# 1993

It is not often that I write letters (so don't take it personally), but now, for once I have done something which is good letter writing material and so let me use the opportunity to write a short letter which will put me into the black in the scheme of letter accounting for the foreseeable future.

I am not that keen on travelling or holidays. When I was eight I remember seeing the fjords of Norway in a travel brochure which my old man had brought home to try to conjure up the holiday spirit in a family which (at least as far as I remember) had never been on holiday before. While the rest of my family drooled over the sunny beaches of the Mediterranean, I marvelled at the mountains and pines of the Norwegian west coast. Ugh! Norway! they said. It's cold there! In fact, they were wrong. It's ironical that Norway is precisely where I have ended up, .... But that's another story...

More recently I thought more about travelling again, and have also travelled to a number of places in Europe on various adventures and errands!! But Europe, apart from Norway, doesn't hold much interest for me. I am attracted neither by its turgid history nor its questionable beauty, since it seems to me that the west is really just one rather large and repetetive conurbation of shopping malls and burger-kings. The exception being mountains. Mountains will lure me just about anywhere. So I came to the conclusion some time ago that, if I was going to travel anywhere for the sake of travelling, that it would have to be to the East (Africa and South America perhaps, but later), since that is the only vestige of civilisation which has not totally succumbed to the Way of the Wicked West. The East, it seemed to me then, had an original spark of something quite alien to the Western world. It had ancient traditions and cultures as far removed from our own as exists on the planet. So it would have to be the East. Or nothing at all.

It was only when five friends of mine here announced that they were going to travel around the world, starting in Thailand that I began to consider seriously the possibility of actually going there. Two months later we were on our way. Three weeks after that, I am home writing this letter with an urgency to put down my experiences before the drudgery of daily life erodes the wonder of it all. So how do I start?

Since I have only a limited amount of holiday in a working year the plan was to join my friends on the first three weeks of their trip between Bangkok and Singapore. Although this is only a very small part of the East, it is rich with contrasts and it soon became apparent that three weeks was far too short a time to do it justice. We ended up hurrying from place to place, anxious to see what there was to see and only stopping to relax for three days on a small tropical paradise-island to sample coconuts, bananas and to swim in the hot sea. In the beginning, it seemed to me that, as we travelled southward down the Thai/Malaysian penninsula, things only got better. But then I saw through the deceit of my own prejudice: it was not really better but more Western that things became as we roved south. More familar. And now, with hindsight, I see it in negative. It was worse. But let's start at the beginning. Thailand, and Bangkok.

Bangkok has obtained a reputation for its sleaziness. Its vast red light district is world famous as a hive of scum, villany and legalized prostituion. This less than ideal, but probably accurate reputation is a blot on image of an otherwise proud country. Thailand is a monarchy and Thai people are immensely proud of that. The national anthem is played several times a day and the king is held in the highest regard. Bangkok is a far cry from this {\em The King and I} image and is probably unique in the extent of its chaos. It is a city of contradictions: battered shacks of rotting wood with corregated iron rooves tuck in close to high rise luxury skyscrapers and hotels. The glittering gold of the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha is flanked by a slum of street sellers and crooked shanty huts. It is a chaos which assails the senses quite mercilessly, day and night. Arriving there was a shock to the system in more ways than one.

Thai means "free" and Thailand has fiercly defended its freedom. It is notably one of the few lands in Indochina to have suvived the creeping fingers of British colonialism. It was known as Siam by foreigners (farang'') between the 12th and 20th centuries but the name was officially changed to Thailand in 1939 with the advent of democratic government. There are two theories about where the Thai people come from. Linguistic studies say that the people could have migrated from south east China, but another theory is that the people are native to the penninsula and migrated north only to be driven back again by the Mongol hordes. There is also evidence that the bronze age here preceded that in Europe and perhaps even the civilization of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. The Thai people are Buddists of the purest kind. The religion is a simple one, which they maintain other countries have misunderstood. It is based on the "eightfold way" which preaches "right" thinking, "right speach", right behaviour etc. Every man must spend some time as a monk.

