Life In The Rain

Free and not so free online services.

by john on Jul.24, 2009, under Travel


You may have noticed the last.fm widget not playing music, perhaps the pictures on the right don’t show up, twitter has decided it won’t display twits or maybe the odiogo voice synth no longer holds the post. Yep, we’re in a recession and resources are limited. All those free online services are either drying up or “monetizing”.

Music is the most interesting one, last.fm is no longer free, 3 euros in Ireland, and the free web radio link is no longer supported as far as I can see. Doesn’t really matter anyway, I’m sure that it’s a tad egotistical of me to push a random selection of my taste of music at anyone who stumbles in here. What does matter is that I thrive off the recommendation system in last.fm, it works pretty well and I’ve found quite a few tunes through it. The selection of music on last.fm is huge, the catch is you don’t get to choose what order or when a song is played. At the same time I’ve been trying out spotify which is basically a music harddrive online. Apart from the considerably smaller (but growing) selection of music on spotify it works much better due to it’s playlist support and instant song playback. You can also share your playlists with other people or collaboratively make them, here’s one of mine. Problem with Spotify? It costs 10 euros a month in Ireland, although it’s still free in other places.

So the result is, to satisfy my music needs (and this is actually the only way I listen to music at a computer these days), I pay about 13 euros a month. This seems like reasonable value.

I got an iPhone. It’s too tempting as a development platform, particularly with the fairly open App Store which allows almost anyone to create new apps and sell them online. So as an exploration, much work has gone into making a Sony Vaio VGN-SZ48 laptop run Mac OS. This hasn’t been fun, many hours and about 100 euros in peripherals or software has been spent in this forbidden task. There was even a foray into running Mac Leopard in a virtual machine, worked eventually, but too slow. But the OS runs natively now, wireless, sound, usb, lcd screen, input, pretty much everything. Unfortunately I don’t think the iTune’s store likes my setup. Time to do more research and jail break that phone? Hmm, I’m half tempted to just spend the 600 euros necessary to get a mac mini and do it the right way. Consider this project ongoing.

I’ve been messing around a little with the Amazon EC2 service. This lets anyone, for a price, create servers online for whatever need the person wants. The benefit is mainly for people who want to shorten computation time of large tasks or dynamically (given the correct programming or systems) add more hardware when or as needed, instead of continually running servers non-stop for the worst case scenario. Cloud computing is in essence an innovation in pricing plans, more than in any virtualisation technology. It’s true, this area is just data and computing warehouses rebranded – but giving people like me a chance to play. If the prices came down by about half I’d consider keeping a server running full time and run all websites, subversion and remote services from it.

The “Shindig” event from the previous post went pretty well, the speakers were excellent and made it work. Occasionally someone has said something to me about it, and I’m sort of blank. “You don’t remember? Sure I said to you that evening of the Shindig? I was wearing my blue jumper?”. I guess I was pretty nervous and didn’t record much but people have been nice enough to say they didn’t notice. What’s interesting to me is how much energy it took to get it all going, it ate up much of my spare time for a few months and I was zonked for a few weeks afterwards. Another event.. um, no way :) Someone elses turn. But yeah, maybe this time next year we’ll do another.

While we’re geeking out I may as well mention Linux. It’s been about 9 months since I was forced to start struggling my way with linux and I’ve found the process of understanding Linux very close to that of trying to understand a new culture and learn the language. This isn’t a lame comparison, many things performed in Linux are command line based and knowing the correct program name is akin to learning a new verb while forming and piping commands is like forming sentences. The history of each program, the contexts that they are used in, the layout of the filesystem, the locations to find “stuff” is like mapping out a history and landscape of a new city. To summarise I think I’m starting to get over the steep learning curve and advance my Linux skills to the point where I can order beer and a bed for the night.

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TheShindig.org

by john on Apr.25, 2009, under Education, Games, Life


In three weeks time a small horde of games developers in and around the Irish games community shall converge at the the Science Gallery in Trinity. This is a cool spot on Pearse street that runs interesting events tied into some aspect of research in the sciences. It’s often an electic gathering of visual and audio demo’s suitable for a family or couples on an idle afternoon. I took a walk around yesterday and they have the “Infectious” exhibit happening, a look into microbiology with some cool demo’s happening, plenty of it arty farty and others more direct like examining your DNA for malaria resistence. Anyway, we’ve got the studio room booked for 2 hours of speaker presentations and demo’s from some of the games community. I’ve been helping to run this with assistance from Dr Aphra Kerr and others. There are more details on an info page I setup here, www.theshindig.org

This is the first time that I’ve done anything like this and I hope to god I don’t mess it all up. I reckon it’s going to be 50% preparation and 50% “on the night”. We’ve already dealt with a date change and some trickiness in getting through to the correct people at our host location. That probably didn’t endear me to the speakers either. You need a thick skin too, there’s an element of cold calling involved. In general I’m noticing, like games publishers, no-one ever says no, they just stop replying (or take longer to do so). Right now the main concerns are tickets, they’ve already sold out in a day and I’m not sure many in our community got a chance to get them! Also, since the tickets were free and easily got online, I’m not sure how many will show up. We do have a guest list, but that will have to be managed carefully. A nice problem to have though, the bigger fear is that only 10 people would show up.

The high demand is most likely due to the suggested “recession proof” nature of the games industry (take away food, off-licenses and games, very popular as a cheap night out) and the large availability of idle talented people who haven’t gotten jobs since they graduated or have been laid off. Also games development has never had a lower barrier to entry. For example consider the I-Phone, 30 million sold, the vast majority of applications available for download are games, very popular games use and scaring the competition, 1 billion apps sold. For the developer you can pretty much add an application directly, no publisher, no huge console owner licence fees etc. Actually for my money I’d keep an eye out for google’s Android, there will be money to be made for early developers on the iPhone competing platform.

Now the down side here is that it’s a gold rush, with arguably a harsher market than the closed in home console markets where publisher, console and marketing fees provide a glass ceiling to protect the existing players. The choice here for iPhone developers is to cut prices or spend money on marketing – once you are outside the chart lists on the app store your sales plummet. It may not be long before we see a new tiered system on the itunes app store that puts publisher games in a special “high quality” section. Also calling the games industry recession proof is a little like saying the sea is waterproof. Most people in the games industry don’t stay in the one job more than a few years before layoffs or switching jobs with an average career reportedly lasting 5 years and companies go all the time… but then also those same employees either quickly go into new jobs or leave for other industries that pay better and the dead companies often spin out a new one or two. Recession like happenings are every day, but overall the industry is still growing.

There are also various other open platforms out there, Microsofts XNA and Silverlight platforms, Flash on browsers, some exiting 3d browser stuff from Unity, google’s o3d and good old native windows games downloaded online, and 10’s of others I’ve not remembered or noticed. There’s alot to be said for any game that you can make work only by visiting a web url; accessibility is everything in introducing new customers. I particularly think there’s going to be some interesting future stuff coming out from small independent developers which uses cloud computing (automatically purchasing more computing power from amazon / google as needed and sending the results back across the internet) to help with art and games graphics or a.i. Also anything to do with machine learning and statistics is a match made in heaven for computing. We’ve started to see games use it for playability testing, but I think we might see games use it more directly in the gameplay in synthesing a.i. and content.

In further non-games related news I’m tasked with doing a few tutorials for this years IET students working on the Cell (Playstation 3 like) architecture within the next few weeks. Honestly, I’m mid way through this learning myself, but that isn’t a terrible thing; I’m able to empathise with their needs and the best order in which they should try consume this info. Weirdly for me I’m not fretting about this set of talks, what needs to be said is very clear. We are also aiming to produce a journal paper at some stage on the work I’m doing right now day to day which would be nice.

Finally, my funding for the phd didn’t come through from Ircset. The competition was intense (2 out of 25 from Trinty Computer Science and Statistics). There are further options there for the taking, but the conditions are slightly different. In some way a part of me is relieved that I don’t have to decide yet, I can see advantages either way. If I were to put my main plus on pushing on towards the phd it would have to be the options and opportunities it might provide (colleges are a good cross roads of new people and startup opportunities), the main against, is the low pay and 3 years (almost 34 when finishing!) it would take to do and that I’m not actually too interested in persuing a career long term in either research or lecturing. Skipping the phd provides me with freedom to move jobs and location at a good time imo, October 2010, and get back into the games / software industry, hopefully in something with potential. The downsides are missing out on another good year or two of learning data mining techniques. A decision for later if I’m lucky.

Probably my next post will be after the event and discussing how it went. Until next time.

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Research Assistant

by john on Mar.29, 2009, under Culture, Education, Life, Travel


Well that’s the title of my new job of this last six months. I’ve stayed in Trinity but moved into the GV2 (Graphics and Visualisation) lab, working under Michael Manzke and Rozenn Dahyot. So what does the title actually refer to. I’m sort of figuring it out myself, but it mostly comes under assisting at a programming, research (reading lots of white papers, books on obscure maths and ideas – learning and taking notes), experimentation etc level for any projects or research happening. Specifically I’m working on an exciting project in relation to the STI Cell processor (the same one found in a Sony Playstation 3). While the work isn’t entirely secret I’m not exactly sure which bits are and aren’t so I’ll report very little to be on the safe side. It would bore the reader silly I’m sure; not exactly girls, games, travelling and football. If I do feel the urge to get technical in future (as it is sometimes nice to do, and there is a big audience for that sort of thing), I’ll make it clear that the post is of a technical nature first.

In other news I took a trip to London with some friends, Brian, Daitaigh, Derek, James and Oige as well as meeting my sister, her boyfriend and friends for my 30′th birthday. Thanks guys for showing me a good time, hope you enjoyed it, definitely a big weekend! This isn’t my first time to London, but apart from a brief day trip when coming back via Hong Kong and a few trips to ECTs (and old games trade show) I’ve not really been there for entertainment. It’s a big town with plenty of culture but you would need to be bankrolled by the treasury and have a year or two to really get a handle on things. Maybe that’s why it works so well, it’s big enough to give all the sub-cultures the critical mass they need to survive. E.g. One of the nights we ended up in a Rock-a-Billy and northen soul nightclub. Extreme tiredness aside that was a cool spot to end up in, even if Rock-a-Billy music doesn’t really get my blood going.

So what does turning 30 mean to me? It’s cool, although it does mean in my mind that there’s no room for feeling too irresponsible or frightened for trying things out. This is the height of manhood apparently, many of my cousins are married and as parents and lots of younger people are happily getting on with things like running companies, events and the like. I don’t think the man-child phenomenen exactly what I am, but I am aware I’m half my life expectancy and things won’t happen without a bit of conscious effort. Plus it’s never easier than around about now, young enough to have time, old enough to be taken seriously. I reckon if I’d not gone travelling I’d feel pretty pissed off about things right now; so I’m really glad I took to that challenge and enjoyed it. I have a lifetimes worth of memories in that year alone.

