In this bizarre, comical, travel memoir, Mark sets out to traverse from Sydney to London without flying. His extraordinary overland journey from Australia to the UK takes him through 3 continents and 18 countries, via famous cities like Singapore, Bangkok, Istanbul, Budapest, and Berlin; and unknown spots like Coober Pedy, Maha Salakham, Aktau, Sheki, and Guca. Follow him as he catches a cargo ship across the Indian Ocean, runs a gauntlet of Chinese tanks and terrorists, has beers with a naked ex-Soviet Officer in Kazakhstan, attends a 3 day Serbian trumpet festival, visits a German nuclear bunker, and eats magic mushrooms for breakfast in Amsterdam. As he trots across the globe, every step of the way he tells it like it is, with opinionated, off-kilter views, slightly twisted, left-field logic, and witty, wry humour. You’ll laugh and be entertained as you learn about the world and what it takes to travel it.
Below Is A Sample Chapter & PHOTOS ARE ON FACEBOOK
I’ve been wanting to come to Luang Prabang since I first read about it in a travel book when I was twenty. Reading about a small, misty city of temples by the Mekong River in northern Laos had me instantly wondering what the hell I was doing in my bedroom in cold, miserable Birmingham, and how the hell I could get myself some of that Mekong action. At last, ten years later, I’ve finally made it.
I’m up at 5.30 am to watch the alms-giving ceremony that takes place every morning around the streets of the city. Most of the monks from each of the city’s temples – and there are a lot of temples – wander around in single file lines, ranging in number from half a dozen to a few dozen. At one point on the main street, a hundred-plus walk past in one big line. Such a sight gives unholy thoughts to anyone who played the original Grand Theft Auto, where mowing down lines of monks would boost your score.
The monks stop every now and then and bang out a soothing chant for a minute. Locals, with food that they’ve bought or made for the monks, sit or crouch at the side of the road with their heads down lower than the monks’ to show deference. They give each monk who passes a small amount of food or drink, like a portion of rice, some vegetables, or a carton of milk, which they place into a small basket that each monk carries with them.
Monks aren’t allowed to use money, and so rely on this ceremony to get their daily grub. The locals make these offerings in order to make merit, which essentially means to get some Karma points. The more Karma points a person can rack up in their lifetime, the better the life they’ll have next time around when they’re reborn. End up with too few points and a life as a dung beetle is on the cards.
Despite it being so early, the streets are very busy because, as well as the monks and the locals, there are hundreds of tourists out to witness and photograph the spectacle. There are signs around the city and within the temples asking people to respect the alms-giving ceremony because it’s a living tradition and a serious ritual for the people of Luang Prabang, not a gimmick put on for the sake of attracting tourists. The signs specifically say not to get up close to the monks and not to use flash photography.
Some tourists, despite the signs, are intrusive – standing within a metre of the monks, shoving cameras in their faces and using the flash. As soon as one or two move in close and no-one says anything, others follow suit. These tossers don’t just take one photo either, but loads. How many photos of monks do they need? I hope they really enjoy looking at those photos when they get back home, because they’ll be paying a high price for them in their next life when they’re a beetle with their head in a pile of poop.
Yes, I did take a photo too, but I was sat on the kerb on the opposite side of the street when I did so. Anyway, Buddha seems to hate me already so it doesn’t matter if I take a photo of a monk, or steal a songthaew and mow down a hundred of them.
The city has a noticeable French feeling to it and, like George Town in Malaysia, the whole place is a UNESCO world heritage site. There are no big hotels or chain shops here at all, and no building seems to be more than two storeys high. A typical one is two storeys, white or pastel coloured, has a second floor front balcony the width of the building, wooden shuttered windows, and large fold-out wooden doors downstairs.
I can imagine the Frenchies lounging around on those balconies forty years ago, smoking and enjoying the good life. Then one morning there is a knock on their door, which is not the daily delivery of frogs they were expecting, but is rather a big Laotian guy telling them to pack up their berets and garlic and sod off back to France on their bicycles.
Life here moves at a speed that makes even Penang look hectic. That slow-moving old bugger of a trishaw driver should move here – he’d fit right in. Why rush when there’s no need to? The locals probably own their properties outright, with them having been handed down through their families, and there’s not much to spend money on here. If they can make just £5 a day from selling some fruit shakes, fried rice or souvenirs, then they’re sorted.