Stepping off the plane in Bangkok into the air conditioned airport was easy. I barely registered that the outside temperature would be 36 degrees centigrade as the captain gave his weather report. I was too busy looking for some sign of Eastness through the window. Of course, aiports are airports the world over. They all look the same -- and when you have recovered from the excitement of "going places" that airports instill in you they are quite probably equally boring. It was only when we stepped out into the hazy overcast sunshine that the full force of the heat struck. It was like stepping into the kind of hot air curtains which you find in shopping malls to keep the hot air inside. The difference was that, instead of disappearing, as we walked on it just got hotter. I broke into an instant sweat and after a few moments we headed back into the airconditioned sanctuary to change in to something more comfortable. It would have been easy to question my motives in coming to such a place, but pretty soon we were more occupied with the task of getting to the hotel than thinking about the heat; here the students among us got one night''s free board as part of their Round The World ticket deal. It would be nice to not have to think about finding a place to stay on our first night in town, but as it turned out getting to the hotel was not as easy as it appeared from the map. We learned our first important lesson about Bangkok on the way.

"How much?"
I later discovered that it is easy to understand when you are being conned because the con-artist always has an explanation for his high price. "Big car. Take six people. One thousand baht." Having only just emerged from the plane, we had not given much thought to what the currency was worth, but after some discussion, during which he waited impatiently, we calculated that this was around forty five American dollars.
"Too much," we said.
Now he was very impatient. "Big car. Six people. Thirty kilometers. Okay, okay. How much you give me?" How much would we give him? The bartering instinct was not exactly fresh in our minds so we discussed it some more as he became increasingly agitated. "Four hundred baht," we decided. He doubled over and slapped his knee in mock redicule.
"Four hundred baht. No. Big car. You take taxi, cost you 350 baht. Two taxis. 700 baht. I take you in one car. Big car. Air conditioned. Okay, okay, 800 baht."
Since we had never made it to the registered taxi stand we had no idea what a real taxi might cost, but his tone was so carefully practised and persistent that we did not think too much about it. The airport was busy, there were long queues at the taxi stands. We offered him 700 baht and that was final. He sneered, "Okay. Okay. You come." I think now that we still paid far too much.

Off he went again, along the bridge, past the restaurants, down an escalator on the other side, which led into some kind of lobby and out into the heat once more through a revolving door. Had we not come so far, we would surely have turned around and come back, but uncertainty was our worst enemy so we just followed like lambs to the slaughter, across a car park, across a small road to where the car was waiting, manned by two men.

This air conditioned wonder was a pickup truck with seats in the back. The airconditioning was in the driver's cabin but the sides were open so there would be some breeze for the passengers. In spite of everything it did seem big enough to do the job so we loaded the backpacks into the the back and the others clambered in after them. I was directed to sit in front while one of the two men sat in the back with the others. The two others spoke no English and our seller chose not to understand our questions, beckoning us into the truck with his usual impatience. As we were about to leave, he pushed in beside me so that I was left sitting between the two front seats behind the gear stick with one either side of me. We were off.

The traffic in Bangkok was nose to tail everywhere. I put this down to it being rush hour, but later found that Bangkok is in a perpetual state of rush. We barged our way into the traffic and cross the railway lines on to the highway and after only a few minutes we pulled into a petrol station. At this point our helpful guide explained that they had no fuel and that we would have to pay them now. Supressing a slight feeling of panic we offered him half the money which he took and filled up the tank. It would have been tempting to leave, but by this time we didn't know where we were or how we would get another taxi. When we returned, squeezing me back into the gear stick area he tried to tell me that if we didn't pay the rest we wouldn't be going anywhere. Still trying not to show my worry I said no several times, looking as mean as possible until after a while he said "Okay," tight lipped and angry. He said something to the driver in Thai and jumped out. The driver immediately began to drive off. My first thought was that we about to be driven into some side street to be robbed, but as the trip prorgressed I relaxed more and more and decided that we had survived the incident. I think that was our first mistake. Fortunately we did not make too many more.

