Friday, 29 November 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 4. PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN AND CHUMPHON



27/11/02: Check out of All Nations and catch a bus to Prachuap Khiri Khan; find one of the few guesthouses available; ‘Women’s Own’ for drinks; eat bland seafood somewhere else; try a few bars and end up drunk at the Coconut.

General observations concerning Thailand:

1 - Everyone drives like madmen.
2 - There are so many palm trees that, the odd hill aside, the landscape can appear pretty dull after a while.
3 - All the dogs seem to be on Valium.


Prachuap Khiri Khan could not have differed more from Hua Hin. For one, the place looked like it had recently been evacuated, with only a few stubborn cynics holding out for company. Christ knows why we bothered to stop off there, but it might have had something to do with S’s hitherto hectic schedule and his need to recuperate some more before ploughing on toward our target destination of Surat Thani.
So we ended up taking in places like Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon along the way, and, despite not having much to offer the weary traveller, I suppose our adventure was better off for it, especially with regard to the former.

After our previous experience with the train, we decide to give the bus a go, which proves to be a most prudent idea. Apart from the efficacious speed of the trip, we benefit from air-conditioning and a distinct lack of people to contend with.
On our arrival we head coastward past an excitable playground full of school children, who don’t get to holler at foreigners very often (and obviously haven’t been told of the need to evacuate), to where our guidebook informs us a hostel resides. This takes us all of about 10 minutes, although establishing which building is in fact our potential flophouse probably takes as much again. The dour frontages that align the street make telling the buildings apart problematic, and without any apparent physical signage it takes a process of elimination to identify our contender. When we finally do so, we then have to negotiate with some listless gentleman, who has no understanding of English whatsoever, to establish precisely what our requirements are (you’d have thought it was obvious). After much gesticulation and nervous giggling we finally succeed in conveying our intent and are offered very reasonably priced accommodation.
Our now buoyant mood is curtailed somewhat by the state of the rooms. Dirty, sparse and slightly sinister – like something very bad might have happened in them – S finds himself blocking ominous holes in the skirting board with shaving foam. He also discovers a dead, petrified frog under his bed. Hanging around in these chambers does not appeal, so we make for the waterfront – for Prachuap Khiri Khan overlooks a rather picturesque bay – in search of somewhere to eat, stumbling upon an amiable café with the curious moniker of Plern Smud (later to be attributed the title ‘Woman’s Own’, such is the matriarchal nature of its operation). The fish isn't great but is served with a (bemused) smile.
Just up the road is a bar called the Coconut that caters for our drinking requirements very nicely. The three of us are the only customers and it remains that way for the rest of the night. The proprietor is more than happy to serve us Beer Chang for as long as we want it, and emerges from watching TV in his living room – such as it is – every now and then to check that we aren't dry.








He must have thought he’d made a killing that night (we not once saw anybody else dining there throughout the duration of our stay) and we returned the next day for (American) breakfast, and again that evening after we’d tried a few other equally low-key establishments in the area, finding them wanting. Besides, it was right by the sea. What could be nicer?


28/11/02: Went to climb up a hill but were intercepted by monkeys; walked back along the waterfront and had tea at Women’s Own; end up back at the Coconut for drinks, and get mobbed by various insects.

There is nothing to do in the town of Prachuap Khiri Khan except get drunk, but it has a certain charm. Looking out onto a bay flanked by two imperious rock formations, the place just sits there doing nothing. There is an abundance of gloriously healthy 50s functionalist architecture, though, a stark contrast to the scarred counterparts that make up most of Bangkok.
Platoons of monkeys hang out on the waterfront giving this sleepy town a decidedly renegade edge. And seeing Thai schoolgirls three to a scooter, sipping drinks through straws as they hurtle along the esplanade, is just the sweetest thing.


Drinking in the Coconut on that second evening, as keenly as we had done on the first, we were ‘attacked’ by all manner of insects, and to this day we recognise the 28th November as Bug Day. It could quite equally have been denominated Monkey Day. In our guidebook Mirror Mountain is the only feature of note – aside from the bay itself – attributed to this sleepy backwater, but our attempt to climb the thing was very quickly nipped in the bud by the sheer amount of primates that hang out around and presumably on this solitary hillock. A shame but we had not the sufficient experience of dealing with simians to know how to anticipate their behaviour. The bag of bananas that S was carrying around, of all things, probably didn't help.
Or maybe we should have settled on General Creature Day? Given the proximity of our hotel to the Coconut, rather than trouble the proprietor for the repeated use of his toilet, my companion in particular would elect to repair to the privacy of our room and use the facilities there. On one such occasion she very quickly returned to our booze-sodden company in quite some distress: something large had dashed behind the bathroom mirror – a lizard in all likelihood. Dispatched back to our domicile to sweep the room for intruders, none were apparent.
The following morning my companion found substantial bite marks embedded in her vulcanized wash-bag and the soap contained therein, suggesting a rat had been snooping around as we slept; they were too substantial and frenzied in nature for the alleged lizard to be the culprit.
Insects, monkeys, reptiles, amphibians and hungry mammals – all were present and correct in Prachuap Khiri Khan.


