Saturday, June 24, 2006

The end is nigh . . .

I was awoken rather abruptly by powerful rumbles of thunder at around 5:30am this morning, and I have never been so scared by a thunderstorm in my entire life. There was a flash, which lit up the inside of my bungalow like a powerful neon light, and the loudest crash of thunder that I have ever heard. I cannot even begin to describe what it sounded like but it scared the s**t out of me! In fact, envisage the worst earthquake you could ever imagine - the ground was breaking in two and buildings were collapsing - and you're getting somewhere close.
Fortunately the worst of the storm was over by the time I had to leave to catch the ferry back to Ban Phe. In fact, by the time I was on the ferry you wouldn't have known there'd just been a terrible storm, the sun was shining so brightly that I was in danger of getting a bad case of sunburn on my arms as I hung over the side of the boat breathing in the sea air. At Ban Phe 10 of us squeezed into a mini bus, our bags at our feet and our knees subsequently level with our elbows. The journey took approximately 4 hours, and the moment we pulled into Khao San Road, the skies opened again. Even making the 5 minute walk back to the Wild Orchid Guesthouse would have involved me getting so wet I may as well have gone for a swim in the river, so instead I ran to the nearest internet cafe, updated my blog and emailed Todd (he's apparently back in Bangkok applying for various chef positions at some of the city's top hotels).
By around 8pm this evening I still hadn't heard back from Todd, so I headed out for some food and one of my favourite mango and passion fruit shakes from the vendor just in front of the 7-11 on Soi Rambuttri. I subsequently sat down at one of Khao San Road's many cafes and ordered a beer Chang, and it really started to dawn on me that I am actually going home tomorrow. It's a concept that's always seemed far too distant for me to dwell upon that seriously, and it's not one that I'm looking forward to. I have a feeling that it will take me longer to adjust to being at home than it did for me to adjust to being out here nearly 6 months ago. Of course I'm looking forward to seeing my friends and family but I'd sooner them being flying out here to visit me. I love Asia : aside from having to barter the price of the majority of your purchases (right down to a bottle of water in Vietnam) and having to deal with people (not everyone by any means, and it's only a serious issue in Vietnam) trying to rip you off or constantly trying to sell you their wares, I love the culture, the people and the pace of life over here. I love the food, I love the climate (although not the fact that you're sweating most of the time as a result!) and I love the sights and the sounds and the smells that constantly surround you.
I can honestly say that I haven't missed any of my 'creature comforts' as it were from back home, but one aspect of home that I have been craving is being able to go to the gym. I know it sounds crazy but a trek every now and then does not keep you fit (which I've realised having puffed and panted my way through several of them!) and I've lost all my muscle tone. So, one of the first activities I shall be persuing as soon as I get back to Shrewsbury is a dam good run (if I can manage it!) and some work on my muscles (namely my triceps, biceps and my abs). Tony, I may have to enlist your help as my personal trainer to get me back into it all! Aside from that, occasional longings for marmite and cheese have entered my head, and I shall certainly look forward to not having to sleep under a mosquito net every night and not being covered in bites all the time.
This is probably the last time I shall visit an internet cafe over here (aside from checking my mail around lunchtime to check whether Todd has got back to me and wants to meet for lunch) so I shall update the rest of todays journal when I return home on monday. Looking forward to seeing you all and boring you with endless tales of my Asian adventures . . .

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Here comes the sun! . . . and several playful puppies!

Before hitting the beach in the morning, I collected my laundry from the washerwoman who lives down a little alley next to the 7-11, only to discover that she'd managed to lose one of my bras as well as the bottom half of my pyjamas! I'll add those items to the long list which currently includes my toothbrush, my alarm clock, my watch (well, actually that broke but at the end of the day I no longer have it!), several pairs of underwear, a memory card, and my mobile phone! I guess losing a few items is inevitable bearing in mind that when you're travelling you're packing and unpacking and moving on every few days.
We had another beautiful sunny day on Ko Samet. I finished reading 'Smoking Poppy', fell asleep on several occasions and got woken up by a couple of playful puppies running across my stomach - on several occasions! I don't know what it is with me and dogs lately but first of all I looked around the beach and noticed that, of the many dogs that had fallen asleep on the sand, most of them had decided to do so within a metre radius of where I was lying. Secondly, out of all the people on the beach, a couple of mishchievous little puppies decided to have a playfight on my sarong with me lying in between them. They kept running across my stomach, trying to bite each other and biting my leg or stomach instead, rolling their wet sandy bodies all over my sarong, licking my face, and trying to run of with my flip flops and my shorts. One of the little buggers did actually run off with my shorts, so that i was there tryng to wrench my shorts from the jaws of this puppy in the middle of a beach full of people who were finding this the most hilarious thing they've seen in months! The trouble was, the little puppy thought it was all just a game too, and subsequently fought even harder against me and my shorts. I finally threw down the gauntlet and added my shorts too the ever increasing lost property list at the beginning of this entry.
This evening I watched "Ray" (I saw the film about 18 months ago at the cinema but it's a first class film so I didn't need any persuasion to watch it for a second time) and then joined Danny, Jesicca, Paul and a collection of other people whose names I can't remember, at Naga Bar. There was a different D.J on the decks there, who was playing a much better set and mixing the tunes a lot better than the other guy too (lots of the prodigy, which met with my approval). I also had the chance to make up for the appalling pool game I didn't play the other night : I won the first game with tall guy (well, that's what I shall call him as I didn't catch his name due to the loudness of the music) and then only lost the second one on the black ball. Due to not really chatting to anyone in particular and just mingling amongst the crowds (most of whom I recognised from Naga) I drank my way through several large beer Changs and was subsequently bouncing around on the dance floor at the end of the evening! (which was actually around 3am!)
The following morning the sun was already shining with all it's strength by 10am, so that when the cloud had properly lifted it was so hot I had to go for a swim every half an hour. I sat up in Tok's Little Bar at lunchtime, and was soon accompanied by a Thai guy who calls himself FBI. I've seen him walking along the beach several times, a few of which he's tried to talk me into having one of the henna tattoos he sells. So, I made polite conversation with him. He was moaning about how quiet it was on the beach now that it's low season and that no-one wants a tattoo. Assuming he makes little money from selling tattoos in the rainy season, I asked him if he has an alternative job. He subsequently started to look shifty, lowered his voice, and told me he sells marajuana. He then proceeded to open his shoulder bag, produce a large bag of the green stuff and asked me if I'd like to buy some for a "special price". I have now been offered weed in all four countries I've visited over the past 6 months : from members of the hilltribes in Laos, tuk tuk/moto drivers, guesthouses and restaurants (basically pretty much everyone!) in Cambodia, book sellers and market stall owners in Vietnam, and henna tattooists in Thailand!
Later on that day, he approached me to ask if I wanted to watch the sunset with him; he'd take me to a beach around the other side of the island on his motorbike. Maybe his intentions were perfectly innocent but I wasn't about to jump on the back of a motorbike with a complete stranger, so I told him I was still feeling hungover and just wanted to spend a lazy day on the beach (which wasn't entirely untrue). The misheivous puppies also made an appearance again, but fortunately didn't try to steal any more items of my clothing or take chunks out my flesh. They just covered me and my sarong in sand and when i'd shaken my sarong down and dusted myself clean, they came back to do it all over again. Don't you just love 'em?
Photo to follow.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Island hopping to Ko Samet

I caught the 9:30am songthaew over to the port as instructed but when I arrived on the mainland I still waited around for over an hour for the bus to arrive, whilst watching the rain pounding down on the pavement outside and drinking the largest banana shake I've ever been served. It appeared that I was the only person on the bus who was not heading straight to Bangkok and I was subsequently a little worried that the driver may completely bypass Rayong (the jumping off point for Ko Samet), so when we made a refreshments stop after about an hour I showed my ticket to the driver and asked him to confirm that we would be making a stop for Ko Samet and what sort of time we would be stopping. As is often the case when Asian people don't have a clue what you're talking about, he simply nodded his head and smiled. So, not feeling at all confident that he could even read the destination on my ticket, I kept my eye on the road for the duration of the journey to ensure that we remained on the correct road. As I suspected, we didn't. Instead of taking the road to Bangkok which runs through Rayong, the driver took the direct route to Bangkok. As soon as I realised I rushed downstairs and showed the driver my ticket. He acted as if nothing was wrong, yet a kilometre down the road we came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere, and I was offloaded on to a mini bus which subsequently headed in - guess what - the direction we had just come from!

