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October 4, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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A promise, a dream, and a spare tyre: Touring through South East Asia

In February 2009, Gold Coast by-way-of Nelson punk band Not OK headed to South East Asia for a month-long, fourteen-date tour of the region. Taking in four countries—Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (both Borneo, and Peninsula)—this wasn’t your average trip to Bali to get on the waste in the sun. The experiences of that tour could easily make for a compelling book, but in the interests of brevity, here is just a sniff of our South East Asia experience.


In order to get to South East Asia, our itinerary took us from the Gold Coast to Melbourne, to Canberra and then back to Melbourne, and then on to Perth before finally heading to Singapore for the first show. Anyone who knows the geography of Australia will realise this is somewhat ridiculous. Partly due to an attempt to sort out work visas for Indonesia at the last minute (which explains the trip to Canberra), this was simply taking advantage of flights that were half the price, despite taking us twice the distance. Needless to say, it was somewhat of a relief after 40 hours of planes and airports to reach our first real destination.

Singapore is a vegan’s paradise—if you know where to look. A wonderful array of mock meats in rice and noodle dishes that ooze with Asian flavours, and easily the cheapest vegan catering in the world meant I was in culinary heaven, and I think I spent most of our 48 hours in Singapore waiting for the next meal. The Chinese vegan food was only outmatched by its Indian equivalent.

When you catch the subway to Little India in Singapore, you emerge from the station, and it seems as though you have actually somehow transported to India itself. We spent a good few hours wandering around the area getting a feel for it—eating, perusing the shops and watching the people. Little India itself could quite conceivably allow for a number of days of exploring, but as for most of trip, the logistics of touring saw our time constrained. 48 hours really isn’t enough to explore Singapore, and I would take the opportunity to travel back in an instant to further explore this cultural melting pot.

Surabaya/Sidoarjo, Indonesia

Having played Singapore, Manila in the Philippines, and Bali, we were now headed to East Java for a run of shows. The drive from Bali to Surabaya in East Java has to be one of the worst van trips in seven years of playing in bands and touring. The 400-kilometre drive took just over 12 hours, fighting with some of the worst traffic on the worst roads we had ever dealt with. If I have any advice for travelling through Indonesia, it is quite simply not to bother with the roads.

Surabaya was cool though. Indonesia’s second largest city isn’t exactly aimed at tourists, but since our Indonesian promoter was based there, we were shown the sights and had a good time seeing the place. Probably the most incredible thing was seeing the Lapindo mudflow. Indonesia is a country that has seen its fair share of natural disasters, and Surabaya is no exception. On the outskirts of the city, there is an area surrounded by a wall of earth. When one climbs the wall, it looks as though there is simply a lake, but we were quickly informed that the whole area used to be populated until this volcanic mudflow started to gush out of the earth. All the Indonesian government has managed to do is simply move the thousands who lived there—many of whom live on the outskirts, with no livelihood now—and build these embankments to hold back the mud, which continues to flow until this day.

Of course by this time, a week and a half into the tour, the inevitable South East Asian stomach bug had invaded half of us and unfortunately both Kurt and I spent that day in the van more worried about where the next toilet was than anything else. After a day of sightseeing in which we saw the inside of many cubicles complete with their squat toilets and a frightening lack of toilet paper, it was time to hit the road for another hour to play in the small satellite city of Sidoarjo.

Sidoarjo was quite simply the best show on the tour, and it deserves a mention. We were headlining a festival of 39 bands, which ran from nine in the morning until ten at night. This wasn’t an ordinary festival though. In true Indonesian fashion, the organisers had paid off the cops to stay away from an empty parking lot, and a couple of amps, some drums and a vocal P.A. were set-up on the ground in one corner. By the time we turned up, the place was heaving with people.

There is no way we should have been headlining, because Indonesia has some truly impressive bands. A fantastic mixture of punk, rock, ska and reggae bands took the stage one after another and the crowd absolutely loved it. Mingling through the audience, we were continuously pulled in to dance with the locals, and were offered numerous swigs of whatever was being used as alcohol that evening. Needless to say, these offers were turned down due to our abdominal situations. Playing in Sidoarjo was equally as just as simply being at the show. The crowd, which was largely made up of street-kids, made us feel entirely at home and the show was easily one of the best we had ever played as a band.

One further thing about Sidoarjo—Not OK is not a band well acquainted with the ‘back-stage area’. But on this occasion, as with many of the South East Asia shows, we were treated to such a space. Outside, and behind a gate, with an open sewer running down the side, was the allocated area in Sidoarjo, which became a whole lot more interesting when one of the audience members walked back to tie his monkey up in relative safety while he took off to watch the show. Needless to say, this monkey found itself the centre of attention for the better part of an hour. Despite the moral objections incited by the very sight of a chained-up wild animal, it was still pretty cool to hang out with a monkey!

Kota Kinabalu/Kuching, Boreno Malaysia

Borneo’s inclusion on the itinerary was something we hadn’t expected when we started booking the tour, and needless to say, it was a region we were looking forward to exploring. Despite only having three days across two cities, and fighting an unshakable bout of diarrhoea, we really did try to make the most of Borneo.

In Kota Kinabalu, at the northern end of the island, it was all about the beach. A full day of wallowing in calm and temperate waters, and sleeping under palm trees might not seem like the best use of a short amount of time, but after three weeks of cities and their associated pollution, this trip to the beach was probably the greatest thing Borneo could have offered us. Kota Kinabalu does exude a laid back, island atmosphere and it was an incredibly juxtaposed relaxation against the hustle and bustle of the rest of our South East Asia experience.

With Kota Kinabalu taking care of the beach, when we hit Kuching in the south, it was all about the jungle. Again, time wasn’t on our side, so we didn’t get to penetrate the jungle as much as we would have liked, but the visit we had was still definitely well worth it. Unfortunately no more monkeys, but you can’t win ‘em all right?!

Like everywhere else on this trip, we only got a glimpse of Borneo, but the idea of further exploring more of it’s beaches and jungle means it will definitely be a feature in future travel.

All in all, it’s difficult to give a sense of what South East Asia can really offer, but seeing it through the eyes of the locals was a truly unique experience. We played to some of the craziest audiences, met some fantastic people, and saw the insides of too many planes, buses, trains, taxis and vans to recount. Most importantly though, travel through South East Asia’s punk rock nether regions opened up another whole world to the band. The feeling is best summed up by Justin’s comments in an interview with The Groove Guide earlier this year.

“The music gives us a chance to travel and we try to do as much as we can. There is no better way to make friends for life. It breaks down all the barriers, and we came back home as different people. We saw how people in those parts of the world live and it made us realise we’re sitting pretty at their expense. Years of pillaging by past and present empires has left those countries with nothing to build upon. Why the locals treated us so well is beyond me.”

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