Monday, 30 April 2007

Home, James

April 27
It doesn’t feel like I’ve known James for more than five minutes, and really I’ve not spent much time with him since we met not long after my arrival. But he’s been such an integral part of my experience here that it definitely feels sad to bid him farewell. He’s off back to England to work a summer job - supervising a cleaning team at events as diverse as Live Earth, Wimbledon, Leeds Festival and the golf – and so has a big weekend planned to bow out of Bangkok for now.

The only problem with big weekends for me is that Saturday and Sunday are my two full days and teaching with a hangover, as I’ve already learned, is just not a good thing or very doable. Does this stop me going out? Of course not. And anyway, what else have I got to do? I either work or go out; staying at home is just not an option with that little room. And as James has been such a big part of my experience here, I wanna be there to send him off.

So it’s Friday night, a week since Paul left for Australia, and I’m feeling a little better after being so run down. I meet up with Jess and we head to Khao San. Our timing is perfect. Just as we settle down to some food the skies open and water (there’s too much of it to describe it as rain) pours down onto the streets of Bangkok, washing away a little of the filth and sending the stall holders on Khao San scurrying to cover their goods or pack them away. Inevitably the traffic in the city comes to a complete standstill and a message comes through from James to say he and Jeab are in a cab stuck in traffic. Jess and I count our blessings.

Eventually we meet up with James and Jeab in Gullivers. It’s noisy as hell and we struggle to chat. I try and talk to James about his holiday down to the islands with his mum but it proves impossible and we sit and laugh at Jackass 2, which is showing on the big screen, instead. God, it’s like being at home!

Paul arrives and immediately there’s drama. He’s lost 1000 baht somewhere and so flits about trying to find it. Then a bit later he’s chatting to a Thai girl he’s come with, explaining to her that he’s not a player, that his reputation is totally unfounded, when another girl comes up to him and hits him. I think he gets out of it by just walking away. Endlessly entertaining, that boy.

We head upstairs to play pool, and escape the louder than loud music. But there’s a queue for the pool tables and so James, Jeab and Dang, the girl who was with us when we were riding the bucking bronco in a strip club some weeks ago, decide they want to go to a club. Jess isn’t up for it. She’s being sensible and heading home, what with a full day’s work ahead of us tomorrow. I um and ah and um and ah but that part of my personality that always worries it’s missing out on something exciting kicks in and I decide to go with James. But just for a bit.

We get to a club but it’s shut for some reason so we head up to RCA, that road with all the swank clubs on, and go into a place called Flick. It’s pretty cool - slick décor and slicker clientele. We head through the R&B throng and into the electro house room. The music is amazing, as are the prices of the drinks. We all stand at a balcony and look down at the dancefloor, watching the Thais do their thing. They really can’t dance, it’s hilarious.I talk various clubbing hi-jinks with James. I realise just how much I miss clubbing and feel somewhat frustrated that, with work tomorrow in mind, I can’t let go and enjoy tonight properly. But I’m enjoying being here anyway and have a bit of a dance. We move down to the R&B room, for Jeab’s benefit, and carry on there.

After a while we move outside where James and I take the piss out of a Thai dude doing his best Usher moves. He’s actually quite good but is obviously showing off so we rip the piss mercilessly.
By now it’s pretty late and I really should go home. Unfortunately I have had just enough enough booze to think fuck it and I carry on with them. We head to the dreaded Spicy, which is full of the usual mix of massive farang guys and tiny Thai girls. I get hammered and dance with Dang until about four in the morning. It’s only at this point that I think, maybe I should go home. I do.

April 28
The phone rings. I answer. A female Thai voice starts talking. It bounces around in my head, making no sense at all. But what’s happened slowly begins to dawn on me… then reality hits when I see the time is 9.15am. I’m 15 minutes late for my first lesson. Fuck.

I’m lucky it’s a one to one – with the 12-year-old Bas who is back after a lengthy break (why this weekend??) – so Binnie only has one set of parents to explain things to. She’s not happy, of course, and doesn’t look me in the eye when I come rushing in just before 10. Ooh I feel bad.
Then I’m thrown a bit of luck when my 10 o’clock doesn’t show, so I have a bit of time to sort myself out before my 11 o’clock class. The next two hours trapped in a room with a rowdy bunch of eight to 11 year olds is the most painful two hours of my life, and I promise myself I will never, EVER teach on a hangover again. I almost fail to stop myself falling asleep with the devil children Nail and Nenny, but amazingly Max, my last lesson of the day, perks me up and we have a good lesson.

In the evening Jess and I head over to Bangkoknoi, the apartment complex where Ting and Sai live. The Bang Kae lot is there to have a goodbye meal with Hannah and Richard, who are heading back to Blighty. I give Ting a ring but get no answer. It’s been ages since I’ve seen them now.

We meet Anna, Louise and Sky in the restaurant and order some food. I’m on the sausage and chips - I’m too hungover for anything else. Others trickle in – Joey, Rachelle, Khilna, Lisa, Hannah and Richard, and some others.

Jess and I chat to Khilna. She’s drunk as hell, which is most amusing. She’s heading home as well so this is also the time we’ll see her. We have a good chat. She makes an interesting observation at one point during the evening - that she’s met loads of younger travellers on her way round that are always astounded she’s travelling at her age (29). They always ask her why she’s doing it now, totally unable to make sense of it. How naïve they are to think it’s as simple as go to uni, go travelling, get a job, settle down, live happily ever after. ’Fraid not.

It’s not long before Anna is no longer able to contain herself. A Thai woman has been performing on a karaoke machine all evening (terribly, I might add) but now Anna wants a go. The Thai woman is unable to resist and quite frankly there’s no coming between Anna and a microphone.

She makes my hangover all the more forgettable as she belts out some tunes but it soon reminds me of its presence and I bail, along with Jess, about 11.

April 29
It’s a typical day at school, with nothing out of the ordinary happening. I’m just happy to be feeling better than yesterday.

Once it’s all over for another weekend Jess and I head down to Khao San once more, where we meet up with James and Jeab in Gullivers 2. I order iced coffee. James is dismayed but I still feel pretty bad from Friday. Drinking and work do not mix.

A bloke called Mat who I train with at muay Thai is there with his girlfriend. I chat to him a bit. He has the most amazing life, I decide. He designs cars and works freelance, going from country to country where the work is, earning enough to take a few months break before he starts work again. It’s usually during his breaks that he comes to Thailand to train. He’s heading back to the UK for a while, he tells me, but after that he’s got a contract here in Thailand, which he’s quite chuffed about. Our conversation is scuppered by his Thai girlfriend, however, who keeps looking over with a rather annoyed expression.

We move on to the Silk Bar where we meet James’s mate Al who, impressively, is trying to learn the Thai alphabet as well as how to speak the language. Watching Jeab roll her eyes as he tries to point letters and words out, I get the feeling he’s not got the grasp of it yet. Good on him for trying though. There’s a nice American chap there as well, both he and Al are teachers here as well. Who isn’t? Al is in Bang Kae like our friends, but the American guy teaches at Inlingua, the school on the floor above ECC. Al is funny as hell, and James and he have good banter.

They order a bucket of Thai whisky and Red Bull. I figure I’ll be all right with the Red Bull in it and have a drink. It doesn’t sit well. Luckily for my constitution, no one is up for a big night tonight and we bail fairly early. I get Jeab’s number, promising to get in touch and have a night out with her. Be interesting to see if that actually happens. Then I say bye to James, wondering when on earth I’ll see the guy again.

Friday, 27 April 2007

Poor Paul

April 18
I get off the bus near Khao San Road in a complete daze. I`ve had very little sleep and I`m panicking slightly cos I can`t for the life of me remember what time Paul arrives.

Yep, holiday isn`t over QUITE yet, thank God. I still have a few days left during which I will be entertaining my friend Paul. Now Paul is the ex-boyfriend of the sister of one of my bestest friends in the world. It`s a slightly tenuous connection but we get on well, even if we`ve not seen much of each other since he split from Sarah. The plan is this: Paul is coming over to Bangkok for a couple days on his way to Australia (sound familiar?) where he`s going to be for a couple months taking a sabbatical from work. Unlike Sean, however, he`s going to be staying with me, poor bastard!

I get a cab home, drop off my stuff, have a much-needed and very welcome shower and then head to work to check my email and find out Paul`s arrival time. It`s gone 3pm; I have shitloads of time. Except I don`t. Binnie asks me what my plan is with regards to getting my visa re-stamped. I groan. I`d totally forgotten about it. But Jess has convinced me that I`ll be able to sort it all out down at the immigration office in Bangkok. The other option is to go all the way to the border with Cambodia and back, and that I just do not want to do. My visa runs out TODAY so it needs attention. I head down to the immigration office to sort it out.

It`s a big ol` trek across town and when I get there there are massive queues of people, of seemingly every nationality you can think of. I groan again. But it`s still early morning so I might be okay for meeting Paul. He`ll take ages to get off the plane and out of the airport anyway. I go in and join the queue for the information desk and I’m lucky – I get there quickly. I ask a very smiley Thai lady about my visa. She tells me I need to get my arse to the border with Cambodia, like, RIGHT NOW. But she says it much more politely than that, in very broken English. Fuck.
Now I have a dilemma. I either leave it until Monday, my next free day, and risk a huge overstay fine, or I go tomorrow. Tomorrow is the only full day Paul and I will have together. But I have no choice. I can`t afford the fine. Dammit, why didn`t sort this out before??

