Friday, 28 November 2008

Weathering the storm

It never ceases to astound me, the skies witnessed over oceans. I can happily watch them for hours. Especially when actually out at sea. Not for these journeys the mid-level and plain old cumulus formations.

We passed Ko Pha Ngan, enveloped in ominous banks of charcoal sky, torrents of water lashing her hills. Almost volcano-like in the intensity of dark cloud above her. Port-side, and the scene was completely different. Lighter due to the sun attempting to peek through, wispy cirrus contrasted with giant, fluffy cumulus drifting at different speeds...while in the distance stacks of identically-shaped vapour rose as far as I could see. A huge hole appeared above the boat, another universe of contrasting shapes appearing within it's boundaries...seemingly hundreds of miles away. A wall of cotton wool. Stabs of light suddenly bathing the sea in dappled, dancing gold as the light broke free...kissing the edges of the clouds surrounding the ever-expanding space. You cannot buy moments like these and, when they come, you must wring every last second from them. It's almost enough to make me believe in a god. Almost...

Dry land beckons. And I know the Easy Bar crew will be in their usual places, joints passed round, beers drained, stories swapped. Soe, Yao and Zo and their cheeky banter. Seb, Red, Luke and Danno filling the coffers. Only minutes away now. Welcome home, indeed.

Aquatic Rollercoaster and Barf Simpson

I'd developed quite a lump on my left hand, where the needle had been inserted. I asked the nurse if this was normal, and she giggled and said "I no know...maybe hand fall off?" I laughed, albeit a little nervously.

Doc's back to talk through my X-rays, and thankfully there is good news. "England win against Germany last night...2 goals to 1." "Now that IS good news, Doctor. Now, about my ribs...?" The gist of it is, I can leave in the morning. And no diving for 6 weeks. Fuck. I don't know which is worse, not diving...or lugging all my gear around for 6 weeks for absolutely no reason at all. Probably an unhealthy mix of the pair. Ah well...I no die, after all.

DAN's paying for all my care. So I'm unperturbed to be asked to sign a blank form when they dish out my aftercare medicine. "No morphine?" "You silly!" "These will do, I suppose" And I'm out of there, after saying Toodlepip to the nurses. Despite the haphazard care, they've been good to me. It's certainly been an experience. Pad Thai as soon as I hit Ko Tao, that's for sure.

The boat ride was certainly another experience. I don't suffer from seasickness, but plenty of others do. Which makes it all the more fun, no? A little schadenfreude never hurt anyone, after all? Well, apart from those who's expense you're having a chuckle at. This was like Alton Towers on sea. I was on the top deck, I prefer the open air. If I looked at the people at the back of the boat, the sides would pitch up on the rolling waves until I could see no ocean behind them...only to plummet into a trough and I could see water the height of four men behind pale green faces. The horizon shifted giddily in relation to the stern of the catamaran, passengers staggered to get down the stairs without being tossed into the sea. Plastic bags filled with the partially-dissolved remains of lunch. Why transparent bags, incidentally? It's enough to turn your stomach.

The highlight wasn't long in coming up. Literally. There were three monks in saffron robes came rolling out of the VIP room, looking fairly unwell. One grabbed a bag from a steward, and barley managed to throw up in it. One of his colleagues staggered about, people reaching out to help but not quite touching...you're not supposed to touch them. Ironic. Third Monk decides to barf into a bag, doesn't quite get it right, and splatters the floor and the socks and sandals of a middle-aged couple at the top of the stairs. I could hardly contain myself, biting my lip. Especially as they were German, and didn't look too pleased at all with Barf Simpson's offering. Jolly good show, old chap.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Ko Samui International Hospital

I'm quickly dumped aboard a fast boat making its way back to Ban's as fast as possible. Jon helped me up the slip, and we jumped into a waiting taxi. All very efficient. First stop was the local clinic and dive doctor for an X-ray and assessment. On the way there, I was thanking the old lucky stars that I'd heeded a BSAC Instructor's advice and joined D.A.N before leaving the UK. Everything would be paid for.

Which is just as well when you see the clinic staff's little beaming faces as the latest mangled, broken Westerner enters their air-con suite. Welcome, Mister Cash Cow. Some poor sod was getting stitched up on the table, as his card's getting similar treatment by the nurse on the phone "Yes, yes...him pay by VISA, yes..." Cue smiles all round.

And I'm still dripping wet as they wheel me in to the X-ray room. Twenty minutes later, and a doctor tells me what I knew a split second after impact. Broken rib. And a hospital visit. Happy Holidays.

