Sunday, 25 February 2007

Buddhas, boys and battles

As Thai summer (our spring) approaches it gets hotter and hotter. I’ve never been good with the sun and as the week begins the heat attempts to do its worst with me. A burgeoning headache reaches its pinnacle on Monday, my day off, but I refuse to let it get to me and I head out and do some of the touristy stuff I’ve so far missed.

I head to Wat Po – the holy area I went to with Tom during my first days here – and get the pictures of the Reclining Buddha which I failed to get first time. The immense golden statue loses none of its impact on a second visit and I’m as in awe as I was before.

Wat Po is also where they do the best massages in Bangkok, apparently. The two parlours here are staffed by students of the Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School, which has an excellent and much-talked about reputation. I decide to have a massage but first I go and have a look at the Grand Palace at Wat Phra Kaew down the road, which, for some reason, shuts at 3.30.

It’s easy to forget that these beautiful sights around the city, which are always crawling with be-shorted Westerners with their flashing cameras (that’ll be me, then), are still very important and very used places of worship. But you are quickly reminded on entering Wat Phra Kaew, as, to enter the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, you are asked to don trousers to cover up your offensive legs, or a top if you have your offensive shoulders out. Luckily the Thais have realised that Westerners never consider such things as religious morals and flash their flesh at the sun at every opportunity, and so they thoughtfully provide trousers and tops for visitors to the Wat. Mine are massive. I look like the marshmallow man in Ghostbusters once I’ve put them on. But it means I get to go in what is probably the most impressive temple in the city.

Even if the day wasn’t sunny these gleaming buildings would no doubt be beautiful, but the rays add plenty of sparkle to the glittering and colourful d├ęcor. The Emerald Buddha itself is housed in a huge temple that gives no clue to the statue’s diminutive size (75 cm tall), nor does the highly decorated tall altar on which it sits, barely visible amongst all the gold. It’s not actually made of emerald, but probably jasper quartz or nephrite jade. Either way, it’s still very pretty, but I fail to understand why countries have fought over it in the past, nor why the Thais felt the need to give it such an impressive monument as Wat Phra Kaew. It’s so bloody tiny!

I move on to have a look at the Grand Palace, a building that, these days, is only used by the Royal family for ceremonial occasions. It just looks like a fancy big house to me, like something you might see in Dynasty, although it does have a rather cool gun museum which has some guns with ridiculously long barrels. (Does this make the bullet go further? How does that work? Physics experts please get in touch.) I don’t seem to be able to get into the Grand Palace itself (although a herd of student nurses in blindingly white uniforms are ushered into the building, so maybe come kind of graduation ceremony is taking place), but I’m not too bothered. My headache is in full throttle now and I need to escape it.

I head back to Wat Po, sneaking back in on the ticket I bought earlier. I’m sure this is bad, but no one seems bothered. I have to wait 20 minutes for a massage and while I do I watch a little French girl run rings around her parents demanding all kinds of things from ice cream to going off for a walk. What a brat.

I’m taken to a massage bed by a boar of a man – a short, fat ugly Thai with a disarming grin on his face and unexpected power in his fingers. Any worries I might have had about getting accidentally turned on during the session go out the window. But I’ve never found massages done by a professional that sensual anyway, they’re always more excruciating because of the knots I develop from doing kickboxing or sitting at a desk all day. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a massage so the knots are everywhere, and I’m in agony from the word go. It’s a satisfying agony, though, cos I can feel the good it’s doing at the same time. He starts on my legs, where there are plenty of knots from kickboxing, and does this thing where he slowly presses down on my inner thigh by my groin. As he slowly releases his hand I feel the blood rush back into the muscle and it feels really hot. It’s a really strange experience and I look forward to and dread when he’s going to do it on the other leg.

The bit I just dread is when he pulls on my fingers and toes until they crack. I hate it. I hate hearing people do it, and having it done to me is even worse - though I couldn’t tell you why. It just seems a bit wrong somehow.

My back, also, is very knotted. At one point I notice the women next to me looking a bit concerned and I realise I’m grimacing. I laugh to show I’m okay and they laugh back. Then I return to my grimacing.

The massage lasts an hour and is painful, uncomfortable and unpleasant. But it’s amazing – probably the best massage I’ve ever had – and I feel loose and limber afterwards, and much better. Plus my headache’s gone.

I meet Ting later. He asks why I didn’t call him to go to the Grand Palace. I wonder how I can explain I wanted the day to myself. I can’t really, so I just say I forgot. He seems all right with that. After eating on the soi, we sit in the park just outside his apartment building and smoke cigarettes. We chat about each other’s families and I tell him about my many half-sisters. He’s quite taken aback by the set-up. It’s good to chat to him properly, get to know him a bit better without anyone else around. At one point he says, “Sorry Will, but I think you gay.” I tell him not to apologise and that he’s right. I thought Mengly had told him but it seems he’s worked it out all by himself. He tells me he wants to take me out to gay bars – he really does love being the guide. He says he has a gay friend who liked him but he said no, it wasn’t for him. But he goes out with him to bars and chats up men for him. “Sounds a bit like fishing,” I say. Ting reels them in and hands them over to his mate. He likes the analogy. I like the idea. I shall definitely have to test Ting’s man-pulling skills at some point.

We watch some shit films, which are actually quite good. You, Me and Dupree is much funnier and less annoying than I expected it to be. Resident Evil I have seen before but is good fun. And Milla Jovovich is the most beautiful woman in the world, in my opinion. If I was to fancy any woman it would be her. Her and Samaire Armstrong, who used to be in The OC. They’re my top two.

I stay at Ting’s cos it’s late by the time Milla’s finished kicking zombie arse. I sleep on the floor and get bitten relentlessly by mossies. God, I hate them. Still I manage to sleep til 11, and have to wake Ting up as well. I reckon he could sleep all day.

The rest of the week sees my last lessons with shy boy Tong. I’m not sure if he’s gained anything from the lessons, or if he has it’s certainly not the confidence to speak to people in English. I worry about him going to Australia to study, but Binnie tells me his sister will be there so that makes me feel a bit better.

I have text conversations with Mickey which mostly involve him inviting me to his room for booze and sex, and me saying, no, let’s just meet for a drink.

I have my first adult class which is a bit nerve-wracking. At first I feel very self-conscious stood up there in front of a group of my peers (they’re all in their 20s and early 30s) but I get over it quickly as they are great to teach – very interested to learn and willing to get on board with the exercises we do together. They only question it if they don’t quite understand what I’m getting at. So I just slow down my usual rapid-fire English and all becomes clear. I’m getting used to talking slower but occasionally I forget myself and just jabber at their blank-looking faces. Teaching adults, I find, is a whole different experience, but an enjoyable one.

Eventually, after much toing and froing, I arrange to meet Mickey on the Tuesday night. At least I think I do. I arrange to meet him at a gay bar in Silom, but when I get there I call him and he claims not to have got my last text message, and that it will take him an hour to get ready and get there. I smell bullshit. He blatantly can’t be arsed meeting me and just wants me to come over. Seeing as I’ve met him once and can barely remember what he looks like, I’m not sure this is a good idea so I’ve been declining.

I tell him we can meet again another time, all the while never intending to bother trying to meet him again, and find myself alone on the other side of town with no company to explore with. Having come all this way I don’t want to waste the trip so decide to have a look at some of the gay places I’ve not yet been to. I go into a place called Richard’s and get something to eat. It’s an airy, sleek bar and restaurant, full of old gay farang and their young Thai boyfriends. I eat and ponder what to do, eventually grabbing a load of leaflets and gay guides I spot on the wall. Turns out that the gay scene in Bangkok is MUCH larger than the one my Lonely Planet guide hints at. Now I’m overwhelmed with info and still don’t know what to do.

An oldish guy comes over and speaks to me. His name’s Richard and he’s the owner of the bar (what are the chances of both him and the bar being called Richard??). He says I look new and asks if I need a little help. I explain I’ve been stood up and need some ideas as to where to go. He sits down and we have a chat. He’s a nice guy – a French-Canadian who has been here 19 years and last year set up the bar, which he says has been doing well. He sends me a beer and grabs me a bit of birthday cake from a group of people sat a couple tables down. I feel better.

And then, with the help of Richard’s tips, I go out and am a Very Naughty Boy for the rest of the night. I’d write what happened but this blog is family viewing and so I shall refrain. I’ll just say I discovered the following things:

1) Having your cigarette lit by a half-naked fire-eater is quite cool.
2) It’s easier to get (free) sex in this city than anywhere else in the world.
3) I should give a false phone number to gay Thai boys in future.

The day after I have a new private lesson - with a 27-year-old guy at his house. I have no idea what to expect or what he’ll want to do so I prepare lots of stuff. I get taken to the house, which is just over the river from Pinklao, by one of the ECC girls. We get the bus, which is again an awful experience cos it’s rush hour and we have to squeeze on. In this heat, it’s an even worse experience than rush hour in London.

