It is late October in 1999, and time is about to be called on the 20th century. In the real world, Pakistan’s government is in the process of being overthrown while the rest of the planet nervously awaits the consequences of the Y2K bug, with conspiracy theorists warning of imminent Armageddon. Pre-millennium tension, though, is in short supply here on Haad Rin Beach, home to Koh Pha Ngan’s infamous Full Moon party. I’d made my way to the island alone a day or two before. Now I’m holding court in a party of compadres – spinning yarns of travel in South-East Asia as colourful as the garish fake designer T-shirt I’m unself-consciously modelling. With bars and sound systems dotted around the beach, pumping out a throbbing, pounding soundtrack of Goa trance, I dance until daybreak. Exhausted, I make my way to the quieter, far end of the beach, find a spot in the sand, hitch up my sweat-drenched fisherman’s pants, and let the waves lap at my toes. The beats in the distance provide a comforting cocoon and I gently close my eyes….
Could it be that the road to good intentions is often paved with hell? That’s how it feels as I ascend a jungle-clad knoll at the southern end of Pak Nam Pran Beach, Pranburi, at a pace that probably would make a narcoleptic snail blush. Step after faltering step, I heave myself up the rocky path towards the coveted view until, finally — as my glasses threaten to slide of my glistening face for the umpteenth time—I reach the summit. After reflecting on my aching calves and rocketing temperature for a self-pitying second, I take the time to look around. To the south and west, the limestone peaks of Khao Sam Roi Yot and Kui Buri national parks trail off into the distance before giving way to even wilder territory at the Burmese border. Meanwhile, pristine sand stretches for kilometers to the north, the lapping waters of the Gulf of Thailand filled with kitesurfers, who look like oversized multihued tropical butterflies to me. I’m only 220 kilometers from Bangkok, but it might as well be a thousand.
It is an average and orderly Saturday morning at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. Clutching their expertly packaged bento boxes, travelers form civilized lines at designated queuing spots as trains arrive and depart with millisecond-perfect precision. Amid this tableau of politesse, however, something out of the ordinary is about to happen. As a guest on the Seven Stars in Kyushu—Japan’s first (and so far only) luxury sleeper train—I had spent the 15 minutes since boarding exploring the plush interiors of one of the world’s most expensive iron horses. So preoccupied had I been with the wall hangings, paper-panel windows and handcrafted furniture in my state-of-the art cabin, I hadn’t noticed that our imminent departure had attracted a whooping mass of onlookers to the previously moribund platform. As we rolled out of the station to a wall of sound created by flag-waving fans, the adulation displayed at every stop gave me a taste of the uplifting and seemingly random nature of Japanese fanaticism.
High up on the roof of the world grown-up guides talk humorously, but warily, about the ferociousness of female yetis, and lusty holy men are honored in temples by giant phalluses and bottles of wine. Yes, in Bhutan, the line between reality and myth is blurry. Possibly, the conjurings of devout believers who disappear into the mountains to meditate for months on end, colorful legends come thick and fast—and often with a generous portion of ribaldry. On the way from the capital, Thimphu, to the former capital Punakha, my guide, Arun, and I stop for a tea break at the summit of Dochu La. The high pass is notable for the 360-degree views of pine-clad hills and snow-capped mountains it o ers. It is also famous as the place where philandering guru Drukpa Kunley—better known as the Divine Madman—subdued a ferocious demoness with his versatile phallus, referred to as the “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom.”
In the face of continued tumult across the region, nobody would argue that it has been an uplifting year for the Middle East. In April, however, leading figures in the UAE’s recently established space agency expanded on plans to send an unmanned probe to Mars, providing a timely boost to Arab pride.The exploration would produce the first ever truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere, according to Omran Sharaf, the Mars Mission project manager. “This is the first holistic study of the Martian climate and how the layers of atmosphere fit together,” he said.
In the heart of Melbourne, Australia, just off its bustling Chinatown, lies a part of the city that will forever be Beijing circa 1966. With propaganda artwork decking the walls and a cocktail list advertising drinks such as the ‘Imperialist Running Dog’, a bar named Double Happiness seems happy to promote the cult of Chairman Mao Zedong. Particular emphasis is placed on ephemera and slogans from his Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – a scorched earth attempt to purge capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society that ended up paralysing the country politically, socially, economically and – ironically –culturally.