A medic named Wuss, poor fellow, is assigned to escort me over to Ko Samui, a 2 hour boat ride away. No pain on board, but the bumpy road to the pier was agony in the back of a pickup truck. This is not BUPA. On arrival at Samui Pier, I managed to hobble off the catamaran unaided. Imagine my mortal embarassment upon seeing an ambulance at the end of the jetty, with two nurses, and realising it was for me. Oh dear.

An ambulance ride later, thankfully siren-free, and we arrive at Casualty. The nurse who met me at the boat has not let go of my hand yet. Either she likes me, she's getting paid extra for it, or there's a priest waiting to give me the Last Rites and she's feeling sorry for me? I'm wheeled in, Mister Cash Cow. Far be it for me to expect to be transferred to a room straight away. Oh no, first they rifle through your things muttering the two phrases of English now becoming overly familiar. "You have insurance document?" "Where you have credit card?" Certainly not in the bag of dirty washing you're dropping all over reception, my dear fellow. Several sweaty tee shirts and pairs of Calvins later, and I've told them I've got insurance. Why didn't they just apply pressure to my affected area to get this result? Good enough for the Japanese, after all. The DAN membership card is enough to convince them to bring over the pricelist for various rooms in the hospital. I opted for Standard at 60 quid a night, plus extra for Nursing and Food. Just in case there was a problem with the insurance. I'd have been laughing on the other side of my face in the deluxe room if they'd not paid out.

OK. Thai hospital? I can't wait to see the menu for this place. A little R&R all paid for, cute nurses making a fuss of me, and great food, right? Wrong. This could be a great place to shed those pounds, alright. Eggs that had been boiled for around 60 seconds. Instant noodles. Pork when you've asked for fish. Re-fried fries, dripping with grease. Are they trying to kill me, you wonder? La Piece De La Resistance was the chicken soup. Full of unidentifiable lumps, and a very odd consistency when it settled, reminiscent of wallpaper paste. Needless to say, I just wolfed down the fruit and made do with some dry biscuits you get with the tea. When you get some tea, that is. At one point, after asking for tea bags every time a nurse popped in to poke or jab me with something, I needed to take action. If the Mountain won't come to Mohammad. Wandering up and down the hospital corridors pushing a saline drip on wheels is no way for a self-respecting Englishman to be spending his afternoons, but I needed a brew. Job done, after a few giggles from the nurses, and I'm back watching the footy. So far, so good.

The nurses made a fuss of me, and I made them laugh. Particularly when three of them would come in to say Good Morning and ask if I was awake and OK. "I no die" had them in stitches. Easily pleased, obviously.

Day Two, and the drip is getting right on my wick. Taking a shower with your arm outside is no mean feat. You have to tilt the bloody drip to even get into the bathroom. I'd turned down one nurse's request to "Help washee your body?" on several grounds. Firstly, it's a little undignified. Secondly...she was very attractive, and I was afraid I'd get a little excited and that it would show. It probably happens all the time, but getting an erection while receiving medical assistance also falls into the Undignified category. And god only knows what a Happy Finish would have cost, I certainly didn't see it on the cursory glance I gave the pricelist. So I bathe myself, and ask the nurse to take the drip out of the back of my hand. She does so, managing to spray blood all over herself and the wall behind. None on me, though. Get me out of here.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Rescue Diver Day Two: A Clean Break

Farmer continued on the next day. Jon picked him up for putting his breathing apparatus on the tank before he'd secured his jacket to it. Schoolboy error. We were briefed that we were to carry out search patterns on the bottom for a missing diver. This involves one diver navigating with a compass, his buddy counting fin kicks and looking for the victim. It was all clearly explained on the surface beforehand. So Jon indicates that I'm Navigator for the first one, and Farmer counts. He's supposed to tap me when he's counted enough fin kicks, and it's time to turn 90 degrees. We therefore search in an expanding square pattern...very effective. IF your buddy taps you to turn.

The first turn was supposed to be after 5 kicks. After 10, Farmer was swimming alongside me gormlessly. I had to stop and use sign language to say "Count 5...tap me...count 10, tap me" He nodded affirmation. Did he tap me? Did he fuck. I've never had a wobbler underwater, but I was close then. Bloody clueless. Jon wrote on his slate "Do your thing...it's his responsibility to do the rest." So as long as I took us in the right directions, I'd pass. Surprisingly, in less than 2 metres visibilty, we passed it all first time. The surface rescues went well too...apart from Farmer trying to give rescue breaths to Jon as the current carried them away.

So...back on the boat. we were just waiting for one of the sneaky surprises they spring on you to test you. We'd already had to jump back in to get Jon and Red 10 minutes previously...me yelling instructions to Farmer who'd said "What do we do?" Fuck me sideways, this lad's a potential killer. Could be more prolific than Dennis Nilsen the rate he's going.