Getting to see Bangkok people’s houses is one aspect of this job I like. I had something similar with my old job – I would go for interviews with people and work dos at some of the nicest hotels and venues in London, and got to see a side of London that maybe my friends didn’t so much. Here I get to see the homes of people in Bangkok – something that most tourists never see.

The guy’s name is Nop, and he’s in marketing, working for a swanky kitchen company. His house is in a busy shopping area of Bangkok – he lives above a shop that sells various items – flowers, ornaments etc – that the Thais use in worship, which I later find out is run by his Mum. He lives there with her and his Dad, and there’s a cute as a button baby knocking about when I arrive, which I find out is his niece.

He arrives about the same time as me – all floppy hair and youthful-looking. He looks a lot like the Thai boy band members I’ve seen in magazines here – pretty verging on girlish. Upstairs is much like you’d imagine the top of a shop to be – tiled floors, stock dotted about the place. I’m led to an office where, weirdly, there are pictures of Nop EVERYWHERE. Three big (A3 size, easily) framed graduation pics along one wall, pics under the plastic on the desk, more big pics of the family at his graduation along another wall, smaller framed pics of him on the shelves – one of him when he did his Buddhist monkhood. It’s overwhelming and slightly odd. I’m not sure at first whether it’s just parental pride or their son’s ego. I figure the latter until I go into his room to use his toilet, where I find smaller framed pics of him dotted about the place. Parental pride feeding the son’s ego then.

The first half of the lesson goes well – we play a conversation game to break the ice and he gets to practice his speaking English. All good. The second half is a disaster. I pull out an activity I think might be relevant cos he’s in marketing, something which will help him get his head around the concept of qualities – the quality of being red can be ascribed to a tomato, a strawberry, or anger, or danger. You get the idea. He suddenly stops me half way through: “Why are you teaching me this?” I’m thrown by that. Erm, cos it’s English?? And I’m here to teach you English??

I draw a breath and explain how I thought it relevant to his job and grab one of the kitchen brochures he gave me and show him how they talk about the good qualities of the kitchens in the copy. He’s not happy. Turns out he’s used to far more experienced teachers teaching him lots of intricate grammar stuff (he sings the praises of one teacher, basically implying I don’t stand up in comparison). I realise that earlier he seemed quite shocked when I told him I’d only been teaching for three weeks. I thought he was just surprised, turns out it pissed him off a bit.

We have a long conversation about what he wants from the lessons, what he’s been doing and what he wants to do with me in the future. It helps for then but this lesson has died. I have nothing suitable prepared and my ability to wing it has been killed by the full exposure of my lack of experience. I feel a bit shit afterwards, like I’ve been found out, and I dwell on it for ages, lacking anyone around to sound off to about it. I fully expect a phone call to be made to ECC complaining but none is forthcoming. I take this as a good sign and start thinking of it as a challenge instead of a failure. By the end of the week I’m determined to win the fucker over and teach him how to speak English properly, goddammit.

Mengly calls on my way home, she’s on her way back from Cambodia. She’s being driven – the family is loaded. I arrange to meet with her tomorrow; it’ll be interesting to hear what Cambodia was like. It is. Amazingly, it’s an even cheaper country to be in than Thailand, not that Mengly saw much of it – her family is loaded and she spent most of her time with them, finding out details about her family history she never knew, and despairing at the lack of ambition amongst her cousins. While Mengly very much seems to resist leaning on her family’s wealth, her cousins don’t share her attitude, and don’t even seem to have much interest in a career for themselves.
Throughout the week I fully intend to go and train and do some Muay Thai but I never do. I think I’m a bit nervous about it. Partly cos I’ve not trained for a few months, partly cos it’ll be a new style of martial art, and partly cos the gym seems to get a bit of an audience of tourists wandering past from Khao San Road. But I really want to do it, so I promise myself I’ll head over there as soon as possible.

Now that Mengly’s back we can go and see King Naresuan 2. I’m actually very excited; I’m well into this franchise. Sure, the first one was a bit dull in places, but in this one the kids have grown up and are exercising their political muscle in all kinds of battles, so I figure it should be good.

We go with Aom, Sai and Aor, which is all good apart form the fact that Aor seems to feel the need to babysit us a bit. I try and get my ticket off her so I can go and get a coffee and meet them in the cinema. She won’t give it to me, and insists on coming with me to help me buy it. I appreciate her wanting to help me, but bloody hell, I can go and buy a cup of coffee on my own.
She invites us down to where her family live in southern Thailand, near Samui, during April. Mengly, it seems, will be gone by then. The longer she stays here, the sooner her leaving date is brought forward. As much as she seems to enjoy spending time with us all, she’s not having a good time here, thanks to the Thai people’s constant treatment of her as something unusual.

I tell Aor I’ll get back to her about visiting southern Thailand with her. For a start I think my friend Paul will be over at the time she is suggesting, and secondly I’m not sure I could handle being babysat, like she has been doing, for any length of time.

But anyway. Naresuan 2 is ace. Lots of stunningly coordinated fights, epic battle scenes, romance, political intrigue, tragedy, and, most importantly, a really cool as fuck hero. Again, the editing leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s so much better than the first one and, although it’s a bum-aching two and three-quarter hours, it gets me excited about the third one – which I’m dismayed to discover isn’t out until December, when I’ll be long gone. Gutted.

The weekend sees me take Jess to the apartment block where most of the other teachers live, with its nearby restaurant, shop and pool. “We was robbed,’ were, I think, her exact words. She’s right, but we do pay a lot less.

Jess meets Mengly and they swap notes as Jess has taken on a lot of Mengly’s classes after her sudden departure. Mengly gives me a present from Cambodia – a decorated wooden box with some pot pourri made from flowers from ??? But I can’t open the bloody thing for some reason so the nice wooden box remains unopened on my dresser.

I decide to go to Kanchanaburi on Monday, make use of a sudden Sunday afternoon off thanks to some lesson cancellations and head out of Bangkok for a couple of nights. I’m desperate to get out of Bangkok, do a bit of travelling, even if it’s only a few hours away. Plus I’m fed up of Bangkok and need a break from it.

In Kanchanaburi I will find the bridge over the river Kwai, as made famous by the film of the same name. But I will also see the grave of my great uncle Ron, a soldier who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War; I’m pleased the trip will have a personal interest as well as a historical one, and as such I’m keen to do this one on my own. So I’m a bit gutted when Mengly tells me she’d like to come along. Not only do I want to have a break from Bangkok completely, but I figure this is a family thing and better done without mates around. But hey, it’ll be all right. I feel for Mengly cos she’s done very little travelling in Thailand and it’ll be good for her to see another bit of it apart from Bangers. Plus she seems to want to do very different stuff to me. So it’ll be good, I’m excited.

Monday, 19 February 2007

My funny Valentine

In the week I get a parcel from Jen which contains the rest of my stuff. I get ripped off again by being charged 40 quid to receive the parcel (it cost me enough to get it sent), but it’s nice to have more stuff in my room and more books to read.

I teach some new pupils, try some more weird food with Aom watching on. She orders a meal for me one evening which has all sorts in it – heart, fried pig’s blood, intestine. They don’t let anything go to waste here; it seems they eat every part of the animal going. Even chicken anus is a delicacy here. There is NO WAY I’m trying that. I try each thing in my meal once before leaving it and just eating the noodles, spring onion and pork. Afterwards I try Aom’s dessert – coconut milk with multi-coloured sweetmeats, which are made from rice. They are gross – chewy and tasteless – but the coconut milk is nice.

Mengly, after finally getting some money out of ECC, decides she’s not going back, and arranges to go and visit her uncle and his family in Cambodia. It’s all arranged very quickly and they tell her they will come and pick her up tomorrow. It will be her birthday while she is away and so before she goes Sai, Aom and Aor invite us round to Sai’s flat to give us both birthday presents - mine belatedly because I didn’t tell them it was my birthday until we actually went out for it, and Mengly in advance because she’ll be away.

They give me a sheet of Thai silk for me to use however I wish, some Thai silk ties for work – one with elephants on – and a yellow polo shirt for me to wear on Mondays to show my love for the King. (I’d told them I was thinking about buying one and wearing it. I can’t wait to actually do that and see what reaction I get out and about.)

Mengly gets similar presents, but the best present for both of us is from Sai – framed mocked up pictures of us each as characters from King Naresuan; me as Naresuan himself and Mengly as his sister. They are brilliant and hilarious and go down very well. Mine now has pride of place on top of my wardrobe.

As the week goes on it brings various events; increasing aggression from the stray dogs as I walk home from Sai and Ting’s apartment, for example. Their barks at me get louder and more disturbing each time but I refuse to let them scare me into not walking home.

