Checking in…

…and checking out of Bangkok again. The past two nights in Khaosan road have been pretty crazy, but surely only a warm up for the full moon party ahead of me.
No witty words or crazy stories for now, just a quick progress report. Will fill you guys in with all the crazy ting when the creative part of my brain is a little more coherent =)

Goodbye sleaze, hello smog

My time in Pattaya was short lived and mostly uneventful; it’s a location that I can spare few words for. Alongside the seedy old men walking around literally everywhere you look (either on their own or with the popular Thai girl upgrade) there was very little else which stood out for any reason. The beach was jam packed with hustlers (selling everything from ice cream and seafood to tattoos and beard trimmers) and the lobster mob, and the air stank of engine fumes from the cornucopia of jetskis and speedboats that littered the water. After the pure beauty of Lonely Beach, this was like eating steak at the Savoy and then going out in the morning for a kebab.

Our time was not completely wasted at this wretched hive of scum and villainy. As well as enjoying the parasailing (and yes I know, this makes up for at least a minor percentage of the engine odours), we also managed by pure chance to find ourselves in a non-girly bar, watching a covers band playing classic rock and metal songs. I predicted a lot of exotic sights in Pattaya, but I certainly did not expect to watch a prostitute and two toddlers dancing together to a cover of Enter Sandman by Metallica. This country continues to amaze me.

After another laborious bus journey Alan and I are back in Bangkok, where we have gone our separate ways for now. Alan has gone to meet a friend who flys in tonight, and they are staying in the sort of hotel apartment I thought only existed in James Bond films and American sitcoms. I myself have plummeted for a much cheaper option down a side alleyway a few minutes drive away. For £6 a night I get a double-room with fan and shared toilet facilities, which is a world apart from the £40 Alan is paying to sleep in one of the film-sets from Frasier. It’s not quite the sort of guesthouse I’m used to here – it’s a family run establishment and the owners have opted for filling the rooms and common areas with ornaments, random furniture and personal trinkets, which is a nice touch but really throws the average guest out of joint when what they’re accustomed to is the sterile and impersonal (but familiar) surroundings of an average hotel. The place is deathly quiet too, and I fear that a single night-time pocket of gas caused by my currently incapacitated digestive tract may thunder through the corridors here like a foghorn.

For these reasons I’m thinking that I may return to the psychedelic mess that is Khao San Road in the next day or two. Alan will be flying home in three days, and as much as this particular guesthouse may offer great sanctuary from the information overload that is Bangkok, I really feel that I need to throw myself into the midst of the madness if I’m to be able to plan my next move and begin my solo adventure.

Finishing up at Ko Chang

In the past two days I have played an impromptu blues jam at a travellers bar, eaten the best fresh fish I’ve ever had, heard the most ridiculous violent dialogue not in an arnie film, and ridden an Elephant through the Thai jungle. It’s been a busy 48 hours.

Two nights ago Alan and I decided to move a bit further on from Lonely Beach, where we’d spent three days, and took a taxi down to Bang Bao, the fishing port town on the southern end of Ko Chang. Here we found a peaceful rest from the dusty main roads that snake through every settlement that we’d seen here so far, making way instead for sheltered wooden walkways lined either side with souvenir stalls and restaurants. The whole area is built along the main pier, and every so often we’d pass a gap between two buildings wide enough to look out across the bay, where fishermans lights twinkle in the distance as they float on the water.

20-Jan-2010 18:46, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 2 sec, ISO 400
 

After wandering up and down the pier for a while we stopped for a bite to eat.

Now, I’m not normally a great fan of fishy food, but with me being there right on the riverside amongst the boats and barges, unlikely to ever get an opportunity to eat fish as fresh as this, it would have been plain rude not to. There was a good choice of places to eat here, each one exhibiting that days catch in large tanks at the front entrance – sea bass, lobsters, and things I don’t even recognise swimming around the busy containers.

20-Jan-2010 19:03, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 6 sec, ISO 400
 

We sat at the back of our chosen eatery, right on the edge of the waters, and ordered our food. Alan went for “Deep fried fish with lemon grass & Thai herbs”, whereas I went for “Stuffed squid in sweet sauce”. Being stupid farangs we also ordered a bucket of rice, not realising the enormous dishes that would soon be coming our way, and even the waitress gave us a frown as we asked for it. The fish was eaten with great enjoyment, the additional steamed rice left unfinished despite our greatest efforts and belches. I have a feeling that very few places in the UK can possibly compete with the food we had that night but if they do I’ll be eating a lot more fish from now on. Probably not for the ridiculous bill £10 for two meals plus drinks however!