I was driven to Ban Phe, where I caught a small motorboat across to the island. The lady at the port tried to fleece me for a further 100THB for the boat fare, until pointed out that I had already paid all the way to Ko Samet, as it stated on my ticket. I shared the motorboat with several bags full of longans and rambutans, a collection of Thai school children (who had presumably finished classes for the day as it was approaching 4pm), and a Thai mother whose little girl spent the entire journey doing cartoon superhero poses, which resulted in me desperately trying to hold back a fit of the giggles. We arrived on Ko Samet at around 5pm, and as I was the only farang on the boat the taxi driver wanted to charge me 200THB to take me to Ao Hin Kok beach. I decided to walk and I was glad that I did when I discovered that Ao Hin Kok was only around 1.5/2km from where the boat had dropped me off. All the accommodation on Ao Hin Kok is squeezed along a dirt track which runs parallel to the beach and stretches for around 100m. As my choice was therefore rather limited, I chose the cheapest option which was a bungalow at Naga Bungalows with shared bathroom for 200THB. The room is indeed more pleasant that the one at Fisherman Hill but is even more of a mosquito trap - I got bitten about 5 or 6 times simply by walking to the shower. Bearing in mind that getting to the shower involves walking through what can only be described as a jungle of dense vegetation then I wasn't hugely surprised!
I would truly love to find out the real reason why mosquitoes find some people tastier than others. I've heard many theories : that they're attracted to you if you eat cheese, that they're attracted to you if you eat sweet foods, that they're attracted by the surface temperature of your skin, and that they're attracted to slimmer people. All of these I know are myths because firstly cheese is unavailable in Asia (unless you count the laughing cow processed variety), secondly I don't eat sweet foods (apart from fruit), thirdly everyone has a high surface body temperature out here as it's over 30 degrees most of the time (even when it's raining), and lastly Siobhian and I are exactly the same size and she didn't get bitten once. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, mosquitoes can and do bite you through your clothing. How else do you explain the collection of bites on my bum?
In the 'jungle' surrounding the bungalows at Naga there are more of the creatures we encountered on Ko Chang who sound like demented cows. They never seem to shut up and although the noise doesn't scare me anymore I'd love to know what kind of creature it is that's making it!

At Naga they show a couple of films every evening in the common room/restaurant so I spent my first night on the island watching "21 Grams" and "Oceans Twelve" and then retired to bed, serenaded by the demented cows and the music from the Naga Bar across the road. The folowing day I found the library at my guesthouse, rented "Smoking Poppy" by Graham Joyce and spent the day reading it whilst lying on the beach under a very cloudy sky. I comforted myself with the thought that at least it wasn't raining. However, later on in the evening it did. I sat in Naga listening to the persistent rain outside and watching "Keeping Mum" and "Cinderella Man". I got chatting to Danny, one of the long term residents at Naga. He's been travelling for almost a year and Thailand is only his second destination. He spent several months in New Zealand and didn't make it further than Rotarua and I'm pretty sure he hasn't seen any of Thailand beyond Bangkok and Ko Samet! Nevertheless, he was an easy going guy, and equally easy to talk to. I joined him at the Naga Bar once the second film had finished and challenged him to a game of pool. It wasn't until we were half the way through the game and I hadn't had a turn at the table that he decided to tell me that he used to play semi-professional.

The heavy rain would have kept me awake half the night had I not drank several bottles of beer Chang, which was enough to send me to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. The following morning, the weather made a bit of a turn around. It started off cloudy but you could still see the sunshine trying to break through the clouds, and by around midday it had. So I relaxed on the beach and got most of the way through "Smoking Poppy". Despite the obvious topic inferred by the title - it tells the story of a father who learns that his daughter has been arrested in Chiang Mai on drugs smuggling charges - it's a novel about much more than drugs. It's a surprisingly moving story which tracks the journey of discovery between a father and his daughter, and explores the concepts of love, redemption, and letting go.
I left the beach sporting a little red rudolph nose and suffering from a persistent sun-induced headache. As a result I spent another lazy evening at the Naga watching their latest selection of films : "40 Year Old Virgin" (which is not the type of film I'd usually watch but I found myself chuckling throughout) and "Crash" (not to be confused with the original film of the same title where people get off on watching car crashes!).
Photo is of statues of the prince and the mermaid (from Sunthorn Phu's epic set on Ko Samet) at the southern end of Hat Sai Kaew beach

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rain, a canine companion, and more rain!

After Siobhian left I've been unable to do a lot here due to the unpredictable weather. Or perhaps that should be predictable : you know it's going to rain every day for sure, you're just not sure how much and for how long. I contemplated booking a boat tour of four of the surrounding islands, but I wasn't prepared to pay the price the agents were asking merely on the off-chance that the sun may make an unexpected appearance.

Instead I've been spending my time reading, either on the beach when it's not raining (as there are too many mosquitoes fighting for a taste of my blood up at Fisherman Hill) or in one of the nearby cafes. I've eaten at The Food Centre every day, so much so that they know what I like to drink and can hazard a pretty good guess at what I want to eat as well (it tends to be either green curry with seafood, fish cakes, or rice noodles with vegetables and seafood). I've also made a true friend in the resident dog at Fisherman Hill. I'm normally more of a cat lover but this fellow is making a pretty good job of changing my mind. He's a beautiful, healthy looking animal : his fur is the rich colour of marmalade; and of the flesh of an overripe persimmon. The darker patches on his body give the impression of the sun casting shadows upon his fur. As much as I love cats, dogs are much more loyal animals, whereas cats will appreciate anyone who feeds them, pets them and showers them with affection.

Whenever I return to Fisherman Hill, 'Marlam' (as i've decided to call him, variation on the word marmalade) always leaps up (from wherever his resting place may have been) to greet me (which consists of sniffing around my legs and licking my hands as I stroke him, or giving me both of his paws, looking me straight in the eyes and panting excitedly), follows me back to my bungalow and waits on the veranda until I've closed my door and am safely inside. If I've returned late at night, he'll often sit outside on the veranda until I fall asleep. I know this because I can see him through the cracks in the wood and I often hear him barking (at passing dogs) or shuffling around. He's got the cutest brown eyes and when he looks up at you the fur above his eyes wrinkles, creating such a sincere expression of concern and affection. I've watched other guests return and have never once witnessed him do the same for them. Even Siobhian said that he would only greet her when she was accommpanied by me. I never realised I had such a way with animals! It's almost like he's my little guardian angel, bless him.