Surprise, surprise...Red's 30 feet from the boat and splashing about like a loon. I got my fins, mask and snorkel back on. Had to prevent myself screaming at Farmer. I'd told him to watch Red and point to indicate his position while I swam out. I turned round to see him following me down the boat. "Watch Red!!" He about-faced.

Kitted up, I stood on the edge of the boat. 10 feet up. On putting my other fin on the gunwales, I realised too late just how wet the surface was. I slipped and fell chest-first onto the kayak moored alongside the boat. Look before you leap, indeed. Hitting it, I felt a snap in my ribcage. Rolling into the sea in agony, I momentarily slipped below the waves. I'm confident I hold the world record for swearing underwater. Surfacing, I saw Jon and Red powering towards me "Are you fucking about?". I could hardly breathe, and just shook my head. they pulled me towards the back off the boat, me on my back looking up at concerned faces above me on the boat "That went well, I thought?" I quipped.

Back on the boat, they stripped the wetsuit off. Jon looked concerned.

"Those ribs don't look normal..."
"Believe me, mate...they don't feel normal"
"Speedboats on it's way, fella"
"Any chance of a cuppa, old chap?"

So...brew in hand, I was whisked off back to shore. I missed (sadly) Red tearing a strip off Farmer. But apparently it went a little like this:

"You fucking moron, man. You're on a Rescue course, right? Well, asshole...your buddy's in the sea breathing his last while you stand there holding your dick in your hand, motherfucker!! Sort your shit out."

Quite, old chap. Couldn't have put it better myself. Oh, to be a fly on the wall...

PADI Rescue Diver Day One

Well now. Rescue Diver is obviously a course to train a diver in the safekeeping of his fellows. Everything from First Aid, Decompression Sickness and ruptured lungs is covered. As well as recovering lifeless bodies from the ocean bed. Fascinating course, and a worthwhile one to have under the belt.

I'd started the course alone but, as Ban's owns Sunshine, a later starter was added from their books. I'll refer to this lad as Farmer, because that's how he appeared. Buck teeth, big ears and looked like he cut his own hair. We've all seen the big eared boys on farms.
I suspected the lad was a few butties short of a picnic when we were going through the coursework. Jon stressed the importance of delegating when there are less experienced Rescue Divers on a boat when an emergency arises.
Farmer: "What's delegate?"
Jon: "It's when you divide responsibility between others so you can concentrate on the bigger picture in an emergency"
Farmer: "What...like a boss telling you what to do?"
Jon (looking at me without smiling): "Yes, just like that."
Farmer: "Right"
Sheesh.
To be fair, this kid had done his Open Water last week, then his Advanced a few days later. Straight onto Rescue Diver? And he was asking how much an Instructor earns? Oh dear. He's going to have blood on his hands one day.
Pool training, and we had Red (Canadian lad from Easy bar who's a Divemaster Trainee) playing the victim. A good lad. He'd drunkenly promised to "fucking drown you man...I'm gonna fuck your shit up!" in Easy the night previous, before falling asleep on the bar. He turned up sweating gin out of his pores. The consumate professional.
Now this exercise simulates a panicking diver on the surface, throwing away his gear and splashing around...a hazard to a rescuer as they will try and jump on you to keep afloat. The idea is not to get too close, get them to inflate their jacket fully and calm them down before towing them to the boat. You swim up, regulator in mouth, and stay a couple of metres away...asking if they are OK. If they climb on you, regulator back in...sink and swim below them, straddling their tank and inflating their jacket for them. Simple?
Farmer swims up to Jon, asking "Diver..are you OK?". No regulator in his mouth...it was trailing behind him. So Jon starts panicking, jumping on Farmer as he's too close, pushing him below the water with no means of breathing...while smiling in a rather evil manner. I couldn't stop laughing. This happened 3 or 4 times. Jon told him to approach with his regulator in, so he could submerge and avoid flailing divers and therefore drowning. Farmer did it exactly the same as before. He got it eventually.
Later that night, I saw Red at Easy.
"Red, I sincerely hope that fool never has to rescue ME"
"Or anyone else...the guy shouldn't be here."
We were agreed on one thing...he'd better buck his ideas up, or it'd be wrong of the school to take his cash and pass him. It could cost someone their life one day.

Three become one

The Colonel had headed for Krabi the night previous, and we'd finished the Advanced course. On awaking to torrential rain, The Jock announced he was heading West, too. I had laundry to wait for, so it made my mind up for me...I was staying. Probably for the best, as we needed to travel on our own a little, too. We travel well together, but he's a bloody fidget and thinks he's a good singer. So he can elbow someone else and warble to them for a while. See you on the other side, amigo.

