Monday, 30 December 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 10. TRANG



27/12/02: Leave for Surat Thani with my companion; book back into same hotel; eat at MPA Café; early night.


It was strange going back to Surat Thani with only my companion for a companion. I had assumed that S would still be with us at this juncture, and that even M and E might have tagged along for a little while longer. Then when J and H had made their second showing, I thought we’d have a crew for at least a few more weeks or so.
In truth, M and E were on a very different route and at least a week ahead of our schedule. J and H, on the other hand, were seasoned travellers who were making up their path as they went along, and it was not impossible that we could still meet again. But S’s departure was a surprise, albeit one whose possibility had revealed itself to us gradually over the course of the last two weeks. He was supposed to have been with us for at least three months, but had now decided, for whatever reason(s), to cut his trip short. (S would spend a little more time in Samui – in Chaweng of all places – before flying back to Bangkok where he would spend a couple of days on the Khao San Road, waiting for an early flight to materialise and take him home. He would be back in London within a week, then, and would find it covered in snow for the first time in almost a decade, with only a pair of hated flips-flops for protection.)
My residual anxiety had pretty much been erased on the islands, but back on the mainland I could sense it creeping in again. Surat Thani seemed a rather miserable place that night, although the meal we had at MPA café, an establishment stuck in the 1950s, did me some good. I was looking forward to getting to Trang though, away from the hordes and to somewhere with a more solemn pace of life, but not so grave as to give me the creeps. Because, to me, Thailand was beginning to feel like it was haunted. I had not entertained the idea that entire countries could be haunted, let alone cities or towns, but this was the only way I could explain away the eeriness I sometimes detected here, when I wasn't surrounded by people or suffused with alcohol. Maybe it was some of those rooms we’d rented, or the lack of people in a few of those urban conurbations we had visited.

The coach station at Surat Thani is a case in point: noisy, but not busy; dirty, but not untidy; unfriendly, but not outwardly hostile. One is never left feeling very re-assured that you’re in the right place in Thailand. I think I'm stood in the right place and I think that’s our coach over there, but I am not altogether sure and none of the locals seem willing to reassure me either way. Trang should only be a few hours away, but what if we board a vehicle that prefers the scenic route and it takes us all day to get there? What then? What will we do if it is dark and we are dropped off along some spectre-bothered highway, with nothing but wild dogs, mosquitoes and ghosts for company?
            My companion has decided she wants a bottle of water for the journey, so she goes off in search of one. She is taking a long time, and I'm sitting on our public bus minding the luggage. She is taking too long about it. I'm not worried that anything has happened but I am worried that we might drive off without her.
We don’t.


28/12/02: Catch bus to Trang; book into the Queen Hotel; lunch at Koh Teng (curry); drink at what should be the Old Time Pub but no longer seems to be; drink and fries and chilli sauce; play cards with my companion.

Trang.  Trang.  Trang.  Trang.
There is something oddly European about the wonderfully named Trang, with its wide roads and shallow undulations. Clean modern concrete structure cohabits with older but no less functional architecture, not too dissimilar from French football stadia design of the 1970s (Strasbourg’s Stade de la Meinau being a good example). Its role as a stop-off point means, like Chumphon or Surat Thani, the only farang are those in limbo and consequently Trang possesses little in the way of entertainment. However, there is a bar just up from the cinema, run by a Belgian guy, which would not be out of place in Hoxton if it were not for the many tiny ants that make their home in the bamboo furniture.


It’s the public bus again and the inevitable transfer from terminus to town that is involved. Fortunately, we did board the correct vehicle and it didn't take the scenic route, and so, after finding ourselves an available taxi, we are booked into the Queen Hotel by a comfortable hour. It is mid-afternoon, in fact, and I am in desperate need of sustenance.
Koh Teng features in our guide book, but we saw the Queen Hotel first and our driver seemed the pushy sort who’d had somewhere specific in mind for us, so we made out we had reservations as soon as the Queen came into view. Now we’ve found Koh Teng and it seems a far more appropriate place for anybody remotely interesting to stay. With an open street-side atrium doubling up as a cafe, it’s like an old colonial sort of hotel that’s seen better days. It is also really cheap – not that the Queen Hotel is expensive – so we decide that tomorrow we shall defect and offer our residential allegiance to Koh Teng.
In the meantime, we shall try their chicken curry with rice, as recommended to us by the genial gentleman who booked tomorrow’s reservation. My companion has been living off green curry for some time now, whilst I have been taking full advantage of our coastal proximity of late, eating mostly fish. But we are inland again and it is time to cut back on the expenditure, with curry fitting the bill.
Koh Teng’s speciality is not your normal Thai curry. Neither green, red nor yellow, it might be a variation on the thicker Massaman curry, a dish that originates from Thailand’s Muslim south, from which we are not far located. It blows my mind and revitalises my appetite for proper Thai food. When we move here tomorrow, both my companion and I will feast on this house speciality for a second time.
Trang is rather pleasant, in a sleepy sort of way. There are newsagents, a few cafes, raised grass verges and flower beds that run down the middle of the road. There is a shopping mall a bit like the one in Surat Thani, but with fewer people and less merchandise. There is very little to occupy the traveller in Trang but I'm hoping we might stumble on something of interest soon. We’re off in search of The Old Time Pub and are having to walk down some fairly dark streets to find it. In a way, this is a very genuine Thai experience, similar to Surat Thani but without all the people and no sign of tourists. Or is it more akin to Prachuap Khiri Khan except with more people, but still no sign of tourists?
            We eventually find what we think should be The Old Time Pub but it’s hard to tell. We’re the only people here, there isn't much on offer in the way of food and the staff look at us like we’re mad to even want to drink here. We settle for a couple of servings of fries, chilli sauce to go with them, and many beers. Across the road there seems to an outdoor party taking place. We cannot be sure because it looks like it’s occupying a parking lot, but there is a lot of noise coming from over there. Buoyed by a fresh intake of alcohol, I half-seriously suggest we go and check it out. We don’t but I get the sense it would either have been either a really good idea or a very bad one. I very much enjoy my evening in any case.


29/12/02: Move to Ko Teng; check emails; visit shopping mall; drink coffee; more curry; drink in bar run by Belgians.


Koh Teng – what a place. The rooms are actually very similar to those at the Queen – large, slightly shabby affairs with open-topped en-suite bathrooms shoved occupy one corner – but the many flights of stairs and the landings in-between have a dilapidated grandeur about them that is very pleasing. The strangest quality of all is that the hotel seems to have been built just inches from a neighbouring tenement block, but to save on bricks and mortar they've left the joining walls exposed so you can see across onto the other building’s landing.
            We have breakfast here first and curry later. In-between we find a park, check our emails and go for coffee. In the evening we visit a bar run by a Belgian chap just across from the Queen. It is a good day and Trang has served a purpose. It has helped me readjust to the pace of travelling, and I am finally beginning to feel like I know what I'm doing.


Friday, 27 December 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 9. BACK TO HAAD RIN






23/12/02: Leave Mae Nam; board boat at Bo Phut; return to Anadin Bungalows; check email; go for a drink at cliff-top bar – rain; eat at sit-down-on-the-floor place, then drinks on balcony; avoid beach and go to a rock bar instead; give Mellow Mountain a go, the cliff-top bar on the other side of the bay to the one visited earlier; form a gang and take them to The Drop In.

24/12/02: Get up late; discover ‘Gatorade’, a panacea for my hangover; The Bakery for breakfast; buy my companion a wooden monkey; meet our new friends at Bongos for diner; back to the Drop In for drinks.

25/12/02: Feel awful – drink Gatorade and eat crisps. Bamboozle for dinner; chill with my neighbour, an Israeli hippy who’s been here since our first visit to Haad Rin; Drop In for two modest beers.

26/12/02: Breakfast on the beach; spend most of the day in hammock reading; try the Bongo Bar for dinner; joined by our new gang for drinks on our balcony.


