Wednesday, 31 January 2007

The one where Will makes some new friends

Graham and I get a cab to Siam Square with our bags. He has two big bags but then he’s not travelling like me. I feel a little naked and unprepared without as much stuff as him, but at least I don’t have to carry it around, eh?

We do some work permit stuff with Tely, and then she says we can sit in on a class with a teacher here. His name’s Nick and he’s Australian. He’s in his 30s, brown hair, average looking. He has a massive scar down one side of his neck, which is very intriguing. I resist asking him about it outright.

We sit in a corner of the classroom while Nick starts his class with four young Thai women, all fairly pretty. He’s very good at his job, getting the girls to tell him the answers and teach themselves through him. He’s manic, jumping around the room like a children`s TV presenter. Again I wonder how on earth Graham is going to manage, bless him.

It’s a two hour class but Graham is taken off by his head teacher during the break, leaving me with Nick. I ask him if the Thai girls knew any English when he started with them. He says no, and that he speaks very little Thai himself. How on earth did he teach them?, I ask. Pure role play, is his reply. He just acted out the words and made them repeat them.

When the girls come back one of them takes Nick outside the classroom and talks to him. They come back in a few minutes later. Out of the blue he asks me how to spell ostrich, he can’t remember. I tell him, slightly confused. She must have had an animal vocab question for him or something. He writes ostrich on the board and tells them about the bird, also writing emu. Then he randomly asks me if Graham is my friend. I tell him I’ve just met him, but I suppose I could say he is my new friend. Nick says he won’t say anything then. That’s when it hits me - I’m being dumb - they’re talking about Graham! The girl took Nick outside to tell him she thought Graham looked like an ostrich. I have to agree and laugh with them. God I’m a bad person.

During the rest of the lesson Nick is doing health vocabulary from the workbook. There is a picture in the book of a nurse from London, who is black. He asks girls questions about her. “Where is she from? Where is she originally from? Africa? The jungle? Does she run around going, ‘oh, oh, oh’?” he asks, running around the room patting his hand on his mouth. He looks at me and laughs. “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing racism in the class?” I shake my head and say no, laughing a little. But I’m horrified. This guy’s insane.

After the lesson I chat to Nick. He’s a different person: swearing a lot, slightly bitter, very dismissive. He tells me all the girls there were bar girls and only one of them has any promise with English. He’s been doing it so long now he can tell who has got promise and who hasn’t. He says one of them tried to sleep with him. He tells me this with a look on his face like a schoolboy telling his mate about the new toy his mum just bought him. He’s yet another seemingly very childish man. But then I guess a lot of Western men come here to escape the responsibilities of adult life back home. Here they can play to their heart’s content with the cheap booze and cheaper women on offer. It’s quite a depressing thought. And it’s hard not to judge all the Western men I meet here in that way. Half the time I find myself thinking, you’re only here cos you couldn’t get laid at home. But half the time it’s true.

I get the feeling Nick probably did sleep with this girl, and he doesn’t detect my sarcasm when I congratulate him on his professionalism at resisting. I change the subject a bit, asking him his story. He came over to teach from Australia and would spend all his money on gambling and booze and women (there it is! The truth in a flippant comment). Then he got some crazy tropical disease and his neck blew up to twice its size. He had to have loads of operations (hence the scar) and he spent all his savings on hospital bills. He went back to Oz for a bit but only to save enough to come back here. He still had very little cash on arrival and now lives completely on Thai money. He talks a bit about Thailand in a sneery way. “I have a love/hate relationship with it,” he explains. “It’s the Land of Sarcastic Smiles. Watch out, they’ll rip you off whenever they can.” He doesn’t explain what he loves about the country, but I can take a wild stab in the dark, as I’m sure he does whenever he can.

I thank him for his time, giving him a smile without any hint of sarcasm whatsoever. He was educational, I’ll give him that.

I go back to Pinklao and one of the girls who works behind the desk takes me to my ‘apartment’ to sort out the details so I can move in. Her English is much more basic than Maew’s so conversation on the way there is minimal, but I do my best. When we get to my apartment block the ECC girl chats away to the two women who seem to own (or at least run) the building. There’s an awful lot of talking in Thai, seemingly about not much at all. I think they’re talking money and deposit and all that business.

I find all this stuff annoying when I`m in the UK (and usually, lazily, left the information gathering to whoever I was living with). Now that I should be listening, I can’t, cos I can’t bloody understand any of it. Bugger.

They manage to communicate to me that they want first month’s rent, and money for the deposit, straight up. I explain that I need to go and get the cash from a cashpoint. I explain this about 13 times. They seem to think I’m saying I haven’t got the cash, even the ECC girl. There’s a lot of rapid-fire Thai going back and forth. I’m starting to worry I might lose the bloody room. I try once more with the ECC girl and she finally comprehends. We head off to get cash, although not before I refuse to sign the contract before someone’s translated it for me. The ECC girl negotiates that Binnie will translate it for me and then I’ll sign it. They seem happy with this.
Once it’s all sorted I head up to my room. I put my bag down by the bed and look around.

It feels very empty. I came away with the bare minimal and so now I have nothing to fill this room that I will be staying in for the next six months (at the most). I set up my iPod speakers (possibly the best going away present anyone could have got me, thanks work people!) and put some music on, and this makes the place a fair bit more homely.

I head back to the office, and amazingly I don’t get lost. I think getting lost with Maew was actually beneficial cos it made me learn the way quicker so it didn’t happen again. At the office a very short Asian-looking girl comes up to me. She introduces herself as Mengly and I realize that this is the American girl that Masako, the i-to-i coordinator who sorted out the teaching placement for me, was telling me about. Masako said she put me at Pinklao so I could be with Mengly. We’re both journalists (she specialises in fashion) so Masako thought we’d have a lot in common.

Mengly is from LA and talks at a million miles an hour in an accent straight outta Clueless. It’s a bit of a shock after speaking slow, broken English with Thai people. But as soon as she`s arrived, Mengly has a lesson and has to go off and teach. She tells me she’s going to a party at her apartment block (which is also nearby) later and would I like to come. Of course there’s no need to even check my diary and I say yes straight away.

When we meet later, we head straight out of the building towards where she lives. Mengly immediately tells me she’s quitting teaching (although not Thailand or Bangkok I`m relieved to hear - I only just met her!), and starts telling me about all the troubles she had since she arrived at Pinklao at the beginning of January. She’s tiny, only 4’10’ (“Lil’ Kim size!” as she puts it), but can talk for America. And she has quite a story to tell. Her problems with ECC and her teaching placement are too long to list here but they basically all boil down to the fact that she is of Asian origin (her family are from Cambodia), and when she rocked up to the school Binnie suddenly realised she didn’t know what to do with her. Basically, despite the fact that Mengly is a born and bred American who cannot speak a word of Thai, the Thai parents of the kids who come to ECC want the teachers to look like Westerners as well as actually be Westerners. It’s racism but it’s there, and at the end of the day ECC is a business. If Binnie has a teacher there that she thinks might not appeal to the ideals of her customers, then she’ll anticipate problems. Even before she started teaching Mengly experienced it herself when she, also, sat in on a class with Nick, assisting him in parts. The girls ignored her completely. And so Binnie’s treatment of Mengly sounds pretty bad; she’s basically been messing her around since she arrived. Mengly`s even having trouble quitting, with Binnie keeping her hanging on by being vague about the whole quitting process.

That Mengly’s a woman also hasn’t helped her experience of Thailand thus far. I’ve taken it for granted that I can go out whenever I want, and on my own. She can’t. It’s fairly dangerous for any woman to be out on her own in Bangkok after about seven or eight, but factor in that Mengly could (and does) pass as one of the locals, and it means even more harassment from random Thai blokes if she’s out in the evening.

This was drummed into Mengly by Binnie when she arrived, which frustrated Mengly. Mengly came to Thailand as an indirect route to Cambodia. She thought it was better to come to Thailand first before jumping straight into Cambodia. And also a story she read when she was younger written about Thai sex workers was one of the things that inspired her to become a journalist, so she wanted to go and have a look at Bangkok and that scene as well, get her own experience of it. She had no idea about the restrictions that Bangkok would place on her - as someone of Asian origin, and as a woman.

At 21, you might dismiss her as being naïve to come to this country without finding out stuff like that, especially as a journalist. Why didn’t she do her research? But Mengly’s approach to journalism, and having experiences generally, is very similar to mine. I like to do as little research as possible, just do what I need without delving too deep. If I can, I forgo it completely. That way you have a completely unbiased and fresh experience, not hindered or tainted by anything you’ve read or heard said.

