Doreen: Thailand 1

January 19, 2001

Bangkok is exactly what we needed after two months in India. One thing I love to do, and felt for various reasons unable to do in India, is to just go outside and walk around aimlessly. The last few days we've justbeen wanderingaround the streets of Bangkok, stunned at how beautiful, clean and enchanting the town is. I don't think I've been this excited by a city since moving to New York City some twenty years ago. Actually, it's the first time on this trip that I thought, wow we could live here! (This is news to Bill). Tomorrow we head north to Khao Yai National Park - it's supposed to be one of the best national parks in the world and somehow I'm sure it will live up to our expectations. We're not sure how long we're going to stay, but it's a great feelingto look forward to returning to Bangkok. More later!

January 29, 2001

We ending up only staying only four days at Khao Yai National Park. If we weren't so worried about going over-budget with the private birding tours, we would have stayed a few extra days - especially since Bill got to add the Sultan Tit on to his lifelist and I didn't. Oh well, I need to put a brave face on it and double-cross my fingers that somehow the bird shows itself to me in the future (Kaeng Krachan and Fraser's Hill, Malaysia are supposed to be good bets). You see, birding isn't all fun and games. I've been down a lifebird twice so far, but have managed to rebound - usually at the eleventh hour.  

We've been feeling so good about Thailand that we're going to try our luck at renting a car for a week or so and see how that goes. The trains and buses are great deals, but we want to explore the largest national park in Thailand, Kaeng Krachan (prime Sultan Tit territory) and you must have a car to do so.  

One of the many nice things about Thailand is how unbelievably reasonable the accommodations are. For as little as ten to twenty dollars a day we've been able to stay in large, spotlessly clean, air-conditioned rooms with fridge and television. And always centrally located, even in Bangkok. The only expense that's a bit expensive is food, but since restaurants mostly serve meat and fish, we don't mind dining on bread, cheese, and, of course, chocolate - which is always better anywhere outside of the US.  

Well, I must go now and study the call of the Sultan Tit - no joke!

February 7, 2001

The car was a huge success. We drove to two national parks, Khao Sam Roi Yot and Kaeng Krachan. Both parks would have been very difficult to visit without your own transportation, so we were pleased that Avis had reasonably priced automatic cars and that we didn't need an international drivers license. We picked up the car in Hua Hin, a small touristy town about 4 hours south of Bangkok. Traffic and driving on left hand side never presented any problems, and now we may even rent a car once we travel up north.

Kaeng Krachan is a top class place to bird and although we would have seen more species with a guide, it's always more rewarding for us to discover the birds ourselves - plus, I aced the Sultan Tit. We also loved our accommodation at Kaeng Krachan - it was a brand new eco-hotel that overlooked the Kaeng Krachan dam, and for most of the time we had it to ourselves. The price, location, privacy and scenery were outstanding. The only downside was a visit by a scorpion that found it's way into my pants and stung me on our last day in the park. My morning birding was a little blurred due to pain, panic and shock that I had actually been bitten by a scorpion. This may be the wake-up call we needed to be more careful where we leave our clothes at night, and to always triple check our trousers in the morning, (especially since we're going to Australia where tons of bites can be life-threatening).

The scorpion Doreen found in her trousers wasn't quite this big, but even so - we don't recommend it

The scorpion Doreen found in her trousers wasn't quite this big, but even so - we don't recommend it

February 28, 2001

Three weeks ago we traveled from Bangkok to the lovely temple city of Chiang Mai, a place surrounded by national parks and jam-packed with cheap vegetarian restaurants - a superb combination as far as we're concerned. We've also been very surprised at how cheap everything is in the north, compared with the other parts of Thailand we've visited.  

Our first attempt at visiting Doi Inthanon (reputedly the best birding site in Thailand) was a complete failure. We'd decided not to rent a car, since the Lonely Planet and various internet trip-reports mention that bungalows are available at the park HQ. We were so under the spell of how wonderful and easy things are in Thailand that, without hesitation, we took a series of songthaews right to the park headquarters. As we arrived, a fleet of helicopters was escorting the Queen of Denmark and her entourage out of the park. (Quite a coincidence, seeing as how we spent several days in India hanging out with a pair of Vikings). We headed right to the sign that promisingly read "Park Accommodations" -it looked like this was going to be easy. As we raced across the helicopter landing-field, I spotted a large hawk circling above, and thought that in only a few minutes would we be birding away. This was not to be. At the accommodations office they informed us that, in order to book a bungalow, we had to call Bangkok first. They also informed us that we couldn't get in touch with the Bangkok office because it was a Sunday, and the office was closed. So no bungalow.

There we were - on top of mountain, miles from Chiang Mai, and without a place to stay. Needless to say, nine out of the ten bungalows were empty. After several frustrating hours, (including a brief and dismal attempt at renting a tent and camping for the night), we decided the only thing to do was to head back to Chiang Mai and come up with a new plan tomorrow. Unfortunately it's not that easy getting back down the mountain. Only after I'd suggested a possible medical condition - and that we were willing to pay any price - did one of the forest rangers agree to take us back to Chiang Mai. The "any price" turned out to be a slightly budget-wrecking $35.

But we weren't going to give up that easily. The following day we called Bangkok and booked a bungalow, hired a car from Avis, purchased five day's worth of food, and bought a couple of cassettes for the drive. We thought that should do it, and arrived at the HQ a day later, armed not only with the name of the bungalow but also the name of the woman in Bangkok who took our reservation. When we told the staff member that we'd booked bungalow number ten, he just shook his head and would only say "you must call Bangkok". The next couple of hours weren't pretty. Eventually, after everyone in Bangkok and at the HQ had finished lunch, the lady in Bangkok confirmed our confirmation, and everyone accepted that we hadn't just made up her name and the name of the bungalow. (If we had, that would have been quite impressive).

Luckily, since we'd had the opportunity to spend several hours in and around the headquarters, we'd had a chance to read the rental conditions. There was a no-refund policy in small print, and a recommended that you inspect the accommodation before handing over any money. The semi-helpful woman who'd finally agreed to take our money took us the cabin, and our first impression was of the trashcan on the porch overflowing with garbage. The inside was Spartan at best, and absolutely unacceptable at $20 a night. This couldn't have been more different from Kaeng Krachan, where we had excellent accommodation for about half that amount. After dropping the semi-helpful woman off at the HQ, we saw a couple of confused looking Germans trying to read the same baffling information sheet that we had been handed two days before. It turns out that they had actually gone to the Bangkok office in person, and been told that they could just book a bungalow at the park! We advised them not to bother.

We ended up staying at a very nice guest house just outside the park entrance, and really enjoyed the rest of our stay at the not-so-accommodating Doi Inthanon national park. Perhaps the people at the HQ are so unwilling to rent the bungalows because, once they've seen them, no-one wants to stay in them. We did see several trucks ferrying new furniture up the mountain road, so maybe some new cabins are being built. We hope so.

Dog drinking beer and selling bananas, Chiang Mai

Dog drinking beer and selling bananas, Chiang Mai

Bill: Thailand 1

Bangkok, January 19, 2001

The quest for IDD

Bangkok - what a wonderful place to be. Doreen has a theory that RTW travelers tend to fall in love with the first place they get to after India, hence all the glowing reports you hear about Nepal. She could be right. India was incredible, but there are certain things about it that wear you down. We'll see how we feel about Thailand in a few weeks, although any place disparaged by backpackers as "too easy" will probably be OK with us.

The Indian subcontinent was like some kind of Dickensian alternative reality - cell-phones and nuclear missiles juxtaposed with open sewers and crippled beggars propelling themselves along the pavement like crabs. Through western eyes (how Conrad) it seems strange to have a 21st century economy existing amid such squalor and poverty, although I suppose you don't really have to look further than New York for that kind of thing. In fact India's enormous gap between rich and poor is probably what Thatcher had in mind when she talked of a return to Victorian values.

Bangkok was a shock. Far from being a Dickensian parallel universe, it's more like a pre-war utopia - it even has a gleaming new skytrain zooming high above the highways. The only things missing are the flying cars and jet-packs. And it's so clean - the cleanest city we've been in since, er, ever, actually. It's certainly cleaner than New York and London could dream of being. That Singapore-style death penalty for littering must really be working.

As soon as we got here, we naturally rushed to Lumpini Park to look for the Streak-eared Bulbul - wouldn't you? While there, we became aware of a very peculiar sensation - no one was staring at us. God we love this place. The gravest problem we've faced so far is the Thai's tremendous fondness for eating meat, in every form, with everything. This is not an easy country to be vegetarian in. It's almost enough to make us miss India, but there are, of course, plenty of Indian restaurants in Bangkok if we get too nostalgic.

The only other difficulty we encountered was finding a hotel with direct dial so that we could update this site - and we finally did, thanks to Doreen's indefatigable persistence. (Here's a hint: "direct dial" doesn't always mean you can dial direct, as we found out in Chennai). The first Bangkok hotel we stayed in was great - $12 a night, improbably clean, and centrally located (the Khao San Road is not for us), but didn't have the requisite IDD, so we had to move on. (To the Silom Golden Inn, in case you find yourself in a similar predicament and don't mind staying in a place that has evidence of night trade going on).

Hua Hin, January 28, 2001

Still brilliant

We're coming up to our second week in Thailand, and we still catch ourselves chortling imbecilely at odd moments, carried away by how wonderful it is to be here. For the first time since 1986 I can appreciate what a wonderful thing an ice-cold beer really is. I could go on forever about how nice everyone is - and to each other, not just in search of the tourist dollar - and how clean, elegant and convenient everything is. For a while we thought it was just in contrast to India, but now we realize that it's an objective truth (and they're hard to find, aren't they?). For example, booking train tickets from Delhi to Agra was a process that took several hours to complete - after negotiating the frenzy outside the station, we sat down and waited in a line that moved with the inexorable slowness of Hindu cosmology. Basically, we blew it by showing up near lunch-time, so there was a long period when the line didn't move at all - but at least the people working there all got to eat lunch at the same time. Our boredom was momentarily relived when an older man (presumably Bangladeshi or Pakistani, since this was the office for foreigners only) exploded in frustration and started shouting that everyone who worked there was "bloody rubbish" and had forgotten that they were there for their customers. (Perhaps he was an American national). After that, it was back to reading the poster advertising one of those luxury steam train excursions that cost about $200 a day.

