Saturday, June 24, 2006
Thursday, June 22, 2006
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
I was driven to Ban Phe, where I caught a small motorboat across to the island. The lady at the port tried to fleece me for a further 100THB for the boat fare, until pointed out that I had already paid all the way to Ko Samet, as it stated on my ticket. I shared the motorboat with several bags full of longans and rambutans, a collection of Thai school children (who had presumably finished classes for the day as it was approaching 4pm), and a Thai mother whose little girl spent the entire journey doing cartoon superhero poses, which resulted in me desperately trying to hold back a fit of the giggles. We arrived on Ko Samet at around 5pm, and as I was the only farang on the boat the taxi driver wanted to charge me 200THB to take me to Ao Hin Kok beach. I decided to walk and I was glad that I did when I discovered that Ao Hin Kok was only around 1.5/2km from where the boat had dropped me off. All the accommodation on Ao Hin Kok is squeezed along a dirt track which runs parallel to the beach and stretches for around 100m. As my choice was therefore rather limited, I chose the cheapest option which was a bungalow at Naga Bungalows with shared bathroom for 200THB. The room is indeed more pleasant that the one at Fisherman Hill but is even more of a mosquito trap - I got bitten about 5 or 6 times simply by walking to the shower. Bearing in mind that getting to the shower involves walking through what can only be described as a jungle of dense vegetation then I wasn't hugely surprised!
At Naga they show a couple of films every evening in the common room/restaurant so I spent my first night on the island watching "21 Grams" and "Oceans Twelve" and then retired to bed, serenaded by the demented cows and the music from the Naga Bar across the road. The folowing day I found the library at my guesthouse, rented "Smoking Poppy" by Graham Joyce and spent the day reading it whilst lying on the beach under a very cloudy sky. I comforted myself with the thought that at least it wasn't raining. However, later on in the evening it did. I sat in Naga listening to the persistent rain outside and watching "Keeping Mum" and "Cinderella Man". I got chatting to Danny, one of the long term residents at Naga. He's been travelling for almost a year and Thailand is only his second destination. He spent several months in New Zealand and didn't make it further than Rotarua and I'm pretty sure he hasn't seen any of Thailand beyond Bangkok and Ko Samet! Nevertheless, he was an easy going guy, and equally easy to talk to. I joined him at the Naga Bar once the second film had finished and challenged him to a game of pool. It wasn't until we were half the way through the game and I hadn't had a turn at the table that he decided to tell me that he used to play semi-professional.
The heavy rain would have kept me awake half the night had I not drank several bottles of beer Chang, which was enough to send me to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. The following morning, the weather made a bit of a turn around. It started off cloudy but you could still see the sunshine trying to break through the clouds, and by around midday it had. So I relaxed on the beach and got most of the way through "Smoking Poppy". Despite the obvious topic inferred by the title - it tells the story of a father who learns that his daughter has been arrested in Chiang Mai on drugs smuggling charges - it's a novel about much more than drugs. It's a surprisingly moving story which tracks the journey of discovery between a father and his daughter, and explores the concepts of love, redemption, and letting go.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
After Siobhian left I've been unable to do a lot here due to the unpredictable weather. Or perhaps that should be predictable : you know it's going to rain every day for sure, you're just not sure how much and for how long. I contemplated booking a boat tour of four of the surrounding islands, but I wasn't prepared to pay the price the agents were asking merely on the off-chance that the sun may make an unexpected appearance.
Instead I've been spending my time reading, either on the beach when it's not raining (as there are too many mosquitoes fighting for a taste of my blood up at Fisherman Hill) or in one of the nearby cafes. I've eaten at The Food Centre every day, so much so that they know what I like to drink and can hazard a pretty good guess at what I want to eat as well (it tends to be either green curry with seafood, fish cakes, or rice noodles with vegetables and seafood). I've also made a true friend in the resident dog at Fisherman Hill. I'm normally more of a cat lover but this fellow is making a pretty good job of changing my mind. He's a beautiful, healthy looking animal : his fur is the rich colour of marmalade; and of the flesh of an overripe persimmon. The darker patches on his body give the impression of the sun casting shadows upon his fur. As much as I love cats, dogs are much more loyal animals, whereas cats will appreciate anyone who feeds them, pets them and showers them with affection.