The future. Hopefully get a few more posts in this blog. There’s a games developer event I’m helping to run and organise happening soon, I’ll probably post more on that when the details are out. I will also hopefully have the nice decision of whether to do a phd or not, but this will depend on the funding bodies. And finally and most importantly I have to get the tomato sauce I’m cooking off the gas, I think it’s starting to burn.

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A new travel blog

by john on Sep.27, 2008, under Travel


A friend I know, Steve, is off traveling the world and is keeping a blog. You should read it, especially for those with Pavlovian conditioning issues from this blog. I know I’ll be training myself to click the link regularly. You can find it here

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Dissertation

by john on Jul.01, 2008, under Education, Life


I’ve gone to ground to do work on my dissertation. I reckon research suits me pretty well, although that remains to be seen. I like getting dug into an area of knowledge that is still new and possibly up for grabs. After two weeks of reading up on the area that I’m to be working on I have started to program. The program Matlab, a programming script language built around the experimentation and processing of matrices ((Mat)rix (Lab)oratory), along with many mathematical functions, code snippets and visualisation tools is a bit of a revelation. It shall be used more-so in future. It’s no substitute for a proper mathematical understanding, but it sure makes applying the learning that bit easier. The research area is in the compression of motion capture databases and quick querying of the databases by example motions. I’m supposed to contribute something along those lines.

So that’s where my head is at. As you can see, by studying the stunted sentence formation, the lack of any story or structure to the post nor the lack of anything of interest to any sane human being that I’m in full “nerd” mode. It’s an unfortunate side effect of too much programming, deep concentration and maths. I’m afraid I can’t do anything about this until my dissertation is done, I’m aiming to have it in 3 weeks early so I can go to Electric Picnic (again) and my sister’s wedding. Damn sight different from this time last year when I was getting fitted for a suit in Bangkok, drinking with strangers and discussing the state of all things prostitution wise. I love how the mind adapts.

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DxNA

by john on May.19, 2008, under Education, Games


About four weeks ago we were tasked with developing a game. The key idea was to create a fairly realistic project environment and get us the students to experience real-world issues: such as a customer, process management, team management, technical interest and of course the end game. Our customer was CRANN, an institute focusing on Nano-technology research at Trinity and it was around this area of the small-scale that we needed to base the game. In return we would get a small budget to spend on art. Split up into teams of about four we were told to make use of the ever more popular SCRUM methodology and start speaking to our customer. At the end of the project last week I would have to say I’m proud of what the team achieved and I have to thank those who helped us out, Dermy, Pete, Stephen, Alan B, David M and Keelin and a few other people who offered some very useful advice. The project went about as smooth as they can, a real mixture of conflicting, ever changing realities, needs and issues solved and continually fixed by some very proactive team members in a very short amount of time. I feel very lucky in the group of people I worked with, and each new project is always unique and a special education of its own. The only regret I have is that the art help we got in sound and art wasn’t utilised to its fullest (sorry guys) and there is little chance that we will get any time to revisit it again. Anyway the game, demonstrated above in very low res, may go live for PC at some stage in the near future so you might get a go and the IP now rests with Trinity.

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The games industry maturing

by john on Mar.19, 2008, under Games, Life


I have got to agree with this post by Mr Albrecht and I have said in the past I’d keep an eye out for games studios with people over 30 and with children. Watching those around me as I’ve gone through my twenties it seems to me that the last great mental change for a guy isn’t when they leave college and go to work, it’s having a child. The change seems almost immediate and when it goes right, priorities are to put family first.

I like those people because they become examples of how best to act. They now have to balance their old passion for games development and their new more important passion to raise and look after a family. This means there isn’t enough time in the day and they won’t be able to afford wasting it with stupid arguments, practices or policies at work. Time management and doing the effective and important tasks first becomes key. If they are at the wrong studio then they will immediately look for a more suitable studio that can accommodate them and provide stability and that can be of great benefit to studios who can accommodate these more experienced people. They can then give guidance for younger eager beavers who want to work hard to make up for their inexperience. Theory is no-one will fire you if you show up longer and work harder than everyone else, even if you are making a mess of things. This is obviously wrong and wasteful. It seems no surprise to me that more mature and important services like law, banking, doctors keep hours as steady as they can, 9 – 5 is the aim and no more; although I’m sure some friends could tell a few horror stories too.

The games industry is growing still, there is more money being made, this industry is recession-proof and those working in it are starting to ask for their worth and for studios to mature as they do. It seems to me to be something everyone can afford to do. Those that think they can’t afford to mature are actually those that won’t be around in five years time.

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Shiny stuff is good

by john on Mar.18, 2008, under Games, Life, Travel


Graphics project done, I’m surprised it turned out o.k. in the end, was on pretty shaky ground somewhere around 3 am on Sunday:

With that out of the way it’s time to study for the exams next week. That mostly means trying to prepare some maths and planning the “cram of attack” for the rest. Where was I this time last year? Christchurch New Zealand I think, high and content after doing a skydive, nice evening with an even nicer trip ahead of me down the west cost of the south island ending up in glenorchy for a while. That was probably one of the highlights of the year and I often wonder if maybe a games studio wouldn’t open up there soon. Peter Jackson was rumored to be up to something with Wingnuts interactive, but there’s not been a peep since.

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More work and play.

by john on Mar.15, 2008, under Education, Games, Life


All the projects are due at once and that means I’m a zombie working weird hours, eating weird food and going through weird emotions (especially the must eat other peoples’ brains emotion). Through the haze a little team of three, Belinda, David and myself just about managed to kick this Augmented Reality project over the line yesterday and get a youtube link up. Here you go:

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All work and no play makes John a dull boy

by john on Feb.17, 2008, under Education, Games


One of the more silly assignments I’ve done over the last while.

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Introspection

by john on Jan.13, 2008, under Life, Travel


I’m sure those who got into the routine of reading this website regularly have been disappointed at the slow down in posts over the last six months. I know, I used to have a few blogs I’d read myself to tide through lunchtime at work. The good news is that I don’t intend to stop posting, but I’m afraid I could never guarantee the same through put again. There was something comforting about posting up the activities of the last week when traveling, like that girl using the camera in the Blair Witch Project. It was good to know some people would get a buzz from hearing about strange places and people as I came in contact with them and it would be hard to deny the value in being able to look over posts many years later and relive some of the cool experiences had. Actually just thirty minutes ago I was looking at a t.v. show were people were bathing along side working elephants and I thought to myself “it must be an honour to get to see those creatures in the flesh” when I suddenly remembered I’d been nestled on the neck of a rather large one, legs behind its ears one hot sunny day not so long ago. So perhaps one idea of all this blogging is that I used it to get my own “closure” or to store events very quickly to move onto the next thing, instead of fully soaking them up at the time, allowing for a slower release months or years later. I know that at the time, strange life and chaotic living became the norm. The remarkable unremarkable. Hmm, how did it take me so many sentences to say “I used to have something to talk about” and “I had more energy for the blog back then”.

So I’ve not as much to say. Well maybe that’s not true, like everyone, we have the details of our day to day lives and they could easily fill a post or two. But because they often involve other people who don’t want their lives all over the internet and contexts that are not universal they don’t make for good public consumption. Needless to say my mind feels as active, if not more, for day to day events. I’m currently consumed with things like ordinary differential equations and physics simulations as well as efficient living and study. Things that this blog was probably supposed to cover when I first made it, a blog about a games developer living in Ireland, who happened to like a song called “Life in the rain” by Quantic. That might be where the blog goes in future, although I’ve johnokane.com registered should I need it for career oriented things. All the travel posts are going to move into a travel section, split by world region in a chronological order, maybe with some select pictures.

I will probably travel again, though not as long, maybe two months, max four months at a time. It takes about three months to fully get into the groove and the process of getting there is the most exciting part. Top of the list is Nepal/Tibet followed by maybe Scandinavia or a bit of Africa but there isn’t a strong urge to do this in the next few years. In fact, my urge for travel was based on what felt like a closing window of opportunity and me not wanting regret missing that opportunity. Not everyone gets a chance to do it the way I did and for that I’m very grateful to both my parents for supporting me like they did. One side effect of traveling in poorer countries is that it untangled me from a whole pile of envy and lust I might have had for those I perceived to be better off when living in Ireland. The small and petty things that matter no longer matter when put into context along side someone who cannot trust their local police man, cannot get an education and must collect plastic bottles for a living. And they are often as content as I am. That sense of need to travel mentioned above would be an example of the somewhat petty angst that just isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. No matter how bad you think you have it, there are many people doing a lot worse. Teenagers crying for Britney on the Internet is an example of pure madness. I’ll be 30 in just over a year, I can imagine if I hadn’t got out there and learned some perspective I’d be rather cut up over where I am and what I’d achieved, blah blah blah. Eh, get over it, be happy you are alive and have people you love and love you.

So some boxes were definitely ticked. Since coming home from Japan I feel much more confident, self assured and I’ve learned plenty of habits and tricks that just help out day to day. Priorities are clearer, I’m happy to make a call on something and be wrong for it, I’m happy not to give a damn some times and just go with the flow. I’ve moved from clingy and needy to independent. Next stage is independent and cooperative, yeah, become a little too independent these days. The future at the moment is rather blank to be honest, but I’m comfortable with that. Having a plan that stretches as far as next October is fine by me. I vaguely intend to move out of Ireland for a few years, bar a better reason to stay (job offer that can’t be turned down, a beautiful girl etc.) and experience working life in another country. Where depends on job possibilities. I’m hoping west cost Canada, but beggars can’t be choosers. Many Canadians were great advertisements for their country and the scenery sounds extremely good. From all my experiences one place that tugs at my heart strings is the south island of New Zealand, but I don’t see the work possibilities and it’s so far away. Argentina in the Bariloche region would be nice too. Singapore is a possibility as well. The world is not a big place these days.

Anyway, this is good bye for the travel writing and traveling in general. I hope that everyone got something of value out the blog while the trip was happening. A topic I never really covered is encouraging people to travel if they feel a desire to do so. In this sense I agree with the book the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, who puts it in an interesting way. During your life, you and other people will put pressure on yourself to do things a certain way, get married, settle down now, run the farm, look after people, stay put, don’t do anything dangerous, or worst of all, live in fear. It is your right in life to ignore those pressures and do what you need to do. Should you not, you will only develop a strong regret or even hatred of yourself and those who pressured you. If they really want whats best for you they will let you go and you should get out of your comfort zone, contentment can be laziness. Go do what you want to do and be happy. Bye!

