The airport rail link rolled up to the platform. The doors opened and we stepped out from our airconditioned carriage into a wall of hot, clammy air. The platform looked out onto a mess of buildings, many oozing moss and cracking from disrepair. Tall and unfamiliar trees with masses of soft leaves were bursting through the concrete below and horns were blaring nearby from a busy road. I was sweaty, lost and excited. Me and my friend and travel companion Sam had just arrived in Bangkok.
We met ‘Kev’ moments later under the platform smoking a cigarette next to a busy road. He was a short man with black hair and wore a worn blue uniform. He ambled over in a friendly manner and was full of questions. “Where are you from?”, “Where are you staying?”, “Is this your first day in Bangkok?”. Then he pulled a map from his back pocket and planned out our whole stay in Bangkok and onwards down to the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan. He even waved down a passing tuk-tuk too take us to the tourist agency where we could get cheap tickets to Koh Phangan.
He seemed a little dissapointed when we thanked him but asked if he knew somewhere we could get something to eat instead. Laughing he pointed across the road to a large warehouse. It didn’t look especially legitimate. To be polite (and to get away from Kev) we went for it. But between us and a warm meal were three lanes of metal rumbling slowly but relentlessly on as far as I could see. We waited for a chance to cross…
…and gave up and asked Kev if he could help us across the road.
The trick as it turns out is just to walk out straight into the traffic and most of it will find it’s way around you and the rest, hopefully, stops. Inside the warehouse/restaurant several tables were laid out in a grid. To one side light was drifting in through some open windows whilst at the other hot oil was spitting furiously at noodles as they were thrown into the pan and spatulas were scraping sharply against woks. It smelt fantastic but most importantly it felt 10 degrees cooler. We sat down at a table where a woman immediately noticed us and turned the fan to face the only sweaty people in the room. I’d had my doubts about Kev but they evaporated in an instant when he bought us each a tasty mess of ferociously spicy noodles and chicken - the first of many Pad Thai. They rematerialised a minute later when he asked us if we were feeling ill. “From the street food” he explained “If you can eat this you can eat very well in Thailand. Very cheap.”. He talked at us at length about his interests - drinking, smoking, gambling and late nights out clubbing, about working in Ireland and about how cheap Thai prostitutes are compared to European ones.
After we’d finished eating we headed back outside. Kev reminded us again of the route he had planned out and pointed us to another tuk-tuk that had pulled over whilst we were talking. We thanked him again for the meal but declined. His demeanour cracked alarmingly. His smiling, intensely friendly face had slipped away revealing something equally intense but a lot less friendly. Trying not to notice I just smiled. We thanked him again and walked swiftly away. Moments later we were lost.
Somewhere in Bangkok
The street was wild and varied. Insulated wires hung like vines between concrete pylons in the street. Lanes of colourful traffic poured down wide roads. Agile motorbikes cut in front of their slower tuk tuk cousins which were slowly forcing their way between lanes with horns blaring. Brightly coloured taxis were stood at a near stand still and the skytrain thundered overhead. Wherever we were it was overgrown with vehicles and buildings and people.
We tried referencing the map Kev had given but aside from his annotations for the Thai words for ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘big breasts’ there was nothing on it of any use. Worse still the map he’d given us must have been cursed because every time we opened it a taxi driver would immediately dive off the road and up the curb and yell and gesture at us to get in. I wasn’t keen on getting a taxi anyway but the pushy tactics just pushed me away further. We passed a group of men and their motorbikes. They were wearing balaclavas so I could only see their eyes following us as we walked by. Thats when I realised how exposed we were carrying our lives for the next 6 weeks on our backs and completely lost. We lured a taxi over with the map, paid the fare and our car crawled off towards our hostel.
We didn’t have much time in Bangkok so we started with the major tourist attractions like the Grand Palace. I don’t think either of us were too keen on seeing them in the first place but we went because everyone did and we were worried we might find out later we’d missed out on something.
The entrance is built into an old gate with the ticket stand a little way behind built into another more recent looking building. With the rotating gates and long queues it felt more like the entrance to a theme park than a royal palace. Stepping through the golden arches I was struck by the variety and detail of the buildings that surrounded me. The Grand Palace is drenched in colour. It drips from the golden spires spilling down the tiles that cover the roofs and down the columns. Tall spires reach up and try and poke holes in the sky. In such a sea of colour the most striking buildings is a glistening white. It all comes together into a dazzling spectacle that stuns you for a moment.