Whenever I return to Fisherman Hill, 'Marlam' (as i've decided to call him, variation on the word marmalade) always leaps up (from wherever his resting place may have been) to greet me (which consists of sniffing around my legs and licking my hands as I stroke him, or giving me both of his paws, looking me straight in the eyes and panting excitedly), follows me back to my bungalow and waits on the veranda until I've closed my door and am safely inside. If I've returned late at night, he'll often sit outside on the veranda until I fall asleep. I know this because I can see him through the cracks in the wood and I often hear him barking (at passing dogs) or shuffling around. He's got the cutest brown eyes and when he looks up at you the fur above his eyes wrinkles, creating such a sincere expression of concern and affection. I've watched other guests return and have never once witnessed him do the same for them. Even Siobhian said that he would only greet her when she was accommpanied by me. I never realised I had such a way with animals! It's almost like he's my little guardian angel, bless him.
I've been back to Oodie's Bar every night as well, firstly because they show a film every night at 7:30, and it's a great way to kill a couple of hours when you're on your own, and secondly because I love live music, especially when you've got some great tunes being played and some real characters playing them. Oodie (who plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals) looks like a a big (in comparison to the other guys) teddy bear that you wanna wrap your arms around, and he plays guitar with immense style and flair and incredible talent. He's played with the likes of Carabao, Caravan and Zo Zo, some of Thailand's biggest rock acts, and he's also been in several bands of his own. The drummer, Tien (who also plays guitar, bass and provides vocals) looks like a Samuri warrior with a wicked glint in his eye, and his smile is full of mischief and charm. Mai is the good old reliable bassist. This guy takes his music seriously : for the most part his expression and posture remain unchanged but every now and then you'll catch a spark of recklessness from him. I'm not sure they'll be together as a band for much longer, as Tien was filling in for the original drummer who's taken a 3 month honeymoon (it's alright for some!) and Mai is leaving shortly to get married himself. However, for the time being, they make an excellent trio.
I also got propositioned by the Thai barman at Oodie's. He kept asking me to stay on late at the bar and then offered to walk me home. I politely declined, being under the - more than likely accurate - impression that walking me home was not all that he had in mind!
Becoming increasingly disheartened with the weather and having spent several days frequenting the same hangouts and seeing the same faces, I was beginning to feel a bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Consequently I booked a ticket up to Ko Samet, which leaves tomorrow (300THB, takes pretty much the whole day to get there). Although I'm not expecting that the weather will be much better up there, I could do with a change of scenery regardless.
Marlam, the resident dog at Fisherman Hill, Ko Chang
2nd photo to follow
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Shaken by her experience and worried about any further damage she may do to the bike or herself, she gave the keys back to the lady, deciding that perhaps motorbike driving was not one of her fortes. This left me in a bit of a predicament : taking the motorbike out on my own would have been very little fun for me or her. So I drove the vehicle up and down the road a few times until I was reasonably comfortable with the balance and the amount of pressure I should put on the throttle when starting the motorcycle and then made a proposal : If Siobhian wanted to ride on the back of my bike then I promised I'd drive cafefully and not take any unecessary risks. She agreed, and so it was that not only was it the first time I had really driven a car in around 10 years, it was also the first time I had ever driven a motorcycle and I was in responsible for another person's safety on the back of it!
Don't worry, everything turned out ok but I can't say it was a trouble free experience. The first test I encountered was when I got to the end of the drag that runs alongside White Sands Beach, the road began to weave its way up into the mountains, so that I had to navigate steep gradients and sharp curves. Fortunately there was very little traffic but I was still petrified to go any faster than 20kph! The road flattened out once we'd got around the northern part of the island and past the ferry port, so I was able to relax a little. However I was still unable to appreciate the scenery as my eyes were completely focussed on the road in front, the oncoming traffic, and any sign of movement or obstacles at the side of the road (children, dogs, chickens, fallen trees, large rocks). After a while actually driving the motorcycle wasn't too much of a problem and I got the vehicle up to 70 or 80kph on the straights, but I was still having a little trouble turning corners : I didn't want to tip the vehicle too much through fear it may topple over which resulted in - on ocassions - driving in the middle of the road.
