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1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

7th January 1999. Well, here it is then, the final diary entry. It took me rather a while to churn it out, it's good to have finished with it once and for all. Note that the whole trip officially ended on 25th September 1998.

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Click on the entries below to get fast access to all your favourite questions!

 

What was my favourite country?

Without a doubt it has to be Ireland! Yah right! No, I'll be serious now. My real favourite was India. Until visiting India no country had seemed to stand out from the rest to the extent that I could say "Yes, this is the best". But India for me is in a league of its own.

India, like any country, has plenty of negative points of course (more than plenty for some people) but there was no place I saw that had as much to offer a tourist. From world class mountain scenery and architecture to great beaches and colourful cultures it has enough variety to keep a hardy traveller interested for literally years.

Another area where India surpasses its neighbours is in places to "learn stuff". Many people travel to India just to spend 3 months on a yoga course or learning to play the sitar or to study Buddhism. Because of the proficiency of many Indians for speaking English, better than practically any Asian country, you can actually understand what your teacher might be saying which is distinctly advantageous!

Of course, we mustn't forget that all this comes at a price. And that price is shag all, as we say in Ireland. It is quite easy to eat, sleep and travel all around for, typically, under $8 a day. That means you would only spend $3,000 (IR£2,000) for a whole year there! Now that's a bargain.

Add to that the plentiful and cheap English bookstores, a vital resource for the long bus and train trips, as well as very good food (though not to everyone's taste) and you're onto a winner. Some people also rate India due to the plentiful and cheap supply of certain mind-altering substances but needless to say I condemn the use of such drugs ("pssst, hey man, pass that spliff over here, how'm I supposed to finish this damn diary entry without a hit of Kashmiri gold?").

Did I get sick a lot?

I was quite lucky in the health department. Though diarrhoea was a fairly common occurence (though never as bad that I was in danger of ruining my underwear!) I only vomited once on the entire trip and that was in my room on my own so it wasn't an embarrassing experience such as what hurling up over a fellow traveller would have been. I got giardia several times, a mild amoebic infection that results in diarrhoea and very bad wind (what I mean is worse wind than I normally have, if you can believe that) but is easily treated with a single dose of medicine. I had bad headaches from altitude sickness a couple of times and nearly fainted from it once in Tibet but that's about it as far as my sicknesses went (we will of course make no mention of my rectal experience in New Delhi, the less said about that the better).

Didn't you get fed up travelling for so long?

Eventually yes. I did enjoy travelling on my own a lot though. It could be lonely sometimes but it was great to be able to do your own thing all the time and not be constrained by someone else’s plans or timetable. Having said that, I ended up spending about half my time travelling with other people that I met along the way. I can't take being on my own for that long. And you are almost continually meeting backpackers along the way unless you really stray off the beaten path.

But by the time two years had gone by I found I was getting a little weary. I seemed to greet each new tourist sight with a "oh God, not another bleedin' temple / mosque / museum / pyramid / beach etc. etc." That was the sign that it was about time I went home but as I'd decided long before to make it as far as Egypt I just had to soldier on! It's a tough life, the traveller's one ... :-)

5 greatest things I've seen?

Very difficult to say of course but here’s 5 great (maybe not the greatest) things that I saw on the trip.

    Mountains in Nepal. Definitely the greatest thing I did see, the mountain views at the end of the Everest and Annapurna Sanctuary treks. The photos do not lie.
    Temples of Angkor, Cambodia. And Angkor was definitely the best architectural site I've ever seen, with a fantastic atmosphere and loads of exploring to do.
    Taj Mahal, India. Maybe the world's greatest single building.
    Mountains in Pakistan. I love mountain scenery and the Karakoram Highway in the north of Pakistan puts massive mountains and glaciers just a short walk from your guesthouse.
    Jokhang Temple, Tibet. For overall atmosphere and cultural buzz this place is hard to beat, populated with ancient, leather-faced, smelly, colourful pilgrims and mysterious monks.

The single greatest thing about the trip though was probably the people I met along the way, mostly my fellow backpackers!

5 greatest photos?

Again, this is very subjective but here’s five good ones that shouldn’t disappoint. I picked one each from the categories: mountain scenery, architecture, people, sea & sunset.

Best sounds?

For the first year of the trip I carried a micro-cassette recorder with me (a dick-to-phone as some of you know it) and I recorded various sounds along the way, people singing, music, bats etc. This sound file here is a recording made at Uluru (Ayer's Rock) in Australia with Sean from Scotland. Sean was good at belching and we found a big crack in the side of Uluru that gave a great echo so we tried to record Sean's belch echo. The first belch in the file is Sean's actual one, the second one is the echo reflected back from Uluru!

