Trompe le Monde: A Round the World Tour Diary

An online travel diary so people can keep up to date with what I'm doing and where I'm going.

Name:
Location: Home, United Kingdom

You all know who I am, I assume.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Sydney

All this talk of the terrible state of customer service in multinational banking corporations musn't, however, replace me recording my feelings on Sydney. After all, it's the first place I've ever been to in Australia, or even in the Southern Hemisphere for that matter.

So, my opinions on Australia's Biggest City (population-wise): It's lovely. We're staying in an area called Kings Cross, which is pretty seedy, but then I've just come from South-east Asia - I'm inured to sleaze these days. Kings Cross is handy cos it's right near the Harbour, featuring the Opera House, as well as being near the main business/shopping areas. Not that I can afford anything. Sydney may well be great, like London but with nice weather and a lot less hustle and bustle, but it's also expensive. Especially compared to Asia. Westernisation isn't all good.

Still, it's certainly a pleasure to be able to drink water from the tap rather than having to buy bottled stuff, and to walk around town without standing out as a rich honky tourist ripe for the fleecing.

The Opera House is charming (more buildings should be crazy, in my view), Manly beach is good (though I did get mildly stung by a jellyfish while paddling in the Pacific), and I'm not yet irritated so much by the need to wash up that I've become tired of the novelty of cooking. If it wasn't for the struggle to keep expenses below 15 quid a day (and fail, and then realise you've also got to pay for a bus ticket) and the fact that our hostel seems to be the hottest place in the world (literally dripping with sweat while trying to get to sleep is not pleasant) and all the other guests are criminally stupid (Sample quote: "The Atlanta Olympics - that was a long time ago. Must be nearly five years ago now") we'd probably stay longer, cos the city is really nice.

We're leaving for Melbourne tonight.

Friday, February 25, 2005

HSBC - The World's Local Bank. My Arse.

Prologue:

When I was still a uni student (seems like so long ago), I had a switch card. Said card expired, and my bank, HSBC, helpfully sent me another one. Unhelpfully, however, rather than sending it to the Warwick University branch of HSBC they instead posted it to the Coventry branch. When I realised this (they also sent the letter telling me about it to my home address in Bognor) I went along to tell the Warwick branch what had happened. They assured me it would be fine, and told me that via their internal mail system the card should be transferred to the correct place in a day.

It took a week to arrive in total, considerably longer than it would have taken for them to post the thing, or in fact for me to walk to Coventry and collect it.

The same thing then happened when my credit card (a different piece of plastic) expired. I never bothered to collect it: to this day, I have no credit card.



Left Thailand with no problems, got the plane fine, arrived in Sydney. But you know all this already. What you don't know is that from the moment I touched down in Australia, my ATM card (the very one from the above prologue) refused to work. Rather than giving me money, machines gave me receipt slips with "You have not been charged for this transaction" and "Call your bank" written on them. Oh dear. I have thus been living off my (very kind) mate Trev's money for the last few days.

"Call your bank", I thought, "I'll do better than that - I'll go and see them in person!". There are loads of HSBC branches throughout Sydney. Except no, I won't go and see my bank. Because my bank is the UK version of HSBC. All the Australian branch could tell me was that the transactions were being cancelled at the UK end, and I'd have to call them. No, the Aus lot couldn't get in touch with the UK lot for me, don't be ridiculous.

So I bought a phonecard, got the blasted thing to work after some trials, and rang the HSBC number. I got through to the switchboard for the UK Branch of HSBC, located, of course, in India. Hey - if this had happened a few months ago I could have visited in person! The guy took all my details, listened to my problem and then transferred me to a Scotsman named Mark. To whom I had to repeat the above information.

Those who know me well may be surprised to hear that throughout this phone exchange I remained calm. Actually, anyone reading this may be surprised when they find out what's coming. But I maintain (from experience of being on the other side of these situations) that if you're polite and friendly the faceless operative is far more likely to try to help you than if you rant and rave, no matter how tempting that may be.

Once Mark had got the gist of my case, he inquired whether I'd been sent a new card in the post in the past few weeks. As a matter of fact, Mum and Dad had contacted me not too long ago worrying about the expiry date on my card, since another lump of plastic had been sent me. I had reassured them at the time, and now I told Mark, that my card didn't run out until October of this year. Mark, though, knew different. You see, that didn't matter - my card had been automatically cancelled thirty days after they sent the other one out, and (and here was the rub) could not be turned back on. Even though there was no possible way I could access my new "chip and pin" card.

