Monday, 26 January 2009

Breaking News From Australia

Thai medicine: where would the world be without it? Not in the Stone Age, that's for sure. According to them, I'd broken Rib No 7. So why is it I get X-Rayed in Australia, and they tell me I have two breaks and three fractures in 5 out of 12 of my useful ribs (No's 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9)? If the Thais had said four ribs, and missed one, I could have understood it.

I reckon the X-Ray machine wasn't even switched on, and they just have a drawer full of previous patients' results to show you. Then, when you say "Actually, I broke the ribs on the other side of my chest" they just flip the sheet over on the lightbox and give a sheepish grin: how would you like to pay, sir?

So this explains why I have been walking around clicking and cracking for the last couple of months. The doctors here have said it takes 3-6 months from the injury for them to heal. Not that I'd be diving again within 6 weeks, as Samui International Hospital had told me. I'm not suggesting all Thai hospitals are like this, though. But I should have suspected something like this would happen when the orderlies left me on the stretcher as I arrived, to rifle through my belongings and and bark "VISA? Insurance?" over their shoulders before they gave me any painkillers, or even a bed.

The upshot is that I'm going to rest up at my sister's for a few more weeks before heading for the Philippines. Going home is an option I don't want to think about. So it's more beach, rest and books for the next few weeks. I can manage that. There's not a cloud in the sky, and it's 40 degrees. The home cooking is going down a treat, too. And the simple pleasures in life, denied to me in recent months by pain (belching, farting, laughing...usually in that order), are agony-free once again.

Now...where did I put that cold beer?

Singapore: They Can Keep It

I walked from the bus station with a German girl and a Danish lad. The pack was killing me in the heat. Lugging diving gear around is bad enough if you can actually use the bloody stuff. I'd seen a place in the Rough Guide which sounded reasonable enough. Got there and it had closed down. So far, so good. One of the builders recommended another budget place, so I tramped over there...only to find it was 75 quid a night. What kind of budget is that, then?

So off I went, and checked out another from the Guide. It was 40 quid for a very basic room in a hostel. This was a shock to the system after Thailand. I told the lady I'd have a look around, and come back if I saw nothing else. She wasn't taking me on with the bartering I attempted, not even a dollar. So back out into the merciless sun, seeking refuge at a fraction of the price. It wasn't to be.

I checked out one place, listed as reasonably priced with a good atmosphere in the Rough Guide. Reasonable, it was; but a good atmosphere? Well, I suppose that compared to S-21 or Riker's Island, yes...the place was homely. The fact that if you left a dog in a place like this in England, the Guardian would be demanding the reinstatement of Capital Punishment, seemed immaterial. The guy on the desk had said there were secure lockers for everyone. These were on the landings, and had that many bends in the doors and crowbar marks, it was laughable. Needless to say, I wan't staying. I headed to the internet cafe next door and did some more research on potential places to stay. Half an hour later, I was none the wiser. I asked the lad on the desk if he knew of anywhere. He suggested next door. I said "No, mate...I would not put my dog in there" and turned to leave. Who should be sat at one of the terminals, but the receptionist I'd just left? Ah...

20 quid a room it is. I returned, dumped my stuff and made the most of the inclusive web access. Despite the efforts of a ripe-smelling Frenchman to dislodge all and sundry from the internet room...my word. There's always a catch if something's free.

I decided to take a wander. Singapore is clean. Too clean. It's like a massive show-house on a Barratt estate; it looks like everyone has just moved in. They banned chewing-gum. Dropping rubbish is punishable by public flogging (OK, so I made that one up). I considered taking up smoking for the next 24 hours, just to litter the soulless place with fag-ends. But there's fines for everything, indeed the locals refer to this place as "a fine city". There were $5000 fines for riding a bike through pedestrian tunnels. $500 for eating food on the tube. You probably get fined for farting. Or complaining. Imagine that? I'd be broke.

I saw one just hip area, Hadji Street in the Arab Quarter. Great boutiques and second-hand shops. But the prices were still outrageous. I saw a guy making similar marble carvings to one I'd bought for my Dad in Laos, and it was four times the price. I know things are different in a big city, but when a can of lager is £4 in a corner store, compared to the 6 for a fiver in London...you end up walking around with your mouth agape.

Orchard Road is a mile of shopping malls. And they're building even more. It's a shopper's heaven; and my personal hell. How many shops do you need, exactly? I passed the above sign, Oldham Street. If only. Should this road actually lead to Oldham, Lancashire, I would personally direct traffic along it. "This way to the real people...don't stop til you see men in flat caps with whippets." I might even have led them there, like a Northern Moses. There were tourists having their photos taken outside the more expensive stores...what's that all about? I can imagine their rapt audience of friends crowded round the snapshots back home. "Yeah...this is me outside Gucci...erm, this is me at the entrance to Karl Lagerfeld...no, no...they wouldn't let me in. Here's me outside another branch of Gucci, a smaller boutique opened in 1997...that's the secirty guard who has me in a headlock, friendly sort..." Unreal.

Mercifully, I was only in Singapore two nights. I wandered down to Clarke Quay, the in-place for people to hang out. It's a spiritless ex-pat watering hole. Bar after bar full of moneyed, vacuous people holding my daily budget in a cocktail glass. I didn't hang around. On the way back up the strip, the same glassy-eyed touts I'd turned down 5 minutes earlier bared their plastic grins to entice me into brightly-lit restaurants. There's nothing cool about this place. Even if you had the cash to visit the hip joints, there'd be no soul.

I showered early the next morning, to the barely-concealed grunts of an amorous couple in the next cubicle. Thrills were the only things going cheap here, it would seem. 

I got chatting to a French girl who lived in the hostel, she taught English nearby: the cheek of it. Her brother lives on Deepdale Road, home of the famous Preston North End. She offered to take me off to the beach with a few friends of hers. It was a nice offer I appreciated but, as I didn't have long before leaving, she suggested I check out the Botanical Gardens. It was a shame about the beach day out, so I said "Ah well...next time, eh?". It's an everyday, throwaway comment she took too literally. "OK...when are you coming back?" Erm...when Hell freezes over?

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

I watched this masterful piece of film-making the other day. I was impressed right from the opening sequences shot from behind the protagonist's eyelids as he awakes from a coma, to the bittersweet end. 

It's the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of the French edition of Elle, who suffered a massive stroke and was left completely paralysed, apart from one eye. He used this eye, thanks to the therapists and those around him, to dictate a book about life before and since the accident; by blinking as his assistant read out the letters of the alphabet, in order of frequency of use. It's an amazing film. Apparently, Spielberg had the rights and wanted Johnny Depp; but as he was busy with Pirates Of The Caribbean, Julian Schnabel took over the project. Depp had suggested the director, in fact. A sequence of events that could have led to a completely different film.

I bought the book the very next day. The film was faithful to it, and in some ways surpasses it. I'd highly recommend watching this movie. Despite the subject matter, it is very funny in places...Bauby dealt with his condition admirably. He, and the film, are inspirational.