I've been back to Oodie's Bar every night as well, firstly because they show a film every night at 7:30, and it's a great way to kill a couple of hours when you're on your own, and secondly because I love live music, especially when you've got some great tunes being played and some real characters playing them. Oodie (who plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals) looks like a a big (in comparison to the other guys) teddy bear that you wanna wrap your arms around, and he plays guitar with immense style and flair and incredible talent. He's played with the likes of Carabao, Caravan and Zo Zo, some of Thailand's biggest rock acts, and he's also been in several bands of his own. The drummer, Tien (who also plays guitar, bass and provides vocals) looks like a Samuri warrior with a wicked glint in his eye, and his smile is full of mischief and charm. Mai is the good old reliable bassist. This guy takes his music seriously : for the most part his expression and posture remain unchanged but every now and then you'll catch a spark of recklessness from him. I'm not sure they'll be together as a band for much longer, as Tien was filling in for the original drummer who's taken a 3 month honeymoon (it's alright for some!) and Mai is leaving shortly to get married himself. However, for the time being, they make an excellent trio.

I also got propositioned by the Thai barman at Oodie's. He kept asking me to stay on late at the bar and then offered to walk me home. I politely declined, being under the - more than likely accurate - impression that walking me home was not all that he had in mind!

Becoming increasingly disheartened with the weather and having spent several days frequenting the same hangouts and seeing the same faces, I was beginning to feel a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Consequently I booked a ticket up to Ko Samet, which leaves tomorrow (300THB, takes pretty much the whole day to get there). Although I'm not expecting that the weather will be much better up there, I could do with a change of scenery regardless.


Marlam, the resident dog at Fisherman Hill, Ko Chang

2nd photo to follow

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A scary first time motorbike experience

This morning we paid our 130THB and exchanged our passports for the keys to a couple of 125CC Honda Wave automatic motorcycles. It all seemed pretty straightforward : turn the ignition on, hold the break whilst starting the engine, twist the throttle up to start and use that to control your speed (up to go faster and down to slow down) and use the brakes when necessary. There were also indicators and lights and a horn to use when encountering fluttering chickens and dumb dogs who lie in the middle of the road. Starting the engine wasn't a problem but when I began to move the bike, I must have been a bit to heavy on the throttle, and coupled with the fact that I still wasn't used to the whole idea of balance (they're a lot heavier than I'd expected), I ended up nearly crashing in to a truck parked at the side of the road! Unfortunately for her, Siobian did crash into the same truck I narrowly missed, fell off the bike and caused a scratch to the paintwork at the front, which she later discovered would cost her a massive 570THB!

Shaken by her experience and worried about any further damage she may do to the bike or herself, she gave the keys back to the lady, deciding that perhaps motorbike driving was not one of her fortes. This left me in a bit of a predicament : taking the motorbike out on my own would have been very little fun for me or her. So I drove the vehicle up and down the road a few times until I was reasonably comfortable with the balance and the amount of pressure I should put on the throttle when starting the motorcycle and then made a proposal : If Siobhian wanted to ride on the back of my bike then I promised I'd drive cafefully and not take any unecessary risks. She agreed, and so it was that not only was it the first time I had really driven a car in around 10 years, it was also the first time I had ever driven a motorcycle and I was in responsible for another person's safety on the back of it!

Don't worry, everything turned out ok but I can't say it was a trouble free experience. The first test I encountered was when I got to the end of the drag that runs alongside White Sands Beach, the road began to weave its way up into the mountains, so that I had to navigate steep gradients and sharp curves. Fortunately there was very little traffic but I was still petrified to go any faster than 20kph! The road flattened out once we'd got around the northern part of the island and past the ferry port, so I was able to relax a little. However I was still unable to appreciate the scenery as my eyes were completely focussed on the road in front, the oncoming traffic, and any sign of movement or obstacles at the side of the road (children, dogs, chickens, fallen trees, large rocks). After a while actually driving the motorcycle wasn't too much of a problem and I got the vehicle up to 70 or 80kph on the straights, but I was still having a little trouble turning corners : I didn't want to tip the vehicle too much through fear it may topple over which resulted in - on ocassions - driving in the middle of the road.

We drove all the way down the east coast with the plan to stop at the southernmost point, Long Beach. However as we approached Long Beach the sky clouded over so we decided to continue around the island with a view to stop at another beach instead when the weather improved. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, the road did not run all the way around the island, so after following what can only be described as an 'abandoned road' to it's end, we had to turn around and head back again. We planned instead to take the turning off to Ban Kwan Chang and the nearby Nang Yom waterfall which was just before the beginning of the precarious mountain roads back in the north of the island. Not long after this turning, another test presented itself : the road began to get very uneven and rocky and then muddy, until I was driving over a layer of mud on top of a dirt track. The motorbike was sliding all over the place and instead of risk losing control of it and us both ending up in the mud, we deposited the bike at one of the local's houses and walked the rest of the way.

When we arrived at the entrance to Ban Kwan Chang, two of the locals were just taking a couple of the elephants out for a walk, riding bare back and steering the animals by pushing their foot against the back of their left or right ear, depending on which direction they wanted them to move in. We followed the elephants half the way to the waterfall, watching them tug at the vegetation lining the sides of the dirt track and separate the leaves from the mound of earth they'd also managed to bring with them! Further down the track we saw numerous grapefruits (or what we thought to be grapefruits : they were about the same size, the skin was green in colour and the fruits hung fairly low in the trees as many citrus fruits do) growing on the trees, as well as rambutans, papaya and durian. There was a group of locals with their pick up truck collecting durian from the trees. They'd piled up quite a collection in the back of the vehicle. When we arrived at the top of Nang Yom Waterfall, there was a little house perched at the side of the falls and who should we see sharing drinks outside in the garden? Only Oodie and his two Thai band members! We'd been to Oodie's Bar every night since we discovered it, so I swear they'll think we're stalking them!

On our walk back, we paid a brief visit to Ban Kwan Chang (Chang is Thai for elephant) to stroke and feed the elephants, before retreiving the bike and continuing on our way back to White Sands. The final obstacle (and probably the worst one of all) happened when I was climbing the hill at the start of the precarious mountain bends. I spotted a huge cement mixer ahead of me and not wanting to overtake when there was a blind corner approaching, I slowed right down. My plan was to stay behind the vehicle until there was an appropriate stretch upon which I could overtake. It got the the point when I couldn't really drive much slower and I'd just spotted an appropriate overtaking point. So I was about to pull out when a large landrover came speeding down the hill on the opposite side of the road. I couldn't then overtake and I couldn't physically drive any slower so my only option was to stop. I had stopped half the way up a very steep hill, so attempting a hill start with or without Siobhian on the back was not an option I was about to entertain. I subsequently took the only option remaining : waited for a break in the traffic, manually did a u-turn with the bike, pushed it down the hill, and then started the engine again at the bottom of the hill, got back on the bike with Siobhian and started the whole hill climb again from the beginning! Anyone watching would i'm sure think this was the funniest spectacle they'd seen in weeks and would probably be muttering to themselves, "stupid farang!"