A lot of the time this is impossible, or just downright stupid. I did a fair bit of research into going away because I’m gonna be doing it for a year. I need to know some stuff. But there was a lot of research I didn’t do, like go on message boards to read what other travellers said about certain places. I thought it better to do that if I was after specific information, rather than get a load of people’s random opinions about different places clogging up my brain before I`ve even seen any of it myself.

There are arguments for and against this approach, I know this, and it could be talked about ad infinitum. Of course in Mengly’s case it back-fired. She found herself in a job that was pissing her about, and in a city she couldn’t explore to take her mind off it.

But she’s resourceful, there’s no denying that. She tried to get Paul (bouncy Manchester lad with big arms) to take her out and about but he avoided it. As did James, another teacher our age I’ve not met yet. I tell her she would probably (no, definitely) cramp their style if she was with them. and that`s why they wouldn`t do it. So she made friends with some of her Thai neighbours instead.

Arriving at her apartment block (just five minutes walk from mine), I see I drew the short straw when it came to apartments. These are much nicer, with an entry hall almost like a hotel. The apartments themselves are bigger as well, actually having more than one room. Mengly’s has a living area, bedroom and a bathroom that you don’t have to go outside to get to. But we don’t go to Mengly’s straight away. She immediately and automatically heads to another flat, of which the door is open.

It belongs to a young Thai lady called Sai, who shares it with her brother Ting. Ting is not around but Sai’s friend Aom is, and her sister Aor. A book shelf, full of comics and various books, is on the left as I go in, next to a large TV. Next to that is a desk with a computer where, I’m told, Sai does her work – she’s a computer programmer. A balcony on the far side holds a rail of clothing that’s drying in the warm air outside, and on the right side of the room some more shelving holds pans, plates and various food stuffs. This is next to a door which leads to the bedroom and the bathroom. Next to that is a dresser covered in their belongings, and the whole effect is that the room is cluttered and crammed full of stuff. Yet there’s loads of space.

Sai, Aom and Aor are sat down on the floor round a low table, preparing to eat. I’m introduced by Mengly. Sai is warm and friendly with the most infectious smile. Aom is unusually big for a Thai girl and is bursting with personality, talking at 90 miles an hour in Thai. Both have a small grasp of English, Sai more so than Aom. Aor (skinny where her sister isn’t), however, is studying English at university and speaks it well. All have that inherent Thai prettiness about them. I’m quite excited to be meeting some Thai people properly - in a social situation.

They invite us to eat with them, and we sit down as they start to fill bowls with food, some bought from the soi (the nearby side streets), some sent from Sai and Ting’s parents. Aom, particularly, seems keen for us to join them and I discover it’s because she likes feeding the Westerners Thai food and seeing their reaction. She’s my perfect woman.

I almost forget there’s supposed to be a party until Mengly says she’ll take me down to have a look before we eat. It’s been organised by the residents of the apartment block and Mengly had said there should be some of the other ECC teachers there as many live in this block. We have a look but she can’t see anyone she knows. One of the Thai residents tries to get us to eat but we have to decline, saying that we’re eating upstairs.

When we get back, the food is all laid out on the small table. It is, of course, amazing. Lots of rice, spicy pork, stuffed squash soaked in brown soup, minced pork omelette, tofu with beans in sauce (I’m actually getting a taste for tofu, which I never thought could happen), and raw vegetables to take away the sting of the spicy fish sauce which I only dare to dip my little finger in.

There’s lots of chat. Aom is a salesperson and I imagine she’s quite good, she seems like she could talk anyone into anything. Aor asks me questions about English. I’ve never met such a keen student. Sai seems the most serious of the bunch but has a warm and funny side as well.
At one point I ask about the bombs in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, whether it’s had any noticeable effect on tourism here. Aor says no, not at all. People have still been coming in their droves. Understandably she doesn`t seem keen to talk about it further so I drop the subject quickly.

It’s a good evening, but ends pretty early when Aom and Aor leave at about 10. They need to get up early in the morning, and I need to go with them so they can show me the way home.

When I get back to the flat I realise I forgot to buy bedding. I get out my sleep sheet and stuff a pillowcase I brought with clothes. I move the wardrobe and the dresser about the room, and set up my iPod and speakers on the dresser. It`s a start. Tomorrow I`ll have a go at making this room even more homely.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

First day (Part I)

I wake up with Monday morning feeling. I’m not sure whether it’s good or not that it’s the same the world over. Today will be my first day at work, at least kind of. Graham and I have been told we will be attending a teaching workshop this morning before heading to our respective schools. Graham is heading to one near the airport, to the wets of Bangkok. I’m signed up with one in the east of the city in an area called Pinklao. It’s just over the river from Khao San Road, which might be handy.

Anyway, we get a cab with Petang to the nearest Sky Train station. The Sky Train covers about half of central Bangkok and is basically like London’s Docklands Railway. As it’s Monday about 90% of the Thai people around are wearing yellow t-shirts. They do this every Monday as a tribute to their king, whose birthday is a Monday. I ask Petang if Thai people would be offended if I wore a yellow t-shirt. He smiles and says no, the Thai people love their king – he does a lot of projects for poor people and looks after them as much as he can - and they would be most pleased if I wore a yellow t-shirt.

We get the train to Siam Square where the main branch of ECC, our language school, is. The train is quite busy, more like what London is like in rush hour. But the train is so spacious that there’s no chance of travelling with your face in someone’s armpit a la London.

At Siam Square ECC – an office that some interior design mag would definitely describe as ‘funky’ - we’re introduced to Tely, a woman who I have been emailing constantly for the past few weeks. She’s the big boss at ECC it seems, and is as forthright and no nonsense as you’d expect a head teacher type to be, with nearly perfect English. But there is no time to talk to her; we are quickly ushered into the workshop.

It’s on ‘brain-based learning’. I won’t bore you with the details but it’s quite entertaining - the Greek lady teaching us only just seems in control of what she’s doing, she seems very nervous. She’s not helped by an American guy who keeps shouting out quotes from various theories about learning. It’s like he’s got philosophical Tourette’s and it’s all I can do not to crease up with laughter. The Greek lady just looks at him with a blank expression – she has no idea how to handle him – and thanks him for his input.

But she’s teaching stuff that even I’ve already learnt, and yet Graham and I are the only new teachers here. All the other people are already teaching, so I’m wondering why on earth any of them are here.

We have a break and I sit down with a youngish bloke, a young woman who is laughing a lot, and an older man, maybe in his 40s. The younger bloke, I find out, is from Cardiff, but our conversation is interrupted by Tely introducing me to Binnie, the head teacher at the branch in Pinklao where I’ll be teaching. She’s a quiet, mumsy-looking woman who is very polite and seems sweet. It turns out that young bloke and the woman work there as well – his name’s Ian and hers is Vanda. The older bloke asks me if I’m new and tells me that it’s an easy job at first and then it feels like you’re banging your head against a wall. He seems a bit mischievous and playful, not his age at all, and I decide to take what he says with a pinch of salt. He continues, saying the Thai kids don’t want to be there, they’re sent by their parents – hence the head-banging. I take what he says on board and decide to just see for myself, see how it goes. He sees Graham talking to his head teacher and asks me if he’s going to Bang Na. This is the place by the airport so I say yes. “Yes!” he exclaims. “He’s replacing me. I’ve been trying to move for ages, somewhere closer to town.” It seems Graham is going to be out in the sticks, poor bloke.

After the second half of the workshop Binnie takes Ian, Vanda and me back to the ECC in Pinklao. Binnie is playing a weird compilation CD that mixes 90s indie with 80s reggae tunes. Vanda is very elusive when I ask her innocent questions like, where is she from. “Where do you think I’m from?” she returns. I guess at Australia. “Everyone says that. I was actually brought up in Scotland, which is why I hate answering that question.” She resists any further questioning but I keep it jokey with her. She’s as playful as she is elusive and seems like she could be fun.

Ian and she share lots of in-jokes, which is slightly annoying, they don’t seem particularly interested in my story, but I guess they see so many teachers coming through the school. Ian is more open than Vanda. He’s been here five years. He went to Australia for a bit then thought he’d have a look at Bangkok. He’s been here ever since. He says he feels like he should go and do something else but he doesn’t know what. Go back to the UK? I suggest. He grimaces. Not a chance.

They have a confusing conversation about visas and I realise I’ve still so much to learn. They seem to have the visa thing all down pat. Vanda is currently staying near Khao San Road and gets out there. Ian lives nearer the ECC office in Pinklao and gets out there. He has Mondays off and says he’ll probably go to Khao San Road, drink beer and watch all the crazy people walk past.