When I was on the jungle island of Siberut for my 30th birthday a medicine man, Lala,sang a song for us and I recorded it (Lala had his arm around me at the time). A short excerpt can be found here. I tried to teach a Japanese guy how to pronounce "ripe" here. He just couldn't master the "r" sound, in the end all he managed to say was "lipe".

An example of ferocious young children trying to sell me cold drinks in Angkor, Cambodia can be listened to here in RealAudio format (I hope you have your RealAudio player installed).

Best people?

Well, this is another very subjective one and I find a lot of travellers tend to go overboard and express sentiments such as "Such and such a people were amazing, incredibly friendly, much better than such and such a people who were just awful". I found that people tended to be a little more like you'd find anywhere, most of them were friendly with plenty of bad ones to be found. If pressed though, I would say that the Iranians were the most friendly.

Worst people?

Again, if pressed, I would give the Chinese the lowest marks. A lot of them were fine but I think there is a government-bred mistrust of foreigners in that country that in the end affects the way you are treated to a noticeable degree.

The true worst people though were the travel agents and taxi drivers. Definitely these are the people that are most likely to screw you on your holiday (even more so than your partner!). More than half the travel agents I dealt with tried to cheat me in some way. Be careful out there!

Best con-artists?

The Indians, in particular Kashmiris. I don't think I've come across a country that has more con jobs going at the one time. The basic rule in avoiding them is if you come across a situation in which a local person is showing you a way that you can make a lot of money quickly then you can take it that you are being conned. Also, if you are in a place where a lot of tourists frequent, e.g. the middle of New Delhi or the Pyramids, you can make a fair assumption that you will not meet any genuine, honest and friendly locals. Therefore, for example, if you think you have just met a genuine, honest and friendly Indian (from Kashmir?) at the Taj Mahal then most likely you are about to be conned. Quite simple really but many Western people are too polite to simply ignore people that come up and talk to them in the street and after five hours of being chatted to by this friendly person they end up buying something off one of his friends just to get rid of him. So rule one is don't be afraid to be rude!

Best con-job?

One con-job that I particularly like is this one: as you do when travelling you often pick up a companion and travel with them for weeks at a time. Inevitably though it will come time to part, they are going to another country or flying home or whatever, and as you normally do you swap home addresses and phone numbers with the other and promise to stay in touch. Well, as soon as you part, the other guy phones your parents back in Ireland and gives them this story: "I'm calling from India. Mike is in serious trouble. He is in jail. It looks like the local cops planted hashish in his room and have taken him into custody and are saying that he is guilty of drug possession. A drug possession conviction carries a mandatory life sentence in India. It doesn't look good for Mike but there is a chance. If I can bribe the police before they turn his case over to the state authorities I think I can get him out of jail. I am told this is possible if I have $2,000. Can you send this money now??"

First of all this guy probably knows that you won't be phoning your parents for another week or two so you won't be likely to call home and spoil his scam. Also, your parents may be suspicious of him but what are they going to do? Not send the $2,000 and run the risk that he was telling the truth all the time? It's safer to just send the money right? They wouldn't want to not send it and then discover next week that you've been thrown into a hellhole in New Delhi for the rest of your life, now would they?

A word of caution, if the guy happens to know that your parents have recently seen the movie Midnight Express then he is laughing all the way to the bank, he can comfortably ask for at least $10,000 and be assured of getting it. You have been warned! :-)

Was travelling difficult?

It was physically difficult but logistically easier than I expected. Getting up at all hours of the morning to hop on bone-jarring 14 hour bus rides wasn't that much fun though it was nearly always an interesting trip. Having to find a new place to stay every couple of days was a pain in the ass also. However, actually getting around and getting fed turned out to be a simpler job than I anticipated.

Because you look so obviously like a foreigner you tend to get helped a lot by the locals and, as it turns out, getting on the right bus to a town and following the guidebook's map from the bus station to the cheap hotels and then on to the restaurants that may actually speak a little English was not that big a deal. Being able to say hello, thank you, how much, the numbers and the ability to correctly pronounce town and street names helps even further but is by no means necessary. I've met people who've been months travelling around China who learnt not a word of Chinese and still managed okay.

How to go about it?

Simple, just read the Round the World Travel Guide and take it from there. It has all the advice you need on what to do to get organised for a trip. Take it from me, it's not that hard. I still remember the day in Fiji when I first met travellers and I asked them how long they were travelling ("6 months") and they asked me and I said "One day". I was a novice back then, scared at what lay before me but when you start meeting all the travellers that are doing exactly what you are doing you begin to realise that a) you're not that special and b) there are plenty of people to give you advice on how best to tackle the next leg of your trip. You won't be alone!

I need to use the toilet, it looks like the one in Trainspotting, what do I do?