29/11/02: Breakfast at Woman’s Own and the eggs resemble screwed up tissues; get lifts on scooters to bus-stop on the highway; buy tickets off very cool man and get the bus to Chumphon. Arrive at Chumphon: get lifts on more scooters; find guesthouse; have improved seafood in open air restaurant; a few drinks at Gossips, wherein a Thai gentleman hits on me, before ending up at a cockroach infested bar for a nightcap.


The other education Prachuap Khiri Khan provided us with was that of the scooter. Assuming, quite rationally I think, that the bus to Chumphon would depart from where we’d been put down on our arrival, we shunned a tuk-tuk driver’s offer to take us to the station. Had we checked our guidebook properly his bemused insistence would have made total sense, because the pick-up point lay, in fact, a good two miles out of town along the main highway, which in the midday sun would have been quite intense an excursion to make on foot.
We discover this on arriving at the point we had disembarked two days earlier. A group of Thai lads are kicking back, and they laugh openly at our predicament – a common re-action to any misunderstanding in the Orient.

“No problem,” they say. “We can give you a lift.”
“Great.  Where’s the taxi?”
“No taxi – jump on these scooters – 80 baht each.”

Once we get going it’s actually quite pleasant, the wind blowing through our hair, the open road, hanging on to the handlebar on the back of the seat for dear life. But then… what’s this? We’re doing a U-turn? And now… he’s pulling off onto some dirt-track side road! I recall the live burial scene from the film Casino and glance back to catch S’s face sporting a rather nervous grin. Passports, money, plane tickets, bank cards… it would have to be worth it, surely: a shallow grave just outside of some dead-beat town where farang (‘farang’ being a generic Thai word for anyone of European ancestry) never normally think to venture. We would probably have to dig them ourselves, too.



Looking back now, it was the most practical solution to our problem. At the time, the thought of two grown adults and a large rucksack perched upon some tiny 125cc scooter seemed the definition of insanity. But we had no choice and so nervously complied.
Then we turn the corner and we’re back on the highway. I guess it was just a shortcut. We pay our drivers their generously paltry fee and are left in the hands of some Thai dude who seems to have modelled himself, entirely successfully I think, on James Dean – or perhaps John Travolta circa Grease. He attempts communication but I cannot understand a word that he is saying. Eventually:

“Sit Down!”

I do, very quickly, and squash my sunglasses, which are hanging out of my back pocket, in the process. The bus arrives about half an hour later and the journey to Chumphon hardly seems worth the momentary terror. It takes just over three hours to get there.
Except we’re not, really. As before, but in reverse, we've been dumped at the side of the highway and we’ll have to find our own way into town from here. This time they’re waiting for us – in force. A group of scooter drivers have clocked our stupid, white faces as we've stood up out of seats, and now they've got baht coruscating in their eyes. As soon as we step off the bus we find ourselves surrounded. With a mixture of nonchalance and plain dalliance we try to convey that we would rather find our own way into town, actually, and we’re a bit too hot and bothered to make a move right now anyway. In fact, before we do anything else, we’re going to look for somewhere to buy a drink. (As in a soft-drink. This shouldn't need pointing out, but the regularity with which alcohol has featured begs this clarification.)
It unfolds right before our eyes. This boisterous rabble have headed us off at the pass and the ringleader is now stood there with a selection of pop he’s procured from the vendor located there. It’s the perfect retort to our protests and we are powerless to resist their advances any further. I show them the map and ask how far it is to town. I am being given a figure of about eight kilometres. You see, my companion is a little nervous about riding on the back of these scooters, and although S and I aren't too bothered in theory, he and I have furnished ourselves with the most rudimentary of travel insurance. But we really have no choice, so once again we’re forced to comply.
Halfway through our journey S’s cap frees itself from his head. His scooter is in the lead so my driver stops so we can pick it up, which is very considerate of us. The journey is comfortably eight kilometres, just as they said it would be, and my colleague has given herself a ‘Bangkok Tattoo’ in the process, a common injury sustained amongst people of our kidney. It takes the form of a circular burn received when dismounting the scooter on the wrong side, thus depressing the inside of one’s lower leg on the exposed, super-heated exhaust pipe. It hurts for sure, but so would’ve a six mile walk.
The best thing to come out of all this is the fact that we've been dropped outside of what looks like a professionally run tourist information centre. We require a place to stay for the night and we need to know how to get to Surat Thani – our final destination before we head to the islands – and this place has all the answers. Within half an hour we’re sat in the back of a pick-up truck on our way to our chosen guesthouse.
What a guesthouse it is. Made out of wood, it’s certainly the hottest building I've set foot in since my arrival, with the quaintest interior décor to boot. (We decide to name the place ‘Barbara Cartland’ in tribute to the then recently deceased novelist.) In next to no time, we’re out on the landing drinking a beer in a vain effort to cool down. It doesn't work.
Dinner is had in a very pleasant outdoor restaurant, our order taken by a very nice lady who we imagine may well have once plied her trade back at Women’s Own but had both the drive and temerity to leave Prachuap Khiri Khan and make a go of it in Chumphon. S and I have the fish, whilst my companion reverts to type and has some sort of curry – ‘green’ probably. It’s good food – spicy food – and sets me up nicely for the evening ahead.
We hadn't planned on drinking tonight – in fact, we’d envisaged staying in – but Barbara Cartland is no place to be on a sultry night like this. So instead, once we've eaten, we hit a bar called Gossips where a young Thai gentleman of approximately 19 years of age (I am 27 years at the time) tries to crack onto me in rather more forthright a manner than I have been led to believe is good and proper behaviour amongst the people here, regardless of the genders involved. It is a good excuse to move onto another bar and carry on drinking.
We find an establishment around the corner from our guesthouse and it is a real strange one. A bit like the Hendrix, it’s basically a collection of seats gathered under some tarpaulin, although the bar itself looks a little more solid than that rickety shack back in Bangkok. Cockroaches appear to infest the surrounding pot-plants, their vulgar forms silhouetted against the street light.