ECC Pinklao is in a big office building that looks like something out of Ghostbusters or Batman. It joins on to a big shopping mall called Central Plaza. The ECC office is also ‘funky’, very colourful. There are lots of Thai girls sat at the main desk. I go out the back and talk holiday and sick leave with Binnie (no pay for either it seems).

After a while a tall British lad bounces in to use the internet. Called Paul from Manchester, he’s about six foot, with dark hair and big Bambi eyes with even bigger eyelashes and even bigger arms. He’s quite fit but too pretty for me. He’s definitely a Popular Kid but he’s really friendly and chatty.

He tells me he’s been traveling for about two, nearly three years. He’s got the bug and doesn’t want to go home. He’s been away for so long that his friends have set up a page on a website called Facebook (a bit like MySpace) called Where’s Del? (Del refers to his surname I assume.) Fellow travellers on Facebook have spotted him on his travels, had their photo taken with him and put it up on the page. He’s a minor traveling celebrity. But he’s having to go home in a week for six weeks to sort out visas. He’s not looking forward to it.

We talk about apartments. He says 5000 baht a month is a good price to pay. He says he’s landed on his feet. He’s got this great place for 4500 baht that’s got PlayStation, everything. He says I could have had it while he’s away if he’d known, but he’s already loaned it to Vanda. I decide I like this guy, he seems all right; it’s a shame he’s going away.

I’m taken off to sort out a Thai mobile number with a Thai girl called Maew (pronounced Mel without the hard L sound). She’s 22, a teacher at ECC, rather than working the desk like the other Thai girls there. I’m not sure why she’s helping me out then, but don’t say anything. We scout around for a mobile phone shop that will unlock my phone. I tried using a Thai sim card last night with Petang but my phone wasn’t having any of it. I have to choose a mobile number as well. They have lists on the desks and you pick one. Some numbers are apparently luckier than others and so cost more. I find this very random and don’t understand why Maew screws her nose up at some of the numbers I pick. After picking a number (no idea whether it was lucky or not!) we finally find a place willing to unlock my phone. It’s going to take half an hour so we head off to get some food. I elect for KFC as I fancy a treat. I then have a long conversation with Maew trying to explain why it’s a treat, that it’s bad for you and you shouldn’t have it often.

We also talk music. She likes Lily Allen (who’s famous here only via MySpace), Coldplay, Robbie Williams, Keane. She screws her nose up at Madonna, is impressed I like Justin Timberlake. We talk about some Thai singers and bands but I immediately forget what their names are.

We get my phone. It now works with both my Thai and British sim card. How cool. We try shopping for clothes for teaching but their too expensive and don’t fit. Even here in this country of small people I find it hard to find clothes that fit. I wonder if trailing me around is annoying Maew but she doesn’t seem to mind.

We go back to the office and they tell me they only have one apartment to show me, which is a bit gutting. But Maew and I go and have a look. It’s about 5/10 minutes walk but we get bikes there, which cost about 7 baht. I try not to squeeze the driver while holding on for dear life.

The ‘apartment’ is just a room with a bed, a wardrobe and a dresser in it. It has white walls and white tiled floor – it looks like a fridge with some furniture in it. There’s a small balcony which leads into the bathroom on the right, which I think is quite cool, having your bathroom sort of outside. It’s 3500 baht a month so dead cheap and will do me for what I need, i.e. somewhere to sleep.

I walk back with Maew and we get lost. The neighbourhood is lots of nice looking houses, a few not so, all surrounding a temple. There are stray dogs and food stalls everywhere. Bikes and cars weave in and out of each other and the pedestrians. It’s bleedin’ hot.

I start to wonder if Maew got us lost on purpose. She seems a little bit flirty, but then I think I’m just reading too much into her friendliness. I have no idea; I never really notice when women are flirting with me.

We finally find our way back and I hang out at the office for a bit. Then I go to an evening market over the road that Maew suggested to look for clothes for teaching. I buy two really nice shirts for about six pounds and two pairs of trousers for about the same. God it’s cheap here. The trousers need taking up in the leg but, amazingly, they fit perfectly round my waist. This never happens!

I go back to my guesthouse the other side of Bangkok via Siam Square. I eat at a busy-looking restaurant and order pork, rice and soup with spicy sauce. I realize ordering something with the word spicy in the name is a bad idea. Although the sauce comes separately, I tentatively put a little on my rice. It’s like eating fire and brimstone. I try and drown my mouth with ice tea but in typical Thai fashion this is too sweet – they put shitloads of sugar in everything over here. Even savoury foods. There doesn’t seem to be much distinction between sweet and savoury – they only indulge in the concept of dessert for Westerners it seems. In their KFCs – get this – they have sweetcorn with ice cream. How does that work?? But as Maew pointed out, sweetcorn is sweet. I couldn’t argue with that. I’ve not tried sweetcorn ice cream yet, but I will do.

I go back to the guesthouse and, on my way from the station, I pass a barbers. I badly need a haircut, my hair is pretty much at the stage where it looks like a lawn. But I`m in an area where very few falang (foreigners) go and there`s little need for the Thais to speak English. Shall I risk trying to get my haircut in a local barbers? Of course I shall! I would be annoyed at myself if I didn`t.

I go in. It`s really old-fashioned, with the kind of chairs you only see at a dentist these days. There`s a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman cutting the hair of two Thai men about my age. I`m relieved to see the woman is using clippers (well, it looks really old-fashioned!), but not so pleased to see that the man is using one of those classic Sweeney Todd-style razors around the hairline of his customer.

No one acknowledges me so I just sit down by the door in front of the TV. The Thai version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is on. The presenter is as smug as Chris Tarrant, and the set-up of the game seems much the same, except they have five players instead of one or two. I`m not sure if they`re competing against each other or are on the same team, but given that I can`t understand a bloody word anyway, I figure it doesn`t matter.

The show ends and some sort of soap starts. I think it`s a comedy at first but then it gets all melodramatic and there`s long lingering shots of the actors` faces being over-expressive. It`s like watching Hollyoaks but with richer, more glamorous people. I`m enthralled by it. So much so that I almost don`t notice how much time is passing. They are taking ages with these guys. But one seems to be getting a shave and massage as well as a haircut, the full works.

An older lady and a young girl (teenager?) come out and watch TV. Neither acknowledges me. A tiny little puffball of a dog comes trotting out behind them. Normally I despise these little animals who bring shame to the name dog, but this one`s adorable. I play around with it as it tries to bite me and get into my shopping bags. I start to think maybe I should graduate to full-blown gay man status and actually buy one to carry round with me. Maybe I could buy some Cuban heels and grow a goatee... Then I give myself a mental slap and tell myself to snap out of it. The dog does kill some time however. These people aren`t in any rush to get the customers in and out.

When I`m finally acknowledged and get to sit down with the male barber I realise how lucky I am that I`m able to communicate my haircut in numbers - they speak no English whatsoever. "Grade 5 on top and Grade 3 at the sides please," I say, using my fingers to communicate more than my voice. They don`t have Grade 5 so I opt for Grade 4 and risk looking like a squaddie.
Once he starts I realise why it took so long for my turn to come around - the man is a perfectionist. His gentle treatment of my hair is actually quite unnerving. My hairdresser in London was some Kosovan dude who treated my hair like, well, like a lawn. He`d mow my hair with the clippers, tidy it up a bit, and I was out the door within 10 minutes.

This man treats my hair so gently I wonder if he`s actually cutting any off. Of course, he is - I can see this si the case in both the mirror in front of me and the mirror behind. (How cool is that? A mirror on the wall behind so you can see what they`re doing back there.) So he uses the clippers, does my hair, and then it happens. He gets out the Sweeney Todd razor. He soaps up my hairline around my ears and along the back of my neck and I realise that, even before the razor`s got close, I`ve stopped breathing. He lowers it towards my ear. When I feel it shaving the hair just above my ear I swear I`ve never been so still in all my life. It`s so easy to imagine it dropping and taking your ear off before you even know what`s happened.

I decide it`s probably best to stop imagining that, so I do. But his delicacy and gentleness is like a surgeon`s and it only adds to my unnerved state.

Eventually it`s over. I have what is probably the tidiest haircut I have ever had, and will ever have. I pay him 60 baht. What a bargain. And I still have both ears.