Arriving at the equivalent office in Bangkok, we took a numbered ticket and sat down to wait, grateful for the air conditioning. These deli-style numbered tickets are quite common in India, where the British fetish for queuing never quite caught on. Sometimes the number system works, and sometimes people just ignore it. (Point of etiquette: one should avoid elbowing one's way to the front of the queue until it's been established that the numbers are indeed being ignored). Best of all are the occasions where the numbers proceed in a non-linear fashion - it keeps you on your toes when your ticket says 27, and yet is preceded by 18, 374, 2, and 28.

In Bangkok's train station we didn't even have time to enjoy the AC - our number was called as soon as we sat down and we were back outside in under two minutes, stunned and sweaty. And this sort of thing happens everywhere - we were in and out of the central post office in the same amount of time. For someone who, like myself, has spent a substantial percentage of his life waiting in line in New York's post offices, this is little short of miraculous. Thailand is not only cleaner, easier, and more friendly than India, it beats New York on all those levels as well. So we're not only dealing with a contrast of two months here - we're talking fifteen years. It brings to mind the occasion a Japanese guy exploded at the Spring Street post office and started lecturing the line that you'd never see this type of inefficiency in his home country of Germany (it must have been an Axis thing). People actually began to mutter "well go back to Germany", demonstrating just how proud New Yorkers are of their city, and how jealously they guard their bitching rights. We'll probably never get used to it here.

Dumping Woodcock

Just so you don't think it's all beer and skittles here, I wanted to let you now about a couple of Thailand's downsides. Not only is it a bit difficult to get vegetarian food sometimes, but the portions are really small! I ask you - can we be expected to endure these privations much longer?

And then there's the heat. Manhattan gets pretty steamy in summer, especially for one used to Bristolian weather - for the first few years I'd spend July and August with my head in the supermarket's frozen foods cabinet - but Bangkok in January reigns triumphant. When my brother visited Hong Kong last summer and said the heat there was unbearable, I thought he was just being wimpy. Now I understand what he meant about feeling like Sidney Greenstreet - I find myself mopping my brow with an oversized red handkerchief and saying things like "By gad, sir - it's hot!" The size differential between us big, hairy westerners and the small, delicate Thais doesn't help this impression much, either. The other tourists are starting to look comically huge to me - as long as I can avoid mirrors, of course.

Even worse is the second-hand book thing. Most places we've passed through have had book stores where you can get new reading material at minimal cost. There was a little stall in Delhi where I swapped Umberto Eco's disappointing third for a pristine edition of Tom Jones (one of several unread copies, probably the result of noble intentions engendered by the TV series). As long as you rotate second-hand books and don't do anything stupid like swapping a brand new Lonely Planet Goa for a ratty copy of Sour Sweet (like we did), you can keep your reading budget quite low. Bangkok's fab and groovy traveler ghetto, the Khao San Road (get your fake dreads here!), has several bookshops, and we were shocked to discover that none of them would take our stuff. I mean, who wouldn't be glad to take a bittersweet novel about the Anglo-Chinese community in the Sixties, or a lengthy attack on determinist theories of history penned by an aging Canadian anarchist? These buggers are spoiled for choice. I should have pinched that Sutcliffe from that hotel in Pak Chong when I had the chance.

At long last gibbon

And speaking of Pak Chong, we ended up there because of it's proximity to Khao Yai national park, a wonderful place with brand-new roads, cheap food, and gibbons ululating from the roadside trees. Now I don't want to knock the Common Langur or the Rhesus Macaque, but seeing gibbons in the wild has always been something of a dream for me, and this was a definite highlight of the trip so far. In my book, gibbons are strong contenders for the "most adorable" award at the primate olympics, and these (White-handed Gibbons, to be precise) were wonderful. Great singers too - they could teach the Common Loon a thing or two about maniacal gibbering, and the Three Stooges evidently studied them carefully. The Pig-tail Macaques weren't so good on the vocal front, but then they did appear to be wearing liberal applications of turquoise eye-shadow, and so managed to have that Valley of the Dolls look down as they rushed your car and demanded bananas. Not a good thing, I know, but people here enjoy feeding them, and you seem to get these problems in national parks everywhere. At least they're smarter than the Arctic Ground Squirrels that starve in the winter when the tourists go home, and are less dangerous than Grizzlies habituated to human food. (I seem to have moved a bit north here. Sorry).

White-handed Gibbon, Khao Yai - if only you could hear him singing

White-handed Gibbon, Khao Yai - if only you could hear him singing

Shot a man in Hua Hin

Hua Hin is a pretty odd place to find ourselves. For the first time on this trip we seem to be representing the younger generation of westerner, so you can probably imagine the ambiance for yourself. Every other tourist seems to be over fifty and extremely rotund - I haven't seen this many spherical individuals since we were in that all-you-can-eat place in Enfield. Here, the streets are jammed with red-faced Germans and expensive Italian restaurants, and it has that rather unhappy feel you find in towns where tourism is the only local industry - the resignation of dealing with one incomprehensible complaint too many. Apparently there are several golf courses nearby, which might explain a lot. There's certainly a ton of expensive hotels.

Last night, as I popped out to pick up another Singha, I passed by Buffalo Bill's Steak & Grill, a happening place where oblivious tourists shoveled BSE into their faces as a cowboy-hatted Thai serenadedthem with Johnny Cash tunes. Now that's the sort of thing that can make a visit worthwhile.

So why are we in Hua Hin? Well, it's strategically located between two of Thailand's national parks - Kaeng Krachan and Khao Sam Roi Yot - which are both supposed to be stuffed to the gills with exotic birds and animals. And there's an Avis office here, so with any luck we are about to embark on a slightly more intrepid phase of our journey - self propulsion (sort of). Should be interesting.

Crab-eating Macaque pretending not to be asking for food, Khao Sam Roi Yot

Crab-eating Macaque pretending not to be asking for food, Khao Sam Roi Yot

Bangkok, February 7, 2001

Always check your trousers

Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's biggest national park, and also one of its least visited. We were able to spend some time there, thanks to the mysterious willingness of Avis to let us drive off in one of their cars, the fools. A rogue copy of "Beatles For Sale" that had somehow got lost in Cha-am provided the soundtrack as we made our (fairly confident) way there - Thailand is kind enough to print many of it's road-signs in English, and for this we are very grateful. We barely got lost at all.

Quite apart from the inherent surrealism of approaching the Burmese border to the strains of Mr. Moonlight, Kaeng Krachan was a virtual paradise. We were practically the only people there (we arrived mid-week), and even the weekend influx did little to alter this impression. It's a big place. (Many of the other visitors were young Thai birdwatchers, which was nice to see - virtually all the birders we've seen on this trip so far have been other tourists. It's also nice to see the young people involved in such a wholesome activity, if a little mystifying. Why aren't they off breaking the law somewhere? This really is a strange country).

Not only did we have the park to ourselves, we also had our own bungalow just outside the park; part of a brand new (and deserted) tourist complex, still apparently in the middle of slow-motion construction. It had running water, air-conditioning, and was spotlessly clean - this must be the definition of roughing-it, Stair style. It also had a great view of Kaeng Krachan lake, and there were enough birds fluttering around outside to enable us to birdwatch there as well (although it took Doreen some time to get me off my arse and convince me that her "blue-eyed drongo" was in fact a new species for us).

So we had a car, music, lovely accommodation, and a whole national park practically to ourselves. Not only that, but next door was a restaurant that sold vegetarian food for absurdly low prices, and there were dozens of little stalls providing life's essentials: water, beer, and those wonderful little cans of iced coffee that you see all over Thailand. All this more or less in the middle of nowhere, mind you. Not a bad set up.

Eschewing a guide - assuming we could have found one - we birded by ourselves, and had a great time doing so. OK, so we probably missed 80% of the available species due to our general ineptitude, but there's a great sense of satisfaction in identifying a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha for yourself. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Kaeng Krachan - a paradise by our standards, so it's only natural that there was a serpent lurking in this earthly Eden. (Well, not a serpent exactly, but something nasty in the cellar nonetheless). On our last morning there, as we braced ourselves for another hard day's bird, Doreen felt something sting her when she pulled on her trousers. Thinking that it might be a tick - not exactly pleasant, but no real cause for alarm - she disrobed and was rather surprised to see a scorpion curled up inside her trouser leg. Flinging her trousers to the bathroom floor, she rushed into the bedroom where we immediately followed my grandfather's wartime maxim of what to do in times of crisis: "When in danger, when in doubt - run in circles, scream and shout". This helped the situation considerably.

What's strange is that, until this moment, the nasty beasties of the world had shunned Doreen entirely, and the various leeches and ticks we'd encountered had been my devoted admirers alone. Even a majority of mosquitoes had shown a marked preference for English blood. And although I don't relish the idea of sharing my clothes with them, I'm not at all bothered by spiders and snakes - unlike Doreen who has to fend off mortal terror whenever we pass within fifty feet of a snake, big or small. Scorpions, however, scare me. I don't know why - it must have been all those Tarzan movies I watched as a kid. Even now, the thought of quicksand gives me the chills.

Anyway, phobia or no phobia, I was dispatched into the bathroom as soon as my shaking hands has managed to lace up my boots (an important step if you wish to be remembered as Shadrak: Scorpion Slayer). Extricating the arachnid from the space-age trousers was the hard part. Repeatedly stomping on it was the easy bit. (Yes, we really are peace-loving vegetarians and friends of all the animals of the world; but anything with an exo-skeleton is fair game, especially when it bites my wife.) When the monster was well flattened and secure on the sole of my boot, I grabbed our Lonely Planet to try and find what words of wisdom it offers on the subject of scorpion bites. Should Doreen be rushed to hospital? Should I suck the venom out like James Bond (or even Woody Allen)? Who knows?

Unfortunately there's no "Scorpions: What do when you're bitten in Kaeng Krachan" listed in the index, so I thumbed desperately through the book, passing through every conceivable subject - Shopping, Spectator Sports, even Video Systems, for Christ's sake - before somehow finding the scorpion bit, which was buried somewhere in the "Health" section". (Or was it "Dangers & Annoyances"?) Very fortunately for us, scorpion bites are not fatal in Thailand - just very painful. Poor Doreen - but thank god they're not as dangerous as the little wonders waiting for us in Australia. We'll have to be very careful in future. (And I do feel bad about killing the scorpion - it might have formerly been someone we know - but we might have needed it for medical evidence. And nobody bites Doreen without my permission).