A new teacher arrives at ECC by the name of Jess - an English lass from Bedford. I’m a bit flippant about ECC and working here when I first meet her, which probably doesn’t help when you’ve first arrived in this strange city at a new job and I try and be more helpful as we get to know each other over the rest of the week.

I don’t realise it’s Valentine’s Day until Maew wishes me a happy one. She’s about the closest I’ll get to a Valentine this year. Her flirting has increased massively and I have to resist flirting back in case she gets the wrong idea. It’s difficult because I am very good at flirting. I do it without even realising it, which has got me into trouble in the past - I can do it with ease with people I’m not attracted to, but put someone fanciable in front of me and I turn into a quivering wreck. What’s that about?? Anyway, I resist with Maew cos she might think I’m interested, and the thing is I probably would be if it weren’t for the obvious. She’s gorgeous, and funny, and very bright. I’ve sat in on her computer classes before (she lets me use the spare computer while she’s teaching) and she’s an excellent teacher. In another dimension somewhere, I have met my Thai girlfriend.

I spend Valentine’s Day evening crying my eyes out. Not because I’m upset about my lack of love life, but because I mistakenly order a spare ribs and rice which is covered in chili seeds. Two mouthfuls and the tears are streaming.

One evening I come home to find The Biggest Bug In The World That Has Antlers As Big As Windscreen Wipers sitting on my door frame. I reach the top of the stairs, look up to my door and recoil in disgust, nearly falling back down said stairs. It’s huge, about the size of my door handle, which it’s only about a foot away from. I take some photos of the ugly motherfucker, trying to get as close as I can before my muscles freeze and say to me, ‘Are you fucking insane?’ I then have to gingerly reach over it to unlock my door. Then I gingerly step past it, back against the door. My heart skips a beat when one of its antlers moves. I take some more photos, praying it doesn’t decide it likes the look of my room, and then shut the door, safe in the knowledge that it’s too big to get in underneath.

I open the door later to see if it’s still there. It’s gone. This frightens me more and I expect it to jump down on me form the ceiling. But it’s nowhere to be seen. Then I look down the corridor and see it about half way down (that’s how big it is), CLIMBING INTO SOMEONE’S SHOE (Thai people leave their shoes by their front door, more because of worries about dragging Bangkok filth in than religious reasons). I shut my door and go to bed.

I phone Dad in the week. It’s strange to talk to him – a familiar voice from back home is something I’ve not heard for what feels like ages. The line is dead quiet, which makes me realise how far away I am. Not in a sad way, it just gives me a bit of perspective. The internet has made me feel closer to home than I actually am. I’ve actually leaned on the internet quite a lot as company – instant messaging, emailing, blogging. But the phone call weirdly makes me feel further away. But in a good way. This is the furthest I’ve ever been from England and it feels great and exciting. I feel like a traveller.

I text Mickey at one point. You may remember Mickey from such blog entries as One Night In Bangkok and, er, that’s it. He’s the Thai guy whose whiskey Tom and I helped drink. I figure it will be interesting to meet up with him, have someone to hang out with in the gay places. He gets straight back to me and is very keen to meet up. A bit too keen, maybe, but we arrange to meet on Sunday.

I get to know Jess a bit more as we eat together after work. She nice, easy-going, but is very shell-shocked at the moment, having given up a life of working as a designer for Unilever and going down the pub every night in Bedford with the same old people to come to this crazy city, teach when she’s never taught before, and meet a whole host of weird and wonderful new people. She’s on a sabbatical, taking six months off work to do this, so will be going back, but came for similar reasons to me – all her friends were doing big things like buy houses and have babies and get married, none of which she wanted to do, so she did this instead. But it later emerges that, like many Westerners here, she’s also running away from a broken heart, hoping that six months distance will ease some of the pain.

Her talk of going back makes me start to think about what I’ll do when I go back – teach? write? both? something else? – and where I’ll go – London? Brighton? Bournemouth maybe? My mate Gary lives there and I quite like it. It’s a city by the sea as well, which is my ultimate goal. But these are all just ideas. I’ve got plenty of time to think about that.

The weekend brings more work; all day each day. I watch Jess go into her very first class – a bunch of under-10s. She looks very scared! After work on Saturday I meet some of the teachers – Ian, Vanda, a guy called Jason who has floppy Hugh Grant hair – by the market over the road for a drink. I call Jess and invite her. I feel drunk after one bottle of Leo. Thai beer is fucking dangerous. And the bottles of it are always big. And cheap. Lethal. After three I can tell I’m drunk. I’m being all animated and excitable. When Ting arrives he laughs at me – he’s not seen me like that before. I don’t care I’m having fun. Before Ting arrives we slag off ECC and Bangkok a lot, after he arrives (and tells them he’s Thailand’s Brad Pitt), we’re a bit nicer about Thailand.
The next day I feel like shit. Seriously, I finally begin to understand what the hell is meant by the phrase ‘death warmed up’. I have a class at 8.30 on a Sunday morning as well, which lasts two and a half hours. When I say, “I’m never drinking Thai beer again,” I actually mean it. Although Singha beer doesn’t affect me in this way, for some reason, just Leo, Cheers and Chang. I shall avoid all of these like the plague from now on.

It’s not a good day generally, but I do have a brilliant lesson with ten-year-old Bell – we sing Rock Around The Clock together, which is fab. I don’t hear from Mickey, so claim the evening as my own. I eat at Sizzlers – burger, chips and coke, just what I need. Then, on a whim, I decide to go and see Babel. I’ve got a day off tomorrow so I figure I can catch the last showing.

It’s an amazing film – its shifting from country to country and language to language might be quite jarring to some but I find it’s perfectly pitched for me and my current flitting about the world. The only slight annoyance was that it’s quite a quiet film for the most part and some bloke a few rows back kept yawning really loudly through it, but this was more entertaining than annoying.

Tuesday, 13 February 2007


There’s a nice scene at the end of Mary Poppins where the neglectful father decides to take his kids to fly kites in the park instead of going to work. When Mengly wakes me up on Monday morning with a phonecall to say she’s heard that people fly kites at a park over the river, I was expecting to see the Bangkok version – heart-warming scenes of fathers teaching their sons how to fly a kite.

No such luck. Instead Sanam Luang park, which is right next to Bangkok’s Grand Palace (the former royal residence), is bereft of anything, let alone kite-flying. It’s merely an open area with a few tufts of grass trying to squeeze itself through the ground. Mainly it’s used for royal ceremonies, such as cremations (nice) and the annual Ploughing Ceremony (might explain the lack of grass) where the king officially initiates the rice-growing season. (Does this mean no rice is allowed to grow until he says so? Hmm.)

What’s happening there today? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. You get the idea. Mengly vows to maim the pupil that told her the kite-flying lies.

Instead, we get ripped off by the evil male twin of the Mary Poppins pigeon lady. On entering the ‘park’, we have to tiptoe through a flock of horrible pigeons, by which the Evil Pigeon Man (as he shall henceforth be known) is standing. Now I hate fucking pigeons. They smell, they flutter annoyingly and they spread disease. I’ve hated them since I worked in the stockroom at Body Shop in Southampton and the fuckers would shit everywhere out the back which I then had to trod through each day. But Mengly wants to take some pics (she photographs EVERYTHING and each shot comes out looking amazing) so we sit down by them. Evil Pigeon Man comes over and offers us some corn to feed the pigeons. I decline. I hate them and I’m not paying to feed them. But he insists, basically making it clear we don’t have to pay. I figure he’s job is to look after them, then, not rip off tourists. Oh, how wrong am I.

I take a bag off him, basically so I can throw the corn far away and get the horrible little blighters away from me. This works for awhile. Then Mengly wants me to walk through them, get them to fly up in the air for a shot. Dear God. She’s got a bag as well and keeps throwing corn. I’m now in the midst of them and Evil Pigeon Man is trying to get me to put corn in my hand so the birds sit on my hand. No chance. Mengly gets some shots of me looking absolutely disgusted and we make to head off. That’s when Evil Pigeon Man’s evil side rears its ugly head.

He comes over looking grim-faced and mutters, “150 baht.” I can’t believe my ears. He practically forced these bags on us and now he wants 150 baht?? Even if we’d wanted to feed the pigeons, I wouldn’t have paid that much. It’s just over two quid, which might not seem much, but when you’re living on Thai money it’s quite a lot. But Evil Pigeon Man starts to get a bit scary as we resist, stamping his foot and looking a bit unhinged. Mengly gets out her purse and I can’t blame her but I’m still resisting a bit. I eventually give up and hand over the money, fully aware I’ve been had good and proper. It stings even more 20 minutes later when a young boy come sup and offers us a bag of corn to feed the pigeons. How much? 10 baht.