The rain stopped, and the sun came out. So I wandered down to Sunshine Divers in Chalok. Discussed the Rescue Diver course, the next step towards Divemaster with Alice, a DMT, and her fella. After speaking to the Instructor, Jon, I was sold. The place is smaller and a lot friendlier than Ban's. If you're going to dive on Tao, do it with them in Chalok.

So, The Colonel in Krabi. Jocky going West, and me staying with the Easy Crew. More diving, another qualification. What could possibly go wrong? What indeed...

Dive 2: PADI Advanced Open Water

Tao's not the best place to learn to dive. Well, it's cheap and there's lots of variety. But there's more divers than fish. And at Ban's it felt a little like being on a conveyor belt through a diver factory. Our Instructor, Tuff, was a good lad though. Bangkok born, islands bred. Likes his ganja, too...my kind of diver.

The visibility wasn't bad, and the dives passed without incident. As did the qualification over the next few days. We had 25m vis at one point...saw a large grouper fish the size of a toddler. And at 29 degrees centigrade, pretty pleasant conditions.

The highlight was the night dive we did as one of our specialities. This really was like something from The Abyss. I was a little apprehensive, but sinking down into pitch black was strangely reassuring. My shrink would say it was like returning to the womb. Wasn't that warm, pal. Did I just say that? Anyway...we hit bottom, around 28m below the surface. Tuff signalled to us to extinguish torches. Staggering. Without beams of light to illuminate narrow areas, the ocean came alive around us in the dark. You could see the moon in the sky through the waves above, shoals of fish skitting through, almost as if they were in the clouds themselves.

It was actually easier to see without the torches, and we switched off again later as another group of divers approached in the distance, beams of light arcing through the water. To anyone who dives but hasn't done so, I'd implore you to dive at night. Without the light, we could also rapidly disturb the water with our hands, and watch the luminescent plankton dance before our eyes...a bit like he spots you see when you stand up too quickly. Fantastic.

So...after spotting a sting ray on the sea bed when gas supply was up, it was time to return to our natural environment and a nice hot cup of tea...

Exploring Tao

The island's not very big at all, and only has one concrete road...the rest are a network of dirt tracks leading up through the hills to almost inaccessible bays. We managed a few of these on our scooters, despite them not being made for such rough terrain. Mango Bay (on the Northern-most tip) was attempted, and Jocky fell behind as he lost momentum...he got too close to me as I was preparing to take a treacherous bit on. I shouted that I'd be back in a while, and revved the bike as hard as possible to climb this steep track. I got about a mile further on, and was struggling up another hill when a couple of locals came downhill. "Oooh no, no, noooo..." one of them cackled toothily, pointing to the scooter "...very dangerous...crazy" as he pointed back uphill. Mission aborted, then. With almost superhuman effort, I managed to turn the bike around without dropping it down the slope. That would have cost me a fortune, I wasn't worried about knocks and scrapes to my person.

So a more accessible bay was chosen for a rest before we headed back. To Easy Bar, of course.

On the way back to Chalok from Sairee, there's a left hand turning opposite Climax Bar (The Colonel went in here for a pint, and wondered why it was empty save for him and local girls. He soon realised why, drank up and beat a hasty retreat) which leads uphill...like all the bloody roads here...to a swanky hotel. Opposite this hotel is a small wooden sign, "Eagle View", leading you up some steps to a humble fisherman's abode. A very stoned fisherman's abode, in fact. His wife cooks the food, and he sorts out the smokes "You wan' bong, mista?" I should say so, dear boy. The food isn't great, but the weed's sweet...and the view to imbibe it to is amazing.

Incidentally, one Colonel anecdote which made me howl with laughter. On arriving at Tao, he'd just asked a taxi driver to take him somewhere nice. Not doing his sums, he was quite pleased when the chap dropped him here . Three nights later, not as pleased when he realised it was costing him 42 quid a night. Bit different from the fiver a night bungalow he found himself on the beach the next day. You live and learn, mate. Besides, a bit of luxury was probably required after Vietnam.

So, after settling in for a few days...we had weed, diving booked, and football on the box. Not bad at all...

Island Life

Grabbing another extortionate taxi (how come it's 200 baht for 2 people, and 5 people is 500 baht? No wonder they all have new motors...it's more expensive than London) to Chalok Bay, it didn't take us long to find him. You hear the man before you see him...and he was around the bars showing the footy. Cue sheepish grins and big hugs...it was good to see him, alright.

He'd told me he'd become a bit of a character around the Bay. It's a small place, more peaceful and laidback than Sairee..and everyone knows each other. And almost everyone knew him. The Colonel had become a regular at Easy Bar. Not surprisingly, since they sold spliffs behind the counter "Don't worry, they don't sell Valium here" he assured me, laughing. Easy's run by a gang of Burmese lads, all like a smoke and good music. The best one being So, a skinny, tattooed 24 year old with an English girlfriend. Probably one of the most effortlessly cool people I've ever met. And the banter between him and an occassionally paranoid Colonel were hilarious to witness. All good-natured, though they couldn't understand each other at times. He seemed very relaxed there, though...part of the furniture.

