Finley: I wouldn't know where to begin with the anecdotes, to be honest. I think I really need to meet you one day and just have a very long talk about all sorts of stuff.
Malaysian Borneo (went to Sabah, cut short the trip to Sarawak) was the biggest tourist trap I've ever been to. Sipadan had amazing scuba diving, but the rest of the place was an awful experience and embodied the wallet with flesh wrapped around it experience of South East Asia perfectly. They've perfected it there. I liked southern Vietnam, but hated the middle and the north. Laos was great, but it's very out of the way, and stuff is often very inaccessible and spread out. Vientiane is a nice little city. Pleasantly surprised. Angkor Wat is really that amazing, but Cambodia is pretty fucked and I didn't like the rest of the country at all. In Thailand, I only went to Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I liked them both immensely, and Thailand overall. Deliberately avoided the beaches down south. Myanmar was probably the one place I'd really recommend. It was both amazing and horrible (and fucked) up at the same time. Bagan would give Angkor Wat a run for its money any day of the week. We went out to the west coast and there was no one there when we went there. Had the most perfect beach all to ourselves. Unfortunately, for me, I spent the entire month we were in Myanmar really, really sick (as in actually pissing blood sick -- try doing hikes into the mountains in July like that). Indonesia I couldn't stand at all, but we only went to Bali and Lombok (we were originally going to keep going further east, but had difficulties organising that at a reasonable time/price). Have heard further east is really cool, but very remote/backward.
I'll tell you about Yangon. The first day we arrived in Yangon, we arrived at the guest house. Outside, someone had managed to run an enormous truck off the road into a ditch (I love watching these kind of random daily situations get resolved far more than I like going to tourist attractions). A huge crowd had gathered to watch some guys try to pull it out with a crane. Not one of the guys involved was wearing any safety gear, yet a random guy in the crowd brought his own construction helmet. They had set up a crane, but instead of setting up to the side of the truck and pulling it out that way, they set it up in front of the cab of the truck, so the angles were all wrong. They couldn't actually pull the truck out. All they succeeded in doing was ripping half the wooden tray off the truck. We, and a French guy we travelled with for most of the trip, stood and watched for about twenty minutes and then walked into town. There are all these really old cars there, with the steering wheels on the right, but they also drive on the right side of the road (and drive insanely fast, as in 100+km/h), so the driver is not near the middle of the road. There are all these amazing colonial British buildings slowly crumbling and being reclaimed by the vegetation, and we saw some guys having a shower with buckets in the yard of one. The entire month we were there, aside from soldiers, I only saw two people not wearing open-toed shoes. Even kind of businessmen (well, guys in suits, as rare as they were) wearing sandals or flip-flops. All the women wear this weird yellow paint on their faces. When it rains, the streets literally get three feet deep in water because it doesn't drain properly. You find yourself wading everywhere. Every hundred metres, I'd see the most bizarre things that I can't even begin to explain, such as three guys covered head to toe in grey mud shovelling wet mud and water out of a deep hole in the pavement, as torrential rain filled it up just as quickly, or all broken up pavements everywhere you walk, and then one guy very carefully sculpting a one square metre sized piece of fresh concrete in the middle of it all in the middle of nowhere. You can get all you can eat curry for 10NTD. The curry is excellent there. Burmese food must rate as possibly the most disgusting food I've ever had, and some restaurants don't have running water, and use the same still water for cooking water, dishwashing and hand washing (I can't remember the number of times I actually had to go looking for a place to wash my hands before a meal). They have the most amazing gold covered temples. Despite how cut off from the outside world they supposedly are, seemingly every single person speaks amazing English. Yet you go into a cinema, and people scream translations at the top of their lungs to the few people who can't whilst spitting sunflower seed shells all around you. Piles and piles and piles of sunflower seed shells. There is litter everywhere in the country.
The whole thing was like the most surreal dream, especially on the first day, but also for the rest of the month. From what I'd heard from other travellers, it sounded far more akin to being India Lite than Southeast Asian. It had a really different feel. I've never been anywhere like Yangon or Myanmar generally.
The towns and the countryside are a whole other trip again and have an equally crazy, but very different feel to Yangon. Christ, the stories I could tell about some of the really weird things that happened there! Being chased down the street by a local crazy with a fucking bowie knife and the manager of the guest house chasing her off with a machete; one town where the guest house owners actively plotted against each other and you could feel the paranoia on the streets around you; other towns with the most unbelievably friendly and hospitible people you could ever meet; asking for directions and ten hands pointing in ten different directions -- to somewhere in a town they'd lived their whole lives; one guest house owner who pissed us off so much that we went looking for other places, yet despite us returning to his because the other places were vastly inferior, he started round two so we left again; going to a cave with a temple in it, and having to walk barefoot in the dark and not being able to take a single step without stepping on a plastic bag (possibly one of the most horrible sensations I've ever experienced); travelling for a whole day along a river on a cargo ship in the most amazing scenery, only occasionally stopping to drop off or pick up goods in a place that you could not even imagine people lived in; villages out in the mountains that redefine the phrase "dirt poor"; travelling between towns on an amazingly new and modern highway and it being eerily quiet because of absolutely no other traffic other than an occasional bus. Every single day, every single experience, every single human encounter was otherworldly, and few of the other travellers there were the usual tossers on the Banana Pankcake circuit. It's a little bit touristy in some places (especially the really big attractions, the only one of which we went to being Bagan), but get in now before it becomes the next Vietnam or Bali (if it hasn't already).
If I were to travel in the developing world again, I think I would like to go to the east of Turkey, and up into the three Caucasus republics, or the 'Stans, or Iran, or maybe to somewhere like Ethiopia, or back to Russia to places like Kamchatka or Altai. Places that are pretty firmly off the trail.
HH: I was the opposite with Egypt. I hated the tourist attractions (though seeing the sufis was one of the most amazing experiences of my life) and loved the cities. Cairo is fucked, but I found the ordinary life much more interesting (albeit fucked). A lot of the Egyptian monuments have not stood the test of time well, and the Egyptians haven't looked after them well either. I actually found the mosques more interesting and aesthetically appealling.
It's been the same for me virtually everywhere. My favourite thing about the U.S. was riding Greyhound buses for tens of thousands of miles and witnessing all of that craziness. My favourite thing about Poland was going to Torun (LP gave a glowing review about its medieval town square or some nonsense) and ending up taking the wrong bus out to the middle of nowhere. I stayed in an old Prussian fort that had been converted to a workers' dorm. Every night, they enforced a curfew by releasing German shepherds onto the grounds! I went for a walk to find the medieval town square, but couldn't find it. What I did witness though, was pure gold: a father and a son stripping wires for their copper or other metals at a construction site, and putting them into a van. Fucking awesome. Russia was like that in spades, especially the first time I went there in late 93 or early 94. However, Southeast Asia was not so much gonzo-fucked, as just fucked-fucked.
And you coming in to scold us all like some kind of sour-puss kindie assistant who favors olive cardigans and lemon drinks without sugar. -- Muzha Man
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words "Socialism" and "Communism" draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, "Nature Cure" quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. -- George Orwell