Land of Fire and Ice (Iceland)

Iceland – Reykjavik ~2018

Life can move in very strange ways, and sometimes has a sense of weird irony that isn’t always immediately clear. Case in point, just a couple of weeks ago I was traipsing around Iceland (the budget frozen goods store) in a typical slovenly fashion, wearing scruffy sweatpants and a grim look like most of the shop’s inhabitants – my happiness levels raised only momentarily by the occasional must-buy purchase; cheesy garlic breads £1, double chocolate ice cream £1.50, enormous multi-pack of crisps £2. Time machine it to a few days ago and I am stood in actual Iceland, wearing no scruffy sweatpants (yes, I was wearing clothes, I’m not a maniac), marvelling at the natural beauty of the landscape and soaking in the living and breathing personality that this wonderful part of the world expresses.

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Not to ruin the picture I’ve just painted or anything…but I was also super pissed at how expensive actual Iceland is compared to frozen chicken nuggets Iceland. £10 for one diddy bottle of beer whut whuttt?! You could buy a whole deep-fried farm for that!

Iceland, the fabled “Land of Ice and Fire”, could not be more appropriately named…and it has to be said right off the bat that I give absolute props to any of the (just over) 300,000 people that despite all logic and common sense have decided to look pulsing volcanoes, feet upon feet of snow, regular sandstorms and much more not so fun stuff in the face and state, “I’m still staying. Fuck you.” After all, we all know the kind of effect that weather can have on people mentally, not to mention the physical obstacles of lava melting your toes.

*Insert moment of silence for all the lava toes lost out there*

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It seems that people in general are just as impressed and curious as we were beforehand: Reykjavik, which comprises the majority of Iceland’s population and trade, has been flourishing in recent years, with record numbers now visiting to see what all of the fuss is about. A record 1.73 million in 2016, up 34% from the previous year. These tourists probably come for the Blue Lagoon and the Northern Lights, sure, but I would hope they stay for the breathtaking fjords and the rainbows that dance precariously across waterfalls, for the fresh clean air and the naturally heated pools, for the 100% renewable electricity and tap water straight from a glacier…and then…when all of these incredible features have them stumped as to how they’ll ever return to ordinary cosmopolitan life…leave. Because how can any normal person afford to keep spending so much on soup and bread?

In all seriousness returning to ordinary life after adventuring around such a majestic part of the globe, has had be down in the dumps in a major way. I’ll probably try to cure this feeling by revisiting Iceland at some point…for some cheesy garlic breads, double chocolate ice cream, and an enormous multi-pack of crisps.

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The magic of Iceland, a place in which apparently a large percentage of the populous believe in trolls and elves, continues to play on my mind. There is a sense of unknown in such a place, an unreliability that doesn’t often accompany life in towns and cities – save petty drama at work, or news that someone you thought was great in a movie turns out to actually be a bit of a nightmare. There’s a freedom in not having the shackles of corporate life weighing quite so heavily on your conscience – because things like staying alive take precedent (big shout out to my fiancée for navigating many a snow storm and sheer drop on the road in a car the size of a cereal box).

Iceland = two big frosty thumbs up from me – just make sure you pack your thermals and remortgage your house to have enough cash to get a round of beers in.

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STRIKING GOLD! (Doi Suthep)

As I was cleaning out my heavily suffocated laptop (thanks to a ridiculous amount of amusing  GIFs and whatnot) I came across some videos from my time in Thailand earlier this year – there wasn’t much but I put it together in the hope at least one of you enjoy the virtual tour!

This makes me want to travel again…but where next? That is the question, as always!

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Hobbit Holes (N. Zealand)

New Zealand ~ Matamata– 2016 / Middle Earth ~ Hobbiton – 2016

If you are a person who is deserving of friends and life in general then you probably love The Lord of the Rings. If you don’t then you are likely the person at parties who people try to avoid; and/or you enjoy boring said people to death by talking about different types of cling-film and the different uses it can provide.. It appears obvious to suggest this but please seek professional help – you are a certified creepozoid.

Thankfully I am not one of these people. In fact I am entirely enchanted by the world of LOTR...it certainly seems a lot better than the real world, a place jam-packed with subway maps, timetables, and mortgage payment plans. I mean why would a person want to live in an apartment building when they could live in a Hobbit hole? Why would you fly with Easy Jet when you could ride on a Great Eagle? Why would…well the list goes on; and every question is as necessary as it is ridiculous. Call it market research or perhaps just fan-boy admiration but I had to go and look at Tolkien’s world for myself.

And so I headed to New Zealand to live out this little dream: AND WHEN I SAY LITTLE DREAM, I MEAN HUGE.