I inquired of Mark just what I was supposed to do for money. He in turn inquired of me whether there wasn't in fact anyone at home who could send the card to me. I wasn't exactly enamoured of this solution, seeing as firstly I'm not especially keen on the security aspect of sending my chip and pin card together with its pin across half the world to me, and secondly it's the bank's mistake, so why should my parents should be inconvenienced? (I obviously didn't raise the second point, as the answer "because we're a bank, and that's what we do - we couldn't give a crap about your measly savings" would have presumably been forthcoming).

Instead I suggested that they could save me the security risk by sending a replacement card to an Australian branch of HSBC using their internal mail. But Mark had other plans. That couldn't be done, he explained because of the security risk - I might not be me, and I couldn't prove I was me over the phone. Why couldn't I? Because I didn't have my new card.

Brilliant.

Since HSBC could be of no use to me, I bid Mark good day, and racked my brains for a better solution than relying on international post to send the key to all of my money across half the world to a man with no fixed address.

My mate Si has recently gone home for personal reasons, and so the best solution I can currently come up with is that my parents somehow get the card to him and he gives it to me when next we meet. A solution fraught with difficulty, and one meaning that the bank that has got me in to this situation will not be helping one jot to get me out. All I can say is that it's a bloody good job I'm not out here alone.

If anyone can think of any other way around the problem, let me know. Oh, and if you have any accounts with HSBC, take my advice. Get out while you still can!

The World's Local Bank indeed...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Australia

I've arrived safe and sound in Aus, after a crazy journey. Spent a night in Bangkok airport as our plane was due to leave at 8am the following day. Let me tell you, it was pretty dull...

Anyway, an 8 or 9-hour plane journey later (featuring no decent films but a fair bit of free drink) and we arrived fine. Spent today wandering around Sydney harbour (delightful), marvelling at being in a country full of honkies who speak English (I need to quickly adjust to not loudly lambasting people, safe in the knowledge their English won't be good enough to understand my quick speech and use of slang), and just cooked a meal for the first time in four and a half months.

Oh yeah, and Australians are great - the train guy let us off buying a ticket (about a fiver each) on the late train from Sydney airport to the area where we're staying cos the change machine didn't have enough spare moolah to break the note we were trying to use. Bonzah (or however it's spelt).

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Last Days in Asia

After a mammoth 14 hour journey I yesterday returned to Bangkok, the city where my Southeast Asian travels began oh so long ago, from Siem Reap. On the 22nd at about 8 in the morning local time we leave for Australia, so it's goodbye to Asia.

Firsty, though, it was goodbye to Siem Reap and Cambodia, a place where my sandals were eaten by a dog, replaced by god awful blue plastic monstrosities that have given me blisters (I bought me some better flipflops from Bangkok's brilliant Chatuchak weekend market today), and where on my last night I was electrocuted attempting to remove a lightbulb. The shock cause me to fling the lightbulb in to my room from the en suite bathroom, where it exploded on the floor, scattering sharp glass fragments across the entire room including into my bed. And me with no footwear, being as my trainers were packed away and my flipflops were on the porch, no doubt being eyed up by that bastard hound.

As you may be able to tell, I wasn't exactly upset to be leaving Siem Reap. Though the Angkor temples are fantastic, the town itself is a hole.

Holes were very much in evidence on the road to the Thai border. The difference between relatively affluent, westernised Thailand and mined-to-buggery, recovering-from-disaster, poor Cambodia is extremely marked, and it shows at the border. On the Cambodian side it's chaos and bureaucracy. On the Thai side there are ATM machines, corner shops and roads that aren't constructed out of dirt.

I'm glad to be back in Bangkok. Of all the cities I've thus far visited, it seems by far the most livable. The people are amazingly friendly and helpful, it's clean(ish - clean for Asia), and the public transport is efficient and easy to use. It may lack the atmosphere of Hanoi, but it is still very much a city I've fallen in love with. You can even get used to the sex tourists after a while.

So it's goodbye to Asia, goodbye to squat toilets, semi-frequent power cuts, taking your shoes off before you go in to a building, Buddhism, Hinduism, rickshaws, potholes and the phrase "same same but different". And it'll be hello to Australia, to sport and... er... the outback... er... and not much else off the top of my head. We're talking about a country with Clive James as its foremost male intellectual...

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Napoleon Salas and the Temples of Angkor

This was going to be a long and dull post about the temples but I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on HBO (which we occasionally get in the guesthouse) in bed last night, wearing my own fedora in homage of course, and I decided if anyone wants to know archaeological information they can get it from more eminent sources than me. Suffice it to say that Angkor Wat is the Wrestlemania of the Angkor temples, being as it is the World's Largest Religious Structure, and is bloody amazing, Ta Prohm is where they filmed Tomb Raider scenes, and that if you like the sound of huge temples dedicated to Eastern Gods, built from large blocks of stone, featuring intricate and superbly detailed carvings and set against a backdrop of seething, squawking tropical jungle, this is your place.