With a heavy heart I head to Khao San Road to buy a bus ticket to the border. I remember Vanda, an old hand at visa runs, was talking about a place she knew that did cheap border tickets for 400 baht so I call her. She can`t remember the name of the place but gives me vague directions. I try a few and they all say 600 baht. Then I happen upon one that say 250 baht one way, you pay for the ticket back when you get there. This sounds risky to me but then I think, how could there be a catch? It`ll be 250 baht back and I save 100 baht - one extra meal paid for! I go for it.

I spend some of that 100 baht on lunch on Khao San then get the airport express bus to, well, the airport. It`s a long old journey, mostly cos I`m dreading telling Paul I`m leaving him to his own devices for a day in this crazy and totally alien (to him) city. Plus I`m getting sick, I can feel it. Too much being soaked in water in cold weather and drinking ridiculous amounts of booze. I choose to ignore it.

I get to the airport and find a spot by the right gate, texting Paul directions. He comes out and he`s taller than I remember. But then I have been used to people my own size for quite some time!

I deliver what he will later describe as "some incredible news". He`s quite stunned and I feel for him. I think he`s quite nervous about this whole trip, but Bangkok is particularly intimidating just because it`s so alien. It was exactly how I felt when I got here and I was lucky I had Tom here to settle me in a bit.

I put an idea to Paul. I suggest he stays at Khao San Road so he`s central and near the sights and that, plus he`ll be surrounded by some familiarly Western amenities. If I take him back to mine he`ll have no idea where he is or how to get to places. He seems happy with this and so we scour my guidebook for places to stay. We go for Buddy Lodge. It`s expensive (comparatively to other places on Khao San) but sounds the best bet to Paul. He doesn`t want to stay in a "flea pit".

We get on the bus and catch up, chat about him leaving his job, and his girlfriend, to do this trip. I tell him a few things about Bangkok as well, like how to fob off persistent tuk-tuk drivers, and about my adventures since I got here.

When we arrive at the hotel he`s quite happy with the place and he starts unpacking stuff, including a present from the aforementioned `bestest friend`, Em. It`s some Guinness Marmite. God she`s a star. I leave him to freshen up while I go and look at some tattoo designs in the shop downstairs. I chat to the artist about a tat I like - a Thai-style dragon. But it`s really expensive - about 200 pounds. I tell him I`ll think about it.

Paul comes down and we go for food and drinks around Khao San.

We get fairly drunk, taking the piss out of the tourists (God he`s only been here five minutes and he`s becoming an ex-pat already!) and talking about sex. He might be straight and I might be gay but me and Paul have much in common in that we both came out of serious relationships three or four years ago and have spent the time since indulging in the (often) weird and (sometimes) wonderful sex life that London has to offer. I enjoy our comparing notes so much that I forget I have to be up at half six tomorrow morning. By the time I do it`s late and I ask Paul if I can crash in his room. He kindly obliges.

April 19
I wake up about sixish and have a shower, trying desperately to muffle the hacking cough I’ve developed and not wake Paul. When I go back in he seems unperturbed by my noise.

I grab a cheeseburger and an iced coffee at the McDonalds (it’s the only place open), take out some money for my visa to get into Cambodia and head to the office where I bought my ticket. I’m met by a skinny Thai lad on a mobile phone. He takes me to the bus, just round the corner form Khao San, not coming off the phone the entire time.

On the bus I’m nervous. Not so much about what I’m doing, but how I’m going to do it. It’s that fear of the unknown and I really don’t know what I’m doing. Is it really just as easy as going over the border and coming back again? I decide I’m not going to worry until I have something to worry about, but the fact that I’m a day over my visa expiry, and that I don’t know what to expect when I get there still niggles a bit.

The bus is freezing cold as they have the air con on full blast. I try and lose myself in my His Dark Materials novel but I finish it within an hour. I now have nothing to do. I take to eyeing up the hot German guy sat opposite me.

We stop once at a garage but I don’t get out. I’m not feeling hungry or thirsty or anything. Just ill.

As we move on the road gets bumpier. And bumpier. Its condition deteriorates more and more the closer we get to Cambodia. After five hours we stop at a restaurant by the side of the road. We’re near the Cambodian border and it’s here the guide on the bus wants to sort out all our visa applications etc. I fill in the Cambodian visa form and hand it over to the guy. He asks me if I have proof of flight out of Thailand. I don’t. My ticket is at the flat. He tells me I need it. I let a little bit of worry in. A friendly Essex lad, sat at a table with his girlfriend, asks me what’s wrong. I explain. They converse and realise they don’t have a ticket either, just a booking confirmation. That’s better than nothing, I think.

Then it hits me. They’re on holiday. I’m not. I’ve got a multiple entry working visa. I go show the guide and he says that’ll be fine. Phew. But there’s another problem – I don’t have a picture to go with my visa application. But this time money talks and the guide tells me that an extra 300 baht will compensate for the missing picture. I misunderstand and ask, 300 baht for you to take a picture. No, just 300 baht, he replies. I laugh inwardly.

I pay the money, give him the form and my passport and go to the loo. I come back and they’re all gone. I figure they’ve taken the travellers somewhere. I look at the menu. Then I hear a shout. They’re all waiting for me on a sawngthaew. I peg it over.

I chat to the Essex couple a bit and a Finish girl who’s travelling alone. The couple are going to Cambodia for a couple weeks, the Finish girl the same. They’re all incredulous about my visa run, none of them able to understand why it needs to be done that way. I shrug. Me neither.

We stop at the Cambodian consulate to get the visas placed in the passports. I wait nervously. I’m worried about the day overstay. I have cash though so hopefully just mean paying something. The guide comes back with Cambodian visas ready to go. No mention of my overstay. I breathe a sigh of temporary relief.

At the border it’s all a bit crazy. There is a market with hordes of Thais selling stuff, plus bikes and buses everywhere. The guide points out the bus station on the left where I need to go and buy my ticket back. I nod, searing the sight of it on my memory so I don’t get lost.

He takes me to Thai passport control where I fill in the departure form. I note the big sign on the wall saying 500 baht per day charge for overstay. That’s not too bad, I think, and brace myself for the frown and the charge. I get neither. There’s no mention of me being a day over. I carry on through, slightly relieved.

The Thai dude meets me on the other side and takes me over the border into Cambodia. We’re greeted by hordes of Cambodian kids, some with stretched out hands asking for money, others with umbrellas trying to shade you. It’s all a bit depressing.

A man approaches me, offering me something but I can’t understand his English. The Thai dude fobs him off, thankfully, and tells me he was offering a queue jump for 100 baht. Do I want it? I tell him no, I’m confused enough about what I’m doing already without complicating it further with probably dodgy activities.

We walk past some massive casinos. Thai guy explains that lots of Thais come here to gamble – it’s illegal in the country and yet one of the most popular pastimes – and of course Westerners. But mainly Thais. Then he tries the usual football conversation on me, hearing I’m from England. I politely bow out of it, though I do find out he supports Man United. Of course.

We arrive at Cambodian passport control. I join the queue there and fill in my arrival and departure forms. I watch a French lad who is the spitting image of Mike Skinner chat about the scars and scrapes on his leg. Motorbike accident apparently – what they call an ‘island tattoo’. I’m joined in the queue by a young-looking lad who was on the sawngthaew with me. I chat to him a bit. He was travelling with a mate but they fell out. Not for the first time I’m glad I came alone. As I get to the front of the queue, so are the Essex couple and Finnish girl in the queue next to us. The couple have come from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to here. They’re worried they smell, as well they might. But they don’t and I tell them I can’t smell them from here so that must be good.

I get to the front of the queue. All is cool, I’m in Cambodia. Time to leave, then. Another guide from the bus points me to the exit point. “Just one more,” he says, and I walk over the road and join the queue. It’s just a matter of a wait and I’m through again. Still no mention of the overstay. But my passport has not been re-stamped and I’m very confused. The guy said just one more but there must be another one. I look around for him but neither he nor the Man United fan is anywhere to be seen. I wander back the way I came, past the casinos, a frown creasing my brow. I fend off small begging children, a part of my consciousness feeling sorry for them, and hope that whatever else it is I need to do will make itself obvious. It does. I find passport control back into Thailand and queue up once more. I reach the desk, bracing myself for the overstay fine. It never comes. He stamps my passport for a month. I’m about to question it when he realises his mistake and stamps it again for three months.

I’m back in. Yay!

After that I go buy a bus ticket for 200 baht (saved myself 150 baht, nice one!), get straight on the bus and endure a horrible journey back. It’s not the fact that I miss lunch – I’m not hungry, just relieved it’s all over – but the lack of a book, iPod or decent air con (it’s not on high enough this time). My only respite is the stop at a restaurant where I eagerly consume a green curry Coke and chocolate ice cream. I’m so ravenous not even the flies bother me.

Hours later, me jumping up and down like a dog about to be taken for a walk, we arrive near Khao San. Never have I been so happy to see the place.

I go and see Paul. He’s had a funny day. Did the Grand Palace and then went on a 20 baht tuk-tuk tour of the city. I swear loudly. I tell him I’m sure I told him about that old con. I remember thinking I should tell him… Basically what they do is offer a tour of the city for 20 baht, do said tour, taking you to some beautiful jewelry shops, and highly revered tailors along the way. Paul spent much of his tour saying ‘No, thank you’ and being what sounds like an impressively obstinate Englishman. He bought nothing. Well done Paul.