It was hard to know whether we were doing the right thing, but time wasn’t on our side. Part of me wished we’d stuck it out in Lamai for a few more days, or maybe even squeezed in a few nights in Thong Sala, or Nathon – that could’ve been interesting – and then we could have spent Christmas in Mae Nam. Having said that, would Mae Nam really have been the best place to commemorate the festive period? At times it had resembled something of a ghost-town, and Christmas there could have been a very strange affair. At least in Haad Rin there would be a palpable sense of occasion.
They knew what they were doing in Haad Rin. The prices for our humble abodes – for we returned to the same in search of affordable accommodation – had gone up from 350 baht a night to 550, but by now we’d run out of options: the place was filling up and rooms were at a premium. S tried to negotiate something cheaper but was so disturbed by the concrete cell he was offered, with its sinister looking stains etched onto the walls, that he bit the bullet and paid the full 550 for his own hut. In truth, S was not well. He was worried about an on-going skin condition, concerned about the price of things, and hadn’t taken to the wildlife at all. A man who values both personal hygiene and space, he hadn’t warmed to the rougher elements of travelling and was starting to imply that he might cut his travels short.

Attempting to put a new spin on things, we go for a drink in a bar perched on one of the outcrops that flank the bay. We haven’t been here before, and actually it’s not anything special, but they are playing Lou Reed. My drink – for we are supping an afternoon beer – warns me that all is not well within and hints that I should probably be taking a break from all of this. But it is the 23rd December and I have just seen a waterspout appear and then swiftly disappear out on the horizon. I don’t push my luck, though.
            We take dinner at the place we took dinner on that first day here, where we had to remove our shoes for the first time. I like the chicken burger, and after getting ‘back on the fish’ in Mae Nam my digestive system is now screaming out for some heavy western type sustenance again.
We’re going to mix it up a bit tonight. We might even bypass the Drop In entirely.  (We will start by drinking on our veranda, however.) We’ll try the ‘rock bar’, playing The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and the like. It makes for a nice change, but S and my companion aren’t entirely convinced so we decide to move on to Mellow Mountain, the larger bar built upon the larger outcrop on the other side of the bay.
It’s good up here but the clientele seem to be letting the place down a little. Or are they? In truth, S and I are starting to regard our fellow travellers with marginal hostility. I blame Chaweng for this, as well as our exile in Mae Nam where we spent most of our time in the company of Thai nationals. Nether the less, a nearby crew, comprising of two Irish girls and two English boys, seem to embrace us, so much so that we feel compelled to take them to the Drop In, whereupon everybody gets very drunk.

My body almost made it but on Christmas Eve I was violently sick. It started off well:  I was hung-over, for sure, but I slept in until about noon, then armed myself with Gatorade before hitting The German Bakery for brunch, where I digested, among other things, the day’s Bangkok Post. There was a buzz about the whole place, and I purchased a wooden monkey from the shop next door to the 7-Eleven for my colleague’s Christmas gift. The evening then followed the same routine as the one before, just with added vomiting.
Christmas day itself was spent in a state of general disarray. I invested much of my time suffering in a hammock but managed to get it together to go to Bamboozle for dinner, my first and only meal of the day, which never lived up to the standard set on our first visit there. I should have been phoning home too, but there was no chance of that: the queues at Haad Rin’s ill-equipped internet bureaus were predictably hanging out of the door, and they were charging a mint for the privilege.
I tentatively gave the evening a bit of go, chilling with the Israeli hippy next door who had been staying here since the tail-end of our first tenure. Up until meeting him, the travelling Israelis had aroused some suspicion. I’d had no opinion of them at all before coming to Thailand, but here they travelled in packs, fresh out of national service, bronzed, toned, wearing tight vests and dark glasses, avoiding mere gentiles. But the Israeli hippy was different, and quashed any lazily inexcusable antipathy that might have otherwise crept in.
We eventually made it to the Drop In to meet our Christmas-period crew, but after two very unsatisfying drinks, I decided to call it quits. When I awoke on Boxing Day, feeling relatively fit and healthy, a cache of oddments awaited me. They were from our neighbour, the Israeli hippy. He had moved on and had left us the surplus bits and pieces he’d accumulated during his month’s stay in Haad Rin. This was compiled of books mostly, and I spent the day swinging in my hammock reading one of them – Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
Not before I took breakfast on the beach one last time, for it had been decided that Boxing Day would be our last spent on the islands. The party was over and our odyssey had to get back on track. The evening was to be spent drinking sensibly on our veranda with the Irish girls and English boys who had served us well on our second bout of debauchery in Haad Rin, before we bade them farewell.

The next day my colleague and I separated from S, who returned to Samui to try and exploit the island in the way only a single person maybe can. It was a sad but not totally unexpected end to this travelling triumvirate, but S had financial concerns as well as physical ones. To the latter he could now add the irritating bites of the many sand fleas that had infiltrated his discarded trainers and feasted upon his ankles. That he’d managed to find his pumps after losing them on the beach was surprising in itself: even more so when they were subsequently pinched from the relative safety of his veranda the following evening. And so he was forced to invest in a pair of flip-flops, something that he and I had both hitherto resolutely resisted.  S was not built for travelling, but then I wasn’t sure if I was either.
Onto the wagon and back to Surat Thani, and hopefully my colleague and I can find somewhere nice and quiet to spend New Year’s Eve.


Monday, 23 December 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 8. MAE NAM



18/12/02: Move on to Mae Nam; more rain; book into Anong Villas; dinner and a few drinks at a bar on the beach served by a young Thai gentleman who’s been to Doncaster.

Mae Nam – the place that makes a visit to Koh Samui worth one’s while. Here and there, one finds undisturbed pockets of vegetation,one in particular being vaguely reminiscent of Isaac Levitan’s realist masterpiece Deep Waters, restricted from development, as it is, by a network of streams. It may actually be the case that there are plenty of equally honourable coves dotted around Samui, although I have heard no rumours to suggest that this is so.
The middle point of the beach is more typically furnished with the staple palm tree, and plays host to a smattering of pleasant bars and eateries facing north towards Koh Phangan. Lorries hurl along the main drag at break-neck speed, shedding light on a statistical analysis that informs us that Samui’s road are the most potentially fatal in the whole of Thailand. 
In spite of this, Mae Nam is a delightful place with only the perfunctory facets of the commercialism that mar the remainder of the island. The residents are welcoming and possess a playful sense of humour that offers relief from the understandable cynicism often found on display elsewhere.

I love the postcard. My favourites are those depicting antiquated coastal vistas, faded in the light, drained of the overly rich colours that spoil more recent pressings. The postcard succeeds where other forms of communication cannot in establishing a tangible link between sender and recipient, and the journey that the laminate must undertake is an adventure of Odyssean magnitude.


When we were researching into our travels, it was discovered that the rainy season (ruedu fon) in Thailand normally begins in June/July, and hangs in the air until October/November. It was now mid-December and yet we were still being subjected to intense downpours interrupted by random bouts of sunshine, rather than the other way around, which had been the state of play on our arrival. I don’t think the south of Thailand ever really completely frees itself from the clutches of these south-western monsoons.
Mae Nam was to be Samui’s saving grace. Our last roll of the dice, we couldn't get out of Chaweng quick enough. It was a bit of a gamble, and suffered the most inauspicious of beginnings.

I am up early and, whilst my companion readies herself, I'm going to try and acquire a small 'man bag'for my belongings. Up until now,I've been wearing a 'body wallet' with my passport, money and other particulars contained therein, and my passport is beginning to suffer the consequences of being moulded around my waste on a daily basis (our guidebook encourages not to leave valuables in one’s room – especially on the islands – and I've followed that advice religiously). On top of that, I've had a camera to carry around with me, and sometimes keys. It’s been far from ideal.
I've decided to lump everything together in some sort of bag, as small as possible and in a colour befitting a man who used to serve in the Air Training Corp. Such is the profusion of stalls selling this sort of tat, I don’t expect to pay a huge amount of money for the privilege, but I do anticipate having to haggle for it.
            Initially, I'm being asked for 850 baht (about £12 at the time) for a satchel no larger than a 1 kg bag of sugar. I consider this excessive. Please bear in mind that I am on a budget and that this bag has been knocked up for next to nothing with the specific intention of being sold to at an artificially inflated price – they've even gone to the trouble of attaching a fake brand-name to the thing. Some friendly to-ing and fro-ing ensues and we’re quickly down to 500 baht, which pretty much justifies my position on the matter. I've entered into this whole process hoping to pay around 350 baht, but I am beginning to sense that I have pushed him almost as far as he is prepared to go. The bag has a number of external pockets, an adjustable strap and is coloured battleship grey. What’s more, our hustling has been carried out in the most civil of manners, my interlocutor smiling and laughing the whole time. I hand over the 500 baht, he shakes my hand, and I feel all warm inside.