What you want to know is what have I been up to since I got over tonsilitis?

Well, mainly I've been seeing the above temples, which has taken up most of my time because 1) there are loads of them, 2) they're a long way away, and 3) I have nothing but a rubbish one-gear rental bike to travel around on.

The closest temple, Angkor Wat, is around 10km from my guesthouse, and the other temples are dotted about from that point on, all at least (and usually more than) 2km from one another, so in the past week I've cycled between 100 and 200km in tropical conditions. And sweated buckets, as I'm sure you can imagine.

The other trouble with cycling, apart from the heat, is the condition of the roads. They're potholed to buggery, and poorly lit, a dangerous combination when you've got up at half four am to see Angkor Wat at dawn and found that the generator on you bike doesn't work. I had to light the way with my torch, precariously held in my left hand while cycling along. Fortunately though a fair few cars were about so most of the time I could sort of see by their headlights.

The other interesting thing that has happened is the death of my sandals. I left them, right as rain, on the guesthouse front porch last night, and came across them this morning, the right one shredded and unusable at the back. What had caused this distressing transformation? The guesthouse dog. It must love my right foot's unique odour because it had had a go at my right trainer as well. Fortunately, converse are made of stronger stuff than "Moby Dick" french supermarket sandals, and so only the lace is slightly damaged. Thus I have some functioning footwear. The guesthouse owner promises me he'll replace my sandals, but, as he explained, sandals are not sold in Cambodia. So presumably I'm soon going to be presented with a pair of Cambodian flipflops. Which, along with my battered green felt fedora, will make me resemble that national stereotype, the English eccentric abroad.

Mind you, national stereotypes are not all bad. Unless you get stuck behind a tour group of Japanese in a picturesque location and you're trying to get past. Trust me on this one...

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Darker Side of Travelling

We finally left Phnom Penh, dragging ourselves away from the high life of having a mate with a bar, and got our arses on a bus to Siem Reap, a city in northern Cambodia, the name of which means "Thailand defeated" in Khmer (the national language here, and also what you're supposed to say instead of "Cambodian". This is perhaps undiplomatic given it's proximity to Thailand, but then you're talking about an area of the world in which last year there were anti-Thai riots (I think like a low-key version of the infamous Kristallnacht in Berlin) cos some dumb bint of a Thai actress was (mis?)quoted in a magazine as saying Angkor Wat is in Thailand.

Speaking of Angkor Wat, that's why we're here. The Khmer empire used to be the big dog in this particular Asian yard, you see, and at the height of their power their capital was veyr near Siem Reap. They constructed some absolutely enormous temples, and many of them are still in a good state today, including Angkor Wat itself, apparently the world's largest religious building. It's on the flag of Cambodia, and "Angkor" is the name of the national beer, so you can see how it's a big deal for most Cambodians (sorry, Khmer). It's almost as if they are trying to hide the Khmer Rouge's atrocities by focussing on a period of their history when they were great. Which is fair enough.

Of course, all my comments about Angkor Wat must be taken with a pinch of salt, as I have no idea what it's like. I haven't seen it, you see. No, instead, I've been laid up for two days with acute tonsilitis that came upon me all of a sudden our last night in Phnom Penh. And no, I didn't catch it like that.

I've had tonsilitis before, so I knew what to expect: the pus at the back of the throat, the white spots on the tonsils, the extremely high temperatures, the mad delirium in the middle of the night due to fever... But of course when I've had it before I've been at home, and had a) my Mum and Dad to tend to me, and b) the ability to drink cups of tea and hot lemsip. Here I've basically been left to fend for myself, especially as my housemates abandoned me and went to another room so they didn't get infected. This has basically meant lying in bed for two days, feeling awful. In the past, tonsilitis has gone away of it's own accord when I've rested, but this morning, with it having gotten no better in two or three days, I decided to bite the bullet and go to the doctor.

Of course, I went private, so I can't tell you about the Khmer National Health Service, if they have such a thing. I went to a lovely clinic thing where the nurse took my blood pressure and told me it was normal (I should hope so!) and the doctor charged me US$50 for a diagnosis I'd made myself for nowt. But he did give me some antibiotics and stuff, so hopefully now I'll start getting better. And maybe I'll be able to get my insurance to pay me for the treatment.

Right, that's it, I'm off to my room to lie in bed on my own and fail to sleep. Schadenfreude to the usual address...

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Small World

Many regular readres of this blog will no doubt have begun to think in the last few weeks "It's OK and all, but of late it lacks the insanity we've come to love". Never fear, ladies and gentlemen, the bizarre makes a welcome return this time.

