These are my impressions only; they
may not be your impressions should you
choose to visit these places.
This is not a travel guide, more a
synopsis of some of my experiences,
which I hope you find interesting.
When you travel, what sticks most
in your memory is not always what
you were expecting to see, and part
of the joy of it is that you can never
quite predict what will happen.
The main piece of advice I'd give
is to read up a bit about the history
and culture of the place, and to respect
the people who live there for their
way of life (it's their country, not
yours, even though you may not like
all aspects of the country).
People of goodwill will generally
make allowances for your strangeness
and lack of knowledge of local customs,
as long as you respect them.
For Westerners travelling to Asia,
I'd recommend doing a certain amount
of study of Asian cultures and religions,
partly because this is a very rich and
interesting subject in its own right,
but partly because it will help you
understand far more of what you see
(both in terms of temples and in
terms of customs and how the people live)
than otherwise. Keeping face, respect and
politeness are all very important to
most people from these cultures; making
an idiot of yourself will get you absolutely
For the Spanish-speaking Americas,
I'd recommend the same, although
Latin American culture is probably
closer to Euro-American culture;
however, it is well worth learning at
least a few words of Spanish, which is quite
similar to French.
A good travel guide is pretty important
for a successful trip. I generally
Lonely Planet guides
as being useful and very
The Rough Guides are also
good, if less extensive. For trips to
cities in developed countries
(e.g. New York, Paris, Rome, London,
I'd also recommend the Time Out guides
to those cities. For interesting and
offbeat travel reading, I can recommend
the following books :-
The Granta Book of Travel. Granta is
one of the leading literary magazines in
English-speaking countries, and this book
is its collection of travel short stories.
The Granta Book of Reportage. Another Granta
collection, but more focused on journalism from
around the world.
Wherever you go, it's important to travel
ethically. Try and minimise any
negative impact of your visit and be aware
that human rights abuses take place all
over the world. In 1993, the Burmese city
of Pagan, which contains many ancient Buddhist
treasures, was emptied of its inhabitants
so that foreign tourists would be spared the
inconvenience of the sight of human beings;
the townspeople, whose own ancestors had built
the temples of Pagan, were forced from their
homes. This is just one example of the
negative impact of world travel. For updates
and information about human rights worldwide,
take a look at
Amnesty International's website.
I came to Australia first to visit,
then to live there for about a year,
mainly in the Sydney area.
Best aspects of Australian travel :-
1 - natural splendour. Australia is
still largely unpopulated, with large
regions of rainforest, mountain and
desert. The Blue Mountains and the
South Coast are only a short train trip
from Sydney, both of which contain
stunning, largely untouristed scenery.
Even the Greater Sydney metropolitan
area contains pockets of rainforest
(good for bushwalking) and largely
Also highly recommended is a visit
to the rainforests of far northern
2 - Sydney. Sydney is a vibrant, multicultural
city which is home to many different
kinds of people (I think around one third
of the people living in the Sydney
area were born outside Australia).
Sydney is home to large east Asian,
southern and eastern European,
and Pacific islander communities,
which means there is a good choice
of eateries, as well as other interesting
places to visit, such as temples.
Sydney also has a fair range of good
bars, clubs and live music venues.
The RSL clubs are interesting for a
bit of a taster of a 'true blue'
Aussie life, although they are
extremely lowbrow; the beer and food
The setting for Sydney is quite impressive;
one of the greatest natural harbours in
the world, and sunny weather more or less
all year round.
It also has a flourishing cultural life
- especially film-making books.
I'm told that Melbourne also has
quite a cultural life, but I've
never been there.
3 - Aboriginal culture.
Aboriginal art, both modern and ancient
(in the form of rock carvings) is
definitely something worth coming to
Australia for. Many museums have
good Aboriginal sections, and bushwalking
in the Sydney area can lead you to
an interesting Aboriginal carving or
two. Unfortunately, despite its openness
multiculturalism, there is still a
fair amount of racism in Australia,
and the Aborigines come in for the
brunt of it.
The Aboriginal community still suffers
a fair amount of injustice, especially
in the outback; rates of absolute
poverty, child mortality, and illiteracy
are far worse for Aborigines than for
the community as a whole. This is
linked to the ugly history of British
colonisation of Australia and subsequent
discrimination. Having said that, Australia
is a developed, open, ethnically diverse country
and has made great strides correcting
many of its social problems.