Helpful sign for dim-witted birders, Kaeng Krachan

Helpful sign for dim-witted birders, Kaeng Krachan

Chiang Mai, February 28, 2001

North by Northwest

Three weeks since the last update... What have we been up to? Well, after enjoying the wondrous avifauna of Kaeng Krachan, we had a few days R&R in Bangkok and then took the night train up to Chiang Mai. As might be expected, this was quite a different experience from taking the sleeper in India. Not that Marilyn Monroedid climb into bed with a hot-water bottle full of booze, but we had our own little compartment, clean sheets and air-conditioning. Very nice.

Each pair of compartments has a connecting door (which can be locked from either side), presumably for parties of four. While I was out buying supplies for the thirteen-hour trip (OK, beer), the Germans next door started trying to batter down the door - apparently under the impression that it led to a private bathroom. A likely story. When I got back, Doreen told me how the conductor had to restrain them from staking a claim to some extra living room, and it was her - not me - who brought up the annexation of the Sudetenland. (Actually, according to the theory of manifest destiny, it was their compartment that belonged to us. But we let them keep it). The rest of the trip passed without incident. Without world-champion snorer Jack Smith sharing your compartment, it can be quite easy to sleep on a train.

And now, a word from our sponsors

Remember how I was moaning about the dearth of vegetarian food in Thailand? How wrong I was. It's just that, for some reason, all the vegetarian restaurants seem to be in Chiang Mai. Not only are the prices here much lower, the food is excellent - if the Mangsawirat Kangreuanjam was open for dinner we'd be eating there three times a day instead of only twice. (After finishing, we sometimes think about walking around the block and going back in wearing bowler hats and false noses. But they'd still know it was us). Three different dishes, two bowls of rice, and a bottle of water comes to $1.05 - and the food is as good as any we've eaten. God, we love Thailand. (Except for the bizarrely unhelpful park staff at Doi Inthanon - see Doreen's page for the full, shocking story). In fact, the only the real problem I have here is that it's impossible not to keep falling in love. The cheesy tourist hook for Thailand is "The Land of Smiles". Tacky slogan, eh? Well, the funny thing is, it's true. With very few exceptions - cops and soldiers, mainly - everyone will return a smile with one of dazzling radiance. It makes walking around quite fun. And if these aren't genuine smiles, then they're so close to the real thing I don't care. A lot of the smiling probably comes from their amusement at how odd-looking and clueless we all are - but Thais seem to get such a kick out of how hopeless you are that being a figure of fun is OK. Especially if you're rewarded with one of those smiles - which you always are.

Where was I? Oh yes, plugging some places we love, on the off-chance you ever end up here. So, when in Chiang Mai, eat at Mangsawirat Kangreuanjam, just five minutes walk from this website. And when in Doi Chiang Dao, stay at Malee's Nature Lovers Bungalows, the nicest place we've stayed so far. The location is magnificent - it's nestled at the foot of a mountain - but it's Malee that makes it such a great place to stay. If she'd have offered to adopt us, we'd have accepted without hesitation. She's incredibly nice, really funny, and ridiculously helpful (often at her own expense - for example, she refuses to mark-up any of the excursions she'll organize for you). And every night she stuffs you full of food until you can't move (at a cost of $1.50 a head. She should really put up her prices). Her place is well known in the birding community, (which is OK unless you get stuck having dinner with The World's Most Tedious Man - an occupational hazard of birding, I suppose), but also attracts many other types of tourist, often on word of mouth. We had great fun there, hanging out with a shifting population that included some lovely birders, sweet Swedes, and a couple of German club-kids who were chilling out from the raves down south and would make mysterious trips into the mountains on moped. We really liked her three dogs, too.

While eating dinner, you'd sometimes notice an orange glow coming from the foothills. Apparently the locals set fire to large sections of the national park because this encourages tasty mushrooms to grow . Good for the mushrooms, bad for the birds. Her place is also quite near the Burmese border, which always seems to be an area of some conflict. There was some quite serious skirmishing going on while we were there - in fact, there still is - but there was no point listening to the short-wave, because the BBC apparently lost interest after the first incident. And it was hard to stay worried with Malee shoveling food at you from every direction. This is classically oblivious tourist behavior, I know, but what are you going to do?

Hawaii or not Hawaii?

While we were staying at Malee's, we took a trip up the mountain in search of the Giant Nuthatch - you might have expected us to do something like that. Well, we did. Apart from us, the driver, and the Norfolk couple we were birding with, there wasn't a soul about. The scenery was stupendous but the road atrocious, so we decide to walk the last couple of kilometers, birding our little hearts out. After a few hours in which we didn't see another living soul, we bumped into another couple of birders, and the first words out of the guy's mouth were "You don't happen to have a Robson on you, do you?" This was a perfectly logical question if you were a birder (and we all were) but had something of a Stanley-Livingston ring nonetheless. (If you even care, a Robson is one of the different fieldguides for south-east Asia. And yes, we did have one). In addition to being very nice and offering us many excellent birding tips, these two turned out to be another Anglo-American birder couple. What are the odds of meeting such a doppelganger pair, high up a mountain in Thailand? (Quite high apparently, but never mind).

These two were camped out at the summit, prepared to survive on starvation rations until they got a good look at a certain pheasant that lives up there - we understood, even if we're not that dedicated. Luckily for them, we missed the nuthatch on our first attempt, and so on our return were able to send up bread, fruit, and some hardboiled eggs (and a duck egg). They got the pheasant and lived to tell the tale, but while chatting to them that day we discovered that they too were taking an extended trip around the world, and that we were all having to deal with the labyrinthine rules and regulations of the INS.

Back when we first put up this site, Doreen wrote that we would have to interrupt our trip at the half-way point, by taking a trip to Hawaii in order to set foot on American soil. Apparently, I'd loose my resident alien status if I stayed out of the country for more than six months. Marc Brosius (of website fame) noticed this, and very kindly alerted us to the existence of form I-90 (or is it formI-131?), a magical document that allows you to stay out of the country for up to two years. (I wonder why my immigration lawyer never mentioned this to me?) This happened just before our departure date, and I applied for it only a couple of days before we left; it was supposed to take about sixty days to process.

When we had still heard nothing five months later, we figured that they had rejected the application and that was that. Reluctantly, we booked a flight to Hawaii - at a cost of over a grand - and took the train to Chiang Mai for fun and frolics in the north. Yesterday, on returning from Malee's, we checked our e-mail and saw that our mailbox was stuffed with urgent messages from the person looking after our apartment. Unfortunately, Buz.net chose this moment to crash, and so we spent the next three hours in an agony of suspense, wondering what the urgent messages could be about. It must have been quite amusing to watch the steam coming out of my ears. Doreen correctly guessed that the e-mails were to inform us of the belated arrival of the I-90, right at the bottom of the ninth. (Or is it the top of the morning?)

All of this could have been avoided if I'd know that it was possible to take dual citizenship - a fact that the INS is not keen on revealing to interested parties. A Denver dwelling Zimbabwean who has both British and American passports alerted me to this interesting factoid, just last year. Apparently, someone took the US government to the court of human rights in the Hague and the practice of forcing people to renounce their country of birth was judged to be illegal. Unfortunately, both myself and the mountain-dwelling English birder discovered this good news too late, but never mind. Now you know.

So this is quite interesting. Very good news, in fact, although by the time we were able to access our e-mail we were nervous wrecks - even bumping into the sweet Swedes didn't calm us down. Hopefully we can get the money back for the Hawaii tickets, but even if we have to eat that - and I really hope we don't - it'll still be cheaper to stay in Asia than Honolulu. What weird timing. I can't help thinking Malee must have pulled a few strings.

Doreen: Vietnam

March 29 2001

Vietnam has the most endemic species of all the south-east Asian countries, a total of eight. With that in mind, we decided to spend a few extra dollars and try to bird Vietnam properly. We e-mailed Mr. Viet, a travel agent recommended by a fellow birder in an internet trip report, who arranged a car, a driver and our accommodations for us. Although I can’t say how the trip would have gone if we’d traveled independently as usual, we really appreciated Mr. Viet’s services.

When we arrived in Hanoi we weren’t surprised that it was raining - the Lonely Planet says to expect drizzle during March and April. What we weren’t expecting was a seven-day monsoon. Our first night in Hanoi we weren’t too pleased, but we couldn’t really complain too much since we’ve barely seen any rain in the past six months. We amused ourselves by researching all the lovely birds we planned on seeing in Tam Dao.

Tam Dao is a hill station about three hours from Hanoi. It’s barely a town, more of a large green square with some hotels and shops, surrounded by hills. After two days of sitting in our hotel room waiting for the rain, fog and wind to subside, we bit the bullet and decided to leave early for our next destination. We promised the hotel staff that someday we’d return and thanked them for their invaluable language lessons. Most people’s first words in another language are usually thank you, please, and hello. Our first few words revolved around food. What a surprise.

Our next destination, Cuc Phuong national park, was ideal - aside from the rats, spiders, cold-water showers and rain. Actually, the rain more or less stopped after two days, and if I wasn’t so freaked out by the hand-sized spider with the long fat hairy legs, we wouldn’t have had to change rooms and might have missed the midnight visits by the fat clumsy rats. What an adventure… it may have been at this time that I began to think about getting a new hobby. Honestly, we really did enjoy the park, though. We pretty much had the whole place to ourselves and as long as we constantly checked for leeches, the birding was terrific.

We only had one more day in Hanoi, which is a shame because it’s really an interesting city and one I’d like to have spent more time in. Our next destination was in southern Vietnam, Nam Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam’s birding Mecca. The accommodations in the park are far better than Cuc Phuong, with air-conditioning and hot water - what a treat! We managed the almost impossible (for us) and found a pair of gorgeous Blue-rumped Pittas (Pittas are a family of birds found mostly in South-east Asia which are extremely difficult to see). Our biggest problem here was the heat. It was hard to bird past 10am or before 4pm, and when we did the heat would knock us out.

Pretty exhausted but happy, we arrived at our final destination, Da Lat. This is a very touristy city about five hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. It served as an ideal base to bird the surrounding hills and lakes. Here we finally found one of the eight endemics, the Vietnamese Finch. The weather was much nicer here but unfortunately we were both feeling a bit ill. Nothing serious, but just annoying enough to halt our daily hikes up the mountains.