Songthaews are the primary means by which one gets around Koh Samui and they often run fixed routes, just like any regular bus would. This can lead to some confusion. Songthaews aren't numbered and there aren't visible designated stops, so you need to tell the driver or his ‘assistant’ where it is you would like to go and you’ll either be waved away or told to jump on, regardless of whether the vehicle has any obvious free capacity. 
            We find ourselves a songthaew with ease and are instructed to get in, although there seems to be an element of ambiguity to our exchange. After about half a mile, our songthaew intercepts another travelling in the other direction and enters into a discourse with the driver. An exchange of hostages then takes place, of which we are involved. This makes complete sense now, because we were driving in the wrong direction: south, back towards Lamai, when we needed to be headed north, towards Mae Nam. Really, we’d been waiting on the wrong side of the road.
            We’re the only farang sitting in the back of our new songthaew. This isn't a problem in itself but we've become accustomed to aping what other travellers do in order to get where it is we want to be. Now it’s left to me to interpret our rudimentary map, and because of the speed at which we’re travelling – fast – I am finding it difficult to discern where it is we should alight. Also, we are not familiar with the protocol here: did our original driver explain where it was we were supposed to be going, or merely convey our general direction? Are we expected to bang on the separating window when we want to get off – the only obvious means of communication between driver and passenger – or is there a more subtle means of information exchange that I've missed?
            Eventually, fairly certain that we can afford to travel no further, we gesticulate in random directions that we would like to disembark NOW. Our fellow passengers get the message and bang on the window to alert the driver and he drops off at the nearest roadside café, the only sign of life in the immediate, foliage based vicinity. I am not concerned because I know we’re somewhere along the 4169 and that if we move north we’ll hit the coast in next to no time. Safe in the knowledge that we’re not completely lost, we decide to take this opportunity to pause for a spot of lunch. Judging by the number of chickens wandering around it’s going to be fresh stuff.
The food is good – proper grilled street food for next to nothing. This remote, decrepit shack isn’t set up for tourists; this is a service-station for the locals. Now for the small matter of finding our resort.
Over there, down that dusty back-road. It takes us through a wood and brings us out at the dog-end of a long beach – presumably the right one. As we amble back along the shore, stumbling over driftwood and flotsam, the monsoon decides that we've had enough sunshine for one day. My colleagues – my companion in particular – are losing patience. Acknowledging no responsibility whatsoever for our predicament (I didn't see anybody else reading a map) I volunteer to scout on ahead, leaving my friends under something resembling a bandstand to shelter from the rain.
It’s immediately evident that Mae Nam is trying to cater for a different kind of tourist, although there’s little sign of life here. I suspect that a lot of these substantial guesthouses are new and that the whole area might be sort of up-and-coming. I'm surprised, then, that when I do find more modest accommodation it’s priced as high as it is – more expensive than Lamai but with so little on show to justify this. I also find the eight foot concrete pillars on which most of these bungalows sit a little disconcerting. All the cabins we've stayed in so far have been raised a few feet on the ground – to discourage insects, I presume – but this seems extravagantly high.
I report back to my colleagues, explain the situation and they’re content to pay the going rate. Anong Villas will do for now. Maybe we will move on in a few days’ time?


19/12/02: No rain and very hot; pop into town with S to look for a post office and an internet connection; discover a nice bar run by another young Thai gentleman; back to villas; eat on a restaurant on the beach; find another nice bar – Café Tatay –  staffed by two young Thai gentlemen.

20/12/02: Another dry, hot day; breakfast at Mummy’s down some dirt-track; beach; eat at restaurant on beach again; find another bar, this time set back from the shore where yet another pleasant Thai gentleman plays us his guitar; return to Café Tatay.

21/12/02: To the post office with my companion; have food at our resort followed by a beer appetizer on our veranda; eat at Mai Nang; try out Gypsy Pub but it was rubbish, so returned to Café Tatay and got drunk with a middle-aged German couple.

22/12/02: Lunch at Angies, where the Samui-renowned pies disappoint; follow this up with some terribly bland fodder at Mummy’s; return to Café Tatay to bid out farewells to our friends – the German couple, too. Leave my group to watch Liverpool and Everton play out a bore draw at a bar called New Wave.


Separating the shore from the main drag (if you could call it that) is a myriad of bungalows, back roads and diminutive plantations. Take a left and suddenly you’re surrounded by woodland. Turn another corner and you stumble upon some tropical newsagent selling Pringles, suntan lotion and tins of Beer Chang, having passed a few grazing water buffalo along the way.
Back in the other direction – slowly, you’re finding your feet – and you’ll chance upon a typical outdoor Thai bar. Stop for a quick beer, maybe something light to eat, and then head on your way. You've hit the main road now, but you won’t find much along there, save for the odd internet café and a modest 7-Eleven. What a curious micro-environment. It’s almost like a village, Mae Nam, or it seems to have a village mentality. There aren't any girly bars or establishments showing pirated films on rotation, and not a Bucket of Joy in sight. There are many places to drink, however, and they’re decent establishments too – there just doesn't seem to be anybody in them. This breeds the perfect environment for getting to know the locals, and it is at Café Tatay that we spend an inordinate amount of time chatting to a long haired Thai guy called Samiya (sic). He is typical of the look a lot of young Thai men go for on the island – sort of late 70s rock – and he is as friendly as most of them tend to be too. 
He has a child, who his parents help him to raise because the mother isn't around,and he tells this in the strictest confidence, almost as if we might want nothing more to do with him having found this out. They’re likes the Victorians, the Thais, except without the sense of cultural superiority,puritanical flagellation and ethnocentric prejudice that was rife amongst my people up until [insert timescale here]. Indeed, in every bar we frequent there seems to be some unassuming Thai chap in his early twenties keen to interact with his Western guests and serve them beer for as long as they want it.
The German visitors on our fourth evening provide the stark contrast. The guy’s as loud as hell, although his wife comes across as almost apologetic for it. Jerry loves Thailand and its people, but he very much likes the English as well, and especially their sense of humour. His favourite film is The Plank, an almost silent film starring Eric Sykes – who authored and directed the thing – and a young Tommy Cooper. It’s not my cup of tea, The Plank, but I actually like this German guy, despite his misplaced comical allegiance, and a good time is had by the six of us.

We spent five very relaxing nights in Mai Nam, sleeping, watching MTV at Anong Villas, eating fish on the beach, wandering around in our own private jungle, and drinking at Café Tatay, mostly. It was a good place to mentally regroup,even if we were still getting drunk, to at least some degree, pretty much every night. The place wasn't overrun with farang and in-between the serious showers the weather was pretty good. In fact, I’d noticed it starting to get even hotter.
But five nights is five nights and we couldn't see any point in stretching our stay on this damned island any longer, for the percentages suggested that we’d been lucky in finding Mae Nam at all. For Christmas, at least, we wanted to be where the action was, so, for better or for worse, we decided to head back to Haad Rin.


Wednesday, 18 December 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 7. SAMUI



14/12/02: Get boat to Koh Samui; get pick-up truck to Lamai, in the rain, to find accommodation; go to town, back for food; return to town and make an ally with a Japanese guy along the way; drink at Bauhaus and Fusion.

15/12/02: More rain; hang around, check emails, eat lunch, sink a few drinks, then head to Churchill’s for tea; Live Music Bar – although there is no such thing at the time of visiting – with my companion, who has suffered a bit of a funny turn; then back to drink with J, H and S with the ‘Dogfords’ – two Doberman Pinscher style canines who follow us around a lot – on J & H’s veranda. A rather quiet night.