When I get back to the guesthouse I leave a note for Graham saying that we should get a cab together to Siam Square tomorrow. He knocks on my door about 15 minutes later to arrange a time. He’s not wearing a top and, blimey, he’s skinny. We arrange to meet in the morning and I wish him goodnight.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Reality bites

I get pulled out of sleep by the lights coming on and everyone getting off the bus. I’m dazed and confused. It’s 4.30 in the morning and I’m not happy about us having arrived at Bangkok so bloody early. I get off the bus to go and find my bag and immediately get hassled by a tuk-tuk driver. In my just-awakened state he bears the brunt of my tired tongue. But of course this is Thailand and in this country to lose your temper is to lose face, and therefore the argument, so he persists. “Where you go? I take you there?” I tell him I’m not going anywhere until I get my bag, which is somewhere in a big pile by the side of the bus. I skirt around the pile trying to get away from him. He follows. “Get nag, then where you go? I take you.” He grabs my shoulder, then my arm, then he points at the tattoo on my wrist. “What happen to you?” he laughs. I don’t laugh back.

I want to kill him.

Thing is, I may actually need a tuk-tuk. But where we are looks familiar so I want to work out exactly where that is and if I can walk before I think about transport. I find my bag and drag it to the other side of the pavement. He follows, of course, and now I’m starting to find it amusing. I realise I need to play by Thai rules and thank him sweetly for the offer but I don’t need a ride.
Loads of people are walking up the road so I decide to just follow them. The driver tries a bit more and I smile back, thanking him again and smiling. He eventually gives up. I see the Democracy Monument ahead; I’m near Khao San Road. I can head there for a bit, and wait in a café til somewhere with internet opens.

ECC, the school I’m teaching at, have suggested a guesthouse for me to stay in until they help me find a place to stay more permanently. I looked it up and it looks nice, and it’s cheapish, only 590 baht a night. But I need to get the address from my email.

I find Khao San within a couple of minutes and as I approach it both ladyboys and taxi drivers approach me, ask me where I’m going. I feel like saying, mind your own fucking business. I really don’t have a good temperament on a few hours sleep. But this is no news to me; I just ride it and keep quiet as I always do.

I head to the falafel place that I went to with Jessy. It’s one of only a few that is open. But their internet doesn’t open til 8am. It’s now 5am. I order coffee, stare into space, and wait.

Hours later, after finally getting the guesthouse details (it’s in the east side of Bangkok, the other side to where I am) I decide to walk to Hua Lamphong station, where I can get the subway to near my guesthouse. This will save cab money and kill time (I can’t check in til 12pm). Plus I’ve not got the subway yet so I’m very excited by this.

On Ti Thong Road I get stopped by a Thai man who has obviously seen the map in my hand, and who starts asking lots of questions. I explain my plan of action to him and he tells me to go back the way I’ve come and get a tuk-tuk, which will take me to these various sights around the city. He then kindly points out various sights on my map. I have no idea what his agenda is – maybe he’s an off-duty tuk-tuk driver who just can’t switch off – but it’s not helping me get where I want to go. I thank him profusely for his help and carry on the way I was going.

It’s fucking hot. My bag gets heavier and heavier as I’m nearing the station. Except the station isn’t quite where the map suggests it is and I have to walk another 100 metres before it looks like I’m even close. A Thai lady approaches me. I groan inwardly – what does this one want? But she flashes and ID at me – she’s station staff and points me in the direction of the subway. See, most Thai people are genuinely trying to help, the rest reveal themselves very quickly, so it’s easy to tell the difference.

My bags are half-heartedly searched on the way into the station. It seems no one in any country is taking any chances after the London bombs; they have guards posted and searching people at all the entrances to subway stations in Bangkok. But my bags are packed so tightly that I don’t offer to unpack and neither does the guard ask.

The subway itself is amazing. It’s cheap, spotlessly clean, the trains are spacious and frequent – basically everything the London Underground is not. But then, as a friend pointed out to me, the London Underground was built about 150 years ago when there was a lot less people. I wonder if Bangkok will experience the same problems with the underground that London does in 100 years time?

I’m so pleased to be finding my own way across the city that I decide to try and find my guesthouse with the very dodgy looking map I printed off their website. It’s a wrong move because the map is officially The Worst Drawn Map In The World… Ever! I struggle with The Worst Drawn Map In The World… Ever! for a good half hour before giving up and hailing a cab. Unfortunately for both him and me the guesthouse is just round the corner. I’m slightly embarrassed; he’s slightly annoyed.

I check in. It’s very nice. I realise it must be cheap cos it’s so far out of the city, and so far away from the subway. I’m dog-tired but decide that sleeping is a bad idea and head to Chatuchak market instead to buy some clothes for teaching.

It’s a mistake. The market is hectic, as it was last week. But I’m so whacked and it’s too frickin hot. I get majorly lost and can’t find any of the stalls I saw with Jessy. I get so lost I can’t even find my way out for ages, only managing it when I spot a stall selling football shirts (they love English football here, and follow it with as much passion as any English fan) that I came in by.

I fall asleep on the subway on the way back, and I want to pass out on my bed, but it’s only an hour until I have to meet a man called Petang from ECC who is taking me and another new teacher out to dinner.

I go down to sit on the internet for a while, but it’s not long before Petang comes up and says hello. He’s a short, skinny man in his 50s with dark ruffled hair and a weathered face. He looks like he could be a wizard. I warm to him immediately. He quickly introduces me to Graham, the other new teacher about to start at ECC. While I tower over Petang, Graham towers over me, but he’s just as skinny as Petang. He has light brown hair and watery blue, slightly bulging eyes, and glasses. He also looks like he could be a wizard. When he speaks his sing-song Glaswegian accent comes out really quietly, and at a surprisingly high pitch. My immediate thought is, how on earth are you going to teach a classroom full of kids with a voice like that? But of course I say nothing.

We arrange to meet a bit later and I go back on-line. I’m chatting to my mate Gary, who I immediately tell about ‘Geeky Graham’. God I’m awful.

Later on, waiting for Petang, I find out a bit more about ‘Geeky Graham’. He did a psychology degree but realised psychology was not for him, and then spent a year working as a manager in a supermarket, thinking about what on earth he was going to do next. Then he saw an ad in the paper for a TEFL course and decided to go for it. I ask what his mum and dad thought of him coming over here. “They’re planning their holiday already,” he replies, laughing.

We get a cab to a restaurant that Petang likes. The journey takes about 15 minutes and I’m not sure if I could find it again, which is a shame cos it’s brilliant. Called Pathe, it’s this random place by a motorway that’s decorated with 20th century antiques and plays 60s records – actual vinyl – all evening. The records occasionally get stuck and a waiter comes running out to nudge the player. The place is full of locals and I get my first sighting of some GOOD-LOOKING THAI BOYS, which makes me happy. I wasn’t sure there was any such thing given my disinterest in the Thai boys so far.

Petang orders everything. We eat Pad Thai, chicken & cashew, green curry, pork omelette, lots of rice, and the obligatory Singha beers with ice. The green curry looks and tastes amazing, and I don’t think it’s that spicy at first, but I’m there stuffing it down and my mouth starts to burn and then my lips go numb. I stop eating the green curry.

Petang, it turns out, is basically the babysitter for new teachers and ‘acclimatises’ them on their first arrival to Bangkok (by burning their mouths off by the looks of it). For Graham this is useful as he’s just got off the plane. For me, I’m just enjoying the free food.

Petang tells us the Victory Monument is a good place to go in Bangkok, although through his broken English it’s hard to understand why. He tells us about the King of Thailand, that he lives in a place south of Bangkok, but has a place in Bangkok as well – Chitralada Palace.

I’m on top form, driving the conversation with these two quiet men, making them laugh and asking them lots of questions. Anyone would think I’ve not had a proper conversation for days. I start to wonder if I’m being a bit over over-bearing but I think, sod it, no one else is doing much talking.

At one point Graham asks me how I’m feeling about teaching. He’s obviously nervous about it. I realise I’ve not given it much thought, and tell him as much. But I figure it’ll be all right, I add, they guided us heavily through the course and they want it to work, so I’m sure that guidance will continue. He looks like he feels better. But then it hits me that the holiday bit of my trip is pretty much over now. All that pissing about and wondering what the hell to do next is over for now. From here on in I’m going to be told what I’m doing again. I have a job, and a schedule. I’m not sure if I’m relieved or not.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Bangkok bound

I slept good. I get up and pack slowly, can’t seem to do anything fast these days. I check out, have a breakfast suitable for hiking – scrambled eggs with onion and tomato with a massive German-looking sausage (insert own rude comment here). I neck some coffee and I’m ready for my trek.

I pace up and down the beach trying to work out which way I’m supposed to be going and eventually some Thai dudes point me in the right direction. I head into the trees and there’s a sort of path of earth and rocks that goes up at a very steep incline. I’m sweating within minutes. Once again I’m grateful for my minimal rucksack and belongings. It’s steep, hard-going, but I’m enjoying it.