Vietnam, although a bit more challenging to bird in than other countries, is a beautiful country, the parks are peaceful, and a the people are delightful. I truly look forward to coming back one day (and getting all those birds we missed in Tam Dao).

The People's Committee building in Saigon - the most photographed building in Vietnam

The People's Committee building in Saigon - the most photographed building in Vietnam

Bill: Vietnam

Tam Dao, March 8, 2001

An Englishman complains about the weather.

Birding, as I keep on saying, will take you the strangest places, but Tam Dao might be the all-time winner at the back-ass-of-beyond awards. Not that I mean that in a bad way - it's just a little quiet here, and the current weather could not be described as clement. Perhaps we should have expected this. As we flew into Hanoi yesterday, we noticed something odd: we couldn't see anything. After six months with only two rainy days, the porridge grey skies of northern Vietnam came as a bit of a surprise (although it did feel pleasantly like home). In fairness, we knew this wasn't the best time of year to visit the north, although the constant drizzle described by the Vietnamese as "rain dust" did sound quite exotic. Maybe the Vietnamese for torrential rain is a little less poetic - "torrential rain", perhaps.

Without having much time to acclimate to Hanoi, we hopped in a car and headed off for Tam Dao, a former French colonial hill station. (We seem to be spending a lot of time in former colonial hill stations these days. It might have something to do with the fact that it's a lot easier to exterminate your birdlife at lower elevations). As we wended our way up the mountain road, the mists hugging the peak presented a very picturesque vista. We discovered it was a bit less picturesque when you're actually in the mists, being mugged by the wind and rain - although it certainly made us glad that we've persisted in lugging warm clothes through various tropical climes. So, while it was nice to get away from Bangkok's heat (for about five minutes), we're now gazing wistfully through our hotel window, wondering if the weather will let up enough for us to actually see any birds. All we need now is for the TV to show Woman in a Dressing-gown and the Sunday afternoon ambiance will be complete. (If might actually be watchable if dubbed into an incomprehensible language).

The hotel itself is pretty interesting. Just as well, as I have a feeling we're going to see a lot of it over the next few days. It's totally deserted, of course, bringing back memories of Uludag - except this time it's more of a Soviet Shining. The people who work here are very nice, although the lack of a Vietnamese phrasebook at Bangkok airport has resulted in a few communication problems. Luckily, I did have the foresight to bring a French phrasebook, so we should be alright if we run into anyone over the age of seventy.

Not that we have any cause for complaint. At this moment, New York is supposed to be under six feet of snow, and in England they're reporting their worst winter since 1166. We feel very lucky to have skipped out on the worst weather in years. But perhaps that's balanced out by the fact that we will now be starting from scratch in a recession. Oh well.

Ho Chi Minh City, March 29, 2001

Les chapeaux de Vietnam.

As our car sped past the miles of paddy fields between Hanoi and Hanoi airport, my first impression of this lovely country was wow, people really do wear those amazing conical straw hats. Not too deep, but there you go. In a world where almost everyone you see is wearing designer knock-offs, this attachment to traditional dress came as something as a surprise. (And let's all pause for a moment to give thanks for the fact that at least they're knock-offs and all those tedious designers are denied their royalties).

Of course, everyone in Vietnam wears designer clothes too, and the straw hat is probably on its way out along with everything else not American in this world. But by virtue of being practical for this climate, it persists yet. Another valiant outpost of resistance against the iron jackboot of American cultural tyranny. Hmmm. I must have had one carbonated beverage too many; it certainly can't be the revolutionary fervor of Vietnam that's infected me. Such a thing no longer exists.

But the conical straw hats lives on. Even better, I soon noticed that many other people were wearing pith helmets, or solar topees if you like. When attired in full bird-watching uniform (eerily reminiscent to the one occasionally sported by Miss Hathaway) I often feel that the only thing needed to complete the look of an intrepid explorer (or "dickhead", as we are now known) is the pith helmet. And here they are in abundance. Quite why such a nineteenth century article of imperialist aggression has survived, coelacanth like, in Vietnam, I have no idea. But like the straw hat, it survives, though apparently only in the north. I didn't buy one, of course, (not that sad? too chicken? a moment of sanity?) but it's nice to know that the spirit of the idiot with the butterfly net lives on in the helmets of northern Vietnam. Meanwhile, I work to keep alive his spirit elsewhere. 

Vietnam is the first country I've visited where the airport's immigration officer hides what he's doing to your passport behind a large contraption, somewhat reminiscent of a Punch and Judy setup. Only his head peeps out while his hands shuffle furiously, unseen. I was half expecting him to suddenly hold a white rabbit aloft. (Actually, I was expecting him to cut my passport into little bits and then laugh, but that's just the old paranoia and persecution complex again, nothing new there).

The reason I mention him here is that you can't talk about Vietnamese hats and not mention the Ruritanian magnificence of their military attire. Pretty much Soviet in style, they come in a variety of colors that would seem more plausible if worn by an anorexic simpleton on a cat walk. The Vietnamese army's uniform is a striking shade of neon avocado, perhaps to better set off those little red stars. And the traffic cops wear the same basic uniform, except in cream. Very peculiar. But it's the extravagant four-foot sweep of the hats that really catch your eye, sort of a zoot-suit for the head, from which you can imagine tiny skiers hurling themselves into oblivion.

I must apologize for the above. I've been reading Gravity's Rainbow for the past month, and I think it's warped my sense of reality.

Off on that green, green grass of home again.

There's an old story that, during the American-Vietnamese war, the fresh young mid-western GIs disembarking from their troop planes would be dazzled by the hundreds of different shades of green that met their eye. Well, it is indeed very green here. It's green because, Sherlock,  they get a lot of rain. I find myself wondering if those apocryphal GIs would have the same reaction if they had disembarked in Somerset, a land just as green and wet (if distinctly chillier). Of course, thousands of American soldiers did arrive in Somerset, during an entirely different war, and there's no story about their reaction to the shades of green there, so obviously I'm talking utter crap once again.

The point I'm trying to make is that, er, it's really green here, but no greener than anywhere else that's really green. Heavy, eh?

By the way, in Hanoi the shops seems to cluster together by trade, in Medieval fashion. You find a flag district, a watch district, a sunglasses district, and so on. Much to my delight, there's even a small mannequin district. Why didn't I take a picture? Shop windows filled with showroom dummies selling nothing but themselves. Wonderful.

The fourth Nam.

Another old saw about Vietnam is that, because they practice the form of Buddhism that arrived from the north, the people here aren't as pleasant as their neighbors that practice Theravadan Buddhism - the Thais ,Cambodians, and Laos. This is another myth. Virtually every person we've met here has been incredibly nice. (When a freelance tour operator was trying to drum-up our business by telling me how nice English people were - some pitch - I replied that Vietnamese people were also very nice. His response was "the sky is blue", to which I was about to reply "no, I think it looks a bit like rain" until I got what he meant).

Wherever you go in Asia, people ask you where you're from. Sometimes they're just interested in talking to someone different - most people here are still less jaded about foreigners than most westerners. Usually, though, they're trying to make a buck. A reasonable enough endeavor, considering how rich even the poorest traveler is compared to most Asians. It's just one of those traveling things that you run into when you travel. (One of the great things about Hanoi was how sweet the people hassling you for money were. The cyclo drivers would ask if you needed a ride, you'd smile and say no thanks, they'd smile back and sail on. A beautiful experience for anyone whose ever been pursued through the streets of Agra by a thousand auto-rickshaws).

So people ask me where I'm from and I say "England" and hopefully that's that. It gets complicated if we move on to the next question in the usual sequence and they ask where I live, because then we've suddenly moved from the land of David Beckham to the empire of Mickey Mouse. (Did I mention how mad they are for English football? It's a consuming passion, here and in Thailand. It's aggravating how much better their coverage is than mine). When people find out I'm English, they generally assume Doreen is as well, which suits us fine. Americans are the richest and juiciest prizes, the Blue-rumped Pittas of the hassler's world, so ixnay on the mericanay if you don't mind.

What's really disconcerting, though, is the total absence of bitterness towards the American people. As you walk down the streets it's hard not to think that every person you see must have had a close relative killed or maimed in order that American arms manufacturers could make a few more dollars. And yet, war museums aside, the Vietnamese really do seem to have moved on, getting on with the business at hand (forgetting communism) and letting go of what's past. This comes as a great shock to me, coming as I do from a country where there is still an enormous amount of resentment directed at our ancient former adversaries, the Germans. (Makes you wonder who won the bloody war. See? There it is again. Actually it's probably football at the root of it all. Justifiably so, when you consider how unfairly they keep on winning when, after all, we invented the game).

So the Vietnamese just aren't very good at being bitter. Perhaps they'll learn. Meanwhile, I'll keep working on the guilt. India was a good place to contemplate British colonialism, and this is a good place to think about the real effects of American foreign policy. When the person begging for money almost certainly lost her foot by stepping on an American-made mine, it makes you wish there was a different way for the masters of the universe to make their piles of gold.

In fact, there is. I'm probably wrong, but aren't the two biggest businesses in America arms and entertainment? A pertinent combination here, because where bullets failed, culture apparently won. All over the world, people devour movies about such uniquely American phenomena as baseball and Thanksgiving, and little kids now go trick-or-treating the wilds of Norfolk. CNN girdles the globe, and the most common things you see in Vietnam are the Pepsi and Coca-Cola logos. Once again, the issue of who actually won the war is a little murky.

Guns before Butthead

A couple of days ago, after stumbling comically through the jungle for some hours searching in vain for a couple of endemic laughingthrushes, we gave up and sat down on the shores of Ho Tuyen Lam to wait for our boat back. As my backpack is customarily loaded down with The Precious Things Of The Trip - bits and pieces I won't leave in the hotel room in case Light-fingered Larry pays a visit in our absence - I was able to whip out our trusty short-wave radio. Why not while away the wait by checking in with our chocolate-voiced friends at the BBC? The news was on, and in the middle of the broadcast we had a "this just in" moment. What could it be? Had Macedonia escalated? Had President Shrub finally decided on where his war was going to be? No, it was bigger than that. London informed us that Gladiator had at that very moment been awarded the best picture Oscar.