We spent the evening at Oodie's again. I don't know whether it was the effect of the horror film we'd seen earlier on that night or too many beer Chang, but when we walked home past the 100m stretch of undeveloped jungle we heard the strangest noise coming from the depths of the undergrowth : as well as the usual noises from the crickets and frogs, this one sounded like a demented cow! We both looked at each other as if to say, "what the hell is that?" and then ran the rest of the way back to our bungalows!

Me in very fetching helmet on the Honda motorcycle I drove around the island, Ko Chang
The 2 elephants that we followed up to Nang Yom Waterfall, Ban Kwan Chang, Ko Chang

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Waterfalls and swimming pools

The following morning Miss 'I never stay in bed that late when I've been drinking the night before' Delany managed to sleep until 1pm! I'd taken full advantage of the free coffee at our guesthouse and consumed about 3 mugs of it, together with a large bottle of water, in an attempt to aid my dehydration. I then ate breakfast at The Food Centre (the cheap restaurant we'd found the night before) and headed down to the beach. It was a gorgeous day and the sun was shining in full force, and I thought this was a sign of what sort of weather I could expect over the next couple of weeks. Sadly, it was not to be . . .

Having sped through my reading of "Saving Fish From Drowning", I exchanged it for the infamous "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden, and began to learn about the life of young Chiyo Sakamoto, as she was taken from her home in Yorido, Japan, and sold into the life of a geisha girl in Kyoto, whilst I waited for Siobhian to join me. We spent the afternoon sunbathing, reading, chatting and swimming down on White Sands beach. Unfortunately it's not a particularly attractive beach : yes, the sand is white(ish) but due to the fact that the entire beach is covered with water during high tide, the sand is not fine and fluffy and soft but hard and uncomfortable to lie on.

In the evening we stumbled upon Oodies Bar, a live music venue and bar where the owner Oodie, his two Thai employees/friends, and whoever they invite to join them play a mix of rock and blues nightly from around 10pm. One member of the band, who they affectionately call 'Mr T' (even though he in no way resembles the big black dude from The A-Team) is enormously talented : he sings, plays guitar, bass and drums, and switches effortlessly between each of them. He also always seems to be (by some degree) intoxicated, and still remains incredibly focussed, and plays each note with complete accuracy.

The next day the weather turned. It had been raining heavily throughout the night (the exaggerated sounds of the rain drops upon the corrugated iron rooves of our bungalows had kept Siobhian and I awake) and it remained cloudy for the majority of the day. We attempted to find somewhere to treat ourselves to a massage but even with a 50% discount, the cheapest massage on offer was still 350THB. Considering that I'd got a Thai massage at a certified massage parlour in Chiang Mai for 150THB, neither of us were desperate enough for a massage to be willing to pay more than double that figure. So we spent most of the day reading on our bungalow verandas, making friends with the resident dog and waiting for the cloud to clear. It didn't.

We also enquired about the opportunity to do some elephant bathing at Ban Kwan Chang. An hour long trek would have cost a massive 500THB, and as I'd already done some elephant trekking up in Mae Sariang with James and Siobian would have the chance to do some a lot cheaper in Chaing Mai in the next couple of weeks, we'd already ruled that option off our agenda. The strange man in the travel agent told us that we were unable to partake in elephant bathing due to it now being the wet season. In hindsight, what he probably meant was that this particular activity was not available in low season but he left us completely confused as to why the increase in water (which is surely condusive to bathing) would be the reason as to why we were unable partake in the pursuit.
The following day, we decided to visit Ko Chang's National Park. We hailed a songthaew for 50THB to take us to Klong Plu Waterfall, which was the main attraction within the national park. We didn't realise that it was also the only attraction, for there were no marked walks through the park, no guides available to hire, and nothing indicated on the map aside from the waterfall itself. Being unaware of this at the time, we paid our 200THB entrance fee and set about spending a good few hours at the park. As soon as we entered the park the heavens opened, making the 500m climb up to the waterfall a rather wet and muddy experience. When we reached the top, there was quite a bit of water flowing powerfully down to the base of the falls, where several locals were bathing fully clothed. We took a few photos and then hurried back down to take some shelter.
As tends to be the way in countries with a tropical climate, the rain stopped almost as soon as we'd reached the park entrance and 5 minutes later the sun was burning down on our shoulders as we walked down the road in search of a taxi to take us back to White Sands. Until we were back on the main road our search was in vain, as there would be no taxis coming from the park unless they'd just transported some passengers to the park. So we walked along in the scorching heat, taking in the sights of Ko Chang's countryside. It got so hot at one point that the sign advertising a swimming pool outside a very luxurious looking resort complex looked very inviting. So we walked in, with the gait of affluent guest (even though we were dressed like a pair of backpackers) and used the pool. As we walked through the grounds of the complex, it was obvious this was a 5 star resort. The gardens were professionally designed and tended with great care, and even the equipment (slides/swings/climbing frames) within the small childrens playground was painted in the same colour as the buildings within the resort. We felt completely out of place at the Ramayana Resort but as the only people using the pool were a couple of young Thai children and their nanny (who was constantly on her cellphone at the side of the pool), we managed not to get busted. The children seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially the young boy who was finding it hugely entertaining playing 'splash the foreigners', an annoying (for us) activity that his nanny seemed to be playing little attention to. If we were to have splashed him back i'm sure she would noticed and in turn disapproved, so instead we continued to grin at him through gritted teeth. Still, it was a small price for the priviledge of using a pool at a resort we weren't even supposed to be at.
Siobhian was supposed to be leaving today but after a couple of beer Chang last night (she's even more of a lightweight than me!) she asked me, "if I stay tomorrow, will you be up for hiring a couple of motorbikes?" Neither of us had ever driven a motorbike before (I haven't even driven a car on a regular basis since I passed my test when I was 17!) but we decided that there's got to be a first time for everything. In Thailand they drive on the same side of the road as both Britain and Australia, Ko Chang's roads seem relatively quiet and we'd noticed that it was possible to hire automatics, so we wouldn't have to worry about gears; just with driving the vehicle and keeping it on the road, which was to prove a lot more difficult than we'd imagined!
Lake we passed on our walk back from Khlong Plu Waterfall, Ko Chang
Siobhian chilling in the luxurious pool at the Ramayana Resort, Ko Chang

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A journey to the depths of the Ko Chang jungle

I caught the bus down to Trat today so that I could cross over on to the island of Ko Chang and spend my last couple of weeks relaxing in the sunshine (in between the rain storms). As a result of a driver reserving two thirds of the front of the bus for Thai passengers, those of us that were travelling alone were forced to sit next to other solo travellers. Consequently I got chatting to Siobian, an 18 year old girl from New Zealand who now lives in Perth, Australia. She's been in India for the last 5 months so was still suffering from a little culture shock (as well as a severe lack of sleep after a big drinking session last night!), having only arrived in Thailand a few days ago. Coming from Vietnam I noticed how developed and structured Thailand is by comparison, so I can only imagine how vast the differences are compared to India.

The bus journey took longer than I'd expected, but that was partly due to the amount of traffic on the roads (visitors to Bangkok were now travelling back home following the recent appearance by the King in the country's capital). In contrast the boat journey took a lot less time that i'd originally anticipated. We made the crossing to Ko Chang on an enormous vehicle carrier, which even had a bar on board serving beer Chang on tap! When we arrived on Ko Chang, we were met by a kitsch greeting reminiscent of the 'Hollywood' sign in America : in large white lettering perched up in the mountains that provide a backdrop to Ko Chang's beaches, we read "Welcome to Ko Chang", only the letter 'C' seemed to have lost his footing up on the mountain and was dangling at a rather odd angle in front of the 'h'!

