The Turkish Airlines Airbus-A340 flies through the night and tropical storms, over the arabian sea, India and then the bay of Bengal. It makes a small incursion, indeed a slow turn, over the South China Sea on final approach to Bangkok’s new airport. With a reassuring crunch we make contact with earth again. I am in Asia. I have come from Asia, but this is a different asia.
Perhaps I should I talk of Bankok and the degradations, depravations or sleaze? The women who sell themselves for the equivalent of two pints of beer in London. Those who greet my friend dave like a returning rockstar, when all they really want is easy money. They know that their greeting and forceful hanging onto his arm means that his generosity will flow, and with it, their standing in the bar. For Bangkok is also a harsh place and if you don’t make the “lady drinks” income or “bar fines” then the bar will quickly move the girl on. There is little to tell of this side of Bangkok but Dave had come specifically to meet me, and I wanted to see him. And he is a good friend.
days of anti Pemba down time, I found myself on a small atr turboprop bound for Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest settlement. Literally no more than a town. I know all about the horrors of Cambodia’s history, but the short low flight over the rice paddies and through the rain clouds never ceases to amaze me. I always get a palpable sense of history when I see Cambodia or Vietnam. I wonder how the view has changed since America’s south east asian excursion in the 1960‘s-70‘s and how it has changed since the insane and psychotic rule of the Khymer Rouge. (The Communists who murdered a million Cambodians for fun).
An hour later, the turboprop lands, I am processed through the visa on arrival desks reasonably quickly, and step out into the humid sunshine. Huw, my friend who I had share coffee with a week earlier is there to greet me. He was not bored, he had been chatting to the principle immigration officer and is drinking coffee. He had also thoughtfully hired an auto rickshaw to take us to the shadow of Angkor guest house. Due to an admin stuff up, and the inability of the lovely Cambodian’s
to say no to anyone, I have a tiny room with no loo and no bathroom. I have a stereo system that takes up all of the dresser, but I cannot complain. The room is cheap and spotlessly clean.
Angkor has not changed. Indeed I enjoyed it more with less tourists. Huw and his friends Nigel and Mark had all been shooting at the Cambodian army shooting range. They professed great accuracy with the M16 rifle. Not wishing to be outdone I demanded to be taken there and promptly hired a pk107. (A Soviet belt fed machine gun). I fired with some accuracy for a bit. The bang bang of the two tap was easy enough, but I became bored and so engaged Huw to
finish off the 100 rounds. He tried but soon he too became bored. So I squeezed off
the remaining belt in long bursts. This was less boring but also completely inaccurate.
Compared to the sleaze of Bangkok, Siem Reap is quite pleasant. The new hotels and houses all have asian sloping roofs. On our last night, Huw and I stand on the uncharacteristically flat roof of “the Shadow of Angkor”. We had been
soaked that day, by the tropical rain that haunts south asia at this season. We had been trapped in separate sides of the Bayonne Temple during a down pour. After an hour I took off my T shirt and wrapped it with my camera in a plastic bag and walked all over the temple until I found Huw. Together we had walked back to the Rickshaw and gone home. Our Cameras were damp but fine. We dried easily, but our clothes stank of sweat and undried rain. Now were standing on the roof looking at the sun setting, shining light on the clouds building up over Angkor in a stunningly beautiful natural display.
Bangkok airways, though comfortable, have a technical delay that turns into a 4 hour delay. I connect through Bangkok to run through immigration to meet my next travelling companion. Rob, who will accompany me to hong kong and Canton. By the time the A319 touches down I have two hours to make the next airbus to Hong Kong. I struggle with the bags and race out of the customs hall. Rob intercepts me, we have not met for a while and rather than shake hands we
rush to Air Aisa’s teeming check in counter and get our boarding passes from a machine. Immigration out, takes ages, and then we are air side- free to have a coffee and wait for the plane. Air Asia is the Ryan Air of Asia. Cramped, unpleasant and only mildly cheaper than the real airlines. They are also late and we fly over the south china sea chatting, catching up on the past 9 months. We land with just enough time to grab a cab to the YWCA (a 3 star hotel tower!) and head out to the “Spot” bar for a pint of Tetly’s and a Nepalese curry.
