Planning to Change a Plan - As we approached the end of the Indonesian leg of our voyage, we started to put some effort and Bintang time into thinking what comes next (other than Mr C giving James an education on the golf courses of Singapore).
The original plan was to head to Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands and it was the part of the trip when we were going to attempt to get seriously off the beaten track (recognizing that the track isn't all that beaten in Indonesia, China, Tibet, Nepal and India).
On the face of it, it's a perfect destination. Described by our friends at Lonely Planet as one of the last great unexplored frontiers it has a lot to offer - one of the World's greatest and most remote and unexplored rivers in the Sepik, the continuation of the 'ring of fire' with a dramatic 6.6 earthquake registered only a week or so ago, steaming volcanoes and a whole city buried in ash and deserted as recently as 1996 (move over Pompeii) and without doubt the worlds most impressive wreck diving with Japanese and Australian war ships littering the beaches and ports.
And the people - while we were drinking our way through University, a decent slice of PNG were eating their way through their neighbours. They make the tribes of Borneo look like ladies who lunch and although we've been reliably informed that they ceased this intriguing culinary choice in 2001 (how do "they" know this!?), it does add a certain spice (to the trip, not us).
More appealing than spicy James, the serious lack of tourism makes interacting with people in a less tourist-transaction-based way far more interesting. There is no "good price for mister" and, out of the main urban areas, hotels and guesthouses and non-existent and finding the village chief to ask for a bed for the night is the norm. There is no shuttle bus or taxi - it is cargo boat, farm truck and walking all the way.
So all in all, some strong plus points. In which case, why were we planning to change a plan? Well the above comes with some challenges in the form of security, money and timing.
PNG is on most countries no-go list, as perhaps surprisingly is Indonesia and Egypt (for terrorist reasons - makes you wonder why the US and UK don't make the same list). A combination of good old fashioned car jacking and armed robbery in the cities and constant tribal fighting in the highlands (they kill but resist feasting on their enemies) makes it a tough place to travel freely. The tourist highlights are generally ok - but only in expensive city hotels behind secure compound walls , travelling only in 4x4s with security escorts. This is exactly the opposite of our off the beaten track requirements.
And off the beaten track also means some seriously hard core journeys that might test even Nicola's insane book reading ability. Without any roads connecting even the major cities, it is 40 hours on a cargo boat from one town to the next, banana trade boats between islands (pirates won't eat you) and illegal border crossings (Solomon immigration chiefs might). And finally, if its not mind numbing boat trips, its expensive internal flights, a pastime that, while not as dangerous as a game of crown green bowls in Eastbourne, does not exactly come highly recommended by the EU Aviation Authority!
So to summarise our rambling prose - a truly awesome country to visit but perhaps not in the way or by the means that we want to at this point in our trip.
So where to next then?
South East Asia's best lie between Singapore and China but with all but Burma and Vietnam already 'ticked off' on previous trips, our choices are limited but certainly not lacking. The South East monsoons bring some pretty wet weather to this part of the globe at this time of year and are certainly significant enough to influence travel plans. Burma in particular suffers because of its location and because its roads are pretty useless in the dry, never mind the wet. While it's a place that we'd love to go, we don't think that there is enough to keep us interested between bouts of lashing monsoons and mudslides.
Which leaves Vietnam, although that phrase sounds like it's a real chore. With amazing geography, mega food, beautiful temples, serious history, friendly people and the ability to escape the high-tempo travelers trail and see the "real country" when required, Vietnam sounds like a great reason to change a plan.
So we're currently sitting in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, where we'll begin the mammoth overland trek to Goa. As the crow flies, it is 3,381kms but who wants to fly with crows? Our preferred route using boats, buses, trains, bikes, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and feet will be well over 12,000km. So a little less blogging and a little more travelling…