We go back to mine so I can freshen up. Paul realises staying on Khao San was a good idea. I really am in the middle of nowhere, comparatively at least.

We get a cab to Banyan Tree, where I had my birthday. Paul wanted to do a few things while in Bangkok – see the Grand Palace (done), go to the Vertigo Bar at the Banyan Tree Hotel (doing now) and see a ping pong show (yep, I’m heading back there again).

At the top of the Banyan Tree we tuck into our fancy free snacks and order some cocktails. I now have an unforgiving cough and an insanely strong mojito doesn’t help matters, but I struggle on. We chat away and enjoy the view. Paul has trouble getting a decent photo of it as well – it’s nigh on impossible.

I spot a Thai boy I nearly pulled a few weeks ago. He’s there with some old farang bloke. Lucky escape there, I think to myself.

I’m being terrible company but I have a flash of inspiration. I know Anna and Fliss are in Patpong for the night, and we’re going that way anyway for what Paul will later describe as the ‘fanny gymnastics’, so let’s go meet them. If we go and see them they can help me make up for my dire performance as a host. A bit anyway.

I ask the hotel porter for directions to Suan Lum Night Bazaar. It’s in the same direction and I don’t want to come out of a classy establishment like that and ask for directions to the hotbed of iniquity that is Patpong.

At Patpong we grab some food. It’s good but I have trouble eating – I’m coming down with flu bad! Then we go to Anna and Fliss’s favourite haunt – Twilo. We hang out there a bit and Anna suggests Super Pussy as a good place for a ping pong show. I remember seeing it on the main strip so figure we won’t be ripped off as much as I was I the back alley dive I went to before.

I forget I’m in Touristland where we rich Westerners are skillfully relieved of every baht and more possible. We are charged 700 baht EACH to sit and watch the show and for one beer. Then immediately we’re pressed for a 100 baht tip before seeing ANYTHING (same as last time). After begrudgingly giving that over, Paul settles in to watch the show, while I’m hassled by a deaf bar girl. At first I’m amused by her attentions – if only she knew what a complete waste of time I’m going to be for her – but she won’t go away. She continually taps on my shoulder for a good 20 minutes, even when I am paying attention to her. It drives me insane. I try everything – politeness, anger, ignoring her. Nothing works. She writes numbers and stuff on a bit of paper to communicate with me. At first I think she’s trying to tell me I’ve been short-changed. I haven’t, I’ve just been monumentally ripped off. Then it turns to her wanting me to buy her a drink. I decline her kind offer. Occasionally she makes blow-job motions with her hand and her tongue in her cheek. This would be funny if I wasn’t so fucked off. Eventually resort to just telling her to leave me alone. I have to be really careful though. If I’m offensive to her (any of the girls in fact, but especially a deaf girl) I’m gonna be kicked out of here quick-smart. But Anna and Fliss save me. They arrive and bring a whole new bunch of trouble.

They refuse to pay what we paid. As I’m sat at the bar, Anna and Fliss behind me, the hard-faced mamosan in front of me, I’m caught in the middle of a half-Thai (both Anna and Fliss speak a little), half English row that goes on for 20 minutes or so. Eventually they get a little discount - probably due to their admirable persistence - but not much.

Paul, meanwhile, is enjoying the show. On-stage are some rough looking birds (quite frankly) wearing nothing but dodgy socks and shoes (get them a fucking stylist NOW!!) and doing some jaw-dropping stuff. One puts some chopsticks in her vagina and proceeds to pick rings off the floor and place them on the neck of a bottle. Another smokes a cigarette down there. Another produces a garland of flowers for down there. Another blows out candles on a fake birthday cake. Another fires darts from her vagina, popping some balloons that are attached to the ceiling (that was my favourite). Another fires bananas out of herself. The last one we see is a woman showing us a Coke bottle full of water. She pours the water into herself then crouches over the Coke bottle with a straw. What comes out into the bottle is the colour of Coke. How she does it I don’t know, though Fliss has a suggestion: “Maybe it’s her time of the month.” I gag.

All through this I’m being hassled by the barman. “Beer? You want beer?” every five minutes. Eventually I shout at him, “I’m sick!!”, and Paul suggests we leave. He’s had no hassle at all, lucky bastard, but sees I’m about to kill someone. He’s a bit gutted he’s not seen a ping pong ball being fired but thinks he’s seen plenty. “You get the idea,” I say. He laughs. “Definitely.”

We go back to Twilo where I hold out a little longer, though I’m coughing like a bastard and orange juice is making no difference. Work harder dammit! Anna does her thing, hi-jacking the stage as the band perform Hips Don’t Lie, and me and Paul rip the piss mercilessly out of an oafish American guy, dressed all hip hop stylee, as he fawns and looms over this obviously disinterested Thai girl that he’s four times the size of. Poor bloke, he’s got it bad.

Eventually we bail – me to mine, Paul to his.

April 20
I wake up when I wake up, but head down to Khao San as soon as I do to meet Paul for lunch. I take him to Siam Square, the main shopping area of Bangkok, so he can have a look at that. We have some decent Thai food at a place there – I introduce Paul to pad Thai, which he likes. I feel a little better for the lie-in.

We have a wander round for a bit. Paul takes a picture of the Starbucks.

He apparently has a friend who makes it her mission to visit a Starbucks in all the cities she goes to (which I find a bit weird; I do the same but only cos I want coffee) and wants to taunt her with a picture of one she’s definitely not visited. Okay.

We go back to Khao San to pick up Paul’s stuff and go and catch the airport express bus.

But the lady in the ticket booth tells us it’s late so lays on a taxi for us. We’re thrown in with two girls. At first I think they’re together but turns out later they’re not. The girl sat in the back with me and Paul is a stunning Penelope Cruz-a-like. Half Belgian, half Turkish, she’s studying in New Zealand and is heading back there after travelling for a bit in Southeast Asia. She’s fascinating – very well travelled and knows her politics - and the conversation doesn’t stop all the way to the airport. I swap emails with her as I say goodbye to Paul and tell her we’ll catch up in New Zealand. Cool!

After seeing Paul off I head back to Bangkok where I meet up with Jess and have a big catch-up. She had her parents here for Songkran and unthinkingly took them on a canal ride around the city. They got absolutely drenched. Well, of course!

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Chiang Mai (Part III)

The previous night’s early night pays off a little as I’m up early today to go on my trip. Amazingly I’m ready and waiting a little early, despite being in a bit of a daze. The days and nights of drinking are starting to take their toll a little but I figure some trekking round the mountains will sweat it out of me.

So I wait for the bus to pick me up, wondering what to expect in the day ahead. And I wait. And wait.

When the bus is 20 minutes late I get the receptionist at the guesthouse to call the travel agent, see what’s happening. This takes about half an hour altogether, with much speaking in frantic Thai going on (the receptionist, not me) and slowly increasing confusion (yeah, that’ll be me). Eventually it transpires that they have forgotten me. Brilliant. And so they send a driver in a car to come and pick me up so we can chase the bus down the motorway and catch them up.

In what becomes a frequent habit throughout the day, I sleep most of the way. The poor driver doesn’t speak much English anyway so it doesn’t matter too much. We eventually catch up with the group who have just finished looking at a waterfall. I’m greeted by the very apologetic and very smiley Waew (“Like Will!” she laughs. I grind my teeth a little.) and it turns out I’ve missed another waterfall before this one. Great. I quite fancied a dip underneath a waterfall. But, I’m told, there’s another waterfall to visit this afternoon.

I’m reassured a little until I see the group I’m with. They all come back from the waterfall fully dressed and very dry. There has blatantly been no swimming, just looking. On top of that, they are all middle-aged couples who are obviously on holiday. Not a single backpacker among them. What the hell have I signed up for??

We all pile into the minibus where I promptly fall asleep again. We rock up to a village populated by a Karen hill tribe. The Karen people are an ethnic group who are spread across northern Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). They have apparently been fighting for their own independent state since the middle of last century, but their doesn’t seem to be much of a revolution going on today. Their village, a collection of rickety and more stable and modern houses on stilts, is nestled in heavily farmed hills. Most of the villagers are outside, underneath their houses eating lunch when we arrive. We’re told that many relatives who live in the big towns and cities have come back to visit their families for Songkran.

I’m not sure if it’s the hangover but I’m completely unexcited by it. I think maybe it’s more to do with the fact that I’ve been here for a little while and this sort of thing, this comparatively primitive lifestyle, doesn’t seem exotic or out of the ordinary for me any more. I’ve not come straight from Dailymailshire, Middle England like the rest of my companions here. This is the sort of thing I’ve been seeing just travelling around anyway.

I really have signed up for the wrong thing.

We’re shown into a shack, however, that holds something passably interesting - some Karen women making colourful shawls using a traditional weaving method. I scout around the selection already made and for sale that are hanging from the walls and pick one out for Mum for her birthday. Seems like the sort of thing she’d like.

We get back on the bus and I pass out. What must they think of me??

Next stop is one of the King of Thailand’s royal projects promoting self-sufficiency among the poor. (God, how dull. When are we going trekking?) It’s a bit like The Eden Project in Cornwall, and just as dull unless you’re into gardening or looking at pretty flowers. I am not a massive fan of either and drag myself around the place like Kevin the teenager. Though I do take some nice pics of flowers purely cos my rubbish camera seems good at close-up shots and it gives me a chance to play around with it. The black swans we see are quite cool as well, but otherwise, dull, dull, dull.

Get back in minibus. Fall asleep.