It was around noon, so let's see, that's five a.m. in London, midnight in New York. Yup, that sounds about right. Staying up late on a Sunday night, transfixed by the fabulously rich patting each other on the back, thinking about Monday morning and work. Quite strange to be sitting by a lake in Vietnam at that precise moment. Makes you realize, you're never that far away with Auntie Beeb by your side. And that a bad day's birding is better than a good day at the office, to forge a well-used phrase.

The next night, (last night), the entire extravaganza was re-run on the Star network, right there in our hotel room, and we were able to wallow in the whole thing ourselves. Wow, talk about experiencing strange and exotic new cultures! Are we traveling, or what? My god, maybe it's us that are carrying the vanguard of American hegemony around the world. But I'm a victim of it too. When I was growing up, Bugs Bunny meant a hell of a lot more in my house than Queen Elizabeth, the world's shortest German. (See? There I go again).

Sadly, Princess Little-feather did not accept any awards on behalf of anyone else, and the whole thing seemed a bit flat. It was strange to be hearing about the nomination of films we had no idea even existed - how weird to be that divorced from water-cooler conversation. And strange to be in Asia while Hollywood's latest obsession is a nominally Asian film we're completely ignorant of. As we've traveled, we've been shadowed by Mel Gibson in funny sideburns. In Turkey the theaters were all showing The Patriot, and in Thailand it was in all the video stores. A film of some note, in that, instead of just having the bad guys played by English actors, the bad guys are the English themselves! Brilliant! Can't wait to see that one as well.

Downtown Da Lat, apparently the Paris of the central highlands

Downtown Da Lat, apparently the Paris of the central highlands

Doreen: Thailand 2

Kuala Lumpur, April 12, 2001

We ended the Thailand portion of our trip in Krabi, a town about 1000km south of Bangkok. The heat and humidity were pretty intense but the birding and socializing were ideal. We hired a boat in Krabi to see some of the rare mangrove species, and we also reunited with a terrific Anglo-American couple who are on a two year birding trip around Europe and South-east Asia. It was a real treat for us to bird with them during the day and chill with them in the evening.

After spending some time in Krabi we hired a car and drove to Khao Nor Chuchi. This is home to the famous Gurney’s Pitta, an extremely rare bird - only twenty three are known to exist in the wild, so it’s a real prize to see one. Despite our best efforts, we dipped on this one. We did, however, spend several hours a day sitting motionless on the jungle floor. First we had to avoid the army of giant ants, then we did our best to ignore the mixture of flies and mosquitoes that were buzzing and biting. Of course, the ants, flies and mosquitoes were no match for the heat - it was insanely hot even at seven o’clock in the morning. At times like this you begin to wonder how painful climbing the corporate ladder can really be. Anyway, we did manage to see some great birds and if we hadn’t had to catch a flight to Malaysia we might still be there, cross-legged and dehydrated, hoping for a brief sighting of truly a rare gem.

Miscellaneous reptile, Khao Nor Chuchi

Miscellaneous reptile, Khao Nor Chuchi

Bill: Thailand 2

Krabi, April 10, 2001

The green, green teeth of Krabi.

The bonus eleven days in Thailand are coming to an end. Tomorrow we fly to Kuala Lumpur, or Muddy Confluence as it's known to its friends. Krabi has been very OK, and the availability of English breakfasts has not gone unnoticed by the Stairs. World cuisine is always there, after all, but baked beans are notoriously hard to come by. (So it's come to this: the Englishman reverts to true type. I won't even tell you how much Premier League football I've been watching.)

Krabi has been hot, the rainy season has arrived early, and Asian Glossy Starlings are nesting in the traffic lights. Life is good. We've floated around the mangroves in search of rare species and socialized with Nigel and Donna, the Anglo-American birding couple we met up a mountain in Chiang Dao. It's been nice rediscovering how much fun it is to hang out with friends again.

One word of advice: if you stay at Krabi's City Hotel and are thinking about purchasing water from the drinks case outside the video store two shops down, I wouldn't recommend it. I tried this the other day and then noticed a dog had sunk his teeth into my leg. Not, you would think, a good method of attracting custom. I can only assume that, being a video store that rents Thai movies, very few Farangs (that's us) cross the threshold, and the poor dog was confused. Hopefully when my boot connected with his head he was less confused, and the next thirsty tourist will meet with a less bloody welcome.

So after spending $450 on rabies shots, you might think I'd be well chuffed. But you'd be wrong, Jackson. The shots may be expensive, but they're only preliminary in some strange medical way, and if you do think you're at risk you need to get at least two more. I didn't bother, mainly because I knew I'd never get the owners of the video store to cough up the ackers, and my English bloody-mindedness prevented me from paying myself. I was, after all, totally innocent of any wrongdoing. I blame the lack of emphasis paid on dog training in southern Thai culture. And Thatcher.

Later on, we were sharing a boat with a couple of English birders when it occurred to me that one of them had mentioned being a nurse. Golly, I thought, perhaps I can get some free advice on my current medical crisis. It turned out he was a psychiatric nurse, so would probably have been better qualified to have me committed. Luckily his friend had read in the Bangkok Post that Thailand only gets about fifty cases of rabies a year, so I statistically decided to not bother panicking. Perhaps foolishly, but there you go. I never enjoy having needles stuck into me, and less so in any country where they might be less than fresh. (Unlikely in Thailand, I admit.)

Pitta politics.

There are only twenty three Gurney's Pittas in the world. This is a very sad thing and, as you might expect, a fact not unnoticed by birders. We had not originally planned to go in search of this rare beast because we had, accurately enough, predicted that our birding skills might not be up to scratch when in pursuit of something this uncommon. But we had some extra days, we were in the neighborhood of their last holdout, so what the hell. Khao Nor Chuchi, here we come.

We rented a car and drove down with Nigel and Donna, who knew where the place was, luckily enough. We got to spend more time with them which made us happy and hopefully wasn't too detrimental to their livers. And the birds down there were great, even if we did manage to successfully elude the pittas. 

Khao Nor Chuchi really is in the middle of nowhere - big surprise. It's a tiny remnant of the rainforest which used to cover southern Thailand (even though the bird seems to prefer secondary growth, but never mind). It's a bona fide frontline in the eco-war, so there was a predictable amount of tension in what you might have thought would be a quiet little backwater. The specifics of which I shouldn't go into here. But as you can imagine, the plantation owners don't have much interest in the survival of an insignificant bird when, according to their standards, there's goodland going to waste.

The only other thing I'm going to say is that the Merikot resort is a very nice place to stay, and the owners are equally nice. Any resentment that the locals might feel due to them being from Bangkok is probably your typical rural small-mindedness - you can find enough of that in Beaver Dams or Horseheads.

And I'm certainly not going to talk about the Danish funding drying up, or the former warden who charges big bucks to show birders the bird. We'd have to get into the whole Big Issue of conservation and ego-tourism, and that would be far too depressing. There's a song about Karl Marx on the last Randy Newman album that more or less sums up the last couple of hundred years, so go and listen to that if you think you're feeling a bit too cheerful about the world.

Miscellaneous reptile, Khao Nor Chuchi

Miscellaneous reptile, Khao Nor Chuchi

Doreen: Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, May 12, 2001

Malaysia has been a mixed bag of delights and disappointments. One of our biggest mistakes was not purchasing a fieldguide for the birds of Borneo before we arrived. We spent several days in Kuala Lumpur searching for a proper book but came up empty-handed. Finally we settled for a limited book of photographs and a small, outdated field-guide that we picked up Kota Kinabalu airport.

Another one of our blunders was not booking our accommodations in advance at the more popular national parks. Malaysia’s parks are run more like resorts than campsites, so the accommodations are tripled in price and the cheaper rooms get booked first. We didn’t have much luck with hotels outside the park either. These places would often charge outrageous amounts for dumps. This was the first time we met travelers who complained about bedbugs in their rooms. Lastly, even the most expensive rooms had their resident rats.

Now, on to the bright side of life! Our most heart stopping, eye popping moment was when we realized we were watching an orang utan in the wild – simply incredible! What’s even more amazing was that we weren’t in the dense forest, but on a side road outside Poring Hot Springs. Both peninsular Malaysia and Borneo had their share of exciting birds and it’s hard to complain about a park when you see eleven different species of bulbuls in one fruiting tree.

The people were also exceptionally nice. On our flight to Borneo I started talking to a girl who was sitting next to me and before the plane landed she invited us to stay with her family in Kota Kinabalu. I was tempted to ask her if anyone in her family might have the MacKinnon book, (A Field Guide To the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali), but instead just thanked her for her kind offer. As with most places we’ve visited, we will return. One of the advantages of being novice birders is that there are always plenty of birds we miss.

 Young orang utan, serendipitously spotted just outside Poring hot springs, Borneo

 Young orang utan, serendipitously spotted just outside Poring hot springs, Borneo

Bill: Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, April 27, 2001

Close friends get to call it KL.

Bangkok happily juxtaposed gleaming futurism with the timelessly Asian; Kuala Lumpur is quite a different kettle of fish-head soup. Perhaps we got our wires crossed and were expecting a sort of Singapore, but we were surprised to find KL so run down and seedy. Quite pleasantly surprised, actually. OK, so it's not a city you fall in love with on first sight (or maybe ever) but it's a bit like being home - the twin towers, the garbage in the street, the junkies fighting their slow motion war against gravity - although it could just be the neighborhood we're staying in. Like every Chinatown everywhere, Jake, the transition from urban slum to quaint ethnic attraction has been somewhat fitful.

The strangest thing about Kuala Lumpur is its apparent lack of history. When the only buildings of historical note appear to be the squat, stolid leftovers of the British empire, you know there's something funny going on. Well yes, it's a city with its eye on the future - the Petronius towers prove once and for all that the Islamic dick is bigger than the American one, or at least until someone else builds something bigger. But why would they name it after an obscure Roman author? Or is it Polonius? Pandarus? Petruchio? Something like that, anyway... Petronas. That's it. So they named it after an oil company. How prosaic.

The general seediness adds, perversely, to the sense of affluence. Whereas Bangkok's modern bits were obviously brand-new, Kuala Lumpur has a comfortable, well lived-in look. This city has been doing quite well for quite some time, thank you very much, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future - Malaysia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. And Mahathir Mohamad, their seemingly eternal prime minister, has apparently dragged the country into the 21st Century, increasing the average Malay's standard of living tenfold in the last couple of decades. So what if there's no free press?