I’ve not hiked since college when I went on a trip to Austria with the Duke of Edinburgh award organization. I only joined up with it because I knew my schoolboy crush Laurence Pidcock was doing it. But it was a great holiday – we were hiking through all these snow-covered mountains, it was ace. Although during the holiday I did have to watch Laurence get it together with my friend Stephanie, lucky cow. But anyway.

After a while my calves start to ache, but it feels good. I’ve not sweated this much since my summer kickboxing sessions, and my body is enjoying the endorphin rush it’s getting. I see the Belgian couple on the way down. The woman is really sweet and apologises for going up without me. She says she looked out for me. I tell her not to worry; I was busy sleeping and eating this morning. I wish them well and move on. I take it slowly – my calves are used to it now but my back is complaining. But at least I’m not sweating there – the webbing protecting my back from the bag is a blessing. This is definitely what this bag was made for.

I see a few more people on their way down; some are friendly, others not so. And then I finally make it to a crossroads. It’s taken me half an hour. The signage at the crossroads is not overly helpful but I work out which way I’m supposed to go to Ton Sai. But I’ve not reached Viewpoint yet and try and work out which way to go for that. I guess that up is the best way and start climbing up a not very walking-friendly path. But it’s the right guess and I reach the top of the hill.

At first I think I’ve stumbled onto someone’s house. There’s a nice garden with a homely-looking building to the side of it. But I venture in and see a little shop at the front of the ‘house’, and some other walkers sat around on rocks, taking photos of a breath-taking view. The viewpoint looks down on Ton Sai and you can see the whole village, both beaches, and both bays stretching out each side. It’s beautiful. I take some photos, have a drink and a cigarette and then start thinking about going down towards Ton Sai.

I head back to the crossroads the way I came, only realising there was a path down from the house when I get down there. But whatever, I’m enjoying this hiking malarkey. Thing is, that’s my lot with the hiking. As I head down towards Ton Sai I hit a path. With steps. I’m gutted. I was expecting some longish, difficult trek across the island. But I get concrete steps. I so could have made it across the island with one hour’s sleep and not knowing where I was going, and saved myself 500 baht. But then, I reason, I wouldn’t have ridden in a longboat and that was quite cool.

I come into Ton Sai via the residential area and most people are outside their houses cooking lunch. I walk past more building sites with their rickety-looking wooden scaffolding. I presume their building hotels but they look like office buildings. Then I get into the main area and walk past a tattoo shop that inks you with bamboo. I stand there and gawp at it. How painful would that be? How cool would that be? I decide that this is a rite of passage I need to go through at some point and make a mental note to come back. I get to the pier and find I’ve an hour or so 'til the boat leaves so I go on the internet. When I pay the man he does that ‘forgetting’ to give me my change thing, even though I’m stood there waiting. These Thai people can be well cheeky sometimes.

When I get on the boat there’s more of a mix of people and nationalities than on the way when I was with the Popular Kids. There are a handful of beautiful men to look at on the journey though, one of whom has the bluest eyes and blackest hair I have ever seen. He’s stunning. I get the iPod out to soundtrack the passing blue water and green islands. Some Gary Wilson-procured house segues surprisingly well into Siouxsie Sioux’s Spellbound, which goes well with NERD’s Baby Doll. Then it throws up Janet Jackson’s Whoops Now, which is cheesy as hell but is a song about not being able to go out in the sun cos you’re working, so I appreciate the irony.

Then it throws up a song called Slice by Dave Dobbyn & Herbs which is on a compilation of music from New Zealand that my Kiwi former colleague Lucy made me to get me in the mood for when I head to her homeland. The song is hilarious and sounds like Go West meets Graceland-era Paul Simon. I’m hoping the song was made in the 80s and not last year, otherwise New Zealanders have a fair bit of catching up to do when it comes to music!

I pass the boat journey in much the same way as I used to walk about London – by pretending I’m in a music video. This is a better video, of course, what with the sun beating down on blue water around me and me being surrounded by more beautiful men with fewer clothes on.

We arrive at a place called Krabi, which is the other side of Phi Phi to Phuket. It’s here I’m getting the bus from but first I have to board a ‘sawngthaew’ (literally, ‘two rows’) which is a truck with two benches either side of the truck bed. It looks like a boat on wheels.

I get on and a German couple studiously ignores me, and everything else going on around them. So I amuse myself by watching a group of chubby Australian girls get on with The Biggest Bags In The World. What’s even funnier is that they’re not wearing much – so what the hell have they got in there?? The bags piss off everyone else, especially those that have to stand on the back of the truck, holding on for dear life.

We travel through Krabi. It just seems like a normal Thai town; I see nothing touristy here. There’s no neon as far as the eye can see. We stop at a travel agent to wait for the bus to Bangkok. I plonk myself outside, away from the noisy Aussie girls, at a table where a bald-headed man with arms covered in tattoos is sat. He has watery blue eyes and his goatee gives away his red hair. We start chatting as some food arrives for him. It’s full of chillies and shrimps still with their tails. He can’t speak for a minute or so as he eats a chilli, then he spends as much time picking them out as eating.

I tell him I’ve just come from Phi Phi. He tells me it looked really commercial and I agree, telling him about Hat Ranti. He’s been to Ko Yai Noi and some other places similarly off the beaten track. I find out his name is Elias and he’s Icelandic but lives in Sweden and is here on holiday. He met up with some mates who are travelling, and is now heading back to Bangkok for a few days before going back to sub-zero Sweden. It’s now half-four and he tells me he’s been waiting there since 12pm for a lift to the airport. Another example of Thai time-keeping. He’s had a wander round Krabi but there’s not much to see or do here. My bus arrives and I tell him I’m pretty sure they’ll get him to his flight on time; they always seem to manage it. He laughs and agrees and we say goodbye.

The bus is garish pink and blue colours with manga-type cartoon characters on the side. The décor inside isn’t much better. I get a seat and about five minutes into the journey they start pumping Bryan Adams over the PA system. I don my iPod. But I occasionally have a listen and all they seem to be playing is 80s hair metal and soft rock. I’m grateful for my iPod. I watch the Thai countryside go past. It’s all lush foliage with knuckles of rock punching up through the green.

It gets dark and they put Casino Royale on. I’m happy cos I’ve been dying to see this. But I don’t hear half the dialogue cos the sound is bad. I miss most of the one-liners but it doesn’t matter – the set-pieces take up much of the film. They don’t seem to have messed with the formula much – it’s much more violent than your average James Bond film but the glamour side of it and the action is still turned up to 11, and Bond still gets out of ridiculous situations with ease. Daniel Craig is good but pouts too much. What is that about?? He looks like Bond should though – built and powerful, not like a geography teacher (sorry, Pierce).

I’m starting to regret not eating with Elias as it’s nearing midnight and we’ve not stopped for food. But then we do at the Thai equivalent of a service station. There are no Ginsters pasties here, however. I get an amazing green curry with vegetable rice. It’s good, homemade food, and cheap – only 60 baht. Like all good service stations they do rip you off though. While buying some water I see a Mars Bar. And I want it badly. I feel like I’ve not seen such a beautiful thing for A Very Long Time. It’s two-thirds the size of a Mars Bar in the UK but the woman charges me 50 baht for it. Cheeky as. But I don’t care; it’s the best thing to have touched my tongue in a long time (insert rude comment here) and is worth every satang.

I’m with more groups and more pairs. There is one guy who seems to be on his own but he’s wandering around like a loon and looks a bit weird so again I eat alone. I watch a Thai programme on the telly on the wall. It has samurai warriors, World War II planes and cowboys and makes no sense whatsoever. It’s actually hard to tell what’s an ad and what’s not. It’s messing with my head so I go to the loo. Another hole in the ground. The water by the side of it that you’re supposed to pour down the loo to flush it is fucking filthy so I resist putting my hands in it. Someone else can flush it. I get back on the bus and finally sleep comes.

Saturday, 27 January 2007


I head down to the pier where I came in to look for a boat to Hat Ranti. I’d considered hiking across the island to the beach but I’d looked up at the jungle-covered hill in front of me and decided it wasn’t a good idea on one hour’s sleep and with no idea of where I should be going. There’s hardly anyone around, but then it is about half six in the morning.

I get lost in a building site I was trying to scout round the edge of. Like most building sites it looks like a mess where much work isn’t getting done, but knowing the Thai way of working as well as I do already, I’m fairly sure they’re not rushing over rebuilding this island.