Next stop is the King and Queen’s Pagodas, each built in the late 80s and early 90s respectively to commemorate the monarchs’ 60th birthdays. They look stunning, particularly the Queen’s which is built from purple-coloured stone (it’s her favourite colour, apparently), and inside each there’s impressive carvings telling portraying stories about the Buddha. But the lack of history lessens the impact for me. When I look at buildings like this I like to know that they’ve seen some action in their time. All these pair have seen is pink-skinned tourists like myself gawping back at them.

Bus. Sleep.

Next stop is the top of Doi Inthanon. Hooray! Maybe we’ll do some walking and see a bit of nature!

Nope. We get the bus up to a car park, and then a sawngthaew up the rest of the way. I’m last in and there’s no room inside for me. One of the adults deigns to speak to me as I step on to the back of the vehicle. “You be all right there?” he asks. “Yep,” I grin. “Not the first time I’ve been hanging off the back of a sawngthaew this weekend.” He doesn’t know what to say to that.

It’s cool at the top of the mountain. I regret not bringing a sweater. The peak is surrounded by cloud so the view is... white. This is the best trip ever! There’s some sort of research station on our left as we get out that we’re not allowed to take photos of. I try and sneak a couple later but they don’t come out too well. We’re shown a shrine to some prince or other. I don’t know, I’m past caring now. I just wander round feigning interest by taking photos and marvelling at the cold. It’s quite a novelty.


We go to a waterfall next. Well, we don’t, we go to a viewing platform that looks down on a waterfall that’s bloody miles away. It’s nice. What happened to my day of trekking and bathing under waterfalls, I don’t know. Must. Ask. Questions. In. Future.


But not for long. I wake up as we arrive at the first hotel to drop off A Couple. It’s very posh and expensive-looking. It’s not in my guidebook. Each hotel after that is decreasingly expensive and posh until there’s only one person left in the bus, which is me of course. I don’t get dropped off outside my guesthouse either. I get dropped off on the side of the road round the corner from my guesthouse. “One way system,” Waew explains, lamely. Whatever.

I go book shopping to cheer myself up, and find Book II of His Dark Materials, and Bangkok Tattoo, the sequel to Bangkok 8. I’m now much happier as I have Something To Look Forward To.

I go to that place that had free internet for dinner. This time I find out it’s name - Ratana’s Kitchen. Go there, the food is great. There’s some French guys hogging the computer after I finish eating though so I while away the time drinking beer and covertly stealing an article about Songkran from a magazine that actually turns out to be free but I don’t realise that ’til later. I should be a spy.

I also plan the night ahead. The girls are gone so I can go gay. I’ve come out armed with some gay guides I got from Bangkok that have some dodgy-looking maps listing the gay hot spots in Chiang Mai. Most of these seem to be “for men, by men” massage parlours, but there are a few bars that might be worth checking out.

After I’ve finished at Ratana’s I head to the part of the city, just past Liz’s hotel actually, where there seems to be the most bars. But it turns out the maps are dodgier than I thought and it takes me an age to track them down. Eventually I just stumble upon a small street, more of an alley really, that’s lined with a few colourful, male-populated bars.

I have no idea which one to sit at but a waiter decides for me, drawing me into his bar. I take a seat at the bar and order a beer. I chat to the waiter a bit, which is a little uncomfortable. He’s all over me without actually touching me, if you see what I mean. But I don’t fancy him at all so I just give him small talk to be polite.

He tells me all the bars along here are owned by the same person, but this one is most popular as it has a pool table. The pool table is surrounded by (some cute) youngish Thai lads. They all look bloody miserable though, it’s weird. Elsewhere in the bar are some old white male farang. I’m the only farang in here and I immediately think this makes me the most attractive. I get cocky and assume I won’t be going home alone tonight.

I chat to the barman a bit, he’s a good-looking fella. He brings out some rice wine for me and the old guy sat next to me to try. He turns it down. I go for it. It tastes like sherry. Hardly Leo doing snake blood is it??

But then he brings out bottles of rice wine with things like a scorpion, or a snake, or a caterpillar, floating inside. I try the scorpion one. Again, tastes like sherry. I get slowly drunk.
I go and play pool. It’s winner stays on so I play one of the Thai lads. He’s excellent, I’m dismal. None of them speak to me. I should’ve realised then.

I go back to the bar and start chatting to this cute Thai lad, cute despite his dyed yellow hair. His name is Chay and his English is clumsy at best but we have a laugh. He takes me to meet his ‘brother’ (actually his cousin) who works at another of the bars. He tells me he looks after him when he’s got no money. Chay tells me he works at the bar opposite (which is shut as we speak) and we have a very confused chat about what I do. We then go back to the first bar and sit with the waiter. He was up for taking me on after but pulls out now Chay’s around, and my attempts to get a gang together (Chay, waiter, barmen) to go on clubbing after the bars shut shows some slight promise then falters quickly.

The first bar eventually shuts up and Chay takes me over to the bar opposite. It’s run by a Thai Muslim dude called Ali, who is very chilled and cool. He’s probably seen a million like me before and, with hindsight, was probably just waiting for the penny to drop. He’s certainly quick to fill me in when it does.

A very tall ladyboyman working behind the bar, who seems to speak with a German accent, comes up and pouts at me a lot. I keep asking him if he’s German. I am the only person that finds this funny.

Chay asks me if I want to go to a titty bar. I frown at him. “You into girls?” I slur. I’m confused. And then it dawns... Ali tells me he is, but he’s happy to sleep with men for money. I groan inwardly. Ali goes on to tell me that most of the lads that come here are straight. They hang out here to pick up older men - the older the better as they have more money. Young farang like me aren’t much of a prospect so are pretty much ignored.

Chay has wandered off during this explanation, and when he comes back I try and explain that I’m not willing to pay for sex. I ramble drunkenly but he understands “can’t pay” and “no money” and disappears quick-smart. So, while I was sat there arrogantly thinking I was the dog’s bollocks, I was actually the least attractive prospect in that bar. Fucking hell! You live and learn.

I go back to the bar. German ladyboyman invites me to sit behind the bar with him and I sit down and start chatting to a Brummie bloke with two Thai girls. Least someone’s had some luck. We have a laugh about what’s happened to me. Ladyboyman disappears and then two gay farang and a Thai boy come and sit down at the end of the bar. One of the guys is from Bournemouth and used to work in, or run, I forget, the Branksome Arms, a pub I’ve been to on many an occasion with my mate Gary. It’s a small gay world.

I ask if he knows Gary, but he doesn’t. We chat a bit more and then something really weird happens. I’m blathering away about something and use the word fuck, as I am wont to do on occasion, and Bournemouth dude flips. He takes real offence to me using the word and gets really angry. I point out that I am an Englishman, and as an Englishman himself he must know that we use it as punctuation, it doesn’t mean anything. But he’s not having any of it and flounces off with Thai lad in tow. I’m incredulous. His mate tells me not to worry, he’s drunk and flips out like that sometimes.

I chat to Ali. He’s not gay and is Muslim. I attempt to ask him in my drunken way about being Muslim and running a gay bar, because, like, you know, Muslims are known for being “not keen” on the old gay thing. He just says it’s never bothered him. Man of few words, that Ali.

I ask him how I ended up behind the bar. “You walked there,” he says. I nod understandingly. That, I think, makes total sense. “Time to go home,” I say. He nods understandingly. I stumble home.

What a WEIRD day!

April 17
My last day in Chiang Mai but I don’t have anything planned. There’s not much to see in the city apart from wats and I’ve had my fill of them quite frankly. A chill out day begins.

I do go for a wander down to the river but it’s too damn hot to spend any length of time outside. (Now the bloody sun comes out!!) So I go back to the guesthouse and hang out by the pool. I get stuck in to The Subtle Knife, the second His Dark Materials book. It’s good from the get go. This is going to be one of those reading experiences that you feel bereft when it ends, I know it.

Jack is running around as usual with Serena and a Thai boy in tow, but they leave me be. Songkran is over now so they’re reduced to covering each other with a water instead.

I get talking to a Norwegian girl called Ann by the pool. She’s really cool, very chatty and easy-going. She’s on a gap year from Uni - got bored of studying so took a year out. We talk about travelling a lot and she tells me about the east coast of Australia, saying it’s very touristy and full of backpackers and that I should try the west coast if I want something a bit different.

Then she decides to go off to Doi Suthep, a mountain near Chiang Mai that has a famous wat. She invites me but I need to be here for the bus pick-up to go back to Bangkok.

As she goes off to get ready, a Filipino guy sits down and starts flicking through a paper. He asks me if I like climbing. I tell him I’ve never done it but wouldn’t mind trying. He asks if I know anything about it here. I tell him I’ve seen loads of info about climbing trips so he’s definitely in the right place. He eventually confesses he’s looking for a climbing buddy. I tell him I’d love to hook up with him but I’m going. Trust me to meet some interesting people just as I’m leaving!

Ann comes back and gets chatting to him. Turns out she’s half-Filipino and they talk about places in the Philippines they both know. He invites himself along to Doi Suthep with her and then goes off to get ready. She doesn’t seem bothered until he starts to take ages. After about 10 minutes she gets annoyed - the wat shuts at a certain time - and goes off to see if the receptionist can track him down. He eventually turns up and off they go.

I doze, and read, on the sofa by the pool. God I’m hungover. Nothing makes me feel better. It’s hot and the fans do little to ease the heat. Coke doesn’t have it’s usual magical affect. Neither does crisps. It’s too damn hot.

