Saturday, 27 December 2008

First Sunset Over Burma

I've obviously seen more than my fair share of sunsets over the last 3 months, but this one was special. The skies had been clear but, as dusk fell, banks of wispy cloud became visible, as if drawn to the setting sun. The amazing thing was, as the bloody orb dropped towards the ocean, Burma revealed herself below it in the distance. It took the breath away. I watched this one with Mario, the tattooed fella. Even he said, after 4 years here, that this one was very good. The water looked like Mercury as it gently washed further and further up the shore towards us. The pictures will follow next week, as the bargain card-reader I bought in Bangkok worked once and went on the blink. Bloody counterfeit goods again.

I stayed a while as Mario got up and left. Half an hour later, and the darkness was total. Well, almost. The moon was almost full, and I was quite shocked to look around me and see my own shadow cast on the beach at night, and very sharply at that. The starts were the brightest I'd seen since working in the Lake District, as the air isn't exactly clear over Hackney these days.

I think I'd have been quite happy to sleep on the beach that night, but then I heard a nice piece of music which led me to go for a quick beer on the way home. Little knowing that I'd meet the best person I'd come across in Thailand so far...

Ze Germans

These chaps had seen fit to bring two likely-looking girls from Ranong with them. Probably not Ladyboys, but certainly paid for by the looks of things. I'd given each of the lads a nickname for my own amusement. There was Rutger Hauer, Sting With A Mohican, Jimmy Five Bellies, Droopy, White Bob Marley and Johnny Rotten. The latter seemed to be the biggest nob of the lot, half shaved head with one stumpy dreadlock. Big mouth. All their tats seemed to be fantasy figures, dragons and space monsters and the like, too. They'll look great when you hit 60, lads. Mum must be proud.

So, while most people on the island are lying in the sun, then watching the sun go down and having a few relaxing drinks in the bar as the shadows grow longer, this lot are getting hammered. In the same spot. Who said that Variety Was The Spice Of Life?

The gang looked a little more than grubby. Same kilts, tee shirts and football socks on each day. I bet their clothes actually crawl to the washing machine themselves when things get too much for them. One of the hookers put ice down Rutger Hauer's back, and he cursed away in German. "What did he say? she asked. He said, said Rotten "Fresh air and cold water will be ze death of him."

No shit.

Snake Island: Ko Chang

It's another early start, after a fairly sleepless night of waterfall music. I don't really care, though...on exiting the bungalow it's a hot morning already...with clear blue skies for the first time since Luang Prabang; not a cloud in sight. The Germans with the kilts and tattoos were packed into one bus and left (last I'd see of them), I was bundled into a pickup with a French woman and her English-born husband, who had developed a French twang. He was a diver, too...so we had a good chat. I believe they were off to Phuket.

My boat was at 10am, and we stopped by an ATM; there aren't any on Ko Chang or Ko Phayam. Would my card work? Would it bollocks. I tried both bank cards AND the Barclaycard...to no avail. So, with no cash to spend...I was going nowhere until the cards would give me some dosh. I tried at another bank later on, and thankfully could withdraw enough for a week's stay.

So, 2pm boat over some pretty calm water and I'm on my way. it took about 1.5 hours on a longtail, and we saw some pretty sinister-looking jellyfish on the way over. Bright orange in colour and about 1m wide. Wouldn't fancy swimming into one of those. But never mind that, Garfield had wished me a pleasant stay on Chang with a one-line comment on Facefuck: "Watch out for snakes." Cheers, mate. No, really. He'd told me a story of his visit a few years ago, when a snake decided to pop into one of the bars one night for a drink and a bit of a boogie. Goof said he knew it was a nasty one when all the locals started scream, brandishing chairs and jumping up on the tables. All while he was under the influence of the local Thai grass. Something to look forward to, eh?