We took a taxi back to Lonely Beach after this and visited the Sticky rice blues bar again, much quieter now than it was the night before. We ordered two bottles of Chang and sat down to watch the performers tonight – the same bass player from before and an absolutely hilarious old Thai guy playing guitar, who had Alan and I in stitches from the moment he opened his mouth to the minute we left. Alan became very brave whilst I was away at the bar, and told the guitar man that we’d get up and do a song…so I managed to find myself up on the stage area a few minutes later with a bass guitar in my hands, playing a completely random blues jam with Alan in front of a small, but completely dumbfounded, bunch of travellers. I shouldn’t have been surprised really – in a venue where a random guy can stroll in from the street, playing the banjo as he walks, and get waved straight up on stage to join the band midway through a song, it’s probably no mean feat at all to be able to request a go in advance!

Sticky Rice Blues bar, Lonely BeachSticky Rice Blues bar, Lonely Beach
Sticky Rice Blues bar, Lonely Beach20-Jan-2010 21:58, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.077 sec, ISO 800
 

After finishing up at the Sticky rice blues bar, we wandered for a while before finding an absolutely packed place around the corner, with the usual thumping music, cushions and hammocks for seating, and the same carefree barefoot hippie traveller gang lounging around enjoying their evening.

Yesterday morning we packed our bags at the Siam Beach Resort and made our way into town. We stopped at the same expat bar, where I treated myself to my first English fry-up, leaving me feeling horribly dirty and narrow-minded, yet most satisfied at the same time.

We opted for a different part of the island and so got a taxi to White Sands, which wasn’t the best choice but we never planned to stay here for long. It’s a horribly touristy place, and it’s easy to gauge the clientele from the surrounding sights – families who couldn’t care less about Thai culture and just want to spend the whole week sitting on the oversaturated beaches, drinking Budweiser, watching football and eating steak and chips every night of the week. Watching some of the passers-by would lead you to believe that they were having some sort of personal contest to see who could have the most PAINFULLY RED looking skin of all. Some of them gave me burning sensations just looking at them. Why would you sit in the sun for that long?!

My experience at an internet cafe later would also lead me to believe that they have no idea how to do business with the Thais – whilst I was online a German man came barging in, and proceeded to shout at the worker there with a level of intensity and anger that I’ve never seen in a shop before – and bear in mind that I did 11 years in retail. I couldn’t fully understand him as he spat at the assistant in his ridiculous over the top voice but it was something to do with the bike he’d been loaned.  As he vented an obscene amount of spleen I honestly thought he was going to fling the poor unsuspecting Thai guy across the room like a rag, but instead he grabbed his money back and stormed out. I couldn’t see any blood stains or murdered German family members outside, only a neatly parked line of mopeds, so can only assume that this was a pure example of the arrogance of White Sands tenants. Come to Ko Chang, but don’t bother with here.

After our hilarious, but rather unnerving internet cafe incident, we took a taxi up to Bang Kwan Chang Elephant Trek, in order to add the giant jungle beasts to our list of unusual foreign transportation methods.

Paying 500 baht each, we settled into the somewhat wobbly looking seats as the keeper leapt up on to the elephants neck and gave it a poke with a stick to get it moving.

...very much…very much
…very much21-Jan-2010 16:22, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.6, 10.2mm, 0.017 sec, ISO 400
 

For 40 minutes we were carried through the Thai jungle, passing streams, sandy plains, and steep rocky pathways. The ride from the elephants back felt a little jumpy and unstable at first but considering the sheer size and power of these creatures, they move with surprising grace. We hopped off at the end and got a chance to feed them from a basket of bananas before climbing into a taxi back to our hotel, happy to have ventured on an experience that we’re never likely get to do anywhere again other than this crazy wonderful place.

Our time in Ko Chang ended with a visit to the Sabay bar situated across the road from our hotel here at White Sands resort. We spent a lazy relaxing evening lounging at one of the many tables scattered across the decking area and on the beach itself. The fire dancers put on another mightily impressive show, and another covers band, this time from the Philippines, played two sets of well rehearsed songs from the usual Thailand repertoire of Bob Marley and Nirvana tracks.