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Japan

by john on Jan.03, 2008, under Life, Travel


I’ve been trying to leave this for when I’ve more time on my hands, but that’s just not been happening, so here goes. Barry and myself arrived into Narita airport at different times. So as I was waiting I took the opportunity to try using the Atm machines and rent a phone. There was no major surprise at the ATM, an English menu did exist, but the way the machine worked mechanically was a tad odd, the money arriving in a sort of fragile (loads of machinery exposed) compartment inside the machine which you must reach in to get. There’s no way it would survive an Irish night out. This pattern repeated through out Japan, cool, efficient machinery everywhere (vending machines are ubiquitous and a constant life saver) but lacking that extra robustness that would be necessary for the rest of the world. Another thing about the vending machines is the promotions on them, check out Tommy Lee in the photos trying to look tough but looking more like he’s crying.

We went into Tokyo, arriving at central station and immediately got confused. While it was no problem getting around later in the holiday when we knew how the system worked, it was bloody hard initially. There are basically two train systems for Tokyo travel, the subway and an over ground metro. They both mingle together at times or sometimes have separate stations. Their ticket machines look alike, as do the tickets, but the tickets don’t work in either system. You will often have to look up a geographical map to figure out where two stations on either system overlap, then revert back to their stylised maps to figure out what line colour to take. English isn’t on every sign (and certainly not on the maps at the pay machines, because there isn’t enough room), so it’s often worth learning a few kanji symbols to help things out, but there is plenty of English information once you are on a train. Best advice I can give, if you end up lost in any of the big stations is to leave and come back in again following the signs again. You are probably lost because you’ve arrived at the station and your connecting train is in another wing/gate of the same station.

So 3 trains later we arrived at the hostel, fairly tired and I must admit I was concerned at how much effort the check-in was going to be. Meh, nothing to it, woman at reception couldn’t be less bothered, showed us to our rooms and left us alone. The hostel was a inn-style guest house and as such we got a floor to sleep on and being Tokyo, a fairly small room. I don’t think either of us cared, even if our last place in Hong Kong might have set us up for more.

Ok, the above was written around October, and I’m now finishing off this post on the 3rd of Jan, and I’m surprised by the details I’d forgotten already. Apologies, but here goes for the rest of the Japan post, which may be chronologically a bit incorrect… 

Its a pity we didn’t spend another night at the hostel, we might have explored the facilities and amenities better (dvd room, hot-spring/tub thing) and better we might have risked a trip into town as planned in Hong Kong before we arrived. But we were very tired and hungry. I know people look down on hostels but there is more value than just a cheap bed. For one, the person running them is totally familiar with your issues. You can count upon many many more naive and needy previous backpackers to have asked the full gamut of easy to awkward questions concerning the local area. Being human hostel owners want to make their lives easier but not come across as too rude. This is best done by having a few sheets of information, most important of which being a walking map of the local area marking out food, bookshops and bars. The better owners around the world offer these immediately and push you towards any local events or nights out that night or the next day. Like I said previously, I was a tad concerned with the reception I might have gotten in Japan. Everyone says the Japanese are SO different. But the hostel owners turned out to be very accessible and understanding.

We got our hands on the map and went looking for food. At this point I have to talk about the streets/roads. I tried to capture it in a few pictures and Barry took loads of pictures HERE. Did you ever go to lego land? I haven’t, but I saw images of it tv when younger. It’s a bit like that. Everything is compact, neat, clean, almost like a theme park. The houses are small, compact but a tad organic – like something out of slum but a really clean slum made of good materials, if that makes sense. Powerlines and phone lines are all above the ground so there’s always a network of cables above your head, similar to tram system. The roads around this hostel were so narrow as to skip footpaths, but still there would be thick white lines pointing out a two way street and maybe even a cycle lane.. that used up a third a width of the road. A seven11 (yep, Japan too) could be found in what to us would look like the backstreet of an Irish town. Then if you look closely, you’d see there was enough business going on in the one street to match most main streets in Ireland. And always on every street you’d be within 25 metres of a brightly lit vending machine, projecting a blanket of light from its front face onto the street from behind an alcove. Just at the end of the street where the hostel was you could find a train track, similar to the dart. This ran across the main street, had two tracks, big gates and surrounding platforms, yet still didn’t seem to feel bulky and out of place. It’s about the same size, with walls, as any of the tram stations in dublin, but runs (city) trains instead. It seems ridiculous that they can pull this stuff off when you consider the big hulking dart system. To finish off the image we should point out the ubiquitous signage, lit or not, scattered around like forgotten lanterns after a festival. All in all, every street felt so busy and miniature it felt a shame to just walk through it in a minute.

Food wise we got lucky and found a good (awfully clean) bento shop selling very visible rice and battered somethings. Even in there one could find a vending machine. Think about this, a vending machine is used rather than a simple fridge behind the counter. If technology can be used as a solution, then it is. Robustness is never an issue. Then, chopsticks and food in hand we set off to find a quiet patch to eat the food without alarming the locals. This took a bit of time, every where you look, no matter how quiet, there would always be one or two people still shuffling about or cycling, and it was hard to find a kerb which didn’t look like someone’s front door. Good simple food, good start. Then we went back to the room to wash our hands and try the pub 20 yards down the street on the corner. It was small, but themed relatively western, the owner maybe pushing for a foreign crowd from the hostel. Both being tired we didn’t try to kick start an “Irish” night with the locals, it was enough for now to sample the pub and split after two. Next day we would go Kyoto.

At this point I’m not going to go into much more detail describing things. As it turned out the visuals set out above repeated and repeated, even in the most rural of backwaters that we could find. Best to go visit Japan yourself for it’s endless wonderments and curiosities. The big interest of the trip to Kyoto was the train ride on a bullet train. Being hopelessly unaware of the sort of service one might find at the station we had stocked up on some food, bananas, drinks etc before setting out. We needn’t have bothered. The trip was fairly swift and even on the train platform you could buy sandwiches (Japanese style, no crust, two triangles, one piece of ham, some chives and heavy on the vinegar mayo), sushi and bento lunch boxes. In Kyoto the weather was fairly hot, being further south and we had a torturous time finding the hostel. This is probably the worst bit about travelling and Japanese instructions on websites and over the phone are mindlessly out of tune with the sort of instructions people need when they don’t know a city or location. Using taxi’s is a bit hit and miss as well. Telling people to use certain Japanese named exits and to look for a seven11 as a guide is as good as an Irish farmer telling a German couple to turn left then right at the big stone 10 minutes “down the road” after Paddy’s pub.

That evening we set out for Nijo-Jo Shogun Castle, a warlord’s domain (about one mile from the hostel). Fairly nice, very Japanese, quite a fortress. Inside it’s made up of wooden floor boards, plenty of those sliding paper walls  and some hidden alcoves in which bodyguards of the important people would wait/hide all day (maybe Doom3 wasn’t so unrealistic after all). There were plenty of sizeable square rooms in which fake models of historical people would kneel a lot. Outside the gardens were large and neat (I would hazard 6 acres?), and the temperature now comfortable if still as humid. Having just made it there by 4pm we didn’t get much time and had to return to modern Kyoto. So we skipped across the road and dodged into a large block of backstreets to move diagonally towards the Emperor’s palace. Actually, it’s hard to get away from the theme of these backstreets in Japan, they really are where you see the coolest shit. I think it is here we got some pictures of Tommy Lee and of some blown up pink elephant above a shop. A woman stared at us the same way someone in Muff (,Co. Donegal, Ireland – yep it’s a real place), stares at tourists taking pictures of the road sign, i.e. slightly bemused and wondering what all the fuss is about. We looked at some dark clouds slowly pushing in and wondered if perhaps again we weren’t experiencing some strange phenomenon of Japanese culture that caused the skies to darken so quickly. No-one around us seemed concerned, no umbrellas anywhere. But no, the weather is universal and we were indeed looking at the front end of a tropical cyclonic burst of rain. About one minute before the rain started pedestrians become conspicuously absent and we tried desperately to backtrack to a bar/restaurant that we could hide out remembered earlier, but it was closed. As the rain kicked in, we worked out way towards a proper main street at the edge of the block of backstreets and sidled under doorways and outcrops until we arrived upon a small open bookshop into which we found some shelter.

Neither of us could read Japanese, hiranga, romanji, katana, kanji or whatever the different scripts are all called. We browsed idly after nodding to the old man when we entered, me at least remembering not to read the books back to front. For some reason I was a tad surprised to see plenty of Japanese porn comics, maybe 10 percent of all the books. For some reason I’d imagined the old man wouldn’t stock such things. At least they were universal reading. After two minutes the old man tottered around the corner and then went to Barry and gave him an umbrella for free. It was fairly clear the rain was the only reason we were there and I felt a little guilty at being so obviously needy and taking. So I bought a comic.. not the porn ones, because I was imagining some image I had to uphold. I needn’t have bothered. By the time I left Japan I got the feeling that most Japanese people couldn’t give two shits whether you buy porn or not and wouldn’t judge you. This sort of contradicts what I said in an earlier post and shows how far away I am from understanding them. After getting the umbrella we ambled up the street a few more blocks to wait out the rain, but it only got worse, really heavy. Eventually we found a place to get some beer and sat in it for half an hour. It reminded me of a small family restaurant in Ica, Peru where a t.v. played some soap or news and some locals or family sat there half an eye on the tv the other on us.. but in a friendly way. Eventually rain subsiding and sun dipping behind the hills we arrived near a large park which held the palace. We were well beyond the closing time but it suited us to just to walk in the half dark – half mist and see the outside of the building.

Then we walked back towards the main part of town were all the pubs and restaurants were listed to be, along a canal, stopping at some cat friendly shrine along the way. It was all very narrow, like the backstreets from before, but very commercial and brightly lit with many many bars. Btw, this is a common place first evening thing to do. You leave the hostel on a little walk to one thing and then up practically traversing the entire city visiting many things. Once you are out you may as well stay out as long as you can, but you don’t plan it that way. It being Saturday night we made plans to go back to the hostel, get food and come back and visit all the enticing bars, especially the ones with pictures of heaving throngs of girls bouncing to r&b. I think it took us another hour to actually get back to the hostel and food turned out to be a seven 11, but one nice find was a beer vending machine. These are not as common as the coffee and soft drink machines, so we overstocked on beer. Getting back to the “club” district we set about popping into different bars for a drink or two. The idea was to find the centre of all the action. Each bar was quirky, often themed (football/sport bar, r&b bar) but everything was practically empty. It must have been 10/11′ish at the time. So we moved further down the canal and eventually arrived at where everything seemed to be happening, but still no bar held entertainment, just the streets. I need to point out something that seemed strange to us and it was all the 15-25 year old Japanese lads were dressing up. They all looked like a very pretty version of 1980’s heavy metal. Think Bon Jovi and Axel Rose, but more Japanese. Also, often instead of demin and leathers everyone was wearing an identikit suit of something David Bowie might have been wearing at the time, black trousers, a well fitted light suit jacket with rolled up sleeves, a tight white shirt or vest and a thin black tie. Add to this some dyed blond/orange brown spikey mullets and you’d say.. hmm that’s an image. But to see groups of 5 or 6 at a time walk by was weird. Was there some sort of rock competition going on in the streets of Kyoto that day? It turns out this was just the fashion of the day. It comes up again in this post.

