Homeward Bound

November 19, 2009

The bags are packed. I’m checking under the hotel bed for any shoes/power adapters/underwear. And I’m nicking the bathrobes.

That’s right kids, I’m leaving Bangkok tonight and will be home tomorrow morning. I’m MASSIVELY looking forward to seeing Perth and its crappy Wheel Of Excellence again. I’ve felt a bit lonely and in limbo the last few days. Bangkok has been the only place on this trip where I don’t know anyone, so there has been more than enough solo meals and talking to myself as the excitement has built about coming home.

No doubt you’re all expecting me to sum up the last 5 months in a pithy little package, to wrap it up like warm toast, like a tight nugget. I’m not sure that I can. Everywhere has been amazing (except Koblenz; that was rubbish). My original mission statement – to visit everyone I know who ever moved overseas – has been a success; I’ve re-connected with many old friends, and made new ones. I’ve seen breathtaking scenery and eaten delicious food. Most importantly, I’ve missed you all like buggery. Staying in different cities has been eye-opening, and I think I’m now a bit more critical of Perth’s crappy foibles, but still a staunch defender of its merits. (There are NO rules in Bangkok, but life goes on. Why does Perth need to ban bogans from taking their shirts off at festivals? Sheesh.)

The bottom line is, home is where your friends are. I can’t wait to see you all, eat some cheese, have a dance, and hit the beach.

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Strange things about Thailand #2

November 17, 2009

Mmmmmm. Delicious colon.

Strange things about Thailand #1

November 17, 2009

For some baffling reason beyond my meagre powers of deduction, Take Me Home Country Roads, by John Denver, is RIDICULOUSLY popular in Thailand. It’s a pub and karaoke staple. This song is to Thailand what Land Down Under is to Australia.

Also, the Thais have a weird love for naff bossa nova versions of famous tunes. So far I’ve heard a bossa Purple Rain, Horse With No Name, and Smells Like Teen Spirit. It’s actually kinda growing on me.

Rama lama ding dong

November 15, 2009

king

King Rama IX’s benevolent visage is everywhere in Thailand. In every temple, train station, hotel, and restaurant, official portraits are proudly displayed in homage to a monarchy that is widely revered throughout the country. The Thais LOVE this guy. In the chair since 1946, Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great (whose Wikipedia page is blocked in Thailand) is the latest king in a monarchy which is protected by criminal law against any threat, physical violation, and especially defamation. That’s right, kids; best to keep your mouth shut about Rama when you’re in Thailand, lest you want to end up like Harry Nicolaides. (NB: THE KING IS GOOD THE KING IS GREAT LONG LIVE KING OF THAILAND).

So under the watchful eye of the ubiquitous regent, I began my package tour of southern Thailand in Bangkok 8 days ago. Needing to get to the other side of town in gridlocked traffic to meet up with the tour group, I chanced my hand at a motorbike taxi. 20 minutes and a change of underwear later (forget base jumping; riding a motorbike in Bangkok is a true extreme sport), I was shaking hands with my new travel companions. The majority of the group were young Poms backpacking their way to Australia, but included Simon the journo from Newcastle, Chris the engineer from Aberdeen, Sam the electrician from Brisbane, and Chris the crazy American ice-and-water entrepreneur from New Mexico. And what better place to get acquainted with 14 strangers than to hit Khaosan Road, the infamous backpacker mecca full of hostels, bars, and smelly dreadlocked farangs from England and Germany. It is also perhaps the epicentre of the Great Asian Shirt Drought, a disturbing phenomenon first described by renowned bogan anthropologists Dodd and Parsons. Anyway, it was a good night, but like most outings involving alcohol served in buckets, it did not end well.
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The overnight train ride to Khao Sok National Park was an experience in itself, involving (amongst other shenanigans) a singing train conductor who drank any booze that passengers were willing to throw his way. The National Park itself is breathtaking.
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This was the view from my bungalow, where we stayed for two nights. The soaring limestone cliffs and virgin rainforest were spectacular, and we got to see plenty of these floating down the Khao Sok River on the first afternoon on tyre inners. Although the mode of transport was hardly Heart of Darkness, I did feel a bit like Marlow in the Congo, fending off natives with only my pith helmet and pipe (note: there were actually no natives, pith helmet, or pipe).
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Another notable activity in Khao Sok was elephant trekking, which, while fun, was somewhat dampened by the poor treatment given to the elephants by their handlers. I had heard that there were different elephant trekking places in the area – some ethically sound and others not – and I had hoped that the one organised by our tour would be on the right side of the fence, but unfortunately it wasn’t; the elephant in front of us was bleeding on the backs of its legs from being whipped too hard. But I got to feed and hug the elephant at the end, so that was nice.
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We also went to visit and feed the monkeys. Cheeky little buggers kept snatching, and didn’t even say thankyou. Pretty cute, though.
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Our next stop was Ko Samui, one of the main tourist islands off Thailand’s east coast. Like Rottnest on steroids, beautiful sandy beaches and warm water…..
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…..were in stark contrast to the NUTS nightlife at Chaweng Beach. After a few drinks at a local watering hole, I somehow ended up at a go-go bar with the rest of the lads. For purely anthropological reasons, of course (I had to go at least once, right?). We also ended up at a crazy beach party with fire twirlers, monkeys, snakes, and little kids hustling the punters with games of Connect 4.