After nearly two weeks spent in just two resorts on Koh Phangan, it was time for us to move on. M and E had already split a couple of days earlier, but J and H were willing to travel with me, my colleague and S to Koh Samui, after announcing their intent in typically spontaneous fashion the evening before. Their escort was to be short lived, for Samui would deliver the same kind of conditions that drove them away from Hua Hin three weeks prior.
We embarked on what was to be an almost 10 day tour of Samui in good spirits. After narrowly escaping a soaking in the back of an open-top pick-up on our way back to Thong Sala, we were pleased to discover that the next boat due for Samui was a very modern affair, as opposed to the decrepit vessel that had delivered us. Riding atop the bow, we reached Samui in no time, getting a bit wet in the process not from the rain but the boat’s tendency to hydroplane.
Nathon, the port of destination, seemed more substantially built than Thong Sala, and perhaps more sedate too.  There was the anticipated melee awaiting us on our arrival but with J and H in tow I really didn’t have to worry about things like that. Hungry, we bypassed the braying mob and went straight to the restaurant across the road for what was a very welcome meal. I then purchased a wooden ornamental owl for my mother from the tied in gift shop, before slipping out the back into the second pick-up truck of the day, arranged by J, to take us on to Lamai.
            It rained almost from the start: tropical storms that would whip in off the sea, painting the sky almost black. Then there was the rent which was significantly higher than I’d become accustomed to, despite our bungalows being some of the cheapest we could find. Admittedly, they were bigger, better built and more comfortable than the wooden piles we had dossed in on Phangan, but such luxury was offset by the good 15 minutes’ walk into town, built as they were at the very end of the resort’s shore.
Only our first night offered any real taste of the local action. Lamai’s bars are gathered on the middle section of the road running through it, so there’s no vibrant beach scene here, and although reaching them via the coast was possible, it was too dark to do so by night. Consequently, we were obliged to circumnavigate the beach and head town-wards via the main road.
Our female contingent picked up a young Japanese guy called Hitachi along the way, who accompanied us to a few bars. A keen dancer, he put on a bit of a show in one of them, pulling in the punters and ingratiating the bar-staff, who rewarded him with a free drink, before cutting his foot quite badly on a stray shard of glass. Our female contingent provided medical assistance and Hitachi offered tantalising tales of Laos, which was on our agenda, in return.
            The night ended with a spot of teenage Thai kickboxing and – fighting over – the chance for the female contingent to muck about in the empty ring, treading on the amassed red ants in the process, punishing them for their japery – how the male contingent laughed! This excursion – deemed a success – was as close as we got in Lamai to the persistent socialising that had fast become the norm.






The next morning was idly spent on the beach before popping into town in the afternoon, where upon we ate at an establishment run by an expat bearing an uncanny resemblance to the ex-England, Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur manager, Terry Venables. We followed this up with a swift drink in the rather forlorn Live Music Bar next door, before opting – our expenditure in need of some serious control – to buy a few cheap beers from the local store to consume on our porch, with Daniel and Deidre Dogford keeping sentry.


16/12/02: Yet more rain – J and H leave; shave off nascent beard; walk to Lamai and find The Manneg(?) Arms; get songthaew to Chewang: Déjà vu, the Frog & Gecko, Legends and Full Cycle.

My skin has been looking particularly radiant of late. I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had to worry too much about the condition of my epidermis – pimples are mere aberrations, and I tan quite readily – but the constant stream of sweat coursing through my pores is a real boon to one’s complexion.
My facial hair follicles aren’t quite so compliant: patchy and of a varying hue, my previous attempts at beard growth have been entirely unsuccessful. But the hassle of shaving in cheap accommodation, using only shaving oil and cold water, has encouraged me to give it another go. Alas, after four or five days, my sketchy stubble itches and prickles to such an extent that I am persuaded to reach again for my blunt razor.
            Talking of beards, I’ve not seen many about. I suppose it’s the heat.


When we awoke on the 16th, J and H were gone, purportedly for the north of the country again (although I think they actually ended up off the west coast somewhere; it’s not important). There had been some talk the evening before of us meeting again in Laos in about a month’s time, but that seemed a long way off right now. In the meantime, the East Coast Crew were now required to make its own arrangements.
We had envisaged spending Christmas on Koh Samui, and maybe even the New Year. However, this plan was contingent on us spending a similar amount of time in Lamai as we had just done in Haad Yoa or Haad Rin, and the same again in Chaweng.  Anything more than a third night in Lamai was going to be a real effort, especially now that our numbers had been depleted, so it was time to reappraise the situation.
The three of us strolled into town to look for inspiration. What we found was something approximating an Irish Pub – or an English/Thai interpretation thereof – complete with draught beer and leather upholstery, which provided comfort for my abraded nerves (on the television, PJ Harvey’s Good Fortune never sounded so comforting). The price of European beer on tap dissuaded us for hanging around too long, but we established our next move over a pint: that evening we would hitch a ride to Chaweng, check out the scene and maybe find somewhere we could stay a while, with the intent of moving there the next day.

I have never been on a club 18-30 holiday – and nor do I want to – but that’s what Chaweng felt like. S and L, who have visited some of the more debauched pits found around the Mediterranean, could make the connection. Déjà Vu, Gecko, Legends and Full Cycle – just some of the bars we managed to take in before heading back to Lamai for a post-mortem.
The next day we packed our things and moved to Chaweng, despite what we’d found there the night before – it was either that or sit it out in Lamai for another night.


17/12/02:  More rain; move to Chaweng into very basic accommodation; walk into town for something to eat; drink back on our veranda; Scream bar & Déjà Vu.

General observations of the Samui Archipelago:

1 - If Thai folk generally drive like madman then the islanders in particular need sectioning.
2 - The long haired locals are suspiciously laid back.
3 - If bungalow construction continues at the rate it is then in 10 years’ time that is all there will be.

Tourism has turned Koh Samui into a freak show. Suspiciously laid-back locals, pushy prostitutes and automotive maniacs are rampant, and the less said about the tourists the better. The problem rests within the twin demonologies of Lamai and Chaweng and the sort of behaviour these resorts attract. Lamai is tolerable, despite being mostly inhabited by Hua Hin rejects, tattooed skinheads and lascivious middle-aged men with a penchant for the ladies of the night. Any tension is eased by a steep, clean beach that induces impressive waves, abetted by the sudden storms that often creep in from the Gulf.
Chaweng offers no such solace. Pizza Hut, Boots and Burger King all stake their claim to a town that has taken the bait of mass tourism hook, line and stinker. It has its advantages, mind. The roads are certainly more formidable than the quaint excuses on Koh Phangan, and the songthaew drivers seem to have no regard for the 45km per hour speed limit, which, after a few beers, makes for an exhilarating ride home.


Being in Rome, we’d drunk fairly heavily the night before, a habit that was beginning to take its toll, and after eating mostly fried-rice based dishes (and tuna rolls) on Phangan, I’d begun to develop a craving for Western food. In such circumstances, you can do a lot worse than eating out in Chaweng.
I’d already gorged myself on a roast chicken back at El Tel’s place, and now I aspired to eating pizza. Like tuna, pizza normally goes down well when my stomach’s feeling a bit delicate, so Pizza Hut should do nicely. Unfortunately, it is not to be. I can’t finish my pizza for fear of throwing up, which saddens me. I think I really need to address my growing drinking problem.
Ostensibly, I like where we’re staying. It’s centrally located and, like at Haad Rin, the path from our front door leads straight down to the beach. The problem is the people we’re sharing with. At Haad Rin, the clientele were pretty well behaved, by day at least. Here, there’s a licentious air that pervades on an almost perpetual basis. Folk seem rougher, too, and I get the sense that not everybody here is actually travelling, that they might be here for a two week vacation, perhaps?
I get stuck in early: I can’t be sober in an environment like this. We still haven’t decided how long we want to stay in Chaweng but already I'm entertaining the possibility that we leave tomorrow.
We’ll move up Chaweng Boulevard and work our way back down, stopping off for drinks where we see fit. It is still early so the bars aren't as hectic as they can or will be, and this exposes just how charmless a lot of these hang-outs really are. Did we really travel to the other side of the Northern Hemisphere for this? Do other people travel across to the other side of the Northern Hemisphere for this? I've never seen anything like it: a complex of clubs, it’s like an alcoholics’ Christmas market. We eventually settle on the Scream Bar, before returning to Déjà Vu because it’s the most innocuous place we can find.
I've reached that stage now where it’s an effort to get drunk, so I don’t really bother.  I think my colleagues are experiencing the same frustrations as I, and after a brief assessment of our situation it is agreed: we will make our excuses and leave tomorrow.