Picture in your mind a busy three lane highway, jam packed with cars travelling at high speed. The battered cars dart in and out of the lanes around others and into small slots with only centimetres' clearence. To the sides, there is little sign of any vegetation. Dusty plains with poverty stricken shanty towns rise a little over the crash barriers. Construction sites and dumping grounds on either side. The highway slows to a stop and merges under protest with another and another in a small unfinished spaghetti junction, in the middle of a construction site. Full stop. That is the end of the high speed section. From now on it is a few metres at a time through traffic lights and police controlled crosses. It took us over an hour to get to where we were going, during which time the sky had blackened and torrents of hot tropical rain fell, drenching the thirsty passengers in the back. When we got there we gave the driver what we had agreed. He didn't look happy, but since he didn't understand us and we didn't understand him there was not much he could do about it. Frankly I was glad to be rid of him.

The hotel was the Royal hotel in downtown Bangkok, a medium class hotel but too expensive to stay for more than the one free night, so the next day we moved to a guest house in Chinatown, which apart from the ants and the showers was quite inhabitable.

I cannot really say that I disliked being in Bangkok, but my immediate impression was: God, what a hell-hole. Maybe I was jaded by the experience that everyone is out for your money there -- and agressively. You need to be made of sterner stuff put up with the constant threat of being badgered for money. People willing to do anything for you for a few baht. Taxi drivers who stand around in the street waiting for people to go by to try to interest them in going somewhere. Driving a taxi, it seemed, was not so much a profession as an advanced form of begging.

It took us maybe fifteen minutes to cross the street from our hotel, such was the density and speed of the traffic. During the day, police risk life and limb as they blast their whistles furiously directing the unceasing overflow of traffic from behind masks to protect them from the pollution. The whistle was a sound which followed us around Thailand. It is used as a means of communication when it is so noisy that you can't hear yourself think. On the river express boats, it is a signal to the driver from the rear when docking: forwards, back a bit, slower -- GO!

Bangkok: steam rising from the hot pavement. The air is thick and heavy. Scrawny, tattered dogs limp around the busy streets, many with broken or amuputated legs, scavenging for food. Some of them lie sleeping or dead in the street. Sun baked streets crammed full of street sellers with absent faces, faithfully mass producing every imaginable variety of food -- surely far more than can possibly be eaten. There is fried food, barbequed chicken, sweets, fruits, fried and raw. The air is a confusion of fragrances: sweet, acrid smoke mixes with sewage, fruit, barbeque and petrol fumes. The prevailing sound is the motor vehicle, overlaid perhaps by the skwarking of Thai sellers, some of them shouting through loudhailers in order to be heard. At night, the steam of the afternoon rain mixes withn the smoke, creating what looks like a scene from Blade Runner. We push our way through the clogged streets of market stalls, or take a boat down the river, perhaps a Tuk-tuk (a small 3 wheeled taxi with a 2 stroke engine which careers around the streets like a motorized hornet in heat).

Bangkok is full of impressive Buddist temples. We visited two of which the most spectacular was at the Grand Palace (of the King) otherwise known as the Temple of the Emerald Budda.. Inside the pure white walls which shield the palace from Bangkoks poverty and chaos it is peaceful and magnificent. No shorts are allowed here. The Buddha expects legs to be covered and dress to be smart. Clothing can be rented at the entrance for tourists who come unprepared, those who won't comply are shown the exit. Thailand is a land of spires. Here in the Grand Palace there are huge, characteristic ribbed spires of gold set amongst the jewelled, golden temples and dragons. Look in any book about Thailand and your bound to see pictures of the Grand Palace. It is an incredible work of art, so ornate and detailed it has taken two centuries to reach it present state. Started in 1782 by King Rama I, almost every king has since added to it. Whether it is tiny flowers, handpainted on a wall some several hundred metres long, or golden, emerald and ruby diamond shapes meticulously placed so as to cover a huge 50 foot high building with ornate pillars and dragons, words cannot adequately describe the level of workmanship and art which has gone into this building.