Once I’d arrived in Auckland I noticed straight away how polite and friendly people were; they would say things with a smile, would engage in humorous conversation with total strangers, and give help without any expectation of anything in return. Lovely. They were not however Hobbits…they weren’t even elves for that matter, and this was most disappointing. They were just plain old men, who I had learned from the trifecta of books, films, and Top-Trumps cards, are the most susceptible to the ring’s powers and not to be trusted. They make great burgers though, so that’s one pretty decent bonus.

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I decided to look further afield – and booked a day tour to Hobbiton; the land of Bilbo Baggins, The Green Dragon Pub, and the pitter-patter of countless hairy feet (hopefully).

The landscape during the journey was breathtaking. Despite the stranger next to me not sharing the arm rest, and the faint wiff of egg constantly stinging my nostrils I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a ride in a bus as much. There were rolling green hills as far as my eyes could see, deep blue skies strewn with powerful clouds, and flashes of wildlife which I had never seen before (no, not dragons). It actually reminded me of home, of England…aside from the palm trees of course.

Once I got there I was overcome with excitement, and so were the other members of the group – half of which confessed they had never seen or read The Lord of the Rings…this surprised me but I worked out rather quickly they must be under the hold of some sort of enchantment. Perhaps born from magic, but more likely the effect of the wonderful luscious hills of New Zealand they had witnessed on the way over here. But that wasn’t to be the end of the day’s spectacles…

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We spent the day winding through the pathways of Hobbiton, hearing amusing and surprising little factoids from the lovely tour guide:

“…the party scene took two days and they used a low percent alcohol ale so the cast wouldn’t get as drunk…”

“…many of the supporting cast in Hobbiton were just the cast member’s children, who were staying here anyway during the filming…”

“…there are actually no Hobbits. They are not real. John please, stop asking…wait…stop crying…please!”

Wasn’t a huge fan of that last one. But after the extensive tour, and many many photos to document the once in a lifetime experience…

…we retired to the Green Dragon Pub; the famous haunt of Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry.  This was fortunate timing as the heavens had just begun to open, and soon the muddy pathways would become sludge – so off we scurried as fast as we could, all the way to the inviting warmth of the pub’s wood fire. Here we were told that due to it being “Good Friday” they were not allowed to sell us the lovely amber ale and dark stout…what exactly was good about that totally escapes me, but it was with a sigh of relief that I then heard we would be given one for free. Technically they are not selling it, so perhaps that is okay. She didn’t sound sure, but I couldn’t have cared less and grabbed it before she changed her mind!

On the way back to the city I popped in my tunes (The Lord of the Rings’ soundtrack as planned) and took pleasure in the beautiful scenery once more, which was now a fiery orange sky as the impending night battled with what was left of the day. It had been everything I had wanted*, and more…and there was a joy to finally doing something which I had dreamed about for so long.

Actually I say everything, but I would have certainly loved to see some Hobbits. So it’s more like “everything I had wanted, but less.” Despite this it was absolutely spectacular, and if you ever get the chance, GO!

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Useless tuk-tuk Tour (Cambodia)

Cambodia ~ Siem Reap – 2016

I know it’s a little bit easy and uninspiring to do this, but I still feel it’s always a decent option to take a tour when you are in a new foreign country. I’m aware this goes against all of the present wisdom which suggests you should just cycle off into the sunset without a map and perhaps you will stumble to the moon or make friends with a talking frog who regales you with all of the native knowledge you never thought you would learn. I know that, but I am still standing by my stance. Tours are okay, okay?

And no you don’t have to pull your socks up to your knees, or wear Crocs to be allowed in the group…any age can apply and these are simply suggested uniform items as opposed to mandatory.

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Anyway aside from that this tours are a great way to swot up on history and hidden parts of the land’s culture; and there’s also a comfort (especially for the solo traveller) in going with a few other people. You’re a lot less likely to be jumped and glassed in the face as some nameless rogue runs away with your passport or currency wallet – and anyway even if that was to happen the OAPs would without doubt back you up, clubbing the assailant with their walking canes until he cries for forgiveness and/or offers cut price beer. Some of that medication they take is powerful X-Men shit, I tell you truthfully!

So in short yet again, tours are okay. Let’s get on with it.  