Saturday, 14 December 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 6. HAAD YAO





07/12/02: The German Bakery for breakfast; Mancunians leave; check out and arrange transport to Haad Yao with my colleague, S, M and E; book into Ibiza Bungalows; lounge about on the beach, get bored and go for a drink at the Eagle with S.  In the evening, persuade the rest to do the same.

08/12/02: Quiet day spent relaxing on the beach; eat big for tea before checking out cliff top bar with my colleague and S; relax by an open fire on our return – a rather quiet night.

09/12/02: J and H arrive quite unexpectedly; have drinks at the adjoining Ibiza Bar to celebrate; end up rather wasted at the Eagle, but in a mellow sort of way.

I wish I could compose a soundtrack for the people of Thailand to play whilst I am here. I have a tune for every moment, but it’s never played.
Moving north to Haad Yao, harmonically the situation slightly bettered. The laid back atmosphere here is anathema to the decadence of Haad Rin, and although electronica and Bob Marley are still the order of the day, the abominably named Eagle Pub will play Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd on request (well, it’s an improvement). The relaxed approach to life here is only slightly undermined by an air of snobbery that permeates throughout the older and, one presumes, more travelled clientele, who seem to have made this place their home – for now, at least.
Bungalow installation is intense in Haad Yao but there is an agreeable lack of bars and 7-Elevens, making it an appropriate place to stop off and recharge one’s batteries. When the sea presents the land with a gentle breeze the rustling palm trees sound much like rain. At night the squid trawlers imbue the beach with a bizarre and calming glow, the rocks adopt images of grotesque faces and the clouds varied animals and ghouls, all to the sound of the miscellany of creatures that favour a nocturnal existence.

10/12/02: Generally lounge about; green curry for tea; a few drinks and games of cards on M’s veranda.

11/12/02: Explore a neighbouring beach with J and S, hacking through vegetation to get there, and having a Chang top when we do. In the evening we all drink at Ibiza Bungalows and end up building a fire on the beach.

Haad Yao seems to have been designed with the intensity of Haad Rin in mind. Gone are the all-night parties, the huge bass bins coughing up their filthy beats until eight in the morning. This is a place to relax and, quite frankly, lacks much to concentrate the mind. By night there is only one bar of merit, but it is enough. You have to wonder how soon it will be before some enterprising businessman plunders this cove of its serenity. Geographical limitations could prove its saviour, though, as the shallow beach is not suited to the large gatherings of Haad Rin.

I spent a lot of time there doing nothing much in particular. This invariably led to boredom which in turn led to intoxication, but not of the frantic kind. I think it was at this juncture I began adulterating my beer. The 6.4% of Chang was starting to gnaw, so I would buy a bottle of Sprite or 7 Up, and make my lager a top. It still must have been about 4%, despite my interference.
One of the most pleasing aspects of Haad Yao was the feeling of being close to nature. I had observed this to a degree when we first arrived in Koh Phangan and I had wandered off down dusty roads in search of accommodation, very quickly finding myself surrounded by a whole host of alien noises competing for the aural domination of my psyche: frogs, insects, lizards… or all three?
And it was the same at Haad Yao, a resort with two shops and one internet repository, but the threat of a whole lot more. At night these strange chirps, bleeps and clicks could be heard wherever you went, because wherever you were you were never far from unkempt vegetation or outright forest. And in the morning, awaking to the sound of waves meeting with the shore… there isn’t a more agreeable resonance I can think of.
The huts we slept in were even more basic than the ones at Haad Yao: wooden shacks with a concrete shell of an outhouse stuck on the back with a shower and a tap, no sink and a visiting cockroach present with every visit. If you had geckos, which you invariably did, you were glad of them because they kept the insects at bay. Unless you were my friend, S, who recoiled at every intrusion upon his life nature challenged him with. Rather ironically, it was he who was to find a foot long iguana-esque lizard hanging in the rafters after a heavy night down at The Eagle.
Then there were the dogs. There’s no getting away from dogs wherever you go in Thailand, but these feral creatures seemed even more so here. When we set off down the beach for a few jars at The Eagle the local canines would form an escort party. Then, when we reached a point roughly equidistant between our departure and arrival points, the pack of wild hounds that made their home on the south-side of the beach would rush towards us to confront our chaperons. After much barking and gnashing of teeth, our original retinue would retreat to leave the south-side contingent to escort us the rest of the way. When we arrived at The Eagle the dogs would sit down, job done, but always with one eye on the game should their north-side rivals seek recompense. On our walk home the same sequence would be played out in reverse. This would happen every time we traversed this particular route.







My companion is beginning to tire of me borrowing her sarong every time she takes a dip in the sea, whereupon I emerge from the shadows and into the sun, and sit myself upon it to read a few chapters of a book. I say sarong, but these gossamer-like sheets are probably intended for more general usage – everybody on the beach has one to lie on. Not being much of a beach kind of person, I have not hitherto established the need to acquire one for myself, but perhaps it is about time I did, if only as something to sleep upon (not having yet encountered bedbugs, I am reliably informed that they do get around).
            Off to the local store I stroll. This is fast becoming the highlight of my day, unless a heavy storm is in the offing. I like the air-conditioning and the muzak there, and I like looking for new crisps and soft drinks to try.
 My companion’s sarong is blue with small, lighter blue tie-dyed lizards crawling all over it. It is a pleasingly inoffensive sarong and I would like to find something similar. Alas, the sarongs on offer here are far more elaborate, covered in bizarre shapes and involving at least three colours apiece. The least gaudy example I can find still incorporates orange, dark green, black and white in its make up, but will suffice. For some reason, the cashier is not so sure. She seems to think this combination of colours raises doubts as to my sexuality, assuming, quite correctly, that I am of a heterosexual persuasion. I study the thing more closely but still can’t see it. The orange is a bit on the effulgent side I’ll accept, but I’ve never associated this colour with a predilection for people of one’s own gender.
There is another issue to factor in here: my ‘self-drying towel’. My self-drying towel is made from a fabric – or a weave – that is purportedly inured to the towel’s normal tendency to absorb moisture. This same quality, coupled with a reduction size, should make it the perfect travelling companion. Except the thing is about the size of a tea-towel and its dehumidifying properties have been seriously overstated. It pleads washing on a regular basis, therefore, lest it doesn’t start to kick up a mildewy-like fuss in my rucksack, and using it to wrap around one’s waste demands complete privacy. Because of this I’m thinking that the sarong will be a welcome addition to my ablutionary armoury. Its lightweight nature should guarantee rapid desiccation, whilst simultaneously having a minimal impact on my luggage capacity.
I buy this ambiguous shroud, despite whatever subliminal sexual messages my giggling Thai cashier thinks I am going to end up putting out there.


12/12/02: M & E leave, with the prospects of meeting up again very slim – a shame for it has been a pleasure having my old school chum with me these past 10 days. 
Attempt internet communication but it’s not very well connected around these parts. Try 9000,000 Baht – a bar at the other end of the beach – with my companion, and down a few shandies (even the tops are starting to bite). Come evening, eat fish on the beach and make it an early one. Am aware of a heavy storm passing over during the night.

13/12/02: It was no illusion; thunder and heavy rainfall accompanies the morning and persists for much of the day – great stuff. By the evening it has a passed and we drink first with J and H on their veranda, and then with ‘Mel and Kath’ on theirs, two young newcomers who may or may not be potential friends. End up in The Eagle pub in a rather half-hearted manner.


It was fair to say that we’d exhausted whatever it was Haad Yao had to offer us, but I was glad M and E had brought me here. Mostly, I’d taken pleasure from both the music and the weather, and the coffee-flavoured milkshakes had been a revelation.
Dance music is alright – of a type – but I’m not sure if the beach is the ideal environment in which to fully appreciate it. When Haad Rin did let up on the Hard House, it normally fell back on Bob Marley, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or The Doors, only the latter capable of providing me with any aural stimulus. Haad Yao – or more specifically, The Eagle Pub – took a more open-minded approach to its playlist, which I suppose I was grateful for.
            As for the weather, it had been a place of extremes. There were days in Haad Rin were it rained for hours on end, effectively wiping out whole swathes of time. Here, on the northwest of the island, the storms had been brutally swift, with prolonged periods of sunshine in-between: a win-win situation, in other words.