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Beer-vision


Thankfully, we left Samui after only one night for two nights on Ko Tao, a smaller island renowned for its great diving, and which was much more chilled and relaxing. THIS is what I had come to Thailand for: lying on the beach, reading, and doing absolutely nothing, apart from the occasional violent beating (a.k.a traditional Thai massage).
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OK, so there was some drinking as well.

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The boys


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The ladies


These two photos were taken at the beginning of a rather epic night, which involved more buckets; more fire twirlers; a German lawyer; a 19-year-old English boy who got scared by the rather forward tactics of one the girls in our group; dancing to AC/DC on the beach; American Chris getting into a fight; being kicked out of the pool by hotel security guards; and more bed-hopping than you can poke a stick at (note: not all of these apply to me).

I was extremely reluctant to leave Ko Tao, but we had to get a ferry and another sleeper train back to Bangkok.

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Sam the electrician on the sleeper train.


To be honest, it’s a bit of an anti-climax to be back in Bangkok, so I’m hoping to occupy myself in the next few days with Thai cooking classes, suit fittings, and a cycling tour around Chinatown. But there’s one super-exciting prospect looming on Friday that’s dominating my thoughts at the moment: HOME.

The ‘Kok

November 6, 2009

I’ve been wanting to travel to South East Asia for many moons now, and I finally got to Bangkok on Tuesday night after a gruelling flight from Chicago (why do I always have to sit next to the larger, malodorous gentlemen?). Thanks to the wonderful Elly’s delightful ‘Dr Elspeth MD’s Guide to Bangkok (and its surrounds)’ and Wikitravel, I felt thoroughly prepared to tackle this behemoth. I was wrong.

Bangkok is a different beast. You can’t assume that things work the way they do in Europe or America. The rules are different. And not just the road rules (or lack thereof; why anyone would choose to drive here is beyond me). You can’t always take what people are telling you at face value, especially as a tourist. It was partly because of my naivety, and partly my false sense of confidence, that I got taken for a ride on my first day.

Wandering down the main drag Sukhumvit, looking lost and consulting my map, I was approached by a smiley Thai bloke who asked if I needed help. After saying that I was just trying to figure out where I was, he volunteered that there were several interesting sights nearby, and pointed them out on my map. He also explained that it was a special promotion day, because the Thai government was subsidising tuk-tuk rides all over the city, and that a tuk-tuk could take me to several amazing attractions for just 20 baht (about 70 cents). “Deal!” I thought. “Imagine my luck, to be in Bangkok on this special day. My friendly nature and superior bargaining skills are no match for these hapless unsuspecting Thais.” So my new friend hailed a tuk-tuk, explained to the driver that I was his friend and I was to get the special price, and away we went.
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The tuk-tuk ride WAS a lot of fun, weaving in and out of traffic, and the driver was very friendly, and he did take me to a couple of nice temples.
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But pretty soon he started taking me to places I didn’t want to go, like the suit shop, the jewellery stores, and souvenir emporiums, all with very pushy sales assistants (I ended up buying a killer suit, but too expensive). Then we got stuck in traffic and he told me to get out and walk to the Golden Mount, where we were supposed to be going next. By that stage I was pissed at the driver and myself for getting hoodwinked in the first place. So I headed it back to the hotel with my tail between my legs.