We headed down to the beach at first, both having our hearts set on a little bamboo hut right on the seafront - if the price was right. To our disappointment we couldn't see any; they'd all been upgraded to brightly coloured, well-built wooden bungalows. Out of curiosity, we enquired about the price of one of these at Apple's Bungalows and were informed that it would cost us 400THB for a bungalow with a twin room. Considering that you could walk out your door and literally be on the beach the price wasn't at all bad. But Siobian is still adjusting to the rise in prices after India and I wanted to find something a little cheaper as I may well be staying on Ko Chang for the best part of 2 weeks. We wandered up to the road and were attracted to a large sign advertising bungalows from 100THB at The Fisherman Hill Resort. We were a little concerned about the sub-heading, 'economy at it's best', conjuring up images of ramshackle huts crawling with bugs, but we decided to check it out regardless.

What we found was almost like a little rainforest retreat : little wooden bungalows dotted within a jungle of dense vegetation. The rooms weren't up to much : the linoleum floors were peeling, there were enormous cracks in the wood and there was a gaping hole in the floor of my room, big enough for a small cat to crawl through in the middle of the night. However, the fact that 130THB would buy us a bungalow with its own private bathroom in a beautiful and peaceful setting with as much free coffee as we wanted every morning sold it for me. Each bungalow even had it's own veranda and wooden chairs, which was surrounded by papaya trees, ferns and creepers, and I even had chillies growing right outside my door.

This evening we ate at a cheap local restaurant with plastic chairs and tablecloths and seafood pad thai for only 30THB. We each had a large beer Chang to accompany our meal. Siobian is about my size (an inch shorter and the same sort of build) so we were both feeling the effects of the beer when we left the restaurant. We continued on down the main road in search of a bar in which to continue drinking. Well, it was our first night on the island : not getting drunk would have been a crime! We walked into the first place which looking 'happening' : a collection of bars under one roof, lit up by hundreds of little fairy lights draped up the walls and over the rooves. It's only when we sat down at one of the bars that we realised that all the bar staff were pretty young Thai women in tight lycra dresses and all the customers were solo western men, many sat on bar stools, flirting with the women who were serving them drinks. However we did get given free rambutans by one of the bar girls, as well as a fruit the size of a small pumpkin which tasted like a cross between a mangosteen and a pear and which we ate with salt and chilli. The world cup match between England and Paraguay was being screened on T.V but we didn't really pay much attention to it apart from when Beckham scored for England.

We headed on in search of somewhere that wasn't a pick up joint, and landed ourselves at a small bar on the beach, as deserted as everywhere else seemed to be on a saturday night and in the largest resort on the island. The bar had a resident dog who was unbelievably fat (think she was competing with the one you met on Ko Chang, Tony!) and liked lying in the sand having her belly rubbed. We asked the lady at the bar if there was anywhere busier that we could head to once we'd finished our beers and attending to the needs of the fat dog, and she pointed us in the direction of Sabay bar. When we walked in, it was almost like everyone living in or visiting the White Sands resort in Ko Chang was in this bar, it was packed! It was probably the most happening place on the island : loud music, a dancefloor, little wicker mats laid out on the sand and a brave performer playing with fire by way of entertainment for us all. He held a long pole in his hand, burning at both ends. He'd spin this and throw it high into the air, whilst at the same time doing acrobatics. It was awesome, and visually stunning to watch. By this point we were both feeling pretty wasted : we were talking about doing some surfing tomorrow (even though I've not seen anywhere around here where we might possibly be able to fulfill this decision), and I talked Siobian into having her tongue pierced when she gets back to Bangkok (she's been frightened that it hurts too much so when I told her it doesn't she didn't need much persuading!). When we decided we couldn't possibly drink any more beer (through fear that we may well fall over), we danced to a few cheesy songs with a load of Thai people and then headed home, discussing our level of intoxication.
Our little rainforest retreat at Fisherman Hill, White Sands Beach, Ko Chang
The fire dancer on the beach at Sabay Bar, White Sands Beach, Ko Chang

Friday, June 09, 2006

A royal celebration in Bangkok

Not much of interest to report yesterday apart from my discovery that Tom has just managed to write off another car! Apparently some bastard pulled out right in front of him whilst he was in the fast lane on the M5, so it was a choice of crashing into the bastard and subsequently causing his car to spin across the motorway, taking other cars off the road in the process or crash into the barrier) So Tom crashed into the central reservation whilst doing 80mph and managed to walk out of it without so much as a scratch - thank God! Makes my tales of Asia pale by comparison!
I had planned to catch the bus down to Trat and then catch the ferry across to Ko Chang today, however the bus was fully booked by the time i got around to enquiring about the possibility of booking a ticket. Instead, through distict lack of anything better to do, I decided to head back into Siam : there was a small art exhibition of the ground floor of the Siam Discovery Centre. As good as most of the paintings were, there were only about 15 of them, so even if I examined every painting for a minute (which is actually quite a long time unless you're a bit of an art critic and start to delve into an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses) it would still only have taken me 15 minutes to view the entire exhibition!
Subsequently I grabbed a coffee at Starbucks (i know but it's one of the few places you'll get proper coffee in Thailand, and after drinking Vietnamese coffee every day for over a month, I was starting to get withdrawl symptoms) and then headed back to the boat, figuring that I could quite easily spend the rest of the afternoon reading Amy Tan's "Saving Fish From Drowning", a book i'd only started yesterday and was already a third of the way through. However, when I boarded the boat, it got as far as station number 5 (which is the jumping off point for Chinatown) and everyone was told to get off the boat. When I enquired when there would be another boat to take me to Phra Arthit, I was simply told "no more boats" and that's as far as the lady's grasp of the English language went. The gentleman onboard the boat did however kindly walk me to a place at which I could catch a bus the rest of the way, and told me the bus i needed was number 53.
Not more than 5 minutes later, the bus arrived. It was packed with yet more Thai people in bright yellow attire, in celebration of the King's 60 year reign. Among the people that got on with me was a monk. As soon as he boarded, a lady and her child gave up their seats for him (that's another thing I noticed on the Chao Praya River Boat Express : instead of seats reserved for the elderly as there are back in the U.K, there are seats reserved for monks). After the monk sat down, I tried to move out of the way so that some one else could take the seat next to him, but the female conductor grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to the front of the bus. I don't know whether she thought I was going to sit down next to him myself - as it's forbidden for women in Thailand to sit next to monks - or whether, unbeknownst to me, it is also forbidden for women to stand behind monks. Whatever the reason, it all seemed a bit ridiculous to me considering that in Laos, it's apparently ok for a monk to grope a woman but here you get rebuked for standing within metres of one!
Nevertheless, I got off the bus, eventually found my way back to a part of Bang Lampu that I recognised, and decided to eat some more of my favourite fish cakes at Roti Mataba on my way back to Khao San. The place was heaving, much more so than it usually is (and it's normally the case for there to only be a couple of seats available) and when I left I found out why. Right opposite the restaurant, gathered in a small area of greenery along my the riverfront and next to the old fort, were hundreds upon hundreds of Thai people, all in yellow t-shirts. They were like bees : everywhere you looked, there were swarms of them. They were perched high up on the branches of trees, sitting on walls, hanging over the balconies of the adjacent building, as well as crowds of them lined up behind barriers along the riverfront itself. You'd think they were waiting for a huge celebrity or rock star the way they were all pushing in front of each other, cameras and video cameras poised. As I tried to find an opening in the crowd myself, to decipher what was going on, I glanced across the other side of the river and the sight was much the same. I then saw what - or rather who - it was they were all waiting for : the king, as well as many of the important men who serve him were seated in decorative long boats, which were being rowed down the river in all their glory. It was like something out of a history book the way the soldiers were dressed and the way the boats were adorned with bright colours and intricate designs. As soon as the guards on the site blew their whistles and opened the gates which lead down to the riverbank, there was an enormous surge in the crowd. I really did feel like I was at a huge gig, especially when it became overwhelmingly hot amongst the crowd and I tried to retreat back to my original standpoint and couldn't physically move, no matter how hard I struggled! So, after seeing the Queen during my last visit to Thailand, I've now had the priviledge of seeing the country's King as well.
The king and his men in longboats upon the river, Bangkok
Thai's sat on a wall in an attempt to get a view of his majesty, Phra Arthit, Bangkok

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Long live the King . . .