We were sitting on our guesthouse's lovely jetty lounge restaurant deal. Trev decided he'd go out and buy some water from the stall down the road. Nothing strange about that. He returned twenty mintues or so later looking like he'd seen a ghost.
"Guess who I've just seen?"
"A ghost?"
Needless to say, it wasn't actually a ghost [NB - dramatisation, this conversation may not have actually happened]. Out buying water from a stall in the middle of the street he'd looked up and thought "That bloke looks amusingly like our old maths mate who none of us have spoken to in some time Dan Reilly". This thought was rapidly replaced by "Bloody hell - it IS Dan Reilly". A man who was in the same class as us for a first year maths course, and here Trev was bumping in to him in the Cambodian capital, thousands of miles from Warwick. But it was to get more bizarre.
"Hi Trev," said Dan, "Come in to my house," and proceeded to take Trev on a mni-tour around the bar which he built, owns, runs and in which he sleeps. Bugger me.

So, when Trev returned saying he'd just bumped in to Dan Reilly and he owns a bar here in Phnom Penh, we were pretty stunned. We went round there later and spent a most enjoyable evening playing pool, watching the football and the rugby (in neither of which the team I was supporting won), before heading 0ut after closing to a party. We never actually got to the party, getting waylaid en route for one thing and another, eventually ending up in another bar that Dan's mate owned, then heading back again to Dan's bar. Eventually went home to bed at around 6 in the morning. Grand.

Since then we've spent a fairly bewildering couple of days hanging around the expat scene here in lakeside Phnom Penh, visiting a variety of bars, playing lots of pool and playstation 2, and drinking. We should be leaving for Siem Reap tomorrow...

Friday, February 04, 2005

Phnom Penh again

Well, having spent a middlingly pleasurable couple of days on the beach in Sihanoukville (see previous post for details), we are now back in Phnom Penh. Today we went to see the Royal Palace, which is pretty cool. It's pretty much (excuse the cultural ignorance) like the palace complex in Bangkok but marginally less impressive, perhaps because it doesn't have the ring of novelty for me due to having seen the Bangkok jobber first.

The part of Phnom Penh we're staying in this time is far nicer than the area we were in before. We're now by the lake, staying in a guesthouse that actually has a jetty with a restaurant protruding out on to the lake itself. Lovely - it should be grand come sunset. Very romantic...

One more thing before I end this, though, and I'm afraid it's a good old-fashioned rant. Enemies of vitriol, turn away now.

When we arrived in Cambodia to start with, there were no money change facilities at the border. Absolutely none. Fortunately, we could change traveller's cheques from US Dollars into Cambodian Riels at our guesthouse when we arrived, albeit at an annoyingly cack exchange rate. In performing said change, I accrued a couple of 100,000 Riel notes, as well as other smaller denominations. All very well, I thought. But I was wrong. It emerges that more or less nowhere in Cambodia takes 100,000R notes for any purchase, as they don't have the spare wampum for the change. "How odd," I thought, "never mind - I'm back in the capital now, and I'm running very low on other currency. What I'll do is I'll go to a bank and get them to break the big note".

It took not one, not two, but three banks before they could manage it. THREE BANKS! I mean, what kind of country has notes of a denomination so high that banks can't change it, despite the fact that it amounts to about 13 quid, and things here are far more expensive than anywhere else I've been in Southeast Asia!?!

To make matters worse, I'm rapidly running out of readies, so I'll soon need to break another traveller's cheque. Mind you, as the woman at the bank where I finally changed the demon note explained, here in Cambodia they do take US dollars.

I'd better end the rant at this point - I do hope to be allowed in to the Good Ol' US of at some point during this trip, and the FBI, CIA and NSA do exist...

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Sihanoukville: Not Another Gloating Beach Post

I'm now in Sihanoukville, on the southern coast of Cambodia, and thus today I've been swimming in the Gulf of Thailand. Yay.

Don't worry, though, this genuinely isn't another gloating beach e-mail, because, warm sea aside, Sihanoukville is a bit rubbish. The beach is amazingly short, about 10m of sand from back to surf, and even the bars aren't much cop. Though that didn't stop us going out last night, getting back at about twenty past two in time to turn on the telly and dazedly watch Arsenal lose to Manchester United. A match that would have been an emotional rollercoaster ending with me begin crushed had I been in a normal state of mind, so you can imagine what I was like having drunk rather a large amount...

Anyway, people who don't know or care about football read this, so I shall leave it here, by informing you that soon we will be returning to Phnom Penh to see the stuff we didn't see before, and then to head up to Siem Reap in northern Cambodia in order to look at Angkor Wat. Oh, and that I shall probably go for a night swim tonight.