as anyway, but when they are rude, as was the girl in the depot, they are RUDE. Not to me, in this case, but she demonstrated her formidable talents to an admittedly obnoxious American. At 7.00 the bus arrived and off we set to Krabi. Never expect an empty seat beside you; they pack everything to capacity here.

Now things got annoying. On presenting my ticket for the ferry, I was told I would have to pay for another minibus to another port to get a different ferry. I remonstrated and initially was given a boarding pass, but before I could use it was pulled back. The very rude ferry girl insisted I had to get a minibus. I insisted I had already paid for everything. In the end I had to watch the ferry leave. She called head office and a minibus was arranged, though without my having to pay. It seemed clear where the mistake lay.

The minibus driver drove me around alone for a while, stopping once to let a buddy try to selll me accommodation. I should have taken it as it transpired, but I didn't. Then we picked up the capacity load. I have to admit I enjoyed that trip as we had a Corkonian couple, a cute Swiss girl and two young Kiwis all in the mood for talk. The minibus took two ferries and finally at around 2.30 I arrived on Koh Lanta. Unfortunately at that point we all went our separate ways.

I then tried to get accommodation. I wanted a place on Long Beach, a popular spot, and rightfully so, it being very long and very lovely. Scorning help that said all places were already booked on the beach, I set off walking with my backpack. Koh Lanta is considerably hotter than Haad Rin, and considerably longer. After five minutes I was collapsing. I might point out that many comments have been made on the size of my pack (not packet, I hasten to add). Every reception I went to seemed to confirm the knowledge that everywhere was booked. Fortunately some bored receptionists in a fancy resort took pity on me and arranged a taxi to take me to the other end of the beach and better prospects. Eventually I got a place, cheaper than Haad Rin and with t.v. and a hammock. Not too keen on the outside loo though.

Anyhow I am starting to relax, helped by clear, calm water and some good restaurants. There is still a bit of the Bangkok chicanery, and I am not keen on the mosquitoes (my resort sits by some stagnant pools), but there is lovely scenery, geckos on the walls and frogs by the pathway. Every morning and evening Muslim prayers echo over some nearby loudspeaker (the island is 90% Muslim), and at the exact moment the sun drops below the horizon the cicadas raise their chirps in an unbelievable roar. They must be incredibly sensitive to light levels because I cannot notice any real difference in the sky light at that moment, though I trust their judgment.

Reading wise I have gratefully finished the Lovecraft stuff (it gets very repetitive, despite some good stories). Salinger is once more on the menu. 'Raise High the Roofbeams...' was enjoyable, setting a time, place and situation very well, and, though Seymour Glass never appears in person, he is on every page. 'Seymour: An Introduction' in contrast, is the toughest piece of Salinger I have had to read yet. It's not difficult, just dull, self-indulgent, back-slapping stuff, more about Buddy Glass (presumably Salinger himself) and his preoccupations than anything else. I suppose I should make the blasphemous confession that Seymour himself doesn't overly interest me. I know it doesn't have to be a 'rattling good yarn', but if this is in any way autobiographical, it is hardly enlightening, and if it is entirely fictitious, it is pointless. Still I have gone this far, I will finish it.

Anyway to the beach!

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Beach-bummed Out

I am sitting in an Internet cafe in Haad Rinn, the party capital of Koh Phangan. Overhead the fan is buzzing, but it just isn't cooling anything, least of all me. It is hot. In the four odd days I have been here the weather has never been less than excellent. My bungelow, rip-off expensive by other bungelow standards, had pretty good air-conditioning and was right by the beach. Each morning it was a very short walk - twenty steps - to a glorious beach.

Why then am I leaving?

As mentioned Haad Rin is the party capital of this island and every month holds the infamous Full Moon Beach Party, usually attended by 10,000 people. I missed it by a day or two and I'm not too sorry as accommodation would have been impossible to find. Also I've done enough partying at the warm-up to the Half Moon Party, and the party itself. What these parties usually entail is the beachside bars putting on fire shows with experts swirling flaming sticks or balls on chains. Meanwhile the games begin, hoopla and football games with the object of winning a bucket (of alcohol). After the buckets are gone (the free ones) the flaming hoop and skipping rope comes out for the drunken revellers to play with. My cousin was badly burned by one of these diversions and so call me chicken but I stayed out of these mad accidents-waiting-to-happen.