Today I headed back over to Siam, a little earlier this time, so that I could visit Jim Thompson's House. I must admit that before my visit, I knew very little about the identity of Jim Thompson and why his house had become a tourist attraction. However we had a very informative and cheerful young guide who, despite her own admission that she was a trainee, did a very good job of filling me in.
Jim Thompson was an American, born in Delaware in 1906, the Chinese year of the horse (the relevance of this I will come to later). He was a practising architect in New York before he served in the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner to the C.I.A) in Thailand during World War 2. After leaving the service he decided to return and live in Thailand permenantly. He is most famous in Thailand for reviving the country's dying craft of the hand weaving of silk. He constributed substantially to the industry's growth and to the worldwide recognition accorded to Thai silk. He gained further recognition through the design and construction of his house, which combines six teak buildings and is one of the best remaining representations of traditional Thai architecture. On March the 26th 1967, Jim Thompson disappeared while on a visit to the Cameron highlands in Malaysia. He was 61 years old, a number which is said to be unlucky for those born in the year of the horse . . . no trace of him or his remains have been found to this day.
His famous Thai house (the buildings of which have been moved from their original site and reconstructed here) is indeed a beautiful creation, and still contains a lot of Thompsons's original possessions, including Buddha images, porcelain, and the quirky 'Mouse House'. It is surrounded by lush gardens and ponds containing turtles, and provides an oasis of calm within the hustle and bustle of central Bangkok.

On my way home I noticed some Thai passengers on the skytrain wearing bright yellow wristbands (like the rubber charity ones that became a bit of a fashion trend in Britain for a while) with "long live the king" printed upon them. It struck me as a little strange that there were so many Elvis fans in Thailand. I also noticed a huge number of Thai people, especially those travelling on the Chao Praya River Boat Express, wearing bright yellow t-shirts or polo shirts with Thai script printed upon them. It all made sense when the boat sailed past an enormous yellow banner hung from one of the buildings along the riverfront. It also read "long live the king" but there was enough English on it for me to determine that this was a celebration of the fact that the Thai king has just completed (on the 6/6/06) a reign of 60 years in the throne. The t-shirts and wristbands were all in aid of this celebration. Wow, the Thai's really do love their king. Although the British population as a whole do, i think, respect their Queen, similar behaviour by the British would be viewed as a little insane.
Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok
Some of the outfits that he'd designed

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Lumphini Park, Red Snapper and tongue bar trouble

More goodbyes to be said this morning (well, actually it was nearer to the afternoon before we all surfaced) as John was due to fly to Phuket and Todd and his mother Joanna were setting off for Koh Samui. Now that i'm familiar with the Chao Praya River Boat Express and the Skytrain system, I decided to make use of it once again and go for a relaxing stroll around Lumpini Park. The park is named after the Buddha's place of birth in Nepal. There is a large artificial lake, neatly kept lawns, an asphalt jogging track, picnic tables and benches, and the structured planting of tall palm trees throughout the park's grounds. Although it's not natural in any way, shape or form, it's a pleasant enough area in which to do a spot of jogging, play some badmington, have a picnic, or simply fall asleep down by the lake under the peaceful shade of the trees, and it's the best way to escape Bangkok without leaving town.
In the evening, I decided to try some fresh Red Snapper at Thai Garden Restuarant, along Soi Rambuttri. Todd had raved about the fish and I've always fancied sampling it as I like the sound of its name! It was barbequed (so the skin was all crispy) and served with a lime and chilli sauce, and was indeed worth every one of the 100THB I paid for it (under 2 British pounds). Unfortunately however, whilst I was eating it I managed to swallow the ball on the top of my tongue bar. I must of thought I'd eaten a small fish bone as I felt it slide down my throat. Doh! Fortunately though, it didn't work its way loose whilst I was sleeping and I'm in a place where I can easily buy a replacement tongue bar before the piercing heals up. Or so I thought. The next day, when the body piercing shop re-opened, I purchased a new tongue bar and went back to my guesthouse to put the piece of jewellery in. No matter how hard I tried from both directions, I could not force the bar back through my tongue. Eventually, I had to swallow my pride, walk down to the tattoo and piercing establishment at the end of Soi Rambuttri, explain what had happened and beg for their help. The long-haired, long-bearded Thai man struggled for a good 5-10 minutes before achieving success, admitting that he was surprised how quickly the piercing had tried to heal itself. It had been less than 24 hours!
What I meant to do after the tongue bar incident was visit Jim Thompson's House, probably the only major tourist attraction in Bangkok that I haven't been to see. However, Jim Thompson's House is in the Siam district, which is where all the major shops are situated. The exit from The National Stadium skytrain station (the nearest jumping off point to Jim's place of residence) leads right into one of the largest shopping centres in Siam. Hence, what was supposed to be a quick look around the MBK Centre before moving on to the main purpose of my journey materialised as me getting well and truly lost in the MBK centre! You haven't seen the place; believe me, it's easy to do!! By the time I had managed to re-orientate myself with the place, Jim Thompson's House was due to close in half an hour and they had already admitted their last customers.
This evening, having exhausted all there is to do in Bangkok (temples, parks, mansions, shopping, watching films, eating, drinking) I decided to get something wacky done to my hair : a concept that, judging by the people you see mooching up and down Khao San Road, seems to be one that should be added to the list of things to do in this crazy city. Having thought about this carefully (well, over a beer or two) I decided that whilst dreadlocks look kinda cool and funky whilst you're travelling, they do not at any other time - at least not when you're approaching 30 and you have to attend job interviews in a few weeks! So I opted for braids : you can take them out whenever you want to (although i'm not sure how difficult or time-consuming it is), and I quite fancied the idea of having long thick beautiful tresses - well, the acrylic version of them! I chose 3 colours (deep red, auburn and brown) and picked some beads to be woven into a few strands of hair at the end.
I didn't realise quite how time consuming my decision would turn out to be. I sat down at 8:30pm, quite comfortable to begin with, watching the comings and goings along Khao San Road. One guy walked past me about 4 times. I noticed him because he was wearing a T-shirt with hand-written script across the front which read, "I am not Israeli, OK?" It made me smile because Israeli's seem to have a reputation for being a rude old bunch of people (even though Esther's husband is adorable and Gilad (whom I met in Cambodia and Vietnam) seemed a really chilled out and friendly kinda guy)) so I guess he was fed up with being mistaken for an Israeli!! Anyway, as time wore on, I noticed I was getting thirsty and that my bum was getting incredibly numb sat on one of the small hard plastic nursery stools that everyone in Asia seems to use. Shortly after I noticed this, I noticed that many of the vendors were starting to pack away their wares and close up shop. When my hair was finally completed, it was 12:30am!!! Despite the speed at which the lady was plaiting my hair, it had still taken her an incredible 4 hours!!! 1000THB for 4 hours certainly isn't a bad price; it costs me approximately the same for half an hour in the hairdressers back at home.
Two Thai girls relaxing at the lakeside in Lumphini Park, Bangkok
Me with braids (taken on mobile phone so I apologise for the poor quality!)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Five hours at Chatuchak Market