But the shine comes off pretty quickly. Once you get your senses back you’ll notice the bins, electronic lights, sun shelters and the hundreds of other people. There’s no stories or history about the palace - you’ll have to pay alot extra for a guide - and the only signs around point to the exit. It seems like a lot of effort has gone into showing people exactly what they expected to see and then moving them on as quickly as possible. The other tourist attractions that we saw were much the same - impressive at first but lacking any staying power. They are great to take photos of, or photos in front of, and not alot else.
Mopeds and taxi’s rule Bangkok so it can be hard to escape the noise but it’s worth looking for the quiet places. We went looking for a bar one afternoon and stumbled upon a small residential area. Rows of small houses stood like reeds next to a river with an arched stone bridge crossing over it. Smoke billowed down the street from a scrappy bbq grilling flowery white fish and rows of sticky meatballs. Nearby, people sat on plastic chairs playing cards. We went over the bridge and down an alley and into a different city altogether. The buildings had grown up tall and modern. A straight road ran through with mopeds zipping along it. Open fronted restaurants were serving every kind of food you might fancy but few people were stopping to eat just yet. If you followed that road a while you might meet a dead end but you’re just as likely to find a bustling market or a quiet park or a roaring stadium…
I bet you could find anything you want to eat in Bangkok if you knew where to look. I know that because we were clueless but still found some extraordinary food. As expected there was some excellent Pad Thai and every kind of Thai curry but many things I ate I can only guess at the names of but were usually delicious none the less. The chefs here are even better at western food than we are. I had probably the best burger and chips I’ve ever had here and some weirdly tasty toast. And then there’s durian fruit. It’s a big spiky fruit you’ll find sliced, and wrapped in plastic being sold by the side of the road. It tastes… weird. Not bad necessarily but so odd I could only manage a few bites before I had to throw the rest away. It did to my mouth what seeing a new colour would do to your eyes.
Haggling is essential in Bangkok as everyone is trying to take advantage of your ignorance. Most people will assume you don’t know the value of anything in Thailand yet so will open with as much as they think they can get away with. Once we got familiar with the taxis we found out we’d agreed to roughly 5 times as much for our trip to the hostel than we would have if we’d just gone on the meter. Even once you have a good idea how much something should cost you still have to work hard to get close to that point as a tourist. Around the tourist attractions are the worst for this where you can’t even glance at a stall without someone getting in your face and trying to sell something.
Much worse though are the many scammers. They often appear friendly and come out of the blue and start a conversation. They usually speak flawless english and after a short chat will kindly let you know that whatever big tourist attraction you’ve come to see is closed today but that they could sort a tour to everywhere else for you for very cheap. They’re more convincing than you’d think and if you bite, as I would have if not for Sam, you get taken on a whistle stop tour of the drivers mates shops and are pressured into buying something at each and every one. There so common that you don’t have to be in Bangkok long to get familiar with the red flags so they’ll often politely ask early on “Is this your first day in Bangkok?”.
In many ways Bangkok’s a poor introduction to Thailand. All of the scams, tricks and tactics used to wring money out of tourists gets your guard up. And though we never saw it quite as bad as in Bangkok again it left me always a little cautious of everyone you meet. It’s an amazing city but it wasn’t long before we were ready to leave.
Amongst Kev’s ramblings he had told us something useful - if we got the sleeper train we could make it to the Thai islands in time for the legendary Full Moon Party. We went to the train station and bought a combined train, bus and ferry ticket and settled in for the first leg of a long trip - a 12 hour stretch on a train.
From my bottom bunk I could watch Thailand fly past. Palm trees, towns and villages whizzed by, hundreds of places no one ever stops to see, whilst the sun set and rose again. A tinny electric voice called out our stop and we bundled our heavy bags onto our backs. The train doors opened to a crowd of hands and faces. All trying to get you to ‘your’ bus yet each having a different idea of which one that was. Tired and confused some leaving the train were lured away to unmarked minibuses. Pushing through the guides and out of the platform we saw a dizzying array of different busses. Yet more guides stood by the busses and tried to encourage us in. One bus’s name almost matched our ticket so we dived on and hoped for the best.