Take a look
for pictures of the Nan Tien Chinese
Buddhist temple complex in Wollongong,
for a picture of an angel in
Waverley Cemetery in Sydney's eastern
1996 & 1997 - Singapore & Malaysia
I visited Singapore on the way to Australia
and Malaysia on the way back; they are
similar enough to be treated together.
One thing to bear in mind that both
countries are very very hot and humid, which can
take a few days' adjustment if you
come from a cold country. Singapore is a thoroughly
modern city which still maintains its culture -
one of the world's major ports and financial
centres, yet the kind of place where people go to pay their
respects at their ancestors' graves.
Malaysia is a more traditional, conservative place,
although it too has undergone radical changes over
the last couple of decades.
Best aspects :-
1 - Asian culture. Both places are home
to a large number of ethnic groups from
many different parts of Asia. There are
three principal groups, each of which
maintains its own traditions and beliefs :
the Malays, who are in the majority in
Malaysia and are mostly Muslim; the
Chinese, who are in the majority in
Singapore in and are generally Taoists,
Buddhists, or Christians; and the
the Indians (mostly Tamils,
originally from southern India) who are
mostly Hindus, although some are also
Muslims or Sikhs. This diversity means
that there are a lot of interesting
places to visit in both countries.
Penang in Malaysia is home to many
Chinese temples (both Buddhist and
Taoist) and clanhouses, as well as
Hindu temples. Exploring the different
cultures which live in the two nations
is a bit of an adventure in itself.
The Chinese and Hindus are generally
quite open about their beliefs and
traditions, and there is no problem
with visiting temples of either culture,
as long as you are not intrusive.
In Buddhist and Hindu temples you should
remove your shoes; this is not necessary
in Taoist temples.
In Buddhist temples it is generally
not acceptable to take photos of
statues of Buddha - buy a postcard
instead. Be circumspect about
taking pictures, follow the
rules, and tip generously
if someone offers to show you around.
A visit to a mosque
requires a bit more tact, so it's
best to check on what's expected
of you. Some mosques are off-limits
to non-believers, and most require
modest dress (for women, this sometimes
means covering your head) and ban
photography. Again, buy a postcard
Obviously, the range of cultures means
that there is a good choice of eating
too; in Singapore, you can buy a good
meal from vendors on street corners.
English is used as a lingua franca
in both Singapore and Malaysia, although
Bahasa Malaysia (the Malay language),
various dialects of Chinese, and
Tamil are also widely spoken.
There have been tensions between the
different cultures in the past, however;
the Chinese tend to dominate the business
world, and the Indians
tend to succeed in the professions and
the universities, which has led to the
laws in Malaysia, meaning that native
Malays find it easier to enter
university or find jobs than members
of the other groups.
In all communities, keeping face, respect and politeness
are very important.
2 - Rainforests (in Malaysia).
Malaysia is home to lots of rainforests
and the natural life associated with
them - butterflies, exotic birds,
monkeys, colourful plants, and so
on. This is well worth a trek.
Negative aspects - Singapore and Malaysia
are fairly strictly controlled societies
which means that cultural life can
be somewhat sterile, and local newspapers
express only a narrow, officially sanctioned
band of opinion; in Singapore especially,
foreign newspapers and magazines brought into
the country are subject to censorship.
I came here to visit, in spring 1999.
Mexico is really a fusion of two quite different
cultures - the indigenous culture of the
Mesocamericans and the European culture of
the Spanish. This is reflected in the social
structures of the country and its religion -
Mexico is a Catholic country, but with a
uniquely Mexican twist.
Best aspects -
1 - Mesoamerican ruins. This is
really why I came to Mexico.
Just outside Mexico City are the
pyramids of Teotihuacan. Teotihuacan
was at the heart of a thriving
civilisation in what is now the
Mexico City area for many centuries
and the temples and pyramids
still stand as a monument to it.
I've been to a fair selection of the
world's great temple sites (Stonehenge,
cathedrals in Europe, temples in Asia),
but Teotihuacan tops all of them,
except possibly St. Peter's in Rome.
The Teotihuacan civilisation
predated the Aztec civilisation.
In the heart of Mexico City lie
the remains of the Aztecs' central
temple, which is also very very
2 - Mexican churches. I did not
come to Mexico looking for churches,
but I was surprised and pleased to
find that the places of worship
in Mexico City are as impressive
as anything in Europe. They are often
ornately designed, almost Moorish,
and unlike northern Europe they
are obviously home to a living religion;
I sat in on a church service which
was packed, full of weeping women and
genuine believers, expecting miracles;
something I have never seen in England.
