Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Keeping it riel

Face to face, through forced perspective, with the Buddha of love. (To be fair, I haven't been called that in years but that's one lucky statue alright.)

Whether it was evident from the somewhat panicked tone of my last post Laos was probably the highlight of my trip so far so it was with the familiar misery of leaving people and places that we flew into Phnom Penh, Cambodia from it's capital Vientiane. I think we decided against liking or trying to like Asian capitals after Bangkok and having landed in the capital of Cambodia faced with the task of getting to Siem Reap (something which we thought could be arranged at the airport) and finding out heading into the city centre was the only way to do it I think it's fair to say the apprehension was rife. Rightly so it turns out, taxi drivers circle you like hungry wolves all claiming to intimately know the place you want to be taken, usually something from a list in the yellow bible (lonely planet guide to south east asia), and of course not having a notion. The city streets in Phnom Penh bring to mind something of the back alleys in Bangkok and it's not a place either of us wanted to confirm our distaste for further. The driver we finally settled on, after my employment of a newfound firmness in my voice (probable indiscernible to everyone else but there in spirit in my mind) he actually took us right there. Of course his brother ran a better travel agent, his brother in law would take us all the way to Siem Reap for half what the bus would end up costing and he knew at least three or four hotels in the city where we would be treated like royalty and given weed, opium and the ubiquitous 'boom-boom' but to his credit after repeated polite declinations he brought us to the right place.
Turns out we arrived in Cambodia at a very interesting time. It was the day of government elections and not surprisingly a lot of the Cambodian people are less than pleased with their leader. The streets were almost deserted in comparison to their usual bustle, we were told because everyone was off voting, and we arrived just in time for the only bus to Siem Reap that day. A bus which was laid on for the locals who wanted to return home (a six hour commute made only to vote against the sort of person who makes you commute six hours to vote) from angrily performing their civic duty and there were a couple of seats left. So six U.S. dollars buys us a seat. Delighted.
Sitting there by the counter is an innocuous looking local dude, affable enough, but when he finds out we're heading to Siem Reap it's all, you stay in my guest house. I've spoken before about how some of the less reputable people around this part of the world put you on the back foot with people who may turn out in the end to be genuine and this was most certainly a case of that. Thomas was his name and he turned out to be, bar none, the nicest local we've met since we left home. He happened to work for a guest house called Bakong Lodge, and also work as a guide around the Angkor Wat temples. We agreed on the bus to at least take a look at the place and he didn't insist but we get there and he gives us a good price on a nice room with air con and a hot shower, happy days.

Amazingly he happens to also be the only tuk tuk driver/ guide in Siem Reap with Irish connections. He drove the one pictured below.

I can't speak highly enough of this guy. For two days he took us all over the Angkor Wat temple site, told us stories about each temple and explained what they were originally constructed for and so on. He told us where to eat locally and what was good (I discovered a magnificent local specialty called Lok Lak which I'll be seeking out again), took us to a military base where they gave me (yes, me) a loaded AK-47 to play with and most importantly he taught me what it's like to be a Cambodian. He's one of the most passionate people I've met in ages. Vehemently anti-government (who are corrupt as it gets apparently; proof is available on one's ticket to Angkor Wat where it clearly states the name of a Vietnamese hotel chain who are controlling and charging entry fees and doing nothing to maintain the place; sold off by some government officials for their personal enrichment) and anti-police but still hopeful of a change in power and a better future for his country, evidenced by the fact that he was coming back from the gruelling trip to the capital just to make his mark on the ballot. A guy like Thomas doesn't make a lot of money it seems and yet still at one of the stops along the way when I asked him what a local girl was selling at a stall he insisted on buying me one and explaining. (Dumpling filled with fried pork and onions; sweet but pretty nice and certainly different) Wouldn't hear of me paying; a cynic could say this was playing the long game but when we had already agreed to stay at his place and have him be our guide through the temples he still called us over to his table in the lobby when we got back from the pub and with his friends continually filled our glassed with the local beer shouting Boren Sap (possibly mispelled but meaning: 'down in one').

To co-incide with the political unrest in his country we arrived in the middle of a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand. They're laying claim to a temple in Privihear in the north and sent armed forces into Thailand. The owner of Bakong Lodge was previously an official in the hideously underequipped Cambodian army and the stories he told us you just wouldn't believe. There are soliders in their army now who don't have uniforms or guns, stationed without food or money hunting and eating, I swear to God, frogs to cook and eat. Disbelieve and laugh if you want, I didn't, we'd seen enough that it wasn't out of the question. Thomas had, after a few Boren Saps more than we were able for, at least provisionally enlisted us to head to the border the next day and drive the Siem (Thai) back into their own land.

On our last night he told us about a hotel that ran a buffet and had some traditional dance show. We said cool, he hadn't put us wrong yet, and when it came to getting tickets I asked him how many times he'd seen the show himself. Never he said, too expensive, only for tourists. So we ask him to come along as our guests for once and I really felt bad at how grateful he seemed. He got dressed up and everything and before the show took us to the local park to watch the bats who drop from 6 trees there every night like clock work at 7pm to go hunting. (The sky was black with them and they were huge.) It was probably the equivalent of a night at Bunratty Folk Park but we enjoyed it and the food was good and it was nice to be able to say thanks to such a genuinely nice guy, one who improved an already beautiful country and people exponentially.