So we're sat around the bar, the sound of waves gently lapping the shore complimenting the soundtrack rumbling from the speakers. The twitters and screeches from our fecund surroundings adding to the atmosphere. Random overheard conversations, and laughter in the fug of sweet Thai grass relaxing my mind and body. Yeah, I like Ko Tao. I like it a lot. Could be here for sometime.

Ko Tao arrival

Well, this is what I'd been looking forward to for 6 weeks. Especially after the disappointment, and filth, of Vietnam's beaches. The place looked beautiful from the boat, golden beaches with forested hills behind. And rain. Lots of rain.

So we disembarked at Mae Head, and grabbed a taxi (pickup trucks here) to a nearby bungalow complex. The easy way in new places when you have heavy gear is a night in the first place you see, followed by a scouting mission the next morning. This achieved, we spoke to Ban's Diving about the PADI Advanced course. A reasonable price, and accommodation free for 3 nights. Sign here. Don't mind if I do. So, all signed up to start the next morning, we went off to hunt down The Colonel...

Fast boat to Ko Tao

The Jock caught me up in Bangkok, apparently refreshed after his Vang Vieng experience. We had a few beers that evening, and decided to head to Ko Tao, where we'd catch up with The Colonel. Him and myself had swapped mails a few times. I apologised for sounding a little patronising in what I'd written about him when we parted. I'd meant to say simply that he needed to go off and do hs own thing, see what he was made of and the like. It didn't come across like that, but I'm not ashamed to hold my hand up. Shit happens, and you can get on each other's nerves when you're in each other's pockets. So, slate wiped clean, I was looking forward to catching up and see what sort of trouble he'd got himself into.

The overnight bus was uneventful. Well, aside from Jocky getting the eye off a ladyboy opposite him. Having told him off for playing a crappy game on his phone, tinny music obligatory, every time Jocky looked in his direction he simpered. I think he may like a bitof discipline. Jocky was nonplussed. Not to mention noncommital.

Having arrived at Chumphon for the catamaran, we had an hour to kill. Killing mosquitoes and eating culinary delights Little Chef would have been ashamed to profer. Two quid for a manky tuna sandwich, madam? I'll take two. I also loved the fact that the two rotund sandwich-makers didn't even make eye contact, and put my change on the counter 6 inches away from my upturned palm. How utterly charmless. Didn't like tourists, perhaps? So I asked if she had some spicy chili sauce, which she passed me "To drown the taste" I smiled. This country.

A quick doze on the boat was required. Not for me, but for the Korean chap who insisted on using my shoulder as a pillow. That didn't bother me, it was more the open mouth catching flies and curling my shirt collar with his rotten sleepy breath. A few further, and firmer, nudges in the ribs rectified this situation, though. Otherwise I'd have hurled in his lap. Violently...

Overnight train to Bangkok

So myself and Jamal escaped the meagre charms of Vientiane. A few hours later, and we were back on Thai soil. Another 9 hours on the train, and were ready to make our respective plans.

The journey was fairly uneventful. And the standard of train and bunk is far better than that of Vietnam's. I picked the bunk at the end by the door, a mistake I was to rue later, and I gave Jamal a ticket opposite an elderly Swedish woman who had been on the bus to the border. She wouldn't shut up...so there was no way I fancied having my ear bent all the way to Bangkok. Not on your nelly, love. I was feeling quite smug for about 5 minutes until I turned to see said old dear giving Jamal fruit, cake and fizzy pop. Eh? We hadn't eaten for about 8 hours, thinking there'd be somewhere to eat at the railway station. No such luck. To top it all, people passing through the carriage kept leaving the door open, so we could hear the rattle of steel wheel on track and point. Jamal fell asleep within minutes. I was left, red eyed, to curse every thoughtless fool passing through that door. As was the American opposite me.

We struck up a conversation. He's half-Morroccan, half Yank. Married to a Thai with a lovely tattoo on her leg, actually. Having lived all over Thailand for years, having never returned from a holiday he took, he had some tales to tell. Some amusing, some downright disturbing. One was related to the tsunami which crushed the Andaman coast. A friend of his was a dive instructor, miles out to sea with a group. They had heard nothing underwater, and did not have a radio switched on. So when they returned to land, an obvious picture of utter horror lay before them. Friends and colleagues gone. Homes and businesses strewn across miles of wasteland. And the grim sight of a dead pregnant Western woman on a beach. How you quite deal with that, I'll never know. Apparently, some Westerners dealt with it by heading for the Gulf and East Coast to continue their holidays. How some people sleep at night...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Best Pad Thai in Bangkok

There's not much good I can say about the Khao San Road area of Bangkok. Brash, vulgar, noisy. And that's just the Westerners. It's OK if you want a suit, though...you're not short of people trying to fit you up (literally AND financially, I imagine). The street food is pretty good, though...whether it's noodles, rice or the delicious fresh fruit shakes.