Fear not, help is at hand. If it's one thing I learnt to deal with travelling it was unruly toilets. Here's the scoop.

The solution is to subtly adapt the Oriental squatting technique to the Western-style toilet, it takes a lot of finesse but the results, oh the results, sublime, divine, no slime! Do the following: turn your back to the toilet bowl (I assume that the bowl has not disintegrated to the extent that it is unworthy of the term "toilet bowl") and drop your trousers/skirt so that the top of said and your knickers (if you are wearing any) both huddle around your knees, no lower, no higher. This is very important, if you gather your clothes any lower than the knees then you'll find a nice surprise waiting in said clothes when you finish your jobbie, gather them any higher and you'll find it extremely difficult to move your legs apart enough to climb onto the bowl, an essential step in actually completing the task before you with even a modicum of success.

Now, your back is to the bowl, your clothes are down by your knees, I want you to climb backwards onto the bowl, one foot on either side. Yes, yes, I know it seems like there's no chance your shoes will get a safe grip on that slippery-looking porcelain lip and that you're having visions of attempting to stand on it and your foot slipping straight off down into the bowl, getting caught, you falling the other way and fatally twisting the ankle in the bowl and then being forced, in agony now, to scream for someone to come and rescue you from the toilet from hell. Fear not pilgrim and trust me. It will amaze you how stable your foot grip will be on that porcelain! Now, get climbing. You'll probably find it helpful to grab a hold of something or press both hands against each wall to assist you in steadying yourself while getting up on the bowl.

Okay, you're on the bowl, now what do you do? Jaysus, if you don't know what to do from here on in then you are in big trouble! No, seriously(!), you now have to squat down to begin your operation. You may find however that you need to lean forwards a little while squatting so as not to, er, drop anything on the rim of the bowl. An interesting thing, though your bottom will be higher up than normal you will discover that the back splash from the water (and stuff) in the bowl can still jump high enough to reach your behind. This proves an essential law of phyics, that every bowel action has an equal and opposite bowl reaction!

Once you've done your business you are free to clean up in your accustomed manner and to step gingerly down from the bowl and back to the safety of dry land. Pull up your clothes, fasten your zips etc. and give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You'll probably feel pretty strange the first time you try this manoeuvre but the obvious benefits will convince you to keep with it and to hone your technique to perfection.

Did you notice what the main benefit of the method was? Not one part of your body comes in contact with anything on the toilet bowl, and no contact means no germs, and no germs means you've just survived the toilet bowl from Trainspotting without picking up a ghastly and fatal disease! You learn something new every day, eh?

Which countries would I go back to?

India. Pakistan. Sri Lanka. Nepal. Cambodia. Indonesia ... etc etc.

How to lose 20lbs without even trying (AKA The Holy Grail of Women)

Quite simple, take a trip to India, the longer the better. Apart from the fact that travelling in general seemed to reduce my waistline without any conscious effort on my part a sojourn in India is bound to enhance the inch-loss rate. With a dose or two of the runs almost guaranteed India will allow one the delight of gorging oneself to the full while absorbing almost no calories, what more could you ask for? I returned home 20lbs lighter than when I started, you can too!

The cheapest country?

Probably Iran. Can be done on $6 a day, I found India to be more like a $7 a day country (India would be second cheapest).

Best beach?

Phra Nang beach, Krabi, Thailand. A short boat ride from Krabi are two beaches known as East and West Railay. They are situated on a promontory that is cut off from the mainland by impassable limestone mountains thus effectively giving the Railay beaches the feel of being on an island. Anyway, in between these two beaches, at the end of the promontory is Phra Nang beach, a beach that is said to be Thailand's most beautiful (I was reliably informed of this by several people who have visited all of Thailand's tourist islands). Pictured to the left is West Railay beach, which isn't bad either.

How did I get money along the way?

In countries that had ATMs then I used those. My Visa card is one of those that are also on one of those global networks (Cirrus) which allowed me direct access to my current account at my bank. Hence I could avoid cash advance interest and credit card bills by taking money straight out of the current account.

Otherwise, I used American Express offices worldwide to buy traveller's cheques, usually a $1,000 at a time. With an American Express card you can buy $1,000 in traveller's cheques every three weeks with a personal cheque. So the money again comes straight out of my bank account, there are no credit card bills to pay and no exchange rates to worry about since my bank account was in the States, in U.S. dollars. AmEx cards are pretty worthless I think when you only use them at home but they are very useful when travelling.

What were my fellow backpackers like?

Other backpackers tend to be a very good bunch on the whole. They are certainly more informed than your average tourist and therefore a lot more interesting. They are also the best source of information for tips on where to go next and on what the current political situation is in the country you're hoping to visit and hence, are an invaluable resource.