Instead I drank. The drinks are sometimes free and always cheap. I am never the most alluring catch for any young female backpacker, but one must try. So I spend most of the night trying then wander home.

So the day rundown looks like this: breakfast, beach, lunch, beach, dinner, movie, then party. Well, that was usually my schedule. Yesterday I felt a little dodgy in the stomach, a l;ittle groggy in the head. With so many mosquitoes, flies and ants, not to mention wonderful hygiene standards in the kitchen and bathroom, it is tempting to fall into hypochondria. The reality is it was mild and passed quickly and probably had more to do with dehydration and a hangover than anything else.

Oh, and those movies. Every day each restaurant and bar screens the most recent movies, and I mean recent ('Blood Diamond', 'Chaos'), not always the best quality either. I didn't get to 'Chaos', but I managed to see most of 'Borat', 'Blood Diamond', 'Casino Royale' and 'Night at the Museum'.

I've met a few good people too, particularly Leisa from California and Nicola from Balinteer.

However, I must leave. I have very few days before I must return to Bangkok (principally to get a visa for Vietnam) and I really did want to see the western islands, or at least one of them. I could head to Phi Phi (and still might), but first, and in less than two hours, I go to its lesser known sibling, Koh Lanta, apparently less spoilt by rampant tourism. We shall see. I am in two minds about the forthcoming journey as Thailand buses (part of the trip) are notorious, but for me travelling itself is part of the joy, so I am welcoming it.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Cosy at Koh Phangan

Just a short note to write that I am now staying by the beach at Koh Phangan. Enough said.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Yeas and Nays

Bangkok by nightBangkok by nightYou see all my complaining is in your interest. I am trying to dispel the hype so that when you do get here, it will all be much pleasanter than you expected. You won't notice the Bangkok smell - something I would liken to spiced faeces - because I alerted you to it. The Thai dress women with the croaking wooden frogs; that would be familiar to you. The overpowering smog, the constant tuktuk taxi traffic, ah, so you heard. The constant queries about where are you going, my taxi will take you there, yes, you will be aware. The omnipresent yellow t-shirts; that too you would know (though hardly a negative point, I will admit).

The friendliness, that I haven't detailed. Every bus I have been on the always grumpy looking conductor (and wouldn't you be on a hot, un-air conditioned ramshackle bus all day) has let me know when I have reached my destination. The people are willing to tolerate only English speaking idiots asking idiot questions. The city is big and nasty, but also littered with pockets of real beauty. And then yesterday we went to the State Tower for a cocktail. Whoa! You step out of the elevator on the 64th floor and hold your breath. The view is more than spectacular. It is all the more amazing because unexpected. Effectively you have this garden overlooking every point of light in the city, a garden tranquil and eye-opening. A wall, easy to scale, unobtrusively stops you going over, the chicken wire just below hardly promising safety. It is astounding and all the more so because in its high gloss finish it contrasts with everything below. Amazing! And the cocktails, though expensive (hah! 8 quid) are perfect.

Alastair and LynnAlastair and LynnAfter this special experience, we went to Siam Square for some food. As we stood on a road reading our Rough Guide, a little old lady came to our aid. Small, with huge bright eyes behing big glasses, grey hair tied back and prim little old lady dress, she was the model of respectable Thaihood. She was, she said, rushing for the Skytrain, but why were we so white? How long have you been in Thailand? Where are you from? She worked in a bookstore, a university bookstore. She recommended a restaurant while telling us of her son who would pick her up from the Skytrain. She was rushing for that, but come, follow her, she would show us a good tailor. We could only presume that she had intuited Alastair's strong desire to have a suit made, for why else should she take us to a tailor. It was closed then, but it made excellent suits. Behind her a security guard from a hotel edged menacingly closer. If we did come back when it was open just mention the little old lady from the university bookstore. Wait! She had a card! Rummaging in her purse she took out the tailor's card, the Something-or-other Emporium (right next to Miss Puke's Thai Massage), and thrust it into my hand. Presumably I was to keep it in safe keeping until Alastair should need it. Finally having entertained us for minutes, she ran off to catch her Skytrain. In many ways that is Bangkok. If they'd only let up on the hassling and badgering, the constant calls for attention, it might be a nice place to destroy your olfactory ability.