But there's one place any visitor should go. Top of KS Rd, turn right, and there's an open air kitchen 20 yards further on where you can sit down. This little old lady's got some serious skills with the local food.

So if you're in Bangkok...pay her a visit. Mention the lardy Englishman who gave her a kiss on the cheek as he left, and I may just get commission...payable in Pad Thai Shrimp please, Missus...

A Bright Shining Lie

I'd been meaning to read this book for years, ever since I was a 17-year-old shelf stacker at Asda and my friend and mentor, Billy Broad, had recommended it. We used to play tunes over the in-store sound system while we worked, much to the annoyance of the middle-aged women working there. Billy was about 15 years older than me, maybe more. So he got me into the Stones and other 60s stuff...I turned him onto Public Enemy and House. Fair swap. After listening to Paint It Black, I said it was the theme tune for Tour Of Duty, a Vietnam War TV drama.

I said I'd read various books on the War, and was very interested in it. He recommended this one. I wish I hadn't taken 20 years to finally read it...it's a masterpiece which describes the War and it's background with the French Indochina Wars, concentrating on one military advisor with the US Army. He's a flawed character, but one of the few people who understood the mentality and mindset of the Vietnamese and, ultimately, why America was doomed to lose before she started. A fascinating book. If you like that kind of thing. Oh, and this cover is shit compared to the original print with Tim Page's photograph on the cover...

Don't bother

Ah Vientiane. Why this is the capital, rather than Luang Prabang, I'll never know. OK, so it's a little bigger. But it is truly devoid of anything of interest. The food was good, but that's about it. It didn't help that we got there late, and there was no bloody accommodation. The place we got was the pits. There were that many brown splashes across the walls, it looked like Peter Sutcliffe had been having a drunken party. He'd have lost his deposit on the place, let's put it that way.

So we decided to have a few beers and stay out to avoid going back there. Any excuse. On returning, we drank the guesthouse fridge dry, sitting outside playing some tunes. And being accosted by ladyboys. A Canadian-raised Dutch fellow approached us and sat to have a natter. Just turned 60, apparently. Mohawk haircut and serious tattoos. I'll post some pictures later. He was a proper character with some great stories. Some of them a little tall, though...like the SS shooting at his mother when she was carrying him in her arms during WWII. He'd been brought up in Canada, and regaled us with allsorts of tales of failed marriages to local women, beer, drugs, tattoos and the like. I said "Papillon" and pointed at the butterfly on his chest when I first saw the tats. The youngsters in the group didn't understand, so I started telling the story of Henri Charriere's escape from French Guiana and Devil's Island. He said "I'm glad you're telling the story...I thought people didn't know". So I carried on for a few seconds til he interrupted and told it himself. This went on a few times, until I gave up. And there was me thinking I was a bigmouth who wouldn't shut up? Christ on a bike, this boy could talk. Very entertaining company, though...and I got some great shots of him. It's the characters you meet who make travelling what it is...

Thankfully, myself and Jamal were heading for Bangkok on the overnight train in the morning, the rest heading for 'Nam and Laos's Four Thousand Islands.

So the gist is...don't bother going to Vientiane. Luang Prabang and North, I would suggest.

On to Vientiane

A heavy night out on the booze, followed by The Jock looking a little green next morning when I woke him for the Escape Bus out of Vang Vieng. "I cannae move, man". Fair enough, catch me up my little bald friend...I can take no more. I was shipping out with the gang we'd had in Luang Prabang (we'd had a chance meeting on the street with them as myself and Jocky were searching for people to make a trip to the waterfalls a little cheaper...inseparable after that).

Jamal, a 19 year old cherub with a mop of brown hair and big green eyes...popular with the girls, and even more popular with some of the Laos boys who Play For The Other Team...was also having a rough morning. The kid is on a mission to piss his shrivelled liver out one day, I swear. At the start of tubing, he has a coke bottle mixed with Thai whiskey...and had finished it by the second bar. Leathered. He continued on into the evening. Even more leathered. Feeling confident, he approached a girl he fancied. The pair hit it off. Until Jamal burped and decided to do a little sick into his cupped hand. Classic. Game Over, mate. I'd have styled it out, I reckon: "Anyway, love...so where was I?"

