Faffing about, a Visit Home and the Next Chapter

Tuesday 07 November

I’ve decided to pull my finger out and write something instead of indulging in my seemingly endless talent of procrastination. What it genuinely boils down to is the fact that so much seems to have gone on in these last few months it begins to overwhelm, and so I swap the laptop glare and crumb-filled keyboard for a big bag of cans with the lads. I will try and keep this update as short and as concise as I can while trying to fill it with as much entertainment as possible. I’ve basically just been faffing about.

Drive the one on the left, sleep in the one on the right.

Drive the one on the left, sleep in the one on the right.

The summer was spent in the back of a van. I was driving one and sleeping in the other. Working for a hostel in Zadar as a tour driver had its ups and downs, but ultimately I knew I had made the right decision to stop long-term travel because I was so profoundly tired of people. Even the most harmless conversation could ignite a fierce, jaded cynicism and an alarmingly biting hatred of all and sundry, and if it wasn’t for the hostel team and subsequent camaraderie, I believe I would have lost my mind. Or murdered every guest in their sleep. Simply put – I’m done with hostel life. The decision was cemented early on in the season when I was subjected to probably the most obnoxious experience since being on the road.

Tall, American bro dude with chiselled looks and underwear model physique cannot stop taking his shirt off as soon as he spies a female. I must have watched him do it a hundred times. On. Off. On. Off. On. Off. Turns head – sees woman – takes off shirt. He’s borrowed a basketball to play on the court just down the road and spying a group of ladies setting up a barbeque on his return, the shirt duly comes off and he swaggers over topless with the ball under his arm.

“I’m from Washington State.” He announces in bro American drawl, totally unsolicited, thrusting his crotch forward to maximise the possibility of someone looking at his genitals. “Yeah, I used to work on the oil rigs.”

Who the fuck actually cares? A couple of girls turn their backs and giggle. I can’t work out if it’s because they’re genuinely struck by him or because they know he’s a twat. He’s totally unfased, because he’s either got an ego of steel or he’s a moron. I’m going for both.

“Imma go shoot some hoops. I like shootin’ hoops. Y’all wanna come join I’ll be shootin’ some hoops.”

He’s back with his shirt off in under five minutes because nobody joined him to shoot some hoops.

Naturally, during the evening one blonde Canadian bimbo falls for his “charms” and the two disappear off to the beach for some gentle caressing and sausage hiding. Regardless, it firmly cements the fact that my tolerance for such humans has reached zero, and I resolve that my time in hostels is done. I’m amazed it’s only taken six years.

Everything I own. And yes, it is a Christmas tree.

Everything I own. And yes, it is a Christmas tree.

Apart from stacking it on a friend’s bike in front of the entire hostel during a barbecue, buckling the tyre as I tried to ride to the bus station while wearing my kilt and a bottle of gin deep, there’s little else to note. The summer came and went, and on the 20th August – what would have been my father’s 84th birthday – I sat in his chair once again. All my worldly goods deposited in storage seven years ago were delivered to our new home in Zagreb, and I set about discovering just how much crap I’d acumulated. My parents were clearly hoarders, but as a wise friend recently noted; “who is the biggest hoarder, the hoarder who hoards, or the hoarder who hordes the hoarder’s hordes?” We should put that on a meme with a picture of a sunset behind a tree, type “word porn” at the bottom and rake in thousands of likes.

Piles of decent clothes I can no longer wear now that I am skinny fat.

Piles of decent clothes I can no longer wear now that I am skinny fat.

 

Why oh why did we keep this stuff? After trying and hoping I could sell the chargers to an artist, I dumped them in the bin.

Why oh why did we keep this stuff? After trying and hoping I could sell the chargers to an artist, I dumped them in the bin.

And so I began to sift and sort through a lifetime of belongings, photographs and memories; selling, donating or throwing away anything surplus to requirements. It was fun for a day to leaf through boxes and boxes of school work, drawings and exercise books dating back to the early 80’s, especially recalling my obsession for writing about Superman’s laser eye beams and drawing outrageous self-portraits of my apparently triangular head. I have kept a few for posterity but all the rest I consigned to the green wheelie bin out front, thus my early works of child genius end their unappreciated lives in a Croatian landfill. My experiences running a car boot sale at Zagreb institution – Hrelic fleamarket – I documented for Total Croatia News (a publication I will hopefully be contributing more to), but outside of that, life has simply been ticking by, drinking Yorkshire tea, patiently waiting for death.