We spent only three days in Bangkok, but it was a relief to escape to the country. We took a night train to Surat Thani, a non-descript place which somehow has managed to finds its way onto the low-detail map of my world atlas, as though it were somehow notable for something. If it is, it is certainly not apparent. For us it was only a stopping point from which we could take a boat to Samui island, or "Koh Samui".

Koh Samui was a tropical paradise island in which the only thing to do was to lie on the beach under a shady palm and drink coconut or banana shakes. We stayed in small bungalows which were on the beach, under the shade of the palm forest's edge, and ate some of the best food I have ever tasted at a small restaurant run by a local family. The natives were friendly and showed absolutely none of the agressiveness of the Bangkok hawkers. There were few mosquitos in spite of the proximity of the jungle, which was an advantage since Thailand is malarial, but we saw all manner of other creatures: fireflies, ants, jelly fish, snakes, gigantic bumble-bee-like things, agressive looking wasps, flying fish and cockroaches. I even emptied the bed of a small lizard no bigger than my index finger. I don't know what these are called in English but they are all over the penninsula and scamper around at high speed, up the walls and across the ceiling on little suckers. Very cute. At the edge of a hot blue sea, a light wind moving the jungle's gigantic fronds in a soothing rhythmical motion, we found what is the closest thing to a paradise island I have ever seen. We ate, we drank, we slept. Beautiful women even patrolled the beach there offering traditional Thai massage with coconut oils and Tiger balm for a small sum. It was hard to resist...

One puzzle which struck me about Thailand as we travelled south was that I never saw a single graveyard there. What do the Thai do with their dead? In Malaysia we saw hills covered with shrines to the dead. In singapore, where there are mixed religions there were also graveyards. Not in Thailand. (At least not that I saw.) Do the Thai's cremate bodies? Since almost all Thai believe in reincarnation it is possible that they have some special arrangements for their dead. Perhaps. If they do, I never found out what it is.

Going south to Malaysia was an education. Thailand is one of the up and coming countries of the east, together with Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Hong-Kong, but unlike these countries it does not have the necessary infra-structure to support its growth. The roads are almost non-existent. Main routes are narrow and windy. In passing over the border into Malaysia the change was dramatic. "Selamat Datang Ke Malaysia!" Welcome to Malaysia. While one might easily say that British, Dutch and Portugese colonialism has eradicated a lot of the original culture of Malaysia, its result is extremely evident. Crossing the border was almost like driving into an England in which someone had swapped all of the trees for palms. There are multilane motorways, immaculately kept. Flower bushes are planted in the central reservation. Planations of trees stand to attention in orderly rows. Malaysia is clean and orderly almost everywhere: only the Chinese quarters (Chinatown) spoil this order. Whereever you find mess, you find Chinatown.

More than two thirds of Malaysia is jungle and logging is one of the countries main sources of income. The rain forests of the region are some of the oldest in the world, making those of Africa and South America seem "adolescent" in comparison. It is believed that the jungles are over 130 million years old and are home to species of plant and animal still unknown to science. They are the home of the world's largest flower, the {\em Rafflesia} which can grow up to a metre across. Amongst the animals to live there are elephants, tigers, leopards and bears. The orang-utan (which means {\em forest man} in Malaysian) also lives in these jungles. The cultivated part of the land consists of rubber plantations, tea and market gardens, for which the Cameron Highlands are especially famous. Rubber is not natural to Malaysia but was imported from Brazil, yet still rubber from Malaysia accounts for some forty two percent of the world's supply and seventy percent of the cultivated land in Malaysia. The tea was brought in from China.