Fun (?) And Games: Crossing To Singapore

I'd read of the expressway linking Malaysia and Singapore, and was expecting something grand and high-tech. It wasn't. The most excitement I had here was joining in the petty maneuverings of the Chinese at the borders' passport controls; they'd rush off the bus to get first in the queues. Like they'd get through any quicker when we're all on the same bus? One old duffer at the Malaysian side had sidled up through the queue, playing senile and saying "Sorry...sorry...sorry..." as he just plain pushed in front of everyone. I'm all for standing up and giving my seat to the elderly on a bus, but this was just taking the piss. I got into the spirit of it at the next stop, my long Western legs giving me an edge as we piled off the coach: I strode past a few quite quickly and easily. One woman was well perturbed. At the final entry to Singapore, she tried to edge her family of fatties in front of me. Another queue moved quicker to another desk, so she switched lanes. I could see her out of the corner of my eye, getting flustered if I edged ahead. The things which amuse you when you're bored, eh?

Oh...I won, by the way.

Exit Lipeh: Malaysia By Night

Another day, another boat. The ferry is a lot slower than the speedboat; but you can sit right at the front in front of the cabin, feel the wind on your face, and catch some more sun. I'd been chatting to an Aussie girl, but even I couldn't get a word in edgeways...I had to move when she went to the toilet.

I got chatting to a nice middle-aged German couple who'd been travelling, off and on, for the last 20 years. Pretty cool lifestyle they had. Save, travel, save, travel. They told me some places to go in Singapore, and I filled them in on Phayam and Chang (don't worry, I'm boring myself about them, too). The things they told me about Burma in the 70s made me want to go there one day, it sounded amazing.

I got chatting to a bloke from Berlin, a theatre set designer, who told me he works all over Germany. We gave each other a few pointers on places of interest in Asia, and he said that if I was ever in Berlin, I could use his place if he wasn't there. You do meet the best people on the road.

We disembarked at last, and were immediately separated and whisked away to respective buses. I was headed for Hat Yai. It's known simply as a transit hub, as well as a place the Malays cross the border to frequent the thousands of prostitutes on offer. Not my kind of thing, but I know a man in London who'd like the place. Apparently it has the highest rate of AIDS in Thailand, yet the authorities play down the figure so as not to scare anyone off. Frightening.

Not looking forward to an 18 hour bus ride to Singapore with no toilet, I decided not to drink. Just in case. As it turned out, the ride wasn't so bad. Apart from the rude Chinese who were constantly upsetting the Thai staff with their demands. It's interesting to see the change in ethnicity as you get closer to another country's borders. Indians blended with Chinese as we waited at the far side of the Malaysian border while the driver took a break. Man United v Stoke was on the TV, so I didn't mind catching half of that.

Malaysia flew by in a pitch black blur outside my window. I'd liked to have seen the Cameron Highlands; I couldn't believe that we climbed and climbed for over an hour. But they've been there millions of years, I'm sure they'll still be there if I come back.


Last 24 Hours On Lipeh

After an early night for a change, I was up early to catch the sunrise. It was black when I left the bungalow, and I picked my way along the beach by torchlight. Slowly I headed up to the furthest point of the beach. There's a new development there which sums up the way Lipeh, sadly, is heading. It's all glass and stone Art Deco style huts with aircon and double glazing. There are three rows of huts and, according to a local I spoke to, the prices rise according to proximity to the shoreline. £140 a night for the front row. Unbelievable for Thailand; I guess this puts the backpackers firmly out of the picture within the next 2-3 years.

I reflected on this, but my mind went blank as the faint hints of light began to etch outlines to the clouds over Langkawi. It's amazing how quickly dawn breaks. Lilac, rose and orange began to play across the water, the islets in the distance emerging from the gloom. A dog sauntered up the beach and, noticing a large crab poised on the shore, began a pointless dance around it. So relaxing to listen to the waves slap the sides of redundant longtails; watching the fishermen prepare for a day's work. This was my first sunrise proper; I wrung every last second from it.

After an uneventul but relaxing day or reading a book on the beach, it was time to eat and get out for a few beers. I headed over to Sunset, and arrived at the Reggae Bar in time to witness some commotion which again, thankfully, did not involve an Englishman. An Australian chap was being verbally (they hardly do forcefully in Thailand, unless you really upset them) ejected. Apparently for complaining frequently about the relentless reggae music, I was told. Brilliant.

Nothing doing there (Lipeh's pretty dull...too many families) so I went to another place whose name escapes me. Must have been good. I bumped into two German lads I'd spoken to a few times. They were as fanatical about climbing as I am about diving, and I'd started climbing in London. So we talked about how fit you have to be for the respective sports. The lads both had great physiques, I was slightly (terribly) envious. Fabien pulled up his sweater to show off a taut 6-pack. Josef huffed and revealed an 8-pack. I sneered and revealled my 1-pack. All bought and paid for in England. "Odd numbers, you can't beat that..." The lads were off to the Gulf Coast next, but I persuaded them they'd love Chang and Phayam. I should get discount next time I go there, the amount of people I harangued into visiting.

The Thai behind the bar was asking my name...he recognised me from Joker Bar, he was a mate of Song's. It's funny to hear them try and pronounce my name "Lawrence? Laurece? Warrence? Warrenz?" They get there in the end.

Rudi and Bruno turned up, and I introduced them to Fab and Josef. Cue a 4-way conversation in German. Ah, bugger. I noticed a large Brian Blessed lookalike near the entrance. He went to sit in a wicker chair, and it cracked, nearly breaking beneath him. I laughed loudly as he cast a nervous look at the barmen. Nobody noticed. Some fireworks started on the beach, and I went to have a look. It was there I got talking to a pleasant English girl, and she said I should meet her husband and friend. Orlando, the big fella, was her man. Him, myself and Nick got on immediately...a real triple act.

Nick was ripping into me about being Northern. All the unwashed jokes came out, and he asked how I'd got the tin bath through the metal detectors at Heathrow. A funny lad. he told a tale about travelling through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan...all the 'stans, in fact...on a motorbike last year. In a sandstorm one night, he'd made for a remote house and begged for shelter. The woman there let him in from the blizzard, and told him to wait for her husband's return. He hunkered down on a pile of goatskins, and waited. Hubby rocke up with three rough-looking friends in tow. They pulled out a bottle of vodka and insist he drank with them. It wasn't Stolichnaya. They talked amongst themselves, one of the gang motioning at Nick's watch a little too often. They got a little animated, and the husband kept repeating one word. It was the only one Nick understood, and it was "tomorrow". The rest of the evening was spent in a state of perspiration as Nick waited for them to fall asleep before creeping out. He spent the next few hours racing at breakneck speed through the hills, almost crying with relief. It minded me of the time my mate Speckled Jim fell for the old precious stones scam in Thailand, and had to creep out of a hotel room full of heavies, leaving all his belongings behind. You don't get that in Magaluf.

"It was OK at first" said Nick. "I think a lot of those people hadn't seen anyone who looked like me before"
"I can imagine" I jibed.
It went like that all evening.

We wandered off to a techno party further down the beach, where we met a very irritating Dutchman. Well, he annoyed us when we weren't looking at a nearby girl with the best set of legs I've ever seen in my life. Very distracting. Even Orly's missus gave a low whistle of appreciation. Anyway, The Little Dutch Boy comes over, wanting to play Guess Where I Am From? We tired of it quickly after two guesses.

"I am from the country where you can smoke the best weed in the world!?" he cried.
"Yes, and I'm from the country whose people have to come and bloody smoke it for you, you lightweights..."
Finally, he leaves us be.

All in all, I didn't rate Lipeh...as you'll have gathered. I wasn't sorry to go. I met some great people there, but the place just left me cold. No good vibe to the place. You can smell the greed there, and it's not a pleasant aroma. Maybe we've just had it too good, too long? I don't know. I certainly wasn't at all put out that it would be too expensive to stay there and do my DMT for 2-3 months.

Early to bed again. Christ, at this rate I'll be healthy by New Year. If I live that long, that is. When snorkelling, I'd taken a pebble from one of the islands we'd landed on. These beautiful stones were carried up the shoreline over years, and their seams and markings are stunning. I couldn't resist pocketing one, it's the Scouser in me. You're not supposed to take them; so allegedly the island's spirit will be after me now. Oh dear.

The Best Christmas Day Ever

I'm with Scrooge as far as Xmas goes. It's a load of commercial bollocks designed to put yourself in the red whilst giving your relatives a load of shit gifts they accept through a rictus grin, while passing you something else to clog your attic with. Cynical? Me?

Fair enough, if you have kids it can be fun. When the selfish, greedy little brats aren't turning their noses up at what you've bought. Or getting more enjoyment out of the big box your gift came in, rather than the expensive bloody thing itself. Well, Mum says I'm a miserable sod, and my sister's kids live in Adelaide now. So I reserve the right to pull a face at Christmas records, especially the Slade one. If I ever see Noddy Holder in the street, I'll be kicking his nuts, not nibbling them, I can assure you.

Righty-ho, my prediliction for kicking aging rockers in the goolies and ungrateful little shits, aside; I was up at the crack of dawn, rummaging through my rucksack for the snorkelling gear. A healthy instant noodle cup later, and I was down at the beach waiting for the lads. Egg and his boatman turned up a little late, and off we went.

Lipeh is part of the Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, and is famed for its clear waters and great snorkelling/ diving. We pulled up at the first stop, where a couple of boats joined us. Obviously it wasn't a new idea, snorkelling on Xmas Day. Seven Colours is so named due to the varied colours of reef below the waves...oranges, purples and yellows. It was beautiful. The visibility was so-so, but the hundreds of fish made up for any shortcomings.

Swimming out against the current, I tried my best to keep away from Bruno. Rudi had gone ahead, and Bruno was swimming breaststroke due to a lack of fins on his feet. As such, I got too close twice, and he inadvertently kicked me in the ribs on both occasions. Ouch. Merry Xmas. Back on the boat, we headed for a couple of other sites. They were all much of a muchness, to be honest. I saw some interesting fish, and met a particular breed which were very territorial...they fly at you, waggling their little heads from side to side while trying to nip you. Not very Christmassy, I must say. There were four Angel fish which followed us around at one site; very inquisitive and not all all shy. I got a great shot of them and one bright orange jellyfish I narrowly avoided, thanks to Rudi's quick tap on my shoulder.

Pausing between sites, we enjoyed some food on the beach, taking in the view. It was the best Xmas Day I've ever had. Well, besides the one where we took Grandad down the local pub for a swift one; coming home pissed-up many hours later when dinner had been out for a couple of hours, to a right bollocking from the female half of the family. Missed The Queen's Speech and everything. But snorkelling for a scuba diver is, it has to be said, like giving a drug addict a joint when what he really, really craves is a nice piece of crack the size of a tennis ball. Just doesn't do it for me.

Lipeh around this time of year is frequented by the rich. The yachts around Sunset Beach had been gradually building up. Heading back to the island, we passed one with a ten year old boy running and jumping all over it. As we chugged past, myself and Bruno waved to the kid. He sniffily ignored us but stopped to stare (at our crappy little boat?). As one, the pair of us switched from waving to sticking two fingers up, to be met with an open-mouthed gape from the brat. Too good to wave at the hoi polloi are we, young man? Well get fucked then, you posh little shit...

Rudi And Bruno: A Love Story

I headed to a cheap local place for dinner one night. Egg, the guy running it, is a friendly sort. I'd been here the previous evening, and the pad thai was very good. Sipping my beer, I was trying not to listen in to the tense conversation a middle-aged couple were having at the next table. It was not long after their food arrived that the man went and paid the owner, explaining that his wife was not in a good mood. They left and, as Egg passed my table, I asked if I could have the untouched vegetables. Asparagus. I'd been missing it. Two fellas a little older than myself at another table had their prawns. We fell into conversation. 

Rudi's German, Bruno French, but German-speaking. We laughed about the couple's leaving, and the resulting free food. I knew straight away that these guys were a couple, too. My Gaydar works just fine, I have a few gay friends back home, and also knew from an early age that my uncle Barry was gay, when no-one else suspected. Bruno told me how they'd met, and it was a nice story. Both keen cyclists, they'd been out on a remote road and cycling towards each other as a storm blew up. A solitary tree was the only shelter on this road and, arriving at this point simultaneously, they got talking. Now what are the chances, not just of two gay men turning up under the same tree on a deserted highway, but of them actually liking each other, too? Fate. Very romantic. And they've been together since.

Being Xmas Eve, we discussed plans for the following day (I told them their English was very good; they told me that mine wasn't, and that I must slow down as they couldn't understand a word I was saying. I told them people in London had that problem when I'd first moved down). I'd looked into a snorkelling trip, and they said they'd asked Egg to get a friend to take them on one. With three of us it would be cheaper. Preferring to go with people I knew rather than seeing who turned up on an organised tour, I readily agreed to jump in with them. Egg sorted it out, and we agreed to meet up the next morning. 

Where Not To Do Your Divemaster Training

Forra Diving’s main shop and resort sits on Sunrise Beach, not far from my bungalow. My instructor had recommended Antoine, a Frenchman (not going to be from Wigan with a name like that, is he?), to push me beyond my limits, and take me on to another level of scuba skill. He spoke very highly of him, and I couldn’t wait to meet the fellow.

The PADI Divemaster course is the first professional qualification and, once attained, enables you to find work at dive shops worldwide. It can be done in 3 weeks, or over 3 months. 60 dives must be logged before accreditation. I’m looking to spend 3 months doing it, and learn more besides: boat driving skills and the like. I’ll also get more experience and see how a dive school is run. Might be something I’d like to do in the future.

Forra Diving Resort is not the way I would do it. If all dive shops were like this, I would give it up now. Sure, they all wander round smoking joints and on the surface it seems pretty laid back. But you’d think they were loaded with cocaine, not weed, by the arrogance on display. I’d gone there for breakfast, and ordered a tuna salad sandwich via the disinterested Thai waitress. Rude is not the word I’d use to describe the way she plopped the plate on my table while gazing out to sea before wandering back to the kitchen. And I’m not used to someone writing texts while they bring a drink over. Your tip just evaporated with the steam on my tea, my dear. Pretty ravenous, I tucked in and watched the waves breaking on the white sand. Stopping mid-chew after demolishing half of the sandwich, I lifted the top of the rest to peek at the contents. Salad, and mayonnaise, it would appear; the only flecks of tuna in it looked to have been ones stuck in the pot of mayo. 

"Congratulations" I told the glum waitress back at the till "you seem to have invented the world's first vegetarian tuna sandwich."

"What?"

"There was no fish in this sandwich" I pointed out.

"I didn't make it" she said, looking back to her magazine "blame the chef."

Very helpful. "Well I won't bother eating again. Thanks all the same."

Later that evening, I decided to look up Antione. The bar was fairly full, and I sat at the bar, ordering a beer. A Frenchman turned up in just a pir of shorts, muscular and covered in tattoos. He began rolling a joint, looking out to sea. As he wandered through the bar, one of the woman serving called to him by name to ask a question I didn't register. Just as he began to leave I asked the woman if he was Antione. She just said Yes, and turned her back on me. If someone had asked me that question I'd have, at the very least, asked if the person wanted to speak to him, or how they knew him. Forra people just don't seem to be bothered. A fellow came to the bar, and this same woman served him. When he smiled and asked if it was a joint she was smoking, she deadpanned a Yes and said "Bar privileges" before ignoring him to serve someone else. I was beginning to take a dislike to her. The whole place seemed very cliquey.  There was one English girl who came to the bar later, and she made biref conversation, but apart from this nobody seemed bothered with Outsiders. I couldn't be bothered to make the effort by this point. In all the places I've been so far, it's been easy to introduce myself and get chatting. If it's an effort, it's not worthwhile. 

I spoke to Antione briefly, mentioned Ian had done the Divemaster course there, and that I was interested. He asked if I'd done Rescue, and how many dives I had under my belt. After this, there was no explanation of how the place worked, who was on the course at the moment, what the island was like and the social life...everything I'd had when signing up at Sunshine Divers on ko Tao...nothing. Conversation tailed off, Antoine wandered away, I finished my beer and left disappointed.

Not What It Said On The Tin

The island looked stunning as we cruised around to Sunset Beach. By far the prettiest place I’d ever seen. My heart soared as the white sandy beach came into view. It sank just as rapidly when I jumped off the boat and ran up the beach to a modest-looking resort. 20 quid a night for a bungalow? A full day’s budget merely on accommodation? This was going to be a Merry Xmas, alright. Sat inside eating a packet of Turkey And Stuffing flavour crisps by candlelight, waiting for the Ghost Of Christmas Past to turn up and mock me. I dumped my bags back on the beach and weighed up my options. Swimming away not being one of them, unfortunately. The place looked very touristy, lots of families. My diving instructor back home had been here 2 years before, and had described a chilled-out tropical paradise of divers and hippy travellers. The Rough Guide had said “something of a maverick backpacker’s frontier” Sounded great, and I’d been looking forward to getting here since I landed in Asia. Now I wished I’d stayed on Phayam. There’s nothing maverick about middle-aged blokes sat on the beach in a pair of Budgie-Smugglers, reading John Grisham novels. But no use crying over spilt travelling funds…just get on with it, Crawford. Could be worse; stuck in freezing London, wondering where your next freelance job is coming from.

I squinted up the beach and saw a familiar name. Forra Diving. This is where Ian took his Divemaster training. I staged up the beach in the unforgiving sun, and introduced myself to the dreadlocked (don’t start) fella there. His name was Mark, and he remembered Ian. He kindly offered to let me leave the gear there and marked out a few cheaper places on the map; said things had changed here a lot in 2 years; development had accelerated due to tourists being funnelled down here in the immediate years after the tsunami.

So I had a wander about. The main concrete path through the island leads you to Sunrise Beach. Less populated, and much cheaper. I found a nice hut, haggled down to 9 quid a night and paid for 3 upfront. There were less boats here, too. Despite the beauty of Lipeh, there isn’t a moment’s peace on the beach; the constant put-put-put-PUTPUTPUT of longtails shatters the silence every couple of minutes at best. I headed back for the bags, noting a couple of cheap places to eat, frequented by locals, along the way.

Once unpacked, I went off for a swim. 80 yards to the beach. I can put up with this; especially with the water being so tepid. It’s so clear that you can see your feet when you’re neck-deep. Or the yellow stream from your shorts when you take a leak.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

One Night In Trang

There’s not a lot to do in Trang, but it’s a nice enough place. Very clean and pristine. An older traveller at my abode told me there were caves and the like to visit just out of town, botanical gardens and waterfalls etc. But as I didn’t have long, I wanted to get off to Lipeh as soon as possible.

I stayed at the Yamawa B&B. It was the first in the Rough Guide, and cheap enough. And the lady who runs it is very helpful and friendly, even down to her asking for my email address so she could advise her future charges about Lipeh. The room was lovely, so I ditched my gear, jumped into the shower and then headed back out.

The night market was just up the street, so I wandered up for something cheap to start offsetting what I’d spent on the islands. I bought a chicken curry with rice and a drink for 20 baht (30 pence) that was delicious. The people were really friendly, and three beautiful young girls made room for me to sit down. Oh, to be a teenager again. On second thoughts No…they were years of severe emotional trauma, with girls determined to crush my spirit; and balls, in some cases. Happy in my 30s, thanks.

I finished dinner, and browsed the market as I headed home. A light wind had picked up, and as I passed one stall two locals were wrestling with a canopy. The one next to it came free and collapsed towards me, hitting me in the neck. I managed to grab it and rectify it before it broke or did me any damage. There were Oohs and Aahs from fellow stallholders and locals before they realised I was unhurt. I pointed at the guys and shouted “They try to kill farang!” and made choking motions, to much laughter. Everyone jabbered amongst themselves and laughed as I walked off. Whether they laughed with me or about me is irrelevant; as long as everyone is laughing, life’s good.

A beer-free evening saw me waking fresh as a daisy the next day. And the firm bed had been the closest so far to my rock-hard mattress at home. Bliss. The nice lady downstairs pointed me the way to a good vegetarian café to have breakfast. The curry was great, but I can’t get used to eating this first thing in the morning; it’s too much. Spicy belches at 9am? But 3 small dishes with rice, and a fresh fruit shake only relieved me of 80p. A far cry from the islands, these small towns. Refreshing.

The lady at Yamawa had organised the trip to Lipeh, bus and boat transfers…the lot. You can guarantee they put a bit on top, but it’s just so much easier than organising it all yourself. Time is money, and I’d rather have my time given the option. The VIP minibus turned up, the air-con freeze-drying the sweat on me, and away we went. Headphones on; next stop Ko Lipeh.

The Road To Trang

Waking to depart for pastures new again; departing still pissed again. There’s a bit of a pattern emerging here, I’m thinking? I thought I’d start repairing my liver when I left London, but any more of this and I’ll be pissing it out a shrivelled prune.

I almost broke my own Golden Rule Of Packing this time. The rucksack was all ready to go. Quickly scanning the floor, I decided I had everything and started out of the door. It was only as I instinctively checked behind it prior to locking up, that I realised I’d almost left my iPod. I’d decided to charge it for the journey before going out last night, and the plug was in the corner behind the door. I’d have been distraught, and it would have meant a wasted day just getting there and back from Ranong on a speedboat. Plus the expense involved. Even then it might have gone, and 9 months of travelling with no music, not to mention the invaluable Spanish course I have on it, would have killed me. I made a mental note there and then; not to not get as pissed on a night out, just to make sure I’d packed properly.

The weather was perfect; the ride uneventful. I’d spent 2 weeks around these parts, and they were well spent I have to say. But if you stay too long you’ll put down roots. As we pulled into the harbour, one of the morning boats was setting off back out. I was sat at the front, and saw a familiar face at the front of this one, too.

“Heeeeyyyyyyyyy!!!”
“Song!” We both laughed.
“Where you go…Burma?”
“No, mate…Lipeh.”
“You come back Christmas?”
“Next year, maybe.”

He pulled a disappointed face as I shrugged and smiled. As his boat picked up speed, he ran to the back and mimed a fishing rod motion at me and began reeling in. I stuck a finger in my mouth and pretended to get pulled overboard. Like I said, Song’s as mad as a box of wasps. We smiled and waved til his boat rounded the corner and disappeared from view. I was pleased to have seen him, anyway.

Embarking at Ranong pier, there were no familiar faces. So I jumped in the back of a pick-up with a German couple my age. They’d been to Phayam, and I asked if they’d been at the party. They said they didn’t really party. Oh. So I thought I’d amuse them with my method for not losing anything when leaving after a night out: pack the night before in case you’re still pissed when you wake up, and pass out fully-clothed. Ready to go upon awakening. I was met with blank expressions. You’d have thought, from the worried glance and instantaneous switch back to German, that they’d discovered they were in a taxi with an axe-murderer. I just grinned at them.

The bus departs from the station near the Kiwi Orchid guesthouse. When I jumped down from the cab I was pleased to see Claire, one of the divers from the party a few nights previously, waiting for the bus. So I’d have some company.

Claire had been in Thailand on a few occasions, and had worked as an Instructor for some years. So she gave me the lowdown on where to go, and where to avoid, as a diver in Asia. And having made this bus journey a fair few times on visa runs, she also pointed out a few interesting sights as we went. The standout one for me was the Navy gunboat at Khoa Lak. It’s on a small hill amongst trees; half a mile inland. A friend of hers had been staying at a hotel, luckily a way inland as it was high season and busy, as the tsunami hit in 2004. She’d said the boat had gone past almost level with her window (she’d been on the 3rd floor) with the sailors screaming and waving. Quite a surreal image. The boat’s been left where it came to rest, and all on board survived. They were more fortunate than most.

I said goodbye to Claire and jumped off at the next stop. She and the bus were bound for Phuket, I and another two farangs waited for a connection to Trang.
Mike and Manuel had worked hard preparing the bar, and it looked pretty good. All in white, with some blue neon inside to light up the white-clad crowd. I wore black, but explained to Manuel that it had white stripes on it. Got them on a technicality. Not that I’d have been barred, not that much of a dress code on a Thai island.

I spent most of the evening outside, as Mike had built a huge bonfire. There were lanterns in the sand surrounding it, and it lit up the beach beautifully. We sat around drinking the deadly punch with the girls from Yorkshire and a nice Brazilian named Cecy. She’d come travelling after splitting with her husband, and that she wasn’t interested in men here…but was disappointed no-one hit on her yet. I had to laugh. Us blokes just can’t win, can we?
Ay and Boy turned up from Joker, and we ended up inside. The DJ was playing some pretty good House, so we got on the floor. Ay told me Song was in Ranong and would be back tomorrow morning. I said I was disappointed I couldn’t say Goodbye, so gave Ay a hug and told him to pass that on instead. Mike and Manuel appeared from the beach, and the party was in full swing. So when you’re having a good night on Phayam, it’s only a matter of time before Captain Raincloud shows up. As none of us particularly liked him, we pretended he wasn’t there. The girl Cocknor had come with started dancing with Mike. Red rag to a bull. Him and Mike started having a dance-off; Mike just having a laugh; Cocknor trying to audition for Strictly Come Dancing by the looks of it. His grim-set expression was a picture. As if beating Mike was Life Or Death. Manuel and myself were in stitches.

After Mike lost interest and waltzed off, I moved to the bar. Beer in hand, I carried on dancing. Cocknor made an elaborate move in my general direction, and while still holding his girl’s hands leaned backwards. Over his shoulder he hissed “Stay outta my way” and turned back. “With pleasure, dear boy.” I replied, quite amused by his macho posturing.

All in all, a jolly good send-off. Time to head for Ko Lipeh, which had been No 1 on my list of islands to visit after discussing dive locations with my BSAC instructor in London, Ian. Not that I can dive at the moment, but if I like the place and the shop, I can go back and do my Divemaster course in the New Year. And then I can start working my way around when I get to South America’s northern coastline.

The Magaluf Thing

I’d bumped into the lads from Chang again, a couple of days after moving from Hornbill. Andy had gone to one resort, and his mate (the guy who’d be more suited to a shag-anything-that-moves holiday in Spain) another. I was sunning myself one afternoon (for a change) when Mr Magaluf roared up the beach on his scooter.

“Eyup, mate” I greeted him.
“Awight, mate. What’s happening?”
“Nowt much, just taking it easy. You coming to the party tonight?” I gestured over my shoulder at the sign.
“Might do. Who’s going?”
“Should be plenty there. A few cute girls too, I hear.” I said.
“Pussy?”
“Well…like I say, some nice girls…” I looked around, hoping we were out of earshot of most people.
“What, like proper pussy? English pussy?” The charm of the man; James Bond, eat your heart out.
“I think you’d better come see for yourself, fella.”
“Nice one, better bring me johnnies out, eh?”

Likely unnecessary, one would say. As I say, I think Magaluf’s more him.

Mr Popular Pt 2

I went to have a look for James, the vicar’s lad. I’d felt a little bad that I’d left him in the bar with a bemused Thai and Northern Ireland’s puny version of Begbie from Trainspotting. I knew he was thinking about leaving that morning. His brother was off to Ko Tao, but he was debating whether to hang around for the South Star party in a few nights.

So I went to the bungalows they were staying at, and asked at reception. There was an English couple checking in. I asked if the two English guys had checked out, and the receptionist scanned for their names. The female half of the couple asked if the lads were from Birmingham. After I confirmed, she told me they’d gone around 20 minutes ago. So I’d just missed them. She asked me if it was important, as they had a scooter and could run me to the pier if necessary. I thanked them, and just explained I wanted to say Ta-ra, and why I hadn’t done so last night. The girl asked about this Irishman.

“Does he wear a vest and tracksuit bottoms all the time?”
“Yes.”
“And dodgy tattoos?” (They are, indeed, bad)
“That’ll be him…wispy beard like he can’t grow one?”
“He’s an arrogant bastard. We stayed at Hornbill for a couple of days and he was hanging around. I asked if he could tell us where Hippy Bar was. He was very vague and said ‘Well…when you’ve been on the island a while…’ and walked off.”

I had to laugh. I’ll have a look on Amazon; maybe send Cocknor a book to give him food for thought. How To Win Friends And Influence People. Or perhaps the memoirs of Johnny ‘Mad Dog Adair’ would be more suitable? Just to wind him up, of course.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Thai fisherman’s pants; white people with dreadlocks; oddball travellers

The only thing I didn’t like about Phayam was the over-abundance of pretentious hippy types you get there. Particularly the ones with small children, who have no say in how they are dressed. More especially when they’d shaved these poor kids’ heads and left a dreadlocked rat-tail or clump of hair at the back. Then sitting in an organic cafe, making them drink Weasel Piss Coffee. Poor mites. It’s just not on. And dreadlocks are for rastas, not middle-class white people. It’s a disgrace. Years ago, I heard of white kids at Manchester Uni getting beaten up by black guys for having locks. They get offended because it’s a Rastafarian Ting. I’ve seen less Dredds at a Bob Marley gig than I did my first night on Phayam. I could have been down Electric Avenue in SW2. So get that hair cut, Mike! 

