Friday, July 2, 2010

Bangkok, Bali and back

I've been back a week now and this whole business of trying to find a car, a job and, well, a life, isn't too dissimilar to what I faced when I moved to New Zealand in 2003. The crucial difference this time is that I've got a lot more support than I did then.

I spent three nights in Bangkok - well, two and a half - and I'm glad I went there even if it was unplanned. I never felt in danger of terrorist activity (even though I could see evidence of what had happened in the centre of the city) but as one of the few tourists there, I was concerned that I might be an easy target. Thankfully I was fine.

My first full day in Bangkok happened to be a Saturday so I spent a few hours at Chatuchak weekend market. I've seen a lot of markets in my time, but this one was huge, a real rabbit warren of narrow lanes. If I hadn't already maxed out my baggage allowance from all those books I'd bought in the UK, I'd have had a field day there, but I made do with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. The next day I took a trip down some of the various canals and waterways - it was just like Venice! - and accidentally ended up at another big market where there were hordes of people but not a white face to be seen, except mine. There were plenty of English signs though and I tried ordering a coffee from a stall run by two very attractive young women. I got as far as "could I have a large..." when one of the women burst out laughing and I walked away.
The great thing about Thailand is how cheap everything is. I was no longer sure what currency to convert prices into any more, but in Bangkok I often found myself doubling the baht figure to get pence. Mo Chit on the Skytrain? That'll be 70p. Canal boat? 26p. Dinner? 80p. Bangkok was certainly a welcome break from all that Euronating. The only significant expenses apart from the hotel room were the taxi fares to and from the city. Even they weren't too bad really, but my hotel was near the airport, some distance from the action.

The next morning I caught a very early flight to Bali, hence why my stay in Bangkok was just 2½ nights. That Air Asia flight - the one I had to book and pay for again due to the Frankfurt fiasco - was only half-full so I was able to lay out and get some kip.

The whole point of my going to Bali was to relax, and I guess to relive those memories I had as a boy. However, as expected, the resort of Sanur had changed a lot in twenty years. It had become far busier. The distinctive sounds and smells were just as I remembered, but it wasn't as easy to appreciate them due to all the people, and of course everything is more exciting as a kid. That's especially true in Bali because the Balinese love kids.

It got quite hot during the day so I'd often spend the daytime reading a book by the pool, popping in for the odd swim. This was fine to begin with but after a while I began to crave company. Out on the street, the sales techniques of the Balinese had changed too. In '89, '90 and '93 they were always trying to sell you watches. "Real gold Rolex, forty thousand, why you no buy?" I wished they'd stuck to watches into the 21st century. With watches you could play along with the hawkers a bit, asking what this dial or that knob does, and if you haggled enough you could buy a watch for only a few quid. I remember having a watch with what looked like a moon-phase display but instead was a rather ingenious device that told you whether it was day or night, in case you've had so much Bintang beer that you can no longer tell. But no, in 2010 it's no longer watches but transport. Walk 100 metres in any direction and you'll get at least a dozen blokes offering transport, always bloody transport, hoping you'll take the bait. One time I did bite, and almost immediately wished I hadn't. He took me to Ubud, another place that's become far more touristy over the years, hassling me to buy silver jewellery or artwork along the way because he'd get a nice commission. I found him a real menace. At Ubud I figured I could get a shuttle bus back to Sanur and even though he seemed to charge me a rip-off fare and I was unable to beat him down much, by that stage I just wanted to get rid of the man. I did find a great little eatery in Ubud, not because the food was anything special but because of its lush, green setting next to the river. And best of all, not many people seemed to know it was there.

That evening I ate a very cheap and dodgy nasi campur ('c' in Indonesian is pronounced 'ch') and regretted it for the next two days. A nasi campur is made up of all kinds of bits and pieces (that's its main attraction to me) but I guess that means there are lots of things to go wrong. And in my tummy, things sure as hell did go wrong. On the whole though, food is great in Bali. As well as the various Indonesian offerings, I'd thoroughly recommend the piping hot steaks. The only snag is that you never quite get enough, and in some cases you're left feeling hungrier than you were before the meal.

By the time I'd recovered from Bali Belly I had just one day left. That last day, when I went on a tour to the north of the island, happened to be the best. There were only two of us on the tour; the other guy was German and a bit younger than me. He worked as an underwater photographer, and having spent a year in Australia his English was as good as mine. I'd actually been a bit depressed over the previous three or four days so it was good to have someone to talk to, even if my bullshit detector did go off once or twice with some of the things he said. He clearly enjoyed his job though and had a great deal of enthusiasm about pretty much everything; I wished I could be more like him in that respect. That day we saw the real Bali. Temples, rice terraces, an impressive waterfall, a beautiful lake, and most of all a totally different way of life. I even got to hold a snake and an iguana, although that was simply a tourist attraction. I'll have to go back there some time, preferably with a friend, and perhaps visit Lombok as well.

Of everything I saw on that last day in Bali, perhaps the one thing that impressed me the most was the signs. I wish I could have taken some photos of them as we were driving along. I'm used to living in a country where signage is computer produced and marketing department approved, and as a result the output you get is usually deeply dull. In Bali, signs were works of art, hand-painted, carved into wood or even made out of pieces of scrap metal. A real person had made them. You'd get mad colour combinations (why stick with one colour when six will do?), crazy 3D effects, all-over-the-place kerning and even the odd backwards N, but it didn't matter. In fact those features made the signs all the more charming. I thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to drive around Bali taking enough photos of signs to fill a book, but a quick Google tells me somebody already has.

The Thai Airways flight from Denpasar to Auckland was as painless as any eleven-hour flight can be. My hours still haven't quite adjusted yet but that's my own silly fault for watching too much Wimbledon (I'm currently watching Djokovic, who looks just like my brother, take on Berdych). I even watched Germany's thrashing of England.

Yesterday I met up with Richard - it was great to see him after all these weeks. We're both now in the same position of looking for work. I applied for a mental health-related job yesterday and will see how that one goes. On Wednesday I attended the men's group and it was really good to see those people, including Andy and Brendan, again. Tomorrow I'm going to take a look at a car I saw on TradeMe; in Auckland you're almost snookered without one. Tomorrow is also the day that Mum and Dad get back from their North American holiday.

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