Although it was clear from the outset that there was poverty in Malaysia, as in Thailand, the Malaysians wore their poverty with greater dignity than the Thai. Even the most derelict of shacks somehow seemed to be well kept and carry itself with pride. Smart rows of houses revealed the first signs of western suburbia creeping into the towns. The architecture looked English. In the city of Kuala Lumpur giant skyscrapers betrayed a healthy income from oil companies and Banks and MacDonalds did nothing to remain inconspicuous.

After the novelty had worn off, I became disappointed with Malaysia though. It was too western for my liking. It was as though someone had simply cleaned up England and translated it into the tropic of cancer. It offered little to persuade me that the East was alien in nature. It persuaded me only that the western virus was even more widespread than I had imagined. I think perhaps the problem was that we never really escaped civilization there. Had we truly ventured into the jungle then we would have found some of the wilder things we were looking for.

Surprisingly, one thing did fascinate me and that was drains. Sewage and water. As far as I know, my fascination with drains did not grip anyone else on the trip, but to me it seemed that there was something interesting to learn from drains in Malaysia. Alas, I never really uncovered the mystery. In Penang (Georgetown) my interest was first awakened by the fact that all of the drains were little canals, openly displayed along the street edges. Vast networks of drains, about a foot and a half wide and 2 feet deep, lay like the moats around all the rows of buildings. Mostly they were just gaping holes, sometimes the homes of rats, but occasionally someone with a respect for safety would make a bridge over these drains to allow the safer passage of the enemy, or perhaps potential shop customers crossing the street. Sometimes they smelled (in which case they burned josticks to hide the stink), sometimes they didn't, but later, almost everywhere we went (with the exception of parts of the capital) we found the same open drains. Later we found the same thing in Chinatown in Singapore, which was otherwise the epitome of a western city. Perhaps this is a Chinese idea. It seems that the Chinese have a number of strange ideas about sewage. Their toilets, for instance, begin at ground level and are basically holes over which one must squat and pray for balance. But what the idea behind the open street drains was, is an issue never solved by me.

Later, as we journeyed south from penang it almost to me seemed that we had stumbled upon the modern relics of some contemporary "Ancient civilization". Why? Drains again. On the bus south, as my friends slept, I had a unique opportunity to scrutinize the roads of Malaysia. There are many hills and mountains in that part of the world and often the road cut through a hillside or even a rocky mountain. Since all land lies at some not-insignificant relief, the Malaysians have carved terraces over most of the landscape. Often these are shrouded by thick plantations, but some of the younger or smaller crops betray the stepped structure. The feeling is something like that of an Inca civilization. The road edges were grassy verges, meticulously groomed and dotted with plants and flowers. Not once was there a long blade of grass. And then there was the drains.

This time, the drains were little canals built out of small stone pieces, cemented together in a kind of crazy paving. They did not just run for a mile or so, but for as far as one could see. Small veins would come down from the hillsides, sculptured so as to come down in steps like the sides of the ziggurat. When the rains came, these would be attractive waterfalls. Miles upon miles of interconnecting drains formed a web through even the most awkward terrain, always finely crafted from tiny stones put together with cement. Always about a foot wide, always uniform. The workmanship behind this was, to me, astonishing. The patience behind it overwhelming. It reminded me of something made by the Incas or the Egyptians, or of the fictional canals of Mars. It was so widely implemented, so grand in its vision that it had to belong to another age. The was an art behind these drains which told of an altogether different civilization, an art long since forgotten or spurned by the western world and its Lego brick architecture. What was impressive was that these conveyers of surplus water were not hidden from sight like some shameful blot on the landscape: they were embraced and woven into the landscape in a truly wonderful vision which stretched for an inconceivable number of miles. To me it was a feat equivalent to building a skyscraper out of matchsticks. Tiny stones painstakingly assembled in neat channels, sometimes decorated by tricolour paving. Webs of many channels meeting in small pools, which would make impressive waterfalls before being led away. Drains in Malaysia.