Rebel scum on our birthday. London Comic Con geek fest.

Rebel scum on our birthday. London Comic Con geek fest.

Alex thoroughly enjoying Hagrid's motorcycle and sidecar at the Harry Potter Studio Tour. I felt good also.

Alex thoroughly enjoying Hagrid’s motorcycle and sidecar at the Harry Potter Studio Tour. I felt good also.

23 Dearne Croft, Wetherby. One day fans will flock here.

23 Dearne Croft, Wetherby. One day fans will flock here.

There was a recent, all-too-short visit back to my old stomping ground in the UK, including a weekend at my sister’s, a comic con nerd-gasm and Harry Potter and the Shameless Cash-In studio tour for our birthday. (I recently discovered to my utter horror that J.K Rowling earns £197,000 A DAY). However, I spent a great deal of time lamenting days gone by, staring wistfully into space and reminiscing about former haunts and their haunters. It’s not that I’m adverse to change, it’s just that I don’t like it when it happens. Both Wetherby and Glasgow are almost alien to me now, and while some things have stayed the same, in certain areas it almost felt like I had never been there at all. Change is easier to take when it happens around you. It grows as you grow – evolves as you evolve. You accept it as you witness it. But when you return to a place you used to know and love so well and it’s suddenly very different, you’re a stranger in a strange land. It’s deeply disturbing and confusing. Well, it is to me anyway. I struggle to understand where it’s all gone, and as I clumsily slide rose stems into my parent’s graveside vase, I realise I’m none the wiser.

I'm not much of a flower arranger.

I’m not much of a flower arranger.

It begins to rain upon our return to Zagreb, winter slowly taking hold, but the farmer’s tan finally fading. I’m not really sure what happens now, as I go through a lengthy process of re-acclimatising to a more settled way of life, establish a freelance writing company (easier said than done in Croatia) all the while reeling in the shocking revelation that you actually need income to survive. It is with the deepest regret that I am forced to take my head from the clouds, knuckle down and buckle up. The time for staring out of the window has begun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Return to Bangkok and Bishkek

Saturday 21 January

It’s been a while since I’ve penned anything of late, so I thought it high time I tell the horrendous tale of the return to Bangkok and Bishkek. Eventually – if you bare with me -I will finally get up to date and bring you into my current world. Jump on in – the water is warm. Even though I refuse to get in because I’ve got a shocking farmers tan and man boobs.

I’ll begin by taking you back to the wee small hours of a Thursday morning, circa late February, dateline Cambodia. I was anxiously waiting for a transfer to take me to where the bus to Bangkok would depart, somewhere in the eternal shit hole of Siem Reap. It couldn’t come quick enough, but as the time ticked closer to departure it was nowhere to be seen. I bothered the deaf owner of the Blue Lizard hostel on more than one occasion, as he furiously scribbled responses convincing me that it would be on its way soon. Finally, some twenty minutes late, a tuk tuk arrives and grinds me to the coach station. I wasn’t close to being the last one to arrive before we depart.

Why am I not hitching? Well friends, the hitch – at least for now – is over. Although I already held my Vietnam visa in my passport, and three countries to go before I achieved my five-year hitchhike to India, circumstances have forced my hand to abandon my quest and go where I feel happiest. But if you’d been reading the blog you would know that wouldn’t you?

And so I lean my head against a rattling window as we speed on into the night, thankful that it’s all over and I’m getting ferried back to those I love the dearest. For the moment, the gremlins of disappointment are buried deep inside and aren’t going to rear their ugly heads until fed and watered. I think even after I’m back to where I belong and in the arms of who I belong with, regret will eventually pullulate like a cancer, and I’ll be smashing my head off a brick wall wondering why I didn’t finish this adventure when I was so close. But that can wait.

I needed to get back first, and the first problems begin when the bus slows to a halt with the Thai border in sight – the same Las Vegas frontier I crossed a few drug fueled weeks previous. It appeared we were taking a break, but as the night wore on, I realised with horror that we were sleeping here. I had anticipated arrival in Bangkok faster than it took me to hitch to Siem Reap, but that plan went out the window as we’re all settling down with blankets provided by the driver. Through snatches of sleep, the darkness turns to day, and we groggily pile off the coach and stagger to customs. We had left so late, we had arrived at the border after it had closed. Incompetent isn’t the word.

It was already scorching hot and barely dawn as I lead the way to the passport control. I’ve been here before – I know what I’m doing – trust me. It’s not until we’re approaching the booths that the true consternation set in: it was Chinese New Year, and we were trying to cross a border in south east Asia.