Unlike other big cities that have several main streets of business with lesser tributaries branching off, Bangkok is made of main thoroughfares; business is everywhere. There are some oases of calm and finding them constitutes a major pleasure of a Bangkok stay. Each one found is another step to Nirvana. Having located one or two I am getting happier all the time.

Paihia and Cape Reinga Pics

Paola and friends
Paola and friends

Rosie and friends
Rosie and friends

Mary on the beach
Mary on the beach

The 90 Mile Beach
The 90 Mile Beach

Tree hugging a kauri
Tree hugging a kauri

Niall O'Leary showing why he hates photos of himselfNiall O'Leary showing why he hates photos of himself

Auckland Pics

Christmas in Oz - Pictures

New Year Fireworks
New Year Fireworks

At the Races
At the Races

Cousin LyndaCousin Lynda
Christmas at Coogee
Christmas at Coogee

Christmas Morning
Christmas Morning

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Chatuchak Weekend Market

It is amazing how much some company changes your perspective on things. I decided to go to the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market and after some deliberation I decided to risk the bus. Waiting at the bus stop I initially met an Austrian en route to the same destination, but then along came a Scottish couple, Alastair and Lynn, from Glasgow. I ended up talking to them for most of the bus ride, learning as much as I could about their trips to the islands. Once at the market we hung around for the afternoon. Alastair works for the council, while Lynn is a university researcher, and they strike me as a really nice couple. Anyhow a lot of the daunting aspects of travelling and living in Bangkok seemed to disappear with a helping hand.

The market itself puts all similar markets (such as the Melbourne Victoria Market) in the shade. Stall after stall after stall sold everything from army surplus sleeping bags to flying squirrels. The food too is a wonderful draw (I really liked the look of those cuttlefish on a stick, though I didn't risk them this time). At one point I bought a green fruit drink imagining some sort of lime flavour. Unfortunately it was 'gauvo' (guava?) and tasted more like sweet soap. I waited a while before trying it again in the hope it had changed its flavour. Nope, still as bad. I dumped it and got a strawberry slushy instead.

Our bus to the market had been on an air-conditioned, spacious vehicle (few people wanted to pay the extra baht, I guess; certainly the passengers were mostly Caucasian); our ride back was more traditional, packed, hot, bumpy, with standing room only. We talked a little bit about music, Alastair knowing a member of Mogwai, and a lot more besides. Getting off the bus we bumped into the Austrian again. Khao San and the surrounding area is just full of us farang (foreigners). Anyhow I am meeting up with them later for a drink.

Checking up on my Chinese trip, I noticed something worrying in the email detailing my booking; it seems I am down for the wrong direction. Instead of Hong Kong to Beijing, I seem to be booked on the Beijing to Hong Kong trip. This won't suit my Beijing home flight, so I hope I am wrong, but I've mailed my helpful friend in the travel agency back home. Tomorrow though I must get the visa, so I hope things are easily sorted and soon.

Irish Bars Again

I ended up in an irish bar called The Shamrock. A very good Thai band began by playing Coldplay, Macy Gray, Metallica and The Cranberries, but their heart was with Metallica, and they ended up playing several of their songs. The lead singer was a oldish guy with long grey hair and glasses, an Asian Ozzy Osbourne, as an English girl beside me described him. He looked like he was really enjoying himself, especially when he got on to "Whiskey in the Jar".

That English girl, Amy, was heading off today on an Intrepid trip to Laos, something I had been (and am still considering). I ended up talking briefly to a few people, but the music was too loud and best friends weren't liking me, so I headed back home early.