The next morning we are awoke by a combination of intense heat, bright light (the curtains are mere doilies) and a whole host of unbidden noises emanating from the neighbouring courtyards: birds, dogs, monkeys (tethered on chains) and Christ knows what else. It’s just a good job we need to be up early for our minibus, and I’m happy to be on the move again.



Wednesday, 27 November 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 3. HUA HIN: THE KING’S RETREAT







22/11/02: Leave Bangkok for Hua Hin with J and H; wait around in station for some hours; sit on train for some more hours; arrive at destination at gone 20.00; find hotel – nice room but no windows or hot water; go for tea on pier; storm (shelter in bar); early night.


The stretch of coast that runs south from Bangkok to Surat Thani is not utilised to any great degree by general persons travelling in Thailand, as became all the more apparent as we made what would be a week-long trip towards Surat Thani Province.
Our first stop – Hua Hin – was supposed to be reachable in just over four hours by train, but the likelihood of this being the case looked less with each stop we were forced to make at what seemed like every level-crossing we came across. Ultimately, it would take nearer seven, the Thai police being partially to blame for this considerable delay to our schedule.
It must have been around 18.30 when what appeared to be another routine crossing evolved into something more. Hanging from the ever open door of my carriage, I saw policemen approaching, employing their substantial torches to tease out detail from beneath our train’s bulk. I cannot recall from where I got the idea, but I confidently presumed that they were on the look-out for some drug fiend clinging to the under-carriage, desperate but brave. Maybe not, I never knew and didn't care much, such was my physical discomfort. The seats on our train were covered in red leather and our bare legs stuck to the material keenly. Windows were kept open, but the ponderous pace of the train meant this made little difference. On top of that there was the constant drone of the hawkers to contend with: Thai peddlers pushing their polystyrene packed egg-fried-rice in everyone’s general direction. I did not dare touch their produce, although I was curious; I figured it might be too tailored to the Thai palate, to which I was not yet fully accustomed.
The peculiarity of being shacked up in these minimal hulks aside, it was actually a rather enjoyable trip, passing through the countryside and trying to get a handle on how, physically, this subtropical landscape might pan out. Leaving the immediate vicinity of Bangkok itself, I was given a demonstration of a poverty that had previously been hidden from view. Wooden shanty style habitations backed out directly onto train tracks, and, at the precise juncture where our track divided into two, we even passed two people sat down at a table, talking about I don’t know what. The scene suited a game of chess.
Also, the abundance of litter was quite a shock because up until that point I had been very impressed by the precise lack of it. All was explained as the journey progressed and our Thai friends casually despatched of their empty polystyrene egg-fried-rice cartons out of the window. This flagrant ejection seemed to be confined to the railways, for I saw no evidence of such wanton disposal beyond its perimeter. Nor did I see anything too wowing to the eye, although as night fell one could occasionally make out the mysterious silhouette far and beyond, hinting at a landscape made up of more than just palms and tall grasses.
We reached Hua Hin at approximately 21.00, and had I been alone I would have been concerned as to the viability of finding a place to stay at this late an hour. J and H were not so perturbed, so I simply disembarked and enjoyed my first real taste of fresh Thai air. It did not take long to find a hostel with rooms to spare, although the location wasn't ideal: bars of ill repute surrounded it.
By 21.45, we found ourselves on the end of a small jetty ordering the local seafood, fried rice and a couple of beers. The meal was delectable – it really was – but before we could finish we were ambushed by an approaching thunderstorm, obliging us to hastily transfer the contents of our table to another that provided some protection. By the time the bill was settled the storm was in full throw, so we beat a hasty retreat into a nearby Austrian-themed bar, miniature cowbells and roughly sketched alpine vistas adorning the walls. We did not stay there long, tired as we were. Besides, the atmosphere sagged heavily.


23/11/02: J and H leave Hua Hin and we leave our guesthouse, decamping to the All Nations. Stroll about town, check out filthy beach. Evening: go for expensive pizza, realise that we’re hanging in the posh part of town so go to the pier for drinks and watch storms passing out to sea. Get back to hotel to find it hosts quite a scene by night – play pool and get very drunk.