There was a lad called Mario on the boat, sat on his own. Everyone else was chatting amongst themselves, so I went and said Hello...as he looked a bit left out. Probably something to do with the Polynesian tattoos covering his entire body, including half of his face. We chatted a little about them, and his reasons for doing it. He couldn't recall the first tattoo, but said he'd consciously decided to go for the full body job.

"Everything?" I asked, arching an eyebrow?
"Everything."
"And...?" with another raised eyebrow.
"Ze penis is completely covered, inside and out. In solid black. It is very surprising, because ze scotum causes more discomfort zan ze glans."

I winced. A little bit more information than I needed, but it certainly painted a picture. Vividly. I didn't probe any further. He referred to his "life partner" doing it, and herself, over 7 years. They aren't together any more, though. So much for life partners, I thought. Probably why he's been living on Koh Chang for the last 4 years. Said he gets less hassle here than he did in India, where he couldn't eat a meal in a cafe without looking up to see camera phones in his face. Understandable, really...it does look a little outlandish, but it's his choice after all. He said he got prejudiced reactions, and sometimes even violence, from people who didn't get it. Not nice, really. Each to their own. He's a nice bloke. I really wanted a picture for the blog. He declined, but thanked me for actually asking first. Mum brought me up proper, after all.

So as the boat pulls up for his stop (there's no cars, bikes or taxis on the island, so the boat drops you on whichever beach you require) a woman asked me if I wanted a bungalow. I said Yes, and she jumped off with one of my bags and carried it up the beach. As I followed up and walked into the bar, who should be sat there but the Bloody Tattooed Germans? I took a deep breath and carried on. The bungalow was nice, so I took it thinking they might be off soon.

How wrong I was.

Burma Run

Never mis-read the Rough Guide. It's sketchy enough as it is (hence the title, I suppose. Either that or the mistakes are just lazy journalism) without skim-reading it and costing yourself a few hundred miles and a night in a one-horse town. I got to Samui expecting a month extension, but because I didn't have the printed visa in my passport, just an entry stamp, I was offered 8 days by the girl on the counter. For the bargain price of 1800 Baht (36 quid). Don't think so, love. "You go to Burma, then" Ouch. So instead of Lipeh in the South, I have to run for the boat from Samui over to Suratthani, stay there a night and then up to Ranong. Would have been so much easier from Tao to go to Chumphon. I was gutted, especially with No & starting to ache again under the weight of my pack. But, no choice...it was that or Malaysia for Xmas.

The boat ride to Suratthani was quite nice, actually...and I forgot about the inconvenience and just enjoyed it. Stop whinging, you're not stuck at home in the cold. The place was pretty crap, nowt going on...so I wandered down to the street market to eat. The food was great, and very cheap. The old lady shouted over as I tucked into my Pad Thai "You from British?" "Well, English, actually...don't lump us in with the rest of them" and I smiled. She understood little of that, but just brought me a beer without my asking. I didn't argue. Our reputations precede us, and I didn't mind her judging me with a cold Singha.

An early start from there saw me on a bus North. The Krabi region is certainly good enough to take your mind off an arduos journey...all limestone rock and dense jungle. And the sun was out. After hopping off the bus, I made my way to the easiest guesthouse, Kiwi Orchid. They arranged for me to go get a visa immediately as I dumped my bags. Ordinarily I'd have shopped around, but it expred that day, and it was 3pm. 20 quid sounded OK, so off I went to the harbour.

Ranong harbour stinks. It smells like something's died there, it's horrendous. Diesel fumes and dead fish, not a good mix. I gently lowered myself into the proferred longtail, and off we went out of the pier. It sounds more complicated than it is. You get stamped out of Thailand, then stop at the mouth of the river to clear Immigration. Then out across the bay, clear Burmese Immigration...and onto the nearest harbour to get stamped into Burma, and immediately out again. For which the Burmese pocket $10. And various beggars say they're your best mate, they love Wayne Rooney and Posh and Becks, and can they have some money please? No. A kid with a Chelsea baseball cap asked for tip. "Get a new hat." The boat ride is great, though...my Dad would love it. That's why they call him Skipper Don.