By the time we got to the bottom of the block of streets we were fairly lollied, yet still hadn’t found the heart of things. So we walked across the canal to try find it, but things just got seedy and the youth were walking the other way. Finally we came back to what looked like a night club and sat in the bottom bar. I kept an eye on people queuing to get into the nightclub and realised they were just trying to get into an already closing down nightclub, most people leaving. I’m afraid we never did figure it out where people were or what was going on. If our experiences in Tokyo later on are anything to go by, you really need to be very specific and know exactly were you want to go to find the locals out enjoying themselves.

The next day we did the tourist thing and visited the temples up on the hill. Nice, but enough temples to last for a few days. I don’t really recall much important here and really must move this post on if I am to finish it tonight. The highlight of the evening was to dodge into a Pachinko parlour and upset the poor attendants by trying to play one of the damned things while Barry took a photo. Somehow I won most my money back in the form of a tiny plastic chip after thinking it gone (some guy helped me get it from the machine). The big thing with the pachinko machines is the mesmerising fall of the balls combined with the sense of statistical control over the way they fall and a 3d story unfolding on the machine’s screen as you progress. Not for me. I don’t read. Feeling a little worse for wear and a bit sick of rice we decided to go an Irish pub for some food. Can’t remember the name now, but it was a very good imitation of an Irish pub and the food excellent (stew, sorted me out perfectly). I’d go so far as to name it the best Irish pub I visited all year, they even did trad sessions once a week and the guinness was passable for something outside of Europe.

Beppu was next up and we spent a large chunk of the day getting there and did the usual thing of having trouble finding the hostel. No actually this was a hotel, but with the traditional lying down thing again. Eh, why Beppu? It’s clearly well off the beaten track with the Japanese tourist attraction of being an Onsen (hot spring bath) mecca. It’s not exactly made for foreigners and the south island is considered a bit more backward. I’m glad we went, it’s places like this that can give you perspective on things. Looking out from the train we could see that even in what was considered to be the country side there was still enough density of housing for people like us from Ireland to suggest we never ever left the suburbs of Tokyo. There are two uses of land in Japan, rice fields or housing. At Beppu we set out in taxi to find the sex museum mentioned in the guide book. Not as easy one might imagine, although ridiculously after one hour of walking around a steep hillside covered in natural hotsprings it turned out to be exactly where the taxi had left us off. Again no experience is a wasted experience because along the way we saw and felt how natural the springs really were. Often you would walk over a drain grate in the ground and get a blast of hot and humid air. To the side of the narrow roads you could also see large drains steaming with hot water in and around houses were people were living. And then, showing that man is not in control, we chanced upon two or three houses totally decimated by what must have been an unexpected arrival of a new thermal vent underground. The thermals had charred and dampened the wooden two story structure leaving an unholy looking ruin. Beside all this there were pipes and boilers and fittings like something a mad scientist would build trying to channel or utilise the hot water and energy to elsewhere and perhaps other uses. These copper pipes would be covered in white-ish green scum and scale forming in layers; minerals fresh from superheated streams of water deep in the earth. It looked really cool! I recognised the scene as something straight out of Final Fantasy VII and in the process felt slightly less respect for the fantastical abilities of the Japanese imagination, since they were clearly taking something very familiar to themselves. Not their fault of course that I over-estimated them. The sex museum was closed, so much for guide book accuracy.. often a bane.

It was dark by this time and we took a bus into town. Somehow finding a restaurant proved a problem and we settled for bar food. After ordering what seemed to be a sizeable set of words of the menu turned out to be just a few cocktail sticks of meat I reordered pointing to a selection of food on the menu, getting the same for Barry. They clearly thought I wanted two of everything on the menu, crazy foreigners, and proceeded to scare my wallet senseless. Seriously, it was like 70 euros between us. I was stuffed and not particularly happy, since it was all things like pigs nose and chicken heart and 100% meat. Oh well, these are the hazards of bad communication and traveling.

The next day we visited Aso volcanic mountain via train. This is probably the most remote bit of Japan we would find on our journey, I think the locals don’t live there because of volcano risk. It would be about as populated as say Moville to Greencastle, so not exactly the Bolivian salt flats or amazon. Still it was nice to get some good views from the train. When there we waited at the train station for a bus up the mountain and finally, finally I found some hope for the Japanese when the bus pulled up at the Bochu station a full 2 minutes late. Bad news, the crater was closed for the day for the pathetic reason that poisonous gasses might kill us and all we were allowed to do was look at the side of the mountain. Being foreign and crazy we walked around the back of the arrival building and sneaked past the 3 foot high barriers, fully prepared to have some Japanese lady rush over in a police hat to tell us what we were doing was wrong and for us to not understand. But then the path up looked a bit further than we might have hoped, clearly visible to all below and we didn’t want anyone to overreact and send out a helicopter after us. So we mooched around some ruins of an older tourist shop. The Japanese really do modern day ruins unlike anyone else. The place looks entirely untouched since the day someone decided, right that’s it, we’re moving into the new centre. Seriously, they left the front door lying open and all. Completely upholstered furniture lying in tatters, roof caving in, shopping trolley in the centre. We’d discovered their horrible weakness, the Japanese never ever spend money cleaning up a spent venture. That was fine when it was the awkward difficulty of the beppu thermals, but this was totally a man-made problem in a rather nice natural area on the side of a mountain where all the (Japanese) tourists would arrive. I’m not saying Ireland is better, we have ruins and wrecks all around (Buncrana road out of Derry), but I think areas of natural beauty do get special attention. And I loved it, perfect images for a horror game.

Instead of looking at the side of the mountain and ruined shops we went down to the visitor centre, 2 minutes by bus. At this was a little gem of a place. Basically it was the best stuff around circa 1985, live cctv cams on the crater, videos of older volcano burps, dioramas of cold water becoming hot via the wonder of thermal heating and best of all a big screen movie theatre made up of multiple screens side by side at an angle supplemented with radio headsets to get an english translation. A wonderfully crazy narration speaking of the joy and respect one feels when looking at the calm and power that Aso-san wills us to feel is matched in inappropriateness of a thorn-birds/dallas style soundtrack. Then out of the blue a tacky sequence showing the view from the front of the bus going down the mountain, speeded up, is played to a funky soundtrack that one might expect out from Jamiroquoi along with a “screeeeeeeccchhh” sound clip played on each corner. Nuts. I think the Japanese are on to us foreigners finding them funny and have learned to cover up much of the weird stuff in more recent times; on the surface at least. That’s why this ageing relic of a show was such a find. I think I’ve a video of a few moments somewhere. We didn’t make it to the sex museum that evening either. We booked in for another night in Beppu, realising it had been nice to not have to move every other day.

The next day we made sure to get to the sex museum, but not before trying to find the beach, Beppu being on the coast. We couldn’t find it, or at least a clean one, although we did find a few drunks and a family living under some cement stairs. Don’t ask, I don’t understand. After that we went up to look at some thermals in parks. Yeah, not bad, overall probably a better day than the hot springs in Rotorua but still not a patch on the awesome wildness of geysers in Bolivia (where one foot wrong might have you opening up a new thermal in the ground). Finally the museum. A bunch of cock literally. Mostly statues of phallic ornaments from throughout history, some animal penises (blue whale, ostrich etc). But not exclusively so (that honour going to a museum in Iceland, which sports many human penises on displays as well). In addition we had plenty of group ornaments, pictures from feudal Japan, an educational movie show which simply bemused us both (a horny old man with an eager tongue and the women that lust for him) and educated us none and finally the cherry on the cake, a mechanical lifesize model display of Snow White and the seven dwarfs getting it on. Seriously yes, and no, I don’t know how they get away with it. Beppu delivers. Somewhere before the end of the day I got my hair cut while we did our first load of washing. At this point I might need to apologise to Barry because out of habit I was constantly booking hostels and assuming to do washing backpacker style, eating on the run etc when I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded doing things a tad easier at more cost. But ah well, it’s an education should he ever need to manage himself as a backpacker in future and I don’t think he cared too much. The best thing about getting my hair cut, apart from having the entire staff of 7 girls smiling and laughing as I exchanged 3 or 4 sets of bows on the way out, trying to go at least as low as they did, was that they washed it AFTER cutting my hair. Genius. Why isn’t this done in the rest of the world??

Next up was Osaka, but on the way we would stop at Hiroshima. It was a very very hot day when we got there. I’m not going to do a crass comment on how hot it might have been when the bomb dropped. Except I just did. At the memorial park it’s possible to see the remains of one of the buildings from the bomb, practically under it when it exploded. The reason that some parts still stand are that those pieces were best aligned against the forces. All around was flattened. On the way to the museum, sweating in the heat we were both approached by several children with forms to fill in asking us where we were from, our favourite colours etc. An attempt to teach Japanese children not to treat foreigners as scary useless weirdos, but as scary weirdos to be used. After the fifth child we figured out what direction they were all coming from and hid in the trees until they all passed. Getting closer the museum revealed train loads of 8 year olds carrying white sheets and cameras ready to work as a group to let us know who was boss. We found a side entrance. Inside the museum was a very sad collection of videos, diagrams, burnt clothing, many stories of split families, radiation poisoning, slow painful deaths, explanations of nuclear bombs, melted pedal tricycles, tiles melted to glass, stopped watches and the dark shadow outlines of humans on stone standing in direct view of the bomb. Tired and mentally exhuasted we made for Osaka by night. There we found the most friendly bunch of Japanese people we would meet and real beds.

On leaving the metro system we were lost as usual, on the last leg looking for the hotel. So it’s the seven 11 on the right hand side of the junction.. but I see two? A jolly local chap, around 50 years old with excellent English approached us. I knew we needed help and so let him look at the address. It was in English, that, he couldn’t understand, so he got me to try pronounce it. Needless to say my thick Donegal/Derry accent mangled it and he spent ten minutes leading us in the wrong direction. Ooops. He made a phone call to the hotel, with the help of another local in a shop and before long had us there. I’m ashamed to say my instincts got the better of me at this point, a year of avoiding the scam merchant had me trying to profusely thank him for his help but not invite him into the hotel at the same time. I’m not sure if he or Barry noticed, but I physically arranged our positions so that he didn’t think we were going to suddenly bring him in for drinks. Seems he was the real deal nice person and I’m glad to have met him. I’ve done the same for several backpackers wandering lost around Trinity late in the evening this year may self – maybe you get an eye for lost backpackers when you’ve been one. Maybe he was a legendary one himself. I wouldn’t be surprised, Osaka has more of those types of people.