Hua Hin – or should that be “Berlin-on-Sea”. There are divisions or hairy Germans everywhere: Jerry has certainly got a stronghold on this town (I haven’t mentioned the war). As a holiday resort it hasn't much to offer, but as a place to recover from the impact of Bangkok it serves a particular purpose. With a Hilton hotel hovering over a high street hosting mostly restaurants and European fashion boutiques, it presides over the gulf of Thailand like some sort of Aryan retirement home.
Relief from this distinctly Bavarian order can be found in the smaller bars and the many restaurants dotted along the seafront. Here you can eat the best sea bass you might ever taste, although it comes at a price of 200 odd baht (not much in English terms, but relative to Thailand as a whole it’s steep).
Other than that, all you can do is sit back and drink the beer. This place must be hell in high-season. Unless, of course, you are retired, rich, European and like moustaches.


Last night’s storm conveyed to J and H that Hau Hin was not the place to currently be. It appeared the rainy season had the south of Thailand firmly in its grasp, so after breakfast off they popped back up north somewhere. My companion and I booked into the All Nations, a guesthouse that was to be our home for the next three nights, and bedded in to await S’s arrival.

I am travelling very light on the advice of a friend – the same friend who, ‘regaled me with tales pertaining to the islands off Thailand’s east coast,’ and, ‘vehemently recommended I get out of Bangkok.’ His opinion is that most people who embark on their travels will over-pack, and he can testify to his own experience. 
After completing a 'tour of duty' similar to my (intended) own, he arrived in Australia only to discover unworn clothes that had almost rotted away within the bowels of his oversized rucksack. Why was this? He reasoned thus: carrying around soiled cloth is neither desirable nor practical, and so he had exorcised his dirty cargo on a fairly regular basis. On retrieving his laundered clothes, they would then be returned to the top of the pecking order – a reorganisation of his mobile wardrobe being deemed too troublesome under such peripatetic circumstances – consigning the clothes at the bottom to their festering plight.
My consort figured, therefore, that little more than a week’s worth of attire is sufficient. So in my 25 litre bag I have packed the following accoutrements:

1 pair of dark grey Levis cords
1 pair of light brown Levis cords
1 pair of home-cut denim shorts
1 long sleeved shirt
1 vintage short sleeved shirt, bought from a charity shop in Hounslow circa 1996
1 vintage Fred Perry polo shirt with left breast pocket, bought from a charity shop in Hounslow circa 1997
1 second hand white ribbed T-shirt
1 white V-neck T-shirt
1 yellow V-neck Wrangler T-shirt, bought cheap in Clarks Village, Somerset, and my current favourite
1 pair of new, cream Converse All Star Chuck Taylor high-top trainers, which I will never fully take to
1 pair of cheap desert boots, which I will wear as long as it isn’t raining
1 Ron Hill anorak that my uncle handed down to me in 1989
1 black Marks and Sparks polyester-and-cotton-mix jumper, bought from a charity shop in Hounslow circa 1998
7 pairs of underpants
9 pairs of socks
1 ‘quick-drying’ towel
1 notebook
1 pen
1 Walkman and a few cassettes
1 pair of portable speakers, which will be deliberately left behind in a hotel room, due to their cumbersome nature
Various toiletries.

The truth is I have probably under packed a little, especially where T-shirts and shorts are concerned, but cramming all this into my bag requires quite some effort. Indeed, when people see me in transit they tend to assume that I'm only out here for a couple of weeks, so diminutive is my rucksack.
However, I am planning on buying along the way – if I can find a T-shirt that fits and doesn't allude to marijuana use, booze or the presence of landmines on its person. I've had to deal with two loads of laundry so far, so I'm hoping something will show up soon.


24/11/02: My companion wanted to sunbath but I didn't, so I ordered coffee and read the paper(Plymouth Argyle 4 Stockport County 1). Went to fish restaurant, a bar, back to All Nations, played pool with ‘the lads’, got drunk. A good day.