It’s an up and down day after that. Mengly goes off to meet some record company guy to sort out interviews for a story on Thai music she’s doing. I buy an NME, which makes me homesick. I see a blond couple, which is a bit of a shock after getting used to being around Thai people all the time. I got to Khao San Road and feel a little different to all the wide-eyed Westerners there now that I’m actually working and living here. I find a Muay Thai school which specialises in training foreigners but it’s an open gym on a little alley behind Khao San Road, so lots of travellers walk past and sit down and watch for a bit, which puts me off a bit. Not sure I could train with such an audience, but we’ll see. I really need to train. I’ve not done so for two months - it tailed off after I got my kickboxing purple belt, what with Christmas and preparing to leave the country and that – and it’s starting to show. Gone is the flat, toned stomach I’m used to, and while I’ve not reached beer belly status just yet, I’m not happy.

The Muay Thai itself? I watch a mix of Thais and Westerners train. Most of the blokes are ripped but there are a few who are a little overweight and have obviously come to shift it. It’s very different to kickboxing, with a lot less moves to learn, but it looks hard and intense physically. You can tell by the shape the blokes here are in that it’s a good workout, but it’s nowhere near as frenetic as my kickboxing classes were. It’s obviously a good workout, just a different one to what I’m used to.

I talk to some Irish dude while watching the Muay Thai training. He has a very thick Irish accent which is mostly impossible to understand. He’s come looking for a show rather than to train, and I tell him about the two big Muay Thai stadiums in Bangkok. I ask him if he fancies training as well and he shakes his head, says he goes to the gym. Looking at him in his vest and shorts, that much is obvious. But he has these really skinny legs, which annoys me. You see that sometimes, where guys are really beefed up on top and then have skinny legs. What’s wrong with working out your legs as well? Do they just forget or what?

Anyway. Irish dude tells me he’s been travelling Australia for months and months and thought he’d check out Thailand on the way home. I ask him about Australia. He says he liked Brisbane but not Sydney. He said the best kept secret about Sydney is that it rains and it’s cold there in winter. Which is when I’m going. But I am going to be heading up to the warmer bits so that’s okay.

We then talk about Thai girls. He asks if I’ve had one yet. I say I’m not really into them. He says he’s not sure if he fancies them either, he prefers Western girls. I nod. He then goes on about paying for sex here and says he’s adamant he wouldn’t do it. I agree with him. Then he laughs and says, “But you know what it’s like when you get desperate, don’t you?” I think he’s having a conversation with himself, really, so just laugh.

After he’s wondered off, I check the price of the Muay Thai shorts (800 baht) but don’t buy any cos I want to shop around. I’m pretty sure I could get them cheaper than that. Then I go and meet Mengly who is meeting some rapper called Joey Boy later and do I want to come. Of course! We decide to hang out in MBK shopping centre to wait for him to call; Mengly wants to buy some luggage and I want to see if I can find cheaper Muay Thai shorts.

We are in there FOREVER – partly cos Mengly is a demon bargainer and attempts to play all the shop assistants off against each other, and partly cos we can’t find our way out. It reaches the point where I resign myself to the fact that we are stuck in there for the rest of our lives before finally we a magical-looking EXIT sign.

Mengly calls Joey Boy, turns out he’s playing football and won’t be able to meet her tonight. She tells him she’ll arrange to meet him another time.

We go back home, much to my relief, and go and buy Thai steak on the soi (this is basically fried pork steak, fries and vegetables and has become a comfort meal for both Mengly and I).
All I want to do is go home and go to bed after but it seems Mengly is in the mood to talk. She’s got some problems and basically I’m the only person she’s met in Thailand who she feels she can reveal all too. She tells me a lot about her family, her childhood, how she was some kind of genius child that won lots of awards, how that brought shitloads of pressure, especially in the fiercely and fearsomely competitive, ‘my kid’s better than your kid’ environs of the rich community of LA (her family are loaded). So it turns out that Mengly is here running away from something much like many of the other people I’ve met here. It gets me thinking about whether I’m running away from something. I don’t really think I am. Yeah I wanted to leave my job; I wanted to leave the irritatingly never-ending drama with my ex; I wanted to leave the hectic nature of my life in London. But going away wasn’t about running away from these things, it was about putting an end to them for good - running TOWARDS something new. Running away suggests you’re still looking back, which a lot of the people I’ve met here are – they don’t think about where they are going, just what they want to get away from, and they meander around the world not really sure where they’re going next. I, however, have got my eyes firmly on now and the future. Leaving London for me was a chance to book-end that period of my life, start a new one with no overlap. And I feel like it’s worked. Even if I go back to London, it’ll all be brand new – new job, new place to live and friends who are all going through big changes in their lives as well.

Mengly talks for ages, understandably – she’s got a lot of shit to sift through. But she’s a lot stronger than she gives herself credit for and while she does need to address her past, she, also, has her eyes firmly on the future, with applications to various grad schools in the US being processed as we speak.

I walk her home and we bump into Ting. I’m quite relieved as it lifts the heaviness of the evening. Ting has been to the flower market for his girlfriend, to get her something for Valentine’s Day. Mengly is not ready to end the evening, and insists we go there right now. It’s about half ten and all I want to do is go to bed. But, typical me, I can’t say no if my life depends on it, so off we head.

Earlier I was moaning to Mengly that my photos weren’t as good as hers and was blaming my camera and its weird ways. She suggested I just play around with it, get to know it better, then I might get some better pics. The flower market is a great place to do it - lots of interesting and beautiful flowers to photograph. There are flowers for decoration and also lots of flowers specially made up for worship purposes. There’s lots of food and veg as well – this is obviously the place where restaurants come and buy in bulk.

We try fried caterpillars. On a stall that has fried grasshoppers, beetles and other unrecognizable things, the caterpillars seem the most edible. I’m not even happy about those though. They are covered in soy sauce and pepper, to give them taste, but even this doesn’t win me round. I eat about five before giving up. Eating them is like eating Quavers – very light and crunchy. It’s more the idea of what I’m eating that puts me off than the taste or texture. I tick that box and move on.

By the side of the road we find a shrine to the Buddhist water goddess, and Ting gets me to kneel down in front of it, guiding me through a Buddhist prayer. He’s done this before with Mengly, apparently, but I feel a little silly doing it. But, hey, it’s an interesting thing to do, and nice to speak some Thai. And you never know, it might bring me some good luck.

I go and buy some Oreos and ice coffee to make my mouth feel better after the caterpillars experience, and then we head to what Mengly calls the ‘dark’ market. It’s situated by the canal near Sanam Luang park, where we were this morning, and is basically a load of people with random goods like phone chargers, used shoes, jewelry etc to sell. Imagine a jumble sale but a lot more sleazy – with added corruption and minus the tea and cakes. I figure most of the stuff is stolen or lost goods. I even see a man about to open a full rucksack which looks like it’s been lifted off someone.

We walk up and down, me with my bag in front of me and my hands in my pockets. There’s nothing here you’d want to buy really, but it’s interesting to see.

We walk around the park again. No Evil Pigeon Man, but the well-lit area is full of homeless people sleeping, seeking sanctuary from the darker corners of Bangkok. The outskirts of the park are populated by prostitutes as well. Ting tells us that there are different areas – one for women, one for male prostitutes, and another for ladyboys. We wonder through the women’s area on our way to the main road to get a cab home. They’re so young – 17, 18 – thin, beautiful, whole lives ahead of them. It’s a bit depressing.

With rats scuttling across our paths, we finally make it to the main road and head home having had enough of ‘dark’ Bangkok.

Monday, 12 February 2007

Day in, day out

And so I settle into some kind of routine. I sleep in late, finding it impossible to wake up in this hot and humid atmosphere. I have a couple of lessons a day in the week before meeting up with Ting and Mengly to eat then watch a movie at Ting and Sai’s flat. We watch a Korean film called My Sassy Girl which is very funny, and is, inevitably, being remade by the Americans starring 24’s Elisha Cuthbert and will probably be not as funny. We watch a Thai film called Beautiful Boxer which is about the life of a famous Muay Thai boxer here called Nong Thoom who never lost a match, but was only doing it to raise money to pay for a sex change operation to become a woman. It’s heartfelt and brilliant and makes me miss training and want to investigate doing Muay Thai here (I do so and find a place near Khao San Road that specialises in teaching foreigners). We watch Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 which is both ridiculous and brilliant.

Each night I walk home to my apartment block. It’s literally two minutes from where Mengly and Ting live but neither of them is happy about me doing it. While it’s a safe neighbourhood in the day, it’s not so at night when there is, apparently, equal chance of me getting either attacked by one of the stray dogs, or robbed by someone. I, being cocky, walk home regardless, and don’t feel at all unnerved until maybe the third night when I get barked at ferociously by one particular dog. By day they may be docile and disinterested in anything; by night it’s a different matter.

On Tuesday afternoon, free of having to teach shy boy Tong who cancels his lesson, I go to Dusit Zoo, and spend a few hours there taking pics of some quite impressive animals. It’s a shit day weather wise – it’s extremely hot and humid but really cloudy and overcast. The animals react as such by sitting around looking lethargic and not doing much interesting. I can’t blame them really, I feel the same, but feel I need to do something with my free afternoon.