With this in mind, and my overriding fear of Cambodian dead babies still ingrained in my core…I knew that the only way to go would be to have a nice tour of the nearby temples (Angkor Wat, Angkor…I forget now; ESSENTIALLY THE TOMB RAIDER PLACES THOUGH) and perhaps befriend an old widow or two in the process; we could play bingo afterwards, or I could learn how to knit. Who needs a talking frog when you have (imaginary) old widow friends? Exactly. If things went to plan this was going to be a dream…

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I ended up setting up the tour through the hotel after reading horrendous story after horrendous story of how horribly miserable a time people had experienced by rolling up to tour companies on the spot. This is actually a top tip because these days with the booking sites, Trip Advisor and whatever else, places are really afraid of suffering due to a bad review. So if I am driven off a cliff, or made to dance naked in return for the safe return of my camera during the tour then I won’t be so happy, and traumatised people don’t make for very positive reviewers. So they only try and go with those they trust, makes sense. YA SEE! GOOD!

The fella turned up early, and he was friendly enough – we shook hands, and I thought “why aren’t your hands sweaty, it’s boiling here?” but didn’t say that because a.) he had limited English and b.) that would be a very very odd thing to say to a person upon your first meeting. The reason for the early start was that I am white. Whiter than the whitest whites they always brag about on cleaning commercials…I am ready and willing (for a fee) to be a spokesperson for such advertisements – “WANT YOUR SHEETS WHITER THAN WHITE” then point to me. It’d be great. They’d make millions. Call me!

The guy, Vrim…or Vrom, no…Vhrin – V. Let’s just call him V, found it pretty funny when I told him we are on a timer and then pointed to my skin. I didn’t want to be out all day in the baking hot sun, and the factor 50 I had lathered on my skin could only do so much…it’s not magic after all. It doesn’t suddenly turn me into a glistening beach ready day walker, sadly. 

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It was immediately obvious that it was just going to be myself on the tour, as my new pal V pointed to an empty tuk-tuk as opposed to a cosy air-con bus. What’s a tuk-tuk? Well to those that don’t know it’s essentially a motorbike that someone has attached a little back wagon bit for to wheel people rather precariously about in. Think…Julius Ceaser’s chariot but a present day economy version. Fun at first mind, but soon I felt too exposed and unprotected from the Tattoine-esque climate.

On the journey I saw many other bewildered tourist faces in the same situation. Some of them nodded as if to say: “oh, you too huh?” And then it was back to eyes forward as we slipped around on the seat and gasped for air in the thick hot wind (I have never experienced hot wind until Cambodia). The tour as it was wasn’t exactly a tour…at all. It was just a guy, who again was very pleasant, just pointing at things on the way every so often:

“That is museum…that is museum…and that is museum…”

Well yeah V mate I figured that as they all say museum on the front in English. But thanks anyway! Around the temples he would stop outside and then hand up a hammock in his tuk-tuk and take a rest shooing me away with a smile to have a look around…here I was met with other guys offering tours of the temple…I thought I was already on one! Whaaat?! Once I had seen enough of one spot we’d go on to the next one, sometimes he would offer little tid-bits on the way which was largely lost to mumbles due to the fact he was wearing a thick visor…

“…hummmbleee-ummmm-gummm-king temphugksosos-the king…”

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And for some reason this made ME feel bad, because at least he was giving some effort – so I would just reply with oooohs and aaaahhhs, just repeating back anything which I gathered into a statement and hoping that would satisfy him. Something completely moronic like: “aaah the king…so that’s why it’s a good one. The king would get a good one.” 

I would sound like a pandering knobhead even if I was talking to a three year old, or a dog with mental difficulties – never mind a guy just trying his best with limited knowledge.

As it turns out all you need in Cambodia, and south-east Asia at large is a bike. If you have a bike then you can give a tour. I know most will tell you that perhaps you should have studied ancient history at university, or at least be well read in the subjects and have a deep interest in it…but no. That is certainly an option, but the other option is to just get a bike – attach a seat to the back – and then charge for tours. It’s basically the same fucking thing, don’t be ignorant please.

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Chiang Mai…RIDICULOUS Temples

Absolutely blown away by the temples here in Thailand…truly amazing. I feel like all of my dreams as a little boy are just coming to life in these structures (actually I have never changed, but I’m supposed to pretend that dragons and magic aren’t cool now for some reason)…

Well anyway,  here’s a little look of what it has to offer…and trust me, it is definitely cool:

Apologies for the low quality, taken on a phone…sans selfie stick – don’t believe in ’em. 

But hope you enjoyed it all the same! More to come, probably.

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Drowsy Layover (Malaysia)

Malaysia ~ Kuala Lumpur – 2016

You often make bad decisions whilst travelling; especially so in hindsight. And of course by you I really mean me…and by me I mean a great lumbering buffoon who is simply trying to blame someone else for all his problems, or at the very least involve you in these calamities. Awfully sorry for dragging you down into these dark depths with me, and I do hope you’ll forgive me as we fall into the abyss of it all together hand in hand…it’s just that I don’t like the thought that I am just a sole wandering moron devoid of any grasp of how to make good choices (even if that is strictly true according to my stories). 