A quick trip was had into town via taxi, where ever the guide book said the centre was. We got some italian, was alright, then walked down to the canal/river area and it immediately felt like something out of fiction, I’m thinking Metropolis. Complete neon madness with huge anime billboards glowing down at you and reflecting back out of the water. There was even a sort of elliptical ferris wheel that was lit up like something from disneyland as a part of a very very tall and strange shop. Being there was just a bit cool. Also, the Bon Jovi Boy bands were back in force. I can’t remember if we got up to much after that, think we found an English bar somewhere.

The next day we went to Nara, via Kyoto, to do some more temples. This was definitely an impressive area, the main temple being an absolutely hulking building containing a massive Buddha. Walking to surrounding buildings revealed some very nice walks, sideways, plenty of tourist shops, free roaming small-deers and the like. We did bore ourselves silly by going to the big museum found nearby, but that stuff just didn’t click for me, bar some freakish, almost childish drawings of dead ghosts. Towards sunset we got near a pretty cool monastery when it was almost empty, all wooden red beams and flags. Then we went back to Osaka and had a pretty good night out. Back along the canal we found some more Bon Jovials and Barry being the more impish type decided to get a full on picture of them. I kept my head down and walked ahead, trying not to draw attention, but one of them spotted what he was doing, Barry trying to pretend he was taking pictures of the background behind him. “Naaoooouuuu, naaaoouu, naaoouuu”. No, no, no. I looked back and saw them turning their back and hiding their faces under the coats. Another one to the side was being held back by a friend from running over to Barry to clock him one. Barry trundled over to me busting his hole laughing, we scampered on down the river guffawing like scary foreign weirdos. Picture is HERE. Check out the rest, they accompany this section. After this we found the centre of things, unlike Kyoto and settled into a foreigners bar, then entered a nightclub, somehow without id, which is apparently a big no-no, but some distraction worked out for us when he was asking. The fee in was big, but we didn’t care, we’d finally found somewhere with people. I went to the bar to try buy a round of drinks, which turned out to be free. Barry was telling me later he couldn’t understand why he was getting weird looks when he offered to buy a round for some locals, not knowing about the free bar. Anyway, the place was busy and lively. Turned out some american hip-hop band was launching a record, that night, vip section, slugging Christal champagne, bunch of fancy cars out back and all that. I got very drunk around about then and memory fades into embarrassing thoughts. You can see from Barry’s photos that he turned out to be the coolest person in the nightclub before long and made many friends and saw the sun come up. Osaka is a much more, western spot, in that people are more relaxed and have a better time. You might even find girls out in the nightclubs. I checked later at a hostel and was told most bars and nightclubs are majority male because nice girls don’t like to hang out in such places. “So where would you go?”. Supposedly honest answer I’m told is you either look for “loose” girls in foreigner dives or live in Japan and get to know people through everyday social networks.

Somewhere in the middle of that next day we set out for our last hotel change to Tokyo very hung over. I have fond memories of arriving at this hotel, although it was again a bit of trouble finding it, I don’t think they were used to us strange people and they were awfully nice. But more than the that I was fond of their free noodle offerings and hotel clearly laid out for the business man. We needed somewhere to chill and recover and it did the trick, internet, free tea, ironing board and all. That evening we recovered and went into the tourist carnival part of town, Roppongi. Not impressed, full of touts as bad as Bangkok, or actually worse, their English was a first language. One guy really latched on, I kept civil, for a change, and talked through the entire prying conversation as to where we where going, what we were doing etc answering with concrete answers and the odd reversal by asking some simple advice when there were gaps in what we would do. Satisfied that nothing he would offer would be taken and we knew his agenda we finished with polite goodbyes. Hmm, never had a touting conversation go like that. His interest by the way, and all the touts around there, is to get you into a topless bar where the drinks/cover charge is very expensive and there is plenty of muscle to back it up. Expect to loose 80 dollars on a most drink or two. Most of the other touts could be easily ignored since they simply resorted to calls of “hot girls, mate?”. After food and a few beers we went to a nightclub called Yellow. The taxi driver wasn’t entirely sure where that was, but took us there anyway. We definitely wouldn’t have found it ourselves. Getting out at a side street with little or no advertising neon, we walked up to a guy standing outside a store house and checked. Yep we were there. Inside was “flash”, low lighting in a room painted white, some glass features with the bar in the middle. To the side was a chill out area. Down stairs contained a very dark bar, and an even darker dance hall. Practically no foreigners, all local. This is one of those spots were the real locals go, albeit the dancing type. A few hours there, some of it getting into the swing of some very experimental electronica (they are miles ahead! and people actually like it), the highlight for me being a salvo sample from the Ghost In The Shell soundtrack that got the locals cheering in appreciation.

The next day was the last, and one thing we had to do was go to Yoyogi Park and check out the show, especially since it was Sunday and all the Cosplay people come out and dress up as their favourite tv/game characters. This park is truly a national treasure for the people of the city in the same way that the Golden Gate park is for San Francisco. A place to jam drums, go for a run, picnic or just plain hang and be fashionable. There are also many bands that play their latest music to try get the fickle Tokyo youth to catch onto it. I refer you again to Barry’s wonderful photographic eye here where you can find some interesting creatures. My almost personal favourite was the guy doing the Bono swaggering dance to no-one in particular, he narrowly pipped the guy dancing in his underwear. By my favourite, and everyone’s I suppose has to be the 40 year old Teddy Boys dancing in the park. I have a video, it’s the only way to describe it properly. Apparently you do not dare jump in the middle and act the idiot, they take this very seriously and would clock you one.

After we went to the Tokyo Tower, against the advice of, well everyone. The problem wasn’t the views, they were rather nice, it was the queues. Being stubborn we did four sets of queues. Along the way we met some back-people (chiropractors), three of them, in Tokyo showing loads of back-people there how to best mend backs. Apparently all that matters, one guy told me, is that the nerve is moved off the bone and it was their job to let the Japanese know they shouldn’t be bothering with anything else (like massaging etc). They may be right, they may be wrong but I wouldn’t trust any of them with my back, sorry. A quick trip was made to get some grub. I was particularly up for some Thai but spectacularly forgot that Thai food would be expensive outside of the country of origin, especially if you mess up the order and ask for a large and small, when a small could almost feed two. Still it was really really good. To finish off we went to the Park Hyatt hotel to try get into the “Lost in Translation” bar. Having made our way through the labyrinth of elevators to the top they tried to fend us off with a “sorry sir awfully busy”, but I suggested we would wait as long as it took to clear. Five minutes I was in the elevator and about to go down when Barry popped around the corner and said they’d found a seat, pretty much at spot where all the acting took place. Sweet. We were now groupies for a memory of a film! We got chatting with another guy and drinking some very expensive drinks and finished up an hour or two later with some pics of us in place. For some reason that felt to me to be a very very good way to end the holiday along with Barry.

Honestly, I’m not sure that much better could be done in the time frame given. As this post and the last should attest, an awful lot of stuff happened and there was plenty to process. Maybe thats why I started posting in the first place. I would not hesitate to city/country hop with friends again given the chance. I’m not sure I have time here or the energy to talk about the next week, wherein I basically moved into a nice hostel and got to know several people fairly well, including some very nice twin girls who still e-mail regularly, and to check out a good bit more of Tokyo, including Akihibira (geek stores, where I bought robots-toys for work people back home), a museum or two and some Sumo wrestling. It was the old backpacker routine again, and it fit like a glove. Then I came home for the second time and set about moving into college, upsetting life once again.

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Japan Pics

by john on Nov.11, 2007, under Travel


I’ve updated some pictures from Japan in the Gallery. Also, don’t forget there’s an RSS feed to the right and if you know how to use those (Sage plugin for Firefox for example), it will save needing to check the site directly. Lot’s of other websites use them too, so it won’t be a waste of time figuring out how they work.

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Trinity College

by john on Oct.13, 2007, under Education, Travel


Another one of those quick posts just to tide things over between proper posts (the Japan post clearly long over due). Since getting back from Japan I’ve been doing some contract work and I just spent the last week or two moving down the country and getting settled into College. It’s clear that I will have to devote all my energies to the course, there’s plenty to do. Particularly tricky will be the maths elements, giving presentations and learning proper systematic researching technique. I suppose none of it sounds sexy in comparison to world travel blogging, but well we all have to have a career and this stuff keeps me entertained.

Trinity is an interesting college. First up, I’d forgotten how bureaucratic colleges can be. I would not be the first person to have been surprised by the rudeness of some of the admins. Curt but polite is fine, even mildly incompetent and polite is fine but rude has no place. I’ve also seen lots of the different offices in a very short amount of time trying to get a basic D.O.B. error fixed. The negatives end there though. The college has an extra sense of academic push that I didn’t see in my time at UCD. Maybe that’s because I’m currently surrounded by some very talented people, but it also seems like they like to live this life and want to push for more credibility if possible, for both them and the college. Everyone is aware of the more talented previous scholars at the college like William Hamilton (of Quaternion fame), Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker. The college is also pleasant to be in and I often forget how close I am to Dublin just outside the walls. Being perhaps more aware of the extra privileges that students get (having lost them after finishing my degree six years ago) I’m taking the time to hunt out those in Trinity such as cheap meals, transport discounts, a cheap gym, access to almost all written papers and books and finally not least, student banking.

Now that I’m settling into a more normal life I can start to appreciate how exotic and alternative my last 11 months have been. That is, if you don’t consider going back to college as too left field. Typically my brain has started to forget the long bus journeys, the lonely days, the boring tours, the early mornings, tiredness and occasional bad weather. Thankfully these lows were relatively small in comparison to the highs. And the highs are now popping into my head all the time (usually accompanied with their own melancholic soundtrack and slow motion play back,.. fantastic). I try not to focus on them too much, as hard as that is (talk to anyone who’s met me in the last two weeks and they’ll confirm I’m having trouble here), because to sit on past victories is some sort of acceptance that the future is bleaker. I’m with Roy Keane on this one, if you aren’t going forward it’s because you are going backwards. Or in the words of the Mr Scruff song, “you’ve got to keep moving or you’ll be left behind”.