Hua Hin is an odd and not particularly arresting locale, but I ended up liking it simply as a space to relax and observe the many storms passing by out to sea. It was all very peaceful, which is maybe why the King of Thailand likes to holiday there – it is his favourite haunt, apparently.
The German contingent made me feel like an outsider, which I actually quite liked, and although the town was not particularly pretty in itself, the clean air and quiet streets were enough to see me through. Indeed, the lack of people was the perfect antidote to what I had suffered in Bangkok, and it was nice to feel in control of my personal space again. By day, I took pleasure in hanging around in the bar of our hostel, reading the Bangkok Post, drinking coffee and watching the labourers lay the jade coloured paving slabs that were delivered every morning to the side of the road. The availability of decent fish was a boon to my stomach and there was a simple air of safety about the place.
Yet something was up. The huge water-tank in the communal bathroom really gave me the creeps, perambulating around town put me on edge, and I spent too much of my time holed up in my room reading whilst my companion lazed around on the beach.
Funnily enough, the tome that currently had my attention was a novel entitled Are You Experienced by Mr William Sutcliffe, a (possibly) semi-autobiographical account of being dragged around India because the protagonist’s object of affection demanded it. Tinged with no small degree of cynicism towards one’s fellow travellers, I could relate a little to the subject at hand, if not the simplistic prose in which Mr Sutcliffe chose to execute his novella. (I myself was thoroughly obsessed with Ian Svenonius at the time – or more specifically his alter ego David Candy, who had waxed lyrical about everything from Futurism to the refreshments on offer in Sao Paulo’s juice bars on his album Play Power. Up against this delightful level of knowing pretension, Mr Sutcliffe didn't stand a chance.) But there were very few actual travellers holidaying in Hua Hin: just middle-aged European tourists. This was no bad thing but did perhaps hint at why J and H had been so keen to leave almost immediately as they arrived – bad weather isn't that much of a big deal, after all.
 So was this what travelling was really supposed to be about: playing at being retired and hanging out in bars? Those islands that everybody talked about would more than likely provide me with answers, but at this point they couldn't be further from my mind. Strange vibes…


25/11/02: Go to the nearest Internet café and write some stuff about the trip’s panning out. S arrives, so help him book into the All Nations – he has the roof terrace with an even bigger and more frightening water-tank than ours. Once he’s had a nap, we take him out for dinner, stroll around town and then back to All Nations for a nightcap, whereupon S retreats to bed completely exhausted.

26/11/02: Went back to the hotel whence we stayed on our first night in Hua Hin for a spot of breakfast, because we’d been impressed the first time around. Pick up laundry and check my emails. Later, go to Cindy’s for drinks, the ‘Friendly Bar’ (possibly an invented name) and then back to All Nations. Not as heavy a night as this itinerary suggests.






S arrived on Monday 25 November, 11 days after me and my colleague, but it seemed like an age. We did our best to show S a good time, but he was playing catch-up. On leaving the airport he had ridden a taxi straight to the train station and caught the first available charter to Hua Hin, albeit with a lot less fuss than we had endured. Understandably, S opted for some very early nights over the next two, but stayed up long enough on the second to plan with us what was to be our next move, proceeding a short way south to the town of Prachuap Khiri Kahn.


Friday, 22 November 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 2. STILL IN BANGKOK







18/11/02: Wally’s for breakfast (mediocre); The Royal Palace and the Reclining Buddha for some sight-seeing; Gulliver’s for tea; Dong Dea Moon and Hendrix for drinks – early night.

Never get in the tuk-tuk – too Goddam right. I didn't get in the tuk-tuk, which is just as well as I later noted in our guidebook that they are not to be trusted. You want to go from A to B?  Are you mad? Apparently, what happens is Mr Tuk-tuc will insist that it is in your best interest that he take you on a tour of all the sights, before subtly dropping in that en-route he will need to pick up his gorilla suit from the dry cleaners (he may have well done, with such cursory notation did I observe this clause). What he really wants to do is take you round his mates’ house so he can SELL you a Gorilla Suit. At a hugely inflated price. Primate attire don’t come cheap.

I am amused by Buddhas. They’re everywhere. There is even a temple built especially to house a huge reclining one. ‘Golden Gigantic Reclining Buddha’ it reads on the postcards, and they lie not. The thing is a veritable theistic behemoth, just lying there looking very content. I like to imagine a Christian version: Wan Mammoth Supine Messiah, perhaps?  Anyhow, there are Buddhas everywhere, in all sizes, mostly golden and all with the same beatific grin.

19/11/02: Back to Wally’s for breakfast – far better food this time. Visit Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) where one can see for miles. Got a bit miffed after being hassled by some local type, and the area was a bit rough all around – rotten dogs, rank smells. Went for food somewhere out of the way – bad move: food passably bland. Return to Hole in the Wall in the evening, get chatting to some Danish chap and bet some more with Pipi.

Bangkok simultaneously evokes pity and envy. Around the Golden Mount are streets filled with the stench of rotting waste and general poverty, yet this is not a third world country by any means. The beggars are benign in manner, as are the dogs. The con-artists play fair and the only reason you ever feel threatened is because sometimes things seem so unassuming it arouses one’s suspicion.
Everything functional is made of minimally re-enforced concrete and it looks great: so simple it gives the city a wonderful cohesion leaving centre stage to the glorious temples and Buddhas scattered liberally throughout the metropolis. But it must be quite a full-on place to take up residence. There are malnourished, disease-ridden canines everywhere, homeless people of similar circumstance, street urchins with baby bats in hand hawking chewing gum and tissues, and a general air of licentiousness that makes Soho, or the like, feel pedestrian. All this in temperatures that rarely seem to dip below 30 degrees Celsius.  When it rains, though, it does so with elan. The lightning flashes long after the storm has passed and the thunder can no longer be heard, like a lamp with a bad connection, flickering erratically.