Perhaps most impressive, or surprising at least, was the service from the toilet attendant. I was greeted at the door by two polite workers, followed by a third inside, all of whom stood and waited for me – a little bit unnerving but one learns to deal with such things. As I then stood at the sink the tap was turned on for me, and after I’d finished with the soap and water a damp perfumed flannel and paper were passed to me. Whilst this was going on another man patted my back down and rubbed the knots out in my shoulders, before asking me to interlock my hands behind my back so he could lift me and lean back to crack my spine joints for me. This somewhat unusual service was finished with him cracking the joints in all my fingers and finally massaging out the tensions in my arms and wrists. I came out feeling as chilled as a polar bear, and all I can say is that the average attendant in a London toilet with his green paper towel and bottle of Davidoff spray has a lot to live up to when I get home.

We have now left behind the memorable beaches of Ko Chang and made our way to Pattaya. The resort itself has nothing of interest for me, and I’ve already seen more than enough single old white men sat at sleazy bars to know what this place is all about to most, but Alan and I plan on staying just for the water-sports. We both want to try parasailing and boogie-boarding if possible, before Alan has to make his journey back to Bangkok to join you all back in the UK.

So that’s Ko Chang for now. Highlights: the view from the bungalows at Siam Beach Resort, the entertainment at Lonely Beach, the elephant trek, and a special mention for the random toilet treatment at the Sabay bar. Lowlights: the tourist element at White Sands – whose snappy tempers, Hawaiian shirts and lobster skin, and incessant desire to stare at Alan and I as we went about our business didn’t do much to win me over. Still, I’m sure I’ll see plenty worse amongst the crowds at Pattaya before I tick the water-sports off the list and head off to greener lands…

Sunset on Lonely Beach
Sunset on Lonely Beach20-Jan-2010 18:08, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.5, 5.1mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 80
20-Jan-2010 18:46, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 2 sec, ISO 400
20-Jan-2010 19:03, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 6 sec, ISO 400
One very nice fishy restaurant, Bang Bao
One very nice fishy restaurant, Bang Bao20-Jan-2010 19:05, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.05 sec, ISO 800
Alan looks mildly surprised at the size of his meal
Alan looks mildly surprised at the size of his meal20-Jan-2010 19:20, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
 
20-Jan-2010 19:20, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.1 sec, ISO 400
20-Jan-2010 19:31, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.077 sec, ISO 400
20-Jan-2010 20:11, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 800
20-Jan-2010 20:11, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.8, 12.8mm, 0.125 sec, ISO 400
20-Jan-2010 20:11, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.4, 7.9mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 800
 
20-Jan-2010 20:12, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.077 sec, ISO 800
Sticky Rice Blues bar, Lonely Beach
Sticky Rice Blues bar, Lonely Beach20-Jan-2010 21:58, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.077 sec, ISO 800
 

All that’s missing is the Bounty bar…

“Paradise” is a very overused word. It is also a very subjective term – one persons idea of paradise can easily be another persons idea of complete hell. That being said, ask the average person to describe their idea of paradise and they’d probably describe the view in front of me right now.

I’m currently staying at Lonely Beach, Ko Chang, in a beach-side bungalow, and the view from the balcony where I’m sitting at this moment is…well, judge for yourself:

...
19-Jan-2010 11:37, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 8.0, 5.1mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 400
 

I could go on about the long lazy stretch of sand, so sparsely populated you could easily find a bit all to yourself. I could comment about the crystal-clear, tropical-heat water. I could also tell you about the abundance of coconut trees, the fresh, locally grown Dragon fruit and bananas, the monkeys that hop along the telephone cables like a sparrow would in England, and of course, the day-long sunshine, but I think that the above photo pretty much sums up everything I’d need to say.

We’re staying at a primarily family-oriented resort, hence the peace and quiet, but there’s been no shortage of interesting people so far. In the past day I’ve whistled the Indiana Jones theme with a Swiss tattooist during the treacherous taxi ride through the mountains here, drunk Thai brandy with a mad Russian on the beach (who later woke up and didn’t have a clue who I was), bluffed my way through a politics discussion with an expat Brit in a local bar, and watched a bunch of shitface-drunk Thais play a blues jam together in a wooden shack down the road.

