2011. I was living in Thonburi, Bangkok, just over the river from the well-known Khao San Road, the neon-light, bar-filled street where many a backpacker spends the first nights of their Southeast Asian adventure, likely crouched over a plate of Pad Thai with a cheap and very strong cocktail of dubious alcohol. This was my second time living in the mega-city at the beating heart of Thailand. Bangkok sits on the Chao Praya River that winds down from northern Thailand via the old capital of Ayuthaya, before it runs out into the Gulf of Siam a few miles south. Bangkok in the old days was known as the Venice of the East – the city was once criss-crossed by a large network of canals – khlongs in Thai. The boats that plied the river were the most important form of traffic at the time. Some of these khlongs are still there, and in use, but many of them have reluctantly given way to a concrete jungle that has grown up over the years, and anyone that knows Bangkok will probably agree, the nickname “world’s largest car-park” can be appropriately applied.
To escape the pandemic, I spent most of summer 2020 amongst the forests of Herefordshire, England, where ancient gnarly trees shoot into the sky and craggy rocks border the winding Wye river as it snakes its way through the lush green countryside to the Severn Estuary. A romantic description you might think, but its a true one.
The area’s beauty, especially when contrasted with the cityscape is breathtaking – as I write that I definitely feel like it must be a sign of getting older when you start seeing so much beauty in your home country. That’s not that I seek foreign travel any less. Damn, right now I am constantly dreaming of the crisp blue skies of the northeastern Chinese winter and a backstreet Sichuan restaurant, or steamy tropical islands of southern Thailand. Words aren’t enough to show how much I miss the vibrancy of Asia.
But, on a summer’s day in Herefordshire when the temperature tops 30c, I’m perched in the vivid green forest surrounded by tall trees and ferns that look like miniature palms, I could be in Southeast Asia. The birds are talking as loudly as they’d be in say, the jungles of Malaysia, and the river water temperature being much warmer than the northern European seas, means that swimming here in the summer is very, very easy. Eager fish in the Wye even remove dead skin from your feet – you’d pay a couple of hundred baht for that in Bangkok. What the River Wye does need though is Vang Vieng style tubing. Rickety make-shift bars at the river-side hauling tubers in for beers and cheap cigarettes as they float down river on tractor-tyre inner tubes, but I am pretty certain all the red tape in the UK though would not allow this.
Recently, there has been a huge amount of discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on tourism. Today, The Guardian published a piece on how Thailand’s islands have been affected, given their huge reliance on tourism. “Deserted beaches, empty bars: Covid-19 devastates Thailand’s tourist islands” is the headline.
I have spent a number of years in Thailand, and worked in travel, seeing how development has changed places. But, as my earliest time in the Kingdom was 2004, to go back further I have to look at old guidebooks. I have been collecting Lonely Planets from the 1980s and fascinated by how places used to be. Well-known Thai islands such as Koh Samui are in normal times packed out with tourists filling the thousands of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, tourist shops etc. But such islands only a few decades ago were sparsely populated, with small fishing and farming communities that were relatively cut-off from the mainland. When I read about these places, I wish I was able to experience them before all the other tourists and development arrived, but at the same time mindful that any arrival in any destination furthers scope for development.
When I’m at home at the best of times, I long for travel. But that’s nothing compared to the feeling I have right now, when it’s not even possible to travel out of my front door: I crave travel. That feeling of freedom to wander, new experiences, new people, new cultures, new food.
Never again will I take travel for granted. Whilst good travel books provide some relief, there are YouTubers out there producing some incredible content that can make you feel like you’re out there too, not here, avoiding outside human contact.
In no particular order here are five YouTube travel channels deserving of your time:
In 2006 I was living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. What a time to be there – Oasis, still a band, played the city. I had seen them once before, the previous year, July 2005 at the City of Manchester stadium. That was as crazy as you’d expect. Not just a homecoming gig, but at the home of Manchester City. The madness of the crowd made it one of the most memorable gigs for me.
Seeing Oasis, along with the legend that is Ian Brown, and other bands at an outdoors Bangkok festival, I always expected a different vibe. I knew the tropical climate and the buzz of Southeast Asia would give the event a unique atmosphere, but I never considered how blown away I would be by the evening.