The bus journey took a few hours and it was a few more before the boat arrived. When we’d finally made it on board we’d been travelling for 15 hours and still had hours to go. I bought a beer from the toothless man at the bar, slipped off my shoes and settled in for the long haul. Another beer later and I’d turned my trousers into shorts. Around the fourth I was shirtless. Comfortably tired I stared out across the turquoise blue dappled with mountainous islands with lush green trees. The water invited you in and I couldn’t wait to get to the island for a cool swim. The sun blazed down and the 4 hour boat journey slipped by in no time. Only when we landed did I realise that I’d forgot to wear sun cream.
There was a sharp stinging over most of my body and I was glowing red from my face to waist and my knees to toes. Only where my watch and shorts had been were protected. It was lucky I stopped drinking when I did. When I first saw myself in the mirror I couldn’t stop laughing. It wasn’t funny for long. After several cold showers and a nap I woke up feeling much, much worse. Shivery, dizzy, ill and desperately thirsty. I pulled on my clothes very carefully and limped out into the burning late afternoon heat in search of food and water.
At the entrance to the hostel was a large open area filled with long wooden tables and a restaurant/bar. Roof speakers pumped out dance music overhead but it was empty besides us and a table of girls drinking and dabbing fluorescent paint onto each other. There was no way we could’ve made it to the Full Moon Party in this state. I could hardly get any food down me yet I couldn’t slate my thirst. I couldn’t really concentrate and I wasn’t far from fainting. I should’ve have headed to bed… or maybe to a hospital. But the music was egging me on and the table over looked friendly enough…
After a quick trip to 7/11 we returned to our new friends equipped with 4 litres of water each, heaps of after sun and aloe vera gel, two sleeveless pink fluorescent tops and many beers. My skin absorbed the after sun like a sponge and I was through the beer just as fast and suddenly I was starting to feel alot better.
On the night of every full moon Haad Rin beach is briefly populated by enterprising locals, far too many drug dealers and thousands of tired and emotional tourists in colourful vests. At one end held high in the air ‘FULL MOON PARTY HAAD RIN BEACH’ is written in fire. Strings of neon lights stretch down the beach past clubs booming dance music to a line of drunk men jumping a flaming rope as it wooshes through the air. A crowd stood in a ring watching like members of a lost fluorescent tribe. Bar stands lining the beach are each decorated with a different countries flag. Opposite them people people sit in circles or lie passed out alone on the sand. The ticket sellers had tried to mischange me on the way but gave me back too much money when we’d confronted them. Rather than waste it we visited Ireland were the owner made some pouring motions behind the stall were we couldn’t see and brought out a bucket that claimed to be a vodka lemonade. Down the beach the figures were still jumping the flaming rope. One man tripped and fell under it. Too drunk or surprised to get out from under the rope quickly they were caught a few times as they scrambled away, inciting a sympathetic ‘aah’ from the crowd and then quickly forgotten.
The rope burnt out and was coiled away. A ring appeared attached by a rope at each end. It was held taught and then lit on fire. Fumes poured off into the night sky. A hundred people or so crowded around the ring keeping a respectful distance from the fire. Rarely at first but then more and more often someone would muster the confidence to sprint out from the crowd and dive through. We stood at the edge of the crowd but slowly, almost unwillingly, crept closer to the flames. My heart was pounding as we arrived at the leading edge. All eyes were on the fire. No one ran for a moment. I ran and jumped. I felt the heat brush over me as I passed through and landed - as yet unburnt. Phew. Moments later Sam made it through too. ‘Well’, I thought, ‘at least we don’t need to do that again’.
The second time round we were a little more confident. Perhaps the ‘vodka lemonade’ was starting to take affect. We circled round back to the other side of the ring and waited for a space. This time Sam went first and ran towards the ring. As he jumped one rope was let slack just a little. He fell into the burning ring of fire and went down, down, down hitting the bottom of the ring with his leg and dragging his arm through it as he went.
I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time but I’m pretty sure it was something along the lines of ‘Ah. Bollocks.’.
After we arrived a young woman was rushed in on a stretcher. She had long blonde hair and pale skin dotted with paint. The doctor picked up her head and shined a small bright torch into her eyes. It rolled limply to the side as she was pulled behind a curtain at the back of the clinic. With it’s bright fluorescent lights and white decor it stuck out like a sore thumb against the colourful bars of the strip. It wasn’t our first choice for where to spend the evening. It wasn’t even our first choice of places to treat the burn. We’d tried to soothe it by washing it in an outside tap next to a pay to use toilet at first but the owner had made us stop once they’d spotted us. We found the clinic a little after with the help of some taxi drivers. People arrived with various ailments whilst we waited for someone to look at Sams burn. Some fairly serious, one just looking for a lost friend. When it was Sams turn it was just a few bandages and a bill and we were gone.