After a while we came to the Cameron highlands, up in the mountains of the central north. The plateau was named after the englishman William Cameron who discovered it and realized its potential for market gardening, but it was not until later that it was devloped. This was a pleasant break from the heat of the lowland, in which we could take jungle walks and visit tea plantations, get sunburned during the day and still be able to sleep at night, without airconditioning. The jungle walks were enjoyable but not very interesting. If you have been walking in the Norwegian forests or in the lake district in England, then there is nothing very new too see. Even the vegetation was similar, although every now and then one would stumble across some tropical looking plant with giant fronds exploding our from a short fat stem. The sounds were different though. All around was the sound of some mystery creatures which howled like miniature electric drills -- as though woodpeckers had somehow achieved a rudimentray technology in these reaches. Later we discovered that the culprit was a small insect, almost invisible against the bark of the trees, not much bigger than a small slug. The noise it made was incredible. Had Pavarotti been reborn as an insect, I'm sure he would have been one of these.

A surprise which often fooled my sense of direction was to find the sun in the north, despite the fact that we were still in the Northern hemisphere. Of course, with hindsight it is not so mysterious, since were were well within the tropic of cancer and during the summer months the inclination of the Earth tips Malaysia below the plane of the ecliptic.

The mornings in the highlands were hot and sunny and in the afternoon it rained. In the evening we would walk into the small town in search of food, to be served rice moulded into a brain shape -- no doubt a testament to its versatility, or honey roasted meat, or curry. The possibilities were endless. On one occasion were were accosted by a giant butterfly. The Cameron highlands is famous for its butterflies.

Kuala Lumpur: whereas Bangkok is chaotic and frenzied, Kuala Lumpur is vibrant. Within the carefully ordered bounds of civility there is a mass of activity. The difference is thst there are gaps between the cars here and you do not have the impression they they are driven by daemons from hell sent to top up the flagging quotas by a few quick killings. The food on the streets is at least as prolific as Bangkok and somehow more edible, less risky. Chinatown merges into the S \& M shopping centre (not, despite the name, a place to buy whips and chains, but a pretty ordinary western shopping mall). High skyscrapers, futurtistic and pseudo eastern in style observe the frenzy from on high, mingling with the clouds.

In the morning we are in search of "nasi lemak", the standard breakfast in Malaysia. It is a rice (nasi) dish together with a random assortment of curried meat and vegetables, with egg on top. For someone who has trouble facing cornflakes in the morning, it was a sobering experience. But you have to be up early to get it, since it is served only for breakfast. Not much of an incentive, if you have a weak stomach.

Kuala Lumpur night: a thick and humid night. We walk through the soupy air, brimming with moisture although there is not a sign of rain. The towering skyscrapers rise ominously into a turbulent sky. Somehow they look sinister in this half-light. Down below the lights of the street proclaim: Coca-Cola, Sony, Toshiba in a dazzling variety of colours and movements while, way up high, jagged bolts of lightening short circuit the heavens. The sound of thunder is drounded by the whoosh of the traffic.

Singapore is something different entirely. It is like stepping 20 years into the future. Everything is clean and tidy, vast futuristic. The town is by no means sterile, there are trees and parks aplenty, but western it is. As a girl we met on our trip described: airports are the same the world over and Singapore is like one large airport.

They take cleanliness very seriously in Singapore. You can be fined more than fifty (American) dollars for forgetting to flush the toilet. Chewing gum is forbidden, and anyone caught bringing it into the country faces a fine to the tune of hundreds of dollars. Bring drugs in and the sentence is death.

Singapore city is a well groomed array of architectural styles. The city is immaculate, from old buildings resembling St. Pauls cathedral in London to ultra-modern sky scrapers. Going from the street into one of these buildings there is a temperature drop of about twenty degrees centigrade from the humid heat to the airconditioned cold, which is conducive to catching your death. Don't worry though, because you hardly need to go outside -- just catch an airconditioned bus or the futuristic underground and you'll never have to face the world again.

