Posts Tagged ‘Asia’

Memoirs of a Gaijin

December 27, 2011


Christmas Eve in 2008, was a mild introduction to a Japanese winter in the mountains of Iwate. I had no idea how cold it can get here and how much snow can fall in two days. Living on the East coast of Scotland usually means the sea breeze keeps the snow fall to a minimum and on the rare occasion of a blizzard, Edinburgh council soon turn the winter wonderland into brown slush thanks to a rally of road gritters and mountains of  rock salt.

This is the real thing. The frosted epicenter of a C.S. Lewis  narrative. The snow has stopped but will continue into the New Year. The depth of the snow outside easily clears my waist justifying my decision to stay here for a while. Stepping through the glass doors of the ski resort, everything changes – colored fabrics, snowboots, boards and skis are racked up like armor. You choose your weapon carefully and step out of the building into an arcade of mental and physical challenges.

Skipping over to the chairlift like a new born snow leopard (only there was a distinct lack of fur on this cub), I was transported higher into the heavens of Iwate. I managed to gallantly throw myself down several of the intermediate runs without killing myself. The only injuries sustained were muscular and one of those was due to passing out on pillows filled with beads the previous night; just another of Japan´s quirky little differences. Why they fill them with plastic beads and not feathers, I will never know – perhaps it is so that stupid white men like me, injure or ´crick´ their neck.

The added bonus of this adventure – apart from the attractive manga girls luring you into the path of a high speed tow bar has to be the luxurious Japanese Onsen provided for established writers and other elderly members of society such as myself. The fear of being publicly ejected from the premises for exposing my tattoos in the communal baths has surpassed and I now proudly skip from hot tub to steam room without a care in the world. So far my beating heart has withstood the insane pressure of removing myself from a sweltering seventy degrees and plunging myself into a cool pool of around five. Not bad for an ex-smoker. Glad it´s no longer me puffing away outside the chairlift whilst conveniently leaning on another beer dispenser. Irony sits proudly on a plinth right next to heart disease, lung cancer and winter sports in Japan.

Ninety percent of the comfortably well-off that come to these resorts probably think I am romanticizing a ´dip in the pool´, but my faith in humanity clings to the ten percent that sat beside me as the hot volcanic waters evaporate into the mountains early offerings of snow. Each snowflake seems to represent the toils of modern civilization; the love lost; the sickness and the strain. As the crystalline fingertips hit the surface and melt into the warm embrace of her liquid lover, the significance of each painful memory becomes irrelevant. When we are lost in a shopping mall, wrapped in plastic and designer labels, it is hard to imagine removing our layers of armor and forgetting the superficial world we live in. Here in Japan that luxury is possible.

Thanks to these memoirs, I will hopefully never forget the feeling of being back inside the womb whilst literally a tiptoe away from the world of Narnia. An experience I unfortunately shared with no other, but one that reinforces the delicate balance, beautifully exposed in its tender moment, between man and Mother Nature. I´ll take that one to the grave.

Oyasumi nasai.

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Siam Rape

September 17, 2011
Originally published in Veritas Newspaper, March 2010

When I suggested to the Editor we start a Veritas guide to your most exotic travels, many of our readers clapped their hands in joy and began licking their greedy chops at the thought of vanilla milkshakes at 2p a pop, draft beer for breakfast and promiscuous evenings of debauchery like some 19th century imperialist Indiana Jones. Stop. Before you go skipping off to book your Gap Year at STA read on and think again before you start strapping up your colonial boots.

 So, here is something that the Lonely Planet guide doesn’t tell you: Cambodia or Kampuchea as it was formerly known is a shit-hole. You don’t believe me? Go ahead, be my guest. Take the first bus or train out of Bangkok, where you will have no doubt have spent your last fortnight vomiting into a bucket after playing with a pretty young girl who has a penis and cross the border at Poipet. It’s a shit-hole. I told you so. I love it how as soon as you have paid for an all luxury passage out of Aranyaprathet and into Kampuchea, your travel agent and bus driver disappears and suddenly you are surrounded by men you wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire, telling you to hand over your precious American dollars in exchange for an eight hour ride in the back of a pickup truck. It is only when you reach Siem Reap or Battambang that you realise the currency is in fact Riel and that you have just paid ten times over the odds. How does it feel to be ripped off in your first day? Don’t worry you are not the first and certainly won’t be the last.

 If you survive the journey, good luck to you. I spent six hours waiting by the side of the road after our wheel flew off. I should have known really that the rear axle would eventually give way upon high speed reckless driving where there are no roads as such, just clouds of dust on a dry, Mad Max- Beyond Thunderdome highway. You may think it’s all over when you stop at one of the many marquees set up along the side of the road for tiffin. Wrong, you have another four hours drive before you can digest dead dog or deep fried spider. I prefer the spider myself as you can close your eyes and try not to think about the jaggy hairs that slice the back of your throat and imagine it’s a Cadbury’s Cream Egg as you pop the fried shell and its bodily fluids trickle down your throat.

 On arrival at Siem Reap you nest down on a blood stained mattress and try to ignore the kid’s hand that is squeezed through the window bars pawing at your iPod. Don’t worry your holiday insurance will cover that. In the morning the first thing to do is search for ‘Boom Boom’. I know it’s a bit early for a shag, but the temples can wait and the prostitutes start early in these parts. It comes from the high demand of extra curriculum activities during the UN occupation of the late eighties and nineties. Our boys didn’t have much to do after Pol Pot executed almost every single man and woman in site and used their bones as fertiliser for the rice empire, Angkor. Oriental women are renowned for their charm and the UN boys just couldn’t resist. Cambodia is now one of the biggest Aids carriers in the world, second of course to our other colonial adventures in Africa.

 Next on the agenda is the beach. The Chinese have been paying the corrupt Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen lots of money to dump their toxic waste off the coast of Cambodia, and nature has a tendency to remind us of just what we are dumping into our seas by washing it up on our shores. We are no longer living in the Tang Dynasty of House of the Flying Daggers; China is one of the leading manufacturers in the world and produces a lot of waste it can’t get rid of. Thank god the Cambodians are open arms when money is talking. I never got around to visiting the beach, but I heard it was best to lock your hut at night.

 There are many other hidden delights that I will perhaps embellish you with another time. The Russian Mafia, the black market weapon trade in Phnom Penh and its firing range, under-age prostitution, Ketamine, political assassinations, crocodile farms and twenty foot long pythons, but I don’t want to bore you any longer so we’ll wrap it up for the night. Remember always get your inoculations as hepatitis can be a killer, protect yourself from STDs – never forget your flexible friend and don’t forget to visit Angkor Watt before the Japanese tourists turn the stone into powder with high powered flash photography. Thai Airlines provide regular flights from Bangers into Phnom Penh if you want to avoid the Sergio Leone experience and Thomas Cook are open for bookings all week from 9am till 5pm. Enjoy your Gap Year. 

Recent update on the socio-political paradise of Kampuchea: