The following are the first few paragraphs of the travelogue I dutifully didn’t keep whilst on travels around SE Asia. This is a work in progress and will be added to, retrospectively as I trawl through the troves of scribbled meanderings and attempt to delineate the hotchpotch. As you do.
Today is the first day of my eagerly awaited voyage around Asia, which is of course all very exciting. In fact you could say I’m bristling more than a bag of badgers. I willingly said a final protracted goodbye to my Mother and sister. Some people don’t like goodbyes, which is all well and good; but to take it one step further, I even find greetings a strain at times. What I especially dislike is a greeting followed by a summary of how you arrived at the destination, especially if it was by car and the person then begins recounting road numbers. That’s simply banal. It may be fine to discuss your arrival if you had pitched up on a bright yellow tractor wearing pantaloons and playing loud opera, or if you arrived via a sky dive or some such amplified or action packed means, but to painstakingly recount road numbers smacks of one who will very soon purchase a driving jacket, likely in a shade of beige such as putty. Thank you, but no thank you. Did James Bond ever arrive at MI5 HQ and begin telling Moneypenny how there was a bit of a tailback on the A37 but it eased up a bit by the Hanger Lane gyratory? Would Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli’s fortunes …oh never mind.
I left carnage in my poor Mother’s house as I had unpacked the contents of the Putney flat I moved out of, and stored it in her miniature abode on the Redhill Reigate borders, which she insists on saying is virtually in Reigate. Its in Redhill. Let’s not split hairs, although I’m going to have to look that up as I’ve no idea what it means. Splitting hairs must be tricky so I guess it means, let’s not go to a lot of trouble to achieve something that is ultimately pointless. Such as for example, describing dull car journeys. From now on the moment anybody arrives at your house and begins chanting road numbers, why not interrupt them directly with “let’s not split hairs.” Still, back to my Mother. The love a Mother has for her children is such that she will make all manner of sacrifice for them, even if it drives her half barmy in the process. As it happens, my Mother has always been half barmy and the other half American, plus half cut, half of the time. Ergo, she completely deserves me as a son. My sister has travelled parts of South East Asia before so she was full of useful trinkets of travel advice, such as don’t smuggle drugs across borders. Yes, thank you for that Emily, as of course I had planned on doing so. I may look daft, but one thing I’m certainly not about to do is risk a jail sentence in any one of the countries I am travelling to. I’ve read about life in Thai prisons alone and its almost enough to put you off ever visiting; but clearly not enough for some. Incidentally, quite why my sister would even think I would have drugs in the first place is another matter altogether.
To return to the journey. I almost immediately made an error, as I somehow managed to board the Piccadilly line train to Uxbridge instead of Heathrow. This, for a man about to voyage around South East Asia and Japan does not bode too well. Eventually I made it to Heathrow where a frustrated girlfriend cum travel partner keenly awaited my arrival. Such was our excitement at the outset of our journey, that we embraced each other deeply and passionately, then within 2 minutes began a heated argument. In essence, British Airways launched this conflict as the girl at the arrivals desk gave us the option of deferring our flight until the next day in exchange for 600 Euros, as the flight was overbooked. Girlfriend wanted to board directly, whereas I was keen to cash in on their error. After the ensuing debate, we stomped on through to the lounge. The simmering resentment I harboured lasted as long as it took to begin gliding across those polished tiles in to the brightly lit environs of Terminal 4.
Major airports are the same the world over: multi-national complexes of consumer mayhem. Supping on a pot of Guinness in the loosely Irish themed waiting room stroke pub so wittily named Bridges, it struck me this was probably not what Arthur had envisaged when he invented our favourite black tipple. Certainly its a far cry from rural Ireland in the 1700’s. Aside from anything else, nobody was smoking. Not a pipe in sight. Also as I recall, the fiddles, bodhráns and tin whistles in Ireland are not displayed in glass cabinets as bland rock is piped through a tannoy.
We touched down in Bangkok international airport at 1530 hrs Thai time after a gruelling flight. The strain on BA’s finances is showing on its planes, as the seats on that flight were in no way what you would expect from such a supposedly prestigious airline. Given that we had been offered an opt out of this flight due to the overcrowding, it would seem they were over subscribed and are endeavouring to fill each flight to its capacity, at the detriment of comfort. No doubt their ticket sales will slump as a result of this lack of attention to detail, and the staff will suffer at the hands of the higher management and directorate. Thus it ever was. The food was horrid, the in-flight entertainment barely audible, and the aisles crowded; although in fact this is exactly what I had always imagined flying to be like: long, uncomfortable and distinctly boring. I have now discovered that actually this is just the nature of long haul economy flying. I suspect that within time and given the shrinkage of the global economy, there will be less long haul flying and a gradual contraction in the airline industry, resulting in less flights and less air traffic, as well as an increased demand for quality over quantity among the remaining, discerning flyers. I could of course be completely wrong (by the same token).
Bangkok airport is a vast steel and glass construction, mimicking the shapes of traditional Thai buildings, with their pointed oval tips and latticed patterns across the framework. This is not so much an airport as a small city, with its hotels, booking agents, taxi ranks, and an abundance of shops. It somehow feels instantly cosmopolitan and hints directly at the essence of the Thailand you are about to discover beyond its megalithic door frames. Travellers of every description and most nationalities fidget and bicker with agitation in long queues at passport control, eager to pass through and begin sampling the wares of the country.
The city itself is comprised largely of a teeming mass of street vendors and hawkers, these ardent folk doggedly touting any product from bangles to beach balls, wooden frogs to wickerwork fans, cold beers to cans of coke and doubtless anything and more, should you dare to ask for it. On arrival you are instantly in awe at the thousands of mopeds and tuk tuks, bending round corners at breakneck speeds; all in turn blasting their horns at one another. There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why the horns are blasted or tooted, it is simply an expression at will, or else perhaps I simply don’t speak Asian horn. They will blast a horn in dismay, excitement, greeting, frustration or simply to pass the time. It seems the horn toot is the Asian equivalent of Roger Moore’s eyebrow raise, and can be used to express an entire range of emotion. We took the metered taxi in to the city centre and the Kho San road, in essence Thailand’s equivalent to Oxford Street, although far more architecturally basic and low rise.
Bangkok’s Chinatown boasts thieves alley, a long run of tightly packed stalls with a passage barely big enough for three people to pass each other by, yet still cyclists and motorcyclists insist on passing its length lugging crates of produce to the various stalls. Such is the commitment to commerce of these people, that no amount of discomfort would result in them abandoning a delivery. On arrival here you are instantly transported to another era, and reminded in glorious technicolour that you are no longer in Europe. As I remarked to my faithful travel companion “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore Toto.” Stalls host a myriad of enticing and exotic ingredients, not all of which I could name, but to start with, imagine hessian sacks full of numerous varieties of mushrooms, fresh and dried, garishly coloured and clear bags of noodles in varying degrees of thickness from vermicelli through to udon, dragon fruits, water melons twice the size of basketballs sliced wide open to boast their vivid red, cooked tripe chopped on aged boards and stacked in heated glass shelves, green and yellow papaya, roasted duck and pork hanging in the glaring lamplight, fragrant and varied sacks of Indian and Chinese teas, chestnuts roasting in large steel drums, a rotor blade swirling through the odourous gleaming orbs to send smoke and smells spiralling out to the crowds, lit by shafts of light and mingling with the fabled high stench of the hefty spiked durian; boiled sweets in every conceivable colour, cashew nuts, cob nuts, sesame seeds, dried shrimp, dried salted squid; the list goes on. This is more than simply an odourous alley, this is a smellathon; and just when you think the end is in sight you turn a corner or cross a street and there’s more. Gaze up from the market run, out to the main streets and you will take in the broader approach to commerce, with big name labels adorning the shop facades, goading the consumer to spend spend spend. Thieves alley was so named as it was formerly a den for exchanging, buying and selling stolen goods. Now, it feels more legitimate yet somehow you can detect a hint of shadiness in the goings on between various shopkeepers and their stooges. There are occasional flourishes of wads of Baht or dollar, followed up with various surreptitious fillips and gestures denoting a bartering, yet the goods are not in sight. This does not detract from the obvious solid graft occurring along the run. Fish are skilfully descaled, gutted, cleaned and laid in scrubbed steel tubs for scrutiny by discerning leathery faced shoppers, and the pace of work is entirely consistent. Somehow it seems the older generation are tasked with purchasing produce, whilst the younger set to tinkering with bikes, furthering their education, driving tuk tuks and working in offices, to be spotted in early evenings, donning natty neat attire, whizzing along the main streets on gleaming scooters. A Bangkok dream is fast paced, frantic, fun and somehow graceful in spite of the cosmoplitan quagmire it clearly is; an elegiac assault on the senses.
It perhaps takes a certain hardy type to endure and enjoy the fascination of a city like Bangkok. Many I have spoken to assured me that the city is nothing more than a gateway to the islands and should largely be avoided. We however had a different agenda, based on a desire and ability to be, and to feel, utterly foreign. Bangkok, and in particular Chinatown, imbibed us with a sense of other worldliness, creating a splendid and hectic clutter that the islands would no doubt shortly wash away.
Next morning, one short refreshing dip in the rooftop pool at Rikka Inn later, having scanned the higgledy piggledy skyline of the city for one last time, we ventured south, to the island of Koh Tao.
Tuk tuks will take you anywhere in the city for a song, provided you stop at their chosen tourist offices to purchase the next leg of your expedition. They clearly collect their commission for this service and it is an enterprising means of extracting more Baht from the tourists and travellers alike. You simply have to ensure you are taken to a reputable office, so the tickets you purchase prove to be genuine and you don’t pay over the odds. Various travellers will exclaim in protest that this scheme is unfair and compromises your free reign to journey at will; however I think that as it takes a lot of the hassle out of the journey for a comparitively minimal cost (4900 baht for an all inclusive journey to Kho Tao with four nights accommodation) and means you are distributing funds across the spectrum of workers, all in all I say its not a bad thing.
Our sleeper train carriage was termed first class which made me chuckle, as it is obviously not of a standard you would ultimately expect from the term first class. However it sufficed, and allowed us some welcome privacy from the major rave up that seemed to be taking place in the second class sleeper carriages, which a cringe worthy estate agent might describe as open plan and bijou. I’m not sure quite what they were spiking their drinks with but it seemed to have the presumably desired effect of preventing any sleep, as there were tunes playing throughout the eight hour journey. It is a well worn track from Bangkok to Kho Tao, for island hungry travellers seeking luxury and tranquility, so I suspect the staff on board are used to such festivities. The journey was also interspersed with guest appearances from our attendants, who were clad in navy steward’s uniforms and remained genial and deferential throughout. Dinner was served in our cabin and comprised a consomme style vegetable noodle soup followed by Mussaman Duck curry with pineapple, served with sticky coconut rice. This was ultimately most edifying and of a far higher standard than the bland dross you would be subjected to on a train back home, so this more than made up for the basic and slightly grimy interior. We feel asleep merry on Chang, gazing out of the window beyond the passing palm fronds and out at the star studded night sky, to awake some hours later at Chumphon, the departure point for the island. The sun was rising and that strange, unsettling combination of euphoria, trepidation and fatigue had now set in. Whilst I had some idea of what to expect next, I was not truly prepared for the idyll that lay before us.
A catamaran whisked the travel weary across to the island, where I experienced true paradise for the first time since exploring the Yucatan peninsula back in 2000, what seemed like a lifetime ago. We gazed in awe at the towering rock faces clad in clusters of palms, their fronds overlapping one another, jostling for space in a fashion akin to Bangkok stall holders, yet the contrast in environments could scarcely be more pronounced.
Koh Tao is an island built around scuba, a fact borne out by the plethora of dive schools that dot the shores. People travel from far and wide to lap up the PADI and delve deep around the rocks and coral, photographing and filming themselves and their vivid surroundings, to sit about in evenings grazing on barbecues and watching their cutesy videos, getting gradually more inebriated as the shrill crickets echo louder and louder in to the night. Our room was above one such school, situated neatly beside a soft sand beach, over on the quiet side of the island.
One’s day in such paradise eventually begins to feel much the same as the last, each consisting largely of prolonged bouts of lounging, gazing, swimming, eating and drinking, interspersed with conversation, reading and writing. By day three I was beginning to wonder how long it would take to become bored of it all, when body and mind rose up and beat me to submission back in to my lounger. As if by magic a plate of Pad Thai arrived, accompanied by a chilled bottle of Chang, both of which I duly consumed and slouched back to muse on the simplicity of it all. In spite of the fact I am all too apparently here and the lushness is overwhelmingly abundant, there is still a part of me that feels this is nothing but a dream, or else a fantasy, or that I have somehow managed to inhabit another man’s mind and body, to steal a delicious glimpse of what is beyond the realms of my own existence. Every detail, from the crystal clear warm water displaying shoals of brightly coloured fish, to the soft white sand, the shimmering lapis lazuli, cobalt blue and turquoise sea, the emerald green vegetation against a backdrop of clear blue sky, and right down to the great swathes of intensely coloured other-wordly carpet of coral surrounding the island, could all so easily be one fantastical, short lived mirage. I drink it all in with an unslakable thirst, relishing every bump of the long winding roads, gazing languidly at the ocean as fish leap out and over the water. There are those who come to dive, others to drink, some to merely soak it all in. I am here to broaden my horizons and for basic recovery, for which Koh Tao is a perfect destination. This is without doubt an island on which to recharge your cells, and to rest and recuperate in the luxury afforded by nature.
On our first night out in Koh Tao, we found ourselves flopped in oversized beanbags at a beach bar, sipping Mai Tais from hollow pineapple shells, the surrounding trees hung with brightly coloured citronella lanterns. All too familiar droves of twenty-somethings in sarongs, bikinis, board shorts, camos, and thongs (that’s flip flops to you and me) mooched about us, generally buzzing and nattering in their typically shallow way, about nothing much save for the last lush destination they had been to, or some other trinket of social nothingness. A feeling of total apathy washed over me and at once I felt nothing much really mattered except the ability to savour the moment. That knowledge of not having to wake up early the following morning and haul my carcass out of bed to go and perform sundry duties in a role I abhor, to facilitate the lives of people whose personalities I frequently grimaced at, was pleasing me more and more. I was settling in already, and with the sound of the frogs and crickets resounding in the night air and the mixture of droning drunk speech and excited chatter circling around us, I began to accept that this was indeed my lot for now. We met a young couple who introduced us to the joys of drinking buckets of Thai Red Bull mixed with Sangsom, the local moonshine. A half jack of this hooch is chucked in a sandcastle bucket and mixed with coke and red bull to give you wings and violent indigestion. As I quipped “Red Bull gives you wings, and you’ll need them to fly to the john.” We sashayed down to The Lotus Bar which backs on to the beach with an oversized flight of stairs lined with flame torches, and topped with a vast sound system, the speakers thumping out a constant stream of dance tracks to retain the bronzed crowd of bucket swiggers. This was all too much for me. I was hyped up by now and had never seen a spectacle such as this, having resisted the perverse urge to visit Ibiza throughout my adult life. The line of flame torches on terra firma continued on to the sea with floating flames lining the Lotus parameters. A thick blanket of stars sparkled above us, or at least I think they did. It could have been the fourth bucket that produced the twinkling. Either way, it inspired me to challenge our new friend to a race around the Thai long boat lurking near the shore. I threw my shorts on the sand and dashed down to the sea before pelting at full force out and round this vessel, only to return and discover not one of my landlubber companions had stayed with my shorts, thus leaving me £150 and a mobile phone lighter for the experience. Numbed by euphoria, I vowed to do something about it the following day and repaired to the bar for a consolatory bucket. Whilst drinking and reflecting on the matter of the new lightness of my wallet, I began to observe some of my fellow drinkers, or rather, those suspicious looking Thais who were viewing proceedings without a drink. I was instantly struck at how easy the pickings are for any opportunist or calculated thief, as the rabble are so preoccupied with indulgence that their security is of minimal consideration. At what price paradise I asked myself as I watched a sunburnt, bleary eyed blonde lad stagger and slide past us on the booze drenched floor. This was the first lesson in keeping one’s wits about oneself. Some hours later, we leapt on the back of a scooter and rode the scenic sunrise route back to our modest apartment.
Our next island stop, Koh Pan Yang, is an altogether different proposition both geographically and from a tourist perspective.