The time for the bus to pick me up comes and goes. I start to worry, as I booked the ticket through the same company that forgot me yesterday. This time I go round the corner to the office. Turns out the man should have written 6.30, not 16.30. Fucking hell.

I go back and wait some more. Ann comes back. I could’ve gone with her after all. Bollocks. I go get some food on the street - they have menus in English! - and have a wicked pad Thai. As I eat, I’m mesmerised by this dark-haired lad on his own but he pays no attention to me. I’m off anyway, no point making new friends.

Eventually a sawngthaew picks me up from my guesthouse, and I’m off. I get on the bus and get a seat by the window. Not long after an Indian-looking guy sits down next to me. For about half an hour into the journey he sits there, back dead straight, fingers tapping on his knees, leaning forward occasionally. Bring a fucking book next time! It annoys the hell out of me.

As soon as I put my book down he starts chatting. He’s actually a nice fella, on holiday from Bangladesh with his mate. He tells me they’ve been trekking. I quietly fume. I tell him about Songkran but it seems it passed him by completely. Eventually of course he gets on to Bangladesh and how it’s not as bad as the media makes out and actually it’s got a thriving tourist industry etc etc etc. He works for a tour company, of course. Probably been getting tips from the Thais on how best to do it. He’s lucky he didn’t go on my trip.

All I know about Bangladesh is the general impression you get from the news that it’s A Bit Dodgy, so I just sit and listen and nod and grunt in all the right places. I’m so good at that. I let the conversation go on for a bit cos he’s quite interesting. But then I let it dry up. I want to get back to my book. I need to know what’s happening to Lyra and Will. I’m so sad.

In the hours that follow two guys sat up front bore the rest of the bus to tears with a supremely intellectual conversation about math, math theories and math history. One is a math student, the other very interested. It’s quite annoying to listen to but at least it’s markedly different from the usual conversation you might hear between two lads who’ve just met on a bus like this.

I soon doze off but its a fitful sleep. I cannot get comfortable at all. We stop later at a service station type place. I eat and drink in a near-stupor, but with that awful ‘holiday’s over’ feeling.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Chiang Mai (Part II)

I wake up feeling awful, of course. I don some clothes and head to the travel agents round the corner to sort out a trip for Monday. The girls will have gone back to Bangkok then and I fancy seeing some of the sights, maybe go trekking, ride an elephant, that sort of thing.

I don't escape the water on the way to the travel agent. I tell them not to get me, but I still I get a bit wet. Water pistols, thankfully, no buckets. Luckily the travel agent is just around the corner. I look at the trips on offer and they all look much the same. I pick one that takes you up Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand. That sounds cool, I think, and buy a ticket.
I head back, again having to run for my life. Well, my dryness anyway.

Changing into just a pair of shorts (I want a tan, man!) I go and meet Anna and some others at Taphae Gate, where I was supposed to meet Vicky yesterday. With some mobile phone navigation (both of us talking through a plastic bag - not easy, I tell you) I eventually find them in the market square, where it`s relatively safe. But all of us are wet through already anyway so that doesn`t matter.

We go for breakfast at a cafe down a road that`s relatively quiet. I have a Mexican beans on bread with cheese thing which is so filling it hurts but damn good hangover food. Just as we`re finishing brekkie we start to get fired at. People going past must be seeing the empty plates and thinking it`s okay. I try and cover my still-to-be-drunk coffee with some success. The rest of the table gets absolutely soaked. We`re all laughing but Joey`s not happy. She starts shouting at them, to no avail. Then the boys sat next to us, Swedish I think, pay their bill, stand up behind us, giggle evilly, and start firing. Sitting ducks, I tell you. Joey flips. I wouldn`t want to get on the wrong side of her.

We pay and head off for a wander. We end up stopping at some hilarious rock bar that`s pumping out the Iron Maiden and AC/DC tunes. We stay there for awhile; I have a shoot-out with a young Thai lad, maybe about nine. He`s taking it all very seriously, doesn`t crack a smile once, but he`s obviously loving every second. He has a go on my gun for awhile, it dwarfs him completely.

But none of the guys I`m with are getting into it that much. The problem is the weather. It`s overcast and actually quite cold. I have to go back and get my adidas jacket at one point because I`m pretty much shivering due to lack of t-shirt. It`s soaked in seconds of course, but it`s better than nothing. After awhile of drinking beer, Anna decides to go back to her guesthouse and get away from it all. We`re still waiting for Vicky to show up (still in bed) so I wait there with Liz, an American girl who teaches in Bangkok and wants to meet up with Vicky as well. She`s been home for awhile and has not seen her so is keen to have a catch-up with her.

I chat with Liz a bit and wait for Vicky to call. It`s down to me to contact her as Liz lost her phone, camera and wallet while swimming in the moat yesterday. They are all now at the bottom in a plastic bag.

I eventually hear from Vicky and we decide to go and meet her at Chang Puak gate on the northern side of the moat. Now, this doesn`t look very far on the map (and probably isn`t NORMALLY) and there`s no point getting a tuk-tuk - the traffic is at a virtual standstill around the moat - so we walk.

But what Liz and I don`t count on is the hordes of Songkran revellers we have to get through to get there. It takes forever. I try and shoot my way through the hundreds of people but Liz soon puts a stop to this, saying I`m antagonising them and just bringing more water our way. She`s right. As soon as I start firing on a retaliate-only basis, less water comes our way. But not much. Just being a farang seems to attract enough attention. At one point five Thais throw their buckets at me at the same time. I can`t see for a good 20 seconds. It`s crazy, crazy, crazy. And how I don`t lose Liz, I don`t know.

But we get through it, and with a few vague directions from Thais who just point in the general direction of where we want to go (this is the traditional Thai way of giving directions, which I`m slowly getting used to), we eventually get there. Liz goes and gets food while I try and contact Vicky with my slowly dying phone (this is from lack of battery power rather than water - it`s surprisingly resilient!). Somehow we manage to find each other. While Liz and Vicky have a catch-up I eat some food. It`s more to warm-up than because I`m hungry - I think my Mexican feast could keep me going for days.

We think about getting a tuk-tuk round but decide it`s a bad idea. We`d be sitting ducks and would get more water than we could give out. So we grab some coffee from a 7 Eleven and walk down the middle of town, where Vicky and I saw the procession yesterday. But then we see some Swedish guys with a pick-up truck and, on the spur of the moment, Liz asks for a lift. They oblige and we get in and sit in the back. What happened to our worries about being sitting ducks, I have no idea.

Just after the final Swede gets in at the front, he gets out again and says, "Oh by the way, the driver`s drunk as hell." Fuck. We look at each other and burst out laughing. Too late now. The truck has moved off and is heading the wrong way down a one way street. They reverse past the barrier that should have told them `No Entry`, and off we go for a drive through Chiang Mai.
We really are easy targets. Before long we are getting soaked from every angle. I try and get into a better position to fire back and end up knocking my coffee over. I fail to get into required better position and end up sitting in my own coffee. Thankfully the girls think this is hilarious as well. Eventually, thankfully, the boys stop the truck and get out. We need no encouragement to clamber out ourselves. We thank them and walk back towards our guesthouses, Liz`s not being far from mine. Vicky goes back with Liz and I head back to mine to sleep off my lingering hangover.

When I wake up I call Anna. Everyone`s meeting at an Irish pub up the road from me so I head up there, stopping to get some food on the way. I find a place that does free internet if you eat there. What a neat idea, I think, defo be coming back here.

Heading towards the pub I see Anna, Joey, Hannah and Richard walking down the street. Richard asks if I`ve just come out of the cash machine. I tell him yes, that`s where I`m staying. We go to the pub but everyone`s outside. We seem to be going somewhere else. I just join the crowd and follow.

We stop at a VW van with the side opened up to form a bar. Inside are sat a French dude (really long nose gave him away as much as his accent)...

...and his Thai wife (who`s stunning). We do some shots and chat shit to each other. They really are quite the most amazing shots any of us have ever had (we`re saying this after we`ve had them, of course), and the favourite seems to be the Orgasm, which lives up to its name extremely well.

We go back to the Irish pub to pick up some more people but some of the group just stay. I end up going off with Vicky and Liz to find Brian and Nick. They`re in some bar down a small dusty road with a host of small bars, most of which are playing reggae. We look into each one but can`t find the lads. Eventually we find them in a bar watching a Thai covers band play the likes of the Chilis and Green Day. We sit on round wicker chairs right in front of the band; it`s deafening. There`s a white guy with dreads dancing alongside them, loving each song as the band starts with the opening riff. Beside him a Thai girl dances to a different beat. One in her own head it seems, as she`s moving at a frenetic pace totally out of sync with the music. But this, I will learn, is just how Thais dance. Rhythm doesn`t come into it.

We go back to the others at the Irish pub. A Canadian lad challenges everyone to air hockey. He thinks he`s the king but is actually quite terrible at it. I watch the matches wondering if there is actually any skill to this game or if it`s just luck. I play Anna and I`m terrible. Yeah, it`s just luck.

Freebs orders a round of Jagermeister and Red Bull shots. Sounds disgusting but is actually pretty nice. We chat for awhile and she tells me I`m a really cool guy and that there`s a friend of hers in Australia that she`d really love me to meet. But she`s off to the UK so won`t be there to introduce us while I`m there. I`m not too gutted.