I hit the harbour and there are few people around. Such a contrast to yesterday, but then it is seven or so in the morning. A Thai guy approaches me and asks if I need a boat. I explain and he says 500B. I groan inwardly – I should have just gone for that deal yesterday and saved myself the bug action and 200 baht. I ponder what to do. For some reason I have my heart set on Hat Ranti, I have no idea why. I’m desperate to go and desperately tired so I agree. He says to give him half an hour and he’ll find someone to take me.

I tell him I’ll go get breakfast and come back, but he wants to take me himself. He finds a café for me that’s just opening. I’m not sure if he’s being kind or just taking my custom to all his mates. A bit of both but more of the latter I expect. I order coffee. It’s like the elixir of life. I can feel it coursing through my system and slowly nudging a bit of life into my fatigued body. I also order some fruit, which seems like the only thing I could cope with right now. I really do feel like I’ve been in battle!

I watch the BBC Worldwide news on a TV above the door. In America Congress seem to be standing up to Bush at last and denying him funding to send any more troops to Iraq. It’s about time, I think. Is it me or is the world starting to feel like a more hopeful and better place now Bush and Blair are on their way out? I’m intrigued by the Catholic Church vs gay adoption legislation story. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’m all for people having their beliefs and principles and living their lives how they want, but it’s hard to stick up for that when those principles might keep a child from a secure and loving family.

My thoughts are interrupted by the Thai guy shouting at me. He’s found someone to take me. It’s a beautiful (if bumpy and hard on your arse when the boat hits a wave!) journey and I wish I wasn’t so tired so I could appreciate it more. But I can see why they charged me 500 baht. These longboats are huge and can easily take about 10 people. It’s one of the perils of travelling alone – sometimes you end up paying for more for things.

We arrive at the beach but the driver has problems getting close – the tide’s out and the coral is difficult to navigate. He does most of it then I have to get out and wade to the beach. The beach is tiny, about 200 metres long, but looks great – white sand and lots of huts to stay in dotted amongst the trees beyond the sand. My instinct was right – this is the place I want to be.

The guidebook described it as ‘untidy’ and by this I presume they mean all the rocks jutting out from the sand at various points along the beach. It’s also not all undulating dunes, but a bit full of shells and small stones in some places, but it’s peaceful and beautiful and is exactly how I imagined being on a beach in Thailand to be.

The boat driver points me to one hostel down the beach but I head to the one I recognise the name of – Rantee Hut. This is one of the places the travel agent told me was full. It’s not. It has about three huts free. So what the guidebook said was true – don’t necessarily believe them when they say a place is full, they probably want you to go to certain accommodation they’re linked to. I gratefully pay and head to my hut. It’s one row back from the beach so I can only just see the sea, but I’m not too concerned about that.

I go up the little ladder on to the balcony where there is a hammock and a chair. I go into the bedroom – there is a bed in one corner, a clothes rail in the other and mosquito net hanging down over the bed. This is more like it, I think. I’m so happy.

I dump all my stuff and go to the door at the back which opens up on to the ‘bathroom’, which is basically a fence surrounding a toilet and an area for you to shower in. An outdoor shower! How exciting. I had one of these when I went to the Maldives and it’s such a nice experience.

I grab my iPod from my bag and go and sit on the balcony on the chair. I’ve not listened to music for days and it feels like a novelty. I smoke a cigarette. I have a moment of panic when I realise I’ve not booked a train home and I’m not sure if there’s anywhere here on Hat Ranti to do it - I need to be back on Sunday to start work on Monday. But I figure I’ll worry about it if I can’t find anywhere. It’s too nice here to be worrying about anything.

A fit-looking brown-haired lad walks past my hut and says hi. I say hi back. He’s in the hut next to me, which I’m pleased by. Maybe I’ll have a chat with him later. I get in the hammock and listen to Ricky Gervais, trying not to laugh out loud, then I begin to drift off to sleep. I go to bed and sleep til 1.30pm.

When I wake I go for a wander along the beach. There’s about three or four places with places to stay in, with a posher one down the southern end of the beach. Behind them there’s jungle stretching up a hill. It looks pretty impenetrable but I’m sure I read you could hike here. I get some lunch at a café and see that they sell bus tickets to Bangkok. Phew, I’m saved. I go back and get into my swim shorts. Now I feel really happy! I sit on the beach and listen to The Beach soundtrack in unashamedly cheesy fashion.

There are a few people around not many. I try not to look at the topless ladies sitting to my right, but probably look at them more for trying not to. I watch a crab dig a hole.

I try and sunbathe but I’m not very good at it – I get too restless too quickly. I go and float in the sea instead. This is absolute bliss. The sun goes behind the hill about 5ish and it gets colder. I go back and shower. About 200 ants have invaded and conquered my toilet. I leave them to it for now and go and get some food.

I have chicken and vegetables, no rice or noodles. The chicken has been marinated for too long but the veg is lovely and there’s heaps of it – carrots, onion, tomato, spring onion, cabbage – all in a lovely sauce. I talk a bit to the waiter. He wants to learn English. He’s been learning for two months and enjoys it, and is keen to learn more. I think he’s asking me if I’ll teach him a bit but I’m struggling to keep my eyes open – it’s only half seven! – so I tell him we can talk tomorrow.

Jan 26

I wake at 11.30. I’ve slept for 15 hours. Perhaps I’ve reverted to being a teenager again. I slept okay apart from the odd bite. Like condoms, it seems mosquito nets aren’t 100% effective and you find out the hard way. So it’s Anthisan-a-go-go when I get up, but at least there were no bugs.

I go and buy a bus ticket to Bangkok and realise I still need to get back to Ton Sai. I figure I’ll just get another boat, maybe hitch with some others to save money. I eat some breakfast – tuna sandwich, fries and a coconut shake – and see Stefan and his mates on the beach. It looks like they just arrived. After eating I walk past and say hi. He tells me they hiked here from Ton Sai, and it only took an hour or so. I’m gutted I didn’t and decide I’m going to hike back tomorrow.

The conversation dies and I say farewell and wander off. It reminds me of being at school again – where there would always be one or two Popular Kids you could talk to a little bit while the others ignored you completely. It’s quite amusing.

I sit on the beach and watch couples frolic in the surf, but not too much in case they think I’m weird. There are more people here today, but still not loads so it’s okay. A Belgian couple sits down near me. Eventually the woman says hello and asks if I’m on my own. I tell her yes and she asks if I like the peace and quiet. We chat a bit; she agrees with me that Ton Sai is a bit hectic. She tells me they’re heading to Ko Lanta and then Ko Tao as they’re a bit off the beaten track. I discover they hiked here as well and I’m doubly gutted. What a waste of 500 baht, although I did get to ride in the long boat which was quite cool. But I’m definitely hiking back tomorrow. I get directions of where to go from her before our conversation is interrupted by a woman needing a hairband.

I watch people snorkel and wonder if I should do it. I can’t be arsed. I’m in full-on lazing mode now. I’m the only one on my own. Most people are in couples – there’s two gay couples – or groups like Stefan and his friends. Said group walks past and Stefan wishes me a nice time in Thailand. I wish him the same. They must be on a tour of the beaches or something.

The Belgian woman comes back and I ask her about hiking here – is the path easy to find? She says not, but there is a sign to Viewpoint (which does exactly what it says on the tin and is a point where you can see much of the island) and then a path to Ton Sai. I ask her if she thinks I could do it on my own and she offers to go with me tomorrow morning. They were going to go snorkeling but there’s not enough of them (or something) so they’re going up to Viewpoint instead. I thank her.

I people watch some more. Some lads are poking at something in the surf and I go over. It’s a dead jellyfish, solidified and looking like, well, jelly. Another group of lads sit down to my right and one of them starts digging. He takes out big lumps of sand with his arm and I soon realise he’s building a barrier to protect his mates as the tide comes in. As the sun heads behind the hill I realise sitting in it all afternoon has made me feel sick, but a shower makes me feel better.

I head for some food, taking a book to kill the waiting time. A girl in a couple smiles at me as I sit down but no one talks to me. I wonder where all the other people like me are, if there are any. I had envisioned meeting loads of people like me but haven’t at all, which I find strange. But I decide to stop worrying about it and let the meeting people happen when it happens. I eat beef in garlic and pepper with rice. It’s good but dry and nowhere near as good as last night’s. I drink beer and another coconut shake. It’s my new favourite drink. I read a lot but eventually I’m whacked and head to bed. It’s only nine o’clock! I’m such a party animal.

Tonsai torture

I get on the minibus that's taking me to the harbour and there are three Swedish guys on board - two in the back and one on my row of seats. The one next to me immediately introduces himself - his name is Stefan and he is good-looking in the way that only Swedish people are, buff in the way that only the gym-familiar are, and sun-burnt in the way that only the fair-haired are.