And you know that this is a country teetering on the first world threshold when you notice that the motorbikes never carry more than two people. But it's all so mercantile - there are hardly even any mosques for chrissakes. After such physically devout cities as Istanbul, Kathmandu and Bangkok, this comes as a shock. It's like Norman Lewis said of Saigon, the city's origin as a center of colonial trade is still very apparent. (Quote taken from Lonely planet I admit it. But I really have read A Dragon Apparent, honest.)

Jungle hint #2: Eat all your cookies at once.

So guess what brought us to Malaysia in the first place? Yup, you got it, there's a ton of birds in these here parts. So off we went to Fraser's Hill, the latest in our long line of hill stations, and one of the nicest. It even had an authentically inauthentic English country pub (unfortunately charging New York prices, but never mind). It may even have been the inspiration for the great J G Farrell's last, unfinished book. I'll have to check when I get back home.

Our next stop was Taman Negara national park. Since 'Taman Negara' actually means 'national park', this is a quite brilliantly named place. Stuffed to the gills with fabulous bird species, of course, but since the all the park accommodation has been privatized, it was also obscenely expensive. (Wonder whose cousin got the franchise on that one, eh?) Perhaps this explained the weirdness of the clientele.

If you know us, or have been following our year in space-age trousers, you're well aware that Doreen and I are far from intrepid - we like our jungle experiences to have AC, cold beer, and preferably an IDD connection. We're not proud of these things, but there they are. So at Taman Negara it took us a while to figure out what was so disturbing about the place. Eventually, we realized that what was odd was how touristy is all was. As unadventurous as we really are, the lust for birding had been taking us to some rather off the beaten track places, and we'd become used to our only fellow foreigners being the odd nutter and the occasional birder (occasionally birders would double as a nutters when space was limited). When you habituate the back-ass of beyond, you get used to its strange initiates. Here at National Park National Park we were surrounded by northern European family groups kitted out in matching jungle attire, and shirtless public school ninnies whiling away the months before Oxbridge. We experienced our own kind of culture shock.

Malaysia, a place where English is the second language and malaria is eradicated (on the peninsula, anyway), seems to be a favorite destination for people who find the concept of Asia a little unnerving. You can even get high tea here, if you really feel the need for it . And Taman Negara is perhaps the biggest tourist draw in the entire country. So we felt a little out of place there. Or maybe it was just the astronomical rates being charged for the rooms. We spent a couple of nights on the cheaper side, over the river, but the rooms there were proportionately overpriced as well - somewhat cheaper, and a lot crappier. On the plus side, however, the cheaper accommodation was at least rat free.

While taking a shower at the swanky resort, I heard Doreen screaming something about a rat on the mirror. Well, the Lariam's finally kicking in I though, until I dripped into the other room and found her on the bed and, indeed, a large rat perched on top of the mirror. It seems she had reached for a bag of cookies and felt the furry presence of something else with a sweet tooth. They were both obviously rather alarmed by the encounter.

Now, I like rats. We both do, having been born under the sign of the metal rat, lo, these many years ago. But as we've said before, we don't like sharing our rooms with them. Not to mention our biscuits. Plus, they have nasty diseases - I really would have to get some rabies shots if one of those critters connected. Mice, fine. Bring on the mice, let them conduct their grand schemes to their heart's content. But let's keep the rats on the subway tracks where they belong.

So we changed rooms, got swiftly upgraded before too many other guests heard about the rat, and so on. The problem here was that a big storm hit that night and we went from being a one-rat family to having dozens of the little bastards in the room with us. It seems they didn't like the rain. And oh yes, they still wanted those cookies - like a pillock, I had rescued the non-nibbled package and taken it with us to the new room. Consequently, at around four, I was awoken by a distinctly rodent-like rustling. I chucked the offending sweetmeats in a bin and placed it outside for anyone who felt like it, and spent the rest of the night listening to the rat family squeaking and running about the rafters, presumably in furious pursuit of the vanishing victuals. The next morning, the cookies were still there in the bin. It seems the rats had spent the whole night indoors with us, hungry but dry.

A duck walk in the treetops.

Everyone comes to Taman Negara to see the wildlife - wildlife which doesn't like being seen (apart from the rats, who don't seem to mind). Presumably to give the tourists something to do, they have constructed a 'canopy walkway', a series of rope bridges strung between the treetops, affording a bird's eye view of the rainforest canopy. It's supposed to be the longest suspension bridge in the world. Sounds nice, eh? Well only if you're not afraid of heights, like what I am, partner. Scared shitless would be one of the more polite ways of putting it, as some of you know. So what, you might ask, was I thinking when I climbed up there, a steely glint in my eye, a determined smile playing lightly about my lips, and a maraca-like knocking in my knees?

Well god only knows what possessed me to do it, but I did it. What an idiot. This thing was several hundred feet off the ground, the walkway consisted of a couple of narrow planks, the handrails were made of rope, and they only offered protection as far as my waist. At times like that, oh how I envy the short people of the world, with their safe and happy height/barrier ratio. Oh yes, and the guy in the ticket booth had the pungent, appley scent of the full-time alcoholic. (Quite an achievement in a settlement where the beers are as expensive as at the Limelight - he must have had a good poteen connection somewhere). One hopes the maintenance crew do not share his vice.

So there I was, wobbling along on this creaking, swinging, assemblage of planks and ropes, suspended over the rainforest, hyperventilating too hard to even start the atheist's prayer. The only way I could make it was to creep along in a crouching gait somewhat reminiscent of Groucho Marx, a distant cousin of Chuck Berry's duck-walk. Anything to make myself shorter and increase the amount of rope between me and the thin air. Doreen was very kind and refrained from laughing at my crab-like scuttling until we were back on solid ground, bless her.

Why did I do it? Well, there are some species of bird that you only ever see in the treetops. You can bet I took plenty of time to search for them while trying not to look down, up, anywhere at all except off that damn thing. There was even some kind of bird fluttering around right next to the walkway, but I declined to spend any time examining it. I was too busy composing the headlines in my head - Coronary on the canopy walkway - English birder croaks on quest for elusive flowerpecker. Last words: ' Does that plank look a bit loose?'

Kuala Lumpur, May 13, 2001

The Borneo chronicles, part one.

Back again at the somewhat cheesy (and surreally named) Swiss Inn, nestling in the heart of Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown. The cheaper rooms have no windows, which wouldn't be so bad if they had HBO. But instead they have a weird, airplane type of programme sequence, presenting odd combinations of ancient sports biographies, terrible American TV movies and English documentaries they must have picked up cheap. I must admit we quite enjoyed the episode of Kenneth Clarke's Civilization, something I was a bit young for when it was originally broadcast. But with the weird assemblage of travelogues and commercials, I keep expecting the Pearl & Dean theme music to break out (sing along now, everybody).

We've tried exploring KL but the most exciting place we've found is a supermarket that sells Chinese mock-meat. I'm sure the city has many hidden treasures, but by now we're keen to get going on the final leg of this tour - the Antipodes beckon. (Is New Zealand technically part of the Antipodes? I'll have to look that up).

We've just returned from two wonderful weeks in Sabah, one of Borneo's two Malaysian states. The state capital, Kota Kinabalu, was apparently flattened by the Allies during WWII, so contains even less of historical note than you might expect. It does, however, have the excellent Wah May Hotel, so that was good enough for us. Conveniently located next to a supermarket, but far enough away that the smell of the durians didn't reach the hotel, thank god.

From KK, (as the acronym crazed Malays have taken to calling it), it's a short boat ride to Palau Manukan, an island noted for it's spectacular coral reefs - so naturally, we spent a couple of days there searching for the Tabon Scrubfowl, a bird that looks a bit like a dull chicken. You can imagine how delighted we were when we found them just a few yards from our room.

Palau Manukan is part of a national park, so once again all accommodation is privatized and very expensive, but at least they threw in free meals - and the beer was half as much as at Taman Negara, which cheered us up considerably. We spent a happy couple of days there, looking for non-existent frigatebirds and accosting any birders we came across so that we could consult their fieldguides. (We were stuck with a very nice but slightly archaic book from 1957. Despite an extensive search of KL and KK, we weren't able to come up with anything better - although we did find such treasures as A Guide to British Woodlice and several books devoted to Sundan lichen).

The Borneo chronicles, part two.

After Palau Manukan, our next stop was Mount Kinabalu national park, where the accommodation is located high enough for the temperatures to be clement and there are scores of endemic birds flitting around right outside your cabin. Our kind of place. Unfortunately, it's also Borneo's top tourist draw, with busloads of people queuing up to hike vertical granite into the thin air - go figure. This created something of an accommodation crisis, which we solved by a) spending too much money on a room designed for four, b) going to Poring Hot Springs in the middle of our stay at Mount Kinabalu, and c) getting hold of a cheaper room upon or return. The cheaper room came equipped with rats, but let's not go on about that yet again, OK?

Although the park accommodation was built in 1981, it all appeared to have been modeled on 60's bachelor pads and basement rec-rooms. The first one we stayed in had a sunken living room floor, creating a distinctly Help! ambiance which we enjoyed no end. The cheaper, ratty room was even groovier, with a retro-futurist octagonal ceiling, but got pretty cold when the mists rolled in, making it the cabin obscured by clouds. Cue Antonioni. (Or was it the other, less successful French avant gardist that directed La Valee? Answers on a postcard, please.)

Going down to the affiliated Poring Hot Springs in the middle of our stay was a bit of a time-waster, but unavoidable. After being smart enough to avoid the Nepalese mass slaughter of goats and the water dousing, week-long Thai New Year, we found ourselves in the middle of a Malay long weekend. Not so bad, except we had to share our hotel with a gang of rowdy teens on their equivalent of a spring break. Luckily for us, for rowdy teenagers they were incredibly well behaved - their rave ended at about eleven, and they would have been no trouble at all if it wasn't for their annoying habit of trying to walk into our room all night. Searching for the toilet? Sneaking around on illicit assignations? Who can say?

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo - the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea (seen from about 5325 feet)

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo - the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea (seen from about 5325 feet)

So. Farewell then, Borneo.

So. Farewell then, Borneo. We barely skimmed the surface of this vast and mysterious island, although we became adept at hoovering up the Heinz salad cream that was foolishly served with the green salads - ah, the rich English heritage that proudly lingers still! We would be the last people to complain about comfortable lodgings, but it was all so easy that, at times, you could forget you were in Borneo. At least until you bump into an Orang Utan.