So farewell Haad Yao. Apparently, I will return in 2008, stay in the same complex of bungalows (since demolished and now made entirely of concrete) and make friends with a fabulous group of local lads who now run a new bar on the beach and refer to themselves as the Thai Bad Boy Company. The Eagle Pub will still be there, but almost a shadow of its former self. Other than that, the place will remain largely unaltered.


Saturday, 7 December 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 5. FROM SURAT THANI TO HAAD RIN







30/11/02: Minibus from Chumphon to Surat Thani; check in at the Muang Thai Hotel;  arrange pending transport; check email; eat at faux Pizza Hut; go for a walk on the waterfront; get followed and retreat to hotel for early night.

Surat Thani is a fairly busy place, bringing to mind the calmer streets of Bangkok, but without the hedonism or as much pollution. Its only real use is as a stop-off point prior to getting the ferry to Koh Phangan or Koh Samui; you’d struggle to make a night of it in Surat Thani, such is the shortage of bars or suitably inspiring vistas. It does, however, lie upon a river, and the opposing bank seems to be made up off nothing but palm trees. This low rise scenery is actually rather pleasant and gives the impression that for about 1000 miles there is nothing at all but vegetation.


This is our first experience utilising the form of transport mostly employed by the traveller: the private VIP Bus. These heady sounding vehicles can come in many forms – on short hauls such as this, you’re looking at a minibus – but what distinguishes them from the cheaper, public single-decked coaches is the price (in the manner defined by the aforementioned qualifying adjective) and the fact it services destinations common to most travellers. By this I mean that, rather than dumping one on the side of the highway, the VIP Bus will drop you off pretty much anywhere you like, or at the very least a drop-off point more conducive to one’s needs. What is more, the rendezvous for boarding such a bus will normally be locally convenient, and if it is not then the agent you booked the bus with will arrange for it to pick you up from wherever it is you have been staying.  Although more expensive than the Public Bus, it’s not so much so that it isn’t worth the indulgence.  Indeed, one might break even if the cost of paying for any secondary taxi is taken into account.
Wealthier locals might also utilise these buses.

As we near Surat Thani, conveniently located accommodation is quickly sourced from the guidebook. Not really sure of either what we are doing or where we are going, we ape our fellow traveller-type passengers and disembark when they do, hoping that we’ve done the right thing – what a shower of clueless spanners we three are. It turns out to be the right move, although it takes about 20 minutes of walking up and down the same 50 metres of road before we finally nail our quarry.
Our chosen venue is much more substantial in both structure and amenity than we have grown accustomed too. It is more like the establishment my colleague and I stayed in on our first night in Bangkok, except without the plush atrium, or the buffet breakfast, and an even shabbier bathroom. This is not an act of deliberation; there just doesn't seem to be much on offer for the weary traveller on a budget in Surat Thani.  It sums the place up: a purgatorial town one passes through, offering no incentive to stay for any longer than is entirely necessary. But stay we do, if only because we still haven’t a clear idea as to how we are supposed to get to those islands. We could have sorted all this out in Chumphon or Hua Hin (it might have been a struggle in Prachuap Khiri Khan) but we've got months of this kind of stuff to get through, so what’s the rush?
We find a run-down travel agent not 30 metres or so from our hotel, all peeling walls and faded posters. The stickers plastered across the window reassure that they know their stuff, and if we’re still in doubt then the proprietor’s very decent command of English is enough to alleviate any residual fear. It turns out that ours is not an entirely unreasonable course of action. Ferries to the islands start plying their trade from an early hour, and what’s more the terminal we need to sail from is a 45 minutes’ drive out of town. The kindly, well-spoken Thai lady arranges tickets and tells us to rendezvous back here at 09.00 the next morning to board the relevant bus. We will then be presented with coloured stickers that we will attach to our chests to enable the staff at the port to guide us in the direction of our appropriate ferry, which will be the one leaving for Koh Phangan.
This all seems too easy. Why, every other journey we have undertaken up until now has involved making our own way to a remote terminal and then hanging around for an hour or so, sweating profusely in the process, anxiety building. Profoundly suspicious, but at the same time bursting with a sense of accomplishment, we think about what we might like for dinner.

After making a deliberate effort to go native these last few days, by gorging myself on fish, I really fancy a spot of western fare. It’s no fait accompli, but when we pass an establishment that has very obviously taken Pizza Hut as its template, I persuade my colleagues that it’s for the best. It goes down well, despite a certain oddness about the taste that I can’t quite put a finger on. An imbalance of herbs, perhaps? Too much oregano?
Post dinner, we take a stroll along the waterfront. It’s pretty hectic down there, but still a long way off the intensity one would be obliged to deal with in Bangkok. This is the weirdest place I have come across yet – not Chumphon, or Hua Hin, or even Prachuap Khiri Kan. Every time I think I’ve got this country nailed it throws me another curve ball. Look, there’s a department store on that shabby street, where vendors and beggars litter the pavements. We take a look inside. The place is surprisingly busy, really quite modern and the prices not much less than what you would expect to pay back home in England. I’d hoped I might find a Lacoste polo shirt at a significantly reduced price. I’d hoped that the lithe Thai physique would dictate a sizing more akin to my own. Nothing doing here.
Along the main drag there are all sorts of strange boutiques. I suppose it offers an insight into what a lot of suburban Thailand is all about, and it’s putting me back on edge. This last week has been good for my state of mind – despite the fairly heavy drinking – but now I swear we’re being followed and I don’t feel very comfortable in my new environment. To be fair, it’s quite plausible that we are being followed, although not necessarily for the nefarious reasons that spring to my mind (robbery, extortion, murder). We don’t hang about, then, and could do with an early night regardless, so we each grab a solitary can of random beer from the nearest 7-Eleven, pull back to our hotel and watch Thai television (which is an experience in itself). We have to be up early for our bus, after all.


01/12/02: Get the bus to port and then the ferry to Koh Phangan; check emails on arrival so as to establish the position of M; get songthaew (pick-up trucks that have been converted into taxis by installing a bench on either side in the back and covered with a canopy) to Haad Rin and find M and crew; eat, go to bar and watch Liverpool 1 Manchester Utd. 2; go to beach and drink at The Drop In(n); free booze, very drunk.


Refreshed after our quiet night in, we comfortably make our 09:00 rendezvous with the bus, which looks like something Disney might have thrown together had they been asked to make a movie about travelling in South East Asia: an preponderance of polished chrome inside, and sprayed-painted cartoon characters out. Westerners who had previously been conspicuous by their absence now account for the majority of our company. Who knows where they've all sprung from, because they weren't out and about in Surat Thani last night. (It was later discovered that most people purchase a ticket that covers an overnight VIP bus from Bangkok to Surat Thani and transfer from there to the port, dispensing with the strange public-transport orientated charade in which we chose to indulge ourselves.)
The ferry terminal is a hub of Caucasian activity. Without realising it, I am beginning to develop a weird suspicion of my own race and do not feel comfortable surrounded by so many of them here. Maybe it’s the collective shrill that emanates from us, and such stridency is not appreciated amongst our hosts. On top of that, I don’t like what most people are wearing: lairy traveller fatigues, which may well serve some sort of practical purpose but are intended, I suspect, to convey an air of insouciance and/or familiarity with this whole travelling business. Thais don’t tend to wear their hair in dreads or cornrows, or sport over-sized tie-dyed trousers, finished off with a conglomerate of accessories. They wear trainers, T-shirts and denim, just like the rest of us more normally do.
Such nascent cynicism is soon brushed aside when I lay my optics on what I can only assume is our ferry. This rusting hulk of a vessel looks like it’s not been serviced in decades, if at all, and the sea is pretty damn choppy to boot. It is now raining, in fact, which is no bad thing as far as I'm concerned, adding to a sense of nervous drama that I am beginning to feed off. We hang around in a surprisingly modern waiting room, with a ‘who’s who’ of world nationalities, until our boat is ready to depart.
In the meantime, last night’s temperance has confused my digestive system and I am forced to utilise a squat toilet for the first time. These resemble our own western toilets in shape, except they are countersunk into the ground, which means they are only approachable from a squatted position – hence the name. There is no cistern either, just a bucket to the side, which does the job surprisingly well. I am not squeamish but it is all a bit hands-on, so to speak, and a portent of things to come, because outside of the towns almost all toilets are built like this.
Once on the ferry I spend most of my time perched on the gallery watching the wake emanate from our boat’s rear end, drinking coffee and chatting to some young Thai lad. He is a taxi-driver on the island but had some business on the mainland – I cannot recall what – but his confidence puts me on my guard.
The journey takes well over three hours and it rains pretty much the whole way. J and H were right: the rainy season lingers down south.