Near the zoo is Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall, which was built by Rama V at the turn of the 20th century. He visited Europe extensively and came back inspired to recreate aspects of the cities he visited in Bangkok. As such the road leading up to the Throne Hall is very wide and Parisian, while the Throne Hall itself looks like a smaller version of Buckingham Palace.

Walking back towards a main road where I can pick up a taxi I’m stopped by a security guard and told not to go on the road. I look around. Everything has stopped. The cars are still, and the people wait quietly on the pavement. Something is happening, and I only realise what when a parade of police cars and motorbikes come wizzing through, silently but lights flashing, flanking a large cream limousine. It’s a member of the Royal family, obviously. Which one, I don’t know. But it’s quite interesting seeing the effect their presence has on the people around – everyone seems solemn and respectful.

My birthday on Friday is preluded by a night out on Thursday, seeing as I’m working all day Saturday and will not be able to do much Friday evening. I want to go to the Banyan Tree hotel as the rooftop restaurant and bar has been recommended by my friend Lucy for its amazing views of the city. I go with Ting and Mengly and Ting invites Sai, Aom and Aor. We have a nice, if expensive, evening. The views are stunning and it’s interesting giving Aom and Sai food to try instead of them testing Thai food on me. The foie gras doesn’t go down well with them, which surprises me. I thought they’d love it.

My new friends surprise me with a birthday cake, which is sweet of them and tastes amazing, but I’ve been stuffing my face already so struggle to get it in. But I manage. It’s been a nice evening, a subtle and pleasant way of marking my 29 years on the planet. I can behave like a 22 year old for the rest of the year now.

On my actual birthday I work; not something I usually like doing but I don’t bother requesting a day off because I have a new lesson starting which intrigues me. It’s a private lesson at the students’ house – a teenage boy and girl who are the son and daughter of a fairly famous actress here. I have no idea who she is so it’s not that that is of interest, but she will undoubtedly be fairly loaded so it’s an opportunity to see how the other half live in Thailand.

I have to get a bus there, which is my first time doing that as well. It’s an awful experience. I’m taken by one of the ECC staff and we have to get it during rush hour, so I have to stand up in this metal tin of a bus, squeezed in with a load of others, trying not to gag on the pollution and petrol fumes that are flowing freely through the open windows. It’s vile, but cheap. You get what you pay for, I guess.

After what seems an eternity we get off and we have to get bikes to the house, which is in some kind of gated community which you enter through what looks like a toll booth, manned by scaryish-looking guards. The house itself is, of course, lovely: big garden, long swimming pool, a veranda with a roof that acts as dining room and TV room as well. I sit and wait in this bit for the kids. Their father comes and sits with me for a while and we chat a bit. I think he works, or worked, for the military police. I say I think because he was talking about it and I was trying to restrain myself from going into full-on nosey-parker journalist mode and asking lots of questions. I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate as a teacher of his kids. But anyway. He’s a nice and interesting fella and we were talking about why so many Western men come over here to find Thai wives – basically because it’s a culture where they’ll be looked after, by both their wife and their wife’s family. That, of course, rarely happens in Western marriages these days and so they go looking for the old school way of marriage in this country. And, as my students’ father tells me, they find it here in plenty, not least because the Thai families appreciate the financial boost having a Westerner in the family can bring.

The kids eventually arrive, late from scouts and guides (yes, they have it here!) because of bad traffic. I get them to teach me Uno because I’ve never played it before, which takes some time as they have to explain in English. The father told me his son is hyperactive and has to take drugs in the morning to calm him for the day. He doesn’t bother giving them to him in the evening or weekends, even though he could. He wants his son to be himself as much as possible. The lad is hyper when I teach him and his sister, but not uncontrollably so. He’s fiercely intelligent as well, and I can see he’s assessing me when I teach them, weighing me up. But it’s not intimidating or off-putting, I like the lad, and I feel afterwards I’m going to enjoy teaching them.

I meet the actress mother afterwards. She’s not from that crazy soap that seems to be on every evening, which is slightly disappointing. She’s nice, pleasant, like her husband: they offer me to eat with them but I politely decline, saying I’ve arranged to meet a friend for dinner, and I head back to meet Mengly.

The bus back is better. I get a seat, and the bus travels faster so it’s breezier by the window. I meet Mengly for dinner – we have grilled chicken and chips at a Western restaurant called Sizzlers: the name says it all about the menu. We have one of those big confessional chats that you have when you’re becoming good friends with someone new. She talks a lot about her love life, or lack of it. I tell her a bit about mine, or lack of it, and explain the tattoo on my wrist. It’s quite funny watching people realise the tattoo is not as innocuous as I make it out to be. They always seem honoured to have been let in on the secret.

We go bowling. Mengly can’t get over the orange and silver shoes we have to wear. I quite like them and strut around in them, trying to convince Mengly they look cool. I fail. I am very bad at bowling. Luckily Mengly is EXTREMELY bad at bowling and so I have a birthday win, which is slightly cheering.
We walk home and hear some awful singing from across the road. There seems to be some sort of show on the other side of the motorway, so we head over and have a look. Some people are acting out a play in overwhelmingly glittery and colourful costumes. We watch it for a bit but have no idea what is going on apart from some men drug another man and a woman is very upset about it. It gets annoying so we leave.

The weekend brings more work. With first day nerves out the way I take it all in my stride. Saturday night I head to Sai and Ting’s with Mengly for more food-tasting. Aom feeds me salted mackerel (okay but very strong), sardines in tomato (bit spicy but good, and reminds me of my childhood when my Mum would make me sardines in tomato sauce sandwiches), and these tiny clam things which you suck on and get this intense rush of salt. I’m not sure if this is pleasant or not.

I also help Aor with her English pronunciation, which of course is slightly different to the American pronunciation she’s being taught. I’m not sure if I help her or not!

Sunday night Mengly and I head to RCA (Royal City Avenue), a designated ‘entertainment area’ in the east of the city. It’s full of loads of swankier than swank bars and clubs that managed to escape some of the curfews and crackdowns on nightlife that Bangkok suffered under the former Prime Minister. When we get there I realise why – it’s basically for the rich and fashion conscious of Bangkok, the upper echelons of Bangkok society. We walk past the massive exteriors of these clubs and bars, which all look like they should hold celebrity parties in LA. They’re all blasting out R&B and hip hop but look pretty quiet – it is Sunday night I guess – apart from one which has a queue of trendy-looking students queuing outside it.

We venture down further and find some more downbeat bars. We go into one which we can’t decipher the name of (mainly cos I need the loo) and order some drinks. I’m amused by the signs for the loo – the men`s is called John and the women`s Pussy. I go to take a photo of the women’s entrance (as it were) and catch a woman coming out of the cubicle just as the flash goes. I scarper.

There’s some bands playing and we have a listen to them, they’re not bad. One acoustic duo does a version of a song by a Thai artist called Endorphine that I hear on the radio at the office all the time. Their version is much better. Mengly is impressed, she’s doing a story for a girls magazine back in the US about music in Thailand and wasn’t that impressed with Endorphine. She’s looking for female artists with a Debbie Harry, Soiuxsie Sioux feel about them; something a bit more edgy. But she’s having trouble finding much here. It’s all boy bands, girl bands, Euro pop like Tata Young or indie rock bands like Silly Fools and the hilariously-named Potato. It’s all very mainstream.

We walk further up the road and hear a band playing Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger VERY, VERY LOUDLY. We walk towards the bar, called Prop Bar. It looks big and is obviously very popular. Mengly gets IDed on the door and I go to have a laugh with her about it when I get IDed as well. This is not so amusing.

We have trouble ordering drinks due to the loud music and language barrier. Even getting Mengly a Coke (she doesn’t drink) is nigh on impossible. The crowd is very hip, very young and very drunk. We go upstairs so we can people watch and sit next to some boys who are checking out the girls as they walk down the stairs.

Another band sets up, the singer wearing a big white hat Jay Kay style. They start and it’s a ska band. Long Beach kid Mengly is very happy and asks me if I know what ska is. I smile and say yes. I point out that ska was big in the UK back in the 1970s, long before it became big in America in the 90s. She’s surprised to hear it.

The singer starts skanking and Mengly wonders how ska made it here. I say probably the same way most other Western music gets here – the Thai kids don’t have much of a musical movement of their own, apart from traditional Thai music, and so look further afield.

The band is awful. The instrumentation is all over the place, they play slightly too fast, and even the singer looks bored, looking at his watch more than once. But Mengly loves them, they remind her of home. Next to us Mengly notices the boys have gone and have been replaced by a man in a white jacket and white three-quarter length trousers. He looks ridiculous but obviously thinks he’s the coolest cat in town. We take the piss discreetly, and are amused to see him dancing downstairs ten minutes later – arms flailing like a mentalist but having the time of his life.

