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I've been to AUSTRALIA, New Zealand, Indonesia, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Republic of Ireland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Poland, Italy, Vatican City, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Turkey, Vanuatu, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, USA and Canada! I'm tackling the world one continent at a time!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Thailand is the land of smiles...not for everyone

Thailand has been labelled the land of smiles. True, if you're a balding middle aged white man with an overhanging stomach, a few bucks in your pocket and the desire for an Asian woman to cater to your every need. They'll smile at you alright!

It's safe to assume, and indeed history tells us that it's true, that foreign men provide young Thai women with money, clothes, gifts and adoration in exchange for some very ordinary sex. Oh wait, perhaps that's just me assuming now. My bad. At least the average sex would be over quickly. Oh shit, there I go 'assuming' again.

What surprised me most about the young/old, white/Asian partnerships everywhere in Thailand is just how unashamed it is. Seedy yes. But honest.

It's a common sight. A group of suit pant wearing white guys walking down the street with a gut full of beer, talking loudly and clearly relinquishing being 'away' from wherever home is and acting young and invincible. They could quite easily be mistaken for any bunch of blokes on a Friday night in Manchester or Melbourne to the unknowing.

But the difference is this. Trailing these groups of men are young Thai women, staggering around awkwardly in very high heeled shoes, wearing minimal clothing, covered in heavy makeup and rock solid hairstyles. And most noticeably. They stare at the ground.

And as they walk the streets searching for whatever destination - probably the next bar or hotel room (wretch) - not one of the men or women meet the eye. A sign that while the men and women are happy to play the role of 'I don't give a flying fuck' - a part of them did indeed give a fuck that flies. Inside they were ashamed to some degree. A complete contradiction to the confident exterior portrayed.

Not all of the partnerships operated in such a flamboyant manner. Several couples did seem legitimately interested in each other. But again, something wasn't right about the match up. No one. Not one. Not a single, random, accidental person in a young/old, Thai/white foreigner partnership meets a passerby's gaze. And I tried...to the point where it was getting ridiculously obvious. You'd swear the ground was made of pure gold or something because that is where their eyes remained fixed!

It's an ugly stereotype, and unfortunate for legitimate interracial couples caught under the mail-order umbrella, but it's undeniable that exploitation is often at play. Western men, who perhaps weren't appreciated by Western women for whatever reasons, are going elsewhere. To a place where they are considered wealthy. The plus side is that they can specify exactly what they want from a woman, come to a long or short term arrangement, provide payments in exchange for it. Nice doing business with you!

Other travellers agreed that this was an unpleasant and awkward sight. Albeit a true part of the Thailand experience. But one particular Irish girl didn't agree that it was always the white guy taking advantage of the Thai girl.

She had been travelling a while and spoken with many Thai girls along the way who had entered into these 'arrangements' with older (and probably much heavier) foreign men. And these little gals said it was them pulling the strings.

They believed they had entered into the perfect relationship. For example. They were being paid frequently which made it a job. The men were away from Thailand most of the time so they were free to live and spend time with families, friends or other partners. And the sex was often rarely required because of the little time their funder was actually present. These little Thai queens played their part when required, but most of the time they were left to be. Sly little geniuses!

So who's exploiting who? I'm suddenly not so sure. Maybe there isn't any and it's a simple case and mutual using!

There was one - and only one - situation which made me queazy. And that was in Chiang Mai where I watched a man sleazily grope a young Thai girl no older than 11 years old in a bar. What disturbed me most is that her mother, owner of the bar, was present and saw no problem with the behaviour. He was Australian and probably aged mid 30's. Leaving Melbourne International Airport there's a large sign at customs reminding travellers that child sex abroad is still a criminal act in Australia. Goes to show how common it must be.

One thing that should be noted is that these types of behaviour were not openly common in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. If it's there, and certainly it is, it is still underground behaviour. I wonder if it will stay that way?