20/11/02: Wally’s again, then north to see another Buddha at Wat Indrawihan, and dogs fighting; internet café; bar with spinning orb; Gulliver’s for tea; back to hotel for an early night.

21/11/02: Do mundane things, then pop into Hendrix for a shandy and bump into J and H. Have another drink, go our separate ways, eat pizza on Khao San and then meet up with J and H around the corner from Hendrix for evening drinks. Rain, then another bar, yet more rain, even harder now, thunder, the works.


After six days spent kicking around Bangkok my companion and I were fast running out of things to see and do – as much as I like Giant Golden Buddhas they do sort of all look the same. Come Wednesday and I had been to Wally’s for breakfast three days on the trot, and every day, expect for the first, for what they discern to be an ‘American breakfast’. It turns out this is a standard interpretation in Thailand, consisting of two slices of toast, two fried eggs, two slices of something masquerading as ham (sometimes you get the option of bacon instead) a conserve of marmalade/jam, margarine, a side order of fruit (usually pineapple, water melon or banana) and either a cup of tea or coffee. I would then back this up with a pineapple shake for re-hydration purposes, given that most mornings I was grappling with a hangover of varying degrees.

And so we walk north up Samsen road to investigate Wat Indrawihan and look over yet another Buddha, dodging tuk-tuk drivers along the way, having to contrive a very elaborate excuse at one point. When we get there a man offers to free a predetermined number of caged birds for a not insubstantial amount of money. I decline this bizarre opportunity for obvious reasons: if I collude, he’ll then have to catch more birds to replace the ones he’s set free, thus perpetuating the cruel cycle, and paying him will persuade him that there’s money to be made in continuing with this racket. (There probably is, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it.) It is kind of peaceful, I suppose – the Wat – save for a couple of dogs gnarling at each other, whilst laughing children look on, goading them cruelly, like something out of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Then it’s back towards the Khao San Road to think very hard about our impending movements.
The plan was to hang around in Bangkok until a number (three) of our colleagues caught up with us, and then make a move en masse, but we are still to receive the relevant emails indicating when this might be. Should we make a move now regardless, as another South-East Asian veteran, in a recent email, has vehemently recommended I do? Or are we better served holding out for the arrival of our cadres? We decide to give it another couple of days, but on the next – Thursday – our minds our decided for us.

Drinking in the Hendrix late in the afternoon – killing time in a relaxing fashion – two of our (un)expected entourage breeze right on passed. J and H have travelled extensively and their sudden presence is reassuring; I must appear ridiculously pleased to see them. It materialises that they arrived in Bangkok that very morning. Furthermore, they do not anticipate staying for a day longer. And so it is agreed: tomorrow we will head southwards, and S, the last member of our party scheduled to arrive, will have to follow on when he finally decides to show up. (He’d originally been booked to come out on the same flight as us but had to reschedule for work reasons.) These arrangements are willingly received by my companion and me, if only in lieu of a will to commit to anything else.
Later, we meet our friends for a drink at their hotel – just around the corner from Hendrix – a place with the most rudimentary of rooms – charged appropriately – which from the description presented to us almost induces in me fits of traveller guilt. Mind you, our hotel – the grand Khao San Place – doesn't have a bar, so maybe I should give myself a break.
We do some drinking. Then we do some walking. Another storm pounces and we dive down an alley for cover. At the end of said alley is the smallest bar in the world – at least, I’ve not been to one smaller. Slightly more relaxed now, and so tomorrow’s jump into the unknown no longer represents the unthinkable. In fact, I am very much looking forward to getting out of this city that, even though I have not always been conscious of the fact, has had the dubious honour of introducing me to life in the Orient.


Monday, 18 November 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 1. BANGKOK






14/11/02: Arrive and book in at the Asia Hotel. Go to a bar called The Rock and see a covers band; just a shame their staple is American rock – My Sharona goes down well, though. Proceed to get thoroughly plastered.


Customs is pleasingly slick and Bangkok’s airport surprisingly modern. There aren’t people clamouring for your attention and there are no beggars. This does not surprise me at the time but retrospectively will seem quite odd (the lack of people clamouring for my attention, as opposed to the absence of suppliants – it is an airport, after all). I guess such places exist in their own world, exempt from the conditions and the customs of their host country.
Step outside and the predicament really hits home, the heat and the miasma and the noise illustrating the distance travelled. I sit down for a moment whilst my colleague asks somebody about buses. It is a straight-forward operation and within 20 minutes we are aboard a moving vehicle. It is approximately 15:00.
The airport – as airports often are – is located a little way out of town, and it takes some while for us to breach a suburbia comprised of parking lots, warehouses selling car-parts, garden centres, and opulently green fields dotted with grazing cattle. Quite a sight, then, as we near this city’s hub: all tall buildings, advertisement hoardings and flyovers, a metropolis of intimidating proportion.
So this is Asia, this is inter-continental travel, and nothing has remotely prepared me for it. The conductor announces so when our bus reaches the intended point of disembarkation, and already I’m desperate to escape this stultifying humidity, to change clothes and discard any traces of airborne travel. Mercifully, the Asia Hotel is not hard to find, and we book in without too much trouble (although a little more than you’d think: they give our paperwork a thorough going over). Ours will be a basic room with air conditioning, a television, mini-bar, normal things like that. The décor within will be rather drab in hue and the bathroom will have seen better days. But I am unconcerned; looking out over the city from our window, I cannot quite comprehend where I am, or why.
It is nice to be able to stretch one's legs and have a shower after such an arduous journey, but I am not as hungry as I might be, even if I did eat twice on the flight over. I do want a drink, however. Actually, I need a drink, however. After venturing no further than 50 metres in either direction of our hotel – because it all appears a bit too redoubtable to gamble on any further than that – we settle for a bar across the street called The Rock, a real American effort.
It is pretty empty inside, save for a group of Thai musicians executing competent renditions of other people’s hits. It becomes apparent that this is supposed to be a Karaoke night, but nobody seems willing. You can count me out, as always. Besides, I'm just here to familiarise myself with the Thai beer, which is strong one might add. Despite my tiredness, I opt to get really rather drunk, as much to curb my nervous excitement than anything else. I am on holiday after all.