It looks like I missed the Full Moon Party in Kao Pha Ngan for February.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Drunken Ramble on Khao San

Khao San is a silly, lively place full of bars, restaurants and all sorts of other places. It's all lit up nice and bright so you can't miss it, and of course in the process you do. Blinded by the light you might be mistaken for not seeing it as the empty road it is. Anyhow for once the guide books got something right. They suggested a restaurant just off the street, on the Sunrise exit, called Sunset, and it was just quiet enough (a jazz band played from the adjacent bar), and the food was just good enough, to make eating there pleasurable. Unfortunately they had no large bottles of Chang, just a 1 litre jug of draught, so I had to make do.

This is the first time in months that I have been on my own and with the culture shock, it would be a lie to say it isn't a little disconcerting. No one speaks the language and nowhere can be found. The essence of travelling lies in getting hold of a place, finding out just enough and using your knowledge enough to show you can have an effect, that you are not just flotsam and jetsam on the messy tide of an unknown shore. You have to make your presence felt. This is easier when you are with others. They may not be part of the location, but they give the soul just enough purchase to make that climb to comfort easier. Anyhow I am getting there. With tooth and nail I make my way forward. I feel a lot better now than I did when I arrived. I found a restaurant.

It's actually a lot more familiar here than I thought initially. At least Khao San is. This is Tenerife. Ibiza. That road in Albufera the English all drink on. Sure the faces are different, the language has changed, but this is a tourist 'mecca'. Not where you might want to end up, you might say, but to those of us looking for direction it is sadly, but funnily, a welcome signpost.

There is a woman beside me looking up elephant trails. No doubt that will be me in a day or two. I was reading earlier about Phang Nga. My idyllic beachfront bungalow looks set to turn into a party pad, although I think I have just missed the full moon party for February.

Praise to Buddha!

I left my hotel and suffered another taxidriver's ignorance in getting to Banglamphu. I managed to book a room in the place I wanted, but my new skeletal driver simply couldn't find the street, stopping to ask tuktuk drivers and anyone else he could. Eventually we rang the hotel and arrived 2 minutes later. After plonking down my bags (I have tried again to shed weighty clothes etc.), I had a green curry and went for a walk.

This time I started with a university on the riverside. This was much more pleasant than anything I have encountered yet. Even the food stalls I next came across actually seemed appetizing. They were only part of the story though. Stalls sold everything from shampoo to false teeth! (These may have been ornamental, though I don't know if this makes it more sensible or palatable).

I ended up at the Grand Palace and the temples surrounding the Emerald Buddha. Fabulous buildings. I took off my shoes and viewed the Emerald Buddha, dressed in his gold cloak to keep the cold (what cold?) out. Sadly I got there late and had to leave after an hour, but it made for a better afternoon than yesterday. Easily I made my way back.

Come Back Oslo, All is Forgiven!

My first day in Bangkok was something of a disaster. I wanted to get my Chinese visa sorted very soon (so I could leave Bangkok) and looking up the Lonely Planet I believed I'd found the place. I determined to catch the Skytrain (elevated train) and headed out.

It was then I knew I was travelling around the world. Moreso than any other, Bangkok just overwhelms you. Santiago seems like Bray (a Dublin suburb) compared to this. Stalls everywhere, cooking food, selling scarves, mopeds lined up at traffic lights like execution squads, constant noise, unwholesome smells; my initial impressions were not good. I had asked at reception for directions to the Skytrain station, but there was no following them in this chaos. I asked many people before finally getting there. The train itself was fine, but once off my troubles began anew. Following the directions from the Lonely Planet, I still couldn't find the Chinese Embassy. Again I walked one way, then another, up and down the road it was meant to be on. I asked one person, then another, but no matter who it got no closer. Eventually someone wrote down the address in Thai. I caught a taxi and showed him the address, but soon he was shooting up far away from the Lonely Planet location. I stopped him and pointed at the English address. He nodded, slapped his skeletal forehead and drove in the other direction. We seemed to be going too far again, so I stopped him and tried to explain, but there was no way we could communicate. He pulled up at a cafe and waved the paper at a guy on his phone. he waved him away, so the driver tackled a woman at the same table. She explained to both the driver and me (in excellent English) and off we headed in the original direction. I was beyond caring anyhow, but we eventually arrived, albeit in a completely different part of the city to the Lonely Planet suggestion. Naturally four hours after my setting off, the embassy was closed. Come back on Monday.