Another bumpy bus ride to the capital(?) Vientiane...oh joy.

Hell On Earth

Well, after the cultural magnet that is Luang Prabang, what was I to expect of Vang Vieng as the bus wound its way across the mountainous jungles, bumped along the potholed track they call a highway?

We meandered downhill late at night, the eerie glow of the moonlight on the limestone karsts which line the route casting a bluish tint across our way. I'd been warned that this place was beautiful in its surroundings, and less than beautiful around its centre. Can't be that bad, I thought? Surely it'll just be a slight step down from Luang Prabang? I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd been involved in a foursome with Gary Glitter and Michael Barrymore.

This place truly is the armpit of Asia, never mind Laos. It looks like Vegas before they built roads. Neon signs and crappy bars. Bars which have beds to lie in and watch Friends. I hate Friends. I hate their stupid, vacuous little faces and the crap they dribble out of your TV set. And I hate these simple fools who sit and watch episode after episode all day long. Who's idea was this? Adolf Hitler's? Pol Pot's? I feel sorry for the poor bastards who work there, not understanding it, but having to put up with that godawful racket of a theme tune every 30 minutes. It sets my teeth on edge, andmakes me want to chew my own ears off. Speaking of Pol Pot, if his Khmer Rouge thugs had burst into the bar and hammered pencils in my ears, they would have been puzzled by my grin of gratitude. I digress.

People say to put it out of your mind, and just enjoy the tubing. Well, yes...there were ten of us doing it, and jumping off big rope swings and death slides is great. But does it need the shit music at each bar on the river? The pouting, flabless goons in giant sunglasses pumping their little bums to the commercial house, nodding at no-one in particular and pointing at the sky? And that's just the blokes. The locals pull you in with bamboo poles as you float downstream between bars.

A young Irishman was bouncing about, pissed out of his nut, with "22" written on his chest in black marker pen. When I asked what it signified, he gleefully informed me that he'd been tubing for 22 days non-stop, and apparently held the world record (?). I quizzed him about where else he'd been in Asia, and he said he was off to Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, for a Full Moon Party the next week, before coming back here to beat his own record. Wow. He'll certainly have some amazing stories for the granchildren about his time in Asia, won't he? Well done, mate.

Without wanting to sound too my like my hero (opposite), I did enjoy some of the experience. Several of the platforms you deathslide down are 30 feet+...and I preferred to just leap off them into the river. Especially when some Yank shouts "Yeah, man...WHOOOO...fucking awesome, but this slide ain't big enough!" while he's waiting for the slide to come back up. I suggested he jump off with me this time. His little face dropped, but he'd dug his grave with his remark. So at the count of three, we went for it. And it's a long way down, so much so that your feet sting as you hit the water (it's preferable to keep the feet together...doesn't do much for the old Nobby Stiles if you don't.

We were tubing with some of the gang from Luang Prabang. We had a right old laugh, despite the rest of the company (in particular a 50-year old stalker from Northern Ireland who looked frighteningly like Steven Berkoff. The Jock was perturbed when the guy rubbed all the water off his peanut head while he was pouring us beers and obviously had his hands full. When the hand started upon his shoulder, Jocky had had enough "OK...stop touching me now, please?" I chuckled to myself. Berkoff went off to do a sex on someone else.

As night fell, we set off in the inner tubes to try and get back within curfew...they charge another wad of cash if you're late. We linked up, around 15 of us going downriver towards the town, various locals houses lit up alongside us. Most bottled out in the dark, and headed for a local house to get back to the road and hail a tuk tuk. Myself and a plucky Yorkshire lass named Helen were having none of it, and drifted along on our own. It was lovely. Peace and quiet, looking up at the starts and the limestone karsts, chatting about this and that. We ended up at one of the local bars, knees scraped from getting out in the current under the shallows, to have a butty and a beer to celebrate. Some turd had nicked my flipflops at the final bar, so a walk home over stony ground for me.

To sum up, it comes to something that the best bar in this town is the Irish one. I detest sitting in them usually, "enjoying the craic" and that bollocks. You don't enjoy crack...you smoke it and then it becomes a necessity, for fuck's sake. The lad who owns it is married to a Laotian. He'll let you play your own music, and smoke weed upstairs. That's good enough for me.

Now get me out of this shithole.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Night bus to Vang Viang

Here we go again. A 6 hour journey by rickety bus, supposedly a VIP coach with aircon. Well, the windows were open, so by Laos standards it had aircon.

The scenery was stunning, and the weather changed with every valley we sank into, every mountain we climbed. The locals don't seem to enjoy travelling along Laos's bumpy, potholed roads. Even when it was raining in, I had to keep the window open to avoid the smell of vomit. The conductor was walking around handing out plastic bags as people emptied the contents of their stomachs around us (not literally that close). He asked us if we'd like one, and I cheerfully replied with a grin "No ta, but do you have any beer?"