Despite Todd's offer for me to meet him for drinks at 1am once he'd collected his mum from the airport, I took one look at my blood shot, tired eyes and decided that a good nights sleep was most definitely in order. I awoke at 7:30am, feeling well and truly refreshed, drank a papaya shake downstairs in the restaurant and then began my journey up to Chatuchak Weekend Market, on the outskirts of Bangkok. It's actually pretty easy to get to from Khao San and the journey takes about 40 minutes and costs around 50THB. It involves catching the Chao Praya River Boat Express to Saphon Taskin (also known as Central Pier), jumping on the skytrain (there's a station right next to the pier) as far as Siam, and then changing trains, on to the green line until you reach the terminating station of Mo Chit.
Chatuchak is a huge market, with innumerable stalls that sprawl over acres and acres of land in Chatuchak Park. I'm sure I didn't even cover half of them in the 5 hours that I spent there. You can indeed buy pretty much anything at Chatuchak, and the goods are spilt into sections so that if you're looking for something in particular you don't have to walk around the entire grounds of the park! There's some original and good quality stuff to be had, so it was definitely worth the journey up there. There's also plenty of cheap food and drink establishments if you need to re-fuel or rest your weary shopping legs! I bumped into Todd and his mum whilst I was fighting my way through the crowds, which is quite strange considering how large the whole place is!
Back at Khao San, not much has changed since I was last here : there's always at least a couple of travellers getting dreadlocks or braids; there's countless food vendors selling fresh fruit, Pad Thai, spring rolls, and barbequed corn on the cob; there's music blaring from the speakers of each CD stall lining the street (and there are many!); there are enough clothes being sold that you could safely arrive in Bangkok carrying nothing but the clothes on your back; there are funky headscarves and leather and silver jewellery; every other building is a guesthouse and those that aren't guesthouses are bars or restaurants full of travellers exchanging travel stories, or internet cafes, with the odd 7-11 and pharmacy scattered in between. Despite the unoriginality of it all nowadays, I still like the chilled out vibe that permeates along Khao San.
This evening, I soaked up the Khao San vibe. There was a street performance taking place and a large audience had gathered around the musicians, acrobats and dancers. The performers were oozing energy from every pore so it was difficult to capture the essense of the spectacle in a single photograph, hence I recorded a short video of the entertainers in action. Back at The Wild Orchid Guesthouse, I ordered a beer Chang and started reading the novel that Todd had kindly passed on to me : "Borderlines" by Charles Nicholl, a story based on the author's experiences of travelling through Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar) prior to 1988, when the book was first published.
Shortly after I had started reading, Todd showed up and joined me for a beer, after which we decided to head out and check out the nightlife on Soi Rambuttri. We found a little bar which basically consisted of a collection of wicker mats placed in the middle of the street and an oil lamp in the middle of each one. We sat ourselves down around one of these oil lamps, and were reluctantly joined by an American from California who was a tad strange to say the least. When asked what brought him to Thailand, he replied "the Dali LLama" Sums him up really : an intelligent guy but something about him was a little off-key.
We were subsequently pleased when the group who were sat next to us, with whom this strange guy was also attempting to make conversation, began to amalgamate us into their group. The group consisted of a happy-faced curly haired American from California called John, a sophisticated looking Indian girl called Nalani, and a dutch couple from Amsterdam : a girl called Irene and a 6'8" tall guy whose name was impossible to pronounce at the time, and hence I cannot remember it now! We had an entertaining evening that included Todd being approached by a little Thai girl wearing Dennis Taylor glasses, which looked comical on her tiny little face. She clearly knew she looked funny, as it was this element alone that persuaded Todd to buy 3 roses from her : one for each of us girls, oh aren't you smooth Todd!! The evening (and the beer) was still in full flow at 3:30am. By 4am the dutch couple and myself were dreaming about our beds, so we headed back to our guesthouses and left the party animals to their beer and now unintelligable conversation. I heard from Todd's mum the next morning that he stumbled in at 5:30am!!
View of Bangkok's skyscrapers from Chao Praya Riverboat express (look at the colour of the water!!!)
Todd and his girlfriend, the little rose girl. Soi Rambuttri, Bangkok

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Bangkok prison to Bangkok airport & a spontaneous all night drinking session

I sat down in a small cafe on Hang Hanh at some point this afternoon, ordered a 'Butterfruit Shake' (which was actually chunks of papaya, watermelon, mango, avocado, and a strange translucent rubbery fruit which was difficult to chew, mixed with yoghurt and ice) and started to read "The Damage Done", a novel by Warren Fellows about the 12 year sentence he served in a Bangkok prison for traffiking heroin.

Several hours later, having read the final page of this incredibly absorbing and gruelling novel, I looked up from my book and noticed that it was dark outside and my half-finished drink was still in front of me on the table, the melted ice having formed a layer on top of the interesting looking concoction below it. If anyone had asked me if I'd finished the drink or if I wanted to order another then I hadn't heard them. I'd been completely sucked into the events and emotions that Fellow's was so lucidly describing. I felt like a fly on the wall of his prison cell, watching 12 years of his life pass in front of my eyes. At once that life seemed to have been played in fast forward but at the same time, there were certain experiences which stood as still as the prison walls which surrounded them.

