So, the trip comes to an end in just a few more days. The last leg begins anyway, a 20 hour trip back to NZ via Melbourne. That's one thing that's changed; before this all began, that would have seemed like a hell of a long time. While it's hardly a walk in the park, it doesn't seem quite so bad now. I'd rather do an overnight on a plane than a bus heading down the dodgy roads from China into Laos, or heading down from Gilgit to Rawalpindi on the Karakorum highway. At least, in terms of comfort I would. The views win hands down on the other two there :)
It's all gone far and away from my original plans, but I can't say I regret that much at all. Some of you may remember the original intention of this trip - two months in South East Asia, then over to Central and Eastern Europe (some of them over there get a little sensitive if you call it all Eastern Europe...) for a few months before heading on to the French slopes for the ski season. It diverted pretty quickly from that, what with me ending up in South East Asia for almost six months first up.
And it's easy to see why. This place (I'm still here as I write this) remains one of my favourites, definitely it has the relaxation aspects down pat. Nothing like hamocks beside the beaches of the Thai islands, or drinking coffee beside the Mekong in Luang Prabang, to take the stress out of a body. Add to that great food, friendly people and (once you've adjusted to it) great weather, it's quite a package.
The loop went through straight to Central Laos, up to the North, across to Northern Thailand, down to the middle (the everpresent Bangkok) and off to the beaches of Hua Hin, Koh Tao, Koh Lanta and Koh Payam, before arguing my way out of an overstaying fine at the Cambodian border. I must have done something wrong in Cambodia, as, barring Anchor Wat, it really didn't float my boat. It's back on my todo list, the strategy seems to be to stay the hell away from Pnomh Penh and Siem Reap and she's all rosy. From there down the Mekong (first and last border crossed by boat) into Vietnam. Got trapped for weeks at Nha Trang, drinking awesome coffee for 25 cents on dinky plastic chairs. And "fresh" beer (sans preservatives, additives etc) for 30 cents per litre. To the north, where my cheapness first began to gain strength; it had too, there were so many people trying to overcharge me all the time!
Eastern Europe was, I suppose, something of a disappointment to me. While still relatively cheap, the cost of accommodation outside the main cities is becoming prohibitively high for the long-term traveller. At least, the long term traveller who's too lazy to do too much work, so I must take some responsibility here. The net affect is to largely restrict budget travellers to within day trip distance of the large towns, or so it seemed to me. I'd also like to note that a steady diet of bread, salami, cheese and beer is one of the quickest ways to put on weight I've ever seen. My weight has been an interesting point of this trip, fluctuating wildly from 85 at departure, to 75 when I left SE Asia, to 85 when I hit Turkey, to 68 when I found scales in Laos. Now, I don't know, but since the last sickness has gone I've gained back a comfortable amount. Probably 77ish or thereabouts. From there, back to Thailand for more weeks, before I moved on out west.
Eastern Europe still had it's upsides, but I was excited to be heading further east. This was the most significant deviation from the original plan. I eventually despaired of snow arriving in Europe, at least in significant quantities, so dropped the French plan and headed east. The suprise winner for snowboarding quality was Iran; most people, myself included, think deserts when they think Iran. But damn, have they got some mountains alright.
Iran and Pakistan were countries that I'd never really considered visiting; Iran got on the list once I discovered (thanks to a video on youtube) I could go boarding there, and that the conditions were far better there this year than in Europe. Once I was going there I though... hang on... I'd quite like to see a little more of SE Asia... it's not that far from there... what's in between? And so Pakistan was added to the list, with me knowing next to nothing about the place at all. I even considered flying over the place, if getting the visa was difficult - but I'm glad I didn't. Pakistan and Iran are far and away the most hospitable countries I've been, bar none. No others even come close to it. There are several causes; few tourists, religous and cultural imperatives, widespread poverty. And I really have come to think that poverty often does cause an increase in hospitality, that the lack of material wealth makes people place more value in the things that money can't buy.
India was another experience, and one I feel was unfairly jaded by the brutal sickness that struck Melia and I down there. I've noticed more than ever before how much more unpleasant I am when deprived of sleep, and this sickness came close to that affect. Actually, with the extensive long distance overnight travel, there was often a double whammy; poor digestion causing low energy levels + non aircon train sleepers / bus seats puts me in a seriously dangerous state. I assume that eventually Indian touts will evolve, through random mutation and natural selection, the ability to detect when a potential mark is not, in fact, a potential mark but a potential threat to their physical wellbeing, but they have not done so yet. Luckily for them my rage will not, in and of itself, kill them, but if it were capable of doing so there would be many fewer out there.
In a similar vein, China was tarnished by the same sickness. It hadn't inflicted it on me, and it did eventually get cured there, but adding on extreme altitude to the afforementioned exhaustion and general sleep deprivation really is pushing the physical limits a little. Another mark against China, at least in my current mental state, is the cost. Long term exposure to insanely cheap countries (I'd been in Iran, Pakistan and India for six months prior to hitting China) has turned me into an incredibly cheap bastard. It degree of cheapness fluctuates randomly; give me a couple of beers and it normally decreases, but it could swing wildly in the opposite direction.
Anyhow, point was, China is significantly more expensive than the countries around it. Not really what you expect when you think of China, is it? Expensive? Not what I thought, anyway. And it's not, really. Just more so than everywhere else I've been in the last nine months or so. You just wait until you ask if I want to go rounds when I'm out in town with you when I get back to NZ, huh...
Of course, as I've mentioned, coming back into Laos after everything else was more or less like coming home. None of you guys were there, except for Wayne, but I can speak some of the language, I'm familiar with the geography, the city layouts, the food, the weather, the beer laos. Combined with the fact I had recovered from the sickness and was rapidly regaining my strength and energy, it truly was great. When I discovered that the south of Laos has coffee that possibly rivals that of the Dalat/Nha Trang region of Vietnam I could not have been much happier. Actually, the Pakse/Bolaven Plateu region of Laos more or less matches up with the Dalat/Nha Trang Vietnam region anyway. I say they should go for autonomy and set up the Democratic People's Republic of Coffeeland. Starbucks employees will be refused visas in much the same way as Americans are refused them in Iran. It seems to be the only consistent rule in actually acquiring an Irani visa; if you're American, you know what will happen - you'll be denied. For everyone else they might as well be flipping coins, albeit one that's heavily weighted towards the give-them-the-visa side in most countries.
But I digress. Kinda. I wasn't really going anywhere, except with a vague hint of chronological order. So... After cruising around on motorbikes, stopping for coffees and whatnot in Southern Laos (look out Mum... I may pick up a statistically dangerous hobby yet. Aside from snowboarding and mountainbiking, that is.) we were back where it all began, full circle, Thailand. Again, one of my favourite places, although I guess I see it with different eyes than I did when I first arrived. For one thing, having been in India and Pakistan, Thailand doesn't really seem all that cheap anymore ;)
So here, now, the trip ends. For now. I'm back in NZ until Jess and Tim get hitched in Feb, and after that... Well, the plans are many and varied.
I've added a new, celebratory collection of photos from ">the whole trip. These are some of my favourite photos, carefully culled, over a beer or three, from the more than six and a half thousand photos I've acquired on this trip (they aren't quite all mine).
Be seeing you all real soon now. You're going to need to help me get rid of my polyglot accent.