FUCK. MY. LIFE.

The hordes. Oh my god. The hordes. I’ve been to festivals with less of a throng. It was utter chaos as we queued in baking heat while thousands of people crushed to get to the front and spill over the border. You had to feel sorry for those queuing for hours and then turned away at the grill, lacking the correct documents, not having filled out the customs form properly or some other such nonsense. It was a mess. The very definition of a mess. Messier than a night out in Newcastle with a bunch of coked up hookers. It took around two hours to get OUT of Cambodia.

Hours of this. Don't you dare fart.

Hours of this. Don’t you dare fart.

The nightmare didn’t end there either – it was only just beginning. For some reason, the crowds to get INTO Thailand were even worse. I was holding on to some hope that the Thais – boasting a richer infrastructure and tourist economy – would have a better system in place to deal with such an eventuality. I remember crossing a few weeks back and remarking on the quality of what was clearly new passport booths. Surely they would be able to cope with the thousands of people who’d all decided to cross the border today? It could not have been further from the truth.

I sneaked a border shot. This doesn't even begin to show the crazy.

I sneaked a border shot. This doesn’t even begin to show the crazy.

It’s a riot. Literally. The queue snakes round at a snail pace, with no air con, bodies shoulder to shoulder and crotch to arse. Scuffles break out regularly, as impatient types (basically anyone who isn’t British) attempt to force themselves to the front. Shouting erupts as morons leapfrog the idiotic ankle height chain that’s apparently in place to keep people from doing just that. There’s a constant pushing and shoving, waves upon waves like fans at a football match. Some arsehole continuously stands on my backpack straps in spite of my ever increasingly heated protestations. I swear this is coming to blows. Then, in a moment of abject despair, I realise I’ve left my INDIA hitchhike board back in no man’s land – somewhere I picked up one of those bureaucratic bullshit custom sheets. I’ve rarely felt such devastation.

For a moment, I consider abandoning it – but not on my watch. That board has been with me since I left Germany all those years ago. It has been my friend, companion and comfort at every step of the way – at every hitch spot in over 32 countries. It has the names and places of nearly everyone who picked me up – and although I didn’t make it to my final destination this time, it will still be framed proudly on my wall when I eventually stop living in hostels. NEVER LEAVE A MAN BEHIND!! I lose my place and barge my way back outside, and find my precious sign, lost and lonely where I left it. Scooping it into my arms, I manage to get a spot in line from a kind traveler who had my back. There’s a moment of temporary relief, before a sudden surge forward puts paid to that.

Bodies are everywhere. It was as close to a terrorist attack I hope I will ever come. Shocking crowd control – and nobody was doing anything about it. Someone had dismantled one of the chain posts (as if they actually needed to) and an alleyway had opened up down one side. As if a mighty school of fish, the masses thrust forward as one, desperately striving for the gap. Once more unto the breach, once more. The shouting crescendoed into yelling, as backpackers got involved in a meagre attempt to police the situation. And you know me dear readers – I was getting particularly vocal – turning the air blue with my abuse of the animals that couldn’t wait in line like everyone else. I was aching for a fight such was the near Armageddon levels of frustration.

The heat was taking its toll. Sweat dripped from every pore and water was the stuff of memory. I wasn’t the only one either – shortly before turning the corner of the home stretch, a middle aged woman immediately to my left starts to swim. Family members bellow for assistance as she keels forward and into my arms, several others getting involved in trying to support her. Someone produces smelling salts, as the whole group is escorted to the end of the line and out into fresh air on the Thai side. For several minutes, I’m convinced it was a ruse – and a smart one at that.

It’s taken another two hours to cross a space the size of a large school classroom – and it’s felt like an eternity. It’s shortly after midday, and the sun is grinding down. In my 6 years of traveling this planet, this was up there with my worst ever experience, ironically enough coming right at the end of it. It would have tried the patience of a saint.

The bus is delayed once I stumbled over the other side and back into Thailand. I have now entered and left this country twice this year – so I can’t do it again for some time. Woe is me – how will I ever fucking cope? Some people adore this place – but I am extremely unlikely to ever return. Maybe ten years ago it was the jewel in the crown of travel, but not anymore. I’d rather cut my own balls off.