It occured to me that many of the novels I've read whilst I've been travelling have been written by and about people who've experienced tremendous emaotional and physical pain in their lives. Why is it that such people make such excellent writers? Maybe it's because pain and suffering are so much easier to put into words than happiness is ...
And on that rather depressing note, I headed back to my hotel, picked up my luggage and jumped on the back of a moto. When I arrived at the point from which the mini bus would take me to the airport, I met a Canadian guy Dan and an American guy Todd, who were also catching the same flight out to Bangkok later on that evening. We shared a few tasty plums purchased from a nearby street vendor whilst we waited for the bus to depart.
At the airport, Dan and Todd had me worried for a while when they informed me that the baggage allowance for the flight was only 15kg plus 7kg worth of hand luggage. I was preparing myself for a hefty baggage excess charge, but the airport staff accepted my 21.3kg backpack through without so much as a blink of an eye, and they didn't even weigh the heavy rucksack I was carrying as hand luggage. Phew!
On the flight there was a free seating arrangement, which basically means that you can choose where you sit. I'm not quite sure how that works in conjunction with the health and safety regulations, as I was under the impression that the airline were required to have a record of which passengers were sitting in which seats in case of an accident. I sat next to Todd and was telling him how much I still dislike takeoff, despite flying on countless occasions every year. Just at the point when I made that statement, we passed through some pretty serious turbulence and the aircarft was actually dropping in the sky. It didn't improve matters when we looked out the window and noticed a huge streak of lightening not far from the plane's wing!
Suffice to say, we all made it to Bangkok in one piece. I was surprised to find how organised the traffic was in comparison to Vietnam : all the motorists were driving on the right side of the road in neat orderly lines, no-one was sounding their horns and there were no motorbikes - well, aside from the odd one or two (motorcycles make up the large majority of traffic on Vietnam's roads). We all shared a taxi to Khao San Road (which surprisingly only cost 169THB), and Dan continued on to Sala Ya, where he's staying with a friend who is attending the university there. After several unsucessful attempts to find some accommodation, Todd and I finally stumbled upon The Wild Orchid Villa, which is tucked away down a little lane off Soi Rambuttri (about a two minute walk to Khao San Road). One we'd both checked into a room, it was gone 1am, but the surrounding nightlife was still buzzing and we both really fancied a beer, so we met back down in the guesthouse restaurant/chill out area and ordered a couple of beer Chang. Ahh . . .
At the time we didn't realise that the guesthouse bar remained open 24 hours, and we got so busily caught up in conversation and getting pretty much blind drunk that we didn't question the time until we heard the voices of birds outside. It was only 7:30am!!!! Doh! I went straight to my room and don't even remember falling asleep. I probably would have slept for the best part of the day if I hadn't heard Todd knocking on my door at 2pm. I managed to drag myself out of bed, grabbed a shower and met Todd downstairs for a papaya shake. At this point I atually still felt drunk : the world and Todd were looking a little fuzzy around the edges and I had a desperate thirst, which lingered around for the majority of the day.
Todd and I went for lunch at Roti-Mataba. It's a great little place where the seating area is right opposite the kitchen so you can watch the chefs preparing your food and smell the gorgeous aromas as they waft across the cafe. Sufficiently fed and watered but still feeling a little spaced out, we had a brief wander around China Town before heading over to Siam Paragon. This was Todd's idea, as he wanted to show me how the other half live in Bangkok. Siam Paragon is a newly built (the complex was opened to the public post September 2005) modern constuction on a massive scale. It houses designer shops (you name it, you'll find it here : clothes designers such as Gucci and Prada, home entertainment by Bang and Oulfsen, as well as furniture stores and interior design), food halls (including a cooking school run by well known Thai chef, Ing), and a 10 screen cinema on the top floor.
We took advantage of the 10 screen cinema and caught a showing of Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" (in English but with Thai subtitles). Going to the cinema is not a concept that ever occured to me whilst I've been travelling, but it made a nice change from the standard sightseeing, and although I haven't read the book, the film made for pretty good viewing. After the film we caught the skytrain (something else I've never done in Bangkok before) to a fish restaurant that had been recommended to Todd, which was just before Soi 27 on Sukhumvit. Todd's a chef in New York City, so he often gets given recommendations for restaurants all over the world. I felt rather priviledged to be given the opportunity to eat at this restaurant, and also to be able to dine with a chef, so that he could advise on what sort of fish to go for, what sort of style to have it cooked in and what sort of dishes would best accompany it. The food was indeed first class. There was all sorts of fish on the menu including Butter fish, Cotton fish, Grouper fish, Sea Bass, as well as many whose names I cannot remember. We went for Seabass cooked in a garlic and pepper sauce, as well as several dishes to eat on the side. In hindsight I think we were a little over enthusiastic about the ordering as we could barely finish it all!
We decided to walk off our food afterwards with a visit to Patpong. It's quite bizarre : Cowboy alley as it's so called is just one street in the middle of an otherwise civilised district. We wandered down past the neon lights and girls and the smell of cheap perfume that permeated through the air. Todd said that even if he was blind he'd know he was amongst prostitutes by the smells of their perfume! There were numerous signs advertising table dancing and lap dancing and girls for you to have at your disposal - for a price. A couple of the signs the girls outside the bars were holding made me giggle : one said "50 gorgeous girls and 2 ugly ones" and over the other side of the street a similar sign read "50 ugly girls and 2 gorgeous ones." Patpong is clearly a place which doesn't take itself too seriously . . .
Photo is of the infamous Khao San Road at night, Bangkok.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A walking tour around Hanoi's old quarter

I booked the only flight I could find for under $50 to Bangkok, which leaves on the 2nd of June. In the meantime I have a few more days in Hanoi, the first of which I decided to fill by taking my feet on a walking tour of the city's old quarter (courtesy of Lonely Planet). I started by crossing the red painted bridge to an island in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, which is home to Ngoc Son Temple (admission 3000VND). Due to the admission fee being waived for locals, many Vietnamese chose to relax here under the peaceful shade of the trees.
When I visited, there were more tourists (mainly Asian) taking each others photographs in front of a giant tortoise than there were looking around the temple. To explain the presence of a giant tortoise here, i'll firstly have to tell you the story behind the name of the lake. Legend has it that in the 15th century, heaven gave Emporer Ly Thai To a magical sword which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. Once the war had ended, the emporer was out in his boat one day upon the lake, when he noticed a giant golden tortoise swimming on the surface of the water. The tortoise snatched the sword and subsequently disappeared into the lake. Ho Hoan Kiem means 'lake of the restored sword', as people believe that the tortoise restored the sword to its divine owner. There have since been actual sightings of tortoises in this lake, the remains of one such tortoise (which died in 1968, weighed 250kg and measured 2.10m in length!) are preserved and on show at Ngoc Son Temple. I guess the locals believe that this tortoise is one of the desendants of the great golden tortoise . . .
I continued my tour past the shoe district and through Hanoi's colourful (and smelly!) market. It seems that Hanoi's old quarter is full of 'districts' : around the market are numerous shops selling shoes of every colour and variety, and there is also a jewellery district, a district where artisans carve gravestones bearing an image of the deseased, a line of shops selling straw mats and ropes, a row of herb sellers (the carcophony of various aromas fills the air even before you reach the shops themselves), tin box makers and a collection of blacksmiths on the corner of Pho Lo Ren and Phop Thuoc Bac. There is also an entire street selling 'ghost money', which is used for burning in Buddhist ceremonies. I saw an example of this when I was in Laos. I was walking through Savannaket's peaceful and almost deserted streets just after a funeral prosession had passed, and I noticed $100 bills scattered all over the road.
Cua O Quan Chuong, the quarter's well preserved East Gate, is situated just before the turning into the street where all the 'ghost money' is sold. I was just about to photograph the gate when a lady in a conical hat transporting bananas 'Vietnamese style' (in two bamboo baskets suspended from the ends of a long wooden pole which rested on her shoulders) walked into my shot. She made an interesting photograph out of what would otherwise have been a fairly ordinary shot of Hanoi's East Gate.
I continued on to the neo-gothic St Joseph Cathedral where a collection of children were playing football outside, and that game where you kick an object resembling a shuttle-cock between players, not allowing it to fall to the ground. It's a sight you'll see everywhere in Vietnam, on the roads and the pavements and in the parks, and it's a game which requires a great deal of skill. I couldn't get into the cathedral - apparently the gates are only opened when mass is held - so I sat in a little street cafe opposite drinking coffee and watching the football and shuttlecock matches.
Evenings aren't as much fun when you're travelling alone so I wandered over to the Little Hanoi (1) Restaurant for a meal (not to be confused with the seriously overpriced Little Hanoi (2), a block away from the lake) and then took advantage of the free internet facility at my hostel by sending several well overdue emails to my friends.
Ngoc Son Temple
Typical Hanoi street scene