At one point later Hannah asks if I`m offended by the use of the word `gay` to mean something that`s a bit rubbish. She`s been using it a fair bit, I noticed earlier. I tell her I used to be, and she groans, but I go on. I used to be and I had a word with my younger sister Libby about it, cos she was using it that way and it was pissing me off. But then I figured, well, we appropriated the word in the first place. It used to mean something completely different before - i.e. happy - and then it became something else. Words change their meaning, it happens, and I think, if people are obviously not using it in a way that`s derogatory about gay people then what`s the fuss? I tell her that lots of gay people got pissed off with Chris Moyles for using it on his radio show and were saying he`s homophobic. But I reckon he`s about as anti-homophobic as you can get. He has a gay man on his team on the show and treats him in exactly the same way as all the others on the team (which, in terms of his show, is taking the piss). To me that`s normalising it. That`s got to be better than the usual camp so-called `representations` we still get in the media.

I don`t bang on as much as that to Hannah but I give her that general drift. She still seems annoyed with herself for using the word `gay` like that though, bless her.

We go on to a club I can`t remember the name of, which seems to be behind a multi-storey car park. We try and get in but our Canadian air hockey expert has no ID (turns out he`s only 17, which explains a lot about him). We go and get a drink from a bar next to the club and sit outside in the car park. I sit with Anna and we start chatting. It gets intense pretty quickly and I tell her much the same stuff I was talking about with Vicky last night. Anna returns the favour, she`s got her own unrequited love thing going on, and me telling her my story seems to have some inspirational effect on her. She says so anyway.

Then, as soon as chatty Canadian Kelly heads home, Hannah lets rip about her. It`s so unexpected. I thought this little group were quite tight knit. Turns out not to be so, and as the evening has worn own I`ve begun to see all the little niggles, rivalries and unspoken annoyances emerge. It`s nice in a way - I don`t feel such an outsider now.

I have no idea where I am and I`m as drunk as hell so I head back to Anna`s and crash there with her, Freebs and Joey. I`m on a blanket on the floor but, thanks to the spirits inside me, sleep comes quickly.

April 15
Someone speaks.

"You okay down there Will?"

I consider my reply.

"Who are you?"

Anna laughs and we all compare hangovers - we`re all pretty bad. I have some breakfast with them, which isn`t easy to eat, I must say, then head back. It`s only 10 or so but I need to get back before the water-fighting starts. They`re staying on the north-western side of town, so it`s a bit of a trek.

I head out and hunt down a sawngthaew. They`re easy to find and I get in one with a father and son sat in front. The son gets out, finds out where I`m staying and tells me it`ll be 20 baht, that okay? Are you kidding, I think, of course it`s okay. That`s cheap as hell.

But then we drive through streets I don`t recognise at all and I start to wonder what`s going on. Eventually, though, the son gets out and the father beckons me into the front of the cab. Ah, just dropping his boy off. I get in and he motions for me to wind the window up. The water-fighting, it seems, is about to start any minute.

He`s a grizzly little fella - wrinkled, messy `tache, mischievous glint in his eye. He has a sip from a cup of ice water that`s sat on the dashboard and motions for me to have a sip as well. I accept gratefully. I could drink the moat right now. But as the liquid hits my lips I barely contain a splutter. It`s whisky. My stomach`s not happy. The driver grins at me inanely and starts singing the word whisky. He continues to throw random English words at me as we drive. I nod and smile a lot while watching the road. He isn’t, much, and yet his driving is impeccable.

Eventually he drops me off near the guesthouse, alive and in one piece. I go back and read for a bit, tired but not sleepy. Anna texts me - do I want to go and see a film? What film, I ask. It`s gonna have to be good to trek all the way back over to her, get soaking wet and sit in a air-conditioned cinema in wet clothes. The Good Shepherd she replies. Jess told me it was dull so I decline and get back to my book.

I sit by the pool at my guesthouse reading and watching Jack play with her equally young but much more obviously feminine friend Serena. They are water-fighting and turn on this American guy who has been chatting to them. He gets soaked and has to go into his room (which is near the pool) to get changed. Jack threatens to throw a bucket of water through the open window and I shout at her not to. "Why?" she asks, and I make up some crappy adult excuse. She`s unimpressed but doesn`t throw the bucket. Instead she and Serena start on me. I warn them off cos I`ve got a book and my phone with me. Jack points out that the book and phone are on the table and not on me so pours a bucket down my back. She goes for some more and I complain, to which she points out it`s Songkran and she`s allowed. Turns out cute and gregarious Jack has got a bit of a nasty streak to her. I grab a bucket pour one over her and make a dash for my room. Beaten into retreat by a nine-year-old. The shame.

Vicky gets in touch (that girl sleeps more than me) and I arrange to meet her at Liz`s hotel. It`s the other side of Taphae Gate, which means I have to go past the moat and through the gate to get to it, which means I`ll get soaked. I don my water-fighting clothes, and arm myself with my pistol, filling up in the pool. (It goes without saying that Jack gets blasted on the way out.)

The trip is quick so not too bad, though I do get soaked through. It`s nice just to dive in and then out. Quite frankly there`s only so much water-fighting you can do before it gets a bit old. I find Vicky hanging out by the pool with Liz and a bunch of Canadians, including Kelly. The weather`s overcast so it`s not as nice a set-up as it could be. One of the Canadian guys, Ryan, introduces himself as "the coolest guy you`ll ever meet", which of course means I devote my attention entirely to him for the rest of the afternoon. I don`t know why but I love half-serious, half-joking arrogance like that, plus he`s good-looking in a boozy frat-boy kind of way.

Ryan tells some story about him being a caddy to the Backstreet Boys a few years ago and tells how they ran off the course and over a bush when they were told some paparazzi were waiting for them on the next hole. One of them left with the words, "This shit is whack", which causes much laughter and shouts of disbelief. Kelly is particularly vocal about her thinking it`s all made-up and a very entertaining argument ensues.

We get some beers and go and sit in the pool. It`s a hot day but the weather is shit, odd bits of rain spitting on us. Ryan starts asking questions about me and I return the favour. He`s so loud and talkative that everyone just stops talking to listen to him talking about himself. This makes him quite self-conscious, hilariously. He`s fascinated that I was a journalist, and thinks it`s "AWESOME!!!!" that I interviewed Jon Bon Jovi (always a good one to pull out of the hat, I find). He`s fresh out of Uni, wants to be a "phys ed" teacher, got roped into coming to Thailand by some recruiting agency in Canada that sends people to teach in Thailand (which explains the large amount of Canadians here).

The others take the piss out of him for talking about himself so much (all I just said took a whole lot longer to tell me). He tells them I can get up and walk away whenever I want. I get up and walk away. The others piss themselves. I go back. "You don`t have to be nice," he says. "I was only joking," I grin at him. I like him, but it is a bit overwhelming being sat with all these northern Americans. I`ve gotten used to the quieter personalities of the Thai people and this is the other extreme.

Vicky eventually heads back to Dan`s, but I stay and hang out with the Canadians some more. We drink more beer, then Ryan starts on the whisky chasers. This is not what you think. This is a gulp of whisky from the bottle, then a swig of Coke from the bottle. Lethal.

We go looking for a burger joint and get soaked in the process. I am freezing by now and Kelly kindly lends me her rather fetching red Hawaiian shirt. We find a burger joint and I chat to Kelly a bit. She tells me her parents came over to visit recently and sat in on one of her classes. I tell her that would make me dead nervous but she just shrugs. Public speaking never bothered her. Not for the first time this afternoon I realise I`m with the Popular Kids again, but this time inter-acting with them and enjoying their company. There’s hope for me yet.

I head back to the guesthouse promising to meet them later and drink some more. I never make it. Pretty much as soon as I hit my bed I pass out.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Chiang Mai (Part I)

In the middle of April every year, Thailand celebrates New Year, or at least what used to be New Year in this country. The Thais have begun the new year in January in tandem with Western society since 1940, before which it was April 1st. It had been April 1st since 1888, which is when they changed it from the middle of April.

Despite them having New Year’s Eve partying on January 31st, the true celebrations - the ones where they really let go - are still saved for the old New Year. Called Songkran, the festival lasts anything up to five days, or even longer, although it’s official dates are April 13th to 15th.
As Thailand geared up for the celebrations I was told that the place where the festival is most ardently celebrated is Chiang Mai, Thailand’s big city in the north – it’s Manchester if you will. And so I decide that that’s where I want to be that weekend and go about planning my trip.
But it nearly doesn’t happen. As soon as I book the time off work, Binnie tells me to book everything ASAP as everyone heads home, or up to Chiang Mai, or down to Bangkok at that time, and everything gets booked up really quickly. So I scour the guidebook and decide on a guesthouse to stay at. I pick a place called Smile House, mainly cos it gets a good review, but also because it was once the ‘safe house’ of an infamous opium warlord called Khun Sa during his visits to Chiang Mai.

Khun Sa, now 73 and retired in Myanmar (Burma), was a scary-sounding dude who, up until the mid-90s, controlled the opium trade generated in the ‘Golden Triangle’ – an opium-producing area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet – with a 20,000-strong army. He was constantly fighting the Burmese, and trying to claim independence for the Shan area of Myanmar, where he lived. And in 1990 he was indicted by a U.S. court on charges of heroin trafficking in the United States. Though he surrendered to the Burmese in 1996, they, weirdly, refused to extradite him, and he now lives comfortably in the Rangoon area of the country. I can only assume he’s paying the Burmese to keep him safe from punishment in the US. Amazing.
But anyway. I book my room for the weekend. Sorted. And then completely forget to sort out travel. By the time I remember – Binnie asks me a few weeks before if I’ve booked my train ticket yet and her eyes widen in horror when I tell her no – it’s too late to get a train. Binnie suggested this would be the best way to get to Chiang Mai as the traffic’s really bad over Songkran and there are a lot of accidents on the road. But when I head down to the train station to try my luck, Every. Single. Seat. In the few days leading up to Songkran is booked. There’s nothing free at all. I start to panic. I’m really keen to get out of Bangkok for a bit and do somewhere else, as well as celebrate Songkran in the best place for it.