Best of luck to both sides playing the game!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Portugal, basking in the welcome shadow of Spain

Originally, I wrote this article for the Australian Times Newspaper, which it was published in.  Then shortly afterwards it featured in the South African Newspaper too.

As globalisation continues to conquer the world, it’s becoming more difficult to find the culture shock that made travellers want to explore in the first place. But if you’re after a getaway offering a mix of medieval pasts and a modern approach to drinking, then look no further than Portugal. While its bigger neighbour Spain might bask in most of the limelight, there are plenty of reasons to head westward.

Porto is located up north and is a reminder of why travel is so high on our agendas. Getting through customs at the airport can only be described as ‘a breeze’ and is the first of many indicators for how laid back this country is.

The Metro is a far cry from London’s overcrowded underground and instead can be likened to an air-conditioned tram. However on this system squishing against strangers isn’t an issue. The city’s population stands at just 220,000. Not bad for the country’s second largest city.

Wandering the hilly streets is like stepping back in time and comes with a serious backside workout. Houses stand side-by-side slanting crookedly with washing hanging from windows catching the breeze from the River Douro below.

Countless museums can be found throughout Porto, enough to entertain even the most uninspired visitor. A feature of the city centre is the old tram struggling loudly uphill in the same fashion it has for more than 100 years – even a museum is dedicated to its honour.

The city is small enough to cover in a single very (long) day and is the perfect starting point for heading south. Trains to Lisbon run daily for around 20 Euro.

HINT: A decent bottle of wine here will set you back around €1.70.

The contrast between the Porto and Lisbon is vast. Portugal’s capital city feels like the richer sibling of Porto with its long, tree-lined streets, designer shopping and outside dining. Travellers seeking a cultural change without the shock factor should feel right at ease here.

The city is overlooked by two large landmarks; the national flag and emblem at Parque Eduardo VII, and Saint George’s Castle which boasts the best vantage point in the city with 360 degree views. But again, this has a steep, however well worth, climb.

For less active sightseers there’re plenty of alternatives. Start at the famous Baixa Square by the water and jump on a tram headed north along the coast. In less than half an hour you reach the small seaside town of Belem (Bethlehem in English). There’s no strained walking or uphill ventures here, just a simple flat-footed stroll. Antique markets are held here on the first Sunday of each month.

Restaurants, cafés and bakeries famous for their Pastie Da Nata (custard tarts) adorn the main street. Belem also features a marina and the Design and Astromomos Museums.

A thriving drinking and nightclubbing scene is a short walk east of Lisbon town centre in Bairro Alto. It doesn’t take long for tourists to be approached by drugs dealers offering mainly cocaine, marijuana and hash. Smart travellers steer clear of their persistence while locals barely notice they exist.

If you find yourself with any spare time in Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra is well worth your while. Just 45 minutes northwest along the coast you’ll find yourself in a medieval township. While there’s a tonne  of attractions on offer it’s hard to go past the Moorish Castle set high atop a mountain and surrounded by forest and cloud. For €4 a maniacal bus takes tourists up a steep and winding road at crazy pace – not suitable for sufferers of motion sickness. A further €6 gains entry to the castle which is worth every cent and more for views alone. While there’s plenty to see in Sintra a day trip is more than satisfying for most.

Lagos is the main hub of the Algarve region, Portugal’s answer to Spain’s Costa Del Sol, where the young sun and party seekers flock. A train from Lisbon will set you back around €22 and requires a quick and simple change at Tunes. But that’s far from the only change you’ll notice.

Lagos, once a small fishing village now resembles every other coastal tourist destination – concrete and commercial. It feels like an entirely different country. The marina is the focal point of town which is surrounded by old rock walls with a series of restaurants, shops, cafés and bars within.

