Fat man at the gates of Siam
We leave Siem Reap taking a bus to the Thai border. The road must rate as one the countries worst; for a major international highway it probably is up there in the top five of 'best avoided.' To describe it's surface as a surface is to flatter it. A BMX track would be more comfortable to drive around. It was shocking in every sense of the word. Dangerous as well. Wooden bridges with beams missing, metal bridges with plates on the surface no longer on the horizontal plane. The dreadful corrugated surface takes its toll on our bus and when it stops for a 'comfort break' the driver jacks it up and takes a spanner to what I presume is the suspension. He calls his mate over and asks for something. His mate removes his shoe (a rubber sandal, what the Auzzies call a thong and to the humour of everyone else us Brits call a flip flop) and the driver cuts it in half and stuffs it in between two pieces of metal. Great, so our bus is being held together by a flip flop.
On our way again and along much of the route. Signs by the side have a pictorial of a man digging with a spade in a red circle with a red line through the image. We are not sure what it means, but conclude it must mean no digging- no disturbing any unexploded, undiscovered mines that may lurk deep, or not so deep, below the surface.
A convoy of rally cars speed past us. In most countries the rally takes place in stages, with the car driving on decent roads between the stages. I wonder if this road was not one of their stages. The drivers were wearing helmets suggesting it may have been or perhaps they were lost.
The border town was filthy. It had just rained and with an earthen road surface it was now just a rusty muddy quagmire. A lorry coming in from Thailand slowly moved in the opposite direction. It wasn't just overloaded it was.... well it was very, very overloaded. A series of tarpaulins strung together covered the load that must have reached at least three stories. And it had a similarly laden trailer. With a crazily high centre of balance I was sure that gravity and the Cambodian roads would ensure it never reached its destination intact. We crossed the border and suddenly it seemed that we were back in the industrially developed world. We had stepped out of it when we left China for Vietnam. And now, here in Thailand we were back in a country where things were more likely to work smoothly. Or at least work.
As we queued up, waiting for our Thai visas, I saw a large Australian man. It was hard not to see him. He had an average sized waist but his belly was enormous. It was like the over- hang that challenges and excites rock climbers. It would certainly be a challenge for Weight Watchers. A small Thai man went up to him and patted the gut,
"You very fat man" he boldly stated. "I am thinking you drink too much beer!"
"Only on days ending with a 'Y'" says the Auzzie. The Thai man didn't understand this; the joke was lost on him, even after explanation.
The Thai said "must be an expensive stomach" and the fat Auzzie replied
"Shityeah" in the way that Auzzies do, "It's cost me millions of dollars to get such a fine specimen of a gut." And then he added somewhat sadly "and I'm not talking Auzzie dollars".
The Auzzies whinge about their dollars. They call us 'whinging poms' but no one can whinge as much as an Australian talking about his currency. One Auzzie told me "yeah, it's a national sport, watching our dollar dive. Following the dollar is a more popular sport than cricket. Every news broadcast they tell us about how badly the dollar is doing. They show a graph of our dollar against everyone else's and every day we see it go down. And that's why there are so many of us in south east Asia. It's cheap for us here. We can't afford to go to Europe." Oh I don't know. There are a fair few Auzzies well installed in the pubs and bars of London. .
We are in Thailand for just a few weeks. We are here, but we do not 'see' Thailand. All we see is Thailand-lite. Tourist-Thailand. We are isolated from the real Thailand because we go where all the other backpackers go. We don't need to speak the language. This is the first country where I find myself ignorant in basic pleasantries. All I can say in Thai is "the bill please" and this is unnecessary because in everywhere we eat the clientele is strictly western and English is the first language anyway. Other than a couple of taxi drivers we've met no Thais that don't speak English. I try to get a feel for the country and what is going on here. I buy a copy of the Bangkok post and on the front page an article catches my attention:
[the PM] voiced support for the suggestion... for the Government to produce fake methamphetamine (ya ba) pills that would cause headaches and vomiting in order to stop people using the drug... He told the meeting that if drug users were sick after taking a fake pill it might deter them from taking any more drugs. He also said that the pills should be cheaper than the genuine ones in order to force the ya ba dealers out of business.
The paper did little to give me a feel for Thailand, but then what impression would a foreigner get of the UK from reading the front page of one day's copy of the Sun.
Yet why should this matter? This is our holiday. It is a holiday from our holiday, time to disengage from the stresses of travelling, hit a beach and relax. We are halfway through our trip. Thailand is our vacation.