On our last morning at Poring we were getting in some last minute birding along the road leading to the park entrance. Doreen commented that she was seeing something that did not quite resemble a bird and, after training my binoculars on something distinctly gingery, I suggested that we might be looking at an Orang Utan, not believing the words coming out of my mouth. After all, if we could manage to miss tigers during two months in India then there could be no chance of us seeing this rare, elusive man of the woods. We had considered visiting Sepilok, where rescued Orangs are reintroduced to the wild. They are, however, too smart to fall for this, and come back every day for their complementary lunch of bananas - why knock yourself out finding food when these crazy hairless apes feed you for free? The only downside would appear to be having to deal with the endless tourists and celebrities like Julia Roberts having life affirming moments, but they seem to cope with it well enough.

But Sepilok was too far, time was too short, and there were too many birds to look for. So it was with deep, deep joy that we realized we were being stared at by a young female Orang Utan, quietly going about the business of collecting her breakfast. The fact that she was, quite literally, born free made the experience even more profound. The quizzical way in which she regarded us will, I hope, stay with me always. It's also nice to know that they are not so endangered that bumbling birders can't run into them on the borders of a national park. How long this state of affairs will continue is anyone's guess, although not only is Poring an eco-tourist destination, it's also hugely popular with Malays who like to splash around in the, you guessed it, hot springs - so hopefully it will not be logged into oblivion in the future. And it was nice to see how excited the little kids on their way to school were when they saw the Orang as well. They got the picture, alright.

Doreen: Australia

July 31, 2001

Australia: land of big, colorful, noisy, slow-moving birds - how perfect is that? Once our plane landed in Darwin, well over two months ago, it seemed like the trip had ended and the vacation was beginning – bring on the dancing horses. Of course, with easy traveling also came expense. Amazingly, the car we rented in Adelaide worked out at under $20 US a day, which helped the budget tremendously. The fact that the Australian dollar is pretty weak didn’t hurt us either. We did stay in a few youth hostels, mostly in the Northern Territory, but managed to find a chain of really cheap, good hotels (around $30 - 35 US a night). If anyone is interested, it’s the Budget Motel Chain, and most have direct dial phones. (If only we were uploading more often. It did help us keep up with our e-mail, though).

Most of the time we didn’t spend at national parks was spent driving to national parks. We didn’t stay too long in any particular city, although we really liked Darwin, Adelaide and Sydney. Brisbane was a bit charmless and the drive between Brisbane and Cairns was pretty dull, unless of course endless sugar cane plantations are your cup of tea. We also traveled with Kirsten, my niece, for almost a month and as far as I can tell we didn’t push her over the edge with our birding obsession. She was also a big help with the car. In one town I jumped out of driver’s seat and let her reverse into a parking space (awesome) and we also learned how to use the headlights properly (bless her). Not to mention the intricacies of radio programming.

All the national parks we visited were true gems, but my two favorites were Kakadu and Wilson’s Promontory. Kakadu really deserves several days to explore, and the nighttime birding is fantastic. One night we found Bush Thick-knees and Barking Owls all by ourselves – I called in the owls by impersonating their call (woof woof, Timmy) and Bill accidentally found the Thick-knees when he got lost. Wilson’s Prom wins the most beautiful award in the National Park stakes. Although the birding was a bit thin on the ground, the scenery was outstanding. Another favorite was a visit to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins, as was the pelagic trip off the coast of Wollongong.

My only gripe with Australia is that Sara-Marie should have been the winner on Big Brother. Oh well, never mind - looking forward to getting home and teaching everyone the Bum Dance. (It’s an Aussie thing).

Cuddly wombat, Wilson's Prom

Cuddly wombat, Wilson's Prom

Bill: Australia

Halls Gap, June 8, 2001

Postcard.

Being in Australia is like a whole different trip - insane evolution notwithstanding, it's a lot like home (wherever that is). In fact, it's eerily like an English America. People are friendly and helpful, and yet they also have a sense of humor. And you can easily get all kinds of dreadful English food, things I sometimes spend a guilty fortune on at Myer's of Keswick (Hudson Street), times when I feel I just can't live without Branston Pickle. In fact we've been having such a good time that neither of us has bothered writing anything for these web pages. So as it's raining today, I thought I'd upload a few pictures - and jot down a few words before dispensing larger pearls of wisdom in a few day's time.

Australia's wildlife really is quite extraordinary, and encouragingly abundant. And there's just something perversely brilliant about watching animals bounce instead of run. They are often quite tame, which is handy for those of us without zoom lenses, and may help to prevent eyestrain on your part.

We flew into Darwin, which was a good way to enter the first world. It's sort of like Australia's Alaska - isolated and strangely cosmopolitan. We spent a few days at the nearby Kakadu national park, where the firstpart of the first Crocodile Dundee was filmed. (The fact that several minutes were also filmed in our then local in New York has nothing to do with anything, but was a handy counter in banter with the locals when they started acting rough-hewn).

After Darwin, we stopped in Alice Springs for a few days, the only city in the most unpopulated part of the world. (Apart from Antarctica, or so it says here). Then we took another entertaining twenty hour Greyhound ride to Adelaide, a really nice city that we could easily have spent more time exploring - but we had to hire a car and drive off to the Grampians in search of birds. As usual.

One strange thing about coming to Australia from the north is that we initially saw the parts of the country which still have large Aboriginal populations - down south, you hardly see any of this continent's original inhabitants. The north inevitably shares certain depressing elements with the high southwest's Navaho reservations, but it's also very different. Everywhere you look, white people are moving around like some kind of perpetual motion machine, juxtaposed with static groups of Aboriginals sitting down in city parks and road verges, as if they're patiently waiting for us to go away. As if the towns just sprung up around them, overnight. Which they did.

Laughing Kookaburra, Halls Gap. You've heard him in dozens of Tarzan movies

Laughing Kookaburra, Halls Gap. You've heard him in dozens of Tarzan movies

Cairns, July 31, 2001

Goodbye Tasman.

Here we are then - day 78 in Australia. The time has just zipped by, which you may have deduced by our embarrassing lack of updates. Tomorrow we bid farewell to the only continent that's also a country, and head off to the Antipodes part two - New Zealand. Which will be the last chapter in this year-long adventure.

Our itinerary was somewhat inadvertently designed to minimize culture shock upon our return. After jumping several centuries back in time to Nepal, we've gradually moved forward to the present day. In Thailand we rediscovered supermarkets and in Australia we overcame the language barrier (more or less, Cobbler). America shouldn't be too weird after this, or at least no weirder than it already is.

The peculiar thing about being in Australia is that it's been so easy, so comfortable and so enjoyable, that it feels like there's not much to say. Yes, the scenery and the wildlife are spectacular - we can hardly believe the numbers of animals and birds we've seen - but after experiencing such radically different cultures as Nepal, India and Thailand, it all seems a bit ordinary. Not to say that we're not having the time of our lives, because we are. We're probably having more fun here than anywhere else - we've had the freedom of having a car and speaking the language, and the birding has been magnificent. It's just a lot easier to write postcards when you're looking at the Himalayas than when you're watching Seinfeld. Would you really be interested to hear that yesterday we saw a Little Bittern then went out for Mexican food and watched American Beauty?

Another strange thing: we've been here so long, and driven around so much, that when we watch the news we've nearly always been to wherever they're talking about. It's a big country with a small population, and we've passed through every largish community with the exception of Broome and Perth. Not that we haven't spent a considerable amount of time lurking around Australia's impressive collection of national parks. But you have to stock up on baked beans somewhere. (Thanks to our amazing ability to happily subsist on baked beans and peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, we've managed to keep our Australian budget well below expectations. We're still enjoying a romance with supermarkets, partly because they're still a novelty to us. One element of New York's unique charm is that all the supermarkets there are crap.)

Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu National Park. Not the bit where they filmed Crocodile Dundee

Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu National Park. Not the bit where they filmed Crocodile Dundee

So: The itinerary, then.

OK, as I've said we landed in Darwin, which is a pretty cool city, way out in the remote central northern tropics (or the Top End as they like to call it). After being in Australia two and a half months, it's still one of my favorite places here, and I look forward to going back one day. We rented a car and drove to Kakadu national park, which was of course brilliant, and then drove further south to a town called Katherine before dropping the car off in Darwin again. We then took a twenty hour Greyhound bus ride to Alice Springs, passing through Katherine on the way - proving you can't plan your itinerary too carefully. The bus ride wasn't too bad, believe it or not. Darwin has a great second-hand book shop so we were fortified with Graham Greene, Bill Bryson, and a flask of screwdrivers. As twenty hour bus rides go, it was one of the best.

(This reminds me that we're in the middle of a media storm about a disappearing English tourist who was supposedly murdered and/or abducted when his car was flagged down on that very highway. It's a big story here and in Britain, but has probably gone unnoticed in America, where this kind of thing happens all the time. Some people have cast doubt on his girlfriend's version of events, but who knows? It's certainly freaked out the tourists in that area, and we're lucky we passed through there a while ago. We're also glad we opted for the bus over the car when we traveled through the big red centre.)

We enjoyed our time in Alice Springs - you could hike from town to many interesting locations where it's possible to see many interesting birds. We were still staying in hostels at this point, but soon discovered that you could get motel rooms for only slightly more than a hostel double - and upgrade to the wonderful world of the en suite.

The first hostel we stayed in, (Elke's in Darwin), was run by a very charismatic and energetic lady who, like all hostel managers, was keen to help book our trip for us. She persuaded us to buy VIP cards, which is sort of like joining the YHA - you get discounts at hostels and so on. It enabled us to get a substantial discount on our car rental, saving us a bundle, and is one of the main reasons for us being able to keep our budget so low. For this we are eternally grateful.

The bit we didn't like has to with the whole nature of tourism in Australia. A lot of tourists here seem to be English youngsters who lack the nerve to visit non-English speaking countries. They come to Australia to get drunk, have sex with strangers, and bungy jump - the sort of things young folks like to do the world over. They are also usually on limited budgets, and so there are millions of tour operators offering group excursions to all the tourist attractions. The term 'independent traveler' seems to mean something different here in that, if you can't afford a car, you're not really independent and are going to spend a lot of time in tour groups. Which probably works OK, and may well increase your chances of having sex with strangers, so it's win-win all round, if that's your cup of tea.