It turned out we’d got pretty lucky. Many of the clinics on the island will try to push services on to you that you never asked for so they can charge you outrageous fees. The doctor we’d found seemed to genuinely care. But to many on the island your not seen as a person. Your a pay cheque. Money breeds greed and there’s plenty of both at the Full Moon Party. Drug dealers work with the cops to get their products back. Bartenders spike drinks so their mates can pick the pockets of their passed out patrons. And every now and then someone gets hurt and pays an arm and a leg for it.
But on the whole though it was still a pretty good night.
The Morning After
The fire had aggravated the sun burn and I’d grown stinging blisters on my shoulders. I alternated between feeling sorry for myself in the shower and then in bed. First a long cold shower and then lieing with cold, wet towel compresses until those were stinging hot and then back in the shower taking the towels with me to cool them down again. Luckily Koh Phangan has several well stocked pharmacies on account of the many, many accidents that occur on the island so it was very easy to get some second degree burn cream which did help a little. We lived like vampires for the rest of our time on Koh Phangang. Cowering from the sun during the day in our air conditioned rooms only leaving to explore the town once it had cooled down in the evening.
The locals we spoke to outside of the Full Moon Party were far friendlier than in Bangkok and seemed fairly normal. In the market, though you could still haggle on the prices I didn’t feel like anyone was trying to rip me off so I usually didn’t worry about it. We found a bar that we would spend the evenings in where we could turn up and play a few games of pool with the owner and some expat regulars. And we settled in a bit whilst we waited for the sun burn to ease.
After the Full Moon Party our hostel had been deserted so one morning I took too many painkillers and hauled my backpack onto my blistered shoulders. We walked for about half an hour through the roasting sun to Smile Hostel a bit further out of town. The road there seemed mostly abandoned aside from the makeshift petrol stations selling wine bottles filled with fuel and the occasional dodgy massage parlour. Our hostel was well hidden down a dirt side track. The only giveaway was a sign with a disconcerting smiley face leaning out from down the road. But despite first impressions it was pretty good. Clean with friendly owners, a dog and blessedly powerful air conditioning.
That evening once it had started to cool down we ventured out into town, had an excellent massaman curry from a restaurant on the high street, played some more pool and then started the long trek back. About halfway home as we were nearing the abandoned stretch we could hear the trembling tones of a Thai man singing. Badly. It sounded like a karaoke bar. Lo and behold down a dirt road and decorated with pink fairly lights there was a building with a tall sign written in Thai. It didn’t look like your typical karaoke bar and the large black jeeps parked out the front also seemed a little odd but the door pushed open without any resistance and we stepped through into a dimly lit room with a bar at the opposite end. I took a step towards the bar but stopped when I saw there wasn’t anyone behind it. The wailing was louder in here but seemed to be coming from a speaker on the wall and as I turned and looked around for a stage I noticed the dozens of surprised Thai women staring at us. No one moved for a moment. We stepped back towards the door and the girls leaped to their feet to stop us. ‘Don’t go! Stay a while, have a drink - we’ll show you a good time!’. Diving through the door we burst outside into the clear air with our money if not our dignity and walked away laughing.
As it turned out the deserted street before our hostel was actually the red light district which creeks alive at night. It’s always filled with bored young Thai escorts with a scattering of middle aged men lingering around buying them drinks. Sam noticed they hang pink fairy lights outside all the bars wherever one might find a companion for the evening. We crossed through that district a couple of times on our way back from town and everytime I heard that same Thai man was singing.
After a few days with the sunburn my legs began to swell so much that my feet would fill my boots if I stood for too long. My chest would slowly inflate as soon as I’d left the shower so that by the end of the day I’d usually developed a respectable pair of man boobs. If I’d done my hair right I may have even been able find employment in one of the cheaper bars but we were more pressed for time than money at this point and having run out of things to do at night on Koh Phangang we hid from the sun inside a boat to the mainland and flew north to Chiang Mai for a few days and then on over to Pai.
A Dirty Business
There are two kinds of toilets in Thailand. There are your western style which is what we’re used too. Big porcelain seat with a hole in the middle half filled with water. Then there are the squat toilets you get in Asia. These are flat blocks of porcelain with slightly curved sides and a drain at one end. It’s a bit like a flattened bath but with no water. In South East Asia both types of toilets are common and usually they feature toilet paper and an odd looking water pistol hanging on the wall. So far I’d figured that it was meant for cleaning the toilet. The toilets in Chiang Mai bus station are exclusively of the squat variety. Up to now I’d managed to avoid them but as we arrived I’d realised that the late night and curry the previous night had put my stomach into a state of distress not seen since the cold war and things could go nuclear at any time. Worse there was no toilet paper or any sign there had ever been any toilet paper. I left, did some frantic research and went back in. Crisis averted I reached for the water pistol, the bum gun, and squeezed the trigger tight. Water shot out at an alarming rate. A very gentle touch resulted in a more approachable water stream. I have to say it was an unusual experience but it’s very effective especially at dealing with trapped chilli remnants.
A Slice of Pai
The road connecting Chiang Mai and Pai crosses over a mountain. On the way there it curves and drops like a rollercoaster track for two long hours. It’s so bad that if you keep your eyes open you can sometimes see signs for safe places to stop and vomit. The road is mostly only one car wide so at the hairpin corners the driver has to beep the horn to warn anyone coming down to stop. It’s an uncomfortable journey but it’s all worth it when you come rolling down through the outskirts of the town to see the sun set behind endless fields of rice. We rolled up a bridge and for a moment I could see into the fields where two farmers were toiling away in long clothes and pointed hats whilst far away a few lonesome trees stood watching them.
Lit by the setting sun the high street looked idyllic at first. When I found a street food stand selling a delicious and massive piece of grilled chicken I decided I was going to like this place. Sadly like the chicken it couldn’t last long and once the night came the main street filled up with stalls selling crepes, smoothies and random tat. More people arrived and the street quickly went from quaint to cramped.
After the high street started to fill up we left to find somewhere to eat a proper meal and see the end of the sunset. We found a restaurant a little out of the way, on a hill overlooking the town and settled down for a meal. By the time we’d left it was pitch black. Heading back we turned down a road where a little dog started yapping at us. Then his mate turned up growling, much larger and with flat backed ears. Soon six dogs of all different shapes and sizes were following us and growling, barking and nipping at the air behind our legs whilst we frantically walked away.
Pai is home to many street dogs who have known little kind human contact. That said the worst that most of them will do is leave you itchy and almost all of the ones I met were appreciative of a bit of attention once they’d had time to get over their nerves. I met one dog, white with a brown head and soft eyes, who after a few scratches behind the ear and a bit of attention happily slept at my feet for a while and then tried to follow us home that night. I walked her back thinking that she must have been someones pet but when I went to the shop I’d met her at the owner looked at me like I’d dragged a rat in with me. She was a good dog really but there’s so many here they’re pests not pets. She sat outside after that and watched me go but didn’t follow me back again. It was probably for the best. I’d never have got her through customs.
Eyy Funky Moped
The attractions around Pai are well spread out so most people rent a moped for a day or two and make their own tour. Pai was quieter than other towns (we’d been tempted to try it on Koh Phangang but had been put off by the very high death rate) but it still meant joining the stream of traffic that flows around the town. Having never even managed to drive a go kart around a ring without crashing I was not especially confident in my abilities. At the rental office the weather turned on us and we were told we’d have to wait for it to clear up. We were sat opposite a girl in crutches with bandages on her face and arms. Apparently she’d flipped her moped over trying to avoid a dog. Worryingly it seemed like every other person who came back had sustained at least a minor injury. I was close to wussing out when the rain suddenly stopped.
The two of us balanced on the back of a moped as we were driven down a muddy alley to a small house. A huge pig lay on it’s side under a wooden shelter surrounded by strutting chickens. To the side of the house was a small paved area. We were shown how to start and stop the moped, where to put the fuel and drove a few unsteady circles each around the paved bit in each direction. Driving test passed we were let loose on the road.
Though the first twenty minutes were nerve racking once you get out of the town and away from all the traffic it’s actually very easy. Other than a minor incident were I drove into a ditch and ended up horizontal across both lanes leading to a car breaking hard as they came around a sharp corner and barely stopping in time things went off without a hitch and they let us see the many splendid sights around Pai.