Another annoyance is the Thai fisherman’s pants…the very loose ¾ length trousers they wear on boats. They look ridiculous on Westerners…what’s wrong with wearing a pair of shorts? The tits who wear these like a badge of honour believe the theory that if you’ve been in Thailand over 2 months, only then are you entitled to wear these ridiculous garbs. You’re not Thai, and you’re not a bloody fisherman; take those trousers off, please.

I’d seen a guy, American and in his late 50s, committing both the above heinous crimes in Luang Prabang. Looked like he’d got lost in the jungle during the Vietnam War, found John Lennon’s cast-offs in the local Oxfam Shop and decided to grow locks. He passed me in the street and nodded sagely “Sabaii dii, maaaaan.” I wasn’t playing. “Alright, mate?” was the best he’d get. I’d have kicked myself all the way home if I’d answered him in Lao.

The other species I’ll get cantankerous about is the traveller who thinks that wandering through a slightly less-developed continent means you have to buy everything on the shelves of Blacks outdoors shops before you leave. It’s not deepest, darkest Africa. You’re not going to get the opportunity to part dense undergrowth and utter the immortal greeting “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” I’d seen the odd bloke in Laos wearing safari suits with wide-brimmed hats and hiking boots walking along the high street with wives in short, vests, flip-flops and mortification. But the shining example was a man my age I saw at Ko Tao pier. If I hadn’t been in so much pain from the recent rib-break, I’d have been minded to take a photo. He was dressed all in khaki; big hat with a roll-up net around the brim; webbed belt with more utilities than Batman; a military water-bottle; and a shirt with so many pockets I couldn’t count them all. Please don’t be English please don’t be English please don’t be English I said silently. He was English. The shame of it all.

Now you might read all this criticism, and think I’m intolerant, elitist prick? You’re not far off. Or as “Robin” (hairdresser, perhaps?) commented on one article, an “anally-retentive quasi-diver cock”. Many thanks, Robin. All constructive criticism is gratefully received, so I’ll take that on board.

Mikey And Manuel: South Star Bar


There were two Yorkshire girls, a Southerner called Mike and a Chilean named Manuel around the fire. I asked if I could join them. Within a minute I had a joint in one hand, a beer in the other, and I was feeling a whole lot better. Manuel pulled a jacket potato out of the fire for me, and the evening was taking a rapid upturn.

“Where have you been tonight?” asked Manuel.
“I was playing pool up at BBQ Bar, but it went a bit tits up when a dark cloud turned up. Do you know this Irish guy who lives at Hornbill?”

“Oh…Connor?”

“That guy’s a wanker” said Mike.

Mike’s not a big lad, and doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his skeleton. He proceeded to tell me a tale about Cocknor and a couple of lads he hangs around with. The bullies of the island. One of them, who is over 6’ tall, threatened Mike for no good reason at a party a few months back. He’d said “You stink. I can smell you from over there.” All very mature, obviously. Mikle avoided the situation by quipping “Well go and stand somewhere you can’t smell me, then?” Brilliant. Manuel had also had a few run-ins with him, too. So it wasn’t just me he didn’t like…I was in good company.

The three of us got along famously that night. I’d certainly met some kindred spirits. I told them that I’d only come over to chat after Young MC persuaded me. Manuel was pleased, he’d been selecting the tunes. So we got talking Hip Hop, and it was arranged I’d bring some music up the next night and we’d have a smoke.

Mike and Manuel have been going to Phayam for the last 4 years, staying 4 months at a time. They’ve been mates with the owners since first arriving, and are building their own beach hut on the land behind the bar this season. Free accommodation for the rest of their lives…not bad at all. They organise parties and decorate the bar, so they earn their keep. Manuel’s an artist, and he makes and paints signs for the bar and café. If you’re ever there between November and March, they’ll be there.

We got smashed one night, sat in Mike’s hut. We’d been chatting about old school Hip Hop, and human beatboxes like Doug E fresh and the Fat Boys. I said I used to do a bit, and they convinced me to do some. They both joined in. You had to be there but, trust me, it was hilarious. Especially when the last candle burned down and we were doing it in the dark to the light of the flames on the ubiquitous bong. We alternated between making these ridiculous percussion noises, smoking and laughing til we cried.

Koh Phayam

The island is a little more developed than Chang and besides, after 10 days marooned there, I was ready for a little more variety. There are concrete paths criss-crossing this diminutive drop of rock in the Andaman Sea, so it’s easy enough to get around. Better to hire a scooter than trek from Ao Yai to the harbour in flip-flops, as I did one afternoon. I still have pale circles of flesh on my feet from where the straps caused blisters the size of 20p pieces. The humidity means it takes an age for any cut or scrape to heal.

On arrival, scooter taxis are waiting to whisk you off on a death-defying ride to your chosen resort. We’d been blagged into choosing Hornbill Huts by a woman who got us a quid discount on the speedboat fare at Ranong. It turned out to be at the far end of the white crescent of sand that is Ao Yai (Long) Beach. My pack being that heavy with now-useless diving gear, I was getting used to dropping them at the first place I came across at a new destination, and finding somewhere better/ cheaper that morning. My hut at Hornbill was the most basic yet. Windows didn’t close, door swung open of it’s own accord; an invitation to dinner for the local mosquitoes. I put the valuables in the safe at reception, and decided to eat before looking for somewhere better. It was there I came across the biggest cock I’d ever laid eyes on. Person, that is…not penis. Not that I look at those.

Connor is a guy with issues. And a sizeable chip on his Northern Irish shoulders. Allegedly from Belfast, but with no trace of an accent (until he put it on) he’s been coming to Phayam for years, apparently…and not many people have a good word to say about him. I was sat eating my lunch, and he was wandering round the reception area with a hurling stick with metal bells on it, bouncing a ball up and down. Not sure how many people on the island play hurling, so it’s probably not that important that he’s short on friends. I was wondering if he was trying to look cool as he stood in front of my table, bouncing this ball. I cocked an eye at him over the lip of my book…it wasn’t conducive to a peaceful read, to be honest. He got bored when I ignored him, and went away. Thought it’d be the last I’d see of him when I moved later that day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case.

I found a new place to stay, a great little hut one row back from the beach. Windows lock? Check. Door actually closes in the frame? Check. Result. Not that there’s any theft on the islands, but I’m sure the insurance companies would be reluctant to pay out if you just left the whole place open to all and sundry. As darkness fell, I wandered 100 yards up the beach to find a beer. A skinny Thai with multiple tattoos, including a couple on his face, shimmied down from a bar and leaped circuits around me, enticing me into the Joker Bar for a pint. I laughed and walked up with him; the place was quiet, but it was early doors.

“What your name?” he quizzed.
“Warren, mate…what’s yours?"
“Song”

I grinned “That makes sense.”

“Yes?”

“Well you were making a right song and dance about getting me in here.”

He chuckled, though he probably didn’t understand the phrase’s meaning.