I walk down to the bank of the murky, brown Mekong, which is wider and more dramatic here than in Vientiane. The opposite side of the river is pure woods and jungle, with just an occasional roof or plume of smoke visible amongst the thick, dark green. Three naked, young boys play in the river; racing, wrestling and throwing things, and looking like they don’t mind not having a PlayStation or cable TV.
I cross over a thin, rickety, bamboo bridge and wander aimlessly around little paths and past little shacks. A street stall has buffalo brains on display – for eating. Even I draw the line there, as the grey, shrivelled-up matter, floating about in water with bits in it, looks completely rank.
I see a teenage boy high up in a coconut tree, holding a stick in an outstretched hand and poking at the super-sized, green-cased fruits on offer, for free, to anyone brave enough to be up there. Down below, two of his friends stand, trying to position themselves so that the delivery falls into their hands and not on their heads.
I walk down one path, through some trees, which unexpectedly brings me out into a clearing right next to someone’s house on the riverfront. An old guy comes up from one of the boats on the bank:
‘You speak French?’
‘No, just English.’
‘Ah, I speak French good. English just bit.’
‘Is that your boat down there?’
‘Yes. My boat. Also that one there. And that one.’
‘Three boats? Wow. And this is your house?’
‘Yes. House number four.’
‘Where are the other three?’
‘One over there and two in the town.’
‘You buy me beer?’
I decline on the basis that anyone with three boats and four houses can buy their own beer. Granted, they’re not exactly yachts and mansions, but still. If anything, he should be buying me one.
Later, I go to visit the nearby Kuang Si Waterfalls, which are part of a forested national park. The main waterfall is a picturesque, three-tier, sixty metre cascade of water, falling over dark green moss and algae-covered rocks. I haven’t seen many waterfalls, but this is definitely the best of them. Singapore should consider buying it up and shipping it over to one of their green mansions.
I attempt the steep hike up a path to the top of the waterfall, but sack it off after five minutes. Climbing a steep, muddy, twisting path in wet flip flops is a fool’s errand. A fool I might be, but an errand-running one I’m not. Flip flops, great as they are, aren’t suitable for some activities, and this is one, along with skiing and scuba diving.
Instead, I spend hours lazing about in the jungle-shaded, multi-levelled, turquoise blue pools around the foot of the waterfall. They look beautiful, but they’re not transparent and there’s definitely some unseen stuff moving around below the surface. To relax you need to constantly persuade yourself that the latest odd-feeling thing to touch your leg is a leaf, stick or fish, and not a leech, snake or perv’s penis.
I form temporary discussion groups with people from around the world – including a Japanese finance worker in his early twenties, a South Korean forty-something restaurant owner, and a sixty-something, Vietnamese, retired software programmer – and discuss things ranging from the best age to get married (forty), to should Japan be allowed an army again (no), to whether or not bicycles in the Netherlands have brakes (not sure).
Back in town, I go to Wat Xieng Thong, a gold-gilded, ornately decorated temple, with a multi-layered, pointy, sloped roof, that’s surrounded with statues of Buddha meditating. Meditating, which apart from sleeping is the laziest activity there is, is all that guy seemed to do. Next time anyone calls you lazy, tell them you get more done that Buddha did, and no-one whinged about him being lazy.
Traditional Laotian music plays out of speakers, and sounds, to my musically untrained ears, like some combination of xylophones, bongos and flutes. It’s not completely unlike the £3 Ultimate Mega Smooth Chill Out On The Beach Mix CDs you find in supermarkets, and which a cheapskate relative, who you don’t see very often, will get you for Christmas.
In the middle of the temple courtyard is an outdoor shrine under a gold and red gazebo, with a row of burning candles and incense sticks, with small bouquets of flowers laid in front of them. People kneel down to pray and present offerings, collecting more Karma points in the process.
The monks around the temple here look young, with an average age of about twenty to twenty-five, but there are many who are just boys. It’s common for young monks to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. By becoming a monk they get a good education and also some Karma points for their whole family, who, consequently, are quite happy to kick their little lad out of the house.