He's friendly, asking me lots of questions. I tell him I’m on my own and I'm worried I'm already forgetting how to have a conversation with people. He says I’ll be fine; I’ll meet loads of people on my way round. His mates and him are only on holiday and they’ve met loads of people already.

I tell him I’m going to be teaching English in Bangkok and he tells me how he spent four months working in Spain, selling timeshares, with his girlfriend at the time when he was younger. He says it was extremely stressful – they had no money and he had to steal food at times. But he’s philosophical about it, and puts it down as a good experience to have had.

He asks me how I got the idea of teaching here and I tell him the ex-boyfriend of a friend of mine did it. He mishears – “Your ex-boyfriend?” he says, interrupting. “No,” I say, “a friend’s.” Our conversation is interrupted by us arriving at the harbour, but it does get me thinking – do I tell people I’m gay if it comes up? Sure, Thailand itself is as accepting as they come, but what about the other travellers? I decide not to worry about it, play it by ear as I would normally.

I get on the boat. It’s full of more pretty, toned and tanned Westerners. I suddenly realise what it is that’s been bothering me since I set foot on Khao San Road – I’m on the road with the popular kids from school. All the other travellers are at least reasonably good-looking, all annoyingly over-confident, and walk around like they own the place. It’s not a pleasant realisation. I never liked the popular kids at school, they were all bleedin’ annoying. But I wonder if I’m just making excuses for my own inability/unwillingness to speak to anybody unless spoken to. I wonder why I’m feeling like that. Sure, I’m feeling a bit out of my depth here as I try and work out what it is I’m actually doing, but it’s not like I have no confidence in my ability to engage with and get on with other people. This leads me to think that maybe I’m a bit of a loner at heart, and, as we drift past sparkling blue ocean and knuckles of green-covered rock on the boat to Phi Phi, my mind wanders on a train of thought that’s too long and personal to repeat here, but basically goes some way to explaining why I was so keen to extract myself from my life in London, and why living in a wooden house by a canal in Thailand is so appealing.

I decide to contradict my thoughts immediately by engaging someone in conversation. There’s a blond girl sat next to me on the deck – tall and thin with a shortish hairdo. She looks intelligent, friendly, but like she wouldn’t take any shit. She’s been smoking and I ask her if I can cadge a cigarette. 2007 has seen me smoking a fair bit (sorry, Dad), though I’ve not actually bought any yet. This seems to have increased while I’ve been here, partly cos the Popular Kids are doing it, and partly cos it’s something to do. She gives me a cigarette and I offer to buy her a beer, but she says she doesn’t like beer.

We chat a bit. I embarrass myself immediately (this is why I don’t talk to people) by asking if she’s Swedish. She says no, she’s Dutch. I apologise and tell her I’ve met a lot of Swedish people and she says the same. She’s called Alexandra and has been travelling all the way round Thailand for the past few weeks; she’s on a long holiday. She spent a lot of time in the north and I quiz her loads about that. It seems that’s where you get more of a feel of provincial Thailand, while it still being fairly tourist-friendly. Not like the urbanity (is that a word?) of Bangkok, or the could-be-anywhere resorts of the south. But I find I’m doing most of the talking. It seems I’ve found someone who’s as unbothered about chatting to people as I am.

When we arrive at Ton Sai - a village situated on the thin stretch of land that joins the two main chunks of Phi Phi Don island, and somewhere that was decimated by the 2004 tsunami – it’s crazy. Everyone is ushered into various travel agents by shouty Thai men and it’s all a bit disorientating.

I enquire of a lady I’m sat down in front of about getting to and staying at Hat Ranti beach. I ask about places to stay mentioned in my guidebook, and the lady gets on her mobile phone and repeats, “Full, full,” to me at every suggestion. Her male colleague suggests a place for 800 baht a night and a 500 baht boat ride there. This seems expensive in comparison to what I’ve read in my guidebook so I feel like I’m being ripped off. I turn it down.

We try other beaches, but there’s nothing in the realms of what I’m willing to spend. I decide to take my chances wandering around. I figure I can stay in Ton Sai tonight and make my own way to Hat Ranti tomorrow. It doesn’t look far on the map so maybe I can walk across the island, but there’s no point in me making my way there now if all the places are full. It’s a bit disconcerting not having anywhere to stay for the night but I figure I’ll find somewhere eventually.

I try and find a travel agent that’s not full of people, but can’t. I bump into Alexandra. She has the biggest rucksack I’ve ever seen! She says she can’t find anywhere to stay. We wonder round together and find a less busy travel agent. We speak to a guy but then he disappears, never to be seen again. We speak to another guy there but basically everywhere on the island seems to be full. We decide to wander around Ton Sai, see what we can find.

It’s a hard slog. It’s hot and Alexandra’s rucksack is killing her back. Once again I’m glad I brought so little. I do all the running up steps to ask about rooms but each time we’re told the places are full. It seems the tsunami has done little to dampen people’s appetite for this place, but the locals have not been able to rebuild quick enough to feed that appetite. We see a lot of rebuilding as we wonder round – the Thais seem to have started by the beaches and worked their way in – the middle of the village is one big building site covered in their shaky-looking wooden scaffolding.

Alexandra and I eventually find a place. It’s called Gypsy Village and it has rooms for 1000 baht. I’m so grateful to find somewhere I don’t care about the expense. I bid farewell to Alexandra, drop off my stuff, have a shower and head out for a wander.

Ton Sai is basically like any other beach resort around the world – full of bars and restaurants and Popular Kids From School and not much else. It does have a lovely beach though.

It’s a place I could revel in if I was with a bunch of mates. On my own I’m at a bit of a loss. So I decide to do what, as my friend Maz puts it, I do best – eat. I sit down at a beachside restaurant and try and do just that. I order a green curry with chicken and a beer and wait. And wait. And wait a bit more.

I pester a waitress for my beer. She comes back five minutes later with a tray full of drinks for another table. Groups of people walk past looking for somewhere to eat and I feel a bit silly sat here on my own at this table for four with nothing in front of me. I eventually get my beer and drink it all. I order another. As I do I ask when my food might be coming. The waiter explains that the chef has a bit of a backlog.

Up until now I’ve not minded the eating alone. But I realize that it’s the waiting for your food that makes eating alone a killer. Up until now it’s arrived pretty fast so I’ve not had to sit there twiddling my thumbs. The waiters joke around with me that my stomach must be rumbling, and I’m slightly relieved that they are actually aware of how long I’ve been waiting. I drink most of my second beer before the food finally arrives. When it does I’m so fucked off I wonder if I can enjoy it, but it’s amazing. It tastes like every ingredient is fresh (which might explain the wait) and is probably the best curry, let alone green curry, that I’ve ever had.

I’m now so happy I order a coffee and a banana pancake (the latter on suggestion of my friend Lucy who I'd been emailing earlier) to finish off. The pancake is more of a cake to be honest, with two halves of a banana laid on top, seemingly as an afterthought. I pour honey over it and tuck in. I watch one of the Thai waiters cheekily chat up a blonde lady on the table in front of me. Her friend looks mortified, which is quite funny. The blonde lady has her back to me so I can't see her reaction. Then I’m hit by a revelation – the pancake has beaten me. I’ve only managed half of it. I’ve now been there two hours in all, but it’s ended well with some great food.

I get the bill then realise I’ve left my money in my room. Now I’m mortified. I have to plead forgiveness and promise to come back with the money. The cheeky waiter says it’s fine and I head off to the nearest ATM. They don’t think I’m coming back. I know this because when I do come back, all the waiters grin with pleasure and clap their hands together. The cheeky waiter says, “You good friend, I knew this.” It’s a heart-warming moment.

I go back to the room. It’s a pretty good room – air con, nice bathroom, double bed. Worth the 1000 baht I feel, even if I can’t afford it. I look in the mirror in the bathroom and discover I am pinker than a Legally Blonde convention. I find this hilarious.

In bed I read a bit, flick a bug off my arm, read a bit more. Another bug appears on my shoulder. It’s round and brown and gross; I flick it off. Then one appears on my neck and I think, what the fuck? I sit up and look at the pillows. There’s two sat there. I lift one pillow and groan out loud – there’s about thirty of these fuckers sat there, all of different sizes but all with one thing in mind – my blood. The big ones are a reddy/brown colour, the medium ones a red colour and the little ones see-through. They definitely want blood. I lift the other pillow and it’s the same. I have no idea where they’ve come from; they weren’t there before. They must be living in the mattress, which doesn’t bode well.

