Friday, January 15, 2010


9/12/09 - 31/12/09
Speaking of police states...

Northern Thailand, beyond Chiang Mai, beyond the hordes of package tour farangs and lame Chang swilling expats opens out into endless mountain vistas and fertile country, farmed by hill-tribe communities reminiscent of Java. The mountain road between Ang Khang and Arunothai for example has a real Bromo feel, possibly only lacking the edge of Indonesia, the constant heart-pounding adrenaline brought on by the anticipation of what might be round the next bend. A buffalo, an intercity bus, a landslide, or the sudden transition to a great pile of rocks and the fear of being completely out of your depth, out of control and on your own.

We could talk all about this. About the sleepy rural towns lining the Mekong. About the local riverboat traffic transporting goods and people to and from Thailand. About sitting on our balcony looking out across the river to Laos and wondering what it might be like over there.

But that would be getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll try to keep the rest brief, because the Thailand most of the 14 million package tourists see each year really doesn’t do it for us.

Trang’s not a bad little place though. Sitting out the front of a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the outskirts of town, having earlier been poached from the internet cafe next door - I have WiFi and my connection is much better than theirs. 8 megabit! - Chawakit, the owner, floats in and out for a chat.

At some point Ann casually comments that there’s an elephant walking past and that Lucas may care to look. Massive though it is, you could easily miss the dark gray blob at night, so she’s fully equipped with the latest in elephant road signalling technology. Stop lights, turn indicators, the works.

But free WiFi, exotic road hazards and conversations with Chawakit about the merits of open source software aren’t enough to keep us in Trang for long.

Koh Lanta supposedly has a lower farang to Thai ratio than most of the other islands, so after a couple of short ferry hops from the mainland we find ourselves in another bamboo beach bungalow by the ah... beach. It doesn’t take long to realise that if this is low-key Thai tourism then we may be in for a shock. Actually it feels more like Reverse Culture Shock, as these people no longer seem familiar or even likeable. Sour-faced, overfed, over health-and-safetied and mollycoddled they stalk the streets, caricatures of an alien civilization.

So the next day we take one of the bikes and piss off as far as possible in the opposite direction, to a little rocky beach all of our own. Its terrible what we have to endure really.

But hey, the beer’s cheap. Oh, but the bungalow has rats, which have a little midnight party with our breakfast. But hey, the beach is nice and secluded. Oh, but its rocky, and Lucas slips and cuts his foot open on some oysters. But hey, he’ll live...

A couple of days later though, a little out of Krabi, it becomes a bit of a nuisance when faced with the daunting 1237 step hike up to Wat Tham Seua. And while we’re on the subject, why do they do this step counting thing anyway? Since when was Buddhism a goal-driven philosophy?

Krabi’s not too bad, surrounded by all sorts of Lonely Planet Thailand 2007 12th Edition Andaman Coast stuff – beaches, caves, forest, Wats, you know – so we stay for a few days. Finally though, its time to move on, and figuring he can’t really put it off for much longer, Lucas resigns from Wesley Mission.

In our quest for a farang-free Thailand we decide to ditch the west coast, Phuket, and all that bullshit and make our way back over to Nakhon Si Thammarat. Its a former walled city, like so many in Thailand and has quite a bit of history. But they do tend to shoot people here. Or so we’re told. Or if we took any notice of the news we’d have already known.

Otherwise, it seems like a fairly low key place to hang out for a couple of days. The hotel is cheap and they let us park in the foyer, with the only condition being that we share the floor with a demented tomcat, who has the lungs of a fireman and wails like an air raid siren at inconvenient hours of the morning.

Inconvenient also is the cost of petrol here; its turning out to be a quarter of our living expenses. Which is a real bummer, but what do you do? We’re getting 85-90mpg on the highway but still the bus would be cheaper. Interestingly the gasohol they sell here seems to have no impact on the performance or economy of the bikes, even though we’d always been led to believe otherwise.

Zigzagging our way north to Bangkok where there’s some chores to do, we stop at Khanom, Khao Sok via Chiaw Lan Lake, Chumphon and finally Prachuap Khiri Khan. Along the way we discover why Malaysia’s east coast has such a sodden reputation, one of Ann’s panniers becoming waterlogged in the process.

That Thailand’s national parks really aren’t worth the B400 per person entrance fee, and that ever so gradually, they seem to be waking up to the fact that the rest of the world is onto their great big WiFi rip-off. Most places though (even some cafes and restaurants) still make you pay extra for the privilege. So its back to watching the minutes count down at internet cafes again, something which brings back memories of Indonesia, even though these places are a world apart. Non-smoking and fairly quiet, with reasonable PCs and ok bandwidth, the whole experience couldn’t be more different.

However, believe it or not, there are some things we miss about Indonesia – the smell of cloves drying by the side of the road, hotels that give you coffee on arrival and breakfast in the morning and let us use their roof to dry our clothes, the scenery, the photography, the chaos.

Things we don’t miss – pretty much everything else.