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You see the other day I could have just flown directly from South Korea to Thailand. That seems normal, that seems like the thing that a person should do if they are wanting to fly from South Korea to Thailand…they book a flight and then…they follow that up by taking said flight from Thailand to South Korea. 

Why is this even a fucking story, I hear you ask? Well…let’s get to it shall we…

The things is, instead of doing the aforementioned typical and sane thing – I opted for something which to most would be absolutely unthinkable (and rightly so). I decided to defy conventional wisdom and make a short(ish) stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia…after all why not see another place, and find out what it has to offer? The idea came to me from an article I’d read where this fella intentionally gets unusually tedious and long-way-around-ish transfers…this guy is extreme, having day trips in Canada, breakfast in Italy, a few hours shopping in Paris and – well you get the point, he goes through all of that inconvenience just to see a little more. But I thought it was pretty cool, actually I was blown away by it, and he instantly became a hero in my eyes. 

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So after following some of his tips I found my first long layover would be in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia…haven’t ever been there so, wonderful! I’m already well on my way (or so I thought)! Oh, and about seven or eight hours! That’s enough time to have a good look around! I can see the sights and meet the people, try the food and –

KNOCK KNOCK – hi, don’t mean to be a negative Nancy or a cautious Chris, but shouldn’t you check the time you get in on the night because if – SHHHHHHHHHHH! Just because John, you could end up – SHHHHHHH SELF, SHHHHH!

So yeah, that was me. Not even sparing a thought to consider how crucial the actual arrival time could be with such delicate arrangements. I actually ended up realising it at the last second, but still felt positive…despite the fact I would be getting in at 22:10…

This wouldn’t have been all that bad, but I didn’t end up getting my bag back until fucking 23:00. What the hell were they doing with it all of that time? I swear they had been having a little five a side football kick around using my bag as one of the goalposts, or had perhaps been rifling through my possessions hoping to stumble across my stash of treasure (you’ll never get it you dirty bastards I’ll take it to my grave!) but whatever it was it meant that I was now very pushed for time. After all, it’s a 30 or 40 minute journey into the city itself.

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Despite how infeasible it all looked, I thought I would ask the lady at the desk anyway: “Hello there!” – hai sir. (They say sir a lot in Malaysia and I think I like it, makes me feel rather regal and important, rather than smelly and worthless – which is what you truly are after a long haul flight)…“When is the last train back to the airport from the city please?” 00:30…”Ahh – do you think it would be crazy for me to go now – and then come back?” Very crazy sir. “Oh.” Very, very crazy. “Got it – it’s crazy…because the thing is I have a flight at 7am but -” 

Sir, it’s too crazy with bag and distance of this, and time is crazy…it’s just – “Okay yeah, yup, thank you, got it…” I said with a sigh and the best fake smile I could muster.

And so it was there and then that my little dream died. It was probably the most polite version of a dream dying ever to come about, but it was still a dream dying. It was also insufferably hot at 28 degrees, and the air was thick and grossly stifling…sticky sweat meant everything stuck to everything, and I had to lumber about the airport like a lost cause until the morning. It felt like there had been an apocalypse. 

That is until I realised there was a 24 hour McDonalds. I don’t remember one of those in Mad Max, so I guess it was only right to be thankful. I almost crumbled at the three or four in the morning mark, seriously considered getting a taxi driver to ride me around just to make time pass in a more interesting fashion…but YouTube just about did the job instead…

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Anyway sir, let’s put that in the lessons learned book, shall we sir?

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Dead Babies and Ping Pong

Sometimes you have a change of heart, and it is hard to exactly put your finger on why…you just wake up one day and a certain thing isn’t for you anymore – and that’s fine! But sometimes (in fact, more often than not) you know EXACTLY why you have switched sides and the reasons are searing into your brain with an unrelenting and painful clarity:

MATHS IS HARD AND I HATE IT / RUNNING IS A FUCKING PAIN IN THE ASS AND I DON’T WANNA DO IT ANYMORE / I DON’T ENJOY MUSHY BLACK BANANAS THEY GIVE ME THE HEEEEBY JEEEEBEEES!!! and much, much more…

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(All great points by the way.) 