Nearby was a huge computer shopping mall, so I browsed a little. You could get a good laptop for 600 euros, even a very basic one for 200, but I resisted and headed home, after stopping in Tesco's for half their soft drinks cabinet. The subway got my close enough to Silom Street. Again I got a little lost before someone put me in the right direction. I nearly cried when I saw a Guinness sign; O'Reilly's Bar. Too familiar or not, I was grateful to sit there for half an hour sipping a beer. Unlike Irish bars the world over, this bar was full of Irish, mostly old guys. And while I am about it, yes, everywhere old Caucasian men can be seen arm in arm with young Thai women.

I decided I needed to stay in the backpacker area, Banglamphu, and tried an Internet cafe to book a room. However, the guesthouse I wanted wasn't taking bookings inside of three days, so I resolved to call them the next morning.

Getting out my Rough Guide (I bought one at the airport), I decided on a nearby restaurant. For a little over 2 euros, I ate a pleasant prawn dish and soft drink while staring out at the large rat running around the trash at a nearby tree. I then went to another Rough Guide recommendation, another Irish bar called the Irish Xchange. A Thai band were singing "Wake Up Maggie" when I arrived, and the clientele were a mixed bunch. I left without a drink. The streets are wild here with stalls and hawkers, blind singers and scratching dogs; all I wanted to do was get back to my room, so I did.

In case you can't tell, I did not enjoy my first day in Bangkok.

Bangkok Night

On the way to Sydney for my connecting flight to Bangkok, I watched 'The Prestige' for the third time. It has some holes, I will grant you, but I do like that movie. The similarities to the old gothic standards like 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner', 'William Wilson' and 'Caleb Williams' are very satisfying.

The trip to Bangkok promised a lot more movies though, and ones I wanted to see, such as 'The Last King of Scotland', 'The Illusionist', and even 'Borat', which seems to have become something of a cultural signpost. Unfortunately of all the seats on all the planes, the headset socket had to be faulty on mine. I just about got to see, 'The Last King of Scotland'. Forrest Whittaker deserves at least an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Idi Amin, as his recent Golden Globe win shows, though I think it's more a supporting role (McEvoy is very good). The movie itself, though it's hard for me to judge given the problems I had, is well worth seeing, though probably not everything it thinks it is. After seeing it i had no more energy to watch anything else and slept.

The main stewardess had a truly annoying tanoy voice. She announced problems in such a way that she failed to inspire any confidence that she herself could do anything about them. We were delayed a little (a fault with the onboard phones)and arrived into Bangkok around 11.30. By the time I found out the shuttle bus was gone, it was 12.30. I got a taxi.

Beginning a trend for Bangkok, the taxidriver did not know my ultimate destination and once nearby had to ask someone for directions. The location of the hotel looked very dodgy (down a dark, vegetable strewn alley), but the hotel itself was lovely. I had a huge room on the ninth floor with wide windows overlooking the city. I wasted little time in getting to bed.

End of Days at Christchurch

We had a fine dinner of steak and crayfish that night. I tried to play cricket with the kids afterwards. It might be nice to say I let Jonathon win by 50 runs. It would be nice to say that, but the truth is he trashed me and Sam. However it was fun to see me hop around on the gravel and hide shamefacedly while the kids went next door to recover the ball.

Next day I got to the Giacometti exhibition. Existentialism had been mentioned in connection with his work, so it is possible that put me in that frame of mind, but looking at each of his works it is hard not to see the loneliness of the human condition. There were those tiny walking figures I had seen in Europe, here writ large, very large. It hit me forcefully how no figure is looking at another, how they stare purposefully (or purposelessly) straight ahead of themselves. No figure ever looks at the viewer either. They are frozen in time, or in themselves, trapped inside and forever isolated from the rest of humanity. Even the sketches manage to have characters whose eyes do not follow you around the room (something about the pinhole nature of the pupils, I think). There were some earlier pieces, from Giacometti's surrealist phase. One of the most famous of these, 'Spoon Woman', made it very clear where Giacometti placed a woman's chief attraction, and as far as I could see, this shape was replicated even in his later 'Women of Venice' stick women. A French woman gave a short talk while I was there on one of his few animal works, 'Dog'. Apparently it's a self portrait!