It’s taken nearly 24 hours to travel the relatively short distance between Siem Reap and Bangkok, in the process leaving one girl behind at the border because the driver refused to wait. In spite of several passenger protests, he sped away, furious himself that it’s taken this long for us all to cross the border. It was with great relief when I’m dropped at a taxi rank a stone throw from the airport, and I hand over my remaining Bhat to a driver to take me to my hostel. The last hostel I will stay in on this journey. The last hostel. Saying it like that really brings it home.

Airport hostel bed. The last one. For now.

Airport hostel bed. The last one. For now.

For the sake of flying anxiety and not wanting to risk missing my flight, I force myself to stay awake all night so I can crash out on the plane. In between watching porn and munching on instant noodles, I contemplate the last six years of my consistent traveling life, now drawing rapidly to a close with a return to stability. It’s during this moment that I’ve longed to discover the ultimate inspirational quote that couple possibly draw my future book to a close. Something so beautiful that it would make glassy eyes of any reader, powerfully life affirming and spiritual, the ultimate justification for all these years of running. Instead, I have a wank and watch Bojack Horseman for five hours. Genius takes time.

I pass out on the plane and wake up in freezing cold Almaty, Kazakstan. It’s late afternoon, but I believe I can make it in good time across another border and back to Bishkek. Little did I realise that I should know better by now, and this travel debacle takes another turn for the worst. I’m shown the wrong bus, it takes hours to get into town and it’s dark by the time I’m staggering around trying to find transport to Kyrgyzstan, shocked at the cold contrast compared to Thailand. Snow flicks at my face as my breath is lit from the headlights of passing cars. I just need to get in one.

And in one I do, with the help of a rather large, burly Russian man, who speaks no English, but understands where I need to be and manages to barter us a ride from a random driver who decides to take us all the way to the border. Such is the way here – for the right price and providing they’ve got nothing else to do, people will drive you anywhere.

Except for the lady who is already in the front of this car. Granted she did look like something of a drug riddled prostitute, but I’m utterly astonished as an argument breaks out between the driver and her, culminating in him pulling over to the side of the road and violently removing her from the passenger seat. She clung on for dear life until the burly man got involved, and the two of them yanked the poor sot out and onto the side of the road. Quite what that relationship was I will never know – but I was just thankful to be finally getting closer to home. This nightmare was sure to end soon.

I don’t hang around with this border. It’s now after midnight, and I’ve done this crossing multiple times, so I sail over at pace, not waiting for this large Russian that was more than a little intimidating. I’m over charged on the other side for a taxi to take me to my door, but I’m beyond caring at that point, and half an hour later I’m in the arms of the human and the paws of the dog I love. She’s so excited she can’t bark and she pees herself.

The dog – not the human.

So that’s it. Six years of travel. Six long years. What an adventure it has been. But this is not the end of lookingforstu, as I will continue to regale you with tall tales for some time to come, all while I pool everything together in the process of writing my book. For every door that closes, another one opens, and the next door that opens for me – is going to be home.

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Angkor Whatever

Friday 20 January

I was feeling like the weight of the world had lifted off my shoulders. In the days following “the death wank” I’d be born again and made the life-changing decision to stop traveling. Six years is a long time, and my recent health debacle was the catalyst for serious reconsideration. In booking a flight – first back to Bishkek and then later to Croatia, I was suddenly the happiest I’d been in many a moon. In the meantimes, I was sure there was something to see around this shit hole?

I knew there was a reason I’d come to this insalubrious dump. Siem Reap is the feeder town for a visit to Angkor Wat – one of the most important religious and archaeological sites on the planet. Siem Reap itself is a hell hole of a place – especially on “Pub Street” which just becomes a fucking mess every night. The problem was – I was partaking in said mess, and becoming a mess myself. However, in finally coming to my senses and sorting my shit out, I was going to leave it all behind – but I might as well see this temple thing right?

Siem Reap's nefarious "Pub Street". The seventh circle of hell.

Siem Reap’s nefarious “Pub Street”. The seventh circle of hell.

And yet it took all of my willpower to do so. I even contemplated not going as my flight rapidly approached, as keen as I was to get out of here and simply going through the motions until it was time to leave. I honestly couldn’t believe how much I was looking forward to being back in Bishkek, and that really tells you something for how distasteful I’ve generally found south-east Asia. One late afternoon, on my last full day in the country, I forced myself into a tuk-tuk for the 30-minute ride to the temple.

The last tuk tuk ride.

The last tuk-tuk ride.