I liked Song right away; he’s absolutely mental. Never stops moving, whether it’s dancing, pouring you a beer, or showing you some lethal Thai boxing move. It’s impossible not to smile when he’s around. I got to know the rest of the lads pretty quickly, too. Ay, Boy and a big lad whose name I cannot recall…I called him Sumo, though. They were greatly amused by that. He was the chef.

Second night there, and I got chatting to a few travellers. Song asked if we wanted to go to a party at the Hippy Bar on the next bay. Definitely. Everyone was pissed, and Sumo got me on the back of his bike. His tiny girlfriend sat between his feet. If Columbus Insurance could see me now I thought, as Sumo tore down the rutted pathways to the party. We got there in one piece, though.

The music wasn’t bad at all, and the place was jumping. And they had a pool table at the back. Lovely. Hadn’t played much since being with Jocky and The Colonel, so I was raring to go. There was a local lad on the table, beating all comers; he was pretty bloody good. And who should he be playing but Connor? Or Cocknor, as I’ll refer to him from now on. It’s a more suitable moniker. We got talking between shots, and I was prepared to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, as regards him being a complete arsehole. He soon convinced me otherwise. Hinting at his Belfast past (“I can’t talk about that”) I was under the impression he was trying to cultivate some hard man mystique about himself. This was reinforced when I mention Kalao, the cool chick from Gan’s party. He muttered out of the side of his mouth while watching the Thai take another shot “Be careful…she’s a friend of mine.” I thought I’d misheard “Eh?” I hadn’t even said I’d fancied her or was after her. “I said be careful, she’s a friend of mine…” He looked at me. Was I supposed to be scared, or something? Jesus. This set the tone for all our future exchanges.

From what I could glean from other people on the island, Cocknor fancies himself as the Alpha Male on Phayam, and doesn’t like it if the locals get friendly with anyone; he feels threatened. He also struts round like a prizefighter. The fact he has a silly, patchy wispy beard doesn’t occur to him to clash with this image. It looks like a skewed handlebar moustache from 20 yards. I was told one story of his exploits by Dave, the elderly shopkeeper in the village. Two girls were browsing the shop when Cocknor, after striking up a brief exchange, took it upon himself to buy them a hat each. “Thinks he’s a hit with the ladies. He’s a fool.” Succinctly put, Dave.

I think the incident which best sums up this clown occurred a few evenings later. There was a party at the River Bar. I was chatting to some English girls, all diving instructors, when one of them said “What the fuck is that guy doing?” and nodded over my shoulder. I had an inkling about who it would be before I turned around. Sure enough, Cocknor was dancing with some girl who kicked him up the arse playfully each time he turned around. He proceeded to flex his muscles, laughing, then jumping into her in faux kung fu moves; pausing at the end of each move: elbow to face: uppercut to chin: kick to midriff. After each move, he’d quickly scan the bar to see who was looking. Are women going to swoon? Men look on admiringly? “Gee…I wish I was as cool as Connor…” I think not. I laughed and filled the girls in on him.

A night later, and I’m playing pool at My BBQ Bar with a vicar’s son from Birmingham. His brother had left for bed, and the party had died down a little. The bar owner joined us. He’s a nice bloke; insists on getting you stoned before you play him, so he has a better chance of winning. He soon found out I play better smashed. The three of us were having a right old laugh, not playing too seriously, ignoring the odd foul…as you do. After a couple of hours, Cocknor turns up, with a bottle of Johnny Walker for the owner. Talk about buying your friends. He makes a big show about handing it over, like some Mafia don giving a gift at a wedding. Looking around to see who noticed. Ridiculous. I should have just left there and then. Myself and the owner were nearly done, when he balls-ed up a chance to win easily. I had one ball and the black to sink. Both balls in bad positions (a bit like Cocknor’s, you’d imagine). I lined up a shot. Cocknor leans over my shot and said “You’ll never make that.” I rattled the ball home, but didn’t do myself any favours with position for the final shot. “I’ll only be impressed if you manage this one.” I smiled without looking at him, slicing the black finely and cleanly; it glided into the corner pocket. I stood up straight and chalked my cue. “Impressed now, are we?” I smirked. Oh, he didn’t like that. You can smell the competitiveness ooze out of this idiot’s pores. So here’s how we nearly came to blows.

Cocknor racked up the balls, occasionally frowning at me. Here we go, I thought. Now the guy has a real chip on his shoulder about being Irish. This much was obvious from previous encounters. He flipped a coin.

“Heads or tails?”
“Winner breaks.” I informed him.

“Says who?” he frowned, stepping back and pushing his chest out.

“Well it’s winner stays on, and winner breaks…we’ve been playing this all night.”

“It’s a fresh game. Heads or tails” he said again, leaning over the table to block my break as I lined it up.

“Fresh game nothing…every game is a fresh game. But the winner breaks.” I smashed the balls.

“Well what do you fucken know” he growled, the Irish accent suddenly resurfacing.

I stood, and waited for him to take a shot. He stalked theatrically around the table, stepping back to crouch and shoot before looking back up at me as if I was cheating. I gave him an open palmed shrug. You’re on an island in Thailand, not some shithole in Belfast. No aggression required. No wonder he left…he probably got told to.

“What’s the problem? It’s only a game…don’t take it so seriously.” Knowing full well that he takes everything so seriously.
“Whose fucken rules are these?”

“UK rules, mate…you should know.”

“You calling me English?” The chest is out again.

“Did I utter the word English? Is Northern Ireland not part of the UK anymore?” I raise my eyebrows. “Just play the game.”

“You call me English?” he repeats.

I’d imagine this guy could start a fight in an empty room.

I give up. Walking over to the owner, who looks a bit bemused by the whole situation, I pass him the cue. He tries to get me to stay, saying I should play. “I’m not playing this guy” I tell him. “It’s too much trouble.” I didn’t come travelling to fight, I left England to get away from aggressive morons. I left the Birmingham lad there, I think he was too stoned to move.

As I leave the table I say to Cocknor “Enjoy your game.”
“Are you calling me fucken English?” he shouts after me.
“Change the record.” I toss over my shoulder as I walk out. I’m surprised he didn’t come after me…I was half expecting a punch-up on the sand.

I head out into the night and down the beach; angry that I let myself get so wound up, but pleased it didn’t come to blows. Wouldn’t have done the rib much good, and he’d only have dragged me down to his level. Besides, it’s always better to walk away from trouble. I just can’t understand the mentality of someone like that; you’re in one of the most beautiful places in Asia, and you want to fight someone?

I got closer to Coconut Resort, to where I’d (thankfully) moved (I couldn’t imagine myself and the feisty cretin exchanging pleasantries over breakfast later that morning). Passing the South Star Bar, I saw four people around a bonfire. Another beer for the road, or just head home? I slowed down, debating the options quickly. Would I manage to sleep if I went to bed now, anyway? I was too annoyed. Young MC’s “Know How” made my mind up for me, and I headed for the fire.

I’m pleased I did.

Foreign Affairs

I got chatting to a Swiss in a bar one afternoon. He was travelling for a few weeks with his Thai wife; they live and work in Geneva but come back twice a year to visit family. We got to discussing the reactions of people, both in Asia and back home, to people with Thai wives. They’d been married a few years, but he said they still get a few odd looks and whispering people in Switzerland.

I said it’s unpleasant, but people have that preconception. Little Britain obviously didn’t help. And there are plenty of mail-order brides. But there are plenty of genuine couples.