I go outside and try and find a staff member to get me another room. There’s no one about. Not a soul. I go back in and form a plan. I take the big towel that the Thais leave as a blanket, throw it on the other end of the bed from the pillows and curl up there, hoping that they like to stay under the pillow. I’m wrong. Battle lines have been drawn, and before long the bugs attempt to invade my side of the bed. I kill a few in a counter-attack, hoping that my unforgiving nature might put the others off. But I underestimate how little these critters give a shit about each other, let alone me. I add selfish and callous to the already long list of bad points about insects.
Before long some bigger bugs have stormed and conquered various areas of my towel and I realise it’s time to beat a retreat. I go outside again to try and find someone to complain to about this. There’s no one. I go back to the room and weigh up my options, of which there are few. The best one I can think of is lay my sleep sheet on the floor, get some towels as a pillow, and try and sleep there. It’s a hard, tiled floor, and while it’s not cold, it’s not comfortable either. It’s 2am before I get off to sleep.
I wake at 3.09 thanks to some cockerels wandering around outside getting the time wrong, some drunken people making their way back to their (probably) bug-free beds, and some other insects having a pop at me. I persist with trying to sleep – I have no other option – but I give up at 4.25am. I make to get up – I shower and pack. I read a bit, as I need to wait until it’s light before I can do anything. My eyes droop and I eye the bed longingly. It’s absolute torture being this tired and having a comfy-looking bed in front of you that you can’t sleep on.
I look at it. The bugs seemed to have retreated. I lay down on the end of the bed. Ten minutes later I wake up abruptly and sit up. There’s about ten of them underneath me. I jump up and brush myself down. It’s light outside. I don my backpack and get out of there, leaving the key on the unhelpfully empty desk as I go. Fuck this, I’m going to Hat Ranti.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Of mice and a man

I get a free lift into town with the travel agent people along with the German couple and some other German women. We get out in town and a German woman asks me if I’m heading to the harbour. I tell her no, I’m staying round the corner. She doesn’t understand so I repeat myself a number of times before her friend explains what I’m saying. She looks absolutely distraught and disgusted. I marvel at my ability to offend everyone I come into contact with this morning. This, I decide, is a crap superpower to have, and Superman and Spider-Man have it much better.

But then I figure it’s not me, I’m just finding lots of grumpy people, and go on my merry way. On On Hotel is easy to find and they have a room available. It’s 230 baht a night, which is something like 3 pounds 50. Amazing. But this also worries me a bit. I needn’t though, the room is fine, and looks much nicer than the one Leo had in The Beach. If you look at my pic you may recognize the slats at the top of the wall that Leo’s character talked to Robert Carlyle’s through.

The bathroom has what is basically a hole in the floor for a toilet (over which, yes, I crouched to have a poo, or at least tried to inbetween laughing) and you shower standing by the sink – there’s a drain in the corner of the floor where all the soapy water goes.

There are mini-ants on the table but nothing to worry about. I’m happy, this is all right, this is travelling.
I go and get some lunch at a café down the road. I have a pork curry with pineapple and cucumber, which is much better than it sounds. I read my guidebook and decide to go to Kho Phi Phi for my beach time. There I can see what’s left after the tsunami and there’s a beach on the Western side of the island called Hat Ranti, which sounds, nice – peaceful and secluded.
A nice man – in his 60s, looks like a kindly English teacher or something – gives me an English language Thai paper to read. I read about the Thai government questioning the chief of police’s investigation into the bombs that went off in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve. He is, apparently, a former supporter of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was ousted in a military coup last September, and has arrested a group of men who were accused of attempting to assassinate Thaksin for the bombings. It all sounds very dodgy and I figure, if this is all going on, and what the government says about the police chief is true, no one is actually on the tails of the people who really did bomb Bangkok and they’re getting away with it and might do it again. Which isn’t good.
I read about Hillary Clinton attempting to become the Democrat’s candidate for the Presidency in 2008. There is also a black candidate, Barack Obama, and a Hispanic candidate, Bill Richardson, joining the race to become President and I wonder how different a world we might live in if any of these people get into office.
Then I read about the Oscars, apparently there are a fair few older actresses up for Best Actress. For the first time in living memory this showbiz article interests me less than the world event ones.
I wander round Phuket Town for a bit, get to know the streets well enough to give a lady directions later on. There’s not much to do here so I decide to go to the cinema. There’s nothing on except this bloody Thai film that’s on everywhere called The Legend of King Naresuan. It’s about some dude who ruled Siam (the old name for Thailand) from 1590 to 1605, and might be good but I don’t know if they have English subtitles and I’m a bit too spaced to go and find out. I read earlier that the film is the most expensive Thai film ever made, and the biggest box office success they’ve ever had. No wonder, if that’s all they’re showing anywhere.
They also have Night At The Museum on, which again is on at 10pm. Perhaps they think it’s called Night At The Cinema?? I walked past a pizza joint on the way and decide to go and check it out. It’s a mistake. Not only are the onion rings I order the size of donuts, the pizza itself is too stodgy. Already my palette is becoming accustomed to healthier food. I keep half of it, thinking I might fancy it later.
I head back to the hostel and decide to do something controversial – STAY IN and read my grammar book. How adventurous am I?? I start reading my grammar book and immediately, inevitably, fall asleep. It’s only about half eight.
I’m woken by a rustling sound. I see something scuttle across the wall behind the chair opposite my bed. I look at my phone; it’s 10pm. Something runs from under the chair to under my bed. I immediately think, cockroach.
Now, as some of you may know, I’m not a big fan of insects. The combination of me being a bit of a hairy lad with me being unnaturally ticklish makes having an insect on any part of my body an excruciating experience, to say the least. I can feel every bloody step they take and it’s agonising.
And also, I don’t get them. What are they for? What do they bring to the world apart from being annoying to ALL other animals who go about our merry way, eating each other occasionally, but mostly letting each other get on with things. Insects don’t respect this; they have no respect at all. They come into your home, come into your bed, and generally walk all over you without any care for how you might feel about that. They even sometimes give you diseases you didn’t ask for, which isn’t polite. And on top of all that, they’re sneaky. Take the stick insect for example, which, as we all know, camouflages itself as a twig. Why? What’s that about? What’s it got to hide? And they look funny... I could go on and on…
So given all this, I’m not happy about a cockroach (the kingpin of insect criminal masterminds) being in my room. I grab my torch and step gingerly off the bed on to the floor. I turn the room’s light on but I can’t see very far under the bed. I turn on the torch and crouch down. The beam only reaches halfway under. I slowly lower one knee, fully aware this will slow my retreat in the event of an attack. The torch lights up the whole floor underneath my bed. There’s nothing there.
Then the light catches something shiny. I swing the beam round to the far corner. Something flashes in the light. Two round circular things glint and stare back at me. I stare harder. What on earth….? Then I realise. It’s a child’s plastic hair band. I sigh and stand up.
I sit on the bed and pick up the grammar book, hoping it will get me back to sleep. A sentence gets past my eyes before I hear another noise. I look up. A tiny mouse is sat on my table. He turns and looks at me and dashes off. I’m so relieved. Mammals I can handle. Another one pegs it into the bathroom. Then I realise why him and his friends are running around – they can smell the pizza. I cover it as much as I can then go and get a beer. This time the pizza goes down better, but I resolve not to buy another one until I have an absolute craving.
A gecko runs up the wall as I eat. Amphibians I don’t mind either, particularly geckos as they eat insects and don’t walk on your bed and are therefore my friends, so I’m happy this one is with me in the room. I eventually get off to sleep and have the best night’s sleep I’ve had yet. No deranged Glaswegians muttering about secret islands wake me up, although there is a man in the next room with a bit of a cough. That wouldn’t have made much of a film, would it?
I have a brunch of chicken and vegetable fried rice. It’s amazing. I go back to the travel agent at On On and get a ticket to Phi Phi. While I wait for the minibus to the harbour a dark-haired guy with a Henry V haircut comes over and asks for a light. I rummage around in my rucksack but can’t find it. He gets one from someone else but comes back to talk to me. He’s just got here and I tell him there’s not much to do. He’s staring at me quite hard and, slightly uncomfortably, I realise he’s checking me out.
We talk a bit. He’s Israeli and has just been travelling in India; he thought he’d try Thailand a bit before he went home. He loved India and raves about it, but it still doesn’t appeal much to me, at least for now. He tells me he started to take for granted how well Indians speak English in comparison to Thais. In India, he says, there’s the older generation who speak English well from being under British rule, the younger generation who speak it well from tourism and Western media, and there’s a whole generation in-between who don’t speak it well at all.
Our conversation is interrupted by the minibus arriving and I bid him farewell. I’m finally heading for a beach!