Apart from that, Bangkok’s been pretty cool. I’ve been on a couple of ferry rides on the river to check out Wat Pho (the reclining buddha), Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn), and Khao San Road (Thai for ‘hippy backpackers’).

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Wat Pho


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Wat Arun

I’ve also been sampling some pretty tasty street food. My core Thai vocabulary – as well as ‘hello’, ‘thankyou’ and ‘go away, I don’t want the taxi/DVDs/go-go girls you’re selling’ – now extends to Larb Moo (spicy pork mince with basil) and Tom Kai Gai (lemongrass & coconut chicken soup).
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This one was expensive; almost $3.

Check out these lounge lizards! They were just lazing around Lumphini Park (the Thai equivalent of Central Park) when I went for a wander this morning. Scared the shit out of me.
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What's wrong with squirrels?!

Sweet Home Chicago

November 6, 2009

Chi-town has some amazing architecture and public art. Check it out:

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Picasso sculpture


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Chicago Cultural Centre


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Pritzker Pavillion


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Art Institute of Chicago


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Chicago Public Library

Start spreading the news

November 1, 2009

Now THIS is a city. Not just a city. THE city. One of my new Big Apple acquaintances summed it up neatly: in New York, you get a sense of what is possible, of the pinnacle of human achievement. Musically, artistically, architecturally, financially, if you’re kicking ass and taking names, you’re doing it in New York.

Case in point: I came to New York to catch up with old primary and high school friend Matt Jodrell. Matt’s a bit of a musical prodigy. He plays world-class trumpet and piano, he’s toured around the world with all sorts of famous people, and he’s in New York to study a Masters at Juilliard on a full scholarship. We played in bands together all through school, and I idolised him because he was so goddamn good. He introduced me to jazz when we were 11 (yes friends, you can blame him). Anyway, Matt was top of the tree back in Australia. He came to New York, and in his words, it’s a kick in the ass, because all of a sudden there are a hundred other guys and gals who are just as badass, all competing for the same gigs. There are dudes busking on the subway with 3 bucks in their hat who are world-class!

The flipside of this over-achievement and excellence is that New York is a very hard and competitive place to live. And expensive to boot. I stayed with Matt and his two musician housemates – Mike and Nico – for the first 4 days in their little apartment in Astoria, Queens. These are the best musicians of their generation, but they’re hardly living a life of luxury. But they were extremely hospitable and generous, and it was great fun hanging out and talking music, drinking beer, eating curry, watching baseball, and making pancakes for breakfast.

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Matt making curry


I was also lucky enough to hear some amazing jazz hanging out with these guys. Not only did I get to hear them mucking about on trumpets in the apartment (a treat in itself), Matt got me into Dizzy’s to see Stefon Harris, an incredible young vibraphonist and composer. I also went to see Matt play in a big band at Smoke Jazz Club the other night, the first time with his awesome new horn, after he had his previous trumpet mugged from him on the subway earlier this year. The band was killer and so was Matt; it was real special to hear him play again after all these years. Also, the four-cheese pasta was delicious.