So I was soaked, and drowning out the gurgles and splashing noises with my own music. The driver seemed intent on making us listen to his, which was dreadful to say the least. I was pleased to get a brief respite when we stopped at a ramshackle cafe about halfway. Though less pleased when I'd been ripped off by the old lady for a packet of pringles about 5 years out of date, which tasted like they'd been stored near strong detergent. I asked to exchange or get my money back, but she just laughed. The horrible old witch. I hope her shack falls down in the wind.

The seaweed crisps made up for it, though. And the piss stop the driver let us have later on, too. Feeling the breeze on the old Family Jewels as you trickle urine down a mountainside and look out over eternal jungle is a sensation not to be missed...

Elephants

Well this had to go down as one of the best experiences of my life. I've always loved these leviathans of the jungle. And even at $60 for a day, the chance to get up close to them was not to be missed. We chose a reputable company, or so we thought, to do it with. They allegedly take care of the creatures, and the money goes towards conservation.

After riding them early on (I felt a little bad doing this...it must be boring for them, and I need to lay off the cakes and pop, too) we took them down to the river for a bath. Feeding them later in the afternoon was the best bit, though. I wasn't interested in the trekking...I just wanted to be near them. They seemed more interested in eating The Jock's camera than the fruit, though. The mahouts were pretty pleased when I spotted a snake half out of the bushes later, and they leapt off the elephants to kill it. I was worried the elephants would panic if they saw it and we'd go charging off towards the Thai border. Kill it they did, and I asked our guide what it was, as a mahout had disappeared with his prize...for dinner or snake whisky. He asked the other mahout, who said "Cobra". "How big?" I asked. He touched his right shoulder with his right hand, and held his left arm out. I shuddered.

It's definitely the way to see elephants, as a zoo is no fun. Though after reading the linked article above, I'm not so sure it's much different. Seeing them shackled to trees by their legs wasn't too pleasant. I think a sanctuary would be the way to go in future.

Lazy days in Luang Prabang

I adored this place. After the madness of Hanoi, being dropped off at night in Luang Prabang was a joy. There were no constantly beeping horns, nobody following you down the street hassling you every step of the way. Even the tuk tuk drivers...if you wanted a ride, you had to wake one of them up.

It's a tiny place on a peninsular on the Mekong. And nothing much happens here. in fact, nothing at all. We soon found a quiet little guesthouse with no frills at the far end of town. Intending to stay a couple of days, we soon lost a week to it's charms and lazy pace.

First day consisted of getting the sights out of the way...various temples and the like. Once you've seen one, though. We had a chat with a couple of young monks there. Very friendly, and their English was very good, too. Prayers in the morning, clean the temple, then laze around all day until prayers and chanting in the evening. Sounds like a job for Goof, though I doubt he'd cut his hair for it. It's a strange sight watching the monks wandering up and down the streets under gaudy parasols to ward off the sun. We come to get a tan, the locals try and avoid one.

We took a trip upriver on a speedboat to see some caves filled with discarded Buddha imagery and carvings. The boat ride was far more exciting than the caves, which were pretty shit to be fair.
One afternoon, we were looking to get to Kuang Si waterfalls. A tuk tuk sounded expensive, but on passing a group of English lads bartering with a driver, I asked if they were heading for the falls. They were, and we tagged along. Result. They proved to be a very sound bunch of lads, and we spent the day swimming in the rock pools and jumping off the 12' fall above. Although The Jock took an eternity to take the plunge. So much for Braveheart, eh? Myself and three of the lads climbed a very steep path up to the top of the biggest fall. We stood on the top as light began to fall, looking out at a breathtaking view of rolling hills and jungle. Returning in pitch black, we found a worried Jock wringing his hands and cajoling some locals into forming a search party. We were bang on time, but I think he is yet to fully trust Compass Crawford. He'll learn.
Aside from that, we spent the evenings drinking at a few nice little bars. There's a midnight curfew though, so the only place to drink was at the bowling alley out of town. This place was a hellhole, frequented by pissed Brits, Irish, Aussies, prostitutes, drug dealers and ladyboys. Just your average Saturday night out, eh? One woman took a shine to me, and kept winking. I saw her around over several nights, and she would not leave me alone...chatting me up in broken English. We were outside one night, the group of us waiting for a tuk tuk home. The Laotian chick followed me out, and was trying to get me home. Repulsed, she wandered back inside. Time to confirm my suspicions. 

I said to one of the locals "Ladyboy, right?" and pointed after her. 
"How you know?" 
"Big hands" I grinned.
"You clever man!"