One of the spots I was excited to see was a small elephant centre. It’s described in guides like a little old ladies house with some elephants nearby you can go and see and feed. When we rolled up a mahout was riding an elephant towards us. On it’s back a carriage carrying two people rolled gently from side to side. Off the side of the road was a small enclosure with a bamboo platform to use to climb onto the elephants. Inside two elephants stood, sometimes rolling their heads from side to side but otherwise still. Another tourist at the edge of the enclosure was trying to lure an elephant over with a piece of fruit but it just stood staring at her. A nearby mahout noticed and went over to the elephant. The man pulled it’s ear in front of him and held a cigarette lighter to it to drive the elephant forwards despite everyones protests. At the fence the elephant reached out without vigor and gently pulled the fruit out of the womans hand. It looked at us with big, hopeless eyes and passed the fruit into it’s mouth.
Before we left Pai I wanted to try some proper Northern Thai meals. Up north they like their meat. So much so that many of the traditional meals can be served cooked or raw for those who just can’t wait. I’d had a glimpse of this with the chicken when I arrived but outside of one or two excellent street food stands most of the high street sustenance is pretty poor or worse - vegetarian. The really good stuff is out of town. I read about Larp Khom Huay Poo online but it took me nearly an hour to find as it was so small I walked past it once without realising and then entered the wrong building on the second try. It’s tiny menu consists of variants of the typical northern Thai dish and ‘meat salad’, Laap, a so spicy it’ll make your eyes leak, pile of minced pork fried with mounds of fresh green herbs. It puts all other salads to shame and cost me around £2. It was glorious and a good meal to have in me as we prepared for the 762 turns once more.
Back in Chiang Mai things were mostly as we had left them. Sheltered down a side street, our hostel was still an accident waiting to happen. Three stories of rooms overlooked a swimming pool and a bar where the whisky was cheaper than the water. Behind that bar was a slightly manic but very friendly Thai man who would laugh whenever he didn’t understand what someone had said. He wasn’t good at simple drinks so would always take 5 minutes and make something very fancy instead. It was a habit that drove one friend, a young Scottish expat we’ll call ‘Scott’ for the sake of his continued career, mad as the bartender could never resist sneaking a splash of lemon into his rum and redbull. He tried to complain about it many times but the bartender would always just laugh and laugh.
A Walk in a Park
We’d arrive back in Chiang Mai just in time for my birthday. I’d always planned to ride an elephant in Thailand but once we got here and learnt and saw how they were treated, not to mention the cruelty thats used to break them, that option went out the window. But finding somewhere that actually respects and cares for the animals properly is not made easy. The camps know that people want to ride an elephant but they don’t want to lose trade by appearing unethical. So they’ll advertise that riding elephants is perfectly fine or it’s fine if you don’t use a saddle or miss the point entirely and offer both riding and non-riding options at the same camp. After extensive research turned up no definite answers, we followed TripAdvisor and dropped £150 each on a day at Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary for injured or orphaned elephants.
The arrival to Elephant Nature Park was not as I had expected. I’d imagined a large sprawling thing with many seperate areas to keep the herds apart. But the last stretch to the camp took us along a dirt path through a dense jungle flanked by riding camps big and small and all cramped so tight together they bleed into each other so you cannot tell them apart. Elephant Nature Park is no exception. Though the space there is large and they’ve grown by converting adjacent camps to the same model they still collide with the many riding camps nearby and it’s not uncommon to see elephants being ridden a few hundred metres or so of the parks grounds.
We first saw the elephants that we’d be spending the day with through a wooden fence. There were two huge females, the mother and a nanny, and a young male called Cookie who stood just a little shorter than me. Just out of their reach sat several buckets of sliced pumpkin, watermelon and bannanas. The elephants stood and looked at us expectantly. Hesistantly I held out a chunk of pumpkin to the little guy who wrapped his long, dextrous trunk around the fruit, squeezing it as he did so that juices spilled out before passing it to his mouth and unrolling his trunk again impatiently asking for more. He ate so fast it took two people to keep him happy.
We were armed with a bandolier of fruit and sent through the fence to lead the elephants down towards the forest where they would be able to roam for a while. We walked ahead with the grown ups whilst Cookie followed behind chasing after a football, at least until he stepped on it and popped it like a grape, then he just followed the food again. At first it’s intimidating having an animal twice your size and hundreds of times your weight looming behind you but it doesn’t take long to acclimatise to them. Very quickly you find yourself strolling along besides elephants like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world. So when the elephants went for a swim in the river and someone said you could jump in after them I did so without a second thought. I hit the bank with more of a thunk than a splash but it was enough to get the matriachs attention who turned at me and raised herself to her full height, slowly and with no effort but moving such a great mass that water poured off of her. She looked down at me curiously and I looked back in brief but total awe. Then she relaxed her head and broke the spell and returned to your everyday two tonne land mammal.