A few collections of pixels that illustrate better than words, some things from Cambodia:

A Cambodian gas station, Thomas told us, shaking his head, pissed off with the government. A four year old boy empties a whiskey bottle of petrol into his tuk tuk. He used these local ones to spread the wealth among the people and not give it to big companies I think.

The two boys outside the truly stunning Angkor Wat Temple.

What turned out to be one of my favourite temples just because of the name. It translates to Body Chain and was where all the kings of the ancient Khmer Empire were cremated. Their bones were stored in seperate towers a few of which I snapped above.

Massive trees choking the temple of Brahma, the site where some of the first Tomb Raider movie was filmed. Incidentally apparently Angelina Jolie ate in a restaurant while filming called the Red Piano in Siem Reap where I had dinner a couple of nights ago. She invented (or transported the recipe from the west for) a cocktail which is now called the Tomb Raider. It was great.

A postscript to explain the admittedly oblique reference in the title: The currency in Cambodia is offically the riel. Not as bad as kip (12,500 to the euro) at 4,400 to the euro but vastly outdone by the infuriating Dong (yes I know, haha) which I found out on arrival here in Saigon not two hours ago you get 20,000 of for a single lonely pathetic euro.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


I had been intending on writing an entry cataloging our ever increasing list of injuries on this trip. (I brought, as did Adam, a travel first aid kit, which, like him, I've restocked twice already!) But having gotten to Vang Vieng and left, and been tubing twice it seems redundant. We've had a lot of minor scrapes, twisted ankles, deepish cuts that won't heal etc., but considering I'm still alive after what's happened to me in the last couple of days I no longer consider them worth discussing.

To set the scene: We left Luang Prabang a few Dutch friends heavier than we arrived with and headed towards Vang Vieng on a bus to go tubing.

Tubing is what people go to this town for. One is given a large inflatable donut into which one's rear is placed. One then floats down the river. This is rainy season so the river is quite fast. Along the way there are bars. These bars have employees who's job it is to throw you a rubber ring on a rope which you hopefully catch and then pull you ashore. Then it's a walk through ankle deep mud to a wooden dance floor (which just happened to be playing the best music I've heard in any pub or club since we left home) on which drunk tubers (and I don't mean potatoes) are dancing, most if not all smeared from head to toe in the same slimy muck on which this bar is built. The regular reader will remember my previous diatribe on the bucket phenomenon so there's no need to repeat that here, but they sell them on every bar on the way down. The more astute readers will have already beaten me to the conclusion of this simple equation: Danger.

The first day we engaged ourselves in this pursuit we had just gotten off a 7 hour bus journey and were on the banks of the river not an hour after arriving, tubes in hand. We get dragged in at the first bar where the buzz is palpable, get covered in mud (although on a number of occasions I was acused of being 'too' clean) and get drunk. The next logical step seemed to be to climb a twenty five foot overhanging stairs on the river to zip line, drunk and sans lifejackets, into the drink. Again we're thrown a rubber ring and again, down to nothing but luck we make it back ashore, laughing and giggling about our lack of respect for our own lives. We then, sun still up at this point, hit the river again and float maybe a kilometer to the next place we like the look/sound of. It was here I realised that my safety wasn't exactly guaranteed on this trip, twice I narrowly avoided some rocks none of which looked friendly or particularly merciful. You're ability to steer is almost non existent in rainy season (and drunk season) and the current is surprisingly strong. Anyway getting aboard this bar was more difficult but we all managed.

It could have been the thrill of simply living until that point under the circumstances or maybe it was just a nice day to be wet and caked in Lao mud drunk but the reality of this sort of thing gets away from you. In my case it was brought sharply back to the fore as, while I was standing on a deck that overhung the river made entirely of bamboo (a structural component I'd come to trust since hitting the road as it had never let me down before and it's used all over the place here) COLLAPSED while I was in mid conversation with one of our new Nederlander friends (a charming girl called Carmen) and fell ass over teakettle maybe 15 feet into the river below - again drunk, again with no lifejacket. Maybe it was the diving course we did but for some reason I was really calm as it was happening. I remember thinking, okay just exhale when you get under and you'll be fine. It was only when I was back ashore that I began to panic, laughing of course, and drinking again of course, but a little panicked all the same.

Amazing fact: One of the Lao workers there swam almost into the middle of this insane current to get one of my flip flops that had come off during this fall. I couldn't thank him enough but he didn't seem to think it was worth mentioning. He also replaced Carmen's now soaked cigarettes. You'd think saving our lives was enough...

Anyway just discussing what had happened kept us there until sun down and the only way back was in the tube so now, drunk, caked in mud and a little freaked (but glad to be alive) we set off in the dark towards.... towards.... Actually we were about a half a kilometre away, in the pitch dark, floating in the heaving water when we realised we didn't know where we were supposed to go, or what to look out for. Further, serious panic ensues, punctuated by hysterical laughter and then just when you think it's going to get rough a little Lao kid comes out and drags you shore. Don't ask me how they haven't lost more people doing this, and they've lost a good few I hear.

The kid wants money of course but I'm happy to give it. I get my wallet from the dry bag and give him two of whatever notes I have in my wallet. The only English they know is 'one more' but screw it, one more it is, I'm alive aren't I?

Evil scenes all around as the tubers come back in the dark, a bridge gave way to a hole somehow deep enough for the guy behind me to get his knee through once but not back again and when it looked like we need some serious outside help we somehow managed between the three of us to snap the bridge plank and get him out. All I can say is made the first beer afterwards go down like water.

Gluttons as we are for all things, punishment included, we decided to try it again the next day (now yesterday) and things were going well. Well that is until we got smashed and left it a bit late to jump back in the river. So in the dark for the second time in a row we're floating towards what we presume is help and realize we've taken a left down a different route. Our group of ten or twelve got broken up by the bridge I mentioned above, the one we broke a trapped (Irish) tuber out of the night before and some how, don't ask me, I end up holding on to a reed alone in the raging water. It was impossible to climb alone, Thank God I had a life jacket, so I call up to the people passing to get me some help. And then a guy called Paddy, who I'll never forget, climbs down the bridge pillars to help me. I really couldn't do it at first, but thanks to him I somehow manage, knowing it's do or die, to get onto the foothold he had. That one wasn't funny when it was over and still I get a bit chilled by the thought of what might have happened if I hadn't been able to hold on. My right arm and foot are both severely bruised from the climb up but it's a good lesson.

All that said: best days we've had so far.

I should mention also that Laos is absolutely the most beautiful country I've ever seen. The road south is winds unbelievably and cuts through valleys and sheer cliff faces and there doesn't seem to be a flat patch of grass in all directions. I was wondering what it was that makes this sort of scene so appealing to the human eye and I couldn't really answer but I guess you see more when you're surrounded vertically with the landscape and maybe it has something to do with bringing the view from heaven right down to the ground.

Two more pictures taken from the balcony outside our room in the clearly well named Grand View Guesthouse.

This is the kitchen of the place we stayed on the first day of our slowboat into Laos. I wouldn't put in any walls either if I lived beside that.

And here is the corresponding video from our place in Vang Vieng.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Early Extradition

July 22nd 10:51pm, Laos Laos Garden, Luang Prabang.

"Last Order," he says, in typically soft Laos accent.

Confused checking of watches, blank faces. "Really?"

"Yes, close at eleven," he says.

"Wow, Okay, another round then, I suppose," we say, stupidly ignoring what turned out to be, I think at least, a major hint and continue to play pool.
Before the drinks have even arrived the shutters are closed, the fan is turned off along with the television. We're flanked on all fronts by the tired faces and indeed bodies of the bar staff. Each one looks at us without the slightest hint of apology in his face. We're the ones breaking etiquette here, apparently. Two sips taken from our beer and a game of pool just started, a decider of three in fact and it's clear there's only one choice: abandon ship.

So with full drinks and a curfew looming (Yes a curfew!, one ought not be out past 12 if one is a foreigner, one ought to be back at one's guest house. One is going to be given the tired welcome of a proprietor who almost definitely needs to be woken from a fiercely burning slumber that stretches the definition of the word welcome beyond breaking and mutates it into something that describes a greeting composed entirely of contempt. And yes, that is at only midnight.) and weirdly the only place a dyed in the wool Irish twenty something can get a drink is the bowling alley. They're the only places that you can get a scoop after 11.30pm in this country. Don't ask me why but this simple fact alone pushed us into a drunk round of said game and threw into sharp relief my heretofore untested but now transparently pathetic bowling abilities. It was also the stage on which a meeting took place between me and some friends of friends (who are now friends, I guess) from back in the old country. What a teeny tiny small little world.

I've tried to understand from locals what the buzz is as regards this early to bed thing and the best I can get is that the country is marinated in Theravada Buddhism. This means that the local heads get up with or before the sun to give the monks, of which there are many of all ages, a bite for the day. The monks stroll peacefully through the town collecting these alms and then head back for, I presume, some hardcore praying.

It's a nice idea I suppose and the fact that they've removed themselves from a culture that might create a lot of alcoholism is possibly a good thing. Mind you when you take into account what is here and weigh it against the problems that might arise as a result of having a pub scene I'm unconvinced that it's entirely balanced. For example you might cut down on unplanned pregancy as a result of over exposure on the part of a healthy and drunk young duo of boy and girl but there are a massive amount of little kids around here (not that I'm suggesting for a second that any were unplanned - I mean in a lot of places the lights go out at 10ish so it's not surprising that entertainment follows a similar reductive pattern to the oldest amusement of all); there's a cute little Lao girl running around this net cafe as I write. Similarly it's hardly the problem of accumulating vices amongst the populace because since I've been in Laos, even in Pak Beng which is tiny but riddled with guest houses and not a lot else including electricity and walls, I was offered both weed and opium out on the streets and by the waiter and owner of the restaurant in which we ate dinner. So it can't be that My Body is a Temple thing either. Don't ask me, maybe they just aren't into talking endlessly and stupidly about the same things every night in a smoky pub listening to repetitive music trying to make eyes at someone they wouldn't help up from a bad fall sober. Maybe that is it... I don't know what's wrong with them.

Part 2 of my round up of recent photos:

The official method, I swear to Jesus, of entering Laos. Thundering out of the heavens sitting there up to your ankles in smooth muck, worrying about your gear and it's level of moisture content. The head with the umbrella is a government official. (Are you getting the picture that the words 'official' and 'government' don't seem to mean much in this part of the world?)

You can't help but laugh at the Duty Free Shop in which you can purchase crisps and sandwiches and pepsi while in the limbo of immigration transit in Huay Xai.

More real life people who live on the banks of the Mekong. I began to wonder after we floated slowly past yet another of these riverside dwellings why they looked at us with such amazement, since two boats have passed daily, packed to the gills with plastic coated westerners for years now. Maybe they still find them as inscrutable as I do.

This is cool. Young monks are everywhere, they're pretty chilled and mostly if you say hello they nod and reply with a smile. Fong, our guide on a recent kayaking trip we took down the Nam Khai with two delightful Dutch ladies, explained to me that in Laos, if you are the same age as someone with whom you're walking, it's par for the course to throw your arm around them. Just to say you're cool with them. They walked all the way down the road like that.

Video evidence, as if it was needed, that I wasn't just complaining about nothing. Note the serious depression on the faces of all the miserable pink poncho-ed profoundly wet travelers.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

We can't stay here, this is baht country

I've spent way too much money already, we both have. We keep meeting people who have been roughing it, staying in places that cost 100 baht (roughly 2 EURO), and thinking to ourselves, yeah we'll have to get used to the idea of staying in those places soon and besides Laos and Cambodia are going to be much worse than Thailand. But still, everytime we arrive somewhere and need a place to stay it's the same thing. The two boys look around and start justifying their addiction to luxury.

"Seriously man, it's going to be bad enough in other places, and it's cheap by euro standards."

"Seriously man, I can't take a gaff without air con tonight, it's too hot, seriously."

"Man, seriously, I'm not sleeping in a double bed with you, I don't care how cheap it is."

"Listen alright, it's seriously cool man, and we're here now, so come on, I mean seriously. Man."

Both of us are guilty of the straight faced utterances of any combination or mutation of the above. But comfort is a nice thing to have when you're away from home. Anyway the result is that we've paid something like four times what almost every backpacker we've met has for our rooms. But fuck it, seriously man, we're rolling like pimps.

So exodus from Thailand has kept me off the grid for the past couple of days. We took the charmingly titled and far less charmingly realitied slow boat to Luang Prabang from where I'm sending this message into the ether. (Say that out loud: Luang Prabang. Say it a few times, it's the nicest place name I've come across so far. Luang Prabang.)

A bus from Chiang Mai, the inside of which was the setting for a humourous exchange with some agreeable belgians, to Chiang Khong, the last town in Thailand before Laos. At Chaing Khong you get a boat across a river which forms a natural border between the two countries. It's rainy season here so it was LASHING down when we got there, ferried over in the back of a pickup truck even though it was LASHING. I bought rain ponchos for us but since it was LASHING so hard all the colours but pink were sold out. So standing in thick slimy muck up to our ankles, knackered from a nights traveling, wearing our delightfully butch pink ponchos, we climb into a boat with all our gear on our backs, hoping it wouldn't get soaked, fearing rightly that it would and all this in the relentlessly LASHING rain.

(I should point out that while Ireland is considered a rainy country one can't really enjoy it - if you're in bed or the bath or something - because it rains hard for only a couple of seconds, then impotently resigns itself to drizzle; not here, here when it rains it rains the whole day and all the while it's totally mercilessly frigging LASHING out of the heavens.)

Across this hard crossed river is Laos (silent S for those reading this aloud to the elderly) immigration. I thought there were some shotgun operations in Ireland but this shit right here, this shit was off the hook yo. Honest to God, in the LASHING rain they have everyone wait while a dude checks each passport and a little up the hill at a plastic table under a sun umbrella a guy looks at it and says something unintelligible at which point you're officially visiting Laos.

Anyway after this we pile into another pickup and head to the pier, where we wait, double check our passports, buy oreos and bags of lay's and exchange our baht to kip.

*A side note on cold firm cash: Kip is in my humbly arrogant opinion the lousiest currency available today. You get 12,400 of the blasted things for a euro. My breakfast this morning was fifty five thousand kip. What the hell are they messing around with it for? I got about fifty squids out of the ATM (of which there are two in Luang Prabang (ahh) and only a handful more in the whole of this country) and it was a wedge of notes that actually weighed me down slightly. *

Then the slow boat for 7 hours which takes us to Pak Beng, half way there, and we get out and stay in a guest house that looked, how to be kind, spartan, to begin with but after coming back from dinner a bit pissed was found to have been running on a petrol generator and was now devoid of electricity. You heard me right, indoors in the place the lights flicker as the engine ticks over and they turn it OFF at 10.30pm. Nightmare. (Incidentally, as I'm sure future posts will continue to mention, the idea of a nightlife in Laos is totally unnatural. There are no pubs, just restaurants that serve hooch, and all are shut by 11.30pm. Even coming back to the guest house at midnight last night seemed like asking for a kidney from the proprietor, who after much taking of deep breaths opened the gate and let us in. No amount of pandering will resinstate your position within the pages of one or more of his good books.)

Next day it's the same shit. Only this time it's 9 hours down the river. I shouldn't complain though, it was truly stunning to see, but after two hours of consecutive epic beauty you start to think, oh look, over there, more awesome landscape that almost moves me to tears.

Anyway I woke up a few times with the foresight to take a few quick snaps which appear below with a round up of others which got mixed up in the washing.

The same same guesthouse in Chiang Mai, lovely heads and decent digs. English, at least in the first sentence above is either very bad or irrelevant in the face pursuits of the flesh. I can not corroborate the assertion in said above statement.

Real people, of the child variety, who live on the banks of the Mekong in Laos, just chillin'.

The misty mountains of northern Laos, who's beauty was dampened, like that pun, by the damp weather coupled with my outside-ity.

A surreptitiously stolen photographic record of my real world encounter with a man of the cloth while on scooter back in Chiang Mai, lost. Not a frigging word of English out of him but he wouldn't end the encounter without repeatedly pointing in that direction. We found the park afterwards incidentally as his directions much like his orange habit, were spot on.

Fun Fact: Internet speeds here will make you want to slide naked down a jagged sharply inclining cliff into a receptacle of salt and leeches so it is for that sad reason that I hereby deprive you of further photos and videos.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Missing Things

It's inevitable, I suppose, that you end up missing things sooner than you thought you would. So here we go, not even a month in, with a list, in no particular order (excluding item 1), of the things I miss.

1. Mom and Dad. Sad but true. I didn't get time to teach my heretofore computer illiterate father how to use skype before I left. I was too busy doing nothing at home, with them, which was of course a task of the utmost importance in the list of things to be done before departure. But just over three weeks later, touchingly, he has not only created a gmail account for himself, which he regularly checks, but learned how to use skype and bought and configured a webcam.

2. My own bed. A bed in a climate that makes you need, and so love, your duvet. It's not a heat thing when you get down to it.

3. Tea. Oceans of tea that I drank like water and didn't appreciate and would give fifty thousand mango fruit shakes for a small measure of now.

4. Coronation Street.

There are others of course, but I'm only really writing these down to get them clear in my head, quantify the void inside that I may know it better and so deal with it properly. It's weird actually, looking at that list, it doesn't seem to encapsulate the sombre feeling you get when you wake up for another consecutive day in a place that seems so alien. Every traveller would love a door that opens into their own bedroom. A half an hour at home, one night, just a cup of tea with friends or family. I've thought about this too, but I think on closer inspection it would be a bad thing. If we had that, if traveling was that ephemeral an activity then we'd open a door unto Bangkok, for example, and decide after half an hour that we didn't like it. And maybe rightly so but even in days like these when traveling such distances takes no more an investment than 14 hours on a plane we're investing something in a place. We can't just flip a switch and be at home. It could be called isolation, like being trapped, but it forces you to look harder and deeper into a place, to find something you like. Something to make you glad you came, something beautiful. And when you find it, it's that bit more beautiful because you've had to search so hard.

Actually the above list, with the exception of item 1, is just stuff, things. It's the feeling of being at home that everybody craves. And maybe you can find that on the road. And when I think about it some of the things I miss the most about home probably aren't there. Maybe they never were.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tripping in both senses of the word

It's a sad fact that one has to get used to long expanses of time in a confined space to travel around this part of the world. This is exacerbated out of all Godly proportion because I'm Irish and a long drive is more than an hour; a lot of travellers we meet are from Oz or AmerikA so they're used to driving 8 hours for a bit of surf or a burger respectively. I on the other hand, delicate soul that I am, am ill equipped for such endurances. Bear that in mind when I tell you we left the island of the turtle yesterday at about 2pm ish and arrived in Chiang Mai today at around 9am this morning. And that's with us taking the extremely cushy route of flying from Bangkok.

No one really wants to leave a place like Ko Tao but time is ticking it was a pickup truck to the pier, boat to Chumpon, bus to Bangkok (Khao San road area), taxi to the airport ("Which airport Sir?", "What?", "Two airport sir, old one or new one?", "Shit, dunno, can you take us to an internet cafe to check?", "International cafe sir?", Here he rang a translation service to whom I explained we needed to go to an internet cafe, handed the phone back and he spoke in rapid but helpful Thai - this was all on abandoned streets at 2am in the morning, knackered off a bus now, so internet place, checked the mail, it was the main airport all along) , four hour wait to check in, one hour flight on a new airbus that was piloted by what could only have been a child who'd done a short course in aeronautics and then a taxi to our wonderfully named new home: Same same guesthouse in Chiang Mai.

It is no exaggeration to say that I was almost speaking in tongues by the end of that ordeal. Both of us were falling asleep given anything more than 30 seconds in one place during most of it but a good book (the saviour of many a nasty situation) rescued me from absolute hell, which is ironic since it was the God Delusion (which you should read).

I should write a short note on how I've been coping with the wildlife here. Most people that know me are well aware of my explosive arachnophobia so it's a sad fact but one that reinforces my usual fear that the first cockroach we encountered indoors stirred the following exchange:

"Jesus Paul, look at the size of him.!"

"What?" Here I saw the cockroach, in OUR bathroom (the impertinence), who was about an inch and a half shorter than me. "Jesus christ look at that..." (playing it totally cool, but standing well back)

Casually but still a little creeped out Adam says: "Will we take a picture for the blog?"

"Just kill him."

So that is why you've been robbed of evidence of something that I thought I could never stand and which it turns out I can, just not particularly comfortably. But then if you are comfortable to the point of affection with anything like that then you shouldn't be walking around on anything less than four legs.

I want to say this 'little' bastard was hanging above our hammock but he was HUGE. A foot at least. I 'discovered' him after repeated gentle entreaties that I try the hammock out, I should have realised what was going on when gentle entreaties became an insistence that really 'it was cool' and 'you should just lie in the fucking hammock, alright.'

Our quaint huts on Sairee beach, lovely from the outside but constructed specially of material that insulates and amplifies stifling heat that one's night might become double plus unpleasant.

This place apparently did the best pastry in Ko Tao! Another example of the constant nature of the world of uninvited micro squatters in the warmer areas of modern day Earth.

Leaving the island is a sad thing and made more miserable as it is here, viewed through a dirty ferry window. The background music is the movie that was playing for the duration. The Ladykillers if you're asking. Actually between Ko Tao and Chiang Mai if measured in movies, the distance, in our humble case is: The Ladykillers, Are We There Yet? (on a bus full of adult what were they thinking?) and Michael Clayton.

Two cocks and one understandably battered looking hen at chumporn pier.

The vulgar display of piety that is the Temple around the corner from this internet cafe.

(Note: I can't get this Thai keyboard to allow the implied accent egu, so get off my back alright)

Yet more colourful effigies that prove we really believe in a higher power around here alright. Well it looks cool doesn't it? Come on it took aaaages to build... and it cost a fortune too... come on....

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The yawning chasm of deleted personality represented by young male toplessness of the washboard stomach variety

A short meditation on the positives and negatives of Ko Tao, where we have arrived again, and which was given a perceptual boost due to the severe unpleasantness of our recent trip to Ko pha ngan, cannot take place in any real sense without ones thoughts returning again and again to the twin pillars of despoiled heaven that are creepy crawlies (including lizards) and roaming parties of young men walking around proudly and conspicuously devoid of clothing above the waist (and below the neck).

Such is the despicable view I've arrived, it seems, inevitably at, that I am rethinking the above use of the colloquialism 'creepy crawlies' as a description of them rather than the cockroaches around here (another word which, incidentally, would suffice).

I'll back pedal: We arrived on Ko pha ngan ready for a party. Good music, cool people, nice times. An achievable goal, it seemed, and still seems I'm sure but it was too tall an order. Around every obnoxious tout growling an agressive and confrontational Hello, How are you? trying to sell you a ride in a taxi boat or dinner in his restaurant there was another drunk harem of guys, all of whom, in heat that didn't require it, roamed slovenly about the dingy streets breathing with the top 10% of their lungs that they may hold in this cobblestone street of stomach, flexing every single beer in their abdominal eight pack. Drunk, all of them, on one of the most heinous beverages I've ever come across.

A sangsom bucket: A bucket (as in bucket and spade) hewn of plastic in a primary colour is the vessel for a bottle of thai rum (which says 80 proof on it, but it couldn't be, could it?) mixed with ice, coke and red bull. It is garnished with four straws, the presumable intention of which is sharing this monstrosity, the result of which is that one guy drinks the lot with four straws. The leering lechery and attempted hopeful wanderings towards debauchery, the likes of which would shock the jailers of sodom, is turned into almost farce, on that island at least, by the desperation inherent in displaying, not unlike mandrills are said to do with their bottoms, ones hard won washboard. I'll say no more on the matter however lest I, perhaps rightly, be accused of slowly souring grapes.

Another reason we didn't like the island was that the much vaunted half moon party wasn't particularly wonderful in any respect. And the music was an abberation. Anytime you see the prefix psy in front of music it's a bad thing, music with no peaks or troughs, played straight for at least 9 hours. Psy trance, psy techno, psy trad for that matter, avoid... like... the... plague.

Actually so miserable was our view of this place that it was, on the steps of the basin in which the half moon party takes place, we conspired to leave right away. I've spoken of the urge to flee before and this time it wasn't suddenly that it came, it was so quick as to almost have appeared in the past. We left the party in the back of a pick up truck with 8 drunk party goers (scumbags if you're asking, one of them tried to pick a fight with me for reasons I didn't understand at all, then quickly realised none of his friends thought it was worth it and said, "Sorry, my friend, sometimes, I do speak out of turn") grabbed our bags from the spartan surroundings of our yoghurt home and, still quite drunk hopped in another taxi, then a boat, then walked from the pier in Ko Tao to a bar called In-Touch, took a room and began a serious power snooze. All the details of that trip, that evil evil scene are still clear in my head, a twisted flippant and drunk conversation with a humouring if not humourous ozzie couple at the pier, hellish sea and stolen winks on the boat, a name calling incident in which I was so belligerent I verbally abused a chicken on the road beside me and a fall the result of which I can still feel in my lower back.

Anyhow it's great to be back on this island, come here if you can sometime, even the first time it's like coming home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ceci n'est pas moi sous l'eau

Ignore the pretentious reference in the title of this post if you like but it's still sort of meta that I had to take pictures of the prints we got back from our dive camera with my digital one to put them up here for you, whoever you are, current reader.

Anyway here it is, as if proof were needed, that at some point in the world at some point in time, 18m below the surface I was breathing and looking, I think you'll agree, damn sexy.

The buddy check must be performed before every dive, a practice during which one checks ones buddy's regulator (the thing what you breathe through), one's buddy's secondary regulator (the thing what one's buddy (oneself in this example) breathes through if one's buddy's air stops the intermittent pilgrimage to one's buddy's lungs - this is the bright yellow one; easily identified, hopefully in a hard real time panic), one's buddys BCD (Buoyancy Control Device - an inflatable and deflatable lifejacket essentially), one's buddy's weight belt (used to achieve neutral buoyancy underwater; directly proptionate to one's weight; crippling reality is hit home during the procurement of which since Adam only needed five and Beth - our wonderful instructor - suggested I try six!), one's buddy's straps and finally (now that I've well and truly flogged this now fossilised horse) one's buddy's AIR.
The above is an example of my performing a buddy check on Adam who, as is clear from the above, made a mockery of the whole affair pulling that Blue Steel shit.

This is us not underwater, dressed like assholes.

Having dived three times, it was suggested to us by our instructor, the previously mentioned Beth (an excellent instructor, evidenced by the fact that I was surprised when she told me she was 25 years old, much to her disgust, but which in reality is a compliment and reaffirmation of her authority and eloquence as a diving instructor), that we try going in differently. A James Bond entry is an attempted somersault where the goal is to land on one's back, one's tank, as one hits the water. It's incredibly difficult wearing dive gear, an outfit that is to graceful attire as falling bricks are to weightlessness. I performed it wonderfully. There was applause, and I think I saw a tear.
This picure is a poor excuse for the amazing feeling of swimming freely through clouds of wild (if that's an appropriate term of placid little fishy's just chillin' near a rock - and it isn't) fish. The fact that water in large quantites is blue means that the photo's have undergone something of a blueshift and photoshop and the time required to use it to correct this is a lot to ask, too much in fact, of me, Thailand and me in Thailand.

Beth, more comfortable underwater, of course, than me, blowing bubbles with great fluency, which is in stark contrast to the top photo here, of me doing, or at least attempting same, like a large fitting ladies blouse. Fun Fact: I drank a lung full of water attempting that, and didn't let it show: Gang star!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ko Pha Ngan, My Yoghurt Home away from home

So yesterday there was a little discussion about time. You wouldn't think you'd be so pressed for it with six (now seven) weeks to dick around this lovely part of the world but when we actually wrote it down it seems we're allowed only a couple of days in each place, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Siem Riep to name but a quartet minus one. One of the factors involved in our reappraisal of available time was that we decided we couldn't leave Ko Tao without diving again.

I mentioned previously but we did an open water diving course on the island, which was amazing. I won't go into the detail of how cool this was because I want the pictures we took to encourage you, dear reader, to disregard these hard drawn words in favor of the thousand each one is worth. Our dive camera is currently in the shop where we arrived in Ko Pha Ngan and I will post what I can when I can, which brings me neatly if contrivedly to the next affair of our wanderings: 'avin' it large.

This island is famous for the debauchery of it's full moon parties, where sunset beach (remember that show?) is crowded with revellers going mental til the wee smalls. We've elected to only hit the allegedly more boutique feeling of the half moon party, what I imagine is the electric picnic to the full moon's oxegen. So party on the 10th, hangover on the 11th and back to Ko Tao for the advanced (oooh) open water diving course, where they take us to 30m, and then off the islands.

A lovely lady in our dive resort who found out where we were going recommended our current guest house, where she said she used to work. It's called, wonderfully, Yoghurt Home 3, a delightful unnecessity made more brilliant by the apparent, as yet, lack of any Yoghurt Homes 1 or 2. She got us a good deal though, by writing a little note to the girl she knew who works here.

(Side note: When she wrote her name on the note, I coughed and didn't, uncharacteristically for me, say So wa dee, Krap, [insert name] and then introduce myself because I knew both Adam and I would have broken apart by my saying her name which was: Pu)

The pier from Ko Tao, though which we left.

Our lovely yoghurt home, which Adam described as 'cheap and cheerful' (it has air-con) and which I countered with 'cheap and depressing.'

The sign outside so you know I'm not bullshitting you, as if I had that Magritte an imagination.

The above is an example of what it's like to arrive on one of these islands. Every person on the pier wants your money and would like to take you where they're going. There's a small moral quandry, for me at least, involved in ignoring them, but it's worse again to even make eye contact. Keep an eye on the dude shouting red shirt, red shirt. Because I was wearing one and he was too, he thought we ought to engage in an act of capitalism.

Actually I was cracking up at the ignorance it took to just take out my camera and film them, the poor bastards but I couldn't resist. It's weird too, a red shirt was enough, we had enough kismit, connection to go to the town together... I wonder what he says to people in a different colour top from him? 'Homo sapien, homo sapien, I walk upright also, we go together!'

Monday, July 7, 2008

On the semi constant nature of the urge to flee

The urge to flee came, as it always does, suddenly. The woman we were cursing not twelve hours before for burning us on the visa deal came up trumps on our status inquiry Wednesday morning and so it was with a hurried and buoyant excitement that we packed our meagre belongings and fled the charismatic town of Kanchanaburi and headed right into the belly of the beast.

Neither Adam nor I wanted to go back to Bangkok, which would sound as normal as neither Adam nor I wanted to shave our heads with rusty cheese graters to those who know both us and that city. A minibus driver who didn't so much suffer from bad judgment on the road as rejoice in it takes us to the west side, near the famous Khao San road. Here is where the problem lied, we needed to get to the far east, 80 minutes in that traffic, and right back again to the train station without being killed. It's with great pleasure and the relief of not boring you, dear reader, I hope at least, with another recounted tale of being abused by yet another bastard behind the wheel of a cab. This guy was actually quite nice, took us all the way across town, waited for me while I grabbed those wonderfully comforting wine coloured documents (our passports, I mean, lest you conjecture) and took us back without screwing us (or over charging, bad dum bum). Note: He did stop on the opposite side of the road from the agency though making me cross that insane road alone, under pressure for time, so I am now one of those battle hardened people who has survived crossing the street in Bangkok without dying, though I swear to God a little bit of wee came out.

Anyway it was all aboard the night train after a grevious wait in the station, pictured below, and an encounter with something masquerading as chicken in the KFC beside it. No air con and 9 hours very much non non stop (it stopped often and long) from Bangkok to Chumpon and then a three hour power snooze on the hard tiled floor of the lay over area (reached by piling gullibly into the back of some Thai fellas pickup truck - not the first time I've done that since I got here) and a two hour ferry to the wonderful island of Ko Tao.

I swear, despite the unfathomable fatigue induced by almost 24 hours of frantic travelling it feels like we've finally arrived when we get to the pier. There's no half measure required to describe this place, it's paradise.

Future updates will include further details but - Fun Fact: I am now a qualified open water scuba diver!

The truly unpleasant interior of the truly unpleasant train station of the truly unpleasant city of Bangkok. I know, why are they all sitting on the floor, why not put chairs in if you can't move anyway, I know, why?

Turtle island, or as the thais call it Turtle island. (Which is Ko Tao in Thai)

This picture is specifically added for my previous work colleagues, because even in paradise there's a way to say Hello Tomorrow! (don't ask)

A funky little bar where I ate dinner not an hour ago, ten feet from the slowly lapping waves...

Another shitty day in paradise. Well the first actually, and the rain only lasted an hour :p

Thursday, July 3, 2008

28 Clicks on a Motorcycle, Riding Bitch

That's what it's called isn't it? Riding bitch? As in sitting on the back. Well I can't say anything bad about it. I highly recommend it in fact if you can find the right person. And I did. From Kanchanaburi to a cave temple, which was amazing: a deep and twisting cave where bats flew around golden shrines, altars and statues, where my newfound guide took a minute or two to pray to her Buddha. (The day of the week on which you're born determines which Buddha is yours. Jep's was born on a Thursday, so the reclining Buddha is hers.) Anyone who knows me is probably well aware of my antipathy for any sort of religion but I was charmed and beguiled despite myself by her ritual. In the most silent and sacred of places she paced with her hands pressed together in front of this golden statue, chanting quietly. Then she rattled what seemed like, well, a rattle. When it was over the sombre mood vanished like mist on a sunny morning and it was all smiles again.

To be fair, she was an excellent driver, despite her constant joking at my natural fear, usually overtaking Adam and pretending to cycle as she did so, violently shaking the bike. I relaxed through the gorgeous expansive beauty of her countryside more, though, than I have in most people's cars.

To say thanks we went for dinner in a floating restaurant beside the bridge. On entering she surreptitiously stole a banana from the tree which was the dining rooms centerpiece and ate it. When I asked what she was doing the reply came spoken only in monkey. I don't speak monkey, or much Thai for that matter. She taught me one phrase alright but wouldn't say what it meant, though I have an idea.

So here goes. "Pom ruk koon, Jep's."

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Almost Famous

"Hello, How are you?"

"Oh Hi, fine, how are you?"

"Where are you from?"



"No, Ireland."

"Ah England..."


"Nice to meet you man,"

Clink Glasses. Smile. Go back to drinking, he's happy.

The above has happened in almost every bar we've visited and is an encounter entered into after much stolen glances from across the bar. And that's just the guys. We went to a club last Saturday and just stood watching the band, young thais, none more than 18. Perfect for the genre, which was EMO all the way: all style no substance. Anyway just there drinking stylish (read: regular) bottles of Heineken and I realise that a group of about 7 or 8 people, mostly chicks, are standing with their back to the band in front of us alternately waving and giggling.

The correct decision would be to discount it as curiosity since we were the only westerners in a club full of around 1,000 clubbers out from Bangkok...

This happens out on the street too, and in restaurants. We rented scooters yesterday and the girl filling the petrol asked if I had a girlfriend. I'm serious that was her opening line when I asked for petrol and I won't transcribe the rest of the conversation here but in this single regard Thailand is a great place for the non narcissist. It's hard not to feel like a total rockstar. But I'm being told to enjoy it while it lasts, apparently backpackers aren't royalty in every country.

We'll see about that...