Of course, even paradise has its downfalls. The bugs here attack with a vengeance. The Thai cuisine has been less than kind to my otherwise cast-iron constitution. And sleeping in what is essentially a shed on stilts, in the middle of the jungle, can be a little unnerving to the inexperienced. Especially when, in the middle of the night during a gale-force wind, the door flings open with a crash and something flys into our room making a sound halfway between a Velociraptor and a bicycle-horn. Never before have I felt the urge to hold a Chinese mans hand in the middle of the night. Still, these things really are trivial when I can wake up every morning and see the above view from my window, before heading down the steps from my beach hut and diving into untainted tropical waters…

On the ferry over
On the ferry over18-Jan-2010 14:06, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 8.0, 5.1mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 80
Arriving at Ko Chang port
Arriving at Ko Chang port18-Jan-2010 14:12, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 3.5, 12.8mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 80
The balcony view!
The balcony view!18-Jan-2010 15:43, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 4.0, 5.1mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 125
18-Jan-2010 15:43, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 80
18-Jan-2010 15:43, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.8, 5.1mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 80
 
Lonely Beach by night
Lonely Beach by night18-Jan-2010 18:31, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 3.2 sec, ISO 160
Breakfast in paradise
Breakfast in paradise19-Jan-2010 10:07, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.8, 5.1mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 80
The dining area...
The dining area...19-Jan-2010 10:37, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 4.0, 5.1mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 80
19-Jan-2010 10:37, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 4.5, 5.1mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 80
Our ghetto
Our ghetto19-Jan-2010 10:44, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 3.5, 5.1mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 80
 
Our crib
Our crib19-Jan-2010 10:44, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.8, 12.8mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 80
19-Jan-2010 10:48, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 3.5, 5.1mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 80
 

Bye bye Bangkok, for now…

It’s been three whole days since I arrived and I can honestly say that I have never seen anywhere as crazy, manic, noisy, and smoggy as Bangkok. I somewhat naively thought that as soon as I ventured further than the chaos that is Khao San Road, that all would calm down a little and I’d have space to breathe.

How wrong I was. After two minor ventures out into the streets Alan and I have decided that we need to get away from it all for a while. Tomorrow we head further south, to Ko Chang, where hopefully things will be a little less hyperactive.

Yesterday we took a walk down to the Chao Phraya, the main river that flows through the city and offers a mild break from the smog and a cool breeze to go with it. After being accosted by many a tour-rep, we decided to buy one day riverbus passes for £3 each, and jump on the next boat.

The boat ride was a welcome break from the tiring streets, and having no particular plan in mind other than to wander, we got off randomly at Rachawongse pier, walking straight into Bangkok’s Chinatown, where all hell broke loose.

The only way I can describe the bedlam there is to compare it to the main stage at Reading just after a band has finished. The crowds were unbelievable, the market streets often only a cars width wide – and cars drove down them regularly alongside mopeds and tuk-tuks, each barely having enough room to navigate through the crowds of people, the market carts stacked 10 feet high with goods, the thick smog-filled air only made worse by the intense heat kicked out from all the street food vendors.

After 30 minutes or so of complete shell shock, and more than one hairy vehicle maneuver, we decided that enough was enough for the time being, and flagged down a tuk-tuk to take us back to the relative peace of Khao San Road.

Later in the evening, after another jetlag sponsored nap, we made our way back out into Khao San Road’s nighttime madness. Hoping to find a somewhat elusive venue called Hippie de Bar, and failing, we end up making a bold journey to Gulliver’s Travels, a rather infamous venue on the corner of the street. This, we soon realised, was Bangkok’s answer to every O’Neills you’ve ever been to, or any similar venue which leaves you feeling somewhat dirty after attending, whether it was fun or not. As we walked in we were greeted with pumping bass music, enormous bars, the obligatory ‘get up and boogie’ platform in the middle, and more freelance Thai women than we care to remember. It was in this psycho venue that Alan proceeded to get drunk quicker than Father Jack, start his trademark high-pitched laughing, and proceed to tell everybody he walked past that A) he was on holiday, and B) that he was a lightweight Chinese. Funnily enough this sprung up a few amusing, but short-lived conversations. Even a Thai prostitute who came over and started talking to him said she was going to the bathroom after around 30 seconds…and never came back.

We stumbled out of there at around 2:30am, ate some Chicken Satay’s – about the only food on Khao San Road that doesn’t taste of arse, and went to bed in anticipation of great hangovers in the morning. We were not let down.

This morning we checked out of the first guesthouse and booked a night at the much quieter, and much nicer, Pannee guesthouse on Tanee Road. After a failed spontaneous visit to the Grand Palace, where we were told that it was closing in 45 minutes and that I’d have to queue up for at least 15 of those in order to borrow appropriate clothing for the temples, we decided to go for a wander again. Finding ourselves in another post-Iron-Maiden-Concert-esque bundle of bodies, smells and pollution, we decided to head back to the guesthouse, where we hope for a slightly quieter evening before heading off to Ko Chang early tomorrow.