Once we neared the end of the path the elephants split off and strolled through the thick foliage without us, their great mass allowing them to trample through it with ease. After a moment a tremendous trumpeting noise echoed through the forest as they called to each other. We stopped, had some lunch by a waterfall and then turned about and headed back. Picking the elephants up again on the way back and stopping for another quick swim in the river.
After the walk we had a quick tour of the rest of the park and met some of the other elephants aswell as heaps of dogs - it was good to see some being properly cared for. It was an amazing experience and we could feel good about it too, confident that the elephants were being well looked after.
A Big Night Out
Back at the hostel I went and saw our favourite bartender and told him it was my birthday. He said he’d make something special. 15 minutes later he had constructed a pyramid six glasses high and poured several kinds of liquor into the bottom 6 before roasting some coffee beans with a blowtorch and chucking those in too. More spirits were added at the top so that it flowed like a fountain down into the bottom glasses. Still not content, he finished it off by setting the whole thing on fire. It was impressive to say the least but by the time he’d set it up, taken it down and we’d drank them all we were already running dangerously close to the curfew.
2 Hours Pre-Curfew
The 5 of us headed out - me, Sam, Scott the expat and local guide for the evening and two more friends we’d made on the trip. Our first stop seemed like your bog standard night club if oddly quiet for how close it was to the curfew. After we arrived it filled up faster than the free shots ran out, leaving us stranded in a sea of people. There was only time for a bit of bad dancing and a few expeditions to the bar before the lights were turned up and the music was dimmed. The curfew was about to start and everyone was supposed to be heading home. I turned to the entrance we’d used but noticed everyone else was moving towards another open door that had been hidden in the dark till now…
The crowd were uncharacteristically enthusiastic as they rushed at the new exit. But rather than the cool air of the night it led to a well lit cafe which just so happened to also sell drinks and play loud music. Scott had been prepared and was already at the bar chatting up the bartender. Sam and the others had dispersed. Movement on a TV caught my eye. There was an array of CCTV screens showing the club we’d just left. In the middle were some confusedd stragglers in the now empty main hall. Another showed the alley outside where the police had just rolled up and were setting up a barrier. They moved seamlessly from one screen to the next till they met the stragglers and sent them packing down the alley and into the street. I watched the door waiting for the knocking. But back on the cameras they were just packing up the barriers and driving away. Well, so much for the curfew!
2 Hours Post-Curfew
We left the cafe before it closed. Scott had spent all his money tipping the bartender so we headed out to find a cash point whilst he thought of the next place to go. Some tuk-tuk drivers were still cautiously prowling the streets but other than that it was empty and eerily quiet. Scott swiftly led us to the next club a little further into the city. Inside was almost pitch black with the only light coming from crazy disco lights that shone neon blue in random directions. Roaming around the club were silhouettes of wide men and the shapely outlines of women, the two confusingly melting into one in the strange light. It had been a long night, I thought, and I was starting to get tired. Then the lights flicked on and I looked blearily around at a room filled with women of all kinds including many, many ladyboys.
On our way out we were followed by a 5ft or so pretty, young woman who immediately tried to convince us to sleep with her. She grabbed onto Sam and another friends hand. The rest of us turned to leave but they were stuck. Her vice like grip held them into place and neither of them could get their hands free. Eventually she relented when the rest of us couldn’t stop laughing.
YAMA - Yet Another Morning After
I stumbled downstairs and up to the bar in search of water but was instead offered a shot of a mysterious ‘herbal remedy’ which left a burning sensation in my throat and tasted strongly of whisky. Whatever it was it worked and feeling refreshed I headed out the alley of our hostel. I passed through the steam from a noodle soup stand set opposite a family sitting at a plastic table eating their breakfast. Flies buzzed faintly nearby. The smell of grilled pork drew me in down the street towards the best street food in the city and finally out onto the main street where I tried unsuccesfully to take it all in. All the tall buildings and crazy vehicles and plants you only see in garden centres at home. All too much for my slightly beer addled mind. Kitted out with a plastic bag of grilled pork and my laundry I set out to find someone who would wash it for money.
