After a wonderful last few days in Thailand travelling around with Tone and his friends, I'm now in Sydney staying with my friend from uni, Nicky (the same person I was visiting in Hong Kong).
Tone and his friends had travelled up from Bangkok to take a load of donations of food, clothing, toys and money to a school that a young guy set up for kids from hill tribe families that had become homeless for various reasons. I found it really shocking that the Thai government doesn't support them in any way. People from the hill tribes aren't considered Thai - they don't have Thai ID cards and get no welfare at all. So these kids are living in a tiny group of buildings among the paddy fields, and the school is totally reliant on donations. I'm finding it really difficult to explain what it was like to be there. On one hand it was really uplifting to see how happy and well balanced these young kids were. But at the same time there was something quite draining about visiting and making friends with them and seeing how happy they were with everything that the group had brought, and then driving away again after spending a few hours there.
The other amazing thing I did with the group was on Monday - a big Buddhist religious holiday. We got up at 5.30 and drove for an hour or so to a really remote village, which is unique in Thailand because the monks there ride on horseback to collect their morning offerings. So along with a couple of hundred Thai people that had come to make their offerings for the festival, I stood in this hillside settlement and watched in the crisp morning sunshine as the seven monks came riding over the hill through the forest in their beautiful saffron robes chanting. The head monk was the most striking person I have ever seen. He sat on his horse, smiling happily and calmly among the crowds of worshipers making their offerings. He was quite chunky and his body was covered in intricate tatoos. He was followed by another older monk, an dthen by five young novice monks, each with tatoos. They'd be far too young to get tatoos in the UK!
I'd brought some food, soya milk and cartons of orange juice, so I stood in line with everyone else and made my offerings. The main monk was quite amused to see a farang there.
Tone had to go back to Chiang Mai to work, but the others gave me and my bike a lift all the way back to Bangkok! I was lucky that they were so kind, because I would really have struggled to get a space on a bus or train with the holiday - I'd not realised it was happening.
And after a journey that was pleasant thanks to a co-passenger who spoke good English, and scary thanks to a driver who drove adrenaline-drainingly fast, I arrived at Bangkok at 1.30 in the morning. I left my bike and all my stuff except my wallet and passport in left luggage and got a taxi to Khao San Road (backpacker central) and after a few attempts, found myself a room at 3.30 am. I felt I ought to make the most of my last night in Thailand, but despite it's party reputation, absolutely nothing was open at that time, and they stop selling beer in the shops at midnight. I got chatting to a group who were drinking on the pavement - a Canadian called Ty, an Australian called Jimmy, and six crazy japanese guys. They informed me that you can still buy beer illegally in the shops - just smile, and give them 100B, and they might keep the change as a bonus (though in my case they just charged me the normal price of 50B).
After some in-depth and drunken conversations about the state of Thailand, the two of the crazy Japanese guys started pushing each other around and shouting, and a Thai taxi driver threatened to call the cops, so bearing in mind the strong need not to get on the wrong side of Thai police, me, Ty and Jimmy made a hasty exit to our respective guesthouses. It was time to sleep anyway - it was past 5, and we were the last people on the street apart from the hookers.
After very little sleep I got up to make the most of my last day to do some shopping. I have discovered the best way to get around Bangkok: the motorbike taxi. It is so fast because they can dodge up the side of the traffic jams like a bike, but it's faster than a bicycle thanks to the motor. And it is so much fun! And because I'm a passenger I can take in all the scenery that I can't when I'm cycling (because I'm having to watch the traffic) or when in a bus or taxi (because the roof gets in the way). I went to the bike shop and sorted out a box for my bike, then hit the MBK mall and spent lots of money on software, DVDs and a shiny new digital camera (Pentax Optio WPI 6 mpx for anyone that's interested), then headed out to the airport, dismantled my bike and checked in with no problems at all - they didn't even charge me extra for the bike!