The culture in Lagos is very much western influenced and many bars are owned by English and Australians who passed through for a ‘visit’ years before and found it difficult to leave the lifestyle behind. In these bars patrons are not intended to be sober and wouldn’t be allowed where possible – staff included. It’s an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere and difficult to do anything shocking… it’s all been done before. Where else can a barman whack a tourist on the head with a cricket bat while wearing a metal helmet and shooting tequila? According to a tally on the wall, Australians are clearly winning the beer bong contest for the year. While these places do everything in their power to keep you intoxicated, one bar kindly asks for no ‘swayzies!’

When drinking isn’t involved the beach is the perfect backdrop to recover. Water-sports and other beach activities are advertised, however none are located in Lagos and require travel to take part.
Only the most serious drinkers can last more than five days in this hidden piece of alcohol-induced paradise. And for a fast escape Faro is less than a two hour train ride away for around €6; a further €10 will get you a taxi to the airport.

This country can suit any traveller’s budget and with cheap airlines making daily flights across Portugal, there’s no excuse not to go before the rest of the world catches on to this hidden destination.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Vanuatu is the happiest place on Earth

Vanuatu they say is the happiest place on earth. And it is. If you disagree, you haven’t been. Simple. Where else can you stare into the crater of an active volcano while the molten hot centre of the earth splashes and roars ferociously just meters away? Right here in Vanuatu is where - and the feeling is magical.

Imagine a place where the crystal clear water remains perfect temperature year round and magnificent sunsets makes you weep in awe each evening. It's a place where time seems to stands still. Or perhaps it just seems that way because you are still waiting for the drink you ordered yesterday. Never mind, things here operate on island time. You will soon too.

Port Vila, or Vila as it is better known, is the capital of Vanuatu and located on the island Efate. It is the perfect introduction to the country. The airport is nothing more than a tin shed without air-conditioning. Outside customs, visitors are greeted by the tropical sounds of musicians wearing brightly coloured floral ensembles, hinting at what awaits outside.

Escape to the water front and admire the Pacific Ocean to the sound of children laughing as they play unsupervised in the water. Locals jibe each other loudly over bocce. Their comical banter provides many giggles and its easy to spend countless hours here people watching. 

Vila is low-rise, run down, and underwhelming. If you get through a visit without blowing an ankle on one of the many steep drops of uneven footpath, you are doing well. Outside the city is a stunning Blue Lagoon, Cascade Waterfalls, small islands and reefs aplenty. All are easily accessible by hired driver and van.
One of the first - inescapable - things you will notice in Vanuatu is the endless smiles. And it’s disconcerting.  However, the people here smile because their world is uncompromised and genuine. Children don’t cry or throw tantrums – they are as laid back as their parents and blissfully unaware of anything outside their borders.

Unlike Asia, there is no haggling in Vanuatu. None. And tipping is not part of their custom which can be unnerving. How can anywhere be this friendly without wanting something in return? What’s the catch? There isn’t one. The catch is that there is no catch. It's catch free!

This small nation is made up of 82 islands and its history packs a serious punch. Most of all, it’s paradise. How it managed to stay this way is a mystery, particularly as its neighbour Fiji has been heavily immigrated and developed. But Vanuatu is better for it and natives hope it stays this way. As should visitors alike.

Possibly the most magical island at Vanuatu, at least the most notable, is Tanna. South of Efate, this island is primal. Landing there is like arriving on the island from Jurassic Park – it is luscious green and thick with trees. Minus dinosaurs.  But it does have that prehistoric feeling. There are no roads, very little electricity, and no buildings. It is village life in its most natural form. 

Mt Yasur will undoubtedly become a favourite travel story among even the most worldly travellers. Mt Yasur is an active volcano accessible via four-wheel-drive. The ground tremors and the air rains with ash as the car ascends with windscreen wipers on overdrive.

When the car can go no further, it's time to leg it. But not before a safety briefing advising that: "If the volcano erupts or splashes lava high above, you may wish to turn and run. Do not do this. Stay where you are, look up to see where the lava is and try to step aside." Righto then.