Bangkok really is an amazing sight, but I can understand why half the people who visit hate it and the other half take a long time to appreciate it. To be in a new city with new sights everywhere is one thing, but to take things on board here where the intensity of everything is so much greater, takes a bit more getting used to. I dare say I shall return here once I’ve finished my fortnight of partying with Alan, but I have the feeling it’s going to take me more than three days to get used to the way of life here.

Upon arrival at Sawasdee Banglumpoo guesthouse
Upon arrival at Sawasdee Banglumpoo guesthouse14-Jan-2010 13:29, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 400
The view, looking in
The view, looking in15-Jan-2010 12:39, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.4 sec, ISO 400
15-Jan-2010 12:39, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.1, 5.9mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 125
The guesthouse bar and reception
The guesthouse bar and reception15-Jan-2010 12:40, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.8, 12.8mm, 0.05 sec, ISO 400
Me, feeling jetlagged and unimpressed with the camera
Me, feeling jetlagged and unimpressed with the camera15-Jan-2010 14:04, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 100
 
The madness of Khao San road
The madness of Khao San road15-Jan-2010 16:16, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.05 sec, ISO 400
15-Jan-2010 16:17, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 7.1, 5.1mm, 3.2 sec, ISO 80
15-Jan-2010 16:18, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.3, 7.4mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 200
15-Jan-2010 17:41, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.04 sec, ISO 400
15-Jan-2010 18:05, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.077 sec, ISO 400
 
Khao San road Pad Thai - you probably shouldn't
Khao San road Pad Thai - you probably shouldn't15-Jan-2010 18:05, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.0, 5.1mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 400
You know what's on the agenda of a place when you see a billboard this large at the entrance...
You know what's on the agenda of a place when you see a billboard this large at the entrance...15-Jan-2010 18:05, Panasonic DMC-LX3, 2.8, 12.1mm, 0.167 sec, ISO 400
 

Overwhelming…

“Just sit back and take it all in…” I say to Alan, as I gaze around wide eyed at the carnival of sights and sounds before me.

It’s impossible, of course. Khaosan Road is a sight that nobody can possibly absorb in one setting. The heady mix of billboards, lights, music, bustling crowds, street food carts, bar girls and hustlers all fight constantly for your attention. And as I sit here at 5:30am, having had around three hours sleep since leaving the comforts of my bed some 36 hours ago, I realise that trying to sum up the first-time experience of being here is a hopelessly difficult task.

Everywhere you look there seems to be something else to grab your attention and send you down another trail of thought. Market stalls thickly line the sides of the narrow street, crammed together in front of bars and restaurants. Food stalls are scattered haphazardly across the walkway, each bringing its own different fragrance to the surrounding air. Mopeds scurry through the crowds, stopping for nothing including, it seems, my feet. Taxi drivers constantly try to get your notice – they have plenty of competition from the bar workers advertising their super-strength cocktails, mountain tribe women of questionable authenticity selling wooden frogs, sleazy club owners offering dubious leaflets, men selling ridiculously oversized lighters… The list of interesting things is endless, as sit around a bucket of Thai whisky and Red Bull, in heat unheard of for 1:30am, and try our best to make sense of what’s going on around us.

It isn’t all pretty of course. Not matter how jet-lagged and overwhelmed you are it’s impossible not to see the other side of Bangkok. Stray dogs and Siamese cats creep through the piles of rubbish left strewn by the never-ending flow of tourists. Graying middle-aged men sit outside bars entertaining teenage Thai girls at their side. Tuk-tuk drivers bustle for your attention with promises of ping-pong shows and free drinks. Working girls march up and down the middle of the street, their numbers and the attitude in their swagger increasing as the hours pass. A blind beggar hobbles back and forth through the crowds, his frail voice heard as he sings through the handheld karaoke machine he holds, his helper guiding him with one arm whilst waving a money pot in my direction with the other. Little girls selling roses wander from person to person, the theatrical sadness in their faces outweighed only by the guilt and anger that they so successfully conjure up for the viewer. And above it all, the air is thick with the unmistakable aroma of profit, of supply and demand, and of exploitation. Thailand really is a grand spectacle, and I get the feeling that its craziness won’t fade away with time and familiarity.

So as I sit here at half-past stupid in the morning and try to come to my senses, I only just begin to fathom just how much of a battering those senses are about to receive. The sun is just starting to rise, bringing the fierce heat with it, and as I gaze drearily at the mass of concrete that fills the view from my window, I slowly wrestle with the fact that for the next six months this crazy country, and those that surround it, will be my home…