The band finishes and we head out. Mengly stops to chat with one of the band members. Their name is Joy Boy (wow, do I even need to take the piss out of that?), apparently, and they’re all in their late 20s. But the guy doesn’t speak much English so she gives up after a while.

We wonder down the road a bit further – there’s a bowling place, a cinema – but the area starts to look dodgy so we head back. We walk past a bar we didn’t notice on the way up, which advertises itself as ladies only. It’s obviously a lesbian bar and I point this out to Mengly. She’s not convinced, despite the dykey-looking women, some of whom are WEARING SUITS. HELLO?? She’s only convinced when two girls – one very pretty, the other a ‘tomboy’ - walk in front of us holding hands. I feel pleased to know that there are some lesbians in the city; I was beginning to wonder where they all hid out.

Monday, 5 February 2007

total:spec - Travelling

“This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe searching for something we haven't tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay your welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It's probably worth it.”

So said Leonardo DiCaprio in his role as Richard in the 2000 film The Beach. Based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Alex Garland, The Beach depicted a (somewhat dramatic) take on a life event that many adults in their 20s either think about embarking on or do actually give up everything to do – going travelling.

So here I am doing just that – circling the globe looking for my own take on this tried and tested formula for finding adventures I could never have at home. My travels will take in three continents as I make my way through Thailand and various other southeast Asian countries, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the United Sates and Canada; all well-beaten paths but none that I myself had walked down.

As a man in my late 20s it was something I’d been thinking about doing for years. You leave university and you have your whole life stretching out in front of you. Gone is the comforting structure of the educational system and instead what you have is the unknown challenges of the adult and working worlds ahead. Which of course is plenty to keep you occupied for some years, but then I started hankering for the next stage of my life. Thing is, there wasn’t one.

Most people get a new job, but I couldn’t find one I wanted to do. I had a great job working as a feature writer for a national news agency that provided numerous perks and endless challenges. But soon even this wasn’t enough.

Other people get hitched, have kids. The former wasn’t looking likely any time soon; and as a gay man I wasn’t really bothered about doing the latter just yet – whether I’m in a relationship or not, I have no biological clock to worry about.

Some people just buy a house, but there was no way this was happening. My itchy feet would never allow me to settle in that way just yet. And what better way to cure itchy feet than go travelling?

I’d seen numerous friends of mine go and come back over the years, armed with tales of eating fried grasshoppers in Thailand, crawling through ice caves in New Zealand, getting molested by pervy men in Cambodia, and “pretending to these other travellers to be the Earl of Somewhere’s second son, who had been cast out for Some Mysterious Reason I never revealed”.

No matter how interesting a job you have, all of the above has got to beat sitting in an office for much of the year, occasionally going on holiday to some sun-drenched resort somewhere, right?

And yet, in my first few weeks travelling I’ve found that many of my fellow backpackers are treating their year away as just another part of that routine. For them, it’s an extended holiday filling in year before they head back to that job in the City. They stick together in unapproachable gangs, or lairy pairs, and I understand why - going away on your own is a scary thing.

But I’ve been told numerous times that it’s the best thing to do. And so far it has been. I’ve been forced to talk to people, not only other travellers, but also the locals. I’m not going to get fed unless I ask, and Thai people I’ve found to be very friendly and conversational - mostly genuinely, occasionally to take as much money as they can from you, sometimes both.

The popular kids, it seems, don’t get this kind of experience. They hang out together, head to the beach and party their hearts out. Me, I’m looking for something a little more visceral, a little more educational, and a story or two that not one single other person on the planet will be able to tell.

We have one thing in common though - a lack of fear of the idea of travelling. We are numbed to the unstable politics of other countries thanks to 21st century world events. So what that eight bombs exploded around Bangkok on New Year’s Eve? Or that there’s been a military coup in Fiji ? One Thai student I spoke to said that Bangkok had seen no difference in the amount of tourists visiting the city. And why would it? In a world where you can’t get on the London Underground without the possibility of being blown up, or walk through a New York that has seen the most horrific terrorism, a few bombs in Bangkok hold little fear.

In a strange way the now universal threat of terrorism has made the world an easier place to navigate. Travellers, this one included, now feel that if you can get blown up at home, you can get blown up anywhere, so why not go anywhere? And so here I am, heading anywhere, excitedly anticipating what will happen next.

The first big weekend

Nervous, nervous, very nervous. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ll be fired by the end of the day. These are the thoughts that occupy my mind for at least half the journey to work, and it only takes me five minutes to get there. I’m shifting from OMG!!!!WTF??!?!!! to shrugging, ‘How hard can it be?’ within seconds.

And of course it’s fine. My first lesson is with a 12-year-old lad called Bas. He’s quiet and sits very still and is very polite. At first I wonder if this is going to be another Tong situation but Bas’s intelligence and excellent English soon show themselves. We chat a bit, and then we read a story about a girl who lived in the wild in France and was found and ‘tamed’ by some local prince. He reads it, I ask him if there’s any language he doesn’t understand, and then I ask him comprehension questions. It’s too easy for him; this becomes obvious quite quickly, but we finish it and at least I know to find something harder for next week.

Half an hour before the next one, a 28-year-old woman. So I do a bit of prep, but not much fretting. These ‘private’ lessons seem all right – it’s less pressure keeping one person occupied than I imagine it is a whole class. The 28-year-old is called Jenifer. She’s quite attractive, which I know will annoy James. He would have been teaching her if he’d not gone away. She has big Bambi eyes like Natalie Imbruglia and is really sweet and eager to learn. She’s a hairdresser, I discover, and wants to open her own hairdressers some day. We go through the exercise book Binnie has suggested, and it’s interesting trying to explain certain words in a way she’ll understand. I enjoy it.

An hour before the next one. An hour to fret. It’s my first class – 13 and 14 year olds. I run around the teacher’s room, trying to find books and ideas of what to do. Maew asks me if I’m nervous. “Is it that obvious?” I reply.

But it’s all right. They are, as you’d expect teenagers to be, sullen and bored-looking. There are three that seem to do all the answering, so I aim questions at those that aren’t talking. This works but only for that question. If I go back to talking to the whole class it’s the same three again. I feel a little self-conscious at first, stood up there in front of all these kids but it soon goes. Most of them aren’t looking at me; I have to make them do so half the time.

A brother and sister are next - 11 and nine years old respectively. He’s called Nail and is bored but answers all the questions. She’s called Nenny and pretends I’m not there half the time, shouts at her brother a lot and never answers any questions, even those directed at her. I don’t enjoy that one so much, but their disinterest only makes me more determined to engage their attention next week.

By this time I’m running with it. Although I’m winging it, basically preparing for each class in the minutes before it, I’m actually enjoying it. And for the last one, a private lesson with a 14 year old called Max, I look through loads of books and get a good few ideas for the lesson. But he doesn’t show. Typical. But no matter, it’s been a good day.

Feb 4
Despite an 8.30 start with a two and a half hour lesson with four girls (well, three – one doesn’t show) who are as sullen as teenagers can be (to be fair to them, I didn’t know teenagers existed at this time of the morning on a Sunday), I’m actually getting into this teaching lark now. Mengly comes in and sees me avidly scouring books for ideas and laughs at my conscientiousness. She says I’ll be sat around not arsed soon, like the rest of them. I expect she’s right; and even now, though I’m apparently giving the impression of enthusiasm, I am seriously winging it – doing as much as I can to get through the lessons rather than make them beneficial to the students.

That said, they do seem to learn stuff. Just when I think nothing’s going in and I’m being the worst English teacher in the history of terribly bad English teachers, a light bulb will appear above a student’s head and they’ll give me the answer I’m looking for. But really it becomes clearer and clearer that very few, if any, of the school age students want to be there, spending their weekend learning English. After a quick break during my epic two and a half hours with the teenage girls, I come back in to see some graffiti daubed on the board. Most of the board is taken up by the logo of some Korean boy band. Above that it says, ‘We just want to play game.’ So I finish off what we were doing and bow to public opinion, compromising a little by playing a game that uses the English they know.

The teenage girls are followed immediately by a class of eight and nine year olds. They are unruly and hyper and refuse to sit down for any longer than two minutes unless they are drawing, when you might get three minutes. They are also enormous fun and I love every second of being with them, whether I’m shouting at them, teaching them, playing with them or bribing them. This has been my favourite lesson so far.

After a break I have a private lesson with two teenage brothers, Pipe and Park. They are both very quiet and well-behaved and listen to me intently. But I’m not sure the sibling classes work. Pipe, the older one, does most of the answering out loud, and I see Park copying him when they’re doing writing exercises, which there’s little I can do about in the small rooms we use for private lessons. Even when I ask Park a question directly his brother eggs him on in Thai. It was similar with Nail and Nenny yesterday, when Nail was doing all the work. But anyway, they’re nice lads, just very quiet and I need to get them talking more.