You can’t really avoid music in New York. In some places, it even grows organically on the buildings!
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I caught up with Irishman Tiernan – who I had met in Dublin in September – for lunch last Sunday. After eating, he showed me along the water on the lower east side, then we made our way to the new Highline Park, an old dis-used section of elevated subway line which has been converted into suburban parkland. It’s a brilliant idea; a couple of miles of thin green oasis winding its way through downtown Manhattan. When we got there, this band was setting up on the narrow fire escape on a building opposite the park. Pretty soon, they were playing some fine funk and soul for the gathering crowd in the park. They were called Chicken Gravy.
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Highline Park


I also got to check out some great local bluegrass and swing at a place called Banjo Jim’s in the East Village (swing peeps, check out a band called the Cangelosi Cards). Afterwards, I had delicious pie with these two dudes, Tiernan and George Yi (a New Yorker who does a bonzer Australian accent).
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The week was jam packed, but some of the other highlights included strolling around Central Park on a sunny autumn day;
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exploring Harlem, Little Italy, and Chinatown (including delicious pork buns and red bean buns at Chinese bakery);
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Old dudes playing Chinese games in Chinatown


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Big cheese in Little Italy


going up the Empire State Building and soaking in all its breathtaking art deco glory;
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and getting a tour of the Google offices with Tiernan, a brilliant IT guy who was brought to New York to work for this corporate giant. And yes, the Google offices are just as wacky as you’ve been led to believe: scooters for riding around on, free M&Ms, and the most amazing free buffet lunch for employees I’ve ever seen.
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Free things at Google. I partook of some M&Ms.


I also went to the Museum of Modern Art, took the NBC studio tour, and went out to Brooklyn to have a few drinks with Anina – the mechanical engineer daughter of friends of my parents – at her zany bohemian warehouse apartment with her friends and housemates. But I have no photographic evidence of these events, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. I seem to recall that we ended up at a bar down the road, playing pool, drinking cheap beer, and putting Sam Cooke on the jukebox. Win.

Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the dancing. The DANCING. I went a few times in New York, and it got better each time. The pinnacle was Thursday night at Frim Fram, where I danced with SO MANY brilliant dancers. Chelsea, Lisa, Emily, the other Emily, Jordan, and the others whose names I can’t remember, thankyou! Best dancing since Dublin. And that’s saying something.

So I’m back in Chicago now, resting up at my parents’ before flying out to Bangkok (or The Kok) on Monday. Looking forward to getting into some shorts and exposing my skinny white legs to the sun again.

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Apropos of nothing, here is a puppy I saw in a pet shop window. For Gareth and Belle.

Dear America…

October 28, 2009

There are many things I like about this country. I like its uber-friendly people. I like its president. I love the amazing music and art. I like the grand scale on which things are done (buildings, monuments, food). And I especially like the alternating billboards on the sides of the interstate highways whose two most popular messages for drivers are “JESUS SAVES” and “WORLD’S LARGEST ADULT BOOK & VIDEO EMPORIUM – NEXT 3 EXITS”.

But there is one thing that really pisses me off about America, even more than pennies, elected judges, and non-compulsory voting. The thing that really gets my goat is CHOICE. Let’s imagine that I go into a typical diner to order, say, a hamburger. These are the questions I will invariably get asked: “White, whole, or wheat bread?” “Do you want the meat rare, extra-rare, medium, somewhat medium, well-done, or black?” “What sort of salad do you want with your burger?” “Which one of our THOUSANDS of salad dressings would you like on your salad?” “Do you want the dressing on the salad or on the side?” “How many sesame seeds do you want on your burger bun?” OK, so I might be exaggerating a bit, but JUST MAKE ME A GODDAMN BURGER!!!!! Stop asking questions, and make me the best freaking burger you know how with the $10 I’m forking over. That’s why I’m coming to you. You’re a food professional. I am not. And don’t even START with the questions about what sort of milk/flavouring/crunchy bits I want in my coffee.

Whew. That is all.