We drove all the way down the east coast with the plan to stop at the southernmost point, Long Beach. However as we approached Long Beach the sky clouded over so we decided to continue around the island with a view to stop at another beach instead when the weather improved. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, the road did not run all the way around the island, so after following what can only be described as an 'abandoned road' to it's end, we had to turn around and head back again. We planned instead to take the turning off to Ban Kwan Chang and the nearby Nang Yom waterfall which was just before the beginning of the precarious mountain roads back in the north of the island. Not long after this turning, another test presented itself : the road began to get very uneven and rocky and then muddy, until I was driving over a layer of mud on top of a dirt track. The motorbike was sliding all over the place and instead of risk losing control of it and us both ending up in the mud, we deposited the bike at one of the local's houses and walked the rest of the way.
When we arrived at the entrance to Ban Kwan Chang, two of the locals were just taking a couple of the elephants out for a walk, riding bare back and steering the animals by pushing their foot against the back of their left or right ear, depending on which direction they wanted them to move in. We followed the elephants half the way to the waterfall, watching them tug at the vegetation lining the sides of the dirt track and separate the leaves from the mound of earth they'd also managed to bring with them! Further down the track we saw numerous grapefruits (or what we thought to be grapefruits : they were about the same size, the skin was green in colour and the fruits hung fairly low in the trees as many citrus fruits do) growing on the trees, as well as rambutans, papaya and durian. There was a group of locals with their pick up truck collecting durian from the trees. They'd piled up quite a collection in the back of the vehicle. When we arrived at the top of Nang Yom Waterfall, there was a little house perched at the side of the falls and who should we see sharing drinks outside in the garden? Only Oodie and his two Thai band members! We'd been to Oodie's Bar every night since we discovered it, so I swear they'll think we're stalking them!
On our walk back, we paid a brief visit to Ban Kwan Chang (Chang is Thai for elephant) to stroke and feed the elephants, before retreiving the bike and continuing on our way back to White Sands. The final obstacle (and probably the worst one of all) happened when I was climbing the hill at the start of the precarious mountain bends. I spotted a huge cement mixer ahead of me and not wanting to overtake when there was a blind corner approaching, I slowed right down. My plan was to stay behind the vehicle until there was an appropriate stretch upon which I could overtake. It got the the point when I couldn't really drive much slower and I'd just spotted an appropriate overtaking point. So I was about to pull out when a large landrover came speeding down the hill on the opposite side of the road. I couldn't then overtake and I couldn't physically drive any slower so my only option was to stop. I had stopped half the way up a very steep hill, so attempting a hill start with or without Siobhian on the back was not an option I was about to entertain. I subsequently took the only option remaining : waited for a break in the traffic, manually did a u-turn with the bike, pushed it down the hill, and then started the engine again at the bottom of the hill, got back on the bike with Siobhian and started the whole hill climb again from the beginning! Anyone watching would i'm sure think this was the funniest spectacle they'd seen in weeks and would probably be muttering to themselves, "stupid farang!"
We spent the evening at Oodie's again. I don't know whether it was the effect of the horror film we'd seen earlier on that night or too many beer Chang, but when we walked home past the 100m stretch of undeveloped jungle we heard the strangest noise coming from the depths of the undergrowth : as well as the usual noises from the crickets and frogs, this one sounded like a demented cow! We both looked at each other as if to say, "what the hell is that?" and then ran the rest of the way back to our bungalows!
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Having sped through my reading of "Saving Fish From Drowning", I exchanged it for the infamous "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden, and began to learn about the life of young Chiyo Sakamoto, as she was taken from her home in Yorido, Japan, and sold into the life of a geisha girl in Kyoto, whilst I waited for Siobhian to join me. We spent the afternoon sunbathing, reading, chatting and swimming down on White Sands beach. Unfortunately it's not a particularly attractive beach : yes, the sand is white(ish) but due to the fact that the entire beach is covered with water during high tide, the sand is not fine and fluffy and soft but hard and uncomfortable to lie on.