15/11/02: Have buffet breakfast at hotel. Leave to seek suggested accommodation on the Khao San Road - they call it a palace! Gulliver’s for food – pork chops have never tasted so good. Weather very hot but a thunderstorm alleviates the humidity.
Find Hole in the Wall, play pool and get drunk and talk to English couple. Three ‘Beer Changs’ for the price of two.

Bangkok is a beast of a city. It reminds me of the sprawling metropolis from the computer game Grand Theft Auto, only if Hounslow Borough Council had been given the job of maintaining it for the previous 30 years. This is to say that a lot of the low rise buildings have been poorly maintained, giving rise to some rather dirty concrete fascias, although litter is conspicuous by its absence.
Amongst the rudimentary construction, the city is regularly punctuated with pristine monuments and temples. The airport looks alright too, which is most welcome, as the last thing you need after a 10 hour flight is chaotic architecture. I guess it's a question of priorities…


The next day, after exploiting what is a disappointingly insubstantial buffet breakfast, we check-out and catch a bus to the Khao San Road. If I thought it was hot when I arrived then have I got a surprise coming to me. The particular bus-stop that we somehow deduce we require is protected by the shade, but succour remains elusive, the preponderance of concrete radiating heat from all directions. Alas, our bus, when it arrives, fares no better. There is no air-conditioning on these things – just wooden framed windows that push outwards at the top – and the traffic is heavy, emitting fumes that prohibit the influx of any draft that might ordinarily be generated by the speed of such a vehicle. We then miss our stop and have to walk back over an imposing bridge crossing the Chao Phraya River, fully laden, under the midday sun, and can only hope that it will be a straight forward job when we reach the other side.
It is. By the time we reach the Khao San Palace (a guesthouse recommended to us by friends, because it’s cheap and conveniently located) I am drenched with sweat, clothes almost sodden. Thankfully, this time around booking-in is a pleasingly straight-forward process. We are given a key with a plank of wood attached, presumably to prevent us from losing it, and shown to our room, which is basic and small with no air-conditioning to speak of – just a Bakelite fan hanging from the middle of the ceiling, looking shaky. It is very cheap, though, (about 350 baht). I suppose we should be grateful for the two scrawny, orange hand towels that are provided.
After a quick shower and a change of clothes I visit the internet café at the end of the road to check in with anybody who cares; only the Khao San Road stands in my way. I feel myself tensing up the moment I pass reception. I have quickly established that I will be confronted by taxi drivers the moment I reach the end of the tiled floor that acts as some sort of outdoor atrium, with a pharmacy just to the right. Anticipating this, I can keep my head down, mumble something in English and break on through this commercial picket line with relative ease. Once out on the street itself I will feel an invisible force guiding me down the centre of this semi-pedestrianised zone, protecting me from the unwanted attention of the hawkers, eager restaurant staff and crippled beggars that line the street. In all of this I will momentarily forget about the unremitting heat and humidity, until some vehicle starts snaking its way through the throng, and I can smell the burning petrol mixing in with the aromas of unknown food-stuffs. If this wasn't enough, all the travellers who are here with me – and there are many indeed – all seem mad. There’s no dignity amongst them, just delirium, and I can’t understand it, not yet.
The internet café exudes a mellower timbre, and I can relax a little. But the computers are too slow, and I can’t lose myself in the ethereal link back to the world I'm built for and that could offer me a degree of comfort right now. I have no idea what I want to do or where I want to specifically be, but the idea of being out of doors seems particularly unappealing.

By now my appetite has started to recover from its flight induced disorientation, so we look for somewhere to eat. We opt for Gulliver’s at the end of the road by virtue of its air conditioning. I order the pork-chops in pepper sauce, with fries. The place is done out like a bar back home – dark stained wood, sport related paraphernalia, spirits piled high behind the counter. We are waitress served, which brings with it a welcome sense of formality. It is the air-conditioning in particular that I am finding particularly salubrious, and the food when it arrives has a positive effect. I am also glad that it is now becoming dark outside, because in the dark nothing is ever as frightening.
Then we go out and get drunk at a place called The Hole in the Wall. Boy, is everything a little bit irregular.