The Kosan Road in Bangkok must be unique. There are other places that come close, Paharganj in Delhi for example, or Thamel in Nepal. And maybe Earls Court in London and Kings Cross in Sydney. All places where the budget travellers congregate when they first arrive in a country- the backpacker's Mecca on their gap year. But Kosan road outdoes them all in its dreadfulness. Arriving there by night is like walking into a funfair without the rides. The cliché 'an assault on the senses' is usually best left for India- an assault of the unknown, of the dangerous, of the unusual, the freakish and outright insanity. But the Kosan road assaults the senses with the unpleasantly familiar. The smell of barbequed meat from the street stalls, the signs climbing up the walls on either side of the road. Signs that are lit up, signs in neon, signs that are straight from home; Boots, 7-11. The sound of techno from the stalls selling ripped off CDs. Stalls selling everything from fake student cards and driving licenses, ripped off music and software CDs, Counterfeit watches, genuine copies of designer labels, Stussy t-shirts and Evisu jeans and the obligatory Ralph Lauren Polo shirts. The ethnic stalls knocking out the Thai fisherman pants, Indian sheets, sarongs, chopsticks, wooden and bamboo boxes, trays, lampshades, toys and a list that can continue forever. Jewellery, lots of silver and a few gems. Street hairstylists with readymade dreadlocks all ready to attach as hair extensions. And body piercing and tattoo parlours (I cannot find a barber to shave me for love nor money, but on every other corner someone will stick bolts through my face and brand me with a Celtic tattoo wherever takes my fancy). And the people. As though they are straight out of a festival, like the Kosan road is just beside the Healing field at Glastonbury. All nationalities whose common feature is that they are some shade of white- mostly Israelis, English, German and Scandinavian and the Auzzies. Baggy t-shirts, baggy trousers, shorts. And then the girls wearing a tiny sarong and a sliver of material for a bikini top, walking down a street in the capital of an Asian country whose values are Asian and quite reserved and have you got no respect? But then you are just walking down the festival that is Kosan. And I hate it.
We went to the Wat Pho traditional Thai massage school. I have to give it its full title, to prove its respectability. It was in a Wat. A temple for goodness sake! Don't want you getting the wrong idea- the words 'Thai massage' do not have to imply hanky panky! Lindsey could not be persuaded to have a massage, but with a little bit of arm twisting she agreed to have a foot massage.
"But my legs are a bit hairy!" "Wha!"
"And scars on my legs from the mossie bites I've picked!" "Wha! It's just a bloody foot massage" I tell her.
"For forty five minutes? won't it get quite boring after forty five minutes" she says.
"eh? Boring?' Got to be careful here. Don't want to lecture or be a bully but my Grandfathers words ring in my mind when the 'B' word rears it's ugly head.
"I thought we'd agreed Lindsey. There is no such thing as being bored! Be interested in everything!"
"...But come on, lets go."
We sit next to each other, feet up on chunky cushions atop low stools. Mitr is 'doing' me, Noom 'does' Lindsey. Mitr starts by washing my feet. He then rubs oil onto them and manipulates and massages and rubs and thumps and cracks them. He takes a stick and uses it to caress the joints in the foot, applying pressure on specific points. Reflexology presumes that parts of the feet correspond to parts of the body. I point to my ear and grimace- perhaps this reflexology thing will help my ear infection clear up. Mitr nods and goes to work on an area just below my little toe. I mustn't sound sceptical about this. Lindsey and I commenced a course on reflexology several years ago. We went to the first lesson and never returned. Lindsey accused me of tickling her feet. I wasn't very good at it. Noom makes Lindsey giggle. "Arrr, tickles" he says. That is all he says. Neither he not Mitr speak any English which is a pity. I wanted to ask them about their experiences as foot masseurs. They must see some pretty honky plates of meat. Is there a difference between the western foot that spends most of its life wrapped up in a sock hidden in a leather shoe and the eastern foot exposed to the elements in a sandal? What tangible benefits can they describe from reflexology. But the only conversation between us was physical. Gestures, smiles, and nods. Nods when he worked knots out and I'm sure he was laughing at my little toe. It's not my fault it looks a little, a little odd. "Didn't you wear Clarks shoes when you were growing up?" says Lindsey, looking for an explanation for its peculiar shape and size and orientation.
"Yes I did" I say to her
"always good fitting shoes?"
"Yes" I tut at her
"must be genetic" she says
"Since when have you been a geneticist"
"Oh be quiet..." And then she starts giggling as Noom works his way around the sole of her foot.
My brother Alex who has been keeping the website up to date jumped at the idea when I suggested that he come out and visit us. He was looking to take a holiday and so he got on a plane, and carrying a case full of goodies for us, we met him at the Bangkok International Airport. Lindsey got all doughy eyed at the airport. She was in air-conditioned nirvana. She pined for more of it.