Because we’ve spent Christmas on the beach for years, in some ways a Prachuap Christmas isn’t so unusual. Well ok, the fact that you get to the beach by crossing the 53rd Thai Air Wing air force base (literally crossing the runway), and the normal sounds of the ocean are interspersed with artillery fire do make it a slightly unusual experience. We’ll admit to that. We’ll also admit to feeling a bit melancholy. Ann always struggles at Christmas, but this year its infectious.

On a lighter note... what’s the driving like, we hear you ask? Well, after giving the Malaysians a bit of caning last time, we’re going to do the opposite here and slot the Thais into 1st place on the list.

Timor Leste

In general they’re extremely courteous (sometimes almost unbelievably so), stick to their lanes, obey the road rules, indicate... appropriately even, and drive cautiously, not aggressively. Even in Bangkok, the locals are surprisingly non-aggressive for such a big, congested city.

Maybe they’re scared shitless about attracting the attention of the fearsome Bangkok traffic police. We on the other hand, seem to attract attention everywhere we go, and on the ride into Bangkok get plucked out of a traffic jam and asked to produce our licenses.

Overpass. No motorbike. License.
“Where’s the sign? I didn’t see any sign.”
“Bullshit. No sign.”
“She’s got them.” (pointing to Ann)
“She’s got them!”

The usual tactic here is to confiscate your license and hold onto it until you come up with the “fine”, which is highly negotiable. But as soon as they see Ann produce photocopies of our international drivers licenses they seem to get bored and lose interest. We’re pretty over these officious little dickwads as well, so decide to ignore them and head off back into the traffic.

Predictably, the Bangkok traffic really sucks. Its nothing like Jakarta though; everyone’s very civilised as they slowly inch forward. The biggest problem for us is that the narrow roads make it very difficult to lane split and we often find ourselves stuck, eating diesel.

The other perennial big city issue is parking, and our two best options are either full or resemble a solitary confinement ward. So the only choice is to keep moving further and further out until we... “Hey I wonder what that one’s like?”

The lady on reception at Hotel 28 initially refuses us, explaining that the hotel is full. But after Ann does her best helpless dumb blonde impersonation, she relents and takes us to see a couple of rooms. Now we have to explain at this point that initially we’d missed the punters board on the wall at reception, so its only when Madam Wang reveals the circular bed in the circular room with the shag pile carpet and the velour upholstery, with the full floor-to-ceiling 360 degree mirrored walls, that the penny finally drops and we both burst out laughing. “Its a goddamn brothel!”

Oddly, the place turns out to be the quietest we’ve stayed in for months.

“Lucas! I told you not to turn on the TV!” 28 channels of wholesome family pronographic entertainment coming atcha.

We never particularly wanted to stay in Bangkok, but it looks like we’ll have to fly the bikes from here to India in a few months, so we spend a couple of days doing the rounds and making phone calls. Having been in denial about the cost of all this for a while now, its a little sobering to finally get some quotes.

Another steamy night settles on the city, and walking the streets, away from areas like the overwhelmingly tacky Khao San backpacker strip and the pathetic Patpong red light district, Bangkok is really kind of dull. Geographically flat and uninteresting, one street corner blurs with the next. A farang on a big bike blows through a police roadblock, scattering cops in all directions.

These roadblocks and checkpoints blanket the whole country, particularly in a radius of a couple of hundred kilometres around Bangkok, and you can practically guarantee that at the front of every traffic jam there’ll be a cop with a whistle. The army checkpoints are the most interesting however, simply due to the masterly inactivity of the soldiers. Its almost like they’re conserving energy for the next coup. We’ve learned not to make eye contact with any of these officious little officials, but its still annoying having to barge our way through countless traffic jams on the way out of Bangkok. Way out west. Out into the heat, leaving the brown haze of the city behind.

Hellfire pass is not named after the hellishly hot weather which occurs in this dry, dusty corner of Thailand, but it could be. There isn’t much respite from the searing afternoon sun when you’re walking along an abandoned railway track.

No, the pass got its nickname from the prisoners of war who dug it out of the rock face by hand. Working around the clock, they said the glow of the fires at night, casting ghoulish shadows on the walls of the cutting, resembled something out of Dante’s Inferno.

In photos the whole area looks autumnal, the bamboo on the hillsides turning shades of yellow and burnt orange, billions of their needle-like dead leaves carpeting the ground.

But its all an optical illusion. Yes it is winter, but god is it hot. It must be 40 today.

Later that night we spend New Year’s Eve at Kanchanaburi, in yet another bamboo-ish bungalow type thing. New year’s is never a big deal for us, so rather than going out and getting shit-faced at some Thai lady-boy bar down the road, we spend it sitting by the river Kwai, not contemplating the year that was and not looking forward to the year to come, just content to be alive and doing our own thing...

1 comment:

  1. Time passes and one forgets that there is a blog to read. Of course one is now one year older as well <<< 64 years old>>> 23rd Jan
    You seem much happier than last time and enjoying the country side.
    will send you an email in the next few days re:: the interview?? for the new job with UC in Baliss street.
    Love N