In the evening we stumbled upon Oodies Bar, a live music venue and bar where the owner Oodie, his two Thai employees/friends, and whoever they invite to join them play a mix of rock and blues nightly from around 10pm. One member of the band, who they affectionately call 'Mr T' (even though he in no way resembles the big black dude from The A-Team) is enormously talented : he sings, plays guitar, bass and drums, and switches effortlessly between each of them. He also always seems to be (by some degree) intoxicated, and still remains incredibly focussed, and plays each note with complete accuracy.
The next day the weather turned. It had been raining heavily throughout the night (the exaggerated sounds of the rain drops upon the corrugated iron rooves of our bungalows had kept Siobhian and I awake) and it remained cloudy for the majority of the day. We attempted to find somewhere to treat ourselves to a massage but even with a 50% discount, the cheapest massage on offer was still 350THB. Considering that I'd got a Thai massage at a certified massage parlour in Chiang Mai for 150THB, neither of us were desperate enough for a massage to be willing to pay more than double that figure. So we spent most of the day reading on our bungalow verandas, making friends with the resident dog and waiting for the cloud to clear. It didn't.
We also enquired about the opportunity to do some elephant bathing at Ban Kwan Chang. An hour long trek would have cost a massive 500THB, and as I'd already done some elephant trekking up in Mae Sariang with James and Siobian would have the chance to do some a lot cheaper in Chaing Mai in the next couple of weeks, we'd already ruled that option off our agenda. The strange man in the travel agent told us that we were unable to partake in elephant bathing due to it now being the wet season. In hindsight, what he probably meant was that this particular activity was not available in low season but he left us completely confused as to why the increase in water (which is surely condusive to bathing) would be the reason as to why we were unable partake in the pursuit.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
The bus journey took longer than I'd expected, but that was partly due to the amount of traffic on the roads (visitors to Bangkok were now travelling back home following the recent appearance by the King in the country's capital). In contrast the boat journey took a lot less time that i'd originally anticipated. We made the crossing to Ko Chang on an enormous vehicle carrier, which even had a bar on board serving beer Chang on tap! When we arrived on Ko Chang, we were met by a kitsch greeting reminiscent of the 'Hollywood' sign in America : in large white lettering perched up in the mountains that provide a backdrop to Ko Chang's beaches, we read "Welcome to Ko Chang", only the letter 'C' seemed to have lost his footing up on the mountain and was dangling at a rather odd angle in front of the 'h'!
We headed down to the beach at first, both having our hearts set on a little bamboo hut right on the seafront - if the price was right. To our disappointment we couldn't see any; they'd all been upgraded to brightly coloured, well-built wooden bungalows. Out of curiosity, we enquired about the price of one of these at Apple's Bungalows and were informed that it would cost us 400THB for a bungalow with a twin room. Considering that you could walk out your door and literally be on the beach the price wasn't at all bad. But Siobian is still adjusting to the rise in prices after India and I wanted to find something a little cheaper as I may well be staying on Ko Chang for the best part of 2 weeks. We wandered up to the road and were attracted to a large sign advertising bungalows from 100THB at The Fisherman Hill Resort. We were a little concerned about the sub-heading, 'economy at it's best', conjuring up images of ramshackle huts crawling with bugs, but we decided to check it out regardless.
What we found was almost like a little rainforest retreat : little wooden bungalows dotted within a jungle of dense vegetation. The rooms weren't up to much : the linoleum floors were peeling, there were enormous cracks in the wood and there was a gaping hole in the floor of my room, big enough for a small cat to crawl through in the middle of the night. However, the fact that 130THB would buy us a bungalow with its own private bathroom in a beautiful and peaceful setting with as much free coffee as we wanted every morning sold it for me. Each bungalow even had it's own veranda and wooden chairs, which was surrounded by papaya trees, ferns and creepers, and I even had chillies growing right outside my door.