A member of staff at the train station saves me. She asks what the problem is and I tell her. She tells me her daughter works at a travel agent upstairs and might be able to help me out with a bus seat. I gratefully follow her up there. After being laughed at at travel agents on Khao San and laughed at by the guy downstairs at the train station, I’m surprised by a more positive response here. A lady phones up to check availability and supplies me with a bus seat. I’m so grateful that I just take it, no arguing about the price. She looks at me when she says 1100 baht, as if anticipating some bartering. She gets none. I don’t care. I just want to get there. But she even apologetically explains that the price is normally cheaper, but because it’s Songkran…etc etc. Basically Songkran has the same effect on the country here as Christmas does on the UK – insanely busy transport system, everyone on the move, transport more expensive, etc etc.
But I’m happy. I have somewhere to stay and a ticket to get there. Bring on the water fights!
My excitement about Songkran comes mainly from the fact that the celebrations are marked by everyone chucking water over or at each other for the duration - the little boy in me is relishing the idea of an excuse to behave in such a manner at the age of 29. Like much of Thai culture, it’s a seemingly contradictory way of celebrating. These devout Buddhists not only take the time to ‘make merit’ (bring good karma) by pouring scented water on Buddha images and paying respect to their elders, they also go all out in what must be the biggest water fight to take place on the planet… ever!

The water fight aspect originates from the New Year tradition of pouring a small amount of lustral (cleansing) water on other people’s hands as a sign of respect. New Year in Thailand, like the rest of the world, is seen as a time for cleansing, renewal and starting anew. But this gentle practice was given a new spin by the Thai youth and now a bucket of water over your head is more common.

When April 12th arrives I skip off work early and head home to pack. Last minute job as always. As I’m packing Binnie calls me to wish me a Happy Songkran and tell me that I can call her if I need any help with speaking to Thai people. I thank her gratefully; she really is very good to me.
I get a cab to Hualamphong station, where I’m meeting the travel agent who’ll take me to the bus, and find myself there ridiculously early, which is better than ridiculously late of course. So I just take the time to relax a bit and watch the hecticness going on around me. The station is overwhelmingly busy, just like a London station in the week leading up to Christmas.

At one point a load of police officers line up alongside the waiting area and I think there’s going to be another rendition of the national anthem. But it’s too early for that (it’s usually at six) and instead I see a procession of protestors with banners and megaphones marching through the station. I have no idea what they’re protesting about, but they move through peaceably and they’re gone as quickly as they arrived.

There’s a big screen on the right-hand side wall of the station which is showing news coverage of Songkran. The traffic is already bad, and already the water fights seem to have started around the country. I start to get excited.

I scoff some KFC and then some German sausage, which is covered in chili sauce and makes my mouth burn for a good 10 minutes after. I get bored and go and have a look in the book shop. I pick up a map of Chiang Mai and at the same time find a good map of the bus routes in Bangkok. Maybe now I can conquer the buses!

I go and sit by the travel office where I bought my ticket and listen to my iPod. A Thai dude comes over and sits next to me and starts chatting, asking if I’m going to Chiang Mai etc, no introductions. I wonder if he’s the bus driver and ask him. He says he is. So typical of a Thai to just start chatting and not tell you who they are.

A short while later two European-looking girls come over to the benches and sit down nearby. Thai dude does exactly the same to them as he did to me. But they’re obviously not used to Thai people – they have that shell-shocked look of a new arrival – and eye him suspiciously.
Eventually Thai dude gathers the three of us and takes us to a taxi. Turns out he’s not the bus driver, but a driver who will take us to the bus. The two girls look worried. I raise my eyebrows and smile at one of them in what I hope is a reassuring way. It doesn’t seem to work. Nonetheless, they get in and off we go.

The Thai dude takes us to another tour office where a load of those big brightly-coloured coaches are waiting to take people up to Chiang Mai. He dumps us outside the office where we huddle underneath an awning to escape the spitting rain. Yep, at the time of year it’s supposed to be the hottest (another reason Songkran has escalated into one big water fight) monsoon season has decided to come early.

We’re ‘checked in’ by a young Thai woman. The two girls are nervous about handing their tickets over; I tell them it’s okay. We chat a bit. Both called Johanna, they’re from Poland and have literally just flown in from Warsaw (hence the shell-shocked look) and are going straight up to Chiang Mai. That’s a whole lot of travelling, I tell them. They nod wearily.

I tell them a bit about the ‘relaxed’ Thai transport system and that it may take a while but they always seem to get you there. They tell me they’re worried about getting ripped off, or having something stolen. I tell them half the time you don’t know you’re being ripped off, and as for something being stolen, don’t worry, just be wary. I’m not sure I’m qualified to advise newbies but they seem to think my three months here means I’ll have all the answers!

We get on the bus – I watch the girls reluctantly give up their bags to be stashed in the hold – and I try and find my seat on the top deck. There’s no bloody numbers or anything, but the Thai lady looks at my ticket and points out my seat down near the front. How she knew I’ll never know. The Polish girls sit opposite me and we chat a bit more. I ask about Warsaw, whether they like it, is it worth visiting? One of them tells me it’s nice but is still in the process of building itself up to be a city that can rival other European cities. It needs more work, she says.

They’re obviously tired and I, quite unsociably, am dying to listen to my new Enter Shikari album over and over again and so the conversation dies and I settle into my own little world.
I spend the first couple of hours of the journey just watching the traffic. Sounds boring, I know, but you’ve not seen Thais driving. They’re fucking crazy. Watching the near misses and waiting for the inevitable car crash that never comes is almost as tense as seeing a good thriller. And the hard shoulder, it seems, is as good a place as any to get where you want to go. There were as many cars queuing there as there was on the other lanes.

I dip into Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben, the thriller Jess lent me. It’s so trashy but I get quite into it. It’s easy reading. Eventually I fall asleep.

April 13
I wake up just as the bus crashes. My body jolts as metal hits metal and I stare out of my bleary eyes to see what’s happened.

Our coach has tapped a truck in front on the behind. The Thai passengers let out a quite funny, ‘Ooh’. I imagine their reaction would be much the same if we’d rolled into a ditch and the bus was on flames. But all seems fine and we move on quickly. There’s none of the shouting or delay you’d get if the same happened in the UK. Love it.

We arrive in Chiang Mai just gone eight. It’s a bright, sunny day and I have an exciting weekend ahead of me, which manages to lift me out of grumpy morning Will persona. As soon as we get of the bus, of course, everyone is hassled by Thai drivers wanting to take us to our guesthouses. I tell a sawngthaew driver where I’m staying and he says he’ll take me. He speaks to the Polish girls as well. They don’t want to go with him because they’re supposed to be picked up by a driver from their guesthouse. The man shows them a card from their guesthouse to reassure them. They insist they’re not paying any money, they’re supposed to get a free lift. The man sighs and agrees to take them for free. We all pile in.

We drive through Chiang Mai, which seems really nice. It’s not a city per se – there are no high rise buildings, nothing over three storeys, in fact - and so it feels more like a large town than a city. We stop along a small side street and the driver tells me we’re at Smile. I get out and he tells me I have to pay 20 baht. That’s no biggie, what a bargain, I think, and pay him happily. I bid the Polish girls farewell and wish them luck. I really don’t think they have any idea what they’re letting themselves in for this weekend.

I go and see if I can check-in but the room’s not ready. I’m way too early. I put my bag in the store cupboard and have a look around the reception area. It opens up into what’s basically a large, airy living room, with a big TV and a fridge with Coke and beer. It leads out to a small pool with some strangely unappealing green water in it. I’m ravenous so head off for some breakfast.
I don’t go far, it’s too risky. I don’t want to get wet yet. So I eat at the restaurant next door and have a dodgy English breakfast - soggy scrambled eggs, dry fried potatoes, you know the sort. Not good.

I go back to the guesthouse and my room’s still not ready. I’m too tired to wander around so crash on one of the sofas and read Gone for Good, dozing a bit as well. Before I sit down a small child says hello. The child introduces himself as Jack. At least I think he’s a boy. He asks where I’m from and we have a bit of a chat. He must be about nine, I reckon, but seems very precocious, albeit in an entertaining way. He tells me he’s from New Zealand and is staying here indefinitely with his mum. They’ve been here a month but doesn’t miss NZ. He’s not sure why they chose to come to Thailand.

I notice he’s wearing a skirt. I wonder if he’s the child of a liberated mum, or Jack is in actual fact a girl. She asks why I’m wearing a Batman t-shirt. I tell her cos Batman’s cool. She screws up her nose. I’m being derided by a nine year old; definitely a girl. She then queries weather my shark tooth necklace is real. I tell her it said it was real on the label and it feels like enamel if you bite it. She’s not convinced. I shrug at her. She’s bloody hilarious.

She seems to have the run of the place, but then that’s the feeling this place seems to be trying to generate – a home away from home – and on the most part they succeed.