"Please Marc, let's take a plane".
"Calcutta is only a cheap, short hop away".
"But we don't do planes on this trip Linds!" I wink at her.
"I hate you!"
Several people have written to me and suggested that I should write a book based upon my musings on this website and I've begun to think that's not such a bad idea. And that is a strong reason for not taking a flight I tell Lindsey. The plot, the story is of an overland mission. No planes! Sadly this write-a-book thing is consuming too much of my thinking. My day dreams (and travelling you spend a lot of time daydreaming as you look out of train and bus windows and the scenery becomes a void) are about being published. I turn on my thoughts and it is like turning on the television only the same programme every time and it is becoming tedious. But Wha! No planes!
Alex wanders through the gate and we jump into a taxi and check him into our hotel.
This taxi ride is relatively quick. Traffic in Bangkok is gridlocked most of the time. It is horrendous. There is no underground metro system, no bus lanes, no apparent 'integrated traffic policy' or whatever to deal with the madness. An overhead railway has been built, but it runs only across the city and we want to travel up and down it. We took one taxi and when we reached our destination I looked at the meter and it read 4Kms. We had just travelled a distance of 4KMs in one and a half hours. The blame for this lies partly at the feet of the traffic policeman who was controlling one set of traffic lights (many of them are manually controlled from control rooms by the side of major intersections). The lights were at red for close to fifteen minutes before turning green. And were at green for precisely one minute before stopping the traffic that was tailed back for miles, at red for another seven minutes. Madness!
What do you miss from home when you are away from it for a long time? Well obviously there is the fish and chips... But it is the marmite, and the strong Cheddar cheese and the salt and vinegar disco crisps and penguins that are really missed. And a bottle of fine red wine. All but the vino are eagerly devoured as we catch up on news and stories.
It was the Queen's birthday and there was a lot going on in the park adjacent to the Royal Palace. Getting to it was a struggle. Bangkok is not a pedestrian friendly city. The park was surrounded by dodgem-driven roads and it took an age and great risk to cross over to the action. In the evening rows of enormous screens played free movies to a large crowd who could walk from one screen to another, selecting the one that had the right level of violence. (As in China, shoot'em up and karate films seem to be popular here). Walking away from the park left our ears ringing with a deafening cacophony of dialogue, music, gun shots and fist fights from multiple films.
We did the tourist thing of seeing the Royal palace then went to a huge shopping mall in the north of town. One floor was dedicated to mobile phones and related paraphernalia. The top floor was home to Karaoke capsules. Small soundproofed booths with a screen, microphone and comfy seating, large enough for you and three or four mates to croon into. In a couple of booths there was spillage; too many friends to fit into the capsule so the doors were open and the terror of tone deaf young Thais bumbing through tuneless Thai pop became too much sending us scuttling down to the clothing floor.
So after doing some serious shopping we leave Bangkok, heading south on an overnight train. The carriage is narrower than others we have been in. Usually there is sufficient width for passengers in the sleeping carriage to lie perpendicular to the direction of the train. On this train there were only four berths side by side with a corridor running through the middle. An attendant walked along the aisle and with a key lowered the top berth down and turned the bottom seats onto the lower bunk. With a few well practiced moves he then made the bed leaving a crisp clean white sheet over a thin mattress. A large towel was provided as a top sheet.
"Which end do you think the bathroom is?" says Lindsey before climbing into her berth.
"It is not a bathroom" I growl at her.
"Stop being so picky" she replies and mutters "I'll just have to find it for myself then" as she walks off. Call me a peasant, but it not a bathroom. Where is the bath in it? Have our American friends got a problem with describing what it is? It is a toilet. And you perform bodily functions in it. You wash in a bathroom, you piss and shit in a toilet. I defy anyone to wash in the little room that has a hole in the ground and stinks of wee on a Thai train!
Sleep is not the easiest thing to attain on this train. The light is left on all night. Whilst there is a curtain that is pulled across each berth, it is thin and does little to block out the florescence brightness that gives the closed eyes a red hue.
We take a bus from the station to a ferry port and board a boat full of western tourists heading to the Island of Ko Phangan. As we get closer to a beach Lindsey's mood changes. She had been quite miserable in Bangkok, suffering from homesickness for the first time since we left. We'd discussed the possibility of her returning home for a few days but this came to nothing. But now we see white sands on islands jutting up from the jade coloured sea, the homesickness seems to be subsiding. And when we arrive in the small port of Thong Sala in Ko Phangan, it is all but forgotten about.