And yet still I wasn’t excited. Unlike the millions of tourists who flock here every year to get that all important money shot of the sun rising or setting over the temple – a picture that has been taken literally billions of times – I felt dead inside as I joined the stream of visitors to the site. The growth has been rapid too, around 8,000 people visited in the early 90’s, and the figures to date have jumped to over two million every year. It’s overrun. Nobody has an original idea anymore. Sheeple.

My first glimpse of the Angkor Wat temple.

My first glimpse of the Angkor Wat temple.

And well it might be overrun – for it is beautiful – and the Cambodians know it. It’s revered so much that it’s even made it onto their national flag. A one-day ticket costs $37, a three-day $62 and seven days costs $72. They are raking it in. But at least that money is largely going to the conservation and upkeep of the site, which surprisingly hasn’t seen as much tourist damage as you might expect. It appears revellers destroy Siem Reap instead, and are respectful to the monument itself. We can be thankful for small mercies.

Approaching the main complex.

Approaching the main complex.

The complex is actually huge, as well it should be for being the largest religious monument in the world. Built in the 12th Century, it was originally a Hindu temple before over time becoming a Buddist one. It’s more of a city consisting of several temples and spread out over a large area – although Angkor Wat itself is the one everyone knows and photographs repeatedly. This was surprising to me, and to see it all you would indeed need a few days. As you might have guessed, I have absolutely no interest in doing so, and I ask my tuk-tuk driver to only take me to the must-sees.

Temple of Doom.

Temple of Doom.

Ta Prohm is a stunning ancient temple, slowly and dramatically being reclaimed by the jungle. It is archaeological porn for any Indian Jones wannabe. Fat trunks and roots of trees spindle through the architecture, reaching through cracks and openings, pulling stone back into the earth. It’s a place that looks as if it doesn’t belong in this world, with an eerie, mystical aura that captures you when you manage to experience a moment of silence.

Ta Pagon. If stones could talk...

Ta Prohm. If stones could talk…

Which is few and far between – as you would expect, the place is crawling with human bacteria, shuffling slowly along, plodding behind one another on the walkways, inching onwards like elephants linked tail to trunk. I loath people in photographs – unless I’m actually photographing people – but I managed a few shots I’m pretty pleased with. I was in a hurry – my driver couldn’t wait too long and the sun was dipping rapidly – so I whisked around as best I could, weaving in and out of thousands of Koreans, getting the gist of the place, before making it back to the pick-up point. Angkor Wat was still some 20 minutes away – and as much as I berate everyone else about it – I still wanted my shitty point-and-shoot sunset photograph that would obviously be chosen as the cover of a National Geographic.

Arty shit.

Arty shit.

I try and keep to myself through the throngs of people, staying away from the crowded areas, and indeed at certain moments, I find myself alone. I actually think I’ve been pretty lucky – maybe coming late on a day when there are not that many people here. The season isn’t underway yet, and I’ve heard horror stories of just how bad it can be. I’m pretty thankful I can wander the full circumference of the complex lost in my thoughts with little to disturb me. Watching the twilight evening sun as it catches these ancient stones, it’s all rather spiritual. Wait. What is that? That feeling? I’m having a good time…?! Surely not?! Push the self-destruct.

Religious types.

Religious types.

Upon turning the corner and completing my solo wander around the walls, I spy the gathering throng, lining up their telephoto lenses, holding up large iPhone pads, jostling for position, freaking that they’re not going to get their shot as time is running out. I feel a wry smile creep across my face – I really am done with all of this. Any lingering doubts about making the right decision evaporate, and I take a few snaps of the temple at sunset before turning for home. A proper home. A more permanent and lasting home. A home where I’ll put down roots similar to those that have held these temples together for centuries. And anyway – Machu Picchu was way better.

For a less cynical article on Angkor Wat, I suggest you check this one out over at gonomad. I generally just depress everyone.

Alright, there is is! Can I go now?

Alright, there it is! Can I go now?

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The Death Wank

Monday 16 January

I always believed that something to do with sex would be the death of me. I dunno man, just a funny feeling. Like I’d turn my head while driving a car to look at a huge pair of boobs and wrap the vehicle around a lampost. Or step into the road while staring at an ass and get hit by a bus. Or fall out of a tree while peeping in a window. Little did I know, that masturbation was to be the catalyst to change my entire life around. If you’ll permit me, allow me to explain.