Even an empty Mexican church is
a peaceful, contemplative place,
and quite touching, with so many
images of the crucified, bloody Christ
and the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadelupe
(the patron saint of Mexico); lovingly
tended by priests, and often centres
of 'liberation theology', the strand
of modern Catholicism that seeks to
bring Christ's teachings to the masses
with a message of social justice.
3 - Art. As a result of my trip to
Mexico I became a huge fan of the
muralist Diego Rivera and his lover
and fellow-artist Frida Kahlo.
Murals are everywhere in Mexico City,
always colourful. Rivera was a revolutionary
socialist and keen observer of social conditions,
and this is often reflected in the murals.
Kahlo's art tends to be more surreal and personal.
The stormy relationship of the obese Rivera and
diminutive Kahlo is a fascinating story in itself -
Rivera compared it to a 'love affair between an
elephant and a dove'.
4 - Food. Mexican food is a bit of
an adventure in itself; you can get a
good cheap meal from a street stall.
If you do buy a meal from a street stall,
I'd advise using one which has a lot of
customers, as these are probably the
safest from the point of view of food
5 - The Mexican people. Of all the
places I have been to in the last few
years, Mexico probably has the most
likeable; rather shy, but friendly,
helpful, kind and religious.
Negative aspects -
1 - Poverty.
Beggars and street kids are everywhere
in Mexico City, as are a large number
of people in 'borderline' occupations
such as shoeshine merchants.
The number of poor people increased
dramatically after the collapse of
the peso a few years ago.
Having said that, there are a fair number
of people who look very well-heeled
in Mexico City. Racial divisions are
very obvious; the wealthy are generally
Caucasian, the poorest beggars very
often native Mexican, everyone else
somewhere in between. While I was
there, I never saw a Caucasian beggar,
and I never saw a native Mexican in
a suit. On the face of it, there is
a huge social gulf between rich and
poor, and which group you belong to
is largely determined by your
ethnicity. Another distressing aspect
is the sheer number of guns in Mexico
City; as well as regular police, there
are large numbers of security guards
who wear paramilitary-style uniforms
and carry submachine guns!
2 - Pollution. Mexico City, is the
largest metropolis on Earth, and
quite frankly, an ecological catastrophe;
the air is heavy with smog and pollution.
Not somewhere to go if you like it
clean and green. ;)
So would I go back? Most certainly.
Mexico is probably the most challenging
of all the countries I have ever been
to, but was definitely worthwhile.
It's one of the most rewarding places
I've ever been to. I came
to look at Mesoamerican temples, and
found many other things which I fell
in love with; despite their many problems,
above all I have faith in the goodness
of the Mexican people. If I went again,
I would travel more - probably to
Yucatan (which is clean and green, and
also home to many ancient sites); and
I would learn to speak more Spanish
before I went ;). And I'd probably
take someone with me too.
I visited New York City on my
way home from Mexico.
After the culture shock of Mexico City,
I had a fairly easy and relaxing time
in New York. New York is full of
art galleries, museums, bookshops, and lots of
other interesting things I kept myself
active with; it's also full of lots of
good eateries of many different nationalities
and for all budgets. It's very very similar
to London in lots of respects; if
you like London, you'll probably like
New York, and vice versa. New York seemed
to have more vibrancy about it though;
I'd attribute this to the fact that
London hasn't had much of a proper
central government since Thatcher abolished
the GLC. My main complaint about New York
is the lack of decent, affordable places.
When I arrived I stayed at a place in
Chinatown which was cheap and ok, but
a bit of a dive, to be honest;
tiny, noisy cell-like rooms and radiators
which were loud and came on at
odd hours so you boiled!
moved into a hotel in Midtown which was
great; comfortable and restful,
luxurious even, but
soooo expensive. There seemed to
be nothing in between;
you either slum it on the cheap
or stay in luxury but shell out
big bucks. In London
at least you can stay in reasonably
priced bed and breakfasts, even in central
London; this may be something worth
considering for New York.
Most of the tourist attractions
in New York are familiar to people worldwide,
but I'd recommend a walk through Chinatown
and a visit to the galleries in SoHo
too. The Museum of African Art, in
particular, is a bit of a gem, and
a beautiful building too. For
lots of good stuff about New York,
Paperless New York.
I met my good friend
Michele in New York, which was lovely. :)
I went to Tokyo in June 2000. I haven't written it up yet,
but you can look at some pictures