Last one is another private lesson, this time with a ten year old girl called Bell. She’s lovely. She has an absolutely filthy laugh and will laugh at just about anything. Her English is good but I discover the book the previous teacher has been using with her is too hard. Try explaining the concept of breaking a record to a ten-year-old Thai girl. I manage to get her to understand ‘good, better, best’ and ‘high, higher, highest’, but moving on to ‘difficult, more difficult, most difficult’ I lose her completely. It’s frustrating cos it’s clear that given the right material we could have a lot of fun, but this book isn’t it.

I end the day with relief. Not cos I’ve not enjoyed it, but because it’s been intense – two full days of teaching with no experience whatsoever. But they say throwing you in at the deep end is usually the best way to learn something and I’ve definitely learnt a lot about teaching this weekend, as well as realizing I’ve got shitloads to learn as well. But I can’t say it went badly; I think I did all right.

Later in the evening I hook up with Mengly and Ting. For days we’ve been talking about going to see a Thai film called King Naresuan at the cinema, and tonight is finally the night. Ever since I arrived in Bangkok my senses have been assaulted by hype and promotion for King Naresuan. The first part of a trilogy telling the tale of the titular Thai king (a 14th century monarch well-known in this country for uniting Siam, as it was known then), it’s the most expensive Thai film ever made and has been hugely popular here. Which is understandable given the level of promotion it has received. You can’t escape it here - from the massive posters that adorn every space not taken up by other posters, to the merchandise on sale in every 7 Eleven you visit. It reminds me of how Star Wars Episode I was promoted when that came out.

I get to the cinema before Mengly and Ting and decide that McDonalds would be a really good idea. But not your everyday McDonalds meal. No, I want a Thai version please. I read somewhere that in every country you go to with a McDonalds the local restaurants will have a native version of their meals. Thailand is no different. They have a chicken burger and a beef burger that comes in a bun made of rice rather than bread. I’m ordering a chicken burger in rice bun meal when Ting and Mengly arrive. They order the same, although Ting orders some hamburgers as well in case Mengly can’t eat the rice bun. He’s quite sweet like that.

The rice bun? Weird. I’m not sure what to make of it for the first few bites. It’s not disgusting, certainly edible. It doesn’t not taste like rice in the way the McDonald’s bread bun doesn’t taste like bread. So it’s basically a chicken burger with some rice that just happens to have been shaped into a pattie. The thing that’s a bit incongruous is the salad and mayonnaise. It’s just not quite right with rice somehow. I eat it all, of course, and one of the hamburgers, which was going begging, then we head off to the cinema.

Ting does the honours and sorts us a screen where the film will be in Thai but with English subtitles. Or at least he thinks he does. We go in and the film has already started but Ting assures us it’s not been on long and we’ve not missed much. But there’s no subtitles. Ting gets up and disappears for AGES while Mengly and I watch the film. I have absolutely no idea what is going on apart from that some woman is sat talking to two men and she’s not very happy about something. The crying gives it away. But there’s a lot of talk. It’s definitely not a film you can watch without subtitles.

Ting comes back and motions for us to leave. Sounds like he’s been having words with the staff, and it’s not over yet. He has to do yet more talking to convince them not to make us pay a second time. These Thai people really do like taking your money off you. He manages and we head to a screen where one, the film’s not started yet, and two, it has subtitles. After some bizarre, nonsensical adverts we stand up for the national anthem, which I read recently isn’t actually the proper anthem but just some song that serenades the King. But anyway, it’s quite entertaining. But it’s the second time I’ve experienced and already I feel it’s a little sickly and over the top. Coming from a nation that is quicker to criticise the Royal family than they are to blink, it’s hard to get your head round the Thai people’s unconditional love of their King and his family.

The film itself is quite impressive. I mean, there are loads of weak points – some of the acting is atrocious, some of the directing is a little self-conscious, and there’s a bit in the middle where it drags – but otherwise it has a real epic feel to it and sets up the rest of the story in the next two films well. It reminds me, again, of Star Wars Episode I, as it’s basically lots of political maneuvering (hence the bits that drag and the lots of talking) and the characters you’re really interested in are just kids and not doing much yet. But it looks great, not least because the director Chatrichalerm Yukol spent time with Peter Jackson while he was filming Lord Of The Rings to get tips on special effects. So yeah, apart from a bit in the middle where I nearly fall asleep, it’s great. I can’t wait to see the next one, which hopefully won’t be atrocious like Star Wars Episode II.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

First day (Part II)

I wake up and instantly regret it. But I have no choice, my alarm is ringing and I need to get up and get ready to go and meet Binnie at work. She said we could go over what I need to prepare for my first lesson today, and my first full day of lessons tomorrow.

God I feel awful. It’s the kind of hangover where you feel like someone is sitting on you, crushing you, no matter what position you’re in. This makes it hard to get up. I hit snooze and have another 10 minutes. The alarm goes off what feels like 10 seconds later. Shit. I have an argument with myself about getting up. It goes on for a while. The Will that wants to stay in bed is winning when Binnie calls, asking where I am. Just at my apartment, I tell her. I’m not late yet, I think, a little confused. She tells me she’s going to be late and then she’s teaching ‘til 12 so won’t be able to speak to me until then. Hoo-fucking-ray!

The Will that wants to stay in bed is very triumphant and smug and I instantly fall asleep and stay that way for another hour. Of course it feels like 10 minutes and when I wake up I feel EXACTLY THE SAME. I hate hangovers.

Eventually I drag my sorry arse out of bed and get ready to go to work. The walk to work is a staggeringly bad experience. My neighbourhood, as I’ve said before, is some very nice houses, some nice houses and some not so very nice houses all jumbled together, all encircling what they call a wat. This is a walled area that contains lots of temple-type buildings and residential buildings for the orange-garbed monks (who I rarely see at my local wat, strangely). Most of the nice and not so nice houses run little food stalls out the front or beneath their place. Stray dogs wander about the place, looking filthy and unpleasant. A canal winds through the area. The canals in Bangkok are unspeakably disgusting – a thick, dark green soup with plenty of rubbish and garnished with mosquitoes that buzz about on the surface. Try walking past that, the food stalls and the smelly dogs with a hangover brought about by far too much of what James appropriately calls ‘headache juice’ – the lovely, cheap Thai beer.

I make it without vomiting, amazingly. I’ve never been one to vomit on hangovers, thank God, although my new neighbourhood does its best to change that this morning.

When I get in I sit and chat with Binnie about this new student. He’s 20 and is going abroad towards the end of the month. Where and why she doesn’t seem to know but I figure I can ask him, give us something to talk about. She goes through my schedule tomorrow as well. It’s a full day of it. Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest in the school as lots of parents send their kids here for extra English lessons. And older students come in if they don’t work at the weekend. My schedule makes me even more nervous than I already am, but Binnie gives me lots of guidance and ideas about how to start off so that boosts my confidence somewhat. The good thing is I can spend much of the lessons doing `getting to know you` exercises and, you know, get to know them.

When we’re done talking I try and do some more prep of my own. But I can’t focus my brain at all. I’m not sure I have one left, although I am still aware of my pain, so something must be in there. I go get coffee and bread-based products in an attempt to ease the suffering.

The 20-year-old lad arrives at three. He’s called Tong and is a chubby lad with big fluffy hair. He’s painfully shy and barely acknowledges me at first. When I say ‘at first’ I mean for like half an hour. I ask him ‘getting to know you’ questions and get him to ask me the same. I eventually elicit that he’s going to Australia but not what for, whether it’s holiday or otherwise. I spend a few minutes trying to get him to pronounce Melbourne and Australia properly before realising that he has a lisp and maybe I shouldn’t push the pronunciation aspect of the lesson too much. The whole thing is painful and difficult, hangover notwithstanding, and after two hours (which actually go surprisingly quickly) I end it gratefully, and, unexpectedly, with a fair bit of understanding of what I will need to do with him before he goes. Get him to talk, basically.

I call Mengly and arrange to meet her for dinner. I bump into Sai, Aom and Aor at the exit to my building; they’re just on their way to meet Mengly too. We go to a restaurant that’s right next to Mengly and Sai’s apartment block. There are some awful singers taking it in turns to man the karaoke. One woman and the man are fairly good singers, but there’s another woman who is tone deaf. I physically flinch whenever she starts. I’m not in a good state for such things. I order sausage and fries, but it’s not all I’m getting. As before they’re ordering loads of dishes and we’re sharing. I’m not sure I can handle Thai food but I give it a go. Most of it is delicious, although one dish has whole chunks of lemongrass in, which gives me a bit of a shock when I bite into it.