I got my hair cut too. For the first time in years, I had my hair cut by a female hairdresser. I felt like Jean Rochefort in 'The Hairdresser's Husband'.

I had wanted to take Sandra and Grant out for dinner, but Grant had a lot of sport planned for the evening. Instead then Sandra, the kids and I went to 'Happy Feet'. There is a lot of 'by-the-numbers' stuff in it, but it is entertaining and has its heart in the right place.

We met for a pub meal afterwards where I did my best on two lamb shanks. I got my New Zealand lamb in the end.

Next day I was to fly away. I have suspected my walking shoes of causing my repeated in-grown toenails, so today I bought a new pair. Bussing it back to the house I waited for Grant, who was to give me a lift to the airport. However, I had given back the key to the house, so I got a bit worried when the phone rang inside and I could just about hear Grant's voice on the answering machine. Could he not make it afterall? My mobile wouldn't work, so I was starting to create Doomsday scenarios when up drove Sandra, with Grant not long after. I made my goodbyes and Grant drove me to the airport.

Travels through Time and Space at Christchurch

Okay, I'd better get this up to date.

Last time on "Bopping around the World", Niall was on his way to dinner with the travellers from the Magic Bus at Stonehurst Hostel....

Getting into the hostel was potentially difficult as there was a swipe on the door. I did the criminal thing and followed someone in. Practically everyone was in the kitchen crowding it up, so I headed out back with Anne and Rebecca. It was a fine evening and there was a table all set for our meal. The meal itself was great. Reggy had made a wonderful Swiss dish (coincidentally one of the first things I ever made) with potato, onions, cheese and pasta. I had brought some Merlot so food and drink were consumed with gusto. Then for dessert Rebecca and Kristina had made kaisersmann, the pancake dish we had had in Nelson. Everyone was stuffed.

Rebecca had hooked up with a Berliner called Tim who spoke English with a very American twang. He had an annoying habit of celebrating all things German - including himself - almost all the time. He didn't endear himself to me much by pointing out the wellworn and hearthily annoying fact that as a Dubliner I don't pronounce my 'th's too well. Hmmmm.

While passing the Internet computers, I met Martin from DCU AGAIN! He was staying in the hostel. No doubt I'll see him in Bangkok etc., though he won't be there.

Following some high-pitched singing etc., I took my leave relatively early. Robbie and Laine (the Canadian) had turned up earlier and I suspected things might go on all night. I arrived back to the house at 12 (after the taxidriver had to ring in for assistance to find his way). As I made my way to my room, I got a little shock to see Jonathan standing silently in his doorway. "I have to go to the toilet, though I can't sleep," he said, a little eerily. "No prob," said I and left him to it.

Next day I spent with Sandra and the kids. We went to the Gondola, another cable car up to a wonderful view of the city. Included in the ticket was a trip on the 'Time Tunnel', a sedate electric carriage ride around an 'inspirational' (and short) account of Christchurch's past. It suited the children well and indeed Jonathan wanted to go again. Instead though we looked over the landscape spread before us, then descended to have a picnic. The day was fine, so Sandra then took us to the beach at Sumner Bay. I regretted not taking my swimming trunks, but still wound up my jeans to wade in a little. The beach itself was not too busy and very pretty and given time I could see myself flaked out on it. The children took to the water immediately, though soon were out again, apparently feeling the cold. Walking back to a cafe, Samantha found two dollar coins sticking out of the sand. It didn't take us long to lose them again (shaking out blankets, I think), but poor Samantha kept searching. I decided to strategically drop a new couple of coins in the vacinity where she was looking. Nonchalantly I dropped them behind me and called out to Samantha to take a look. She said she'd already looked there, so I bent down to collect them and drop them closer to her. No coins. Like quicksand they were dragged under and no matter how I delved I couldn't find them. I revealed enough of my misfortune to the kids to get them to look, but in the end Samantha only found one dollar. We solaced ourselves with ice cream.