I was languishing in a hostel bed, somewhere in the shit-hole that is Siem Reap, wasting away. Breakfast was a can of beer and a bowl of rice. Dinner was more beer. Siem Reap has become Siem Reap because of its proximity to Angkor Wat – the world’s largest, religious monument and all round tourist magnet. The local town has boomed(?) into a dump of a place, catering for the enormous influx of foreigners of all shapes and sizes. Much like Aguas Calientes – the mini-America resort that serves Machu-Picchu – it’s just as much blue-rinse coach tour as it is know-it-all backpack destination. Consequently, you’ll find all sorts here, all ages, all nationalities, all manner of humanoids, all turning the place into the mess you see today.

So, when in Rome right? I was going off the rails again. I hadn’t even seen the monument that brought me (and everybody else) here in the first place, and instead, I was donning the kilt pretty much every night, snorting cocaine and getting smashed until dawn. At least, it might have been cocaine – I couldn’t tell at that time of the morning, as I was hoovering a suspicious looking white powder up from an outdoor hostel table as other guests left to catch the sunrise over the temple. I’m a classy guy.

Around about this time I’d managed to finally score an online job. After traveling for 6 years, spending my inheritance money seeing the world, searching for something I could do remotely so I’d never have to work a desk job again, I apply for and get offered a position as a ghostwriter. Now, that isn’t telling ghost stories – as a few people have already enquired – it entails writing copy for a travel blog website which they then claim as their own. Standard practice for most blogs really, travel or otherwise, with extremely large readerships. Hell, it takes me almost a full day to write one post with pictures – so it’s a full-time job if you’re one of the big boys on the block. I’m just small fry – and as I don’t particularly want to put in the work to get any bigger than this, I’m alright with my word-of-mouth pseudo-fame.

I digress. So, I’m writing travel blog articles for this website, and finally getting paid for my work. I’m officially a published writer. Of sorts. I am coming to the point of this story – I promise. One particular weekend a short time ago, I was yet again drinking myself into oblivion, but with the necessity to write four articles by Monday hanging over me. This was to become something of a struggle, as I wrestled my way back into routine and working practice. I’ve not had a proper job in seven odd years.

Anyway, I decided to sober up for the remainder of the weekend, and plow through the articles, staying up all night to do so. It was around 4 o’clock in the morning, two pieces in, that I began to feel a little frisky. You know what I’m talking about – you’ve all been there. A cheeky little sneak attack of the horn. I decided to take a break and rub one out.

As subtly as I could I slipped my laptop into the toilet (which is a common occurrence in hostels – if you see someone taking their laptop into the toilet, it’s not to skype their mum) I pulled up a selection of choice pictures and began to do the deed. Stroking away like there was no tomorrow, shortly before the big finish I experienced one of the worst pains I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing – across the right side of my head. A searing, fiery headache that came out of nowhere, and pounded my brain into submission. I all but collapsed on the floor – but not before finishing off; it was a lot of effort to get that far and I wasn’t about to waste it.

In a pool of cum and pain, I struggled to my feet, cleaned off, and staggered back to my dorm bed. With the ache crescendoing into an unbearable affliction, my hands were shaking as I frantically dosed ibuprofen, and then self-diagnosed with a google search. There was no doubt in my mind I have a brain tumour – and indeed WebMD confirms my worst fears. I’ve got moments to live, apparently.

OK, so I might have been a somewhat hypochondriacal with my prognosis, but I do discover that I’ve experienced something called a “thunderclap headache”. The checklist was a rap sheet of my condition:

1. You’ve never experienced pain like it before.

2. It comes on incredibly fast, usually localised to one area, and increases in severity over the next 60 seconds.

3. The pain might not fade for an hour or more.

4. You were engaged in some kind of physical activity at the time.

Well, the last one was pretty obvious. I was having a wank. Flaying the emperor. Punching one’s clown. Bucking the slobbering donkey. Etcetera, etcetera.  I’m going to have to explain to a doctor that my masturbation session was the catalyst for getting a CT scan.

And explain I do. At around 5 am I email a local British doctor and spill my guts. He responds quickly and insists I go to have a brain scan immediately. I’m booked in to get my noggin looked at that afternoon.

I remember distinctly the moment I walked to that appointment dear readers. I’ll never forget it as long as I live – which I hope isn’t just a couple of weeks. You see, my mum died of a brain hemorrhage. She called my name, and I waited ten minutes before going to see her – because I thought it was just the dog getting out. But there she was, lying face up on the kitchen floor, gone before she hit the ground. As a result, I have extreme anxiety at the slightest pain or obscure feeling in my head. I lie awake at night wondering what that must have been like. I hear the fear in her voice echo in my memory. I hear her voice. I hear her voice.

“STUART!”