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Hong Kong

by john on Sep.22, 2007, under Life, Travel


I’m on a Shinkansen “bullet train” as I write this. They go pretty fast, but without too much clickety clack from underneath. They are expensive (or would be if I were not using the JR rail pass), clean and the facilities top notch. They are timed to the minute over 100’s of kilometres and they pull up to within 1 metre of their allocated stopping position. Lots of stuff is like this in Japan and I don’t know how they can subsidise it all. This place isn’t real. It’s the sci-fi version of the future where everyone lives in peace, in small communities with strong social bonds, extreme consideration for your neighbour and with top end technology powering everything. But that sort of future ignores the other, less productive for industry aspects of humanity like passion, laziness, strong individualism, dream chasing and so on. Japan has outlets for those things like the rest of the world, all the vices are covered, but they seem to come out a tad distorted. That must create pressure. I suspect if the Japan of the future becomes more like the rest of us, that is less caring about social conformity, those trains may not work as well.

Right, that’s my attempt at social commentary on the Japanese done, it’s de-riggorrr. Electric picnic was a blast. Paddy and myself relaxed, enjoyed and conquered. The usual heads were there, James and Oige, with a few absentees in Brian and Derek. If one thing summed up the weekend I suppose it would have to be the pies, which were great. Keep an eye out for PieMiester, the new venture in boutique festival appetite supressant from Paddy next year with a new range of pies such as “I dunno, just give me the first on the menu”, “Breakfast pie”, “Pie face” and of course “Fat John’s”. Oh yeah, the music was good too. Leaving on the Sunday left me with a bit of pity but as explained previously, an extra night of fun at the expense of future ambitions is not worth it.

Monday morning came around and adrenaline got me going. Somewhere after 2pm later in the day I finally conked out and started paying properly for my weekend excursions. The interview went fairly well, although my nerves as usual got in the way and had me occasionally babbling a bit too much and, in retrospect, occasionally missing the point of some questions. It wasn’t a highly technical interview, just questions about my reasons for applying for the course. In case I hadn’t mentioned, I’d applied for the Msc at Trinity in Interactive Entertainment Technology. A masters has been on the back of my mind for a while now, although none had tempted me. I’d previously just about gotten a 2.1 in Hons Computer Science, which while good was less than I could have had. After a couple of years working I’d formed the opinion that I’d love to go back with a no-nonsense attitude to college and apply a, well, better and more experienced brain to the task. And not just as a proving ground, but as a space to let me catch up on those areas I’d like to look in, but couldn’t when in a more production focused environment. That isn’t to say that work didn’t get me more freedom than many/any other place I might have ended up, but you can’t beat college for the ultimate opportunity in self growth. I left the interview knowing that at that point it wasn’t really up to me anymore or even the interviewers, ultimately it would come down to the competition. I got a phone call the afternoon I arrived in Hong Kong confirming I’d made the cut.

In Hong Kong (and later Japan) I was travelling with Barry, a good friend of Pete’s who I’ve met several times before. We spent our time there trying out some decent Chinese food a few bars, one club (Sugar – where I somehow ended up having to chat to some guy for an hour after starting off so promisingly chatting to one of his female friends). Barry knew a girl called Dolphin (or perhaps Daulphin) who worked slightly outside the city in a cool public garden that cleverly disguised and muted it’s location right bang in the middle of a busy freeway. We met her in the vegetarian restaurant she worked in, letting her order the menu for us. The food was excellent. We were slightly abashed when she paid the bill without telling us. We tried to offset the difference later by inviting Dolphin to the Peninsula Hotel rooftop bar for a drink or two. The views were fantastic and the drinks expensive. But in Cinderella fashion we left before midnight to get the last trains back to the Island. The next day we set out for Japan.

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Electric Picnic

by john on Aug.28, 2007, under Travel


First off, this isn’t the introspective post-travel post that’s well overdue. I’m delaying it on the excuse that when I’ve finished traveling around Japan I can properly tackle it, but the truth is I already know what I want to say, I’ve just been busy/lazy. Some other time maybe then.

So this is a quick update for.. for continuity sake to say what I’ve been doing and whats up next. Basically I’ve spent the last two/three weeks doing contract work for my previous company and getting a bit of money back in the bank. I’ve had no problem slotting back in and happily enjoy the work. Unlike many people who travel, hatred of work wasn’t really one of my reasons for heading out around the world. More the opposite problem really, I could happily have stayed in my cocoon for far too many extra years and not really lived the rest of what life had to offer. That still holds for me and probably will now until I die. Shake it up once in a while, change is good etc. Back on track, next up is a couple of days at Electric Picnic, the festival I’ve been at every year since it started. I very much expected to miss it this year, but since I’m back, why brake a tradition of three years. Fortunately/unfortunately it will be cut short on the Sunday when I go home to get a nights kip before an important interview at 10am on Monday morning. Timing could be better I suppose, but the first date offered was on Tuesday, the day I’m flying out to Hong Kong, so I’m not really complaining. Hopefully the interview will go well anyway.

So in Hong Kong, I’ll meet up with Barry who rather fancied the idea of a week in Japan and on the 7th we’ll visit that strange and wonderful place. Tarrrraaaa.

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Home

by john on Aug.06, 2007, under Life, Travel


Going home wasn’t just as simple as leaving Bangkok then tada home. In fact after the last post I spent another day hanging around in Bangkok with Alex. After arranging to pickup my suit I wanted to head out to meet a metal sculpture artist who’s card I got at the Chatachuk weekend market (massive array of outdoor stalls, 1000’s of people). There I had viewed some of his sci-fi sculptures. I was very interested in purchasing a few. Armed with an address, helpfully printed in both English and Thai script we hailed a taxi going through the usual routine of ignoring the expensive looking taxi’s, having one driver not understand the Thai script address (bad eye’s, illiterate, stalling while he thought of a expensive side route to take us? I dunno, 5 seconds was all I was giving him to start understanding) and finally have one say he knew but was far away. No problem when he agreed to the meter. Having been half way there before on the way to Morchit bus station I knew his estimate of one hour to be about right. That would be under ten dollars. After an age we got to the address. A typical house down a side street in a suburb of north Bangkok but definitely correct due to the metallic sculptures sitting outside the wall.

Now the guy I got the card off didn’t speak good English but I did suggest I’d go out to his studio the next day. He had no problem with that, all agreeable and whatnot. But standing outside his house (having expected maybe a shop or working studio) in a quiet side street sweating in the roasting midday sun and high humidity it seemed like calling ahead might have been a good idea. Ringing the bell brought no response. Out to lunch then or just a lazy artist? Yeah probably. Alex and myself then walked back towards the main road to look for somewhere to pass half an hour. On the way I pulled out the card and attempted to speak to the person on the other end of the number. Many people you meet when traveling will seem to have good English, but this is because of a trick of deception your mind and their experiences have played upon you. You want them to understand and they want to agree. They are saying yes in English, they are nodding their heads and they are picking up the odd word in the sentence that they understand then adding their bit of wisdom to the conversation, occasionally seeming to be out of touch and at other times seeming to be really insightful and wise. It’s like speaking to a really drunk guy in a loud pub, you just nod and say yes occasionally hoping that what you say matches whatever weird line of thought they have taken. This conversation was like that. All I was trying to do was tell the person I was at the studio, at that point in time, while he wanted to arrange to meet in central bangkok two hours later and the understanding went no further than that.

So we went back to the house again, just in case someone was in. This time Alex took no chances with the door bell and gave a good rattle. Surprisingly a girl showed up and answered. Her English was much better. Turns out her brother was involved with the whole business. This was a show room and there was another. The sculptures were done elsewhere. And the person I’d met at the market was also involved but someone else completely. So she would handle the viewing. Inside air-con on and armed with a can of coke we got to check out some awesome pieces. The pictures, when I get them uploaded (some probs with this) will show this the best. Obviously the massive life size sculptures are extremely impressive. I think buying and shipping one will set you back around 8,000 dollars or there abouts. They are made out of anything metallic, themed around machine parts like spark plugs, bike chains, spanners etc and plenty of welding. I wanted to get three items, two smallish predators and one medium alien. They were not too pricey but when a courier woman was called in to do the pricing of them all together I got a tad worried. The price to ship that she gave me was well over the price of all three things put together. So in regret the alien had to go and I would carry to two smaller figurines through four airports all the way home. The original woman selling the items looked a tad disappointed, perhaps more used to big customers out at the house, but what did she expect calling in an expensive courier company rather than arranging the much cheaper postal shipping. I suspect she would have got a bit of commission for working with the courier company but in this case it was all a little to cosy and expensive for me.

The rest of the day was spent adding more presents to the pile of stuff already arranged to take home and trying to get our hands on some sedatives for some nasty plane trips home. A small detour to the hospital to get a doctor to prescribe some Valium (which is just ace! I’m told) may have happened. That night, in dreams, I had some nasty premonitions about having prescription drugs without prescription, class c in Thailand and so not wanting to risk one year in a Bangkok prison (hell on earth) I dumped the few Valium tablets I had the next morning. We got out to the airport and I said goodbye to Alex after customs. I bought Atarax at this point having made it past the customs and as I will describe later they worked pretty well. Several hours of flying later and I was in Hong kong. There was plenty of time to waste and so I set out for the city for the day. Here I mostly spent time up on Victoria peak eating, buying even more presents and checking out the cool views. Actually for the nerds reading, there I found an EA play booth, the sort you’d find in E3 or something, promoting all their games and there was even a poster signed by Will Wright. Then I made it back in time my 1am flight out.

On the plane I got a fairly crap seat. The spacing was just too small. This was using Oasis, a cheap Hong Kong based airline that will fly from Hong Kong to London for as little as 220 sterling, taxes included. Apparently it was set up by/for pilots over the age of 50 who would be automatically retired from Cathay Pacific, but still pretty capable of flying for another 10 years. Most of what they do is cargo runs, but they also have seating. Anyway, I waited until after the dinner and then attempted to sleep, throwing the Atarax tablets into me. After about an hour and a half of dozzing I woke up a little cramped and thought “oh crap, same as always, now I’m going to nod in and out for an hour or two and be awake for at least the last seven hours with a creak in my neck”. But surprisingly the tablets then kicked in and I woke up with one hour to go and no aches or pains. This is in a seat with a leaning angle that Bus Eirean would easily put to shame. Sweet.