Visitors can stand on the edge of the crater just meters from the centre of the earth roaring and spewing lava right before your eyes. It is a reminder of how insignificant and small we are in comparison to Mother Nature. We are at her will. 

Getting to this special island involves a short flight. Its airport makes the tin shed at Vila seem like Heathrow in comparison. And hand luggage takes on an entirely new meaning. A whipper snipper, chain saw and giant bags of rice a few of the standout items - quite a sight. Tanna natives are also noticeably darker skinned than other islands. It is well worth the visit.

Espiriitu Santo is the biggest island in Vanuatu. It is famous for hosting the Yanks in the Second World War and being the underwater graveyard for military equipment when the Japanese surrendered. Instead of shipping everything home, US Marines pushed it into the sea. It is now a popular diving site known as Million Dollar Bay. It’s also where the play South Pacific was written - unsurprising that someone found motivation to write in these surroundings.

Just two hours from Brisbane, there is no excuse not to add this paradise to the destination list. So before you cash in money for the next overseas holiday, consider converting it to Vatu (Vanuatu currency). You won't regret it.

Getting there is easy. Leaving is the hard part!

Friday, 7 December 2012

Australian Times Newspaper article: Aussies abroad - don't come home to soon

Returning to life in Australia was definitely as hard as I expected. Probably harder.

I needed to vent about my feelings of being an outcast in my home country and wrote the following article for the Australian Times Newspaper with words of advice for those considering coming home. I hope I changed a few minds!

The comments are worth a read - and leave your own!

LEAVING London – those words invoke different feelings to different people. But regardless of who you are, if you’re an Aussie living in London, then these two words cross your mind often.

Returning to Australia can be a blessing for the homesick or punishment to those who see it as the end of reckless fun. The latter is probably more common, because let’s face it, that’s why we left in the first place.

I was one of those people. But after a two year stint gallivanting across as many countries as possible and living in London, it was time to face the blasting reality of life back on Australian shores. And whatever type of mental preparation I thought I’d given myself, it wasn’t even close to being enough. Each day waking back home is like a fresh slap in the face – on a really bad day it’s like I’ve been completely KO’d! And after talking to other returnees, I’m not alone.

So before you prematurely book a ticket to the homeland because you a) just broke up with your boyfriend/girlfriend b) can’t afford to stay in London earning such little money or c) miss a love or the life you left behind, think long and hard about the decision.

Readjusting is tough and nearly two months in I’m still as unsettled as day one – minus the jetlag! The 24 hour flight was agony, dragging me closer and closer to the life I wasn’t prepared to go back to. And shock horror – when I got back nothing had changed. Except that every single friend I left behind was either pregnant, has had a baby, wanted a baby, wanted another baby or couldn’t stop talking about babies. WARNING: while you were learning, growing and discovering the world, your mates were breeding like wildfire and cannot relate to your experiences unless they have also had them. Best have an overseas baby story prepared to hold their attention for a little while at least. The alternative to this conversation is marriages and mortgages. I can’t decide what’s worse!

You are most likely coming home broke. Even more likely is that you’re coming home in debt – to your parents. And it gets worse. Because you’re broke and jobless, you live with your folks rent free knowing that the first few months pay, when you eventually get a job, is going straight back to them. It’s pure humiliation; you’re brave and independent enough to take on any culture of the world but still need mummy and daddy to help you back on your feet!

And then throw in this equation: Australia = extortion. This just compounds your ‘brokeness’ when you get home. I got off the plane at Melbourne Airport and feeling parched bought a small bottle of water….for six bucks! And things got worse – a pint cost $9.40 – and apparently that’s a good deal! If you’re a smoker, well I hate to be the one to break the news, but you’re looking at around $17 per packet. Ah, I remember Eastern Europe where a bottle of water is 10 cents, a beer is a couple of bucks and a pack of smokes is $3. But when it comes to rent, it’s Australia winning the race. It’s still bearable in most parts, compared to a London Zone Three equivalent!