Dominic told me they’d met in Geneva. He had the same preconception straight away, and told her on the first night that he wasn’t a man of means; of his ex-wife and imminent divorce; the kids. Be upfront and watch her face for fading signs of interest. They had a pleasant evening anyway, and she said she’d call him the next day. She didn’t; a friend of hers called to say she was laid up in bed, but would call when she felt better. That’s the end of that he’d thought, with a wry smile. But ring back she did, and they’ve been together ever since. Which is nice.

Missing

Leaving London, my life and my friends there, almost broke my heart. So why don’t I miss the place, or my life there? I don’t even miss my mates that much. Sorry. But then you’re likely too busy to miss me, either. You have so many other things to occupy your mind when you’re constantly changing your surroundings. From the basics of getting from A To B, to entering a beach bar full of people when you’re on your own and feeling self-conscious. Johnny No Mates. You get over it; you have to. Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have some of the gang out here, but since I’ve been travelling on my own I actually prefer it. On your own timetable, go where you like, do what you want. See what you’re made of. No, I miss silly things. My leather wallet, instead of this crappy nylon travel one with the loud Velcro™ rrrrrrrrrip every time I open it (that’ll be a nice advert for thieves in Latin America); cycling down the canals in Hackney; Autumn (I’d miss this as long as I lived); my firm bed; jeans; my record collection. They’ll be there if/ when I get back, though. As will London, and my mates.

Phoning Home

It’s funny, I remember speaking to distant (in name and physically) relatives on the phone in years gone by. The sound of their voices, as if they were speaking through a biscuit tin from 30 yards away, inside a tunnel, always gave you that sense of distance. It lent it a romantic edge. Those days are gone; technology has moved forward, and now they sound like they’re in the next room. I don’t know if I like it, to be honest. I’d much rather it felt like I’m actually 7000 miles away. Not to the point that conversation becomes a chore, as when you’re experiencing a delay and are constantly talking over each other…and then pausing to let the other speak before doing exactly the same again. But maybe they could just put some sound effects back on international calls for the sake of atmosphere? Mindyou, I haven’t called home that often. Only to ask Garfield how North End are playing at the moment. You know, the important stuff.

Early Start

I’d had the foresight to pack my bags the night before. Stuffing your belongings into your rucksack while you’re still leathered is not an option; the paranoia setting in at the possibility of leaving something important is unbearable. I’ve got the final check mantra down pat though; “Big camera, little camera, iPod, Passport, phone.” Anything else can be replaced easily enough.

So a quick tuna sandwich and a farewell to Lek and Mrs Moo later, I’m staggering down to the beach where two boats are pulling up 100m apart. I scan both vessels for Az and Ellie, but can’t see them. Bollocks. I’m on me own then, eh? (I found out some days later, on Phayam, that they’d given a German fella a note for me, to say they’d got too wrecked to face a boat ride, and would catch me up. The guy was on the other boat, it would appear…I didn’t get it.) Chucking my bag up, I clambered aboard and we were off.

The water was fairly calm, thankfully; my head was still spinning. You see some huge jellyfish on the boat…large, sinister and bright orange in colour. I’d always mutter a silent prayer about the boat not sinking…the sea was full of them. Pissed, paralysed and drowning is not how I’d like to go out.

Gan's Party

This was the official start of the season for the Thai Bar. So it was locals as well as tourists tonight. A fresh fish BBQ to start things off. The local kids were running around, melting ice-creams precariously attached to sticky mitts. As a result, Gan whispered “If you wan’ smoke bong, use my office.” He pointed to the door behind the bar. No point corrupting the kids at such a tender age. Besides, there’d be less weed for us. Mil and Ay were in the back when I entered, and we got stuck in while we waited for the party to get going.

We’d had a few when a couple of Thai girls came in. One of them sat next to me and waited for her turn on the bamboo bong. I had a sly look out of the corner of my eye. Very stylish for an island girl; a little denim skirt and an army tee-shirt, great haircut with a fringe. She was exotic, and almost feral in appearance. What myself and Garfield would describe as a Funky Bitch. We give no higher compliment. It means you’ve got it going on. She was a fox, alright. And I was speechless when she smoked five full bongs simultaneously. Her name was Kalao, she was one of Gan’s friends from school. We got talking, and she said I should look her up if I visited Ko Phayam. Her English wasn’t as good as Gan’s but we got along just fine. She left the room and we continued smoking. I was quite shocked when I stumbled out five minutes later and she was performing the Poy outside. For those who haven’t seen it, this involves swinging two flaming torches on the ends of two chains. To do it is dangerous enough anyway, but stoned? And she was pretty bloody good with it. Apparently she’d only set herself on fire the once. Not bad going.

I had a great night, quite fitting since it was my last. Met a couple of Southerners I’ll refer to as the Likely Lads, as their names escape me. I think the more switched on fella was called Andy. He’d not seen his companion since school had decided to tag along travelling with him. You wouldn’t have put the two of them together, to be honest. His mate would have been better in Magaluf. More about that later, though.

I didn’t see Az and Ellie that night. So I didn’t have a clue which boat they’d be on in the morning, we’d just have to hope we bumped into each other on Phayam. That’s the way it goes, I suppose. Winging it.

It was difficult saying Goodbye. Gan and his friends had made me feel really welcome there. As he’s a big Liverpool fan, I’ll be sure to post him something signed by the team…my family there have a few contacts at the club. Reckon he’d like that. He made me promise to go back one day. I said only if we can be partners…I’ll bring my decks and records? So I guess it’s more Au Revoir than Goodbye, Gan.

Slipping Into Routine

Chang is such a laidback, relaxing place; it’s easy to get stuck there for a while. There’s not much to do, so if you’re looking for excitement I’d give it a swerve. But if you like peace and quiet, stunning sunsets, beautiful wildlife and silence save for the waves breaking on the shore…then this place is for you. The boats only drop off and collect people twice a day and, as there are no taxis on the island, they’ll drop you on the beach of your choosing. It feels so remote, World War III could be raging beyond Burma, and you wouldn’t know a thing about it. Wouldn’t that be nice? Not WWIII, obviously…just avoiding the depressing news that would inevitably accompany it. Besides, I didn’t see a single TV you could have watched it on.

As such, my days followed a routine. Up at sunrise (or later if Gan’s bong had anything to do with it) for a pastry at the Aussie bakery, then a day of wandering round the island, avoiding big snakes and swimming on various beaches. Evenings were invariably spent at Gan’s place, taking over the sound-system, drinking beer and smoking copious amounts of Thai grass.

We were sat around one evening at around 8pm. Mil looked over his shoulder at the sound of a boat, and peered into the dusk to identify it. “You hungry?” he asked. I grinned and nodded. He hardly waited for my reply before scampering off down the beach to his friend’s boat, and returned with two bowls full of squirming shrimps. They were whisked straight off to the kitchen while we continued to smoke. Fifteen minutes later we’re dipping them in fresh chilli sauce and guzzling them down. You don’t get seafood any fresher than that. Delicious.

Gan told me he was having a party in a few days. I’d planned to head to Ko Phayam and then South to spend some time on Langkawi before heading to Sydney for New Year. But I was enjoying this place so much, that I decided to stay. A week on Phayam, and I could get another 15 day visa and continue at a more leisurely pace. Besides, any excuse for a party, eh?