The name "Raffles" is everywhere, it seems. Sir Stamford Raffles, an Englishman of the British East India company was the city's visionary. Born in 1781, Stanford involved himself in the trade and piracy struggles throughout Indonesia and eventually secured the settlement of a British fort in Melacca whose purpose was to protect the trade routes through the Malaccan straits. In time he "acquired" Singapore as a trading outpost for the British. It was very successful until the Japanese invaded during world war two. After this Singapore got itchy for independence but it was not until 1959, after a period of putting things straight, that the British approved an elected Prime minister. Even now it seems as though everything in Singapore is called "Raffles" or "Stamford".

Singapore is almost like a theme park, though it even has a theme park of its own: Sentosa island, which I came to call samosa island, for no good reason. The ferry station which takes you there is at the World Trade Centre and is like an aiport (i.e. like Singapore). Next door is a cable car which goes all the way from the island to Singapore's highest point. Sentosa is a theme park with a bumpy, snail-paced monorail which takes you to everywhere from the island's golf course to the underwater world. The latter was probably the only thing worth seeing on the island. They have made a plexiglass tunnel under water so that you can actually walk around and rub noses with sharks, manta rays and all manner of fish. Watching the feeding of the octopi was one of the highlights -- they have long "tongues" which snap out and grab fishes, swallowing them whole.

In the town one of the most interesting experiences was the underground or MRT (Mass Rapid Transport system). This was like something from a science fiction movie. Entering from the street, one is confronted with a wide hall with automatic ticket machines mounted into the walls. You select your fare code and out pops a little magnetic strip card. Next stop: the barriers. You enter your card into a slot and walk through the barrier, the cushioned armatures part long enough for a person to pass though, rather like the underground in London. Your card reappears from another slot. (You need this to get out at the other end!) Having gone through the barriers you reach the fastest escalators I have ever encountered. Remember that this is Asia, and traffic jams are common. The speed is very probably essential. At the bottom of the escalators you arrive in a hall with glass doors on both sides. Where are the trains? Before long you see an automatic train speed silently into dock behind the glass, stopping in perfect alignment with the doors. The doors slide open and out stream the aliens, in you go... Zoom! The train speeds though the dark tunnels and then rolls serenely to a halt at the next stop. Swish, the doors open. Run for the escalator; a three gee acceleration returns to you to the overworld and after inserting your card into the slot (to be recycled) the automatic barrier releases you into the arrivals lounge. Am I exaggerating? Only a little.

While we're talking about science fiction I should also mention our journey to the stars. We have had cocktails on the seventieth floor of the Westin Stamford: the world's highest hotel. For we have dined on honey dew and drunk the milk of paradise... Sounds grand, nez pah? But it took a little persuasion to get ourselves in. What was amazing was taking the express elevator to the seventieth floor. I can only thank my lucky stars it was not a glass elevator or we may very well have seen what it looks like to transcend the light barrier. The hotel is entered from the Raffles shopping centre. To the right were the check-in desks, to the left were the menus for the various restaurants. One of them was a poster with the caption "The Return Of the Sri Lankan Crabs", with a picture of an army of killer crabs marching sideways into the chefs cooking pots. Since the meals started at around 30 Singapore dollars (around 25 American dollars) we decided to give the restaurants a wide berth. All we really wanted was to see the view from the seventieth floor. Somehow though, we didn't seem to fit in with the rest of the clientel. An armed guard in an evening dress was posted at the lift door to take reservations. The bar was very exclusive, after all. Yoeman Carlson, a brave young follower among us went to ask if our dream could be arranged in the name of the goodness of humanity and came back saying that we would have to order something. After some embarrassing discussion during which everyone said "we can't possibly" we decided that we would before we lost the opportunity. Fumbling for a phaser, we advanced. We stunned the guard lightly and stepped into the lift.