16/11/02: Wally’s for brunch; walk to a gallery and then down to the river; back to our hotel and then to Gulliver’s again, this time for egg fried rice; then to Dong Dea Moon; back to Hole in the Wall where ‘Pipi’ scams me for 40 baht via the medium of pool.

17/11/02: Breakfast followed by a spot of mild depression and a certain anxiet. Take a nap, followed by a shower, grab some pineapple from “the road” and feel all the better for it. Come the evening we’re out drinking again and discover two new bars “off the beaten track” – Dong Dea Moon and what my companion and I christen the ‘Hendrix’.


That first week took some getting used to not least because of the fervid heat and humidity. Lying spread-eagled on one’s bead, with the fan rotating as fast as its modest motor would permit, I just couldn't get comfortable. The sound of the neighbouring 7-Eleven’s door relentlessly bleeping open and closed did not help. It was no less incessant by night than it was by day, perhaps even more so. Consequently I spent a not insignificant amount of my time boozing. This was not so surprising in some respects, given that I was on a kind of protracted holiday, but I had five months of this to get through and if I couldn't get a hold of myself soon then the possibility was that I might end up developing some sort of drinking problem.
The Hole in the Wall on Khao San Road was my favourite hang-out. There, some Thai guy called Pipi – a rangy, wide-eyed guy who wears old clothes – will insist you play him at pool. He’s a hustler but charming with it, so to hell with the expense (such as it was). Anyway, they were doing a three-for-the-price-of-two offer on bottles of Chang and Singha. This worked out at no more than 60p for a bottle of premium strength lager (6.4% and 5% respectively), and they’d keep your second and third bottle on ice for you.
On my first visit to the Hole in the Wall I recall being very aware of an earthy odour to the water in the washroom. Standing there, sweating buckets – for many of the bars lack any air-conditioning – it struck me how completely trapped by my predicament I was, this not un-redolent smell a sort of metaphor for the miasma of unfamiliarity that had me so completely in its thrall. I wasn't unhappy about my situation but felt overwhelmed by it. I’d committed to five months abroad, and almost four of them in a climate as relentless as this, so counting down the days as a mechanism by which to cope seemed hopelessly futile. How to go about it? I could drink some of the time, but not all the time, and I would need to move around and occupy myself somehow. And what impact would this have on my relationship? I didn't know. I felt that an extended company of sorts would be hugely beneficial, and meeting up with other people was part of the loose plan. In the meantime I would need to get a grip, maybe think about what I wanted out of this. Perhaps I could reflect on the alternative, because if I wasn't here I’d be in England struggling with the entirely unappealing prospect of finding work, and of ruminating on what it is what I wanted to do with my absurd life.
And then some local gent walked in and offered to sell me some marijuana. It’s alright, mate, maybe some other time…

Come Sunday and I had reached something of a watershed. I felt emotionally desolate during the morning, and then, after taking a short nap, I began to feel physically unwell. I tried sleeping some more, with some degree of success, until a fan induced chill had me scrambling for one of the scraggy, orange hand-towels for protection. Relief was only momentary and I suddenly became aware of an all-encompassing itching about my form. The dampness of the towel had attracted many small, red ants, creatures that I was now transferring onto my body, encouraging them to bite. They were everywhere, yet I could not identify an obvious point of origin prior to them descending on my miserable, titian towel. There were no holes, no nooks, no nests. The room was clean, I could give it that.
Insects eliminated, and starting to lose my mind, I decided to leave my room and buy pineapple from one of the many street vendors that work the Khao San Road. This proved to be of great benefit as I soon witnessed a significant improvement to my constitution. By the early evening we were out drinking again.
What this lugubrious episode represented, I will never know for sure. Maybe I had heatstroke, maybe I was homesick, or maybe I was suffering from a sort of culture-shock that grabbed my psyche, twisted it around a bit, forcing me to stare deep into the abyss.

There is a road around the corner from the Khao San Road – do a right at Gulliver’s and then first left – where proceedings are a bit more laid back (emphasis on ‘a bit’). You can eat out on the street without too much interference, take a drink in one of the many bars there, with travellers who don’t seem so intent on drinking themselves into a stupor. Dong Dea Moon (now deceased) was particularly pleasing, run by a Korean guy who could flick the tops off bottles with the end of a lighter at a high velocity, for entertainment purposes only.
Further on down there used to be the Mango. It amounted to little more than a sort of garden with wooden tables, a wooden bar, a few small trees, and a pond – the perfect environment in which to breed mosquitos. Their music policy was good. They would normally play an old BBC Jimi Hendrix session on rotation, the tunes inter-cut with the broadcaster Brian Matthew providing a bit of background on the recording. (This bar went the same way as Dong Dea Moon, although alarmingly sooner.) They didn't make a big show about calling themselves Mango and so neither did we, referring to it as ‘The Hendrix’ instead.