Australia cannot compete with London’s entertainment and nightlife. And with nearly half of Australia’s entire population equaling the quantity in London, it’s not surprising why. But it’s a tough readjustment nonetheless – life just seems so quiet in compassion.

Returning to Oz also means returning to the road, not the pub. The public transport situation in Australia hasn’t changed a great deal. So catching a taxi home or walking is still the answer to those nights at the pub. Turns me off drinking somehow!

Australia is still the same wonderful country it was when you left – albeit more expensive with the ever present feeling of a time capsule – but still the same. Each year too many people rush back to their homeland over a rash decision and then regret it. London is far away and can sometimes look intimidating, expensive and bleak. But from where I’m standing it’s the other way round.

Home isn’t going anywhere, so make sure you return when you are 100% ready!

Friday, 31 August 2012

Australian Times Newspaper article: Chug, Chug, Chug with the 100 Club

In September 2010, Baby Jesus, some Kiwi/Aussie friends and I drove a big green truck/bus from London to Munich for Oktoberfest 2010. While there I witnessed the legendary, grotesque and fascinating 100 Club. I wrote an article about the spectacle and it was published in the Australian Times Newspaper. It started quite an interesting debate online - follow the link at the bottom of this page for reader comments and to leave your own.

Chug, Chug, Chug with the 100 Club
Downing a ‘beer bong’ is a rite of passage for many Aussies, but it’s the infamous travel legend of the 100 Club that takes things to a revolting – yet compelling - new height. Think sculling a stranger’s vomit mixed with piss and you get this annual event right before Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich, Germany each year.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Aussie and Kiwi backpackers who take part in this glorified vom-fest. The rules appear simple: 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes. To enter, just turn up on the day with a bucket, stool, beer, shot glass and no underwear. Past winners act as judges, deciding who downs what foul concoction and who is deemed out of contention. The ‘winner’ is last man, or possibly woman, who has managed to stay conscious and kept the poisons down best.

To kick off, participants are given a taste of what’s to come. Some of the better ingredients entrants and their beer is doused with include flour, baked beans, phlegm, tomato sauce and chili powder. But it’s the other contents on display that really make the stomach churn: tins of dog and cat food mixed with jars of curry, raw eggs, mouldy cheese, fish and tinned ravioli. But even these are better than the alternative: vomit and urine.

Oktoberfest: 100 ClubPuking is inevitable and when it happens that person is out, unless undetected by the judges. But sometimes the judges are lenient and may provide a second chance – if you down a funnel filled with another’s spew. If the lucky contestant can keep that down they can remain seated and in the running for the win. The smell is putrid.

In a past competition the first person eliminated purposely spewed all over the contestant to his left before declaring “because I love you” and walking away from the circle. There’s also a ‘no underwear’ rule which has proved painful (and bloody) for unsuspecting victims when jocks are forcefully ripped off in major wedgie fashion in front of wincing onlookers.

As the 100 mark approaches and the funnels – and spectator throats - clog up with grotesque additions, the final group somehow manages to control their nausea, unlike the rest. How their stomachs avoided the inevitable nausea is beyond belief.

So what is the prize for this strange and glorified mess? Well it’s simple and in line with the heinous competition. The winners (winners?) have their revenge on the judges, forcing them to chug feral beer-based concoctions including vomit, urine, and if historic rumors are true, faeces and semen too (however these last two are unconfirmed and a touchy subject among contestants).

The majority of entrants into 100 Club are in the final stages of Van Tour, an annual antipodean journey which has been running for at least 20 years. Because of its unofficial heritage, it’s not known exactly when Van Tour started and the same can be said for 100 Club. What is certain is that somewhere along the way this contest evolved and continued annually ever since.

The 100 Club has managed to keep a fairly low profile, but the growing popularity and German media interest has seen this side of Aussie drinking culture beamed into living rooms. Is this apparent harmless fun something to be proud of?