In London I had pretty much the same day plan as Hong Kong because I booked a 5 quid flight with Ryan Air in the evening, with me arriving in early morning. I took the train into Victoria and walked down to Buckingham Place were plenty of tourists were looking on with royal lust in their eyes. Dreams of becoming dead princesses or elephant faced dukes never appealed to me so I walked on before some horse parade trampled more ideals. The weather was really good.. and omg, so fresh. Not humid at all. This is what good weather is about. So yeah, it rained for about 10 minutes, but then I was able to sit under a tree for two hours and pass time along the pleasant lake. I then walked down towards downing street to see how that was laid out. You know, it’s a bit like that time I was in Manchester on the set of Cornation Street. It’s totally fake. You know how they present it on tv as this sort of typical London street with rich houses and reporters casually waiting stories out front and ministers casually walking to and fro or showing up in a chauffeured car. Well it’s more like a prison block, the end of the street gated off with Police and everything done by appointment. I bet Mr Brown doesn’t even live there! So there you go, myth busted shocker. After that I walked across that bridge which was supposed to rock from side to side, up along the London Eye, into a pub for an attempt at a Guinness and then back to Victoria station.

After the train back to the Airport I got on Ryan Air, which is beaten hands down by TAM of Bolivia and arrived in a slightly dreary Dublin after 9 months away. BAM, I was home.

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Cambodia

by john on Jul.15, 2007, under Life, Travel


Alex, Leon and myself set out for the border crossing to Cambodia. We got up early and took the local bus to Aranyaprathet, a tuktuk to the border, stamped out of Thailand, paid the bribe rate to get a visa quickly and the free bus to the bus-taxi station. All during this we had many touts yap yap yapping in our ears. They took on different people individually. I trusted not a word anyone said and tried to stick to the plan as read on talesofasia.com. One tout followed us all the way from the Thai border to the taxi station. This made me pretty adverse to working with him, as I’ve said before I’m stubborn. And his price of 40 dollars was 5 less than I was hearing we’d need to pay, and his driver understood not a word of what I was asking him. So after taking time to try hear what other taxi drivers might offer (and in the process making the touts start to verbally fight, since our original tout was loosing what he thought was his commission, a few police men showed up) we eventually settled back for the first guy who’d now found an English speaking driver and perhaps a new found understanding of how hard some foreigners are to manipulate. Then we sailed into Siam Reap with little other issues. Given the reputation for this crossing, we’d done alright, if me feeling a little stressed and tired. The taxi driver then offered us 25 dollars a day to see the temples over the next day or two which everyone agreed was fine. We arranged a sunrise start.

Next morning we hit Angkor Wat for the sunrise. It was fairly busy, even at 5.30. We went around towards the back of the Wat and climbed up to the top. Angkor is big and impressive. The sunrise didn’t disappoint either. The rest of, what seemed like the day but was just the morning, was taken up visiting a variety of temples in the increasing heat (by 9am it was roasting). See pictures soon to see some of these impressive sights. Midday was for resting and internet and then in the evening we went back to Angkor for sunset. This didn’t really happen due to a thunderstorm that cut the show short. Surprisingly while there I met Pip, Liv who were traveling with the boysontour in Queenstown, NZ. Which was nice. That night we hit the town for a few drinks, merriment and behaviour suited to that of a drunk farang. The next day after a late, hungover start we visited a handful of temples and the guys slept most of the afternoon. That evening we were more successful with the sunset and went up a mountain/hill (Alex royally going via elephant) to watch the sunset from the temple on top. We arranged bus tickets for the next day. Personally I like Siam Reap. After the shit hole that was the border (even Villazon in Bolivia beat this), Siam seemed to me to be full of nice people and I found that I rather liked this part of Cambodia. In terms of advancement, I think Cambodia is somewhere between Peru and Boliva.

After Siam we set out for Phnom Penh. This place is a tad busier, bigger and to all of us a bit more wild. Off the bus, we’d done no research, so I got the guide book, trundled over to the side of the street, tried (I say tried, but my concentration was crap and I’ll admit I got narky at this point) to read up on a guest house, while being hassled by about 5 touts endlessly. I’d decided on principle not to use any of the bastards but one guy did stand out for speaking good english. I chose a guest house, asked the guys if that suited (yeah yeah mumble mumble response) and then after a bit of questioning of the good english speaking guy who had answers to all the questions I gave him, I decided to let him tout us. I never do this, I mean, why do we need someone to get us a tuk tuk. But his price was good, I’d cross checked him on where the hidden costs would be and could find none (which means if he tries to charge us for any of the things I’d checked him on we’d not pay). What things did I check? The guest house we’d go to was the one we’d asked for? (Yes) Would we stop somewhere else on the way? (No) Why couldn’t we just go and get ourselves a tuk tuk? (More expensive) Who was he and what was his commission? (Wouldn’t say until on tuk tuk, BIG WARNING SIGN that one). But curiosity as to what the tout would be and not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth won out.

Turned out he coincidentally worked the guest house we were going to, so just a weird coincidence there. We arrived at the guest house without incident and got a room for three for 5 dollars. His job was to make sure the tourists got onto his tuk tuk because he’d then be able to try setup tours etc at the guest house. The guest house was cheap, but the food a little more expensive and tours too. Nothing wrong really. The mild downside was at the guest house he was just as bad for touting as outside of it, like some love sick person in an unrequited love. “where are you going now? who did you speak to? are you doing a tour tomorrow? you shouldn’t use other tuk tuks they will lie to you and take you to the wrong place?” etc.

I think the whole touting crap in general got on peoples nerves. I endlessly ended up having to make the call on things, while continuously trying to get the other two to make some calls or at least take responsibility for agreeing. I’d been noticing that after agreeing to the prices of things or to a tour with and for the others they’d then take the easy position of complaining hours later about how things turned out if it was a bit expensive or the weather was hot. Not directly of course, but that simmering petulant moodiness that only young men can master. I’ve a new found respect for leadership in this respect. I apologise to those I’ve been a pain in the arse of for doing the same. I spent a few hours over my time in Cambodia wondering how the fuck I’d become a tour guide and planning my escape. None of this detracted from Cambodia of course, there are always trials when traveling, this was just a new one for me. While obviously pissed off with some of the attitudes this is not to say I didn’t get on with the Swedish lads or have plenty of fun in between times.

The next day we went to the Killing Fields. Along the way we’d go to the firing range. But I’d made up my mind not to participate. Similar to not doing the cheaper tours in Bolivia that promote killing of snakes, I didn’t want to encourage the notion that all foreigners want to fire rocket launchers at cows. When there the two Swedish lads passed up on the guns too, there was nothing they’d not fired when in the army. The Killing Fields were a sombre affair, showing the locations of mass graves of victims of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh as well as collections of skulls and bones and the disturbing killing tree, used to bludgeon children against to save bullets. After this we went across town to S21. This place was also gruesome and horrifying. I didn’t like the first picture I saw or the mood of the place but decided it would be best to look at it so that I might learn how bad we can be and to enforce the urge to not let such a thing happen again. For me to deny that would have been facing away from reality. S21 was a converted high school used to keep prisoners before execution. Prisoners were chained to beds and the Khmer combatants, many of whom were what we’d call children, tortured and interrogated the captives. Pictures were taken of the prisoners who arrived there and these were all on display. Some contain young infants of two or three, many children and many adults. Also on display were pictures of corpses from the killing fields, the cells and some corpses found rotting when the Khmer had moved out. Finally there were portraits of Khmer combatants/soldiers and relatives of the dead. These told the opinions of these people from today with some surprising views.

Obviously the mood was low after this. We got food and then vaguely considered the royal palace and skipped when the price seemed to have doubled and settled for shopping in the Russian market. The evening was spent sleeping or on the internet. That night we set out for a night club called “The heart of darkness” where we got jolly, but kept careful due to the reputation of the place.

The next day, after bravely battling through a hang over I somehow managed to get great prices from a motorcycle driver and befriend him in the process. Well I say befriend, but what I mean is we small talked a little politics when driving through the absolutely chaotic traffic in the city. The driving system here seems to not rely as much on momentum like in Lima but more on tutting the horn (not rude, just raises awareness) and using all other vehicles as shields. Weirdly this means the more vehicles the safer. Alex happily provided first hand evidence of this when coming aback from the night club on a bike in much emptier streets, his driver, speeding, drove into the back of a car (something he couldn’t do when busier), fell from the bike and sent Alex into a somersault. Ten minutes later Alex arrived back at the guest house with only a mild graze on his elbow laughing in shock at the event.

The sight of several vehicles driving the wrong way down a street was extremely common and often the definition of street or right of way was completely confused.. for a foreigner. Apparently no one has a license (needs a proper reference that claim) and cars have only newly been introduced over the last couple of years. Back to my bike driver befriend. In turn for keeping an eye out for this guy when I needed a bike and occasionally paying him a dollar more to wait for an hour while I was at a market, he gave me good rates. For example when other bike drivers heard me ask for the price to an ATM and back their first quote was four dollars while my guy said one and a half which caused the other touts to immediately wince their eyes in disgust. The trips to the market have now given me cause for concern as I wonder how risky it may be to introduce so many dvd’s back into Ireland.

And that brings me to maybe the most important part of this post. I’m now in Bangkok. Not Vietnam, not Laos. In two days I’ll be in Hongkong and then overnighting to London and finally Dublin. I’d intended to carry on around South East Asia for much of the next two months but fortunately/unfortunately an opportunity has arisen and I’d like to take advantage of it. I’m not entirely finished though because I still have some of my world ticket to use up and that will be done in Hong Kong and Japan for around two weeks or so in September. So to most of those reading, I look forward to meeting you again in Ireland soon for a pint or two. To the rest I promise this isn’t the last post.

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Chiang Mai

by john on Jul.07, 2007, under Life, Travel


I’m not sure if I can really say I visited Chiang Mai or not. The sort of hit and run I did was more similar to my initial weeks of traveling (Potosi in Bolivia got a whole 4 hours!). Still I saw enough to know it’s different from Bangkok.

From Bangkok I took a sleeper train (850 bhat, 2nd class, air-con, lower bunk) to CM. First time sleeping on a train. Not as good as a proper nights sleep but not as bad as a night camping. Woke up properly at 6.30am about half an hour before the train got in. I handled conversation with the touts as well as my half woken monkey brain could for this time of the morning (“where you go”, *smile and ignore*, “I have tuktuk for you”, *shake head, stop growl and ignore*, “where you go sir”, “for a walk” I reply, “where you go” .. and so on). So I stubbornly set out for a walk to “Julies”, a cheap hostel recommended to me. I found the temperature fairly agreeable, not breaking out in sweat. Somewhere along the way I grabbed breakfast for a bit but by this stage things were starting to heat up and after an hours walking I was glad to see Julies and get settled in.