I have a love affair with the People's Republic of China. Tempered only by it's harsh treatment if it's Turkik muslim citizens, China still commands my attention. In contrast to this, I have long held Hong Kong in disdain. If Bangkok is sleazy, then Hong Kong is frenetic, pushy and rude. I do not really want to go to Hong Kong again, but Rob wants to see the Island state by the sea, and I am joining his trip. After an unremarkable night, we catch the metro to the chinese
border. This is the old Kowloon to Canton railway, and for another 20 hong kong dollars, we go first class, exit at Lo Wu, in the Frontier Controlled Area. (FCA). This means that you have no business to be here except to cross the border. The train station is literally part of the border fence.
We walk up and out of Hong Kong. Through efficient immigration over a filthy looking canal/river and into the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese process us just as efficiently as their SAR colleagues and we are in Shenzen. I know that we are 300m from the station, but manage to get us horribly lost, walk around and over the station until we finally find the high speed train to Canton.
Canton has not changed. It is, as usual, a thriving city that is continuing continuing to thrive. It has all the politeness and madness of mainland china, with the business acumen of the Cantonese people. Every time I revisit the middle kingdom I find something else to love about this country. This time it is contrast between the dirty Chinese sea food market and the Muslim quarter. Head-scarfed Turki Girls serve kebabs
and green tea only a few kilometres from a market that sells every kind of undersea creature known to a botanist.
Rob insists on returning to Hong Kong by sea. He is correct as the ferry from Nansha is an experience. The australian made catamaran steams at a slow 20 knots down the pearl river through the grey polluted porridge that passes for air; and into Hong Kong's territorial waters. Immigration at Kowloon is dreadful; slow and badly organised. As soon as we have our passports stamped we exit customs and find ourselves in a shopping centre. This was not Hong Kong's bizarre idea of a joke, this is simply hong kong. Where there are people, there is commerce.
The problem with hong kong is signage. If you know where you are going then you will make it without problems. If you don't you have very slim chances of accurately finding out where you are and where you are going. Indeed it would be easier to have no signage at all. I tend to ignore it, as it is often wrong.
Previously I had detested hong kong, but a few things have made me do a u turn on my thoughts. The casual tourist and the prospective resident are faced with two major issues. The first is finding accommodation that is not horrendously expensive and the second is prestige. Once you have found somewhere to stay, that is hopefully not a miniscule flat in a housing block that looks in at someone else's laundry, you have to find a job that avoids your having to look the part and play the part.
Hong kong is a bustling Chinese city. Indians, Cantonse and Europeans all live in a tiny part of the territory of hong kong. Kowloon is as mad as China with English looking Dennis Fire engines blaring around the streets. Central hosts cafes such as pret a manger (as awful in HK as London) and Shue Wan is as Chinese as can be, with shark fin shops everywhere. We stay here and my only problem is finding something to eat that is not pork, or contains pig products. In the morning Rob and I run up the hill to Kennedy town. We huff and puff and sweat like criminals in the dock, but this sets us up for the rest of the day. The rest of the former colony is stunning green hills and blue water. Only the sludge of the air pollution from the mainland gives a hint to the proximity of the factories of Shenzen.
The bars of Hong Kong are full of European drinkers. Alchohol is the easiest way of stress relief in the former colony. Names such as Dublin Jacks and the Spot bar abound. But hong kong is a trading city and these well paid and boisterous traders are part of the fabric of hong kong life. And yet there are fishing villages facing China on Lantau Island that are traditional and unique. We visit them all, but in moderation. And so as the time draws near for the dreadful Air Asia flight out, I realise that Hong Kong has managed to wheedle itself into my good books again. I am enamoured with the bustle, the green, the blue, the loud expats, the loud chinese and my quiet friends of all races who call Hong Kong home.
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