The Week of Ciaran

October 22, 2009

I’d been looking forward to this week for quite a while. Ciaran and I have known each other since we were 11. We didn’t really like each other at first – we each thought the other was a massive dweeb (we were both right). But barely concealed hostility soon flourished into a burgeoning bromance, and we’ve remained fast friends through high school, uni, and beyond. It was through Ciaran that I first met real girls. My first alcohol-related spew was out the back door of Ciaran’s car. You get the picture. Ciaran has been living in the small Illinois town of Champaign-Urbana for the last 5 years pursuing a PhD in engineering/hydrology/fluvial geomorphology/something very clever that I don’t quite understand.
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So Ciaran came up to Chicago on Saturday afternoon for a weekend of adventures. After almost not finding each other in the massive downtown jungle that is Chicago, we repaired to a nearby Japanese restaurant for agedashi tofu, maki, and a year’s worth of catching up.
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The main game for Saturday night was a dance happening at the Drake Hotel, one of Chicago’s oldest and fanciest. We rocked up and it was beautiful; all rich carpets, leather chairs, and chandeliers. Despite a pretty hip band playing, the crowd was mainly older and the floor was small, so we couldn’t bust out too crazy for fear of knocking the old codgers over. We did, however, meet Anthony from Albequerque, who was one of the most kick-ass lead AND follows I’ve ever seen; and Michelle, who in addition to her normal day job, runs a company that pretends to kill people for a living. Seriously.

Christine (who you’ll remember from a previous post) came and met us and we made our way to a house party which held the promise of (a) better dancing, (b) younger people, and (c) cheaper booze. Expectations were fulfilled on all counts, and we had a great time chatting to interesting people, doing crazy slidey lindy on floorboards in our socks, and drinking sangria.

But we couldn’t ignore our inner dweebs for long, so on Sunday we paid a visit to the Adler Planetarium to learn about space n’ stuff. This is a seriously cool planetarium, which, as well as all the modern bells and whistles, has the charmingly retro Atwood Sphere, Chicago’s first planetarium built in 1913, which is basically just a huge metal sphere with wholes drilled into it to represent the stars. It’s pretty rad. Also, the cafeteria sold Moon Pie!
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Moon Pie. What a time to be alive.

Moon Pie. What a time to be alive.


Me, Ciaran, and Chicago skyline

Me, Ciaran, and Chicago skyline


We capped off the day with excellent Indian food on Devon St, and drinks in a Wicker Park sports bar, trying to decode the enduring mystery that is American football.
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On Monday night, Ciaran’s better half Megan came to meet us in Chicago for a rock show: The Ruby Suns and The Dodos at the Bottom Lounge. Both these guys were rockin’, especially The Dodos – a percussion-driven trio with guitar and vibraphone – whose drummer went absolutely nuts and drove the crowd crazy. But good crazy. See this video for an illustration.

I drove back down to Champaign with Ciaran and Megan on Monday night to spend an entirely pleasant couple of days hanging out. Highlights included helping them put together their Ikea furniture for their new apartment;

Ciaran models the Idbyn.

Ciaran models the Idbyn.


Exploring the university campus and getting pretty excited when I came across the fraternities and sororities. Disappointingly, I did not get invited to any keggers, see sorority girls engaged in pyjama-clad pillow fights, nor did I see mischievous frat boys pulling pranks on the crusty old dean. Damn you American movies for leading me astray.
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Ciaran in his smarty-pants PhD office, doing smart things.

Ciaran in his smarty-pants PhD office, doing smart things.

We also sampled some typical mid-western fare at the local diner, where I almost died trying to finish off a massive platter of southern fried chicken and baked sweet potato. Sooooo greasy. The evening was capped off by local beers and a generous helping of bluegrass served up by the Desert Corn Ramblers. Yeeha.
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Sadly, I had to leave Champaign, Ciaran, and Megan after only a couple of days to head back to Chicago and prepare for my trip to NEW YORK! By this time tomorrow, I’ll be in Queens!

Life in Glen Ellyn

October 22, 2009

My parents live in an outer suburb of Chicago called Glen Ellyn, which is really more of a charming village, with lots of very American looking houses with American flags flying out the front and carved pumpkins on the doorsteps. Here are some photos of my folks’ house.
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The front

The front


Mum doing mum things in the kitchen

Mum doing mum things in the kitchen


The deck

The deck


The view from the deck

The view from the deck


The back of the house

The back of the house