Walking to that clinic, I convinced myself of two things. One – that given my obvious family medical history, I was going to be given the worst news possible. And two – if that wasn’t the case, I would stop traveling immediately. At least, this kind of traveling. I know better than most how short life is, and it’s too short to be fucking around in this shit-hole, surrounded by a load of 19-year-old children, people who don’t give a rats ass about you, snorting cocaine and pissing up the wall.

I was tired. I was jaded. I had lost the will to continue this hitchhike. And even before the lascivious events of the night in question – I knew it. I’d been two weeks in Siem Reap and I hadn’t even worked up the energy to go and see one of the most beautiful ancient sights in the world. My enthusiasm spoke volumes.

As I lay back on the scanner bed and moved inside the machine to watch the little blinking lights do their work, I felt a peace I’d not felt in a long, long time. I was still anxious yes, but whatever the result, a decision had been made, and either way – maybe I could finally rest. Some time later, my heart beat in my throat as the doctor approached with two x-rays of my brain. She diagnosed me with nothing more than sinusitis.

I must have looked a strange sight as I danced my way back to my hostel down dimly-lit Siem Reap streets. I didn’t care – I had been born again. And, unlike a gambler who finally pays his dues and immediately goes back on their promise to change, I was going to stick to my guns. I’d made a decision, and I’d be damned if I was going back on it. Returning to my hostel, and without a word to anyone, I went straight online and booked a flight.

As soon as I had done so, I burst into tears. I felt an enormous weight lifting from my shoulders. I felt years of running were finally being laid to rest. I felt my depression and anxiety ease. I was going where I actually wanted to be.

I was going home.

Quite where that home is, however, you’ll have to wait and see.

I was 200 bucks down for the most expensive souvenir I’d ever bought – two x-ray copies of my brain scan. You can’t put a price on life though, can you?

I reckon I'm going to make this my new tinder profile picture.

I reckon I’m going to make this my new tinder profile picture.

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Hitchhike to India leg 64: Bangkok to Siem Reap

Thursday 12 January

It took me all of my willpower to drag myself out of Bangkok. Not because it was a great city – quite the opposite – but I was just slowly and steadily losing the will to continue. I can maybe attribute this to a multitude of things, but the heat certainly wasn’t helping, and trying to hitchhike in this weather while carting your home on your back is enough to make anyone order a strawberry daiquiri by the pool instead. Regardless, the time had come to press on – but at least I was getting out of this shit hole.

Easier said than done. As I’d experienced before, Bangkok is a nightmare to get out of – hitchhiking or otherwise. Having hopefully learned my lesson from the previous debacle, I opted to take a minibus north, and with a bit of luck find myself on the road to Cambodia in an hour or so. Hahahahahaha. Yeah, right.

Already sweating buckets and wedged into the kind of bus you’d usually find burnt out in a car park in Bradford, I eventually manage to persuade a driver that I want dropping on the highway east. Of course, most of them don’t understand a thing, and in spite of my protestations, and anxiously showing the prominent, obvious, large, green, road to Cambodia on my GPS – I’m still met with blank looks. I’m passed from pillar to post in another mini-van – and nobody understands that I don’t want to be taken all the way to Cambodia (although that would be nice) and that I just want to be on the road to it. Sigh. The trials and tribulations of hitchhiking.

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Cambodia is that way. Now that wasn’t hard, was it…?

It’s extremely late in the day when someone grasps what I mean, and leaves me to walk up a slip road and finally in the right direction. The sun is already showing signs of that ominous afternoon glow – lovely if you’re sipping a beer in the garden, not so much if you’re several hundred miles from your destination. Darkness is around the corner. I press on.

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Wedged in with a scooter. My photos are shit from today.

I think my luck has changed when I’m offered a ride in the back of a pick-up, but much to my dismay he only takes me to a bus stop. Bless them, they are doing their best to help – but once again this is simply not what I want. Rather than try to explain, I keep my face as positive and thankful as I possibly can under the circumstances, and cheerily wave them off. Then I turn the air blue with expletives when they’re out of sight. Hey – I’m only human.

Dripping with sweat and making no real progress, I begin to consider other options. The thought crossed my mind that I should turn back, knowing the route somewhat better and with the foresight to start earlier next time. It’s a close call, but as my ever perspiring brow claws at my eyes, all but preventing my ability to see, a battered old box on wheels swings in. Inside, and equally as worn as the car, sit a grinning elderly couple. The lady makes way for me in the front seat, and before I know it, we’re tearing our way towards the border.