I left the festival knowing it was something special, and now, when I look back on it, I realise how lucky I was to be there. Oasis may yet reform – Liam doesn’t stop dropping hints on Twitter – but I am not sure a night in Bangkok with Oasis and Ian Brown will ever be replicated.
The week after the festival, I wrote the following, published on the online Khao San Road travel mag. My 2006 self has made me cringe in parts, but I have kept it totally unedited.
I began at Chatuchak market where tropical rain storms had killed the electricity, so in the dark humidity, I mingled with the tourists and locals, in search of a cheap pair of closed toe shoes, required to prevent getting my feet squashed.
It was mid-January 2020, and news began filtering out from China of a type of Coronavirus, at first appearing similar to SARS, largely affecting the city of Wuhan and wider Hubei province of China.
With a planned return to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian to celebrate Lunar New Year, we were closely monitoring the situation. At that stage, the north of the country had very few cases, with the outbreak largely contained to Hubei province. As we were travelling to a city that hadn’t registered any cases that we could see reports of, 1400 kilometers from the centre of the outbreak, we decided it was safe to travel. Certainly, if we were due to visit Wuhan or the wider Hubei province, we would have called our plans off.
Now back in London, my experience enables me to compare the early stages of the outbreak in northern China with the same in the UK.
On 23rd January, we flew to Dalian with KLM via Amsterdam and Beijing, arriving the following day. On the day we arrived – 24th January – China was reporting 550 cases, but the vast majority of these cases were in Hubei province. With so many cases, this is when Hubei authorites began to impose restrictions on residents leaving home, and travel to and from the province was also suspended. At a time reserved for important family gatherings, this was a huge deal – many people were forced to celebrate Lunar New Year without their family, some even by themselves.
Happy 2020! If you are reading this, I MASSIVELY appreciate you engaging with my writings, and I hope you find them interesting and/or useful.
A few months ago, I went over to Japan. I’ve been based in northern and northeastern China, very close to Japan for a few years, but for various reasons, never quite made it over until then.
If you’ve not been, this is a country you must travel to. Details to follow!
A couple of years ago we decided to stay the night in a watertown near Shanghai, and we made our way to the small and charming Nanxun 南浔. It takes just a quick look at the geography of Shanghai to see that it is surrounded by rivers and deltas that make the whole area around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Nantong extremely wet.
There are many old towns dotted around this area, which romantics are quick to call the “Venice of the East”, since it seems it is ever popular to reference that famous Italian city when referring to any town or city with a reasonable number of canals, Bangkok of old being another example of a “Venice of the East”.
These towns date back many hundreds of years and are full of rickety old traditional houses fronting onto picture-perfect canals with beautifully carved bridges and wooden boats floating up and down, albeit mostly carrying paying tourists these days.
It is often said that people from the United Kingdom have an obsession with the weather. A phone call to family in another country or even town will likely lead to the question ‘how’s the weather?’. It is also often said that the UK’s weather system is capable of producing all four seasons in one day. So much so, there was a well known song all about this. If you know it, it will now be playing in your head – sorry about that. But between these two facts, there may be a correlation.
I have spent over three years living in China, and during this time I have observed that similar to the British, China and Chinese people have an obsession with temperature. Everything seems to revolve around temperature and there seems to be an inherent fear of cold. I am not talking about a fear of being freezing – we all have this, this is perfectly normal, a survival instinct. What I have seen is that the majority of Chinese people have a fear of, and will go to great lengths to avoid being a little bit on the cool side.
Presently, as I write this from China, I feel distant from the politics of the UK. But even with all the websites that are blocked by the Great Fire Wall, including the BBC’s, it is difficult to not get drawn into everything surrounding the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which for some reason has been given a strange name, a very unimaginative amalgamation consisting of the first two letters of Britain and the word exit.
I don’t know who devised this word, but it is of the type that someone would think of without much thought, half-drunk, over a beer, on a Friday night in some bar somewhere in the UK. Whoever was responsible for this word, must never have imagined that it would eventually be entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.
This is without reference to its etymology being incorrect. That’s right, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that it is not even so accurate a word, if we take into account the fact that it is not only Great Britain’s exit from the European Union that is on the cards, rather that of the United Kingdom.