With the so-so sleep, early rise for me (rising late in Bangkok), new destination and humid walk my brain had been frazzled. So when it came to arranging a hill trek I took whatever trek Julies offered downstairs. (There’s a girl crying over her computer beside me right now. It’s a tad weird. I think her boyfriend dumped her by e-mail.). Another comparison with my earlier days traveling, say Peru, I would have walked around two or three tour places comparing prices and offers etc. I know better now – this guest house gives a sort of “backer/guarantor” effect to the trek, they are often all the same in poorer countries and if you pay more you just end up with the wrong tourists which is no fun. I barely paid attention to the details of the trek. For the evening I had a foot massage, which was good even though my toes were popped one by one.

So next morning we gathered the various people together, Sam, Alex, Xavier, Claire, Laura, Daniel, Alexandria and two Dutch girls with names I couldn’t recognise never mind remember. That didn’t get in the way of conversation of course. Three hours later, driving through some rather nice hilly, jungle, paddy field landscape we hopped out of the back of the pickup truck and quickly moved onto elephants. Oh yeah, there was something about elephants in the brochure. Ok, that’s cool, we can ride an elephant. Not to worry they have wide seats mounted on their backs, plenty of room for two. What? Sit on this one, but there’s two there already. Get on it’s neck? . . . Ok. Sam, Alex and myself had the biggest elephant. It’s an interesting way to travel and a good way to stretch your legs. Bar a bit of elephant spit and needing to carefully balance when Mrs Queen Elephant wanted to drink from a low down ditch, the ride was uneventful. The thought did go through my head that though the handlers seemed very much in control (they used something that looked like a curved ice axe to hit the elephants and had chains around the legs of some) these are still animals with a lot of power. One beserking could do a lot of damage to the tourist industry.

When I’d finally become bow-legged we hopped off the elephants and walked down a small hill to ride across a river inside a cage down a rope (like a small cable car), two at a time. The image is a little surreal thinking back because while people were caging across, people in rafts were paddling down the river and at the far side the elephants that had just crossed the river were rising onto the far bank. A traffic jam of tourist events. Then we had lunch and set out for the actual trek bit.

When I was deciding to do this trekking stuff, I suppose my mind was thinking about how it would be cooler because it’s up in the hills. Yeah it’s a little cooler (comfortable at night) but not enough to recommend as an escape in the same way you might recommend the Himalayas or Andes. So everyone sweated a bucket. This wasn’t helped by a five minute bout of heavy rain (rain jackets are not the most breathable things). Thankfully for me, my legs were just about up to the 3hour climb and I generally enjoyed it. Everyone else, hmm, maybe not as much. At the top we arrived at a hill village. There we were shown to our hut for the night. Then began the fleecing. I knew to expect this, after all, we’re effectively captive for the evening, we have money (advised to bring 500 bhat) and nothing else to do. I didn’t mind, because the alternative options for a lot of these people are not very pretty (sell kids to big city pimps, grow poppies, starve, beg). I think every female in the village was involved. First up was the bracelets and necklaces. I bought two for silly money. Next was massages. Three of the girls said yes immediately. After a few minutes of being hassled I decided I’d nothing better to do before dinner so said yes to one as well. That started a cascade and everyone then had one. It was ok and short. They got plenty of money for it. Dinner was ok too. We spent the night nattering away and then Rony our guide joined in and attempted to get everyone meditating but was constantly interrupted by “that woman, go home, go away, fuck off, ahhh hahahahaha” who was washing dishes outside. His reaction to “that woman” and then his seriousness at the meditation cause a few people to have a serious fit of the giggles. Then bed.

Next morning we had breakfast and got going. It had been misty/drizzling a lot the previous evening and the ground was pretty slippy, particularly going down hill. After hanging around a bit I pushed on to practice balanced slip sliding down the hill and was at the waterfall about ten minutes before the rest. The last bit was particularly tough and the waterfall was a refreshing relief from the heat. After that we pushed down hill along the river to do some rafting. This, like the elephants had totally passed my mind, and so was a nice bonus to the end of the trekking. Even though it was my first time I could tell this wasn’t the sort of professional outfit you might expect in Argentina or New Zealand. Laura confirmed this; in some ways she found the grade 3 rivers with second rate guides more risky and thrilling than the grade 5’s she’d done with organised guides in Canada. Our rafting guide was pretty much a quiet oars man with bad english and often the river was more in control than us. Still it was a lot of fun and in a mild dose of mutiny, Claire, Laura, Sam, Alex and myself christened the group in our raft as team cheese and coordinated the quietly spoken commands in a much louder tone. As such we kept over taking the “european” raft who were floundering in more disorganisation.

To finish we were shown onto some bamboo rafts and went at a sedate pace down the calm river. Finally after a bit of lunch on the river side we all headed back to Chiang Mai. Alex, Sam and myself hit the Night bazaar to find a hat for Sam and pass some time. While there we saw some slow Thai dancing. The scene was rather effeminate (read gay if you like ten lagers and a fight at the end of the night) with a guy in makeup and a pointy hat throwing red petals onto the ground. A little more walking and then the tiredness hit. I called it a day and wished the guys the best of luck on their bungy jump the next day.

I’m back in Bangkok at the moment after another sleeper train back (upper bunk this time, arranged things late). I’m Fruitlessly trying to arrange a trip into Cambodia with some fruit heads who’ve gone awol after making a big deal of wanting to cross together. Tomorrow I’m sure the smoke will have cleared and things will be on track, perhaps a day later than I’d have liked. Till next time.

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Bangkok

by john on Jul.03, 2007, under Life, Travel


Champ: “What are we gonna do?”
Ron: “There’s only one thing a man can do when he’s suffering from a spiritual and existensial funk.”
Champ: “Go to the zoo, flip off the monkeys?”
Ron: “No, buy new suits.”
All: “Yea!”

So yeah, I got a new tailored suit like mentioned at the end of the last post. You can see me looking god-like in the gallery displaying a rather sporting two piece summer linen masterpiece including daring casual yellow shirt. Ok, maybe even a nice tailored suit can’t overcome my flaws, but like Ron and the lads from Anchor Man, it sure makes you feel good. I got on so well with my tailor that we took pictures of each other. He even has the sort of details my doctor doesn’t have. Close, real close. For advertising purposes I will point out that he’s Sam of Crown Tailors, Soi 8, Sukhumvit Rd, Bangkok. Ok, ok, I got a discount for doing that.

There’s two people beside me here in the net cafe talking spanish and it’s making me think funny. My brain is wiggling in and out of spanish mode. So what else did I get up to. Well I visited the Grand Palace, getting there via Bond movie load of options: skytrain, subway, river boat and, erm, just plain old walking. The scam merchants were pretty blatant around here. Every so often I would look at a confused couple being pointed away from the Palace entrance by some helpful local. Seriously it would make your blood boil sometimes. There you are on your way towards the entrance of some tourist sight and some git is saying to you “Watt Po, other way, come come I show”. At one of the smaller entrances to the palace but with still room enough for a car, a guard standing there bored, I go over and ask is this the way in to an official looking woman standing right in the entrance. “Sorry can you come tomorrow” she starts, next sentence going to be about how she can point me to some other wonderful sight (a second rate temple where a jewelry scam is staged) and I throw here a “piss off” look with my eyes to the heaven and walk on. Ask an English couple walking out of another entrance where the official one is and they point me in the right direction. Yes, it was open. It always is. It’s unfortunate because as a tourist you come across a high percentage of dicks like this and it gives you a biased view of the locals. Similarly I’m sure they think we’re all sex tourists, drug smugglers and beer swilling morons. Well we’re not all sex tourists or drug smugglers!

The palace was nice.

Bangkok is a weird city in many ways. It has lows. You’ve got the sex tourism thing. I met several guys in my dorm who didn’t admit it openly, but with a few drinks in, accidentally let loose encounters with the go-go girls. Another more long term guy pointed out that the tourists were only a small part of the brothel scene. They got the second rate girls because they couldn’t tell the difference while the rich local Thai guys and upstanding ex pats like himself would go down to the RCA and meet dancing show girls. These girls, with skin chemically bleached were considered hot totty and not the sort of girl to be found in the seedier areas. The Thai’s can’t understand these sick foreigners who want to hang around with their prostitutes and treat them well. But what’s happening is many of these foreigners wouldn’t get a girl back home (seriously, 50+, fat, loud etc) and here for a small price they can have an exotic one. Then the line starts blurring a little doesn’t it. A lot of these tourists want to make a real go of it, looking for a story line similar to Pretty Woman. Many of the girls need a man with money, they’ve got a child to support and one of these guys is a ticket to a better life. How many marriages back home don’t have an element of necessity about them? Anyway off the third rate philosophy and back to discussing Bangkok.

Another low is the clear disparity between rich and poor. You’ve got the sky train riding two stories above the dirty streets and all the rich kids and professionals can use that and afford it (20-40 bhat, $0.60 – $1.20) for a ride. It’s air conditioned, nice and of the same standard as anything in Singapore. Then below that you’ve got the congested main roads, clattered in taxi’s, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, suv’s, company cars and buses. Along the main roads (th’s) in touristy areas are plenty of stalls, eateries, hotels etc (and on one occasion about five Bangladeshi workers up to their knees in shit cleaning out the street sewers) and on the side streets (soi’s) there are food carts (on the pavement), 7-11’s, poor tailor shops, smaller restaurants, cheap bars with working girls out the front, rows of bike taxis and an assortment of touts with pictures of naked girls asking you if you want a “sexy massage with happy ending”. Btw “same same only different” means “just as good as the rest but better”. Gotta love broken english. The side streets are often wet with from the last downpour, at night they get garishly neon lit and the sweet sickly smell of the sewers is ever present. Oh yeah, there’s no air conditioning out side. In fact the laws of thermo dynamics ensure that while the AC’s may cool interiors, it only heats up the streets more so.

Yet some how all those things are part of what makes Bangkok good. You’ve never quiet experienced it before. Poor, industrial steam punk sci-fi like, but at a level only a big rich city can put on. You don’t need to be a lively person what so ever, this place is enough on it’s own. It’s like watching blinking Christmas lights, sort of tacky but mesmerising and fascinating. Add to this the fact that stuff is pretty cheap by western standards and because they’ve been used to the western influence for so long you can (if you know where to go) get all things western to a standard you’d appreciate, perhaps even more so. As example I found new books to be a good bit cheaper than in Australia (somehow). Or if you like shopping in big malls, it’s hard to beat the Siam shopping center. I’d dare say it’s better than most in Singapore and definitely Ireland (Imax cinema, Ferrari show room, all the big designers etc, all the electronics that you can get in Japan etc). If you have a bit of money this city really makes life easy – the cost of living is bloody low. I could see many professionals doing a year out here without much a worry that they’d be leaving civilisation behind.

So just this morning I arrived by sleeper train from Bangkok to Chang Mai. Tomorrow I head off for a two day organised trek in nearby hills. This will be different from my usual treks due to the tour nature of it. I’ll let you know how I got on next time.

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