Anyway I had one of those sudden change of hearts recently, a BIG one, and it was all to do with my travel plans which I believe I rambled about in another post somewhere…was gonna be quite an adventure, and still likely will! But the ISIS pricks started blowing up tourist buses simply because those innocent people inside wanted a photo with the pyramids – so I had to scratch my dream destination of Egypt off my list, for now…what absolute bastards (to put it incredibly mildly). So in reaction to this I switched that portion of the trip for Greece so I could have a look at the Acropolis and pretend I am having a chat with my old mate Zeus, that way at least I am in touch with one ancient God, albeit in a different continent and a different time zone.

But you see the major problem came with my first destination after leaving Korea…which was supposed to be Cambodia…a place that I thought it would be an ideal location to quietly sit and write for a few weeks, a place to just get away from it all and get stuff done…and a place that whenever I grew weary of writing words it would actively seek to replenish my imagination with amazing walks around fantastic temples.

But then…the dead baby thing happened. Which put the brakes firmly on this rather dreamy romantic facade I had built for myself…and threw me right back into the horrors of the real world:

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You see I was chatting with a friend about Cambodia, you know, the who,what, wheres…when she announced something along the lines of: “lovely place, so beautiful…just watch out for the dead babies and you’ll be fine…” Excuse me, erm back-paddle a little will you please? No, no, not that bit…the dead…yeah, what is that and why did you say it?!

Seriously though. 

According to her, some other friends who have been, and later the internet when I checked up on this story, there is a rather commonplace scam around Siem Reap which involves a mother (presumably) giving sleeping drugs to her baby to give the appearance of death, then covering the poor thing in flour so it looks well…you know…and then handing the child to her slightly older child (perhaps 5-8 years old-ish) to show to soon to be horrified tourists in return for sympathy dollars galore…

I know right? Horrifying. 

Of course this is born from desperation one would assume, and yet it’s pretty horrific even by current Western standards which are desensitised more than ever before. And whilst I feel for the poor things caught up in this madness I rather selfishly don’t want to see a dead baby (albeit just a pretend one) every day for three weeks. I don’t know, maybe it is just me – perhaps you would love that, you horrible bastard you, but me…no, not really. There is just something about dead babies which sits uneasily…dead babies, dead babies – see…not nice. Gonna stop saying it now, I think as the thought alone is creeping me out and making me sad. You got the message though: Cambodia = dead babies. 

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JOKING! (Sort of).

So although my flights were booked up already I wanted to make the switch from Cambodia to the more reliable and less dead ba…just better in that regard, Thailand. Now this hasn’t particularly ever been on my list, despite the influx of tourists these days and how everyone and their gran (sometimes literally) appears to be visiting Bangkok according to my Facebook home page. It always seemed to be a rather seedy place, well no that’s not right to say, a place where incredibly seedy fellows flock in their millions…yeah, that’s better. And I didn’t particularly want to be another one of them, even if my preconceived notion may be an outdated one.

Actually even when I mentioned it to my siblings they jokingly asked if I was looking for a mail-order bride, or a male bride…or am I just a sex tourist looking for a good time? Well none actually, as it turns out – or at least I think so anyway. Just trying to escape Cambodia your honor. I know, I know…I’ve heard all the stories too, the ping pong balls coming out of the hoo-hahs and all the rest of it. But surely it had to be more endurable than the aforementioned flour dolls, right? Sorry. 

So I got on to the flight people to switch my flights, and made a new pal along the way called Antonin Vrzal who is a lovely chap may I add. But as nice and friendly as he was he wasn’t able to conjure magic tricks, and told me that as I am planning to leave from Cambodia to New Zealand afterwards (different airlines) it would be impossible to switch them, and I definitely can’t cancel them because of…well no reasons, he just said no – which really tested our friendship I’ll tell you that for certain. He then said I would have to just book new flights if it is totally necessary, which of course it is. In essence: THANKS FOR NOTHING MATE! AFTER ALL WE’VE BEEN THROUGH ANTONIN!!!! TWO EMAILS AND A FIVE MINUTE PHONE CALL, AND NOW THIS!

 Not his fault, he’s not trying to ruin your life…breathe, breathe, breathe…that’s better…calm down…hang up the phone…go on…

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So I did just that, and now I will fly to Chang Mai, Thailand (less ping-pong balls there I am told), and will spend a couple of weeks there basking in its quiet slow-paced solitude…after which I will then take a train down to the madness that is Bangkok (a lot more ping-pong balls there I am told)…I’ll then fly to Cambodia just for a few days before getting on the New Zealand flight I was supposed to in the first place. I figure I shouldn’t just blindly follow a few people’s stories and should at least see it all for myself, scams and all. After all it is about YOUR experience, not someone else’s.

BUT MAN, WHAT AN ORDEAL. Wish me luck and sorry again for the horrifying nature of this write-up…I’m as freaked out as you. 

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