I was a bit perturbed to find that the new Thai government, after the crisis recently, had cut the allowance from 30 days to 15 for new stamps. 2 days before I got there. Swines. So, instead of heading for Lipeh immediately, I thought it best to do Koh Chang and Phayam for 2 weeks, then head South. It was my original plan before I flew from London anyway, so I didn't mind.

I got back to Kiwi Orchid, and got chatting to a girl who'd been born in Preston. Leyland, in fact. i laughed...a lot of mates back home are from there, including The Colonel. So we had a good chat, and she recommended another guesthouse instead of Kiwi, with hot springs nearby, waterfalls outside and plants in the room. Sounded lovely. It wasn't. The springs were out of order, the waterfall deafining to the point where sleep was nigh on impossible, and the plants in the room were plastic. Never trust anyone from Preston.

As I'd left Kiwi, there were a group of kilt-wearing, tattooed Germans getting pissed in the lobby. Very odd characters, so I was pleased to change hotels just for that reason. Didn't like the look of them. And they'd cost em money when I'd seen them a few weeks previously on the Khoa San Rd. I'd seen the kilts and remarked to Jocky "Look at the state of these freaks...some of your lot" "Nah" he shook his head "too many tattos...German." "Bollocks, next beers on whoever's wrong, then." I was wrong, and Jocky made a smug drinking motion. But I didn't think I'd run into these guys. Especially a third time...

A Fond Farewell To Koh Tao

Well, it was with a heavy heart that I left this place after 3 weeks. Myself and The Jock hadn't thought much of the place when we arrived in Mae Hat, especially as it was chucking it down and there seemed to be No Room At The Inns. We'd also eaten on arrival, enjoying the chicken fried rice immensely; until I visited the bathroom via the kitchen. Swarms of flies buzzing all over every surface, and a cloud of them dancing around a pile of something unidentifiable in the middle of the floor. I'd gingerly pushed the toilet door open with a toe. It didn't flush, and someone's processed dinner was bobbing up and down in the bowl. Needless to say, there was no soap or a towel. I felt sick. Jocky wasn't too happy, either. Surprisingly, neither of us developed gastroenteritis on the spot. Nasty.

Over 3 weeks, you meet some right characters. And make some firm acquaintances. They feel like friends, but you can't really call them that; friends are ones I've been stuck with for 20 years, like Garfield Hodgson. Mates are people I know from work over the years. But these acquaintances are certainly great to hang around with.

Jocky had met a lad on the way down from Vientiene, Dave. On the first day in Bangkok together, he proceeded to regale us with tales of "Rub N Tubs" in Pattaya. Read in a Geordie accent, like Michael from Alan Patridge, to fully appreciate:

"So, like, you picks yer bird, like. An' she takes you into a room with a giant lilo, and starts smothrin' it wi' oil, like. The she strips us off, and gets her own kit off, like. She gi's us a massage all over wi' her body...gettin' all greasy like. Then you have sex, and get washed off in the hot-tub. Only 20 quid, like..." he says.
"Sounds a bit seedy, though? And Pattaya...isn't that where all the Sex Tourists go?" I enquire.
"Aye, well...I kept away from all them lot, like..."
The mind boggles. We were supposed to see Dave on Tao, but (not) surprisingly, he didn't phone Jocky when he got there. Maybe the penny dropped?

So...the first-rate lads on Tao. Red: the Canadian who's obsession with women, and how to lure them in using tactics from "The Game" , bordered on frightening. A good lad, though...despite attempting to kill me on a scooter ride from Hell. He actually said we were almost crashing into things because I, as pillion, was looking at them. I asked if it was nothing to do with the fact he was actually sweating gin, and could hardly see? It always tickled me when I saw him after a party at Sairee Beach, and asked if he'd pulled.