4 best places to take a crap?

  • Siberut Island, off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Here, where I spent my 30th birthday in the jungle, the interesting thing is that when you go to the toilet (by picking your spot amongst the trees) you may very likely be joined by the local dogs and pigs which is not what you want to happen. The pigs will start eating whatever you drop and the dogs will even go as far as to lick your bottom (helpful I guess if you've left your toilet paper back in the hut but otherwise ... hmmm). Solution: bring with you a large stick and threaten with violence any animal that makes a move to follow you out into the jungle!
  • Everest View Guesthouse, Tingri, Tibet. This guesthouse, situated by a paved section (no less!) of the Friendship Highway from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Nepal, makes a most interesting location for a crap. The toilet is located at the top of a staircase by the road, surrounded by a waist-high wall and is open to the elements. Yes, this is defecation-o al fresco! Not only do you get a great view of the settlement from your perch (and everyone in the settlement gets one of you too) you can, as the name suggests, see Mount Everest on a clear day! Add to this the sandy floor which, when a wind is blowing, will plaster your ass with a thick layer of grit and you get a crapping experience second to none.
  • Goan pig toilet, India. I didn't actually get to Goa (a former Portuguese colony and now a magnet for backpackin' beach bums) but I wanted to give a mention to its famous toilets. These toilets tend to be built as a little shack on stilts and placed above a pigsty. The pigs, on hearing a human enter the commode, race over and wait hungrily below, mouths open, just waiting for you to let fly through the gap in the floorboards. As I can testify from my experience on Siberut Island there really is truth to the phrase "as happy as a pig in shit". They lap that stuff up like it was the best Christmas pudding!
  • Any Chinese rural public toilet. Bus journeys in China tend to be enlivened by the toilet stops. These places are usually stinking hellholes with no running water and haven't seen a cleaning this side of the Cultural Revolution. The experience of using these facilities is usually offset by the friendly atmosphere due to there usually being no separate cubicles, just a line of holes without walls, allowing you to feel a great sense of camaraderie with your neighbours and the people waiting for your "berth" as you do your stuff within sight of all and sundry! There are two things which should not be consumed if going on a long journey in China, food and liquids. Stay away from these and you may have some chance of avoiding the rural toilets (I once made a 32 hour train journey with only one toilet visit).

Anecdote: I was corresponding with a friend I met on the Siberut Island trip in Indonesia (who is currently employed as a journalist in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, hello there Bone) and he suggested making the above list and nominated Siberut Island for an entry. I mailed him back and told him about the great Everest view outdoor toilet in Tibet and he replied that he himself had actually taken a dump in that very same w.c. a couple of years before me. Now isn't that a heart melting story, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, to think that I sort of half-met good old Bone once again when I added my calling card to the pile that contained his! Sniff, sniff, I must brush a tear of emotion from my eye ...

Best food?

That would have to be Thailand. Everything is freshly cooked and often spicy which I like, green chicken curry being my favourite and not forgetting of course the special Thai deep fried insects (mmmm, locusts, yum yum). China comes in second I think with India and Turkey being very good also.

Worst food?

No place had really bad food but bottom of the pile must go to Indonesia where the food wasn't bad, just very bland: fried rice and fried noodles being the boring staples here.

Most dangerous moments?

I had no dangerous incidents as regards violent encounters. Asian cities are a lot safer than our cities in the West and you can walk all over town at any time of the night and not be in any danger (well, this is certainly true for men). Tourists tend to be an obvious crime target anywhere you go but in Asia I almost never heard of violent encounters with local criminals. You are far more likely to get your hotel room ransacked than to actually find yourself being mugged.

I did have a few self-created dangerous moments while climbing. Several times I managed to find myself in a place from where I found it very difficult to get back down. I can remember being very relieved a couple of times when I managed to make it back to civilisation in one piece after getting myself badly stuck for a while on some mountain or bunch of rocks.

Best looking women?

No question, Vietnam takes the trophy with Singapore being the runner-up.

Best looking men?

Let's be clear about this, I have no personal opinion or interest in this question but from what I gathered from the Western women I met most Asian countries weren't up to much in the men department though Tibetan men seemed to make some women go all a-flutter.

Thanks...

Special thanks to my sister Mary who tirelessly looked after all my stuff in Ireland, to my mother for paying a fortune to phone me every two weeks, to Paul and Linda for looking after my San Diegan affairs and to all who kept in contact with me over the years, it was very much appreciated. And not to forget the long-suffering Charlie Wallace who kept these pages up-to date during the trip and looked after my slides. I hope you all got a kick out of the dispatches ... till next time, take care ... sniff, sniff, pass me a tissue for God's sake, ooh the emotion, the dream is over ...

1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

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