Due to all kinds of drop-off penalties and other restrictions, we decided not to rent a car continuously until we got to Adelaide, which meant getting a bus from Darwin to Alice, and then another one to Adelaide. The Greyhound to Alice was fine, filled with a fair mix of locals and backpackers, as it's the cheapest option available. The Alice to Adelaide Greyhound route is, for some reason, undercut by several tour operators who charge less for a trip that includes a night in the underground motels of Coober Pedy, a mining town exactly in the middle of nowhere and popular movie location. Well, whoop-de-doo. The activities on offer mainly involve ferrying you around gem dealers where you are no doubt encouraged to purchase many interesting trinkets. Hence the cheaper price, one might conclude.

At Elke's in Darwin, we'd booked one of these things without really thinking about it. The name of the operator - Groovy Grape - should have given us a small clue that it wasn't quite our scene. Once in Alice we began to visualize twenty hours in a bus full of university students singing Limp Bizkit songs, interrupted by a night's revelry in an underground dorm. Not for us, we felt, and so bailed, losing our deposit, but what the hell. Interestingly, the Greyhound ride wasn't much fun either. Since all the teeny-boppers were groovy graping it, the bus was full of the misfits, loonies and drug addicts that favor Greyhounds the world over.

Alice's bus station was quite impressive, however. It's crappiness whipped me right back in time to downtown Colchester in the early 80's, a place I spent far too much time in. A place which has never quite recovered its zest after being pipped by Londinium for the role of capital city.

We also arrived in Adelaide at five in the morning, and so had to wait for our motel to open up in the only establishment available at that time of day. I shudder at the memory, but we actually set foot in a MacDonald's, thereby helping to finance the forces of pure evil. We admit it - we gave them a couple of bucks for a couple of coffees, and observed the shitface army march in and try to order their burgers. It was quite entertaining to watch. The staff were bodhisattvas to a man, (apart from the part about working for Satan).

Edith Falls, near Katherine; north of Alice Springs. Another theme, I think

Edith Falls, near Katherine; north of Alice Springs. Another theme, I think

The Itinerary Part II

Adelaide was a genuinely beautiful city, as I've said, but we wasted no time in renting the cheapest car we could find and heading off in search of birds. From here on it all gets a bit blurry, as we dashed around the country in search of rare endemics. If I told you we eventually saw 356 species of bird in Australia, would you be impressed? I didn't think you would.

The next exciting thing that happened to us was the arrival of a new member of the team - the lovely Kirsten, Doreen's niece. Instead of having one Connecticut belle to lighten my days and offer interesting interpretations of the English language, I now had two, and my happiness was surely doubled. The three of us had a lot of fun together, and Kirsten dragged us into a few bars where her outgoing nature ensured some interesting encounters with the locals - how else could we have met publicans, firemen and people with staples in their heads?

We stayed in St. Kilda, a cool Melbourne suburb and location for a friend of ours' book - it'll be interesting to reread it when we get back. (The book in question is The Unexpected Salami by Laurie Gwen Shapiro - buy it now!) After this we drove up the coast to Sydney, stopping off a various fab national parks along the way, as is our wont. A highlight was Phillip Island on the south coast, where the nightly arrival of hundreds of penguins returning to their burrows has become a major tourist attraction. Understandably so - it's hard for us humans not to respond warmly to these tiny bipedal waiters as they waddle along. Being close enough to reach out and touch them was a very special experience.

Another highlight was a pelagic trip from lovely Wollongong, where we were able to witness the banding of albatrosses first hand - albatrosses! Just like in that poem by the guy who wrote the one in Citizen Kane! The one with the monkey from Porlock on his back! Anyway, it was pretty spectacular. We'd been looking forward to this trip for over a year. It's quite famous in birding circles, and only goes out once a month, so we were quite anxious about getting onboard, e-mailing one of the organizers for over a year. (It still didn't work - our names weren't on the list, but they let us on anyway. What a relief.)

Back in New York when we told an Australian friend about how much we were looking forward to the Wollongong trip, he laughed and laughed and laughed. Wollongong, he said,  was the arsehole of the universe. Well, admittedly it's not Eton Wick, but it's not a bad place. Even if we were woken up at four in the morning by a drunken arsehole returning from the pub with a strong need for meat pies and full volume telly. We were back in the hostels again, you see. After this it was motels all the way.

Itinerary Part III - the odyssey continues.

Wollongong is just a short hop from Sydney, where we were able to celebrate my birthday with a slap-up Indian feast. Or two. Accommodations there, as in most cities, are expensive, but we were able to find a cheapish hotel that, like in some dystopian science fiction story, turned into a welfare hotel on its lower floors - right where the laundry was located, unfortunately. We had many interesting moments there, undecided as to whether it was more like a film by Fellini or David Lynch.

So we saw the opera house, the bridge, Bondi Beach, the whole bit. Sydney's OK for a big city that isn't New York, and has some pleasant neighborhoods like Paddington. This Paddo's a bit different from the one Dennis Potter used to like, more like a West Village made up of English two-up-two-downs. In fact, while I'm on the subject of architecture (sort of) I'd like to say how many nice buildings there are in that utilitarian 30's English Deco style that used to look so grey and depressing when I was little. With the passing of years they've started to look attractive - or is this just the insidious nature of the Tate Modern working on my mind?

After Sydney we drove up the coast, stopping off at various birding hotspots as usual. When we entered Queensland we passed through Surfer's Paradise, a endless strip of hotels and fast-food outlets that must be the tackiest place on earth. Outside of the USA, or course. We don't recommend it.

Around this time we lost Kirsten, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house as we bid her a sad farewell. We drowned our sorrows by searching out ever more exotic species of birds as we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and headed back into the tropics. (Bet you never realized that was why they called it the tropics, eh?) Above Townsville we entered the part of northern Queensland rather uncommercially known as the wet tropics, and discovered another part of Australia as wonderful as the Top End. Apparently we like the bits at the top the most. 

At Eungella national park we searched for the aptly named Eungella Honeyeater. This obscure park preserves a large section of rainforest that has been cut off for about thirty thousand years. All very Lost World. Consequently, it has a few species of animal and plant that are found nowhere else on earth - proving that Darwin has it over Conan-Doyle any day of the week. One of its rarities is the aforementioned honeyeater, which we were sadly unable to locate. The lady at the motel said that in a couple of months you'd have a hard time not tripping over them, but there you go. Such are the vagaries of the birdwatching game.

However, almost as exciting as the prospect of seeing a small yellow bird that looks a lot like a lot of other small yellow birds was the fact that Eungella is the best place in Australia to see the duck-billed platypus. This wonderful animal is one of only two monotremes in the world - egg-laying mammals with a limited selection of private parts. They are notoriously hard to see, being justifiably wary of humans, but at Eungella they are quite happy to cavort right in front of you. I was sort of expecting something like a beaver, but platypuses (platypi? platypussies?) are quite tiny. They root around in the mud looking for tasty morsels and then lazily float around on the surface for a while before starting off again. Although at night, when we watched some others at a different location, they were much more vivacious - as you'd expect from a primarily nocturnal animal.

After this, we headed to a remote cafe, mysteriously located high up a mountain. The unassuming Ivy Cottage tea rooms is yet another place well known on the global birder network - people travel thousands of miles to have a scone and photograph the exotic selection of birds making use of their bird feeder. While we were wandering around the tiny village, passing strangers would chat with us, and one couple insisted we bird in their back garden while we fended off offers of tea and coffee. This proved that we'd left the harsher urban zones of Victoria, New South Wales, and southern Queensland, and were back where people are friendly. Like in Dayton, Ohio, 1903.

Itinerary Part IV - journey's end (in Australia, anyway).

Next up was Mission Beach, another small place high on the birder's agenda. It's also a popular, unspoiled beach town, and we stayed at a nice motel run by a couple of ex-pat Kiwis. Could New Zealanders be even nicer than northern Australians? We'll find out soon.

Mission Beach is home to a large population of Southern Cassowaries, the third largest bird in the world, and by far the most aggressive. People are regularly done over by these beasts but, fortunately for us, that usually happens later in the year when they have young chicks in tow. Cassowaries are amazing looking creatures, with a bizarre bony crest on top of their heads. Anyone who entertains any doubts that birds and dinosaurs are one and the same should check one of these beauties out.

From here we moved on to the Atherton Tablelands, another remote area where we stayed at yet another birding hotspot - Kingfisher Park, a campsite and motel run by a wildlife rehabilitator. Here, a young red-legged pademelon (mini-kangaroo) would hop up for a cuddle while you enjoyed a coffee and watched a Red-necked Crake chasing off Emerald Doves. We liked it a lot.

Next on the itinerary was the tiny village of Daintree, a remote backwater which has become quite a big tourist draw on account of its impressive numbers of 'salties' - gert big crocodiles to you and me. It's also, guess what, another birding hotspot, and we took a dawn boat ride in the pouring rain in search of one of the world's rarest herons. Doreen though she was hallucinating when she saw one directly in front of the boat, to the apparent unconcern of everyone else. Basically, she was the only one who's eyes were keen enough to see it, and was hesitant about alerting everyone else in case she was misidentifying a very large gull, perhaps. Fortunately she managed to attract my attention with a number of Grommit like jabs, and everyone else eventually saw it too, much to the delight of the seasoned birders on board. (They called themselves the Geriatric Gerygones, sort of a Hell's Grannies of the birding world). She certainlymade their day for them. We were pleased as well, but seeing the Papuan Frogmouth was the pop of the cherry.

After this and many more adventures, we ended up in Cairns, the last city of any size before the wilderness of Cape York - a vast area we don't have the time or money to investigate. You have to fly in and either camp in the jungle or stay at a remote and super-expensive resort. Guess which option we'd have to take.

Cairns is OK, but characterless. It feels like an overgrown beach town, and seems to exist mainly to service the many tourists who want to explore the surrounding areas. But it's a good place to marshal our forces before setting of for New Zealand - our last hurrah before home and the grim realty of a New York winter. But we'll be glad to go back. Whether it's because we've been on the road long enough, or because Australia is too much like home, we find ourselves increasingly missing our family, friends, and most of all, our cats.

Breakfasting kangaroos, Halls Gap - the town with no punctuation

Breakfasting kangaroos, Halls Gap - the town with no punctuation