"I got some IOIs" he nodded, sagely.
"What the fuck's an IOI?" I asked, bemused.
"Indicators Of Interest"
"Ah"
"And what about the young Swedish girl you liked?"
"I broke the Three Second Rule with her, it's a goner"
"Eh??"
"Never look at a girl for more than three seconds without making a move. It's Game Over."

Put that book down, mate. You're a nice enough fella...don't scare them off, now.

Then there was Seb. Only 19, but really switched-on, and very good company. He said he appreciated the fact that I carried on speaking to him after I found out his age, as some older people didn't bother. Pretty narrow-minded of them. Their loss, mate. Seb's probably still there at the bar, smoking a joint and stroking Lucky (that's a dog, not a Thai prostitute). I hope he hasn't been for any more massages since I left, though. He told me one woman kept "accidentally" touching his balls. "Result" I said "Happy Finish?" "No, mate...she's about 90." Blecccchh!

Danno's a shaven-headed Canadian. Wears basketball vests and has tattoos of skulls on his arm. Me and him would probably pass each other on the street at home and not communicate much. But when you're away, you tend to see through all that, chat to people and realise you actually have stuff in common. Me and Danno both like smoking weed and drinking beer, and that's enough for both of us. He probably doesn't hang out with fat 38 year olds at home, either. But Heavy Ballads is still a shit genre of music, Danno...remember that.

Luke, an English fella, was good for a laugh. He always got all shiny-faced when he was pissed and stoned. A happy drunk, you could hang out all day with him at the pub back at home. Reminded me of Rowley Birkin from the Fast Show...as he was quite well-spoken. Sprawled out at Eazy Bar, cocktail in one hand, spliff in the other, is how I'll remember him.

Last, but by no means least, are the Eazy Bar boys themselves, all from Burma. Soe, the effortlessly cool one of the bunch and too bloody handsome with it, was always good for a laugh, and full of stories. English really good, just from speaking to the likes of us...and more recently his English wife Sophie. I told her Soe reminded me of Ronaldinho without the teeth. He told me some Burma stories I'll come to later. Yaou was the quieter one in charge of music, and occupied himself with his German girlfriend and rolling joints most of the time. Both important pasttimes. Zo was my favourite. About 4 foot tall with a loveable cheeky face, he had his spot in the bar pit, just behind the door. He was the only one who could fit in there. The other lads, Wan in particular, used to pick on him, with anything from catapults to fake guns. I think he secretly loved it...bit of a masochist. Easpecially when he'd pull his shirt up so they could get a better shot at his arse. A very funny man.

There was an odd chap there who I didn't take a liking to at first after a drunken, stoned encounter on the way home one night. I thought he was being a bit funny with me. Turns out he just gets drunk with the customers, and he was leathered that night. He speaks around 8 languages, and is self-taught in all...amazing. I don't know why he's working in a bar in Thailand?

So you feel an affinity for these Burmes lads, even to the point where we sat back and watched them charge a very drunk middle-aged English fella called Gareth off one night. He'd asked for a few hits of the bong, then wanted to buy weed. Soe had looked at us, then passed him a bag worth around 500 Baht and asked for 1000. Myself, Danno and Seb smiled conspiratorially. I felt a bit guilty, though...the lad was English. And we felt doubly guilty when he was dishing out bongs for us, and left us some grass as he left for bed. Sorry, mate...it was funny at the time. And you were asking for it in that state. Besides, Soe would have pulled his stun gun on me if I'd stepped in.

So I crept away for the 7am boat, a bit of a lump in the throat. Better to leave with no-one around, as I don't like Goodbyes at the best of times. And it's more of a wrench to leave at 8pm when the party's just kicking of at Eazy after the sun's disappeared below the horizon. So a jump into a pickup, a quick grab of some cash before the boat leaves...and it's off to Samui to extend the visa and see what else is out there.

If you ever visit Tao, go to Chalok Bay and Eazy Bar. You won't be sorry. Eat at Tropicana, the Penang Curry is amazing. Stay at Sunshine, and dive with them. I challenge you to leave. It's not Eazy.