The couple's colourful dashboard.

The couple’s colourful dashboard.

Not a word of English was spoken, but somehow a conversation was held. This was in most part due to her insistence on constantly offering food to me from somewhere behind my head. I swear she had a kitchen set up in the back. A few miles down the road and they pull in to buy me bottles of water, and maybe an hour into the drive, they arrive at a bus terminal. As much as I’ve enjoyed the uplifting hospitality of my hosts, here I am, yet again, being dropped at a bus station. But before I can say a word, she drags me out across the road, almost by my ear lobe, and buys me a ticket to the border. I’m not often lost for words – but even so – they wouldn’t let me say any, as she hands me another bottle of water, forces a bag of food into my hand, and presses a bus ticket into my palm. And as quickly as they had arrived – they were gone.

Not taking no for an answer- being forced to eat and drink in Thailand.

Not taking no for an answer- being forced to eat and drink in Thailand.

Now, this left me with something of a dilemma. I was about to take a bus. A ticket had been bought, and I was not going to be hitchhiking to the Cambodian border. However, I had not bought the ticket myself, so technically – it wasn’t cheating. With light fading fast and still some distance to go, I reasoned that to refuse such hospitality would just be rude, and I thankfully bundled myself into the mini-van when it arrived. At least, that’s how I justified it to myself at the time.

Waiting for the bus to the border.

Waiting for the bus to the border.

I attempted to settle back in the knowledge that the next stop would be customs, but it simply wasn’t. The vehicle went all around the houses, picking all manner of people up, shoe-horned into the back, people sitting on people. Consequently, I have no doubt in my mind I could have made the border faster if I’d just stuck at the hitch, but once again – to not accept the kindness of strangers would have done them a disservice. It’s approaching 10 pm when we finally make the Thailand side of the border. The border closes at 10 pm.

Crap photo of my view at the back of the mini-bus.

Crap photo of my view at the back of the mini-bus.

Battling the usual offers of taxis, “assistance” and prostitutes, I’m clearly one of the last folk to cross the border today. But it’s not without further complication. I’m one day over my Thailand visa. ONE. FUCKING. DAY. I’m forced to wait for an age as they fill out a bible’s worth of tickets, duplicates and such like, then fine me 500 baht for my trouble. It cost me about 11 quid, but I’m more concerned with what it cost me in time. And yet nothing was to prepare me for what was around the corner.

Border crossing, or the strip? You decide.

Border crossing, or the strip? You decide.

This isn’t a border crossing – it’s Las Vegas. Expecting a handful of taxis, a couple of exchange booths and maybe a rabid dog, I push through the door that exits Thailand and enters Cambodia. And then I almost go back through to make sure I got it right and the two worlds are actually connected. I’ve somehow stumbled into this gaudy-seedy-dive-bar-casino-karaoke-hotel-resort extravaganza, and it’s all kicking off. There’s live music in the streets, tuk-tuks blazing everywhere, flashing lights, money changing hands, drunks, and rabid dogs. It’s insane – and I’ve never crossed a border like it. A portal to another dimension. And while some would imagine that this bodes well for a Cambodia experience – it fills me with abject dread.

Sitting here an age - waiting for anything to happen.

Sitting here an age – waiting for anything to happen.

I’m fending off wave after wave of taxi drivers trying to rip me off until I’m at my wit’s end and I accept the services of one guy who doesn’t seem to be as dodgy as the rest of them. We then proceed to wander up and down the concourse as he looks for someone to take me. It appears these lads are given some extra bit of crust to bring the tourists to the actual driver. It takes another hour or so before I’m finally in the back of a cab heading to Siem Reap – sharing the fare with a Russian couple canoodling in the back seat. In driving rain, I pass out and hope to high heaven I end up where I’m meant to be.

A couple of hours of this. I was happy I was asleep.

A couple of hours of this. I was happy I was asleep.

Once crossing the border, it became painfully obvious that there was no way I would be able to continue to hitch, and I’d be damned if I was staying anywhere in that den of iniquity. For 10 bucks I ensured I made my bed that night, via a sketchy-ass, rain-soaked, night-drive to Siem Reap, and then a rickety tuk-tuk ride to a darkened hostel. The owner isn’t there, nobody appears to be on duty, but some foul-faced volunteer reluctantly shows me a bunk I can crash in. I duly do and fall asleep to the whir of electric fans, a bear-like snoring, and the unmistakable stench of flip-flop feet. Welcome to Cambodia Stuart. Welcome to Cambodia.

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