The flight to Sydney was pleasant - I was sitting between a well travelled middle aged Australian from the same suburb as my Dad's cousin who I'm off to see tomorrow, and a young Spanish guy who's birthday it was that day and was off to live with his girlfriend for three months. I got the train into the city centre and discovered that rather than being scorching hot and in the 30s, it was raining.
I found Nicky's flat on the edge of Chinatown without any problems and was welcomed by her boyfriend Rowney. I knew he was big into cycling, but it turns out he's REALLY into cycling. He's an ex-pro racer, mostly mountian biking, and competed in the olympics! He was pretty famous in the late 90s when mountain biking was at it's biggest. I'm sure I must have come across him when I used to read the biking magazines religiously as a teenager. He's got three absolutely amazing bikes in the flat. He now sells Yeti bikes - his road bike frame was custom made for him. He took me out for a ride around Sydney and at one beauty spot up on the cliffs an old American guy came up to us and was suitably awed by it. I don't really know much about high-end bikes, but even I am impressed. What impressed me was how seriously fit he is. We rode about 30 miles and he was clearly taking it extremely easy as I struggled to keep up. It was a great way to see the city. We rode past the parliament buildings, and then suddenly arrived at the Sydney Opera House and harbour bridge. Then we went past the botanic gardens and east through Kings Cross, Double Bay, through the posh suburbs with the occasional stunning modern house and lots of dull pillbox houses, watched the bmx-ers at the skate park at Bondi Beach, then stopped to see his friends at a bike shop. Rowney very kindly fixed up my bike a bit - including changing my drop-bar handlebars to be at the correct angle. i've spent the last six weeks with them set up wrongly! Doh! It's totally changed the handling, and feels much more comfortable. We had a delicious veggie burger, then headed back through a huge park (centennial park) and back to Nicky's flat.
In the evening when Nicky got back we drank some delicious Australian beer and wine, and Rowney made tasty babaganoush, followed by fantastic gnocchi. Nicky's got herself a good man here! I'm really enjoying good western food again. I love Thai food, but I got kinda sick of having rice and veg so often as the only vegetarian option in the many villages I was passing through. But I know that in a couple of weeks I'll be aching for it again.
Today's been an interesting rambling exploration of Sydney. I wandered around downtown looking at the shops and bizarre mix of architecture - bland skyscrapers, elaborate neo-classical collonial, and the occasional unexpected art-nouvau facade or gothic revival church. I did the touristy thing of going up a tall tower to see the view, and wandered around the beautiful botanic gardens and learned all about orchids - a plant that was amazingly prevelant in Thailand, but which I struggle not to kill in Edinburgh.
I ended the day by wandering around the Opera House. Yesterday I'd been seriously underwhelmed by it. It's one of those buildings that has occupied a place in my imagination for a long time thanks to it's very striking architecture, and having seen so many beautiful photos. So when I actually saw it there was no way that it could possibly live up to that. The same thing happened when I first saw the Pantheon. But this evening as I walked around it in the bright, pre-thunderstorm light, I fell in love with it. The shapes are so beautiful, the views change so much as you get closer, or move to another angle.
As the thunderstorm hit I felt very glad that I wasn't one of the people doing the walk over the arches of the bridge, and ran for a bus back to the town hall, where Nicky had booked us tickets for an evening lecture about sustainable building. It was an interesting lecture, even though it barely scratched the surface of the issues. The atmosphere of the lecture was very different to similar events I've attended in the UK. Much more chilled out and informal, with people swearing occasionally and cracking jokes that were actually funny.
We wandered home past Darling Harbour admiring the night time views of the unsustainably-illuminated skyscrapers. I feel like it's a pretty nice city from my first impressions. Flicking through the free live music paper is breathtaking - there's so much happening. People seem pretty friendly for such a big city. It's quite an under-stated place - it's not breathtakingly beautiful like Edinburgh or Florence. But it does still have a certain beauty about it with the opera house, nice public spaces and sculptures. But it is ridiculously large. Cycling 30 miles yesterday I hardly saw any of it. I'll see a lot more of the suburbs tomorrow evening as I head out to meet my relatives. And because of it's size and it's rather poor public transport the car really is prevelant here.