Mengly has a shock with the same dish when she eats a chilli. She can’t speak for about 15 minutes, which is quite funny but I’m not sure she’d take well to me laughing so I don’t. One dish is lots of little things in batter which look good so I try them. They are disgusting. I think they’re little bits of animal, from what Aor is saying; the bits that don’t get used for anything else. So they fry them in batter. Gross. They taste WRONG. There’s no other way of describing it. Like eating something that was never meant to be eaten. But they’re munching away on them like they’re peanuts.

The meal seems to drag on for ages. All I can think about is bed. I’m so tired I’m not even thinking about tomorrow’s full day of lessons. But everyone is dawdling after the meal, enjoying each other’s company, and I feel bad for not behaving the same. Then, eventually, everyone says goodbye and I get my wish.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Cowboy kings

Up until now Binnie has been vague about when I’m starting work. It’s quite clear she’s still trying to work out my schedule as James leaves, Paul leaves and Mengly ums and aahs about what she’s doing. Christ knows what’s going on with the other teachers as well. So I’ve been happily plodding along, figuring I’ll start on Saturday as the weekends are, apparently, the busiest times for the school – parents send their kids for extra lessons to improve their English, and you get plenty of adults along, wanting to improve their English in their spare time.

Today I come into the office and Binnie throws me a curveball by saying that I have a lesson tomorrow (Friday). It’s only a curveball cos I’m actually quite nervous about this teaching malarkey and, while part of me knows I’ll be all right, there’s another part worrying about failing miserably at it. But I calm quickly at Binnie’s news – it’s a private lesson, which means a one on one, so that’s a start – no having to stand up in front of a class on my first go. And it’s a new student, a lad who’s coming in to practice his English before he goes to Australia to study. So I can start from scratch with him rather than pick up another teacher’s lessons and run with them. So it’s all good. It’s not ’til three tomorrow afternoon, but really I shouldn’t go out with James tonight. I should really get an early night so I’m fully operational and clear-headed and can spend the day preparing to teach this young Thai man some English. Right?

Don’t be silly.

I call James early in the evening and arrange to meet him at Khao San at about eight. I get there before him so grab a beer from the 7 Eleven and wander up and down the road, fending off tuk-tuk drivers and gawping at the wide-eyed Westerners. Already I’m feeling a little bit different to the other travellers. James calls, he’s here. I walk down the road to meet him. He’s with two Australian lads. One’s called Ed, who’s a normal-looking fella with browny-blonde hair and an infectious grin. The other’s also called James (from here on in called James II) has a ponytail and as such looks like he might work in a record shop, or a comic book store. He is fantastically friendly and we’re chatting away immediately, with him telling me they’ve just arrived and they’re a bit spaced.

We find a bar and sit down, James I ordering us a round of cheap strong beer in large bottles that goes by the name of Cheers. “Why has no one else thought about naming a beer Cheers,” is the not unreasonable point he makes after it arrives.

Ed and James II, it turns out, are the sons of an old schoolfriend of James I’s dad. The two men met up recently after years of no contact, and got on so well they thought it appropriate they put their sons in touch with each other. Ed and James II are here on a longish holiday and their dad thought it would be good if they met up with James I. This evening is the first time James I has met these guys. What a completely random and cool evening this is turning out to be already.

James II asks what I do back in the UK and I tell him I used to work as a journalist covering entertainment. His eye light up as I explain about it and he asks me what celebrities I’ve met. I decide to list some Aussie ones, and proudly tell him I’ve met the lovely ladies who play Kath & Kim. This leads on to a conversation about accent, with James telling me that he and Ed apparently have quite posh Australian accents. It just sounds like normal Aussie to me, but their dad’s British background has apparently made them better-spoken than their mates.

I ask if Ed or James II have been here before. Ed hasn`t but James II has. He came with his now ex-girlfriend and said it was absolutely the wrong place to be on holiday with your girlfriend. The availability of sex (or at least titillation) here is so distracting, the smell of it so strong, that, even if you don`t have any desire to cheat on your girlfriend, it`s a frustrating place to be. I can see his point. This country`s reputation precedes it and I can understand that just the knowledge of the naughty, naughty things you could be getting up to - watching, doing - would be enough to drive a man to distraction.

In-between our chat a Thai guy comes up every few minutes to show us the ice cream menu. James I says he does this every time he comes to this bar. The guy will continue to show tables of people the menu no matter what reaction he gets, and will never lose his enthusiasm. Unlike most Thai sellers it’s not over-bearing, and is actually quite entertaining. We get photos with him, of course.

James tells us about growing up in Malawi. He says he saw a lot of racism there, a sickening amount. But then, he says, it’s a very fucked up continent and a lot of the time black people there live up to those expectations of them – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. He tells a story of a white family who lived near him that was burgled – while they were in the house. The family was tied up, and the father had his face mutilated with a knife. Well, if that happened to you, you’d move out right? Not in Africa. The family actually STAYED THERE, living in the same house, because these things just happen in Africa. There’s no point in moving cos it’s just as likely to happen anywhere else. Unbelievable.

You know when sometimes you go out and you’re really in the mood to get absolutely steaming drunk and have the best night you’ve ever had in your life? This is the mood I’m in, for no discernible reason. After just two beers (one, in my defence, a ridiculously large bottle) I can feel the booze warming my blood and starting to work its magic. Of course most of you know I’m a lightweight and this will come as no surprise. But for a change I can feel it happening and I’m willing (no, eager) to go with it. I’m not gonna just fall off the wagon, I’m going to somersault off (double spin) and hit the ground running.

As such, my memory of the evening becomes a little blurry after this point so instead of a running commentary, here are the ‘edited highlights’, possibly in the wrong order, and also possibly completely wrong.

• A Thai girl who I have no recollection of the name of joins us at the bar later. She is a friend of James’s Thai girlfriend. James tells me about said girlfriend but, again, no idea.

• I tell James I I’m gay when we’re talking about girlfriends and love and sex and all that stuff. He’s very thrown by it and tells me that’s quite a big thing to put on him. I’m drunkenly dismissive and tell him it’s not, it’s no big deal at all. We say things I can’t remember much of, except the following. He tells me I’m the straightest-acting gay man he’s ever met (one of a number of reasons I realize he’s not met many gay men). He says he doesn’t know if that’s a compliment or not. I tell him plenty of gay men would see it as a compliment and I’ll take it as one. He asks if I’m into Thai/Asian men. I say no. “You’re not here looking for love then?” he asks. I laugh: “No, I’m definitely in the wrong place for that.” He asks me what my type is. I explain. “So I’m out then?” he says. “Yep,” I laugh. “I ain’t gonna be chasing after you.”

• We get a cab to another bar. We leave for reasons I can’t remember. Possibly it being a bit shit.

We go to a go-go bar that has the standard girls in pants and nowt else dancing on a stage behind the bar. This, as far as I remember, is of a far better standard than the scummy dump of a hellhole we went to last night. But, to be honest, all I care about at this point is that fact this bar has a BUCKING BRONCO in the middle of it. Amazing. Once we get on it, not a single person in the bar is looking at the girls. It’s like being at a disco and that first person on the dancefloor gets everyone else up. From the moment we start messing around on it, everyone wants a go. Even the go-go girls stop their wedding shuffle to have a look. James I shows his pervy side when a Thai bar girl starts wacking the bronco with a belt. He loves it. I show him the pics I take. “I’m getting turned on just looking at them,” he laughs.

• James asks me at one point if I find girls attractive at all. I tell him I have an aesthetic appreciation of them. “So you like looking at them?” he says. I laugh and nod, and try and explain that my sexual make-up is exactly the same as his – I think about sex as much and in the same way as he does, it’s just that my focus is men rather than women. I’m not sure if this helps him get his head round it or not.

• The friend of James I’s girlfriend tries to get all deep and meaningful with me when she discovers I’m gay. Thing is, I’m getting pissed with straight boys so am in complete ‘getting fucked with the boys’ mode. This, added to the fact that I’m completely hammered and have lost the ability to decipher her Thai accent, or even pretend that I’m listening to her, means I soon offend her. Somehow I manage to salvage the situation.

• I remember being asked FILTHY questions in the cab about gay sex and straight sex and what I would do and what I wouldn’t. One of them is so offensive that it even stops me in my tracks. I’ll answer any question a straight boy throws at me about gay sex, in great detail. It doesn’t faze me. I find it quite entertaining educating/disgusting (delete as applicable) them. But this one… If you want to know what it is you’ll have to ask me personally because I’m not repeating it here.

• We get food at some point towards the end of the evening. I know this cos I took a great photo of James I while we were sat there.

And also because the Thai girl disappears for a bit, coming back a bit later crying. She says she’s had a fight with some ladyboys. I’m all sympathetic now, trying to make up for my boo-boo earlier. But later when she’s gone James dismisses it as attention-seeking. “If she’d got into a fight with some ladyboys she be more than just crying,” is another not unreasonable point. I’m not sure, but he knows her better than me.

That’s it. That’s all I remember. But it’s a fairly good summary of the evening. It was fucking ace!