The life of a monk in South East Asia is an appealing one. They get to live, for free, in a beautiful environment, under bright, sunny skies, and don’t ever have to worry about money or work. It sounds better than a life of doing a job you hate to pay for things you don’t really need. The trade-off is that you have to give up all luxuries (although apparently not VIP buses and Sprite), be celibate, wake up at 4 am every morning, and only eat two meals a day.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the monk outfit, which is just an orange robe, flip flops – or bare feet for the hardcore – and a shoulder bag to keep all their books and cans of Sprite in. Wearing a robe, which is essentially just a large bed sheet, would be great for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you can wear the same thing everyday without people calling you a tramp. Secondly, you can take it off and have a snooze under it whenever you want. Orange isn’t really my colour though. I think I’d opt for a snazzy blue and white number to compliment my eyes.
In the late afternoon, I climb the steps up to Phou Si Stupa, a temple on a hill in the middle of the city. On the way up, I see a sign saying: ‘Imprint Of Buddha’s Foot This Way.’ Wow; that’s definitely worth checking out.
The imprint is rather large – as in T-Rex size. Either it’s fake or Buddha was one huge bastard. If it’s not fake and he’s really as big as that imprint of his foot suggests, then I’ll reconsider trying to shove a flip flop – sideways – up his arse.
Further up, there’s a woman standing behind a table with a dozen tiny cages, each containing two birds. The deal is, you’re supposed to buy the birds from her so you can get Karma points for setting them free. I wonder how many Karma points I’d get for taking out the woman so she can’t lock up any more birds.
At the top, where there’s a three-sixty degree view, I look out at the sun, setting behind the mountains on the far side of the Mekong, and say a little prayer for the current mugs being driven recklessly through them on a battered old bus.
Looking about from up here makes me question what the Americans were trying to bomb in the Vietnam War, during which they dropped enough to give Laos the unfortunate title of the world’s most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. The plus-sized burger-munchers dropped around 270 million bombies – which are bombs, cluster bombs and the bombs within cluster bombs – on Laos, of which an estimated 20-30% failed to detonate on landing.
These are called UXO, which stands for unexploded ordnance. A single, tennis ball-sized cluster bomb contains more than a hundred smaller, off-shoot bombs inside it, which would cover an area equivalent to three football fields. Clearance work is still going on – slowly. It has to be done manually by skilled bomb-removal workers, and to clear a 100 m² area can take up to ten days. More than twenty thousand people have been accidentally killed or injured by UXOs since the end of the war in 1973, and of those who weren’t killed, thirteen thousand lost a limb.
The US Government at the time said it was necessary because the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital supply line for the North Vietnamese, ran through Laos. Still, carpet-bombing a poor country that had no way of defending itself? Shame on you, America. They should come back, armed with just vacuum cleaners this time, and clean up their mess.
On the way back to my room, I stop off to buy a £37 bus ticket to take me from here to Kunming in China. It’s a 6 am pick-up tomorrow morning, and it’s supposed to take twenty-four hours to get there.
In the evening, I binge for hours on Facebook and YouTube as I won’t be able to use them while I’m in China. They, along with thousands of others sites, have been blocked by the Chinese government.
Later, I get a shock when I see an article on the BBC News website, reporting on a terrorist attack that occurred today at the train station in Urumqi, which is the capital city of the Xinjiang province, through which I’ll have to pass if I take the Kazakhstan route. The article says:
‘Deadly Terrorist Attack At Xinjiang Railway Station.
A bomb and knife attack at a railway station in China’s western Xinjiang region has killed three and injured seventy-nine others. The attackers used knives to stab people at the station exit and detonated explosives at the same time.’
It seems the Chinese embassy in Bangkok weren’t just messing me around when they wouldn’t give me a visa to go to western China.
There’s also a link within the article to another article about a bigger terrorist attack that happened last month at Kunming train station, where I’m heading tomorrow. Bloody shite bollocks.
Still, I’m undeterred – and quite possibly an idiot – so the show will go on.
The generally accepted wisdom is that you don’t negotiate with terrorists, but sod that. If I come across any, I’ll negotiate with them, pay them up to £10, and be on my way.
Anyway, there’s no point me worrying about getting stabbed and/or blown up until I’m actually in the country. This still isn’t guaranteed as, while I can still follow my submitted itinerary if I need to – taking me up through central and northern China to Mongolia – I didn’t, due to time, visa application fatigue and the fact that it’s not my preferred route, get the Mongolian visa that the Chinese embassy told me to get. It’s a valid reason for turning me away at the Laos-China border if they want to. Hopefully, they just won’t give a toss, or I can bribe them, but it’s going to be a long, nervous, twelve hour ride to the border to find out.