I suppressed an urge to say "bridge" as I looked for a button to press -- but it was unnecessary, the lift new where it was going. There was a faintly discernable acceleration and my ears popped a couple of times and then before we knew it, the floor counter changed from being stuck on "EZ" (presumably extra-twilight zone) to "70" in one go! The doors flew open and we crawled out. It hadn't taken any time to get there. It had taken just as long as a normal lift would take to go maybe four floors. There was no bridge and nobody procliamed, "We are registering a form of energy never before encountered, Captain". It was something more like, "Mr. Carlson? Table for six?" A little dazed, but definitely alive, we agreed that sounded good enough under the circumstances. And so we got to see the view and the sun set over Singapore.

They served "snacks" for six dollars that were not much bigger than my finger and drinks that were definitely from another planet. When the bill came, which it seemed only natural to pay in plastic, there was even a place for an astronomical tip, which I declined to give. So after a rather frigid "Thank you, sir" we were on our way again.

The only other things we had time to see in Singapore were the zoo and the Omnivision theatre at the science centre. The zoo is large and contains a number of rare species. I felt sorry for the polar bears in the heat. The omnivision theatre was a bit like a planetarium. It had a huge domelike ceiling onto which an enormous, almost three dimensional wide scan picture was projected. At its best it was breathtaking, accompanied as it was by high quality surround-sound, but it was not always as successful as it could have been. The curavture of the dome made straight lines (a flat horizon) curve upwards as it reached the top of the screen. After seeing the movie (which was a documentary about the planet Earth -- ever been there?) we headed for the main part of the science centre, which is reputed to be a very good science museum with lots of buttons to press and levers to pull. Alas it closed just as we got there, so we never did find out how good it was.

The end. That was all there was time for. In a way I was glad, but also sad that my friends would be carrying on without me. It was going to be hard re-adjusting to life in the Department of Physics after the freedom of travelling. We trooped to the airport. Four going to Jakarta, Indonesia, two going to Oslo, Norway.

And so I found myself in Schipol airport, Amsterdam, waiting for my connection to Oslo. Three hours to kill and I hadn't slept much on the plane. It is interesting just to watch people going by. They are strange creatures who inhabit airports: men in ill-fitting suits who seem as though they never wanted to wear them in the first place (so why do they?). Air hostesses, young women probably younger than me, slik past in their high heels, heads high and proud. Ten years ago they were probably giggly teenagers lurching around after scruffy schoolboys. What happened? Business persons, stiff with their own importance, armed with their anti-ballistic briefcases seem to be immune to the worst the world could offer -- and yet somehow it seems that the airport is the only world they could possibly know. Strip away the clothes and they would all look pretty rediculous. How do people lose their humility? Tour groups or family tourists float in awe at the experience of (almost) flying. And then there are the "Lonely Planet" travellers, the backpackers, perhaps the only ones who do not seem to regard the airport as more than a stop along the way to somewhere more interesting. As I thought about my friends carrying on without me, it was a little sad to be coming home, to lose the freedom to go where I liked whenever I liked. But it was also good to be on my way back (or am I lying to myself?).

Now that I am back, my most persistent memory is surprisingly from Thailand: the early morning after I woke on the train, coming into Surat Thani, on the way to Samui island. In the golden light daybreak Thailand is a fascinating mixture of motifs. An English mist hangs in the clearings of a vast palm forest, thinning out across the watery plains of rice paddies and tall reedy grass. Lone cattle stand randomly, chewing on the grass and the train clackety clacks by. And the people stand and watch the train. It was just a glimpse, and maybe a trick of the light, but it seemed then that this was a window onto the really alien'' East which I was looking for. The jungle. Miles and miles of it, populated by people who had no contact with tourists, who lived (together with the mosquito) in the poverty of the underdeveloped part of the country, and worked in the rice fields.

Somewhere out there is a jungle which we never got to see. If we go back, that's where I want to go. We have seen too much of the towns and not enough of the country. We have experienced the culture of the people, but not the nature of the wilderness. I can't help but feeling that we missed out on a lot. Three weeks was too short a time.

That's it for now.