I eventually check-in. Room nice enough, big bed – with springs!! Woo! I shower and don t-shirt and shorts. I wrap my camera and phone in a plastic bag and head out to meet Vicky. We’ve arranged to meet at Pratu Chiang Mai, an exit over the moat at the south of the city.

Some quick orientation: the centre of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a square moat around which most of the Songkran revellers gather to collect water to chuck. Smile House is in the southeast corner of this central square, giving me good access to everywhere. Pratu Chiang Mai is a short walk from Smile so I think I’ll find Vicky no probs. Little do I know there’s lots of bridges over the moat, and the gates are marked by tall orange brick walls. I just head to the nearest bridge and wait.

As soon as I hit the street I’m hit with water by a grinning Thai with a bucket. Within minutes I’m soaked to the skin. I head to the nearest stall selling water pistols and pick out a massive mother of a gun with five nozzles that spray water in different directions. It costs me 500 baht but I’m not going to get much cheaper anywhere else; it’s a bit like buying roses in the run up to Valentine’s Day. There’s no strap on it but they dig out one from a bag that’s a bit too small. It’ll do. I fill up from their water barrel and head off.

I feel like Rambo; I look ridiculous.

I head to where I think Chiang Mai gate is and I’m totally soaked by the time I get there. I give as good as I get but then I get it back harder. I start to worry about the safety of m phone and camera and wrap them further in the plastic bag that the gun came in, tying the bag around my belt. Now I look really ridiculous. But I don’t care; it’s all so much fun. I hang by the bridge a bit watching the water fights. I head round to the other side of the moat where all the action is, spraying people with water. I get buckets in my face and endless streams of water from a dozen pistols for my trouble.

I retreat to the other bank with a big grin on my face. I sit and try and take some photos, but I’m too far away, then I try filming a bit (see movies) but again it’s too far. Problem is I can’t get close. The camera would be killed by the sheer volume of water you get hit with.

I tuck it away and sit and watch, waiting for Vicky. A voice speaks quietly in my ear: “Excuse me.” I go to turn but feel a stream of water run down my back. I laugh and turn to see a Thai guy grinning from ear to ear. I love the politeness of it.

I call Vicky and figure out that we’re obviously not in the same place. She says head towards the music so I do so, and find her by a small stage where some Thai girls dressed in Coke promo outfits are doing a little dance routine. We greet each other by soaking each other thoroughly and then head through the throng. The Thais seem to take particular delight in chucking buckets of water over farangs so we get a battering. Poor Vicky only has a tiny little pistol so has to keep refilling. She teaches me ‘Happy New Year’, which is ‘sawadee bee mai kaap’ and I proceed to follow my soakings with the phrase.

It’s not all pleasant. As the weather is usually sweltering hot at this time of year, it’s common for ice water to be chucked and squirted. The overcast day hasn’t changed this tradition and I get covered at one point by three buckets of ice ice cold water. “That,” I tell Vicky, “was REALLY, REALLY cold!” The guilty Thais laugh and jump up and down, going, “Rilly, rilly cold!”

Then disaster strikes. I notice that my camera and phone have disappeared from the water pistol bag; it has a big hole in the bottom. I panic and tell Vicky I’m heading back to look. I make my way back through, ignoring the torrents of water, desperately searching the floor for the little blue bag with my phone and camera. Some Thais notice my desperate look and start talking to me in Thai. I don’t understand but they seem to understand what I’m looking for and pass me down to a Thai woman who passes me the blue bag. I can’t tell you how relieved I am and thank her enthusiastically. Vicky tells me I’m very lucky. She’s not kidding.

Vicky and I battle our way towards Anna and some other friends of there’s. They’re sat on a roundabout, away from the water-fighting throng. They’re all soaked though, I’m pleased to see. I meet Anna’s mates Joey, a Manchester girl, Louise and Skye, an American couple, and her Australian mate Freebs, the only one not teaching in Bangkok. They’re all impressed with my gun. I keep running to the side of the roundabout to fire at some passing pick-up trucks filled with people in the back. God I’ve reverted to boyhood now.

We head for some lunch at a café that’s out of the way of the main water-fighting throng. That said, we still get sprayed occasionally by passing trucks. Nowhere is safe. After eating Anna and the others head back to their rooms – they’re all a bit hungover from the previous night – while Vicky and head back into the centre for some more water action.

We find ourselves walking down Ratchaphakhinai Road, which is a whole lot more subdued, at least relatively to the chaos around the moat. We still get bombarded with water but they seem a bit gentler here and I reign in the Rambo act a bit. It’s not long before we find out why. Walking down the street towards are the beginnings of a procession of Buddha images.

As they pass, Thai people go up and pour water from tiny bowls over them. This, I find out later, is called lustration, a rather solemn means of worship in which the highly revered statues are ‘lustrated’ with water scented with jasmine flowers. Vicky and I even get some poured over our shoulders, for which we thank the Thai gratefully. It’s a great honour, apparently.

As we move back towards the moat, we discover something else unexpected - a hippy rave. It’s being held in some travellers’ veggie café and is pumping out drum`n`bass. You can imagine the clientele – hippy travelers with smelly dreads and boozy milk-white holiday-makers. Vicky loves it and wants to hang out. I groan but bow to her wishes. It’s bloody awful and I take some solace in soaking some of these drunk-as-hell nutters. Eventually Vicky sees I’m bored as hell and we move on. But neither of us can believe we found a hippy rave in Chiang Mai!

We go back to my room to dry out a bit. Vicky’s camera has died and she tries t take some pics. I don’t think anything’s gonna come out as it makes some very strange noises. (But it does work! See pics!)

Then we arrange to meet later and Vicky heads off back to her mate Dan’s, where she’s staying.
I sleep for a while – I’m bloody exhausted after travelling all night and water-fighting all day – and wake up in a bit of a confused daze about eight o’clock. I call Vicky and go and meet her and Dan at a market just down the road. I’m totally up for some cheap Thai food so I’m happy to find them eating on the street. I order and chat to Dan a bit. He’s an American, living and working in Chiang Mai. He loves it here but he’s going home soon. He’s been here that long (nearly a year) that he’s actually starting to learn to READ Thai. Which of course makes me feel enormously inadequate!

We head to the Riverside Bar & Restaurant in a tuk-tuk (there’s no taxis here, just tuk-tuks and sawngthaews). Riverside is out of the main square and by the Mae Nam Ping river. (Which I suppose, if you think about it, is why they called it Riverside. Clever that.) It’s a massive place that has two bands, one each end, playing cover versions. We sit by one for a while waiting for the others to show up. Vicky and me buy a bottle of Sangsom whisky (which is actually rum but they call it whisky cos that’s apparently more appealing to us farang) between us. Oh dear.

It turns out the others are the other side of the bar with the other band so we head over and squeeze onto an already heavily-populated and very large table. There’s lots more new people for me to meet, plus some peeps I already know. There’s a Canadian called Kelly who talks incessantly about things I know nothing about, there’s the Canadian Rachelle who I met at Gas Station, a couple from Stoke – Hannah and Richard, Brian, who I’ve met before, and his mate Nick. These guys are the tow ladykillers in the group – Brian turns up with his ‘gig’ (Thai for casual girlfriend that’s not your proper girlfriend; a minor girlfriend if you will). And there are some other people who I don’t get introduced to.

But it doesn’t matter who’s there really. Vicky and I polish off our bottle of Sangsom and indulge in a really intense conversation about past loves – one of those bonding conversations you have with your close mates, you know the ones. But she’s got a current love to talk about, an Australian guy she met last year here in Thailand. They spent an amazing three days here together and have kept in touch and, amazingly, she’s going to go and LIVE with him in Oz quite soon. Only for a month, to see what happens, but still. She’s excited about it and dreading it, of course. I think she’s crazy. I think it’s exactly the sort of thing I would do.

Later on we leave Riverside and pile into a sawngthaew (after much, slightly embarrassing, haggling over about 20 baht).

It takes us to a club called Mandalay. It’s a club venue and we go upstairs and look down on the place, which is packed, watching amateur bands and some god-awful cabaret. Some of the bands are good, some not so. I argue with Brian’s girlfriend at one point about whether the boobs of one particular singer in a girl band are fake or not. I have to concede they do look rather large on her thin frame, and Thai women’s boobs are normally quite small.

Then the awful drag act comes on. He talks 95% in Thai but you can tell the humour is the same as his UK and US counterparts – tongue-in-cheek rudeness. He strips off his dress to reveal fake boobs and a fake bulge: “I be your girlfriend tonight…” Comedy pause. “Or your boyfriend.”

Vicky seems upset and goes off on her own for a bit. Anna goes and sees if she’s okay. I know how she feels. Our conversation took it out of me a bit as well. It’s always food for thought when you get a stranger’s opinion on your too familiar emotional issues.

We eventually bail and go to another club called Spicy. It’s much smaller than it’s Bangkokian counterpart, it’s more like a large bar really, but it has the same clientele – male farang and Thai girls – and the same relentless R’n’B and hip hop. I chat to Richard a bit – he has a wicked, dry sense of humour, I like him. Then there’s much debacle over the presence of a cockroach on the table and we decide to bail.

Next thing I know we’re in a kebab shop. (What the hell country am I in again??) Richard and I take the piss hugely out of a guy that looks like Jesus. Why he doesn’t hit us, I don’t know. I suppose Jesus doesn’t do that sort of thing. (Richard tells me later that he was taking the piss out of us for being so loud, so it was a mutual affair).

I think I get to bed about five am. I think.