After half an hour of wandering around town unsuccesfully I came across a quiet bridge over a busy road. Halfway across lay a man. He was tanned to leather from too many hours in the sun. His bare skin was pulled tight against his ribs but I still couldn’t tell if he was breathing. He had a small plastic watch on his wrist so I just kept walking. There was clearly something up. Further he was the only homeless person I’d seen since arriving in Thailand so somehow he must have managed to exclude himself from society. No one else was helping him so they likely knew something I didn’t. It was a scam and I knew it and I’d almost convinced myself enough to make it over the bridge. At the end of the bridge I looked out over a square filled with people, many of whom had passed him by and a niggling thought emerged and wouldn’t let me go. What if I was wrong? I turned back and folded a little money inside a t-shirt and left it by his head for if he woke up.
Welcome to the Jungle
Chiang Mai had one last surprise for us before we left. We’d arranged for a guide to lead us on a trek through a jungle north of the city. It had been good. Our guide was smart and capable and knew where to look for things we’d never discover ourselves. Like a plant with leaves that shrink when you touch them or another that when the stem is carefully broken could be used to blow bubbles. He’d led us on a route that had winded past waterfalls, rice paddies and even through a small village.
Everything was going well till Sam mentioned that we’d been to Elephant Nature Park. Our guide turned and looked around conspiratorily. He paused for a moment. He said that he’d worked their before leaving to start his own business and he’d seen the other side of the park. He claimed they used the same cruel methods to control the elephants there as at any other camp and that it’s success was because it had managed to capitalise on the idea of ethical practices without having to implement anything expensive. That the camp was too cramped for the number of elephants being kept there and that he’d seen elephants fight and die as a result and that they were being underfed but this was being hidden from tourists by regularly injecting them with growth hormones like you might cattle.
I thought at first that he was making it all up. Then I thought some more and what he said started to seem feasible. Eventually I decided that they were probably both lying to us, like everyone had been since the moment we’d stepped off our train. And after that I gave up on Thailand. The country is led by it’s pocket. By a viscious and short sighted greed that’s corrupting it and diminishing it and I’d had my fill of it. And that could have been the end of it for me. But then I found God.
Before crossing into Laos we made one last stop. A one night stay in Chiang Khong to give us plenty of time for the crossing. The town rests on the Thai/Laos border and it used to have the main river crossing for travellers looking to head into Laos. A bridge was built south of the town which allows cars and busses to cross the town and now most people will go straight across and never see Chiang Khong. Without any tourist attractions it is gradually fading back off the map.
We stepped off the bus onto a grey and ugly high street. Stretching down it stood aging concrete hotels, thrown up in a hurry at one time when the money was flowing and now left to rot. Further along the buildings were shorter so more light could get in and huge trees now outgrew the hotels they’d been planted near. With nothing else in the town we dropped our bags off at our hotel and found our way to the one attraction we’d seen: ‘The English bar’. It looked shut but a locked door has never stopped Sam from a drink yet and he started knocking on the windows and doors. Luckily for the door a man soon arrived on a moped and let us in. He was English but not the owner and gave us a free beer whilst we talked. More expat locals puttered in on their mopeds and stopped for a drink before slowly heading on their way to nowhere in particular.
With other things to do that day the other Englishman eventually closed the bar but invited us back for the evening with the promise of a free meal and directed us around the corner to a hostel we could go to meet more people. The hostel was big and gaudy in red paint and had a union jack embedded in the wall. Inside newspaper, masking tape and trays of paint were scattered about. God, a small Thai man, and his Dutch partner who had recently aquired the hostel were renovating it. Time was called on the work, chairs were found and warm beer was sold at discounted rates. It was a little awkward at first but God had plenty to say and it turned out to be a pretty good afternoon. Chiang Khong turned out to be a great place to do very little and we ended up spending a couple of days there as a result, watching the world drift by.
Until Chiang Khong we’d stuck fairly rigidly to the tourist trail. We’d done a lot and I’d enjoyed most of it but the path we’d taken had skewed my view of Thailand. The towns on the tourist trail see so many people come and go they naturally harden against it. When enough people pass through you get situations like the Full Moon Party. Chiang Khong was a little reminder that there is more to see. It didn’t repair my views on Thailand entirely but it helped moderate them a little. I realised then that if we were really going to get the most from the rest of our trip we would need to venture off the beaten path more even if it’s only a little.
And across the river Laos was waiting.