Thailand offers a dichotomy: the people are extremely warm and friendly and yet persistently try to sell you things, be it cheap jewellery or a lift on the back of their scooter.  Unfortunately, this duality manifests itself into one actually distrusting everything they say.  Walking through a rural area of Koh Phangan, it began to rain and a lady kindly offered her porch as refuge. I was warmed by the sentiment but politely declined. However, I could not help thinking that had I accepted her offer she would have almost certainly embarked on a long and convoluted attempt to sell me her daughter’s hand in marriage, or maybe cattle. I was probably wrong but, sadly, the seeds of suspicion had long been sown. At least they’re pretty up-front about their intentions most of the time.


I liked the port at Koh Phangan – Thong Sala. I don’t know why but I did. It isn't indicative of life anywhere else on the island, or even what you want to get out of it, but there was something I found quite calming about the place, that one’s time here was going to be very different to that spent on the mainland. Or maybe it was because my visit had come off the back of a tour of the uneventful triumvirate of Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon? Whatever, you could palpably sense that stuff happened here, in spite of the ostensible calm.
After taking breakfast in a quaint little bistro, I left my good companions to check their emails while I surveyed the area. Nothing, except for more rain and a modest herd of water buffalo. I returned to the internet café and checked my emails so as to determine the location of my friend, M, and his girlfriend, E, who had been touring the Orient for about a month now. They had come by way of Malaysia and had moved north from there.
Fortuitously, he had indeed despatched a recent email signalling that he was stationed in Haad Rin, the town situated at the southernmost tip of Koh Phangan. This wasn't a total coincidence: he had contacted me about a week earlier to say he was headed in this direction, and we had factored this into our plans accordingly. In light of this, I saw no point in hanging around and suggested to my cadres that we go straight to Haad Rin. They concurred.

I catch up with the Thai guy who I’d been chatting to on the ferry expecting maybe a favour, but he’s asking 600-odd baht (about £10) to take the three of us to Haad Rin. It looks so close on the map, too. No point haggling, given the regularity of the intermittent showers, and so we stump up the cash and embark on what’s probably the most precarious journey of the whole trip yet.
The roads have been cut into the side of the hills of Phangan with limited expense.  One moment everything’s nice and flat, and then suddenly… it’s hard to tell exactly when or how, but proceedings take a dramatically precarious turn. At times our vehicle seems to nosedive at 45 degree angles down alarmingly steep hills, like some kind of kamikaze Stuka, only to have to then do the very same thing upwards as the trough aspires to form another peak. And if another vehicle happens to be approaching from the other direction then one of us has to tentatively perch our tyres on the edge of the road whilst the other creeps on by.
So when we reach our destination the cost seems less unreasonable, given the sheer amount of fuel these pick-ups have probably expended in getting us here. It’s unlikely I make such a moral re-evaluation at the time. No, I just stare in perplexed awe at the amount of tourists that suddenly enshroud me. I do not know at what point it dawns on me, but I have not realised until now that Haad Rin is indeed the Haad Rin that friends have talked about back home – i.e. the place to go if you want to party.
No sooner have these thoughts punched their way through my consciousness, and there’s my dear friend, M. No exaggeration, he just breezes right on by, attired from head to toe in standard-issue travelling garb. Like I’ve said, it’s not my style, but I don’t begrudge M the indulgence for he is a man without pretence.
After the obligatory hugs and comments about it being a small world and such forth, we are recommended cheap accommodation and invited for dinner. We book into Anadin Bungalows and settle in, before re-joining M and his entourage, which consists of his lady friend, E, his Australian work-buddy, D, and two Mancunian girls they picked up, so to speak, in Koh Samui.
A precedent is set here. For reasons I presume are hygienically determined, we are obliged to remove our shoes and sit cross-legged around a very low table. The prostration of the furniture is neither here nor there, but the forced abandonment of our footwear comes as a mild surprise. It probably shouldn't, for this is a coastal resort and I can see how it protects against the proliferation of sand. Further, such behaviour is not confined to the littoral regions of the country, and I suspect it’s probably something that might have been expected of us from the moment we left Bangkok.
We then order from a menu that offers Thai and western fare in almost equal measure. I have a chicken burger and chips/fries because my insides are still feeling a bit delicate. I season my chips/fries with chilli sauce, a strategy that I am starting to embrace whole-heartedly. We then proceed to wash this down with a few bottles of Beer Chang, before retiring to our cabins to freshen up for the evening’s entertainment – which never takes me long.
I head up to the shop and get in the beers, and let everybody know that I’ll be kicking back on my veranda, should anyone wish to join me.  I say veranda and technically it is, but it is also very small. But then our accommodation is very small. It’s basically a wooden hut with a double bed occupying two thirds of the room and a concrete block of a bathroom stuck on at the back. But it is nice and clean with little in the way of nooks and crannies for the ubiquitous cockroaches to hide in, although there is a plank sized gap just under the overhang of the bed, through which, one morning, a cat will infiltrate. This makes for a strange way to start one’s day in any territory.
One by one I am joined by our entourage and I must admit to being really quite excited. This beach is renowned the world over for its parties and already I can hear the deep thumping of some serious bass. We proceed to drink on my veranda for about an hour until everybody is present and correct, and when they are we descend the 15-odd metres separating our domicile from the beach.
Bars and clubs neatly envelop the bay but everything’s still very calm at this point. We head for an establishment that goes by the name of the Drop In, whereupon one is invited to sit barefoot (naturally) around low tables neatly distributed atop thick Hessian rugs. There are candles and there are complimentary beverages to be claimed. Every half hour the form these free drinks take changes, but they are always spirits, encouraging you to buy beer to tide you over in the interim – not that the beer is expensive.
Once the free drinks have run their previously determined course – or one just gets bored of them – people start heading to the bar and returning with the dreaded Bucket of Joy. Consisting of an unholy mixture of medicinal Red Bull and Sangsom Whiskey, the stuff is like liquid amphetamine. You chuck it all into a bucket, with ice and cola, and drink it through a straw, preferably in unison. It makes the Beer Chang seem soporific by comparison.
Whilst all this is going on a young Thai gent will prance before you, twiddling a burning stick like some psychotic majorette. Everyone is impressed. Take a walk down by the sea and the different tunes from the various bars morph into one another as you drift parallel to the strip. Those locals not engaged in commerce, working the bars or selling pizza and garlands, hover suspiciously, waiting to pounce on an errant wallet dropped in a moment of wild exultation. (This does happen, although you will often find that the wallet and all your particulars will make a mysterious re-appearance a day or so later, once anything of any real value has been stripped – sort of like protecting one’s investment.) A couple of English lads suddenly sprint from nowhere, completely naked, presumably rising to some drunken challenge. This is pretty bad form, but the locals have probably seen far worse and don’t appear too bothered.
At some point in the evening, a few of us will walk the 20 metres into ‘town’ for a spot to eat, usually at a humble eatery called Chicken Corner. It’s almost as busy here, with people watching movies, others eating and some just hanging out. You could say that Haad Rin is only a few hours short of being a 24-hour functioning environment. The music will eventually wind down at about 06.00, although I wouldn't be surprised if a few bars kept serving customers beyond that. I couldn't say for sure because I flaked out some time after four.


02/12/02: Walk down to beach for breakfast and to lounge; Mexican joint for tea; a ‘few’ drinks on the beach at the Cheers Bar and the Drop In.