This evening we ate at a cheap local restaurant with plastic chairs and tablecloths and seafood pad thai for only 30THB. We each had a large beer Chang to accompany our meal. Siobian is about my size (an inch shorter and the same sort of build) so we were both feeling the effects of the beer when we left the restaurant. We continued on down the main road in search of a bar in which to continue drinking. Well, it was our first night on the island : not getting drunk would have been a crime! We walked into the first place which looking 'happening' : a collection of bars under one roof, lit up by hundreds of little fairy lights draped up the walls and over the rooves. It's only when we sat down at one of the bars that we realised that all the bar staff were pretty young Thai women in tight lycra dresses and all the customers were solo western men, many sat on bar stools, flirting with the women who were serving them drinks. However we did get given free rambutans by one of the bar girls, as well as a fruit the size of a small pumpkin which tasted like a cross between a mangosteen and a pear and which we ate with salt and chilli. The world cup match between England and Paraguay was being screened on T.V but we didn't really pay much attention to it apart from when Beckham scored for England.
We headed on in search of somewhere that wasn't a pick up joint, and landed ourselves at a small bar on the beach, as deserted as everywhere else seemed to be on a saturday night and in the largest resort on the island. The bar had a resident dog who was unbelievably fat (think she was competing with the one you met on Ko Chang, Tony!) and liked lying in the sand having her belly rubbed. We asked the lady at the bar if there was anywhere busier that we could head to once we'd finished our beers and attending to the needs of the fat dog, and she pointed us in the direction of Sabay bar. When we walked in, it was almost like everyone living in or visiting the White Sands resort in Ko Chang was in this bar, it was packed! It was probably the most happening place on the island : loud music, a dancefloor, little wicker mats laid out on the sand and a brave performer playing with fire by way of entertainment for us all. He held a long pole in his hand, burning at both ends. He'd spin this and throw it high into the air, whilst at the same time doing acrobatics. It was awesome, and visually stunning to watch. By this point we were both feeling pretty wasted : we were talking about doing some surfing tomorrow (even though I've not seen anywhere around here where we might possibly be able to fulfill this decision), and I talked Siobian into having her tongue pierced when she gets back to Bangkok (she's been frightened that it hurts too much so when I told her it doesn't she didn't need much persuading!). When we decided we couldn't possibly drink any more beer (through fear that we may well fall over), we danced to a few cheesy songs with a load of Thai people and then headed home, discussing our level of intoxication.
Friday, June 09, 2006
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
On my way home I noticed some Thai passengers on the skytrain wearing bright yellow wristbands (like the rubber charity ones that became a bit of a fashion trend in Britain for a while) with "long live the king" printed upon them. It struck me as a little strange that there were so many Elvis fans in Thailand. I also noticed a huge number of Thai people, especially those travelling on the Chao Praya River Boat Express, wearing bright yellow t-shirts or polo shirts with Thai script printed upon them. It all made sense when the boat sailed past an enormous yellow banner hung from one of the buildings along the riverfront. It also read "long live the king" but there was enough English on it for me to determine that this was a celebration of the fact that the Thai king has just completed (on the 6/6/06) a reign of 60 years in the throne. The t-shirts and wristbands were all in aid of this celebration. Wow, the Thai's really do love their king. Although the British population as a whole do, i think, respect their Queen, similar behaviour by the British would be viewed as a little insane.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Several hours later, having read the final page of this incredibly absorbing and gruelling novel, I looked up from my book and noticed that it was dark outside and my half-finished drink was still in front of me on the table, the melted ice having formed a layer on top of the interesting looking concoction below it. If anyone had asked me if I'd finished the drink or if I wanted to order another then I hadn't heard them. I'd been completely sucked into the events and emotions that Fellow's was so lucidly describing. I felt like a fly on the wall of his prison cell, watching 12 years of his life pass in front of my eyes. At once that life seemed to have been played in fast forward but at the same time, there were certain experiences which stood as still as the prison walls which surrounded them.
It occured to me that many of the novels I've read whilst I've been travelling have been written by and about people who've experienced tremendous emaotional and physical pain in their lives. Why is it that such people make such excellent writers? Maybe it's because pain and suffering are so much easier to put into words than happiness is ...