Koh Phangan. Ko Pha-ngan. Koh Pha Ngan. There seems no standard spelling but maybe the genuine phonetic has been lost in translation. What people want from this island hasn’t been lost in translation and our Thai hosts understand this perfectly; to do nothing by day and to dance with Bacchus by night. Such excess is what Haad Rin has become notorious for.  Enter the original Full Moon Party. And so as not to limit one’s possibilities, there are now Black Moon and Half Moon parties too. If it all sound rather debauched then it is, but it’s rarely vulgar (Koh Samui takes care of that side of things). The variety of eateries and the bars, with their scattered cushions and low tables, impose a far more bohemian air to the proceedings. Often people are prepared to while away a few hours kicking back with a Singha and watching a pirated film. Or why not grab a tasty Mexican at Bamboozle and engage a friend in a game of battle ships?


It’s around noon and I've just awoke. Unsurprisingly, I've seen better days. I invigorate myself with a cold shower – I have no choice in this matter: Anadin Bungalows offers low-budget accommodation – and then head down to the beach to assess the damage. The place looks like a fragmentation grenade has gone off – maybe a few – but will soon benefit from a mass clean-up operation, making way for the evening’s inevitable repeat debauchery.
Most of last night’s coterie is present, in various stages of recovery, some reading books, others just lying there, all wearing sunglasses. We exchange platitudes and then I’m off again in search of food.
I take my American breakfast alone in an establishment overlooking the beach, and it is a satisfying experience. Although my coffee is delivered too promptly for my liking – I like to mop up with a hot beverage after having eaten – the overall quality is good and it hits the spot. This is not a given with the American Breakfast. Sometimes the toast can be very dry, the eggs a little undercooked and the bright pink sausages almost inedible. Not today, though.
My constitution much improved, I walk the seven-odd metres back to where my coterie are still rehabilitating. One of the Manchester Maidens has turned up in a panic. She thinks she’s lost her purse. She’s very willing to accept the possibility that, in a moment of clarity the night before, she stashed it somewhere for safe-keeping, but she’s very quickly eliminating potential locations. At the very least, she needs to cancel her debit/credit cards to protect her funds from being misappropriated, and leaves with that intent.
S materialises shortly after in circumstances similar to those I presented myself in earlier: distant, hungry and thirsty, with nothing much really to say. Instead, he listens to the plight of our Mancunian ally and slowly pieces together the fragments of his hung-over memory. It turns out that there’s a purse in S’s room and he doesn’t know how or why it’s there, although a possible explanation is very quickly coming into focus. Suddenly, my companion returns from her swim to provide the denouement. Apparently – I have no recollection of this – S had knocked on our door at sometime around 05.00 to ask what he should do about the urgently drunk Manchester Maiden waiting for him in his room. The Maiden in question had somehow tracked S back to his accommodation and was now offering herself to him, but was so completely mashed that S was reluctant to take her up on the kind offer. Nobody could recall how the situation was resolved, but as both parties had woken up in their own beds one can only assume that they’d sorted something out.
The Manchester Maiden is then tracked down before she’s had a chance to cancel her credit and debit cards.







The rest of the day is spent lounging about on the shore, grappling with our collective hangover, until tea time, whereupon we stroll across to the other side of town to watch the sunset on the less impressive east beach. There are more bungalows here, a clinic, and a jetty that services the smaller craft that come over from Koh Samui. We watch the sun set and the colours that materialise in the sky as a result. Thai fisherman sort out their fishing boats, seemingly impervious to this picturesque scene. One of them strolls down the beach with a machete, protection against the barking hounds that leap to the imagined defence of the Caucasian freaks that pamper to their every need.

“Leave that dog alone!  You hit that dog and I’ll hit you!”

… proffers a particularly dreadlocked member of this itinerant gang. Us Westerners treat these mangy beasts with such unaccustomed affection that they have turned against their more ambivalent hosts who see them as rather less than inconsequential. The poor Thais, barked at by their own mutts and then chastised by some arrogant burk for simply trying to ward off this canine hostility.
The sun down, we leave this sorry scene and head to Bamboozle for Mexican food and a game of Battleships. I outwit M with the classic ‘cluster grouping’ manoeuvre, knowing that I will never be able to pull it off against him again. Connect 4 follows, before hitting the beach for a second night of intense gaiety. I could get used to this.


03/12/02: Beach for breakfast and more lounging; early evening drinks on M’s veranda;  Aussie D’s friend B arrives; celebrate at – you’ve guessed it – the Drop In.

There are more farang in Haad Rin than there are natives. The locals that do live here, though, ooze nonchalance and are not pushy in the least. This is almost certainly because there is such a captive market here that it would almost be a waste of time to hit you with the hard sell. Sitting on the beach one finds a flyer casually dropped by your side every half an hour or so, announcing the amount of free booze one might receive if one were to frequent the advertised establishment. And with a prettier shore than Prachuap Khiri Khan there seems no reason to leave at all.

04/12/02: Beach for breakfast and yet more lounging; try the Lucky Crab for tea with my comrade – good call.  Catch the end of Jackass: The Movie at some featureless bar; decamp to 2$ (we call it The Comfy Bar an account of its nice sofas) and then to Cheers; stay up drinking on veranda with D until 04.00.

05/12/02: The first rainy day since our arrival, on the King’s birthday, no less!  The German Bakery for breakfast; to The Comfy Bar to watch a film and play Grass (a drug themed card game) – quite a revelation; return to Lucky Crab with my comrade and also S; go to ‘The Doors Bar’ and have singular beer and a rather early night.

06/12/02: The German Bakery for breakfast again, with M, E, followed by the Mancunian girls – it’s their last night; more beach stuff and then drinks on the veranda with all; end up at the Drop In and the walls start closing in; insist that my comrade come to The Doors Bar with to escape the relentless dance music at the Drop In; stay for a bit before deciding to call it a day.






The next five days were spent drinking copious amounts of alcohol and coffee, watching pirated films, reading papers, playing cards, sleeping, and eating – in my case whenever my stomach would permit, which by now was not as often as I would have liked. My digestive system’s chief source of consternation was the bucket of joy, which I would eventually decide to abstain from.
            I can recall a sense of excitement when the rains made their return because it meant I could get off the beach and sit on my veranda with impunity, reading and watching the torrents of water sprinting for the sea (our bungalows having been built on a slight gradient). Or we might watch a film in one of the less auspicious bars set back off the main roads. (If one could call them that; these dirt tracks were mere arteries, connecting the various routes down to the waterfront, or back up passed Chicken Corner, The German Bakery, 7-Eleven, Bamboozle and the Lucky Crab, and then on down towards Sunset Beach.)
The films on show were the latest releases, so you took what you were given – only The Road to Perdition and Jackass: The Movie were really worth bothering with. Fortunately we had Grass, a card game that helped us while away many an hour in the afternoon, without having to resort to booze at too early an hour.
It was on the last night of the Mancunians that the unrest began to creep in. A particularly debauched evening, I’d begun to lose patience with the awful dance music that pervaded in and around the Drop In. Buckets of Joy had become a regular feature, despite everybody swearing off them every morning after their consumption. All it would take was for one person to return from the bar kitted out, a straw shoved towards your reluctant mouth, and then somebody else would figure they should return the favour, and before you knew it, oblivion.
And so it was on that last night, as it had been on our first night, and then B’s first night, and almost every night in-between – only the King’s Birthday was in any way dry – that I began to suffer mentally.  I recall wandering off and spending some quality time alone outside the 7-Eleven. I liked it there – the sounds were a distant hum. Was all this the Devil’s work, I thought? What do the Thais think of us here, because for every S showering the local vendors with gifts there was bound to be many an aberrant Westerner behaving less appropriately? I hope they weren't too corrupted, those Thais, by this invasion of atheists and unenquiring agnostics, hell-bent on intemperance of various forms.
Yet I was in no rush to leave. Haad Rin’s modest scale was unquestionably convenient. There was decent food to be had – the tuna sandwiches from Chicken Corner were capable of sorting me right out – there were interesting bars in which to hang, and our cosy little bungalows, with their hammocks and verandas, were no more than a hop, skip and a jump from the beach. The sheer glut of watering holes kept the price of drink very reasonable, which is of real benefit to the traveller on a budget.
When I got wind of where M and E planned to take us to next – our accedence permitting – I wasn't so sure. But follow them we did, if only because I didn't feel like I could handle leaving for Samui just yet.