Back to Bangkok
Disaster in Lijang
OK, so if you are astute you will know that Lijang isn't fit in this page, but bear with me. It is all part of the story. You see bad things come in threes. Or so they say. Let's just hope that is so. Because they've all just come at once. And they affect the Thai story. In Lijang
Firstly the technical disaster. It was inevitable I suppose. Relying on technology to keep my notes, to keep this journal of thoughts, feelings and event. Pen and paper would never let us down. They never fail totally. No system disaster with pen and paper. Yeah the pen mail fail- it may run out of ink, but the written word never fails. It remains. Unlike silicon memory.
Lijang (again) and I decide to update my writings. And My Palm Pilot inexplicably decided to give itself a hard reset, reverting back to its factory settings. This resulted in me loosing everything on it. All my notes, the stories from leaving Koh Phanghan through to the north of Laos. All gone. Thousands of words RIP. So I've got to start writing from scratch, and try and remember what I'd written.
And if that wasn't bad enough we get to Lijang to find that the promise of the road trip to Tibet hangs in the balance. We've rushed up from Laos to Lijang to find that no trip will leave for a fortnight. But better go to Zhongdian, (five hours of bone shaking bus up some white knuckled roads away) just to make sure. But that is in the future. Firstly we must leave Koh Phanghan.
Arrr, I said the bad had come in triplicate. Well, the last of the threesome was thus. I decided to insert our photographs into the dodgy student cards that we picked up in Bangkok (again, dear reader, in the future for you). They were to get us cheap entrance into the sites in China. So I take great care at trimming my photograph to fit. I snip and cut and reduce it to a perfect size using the Swiss army knife scissors. And with a degree of pride I insert it into the card and cover it with the laminate. A perfect real fake student card. Except for I've cocked up. Disaster. I've stuck the photograph on the wrong card. The female student Lindsey McNeill, has a goatee beard. Ho hum, I made up the other card and the student Marc McNeill has a pretty face, long hair, wares makeup and looks unmistakably female.
So where are we? Leaving Koh Phanghan. We took a pickup to Thong Salat. In was the usual rough ride over rough roads. The only exceptional feature of the journey was the catfish that jumped out of a bag and tried to mate with Lindsey's foot. She screamed. Most unlike Lindsey, I mean when we had a mouse in our house I was the squeamish one. She took control, trapping it and disposing of it. But a mouse is pretty and a catfish is ugly and was getting too friendly with her. The local man who owned said catfish grabbed at it. The slippery thing jumped out of his hands onto Lindsey's lap, which made us even more uncomfortable before it was securely tied back up in its bag.
Thong Salat we said farewell to Alex, leaving him to finish his diving course and boarded the boat to Surat Thani. The boat was full, almost totally populated by backpackers. Bronzed, body pierced and tattooed, dressed in a uniform of either scruffy traveler (dirty tee shirts), designer traveler (fake Stussy and Armani and Expensive Brand tee shirts) and ethnic traveler (no tee-shirt and baggy Thai fisherman pants). And all the sub-classes that are the microcosm of yoof culture on the road. At the back of the boat a mountain of backpacks. Berghaus and Karimor. Some nationalities can be identified by the flag they fly on their backpack. The Scandinavians in particular seem predisposed to sewing embroidered flags onto their packs. And the Canadians too. But you always wonder if the Maple Leaf belongs to an American who doesn't want to be identified as such. Either ashamed of his nations politics, or afraid of being spotted as an imperial Yankee aggressor. The other nationality who are easily identifiable by their packs are the Israelis. This is simply by virtue of the fact that their packs are always twice as large as everyone else's. And more often than not hidden under a waterproof cover that adds extra space (and storage) to their mammoth packs. I mustn't judge though. My pack is still somewhat on the voluminous size, despite having left 15 kilos of crap in a bag back in Bangkok for Alex to take back home.
The boat carves through the jade sea. It is the colour of the greeny-blue eyes of a goddess. Sinister but beautiful. Above the sky is loosing its perfect deep blue hue. We are leaving paradise. We are entering skies that are home to filthy black storm clouds. And as we pull into Surat Thani they engulf the sky and explode, the sky is a wall of rain.
We see it approaching. A solid gray wall of water. It is at the far side of the bus park, a large dusty expanse that we sit in front of waiting for a bus to take us to the station. It moves, slowly, instantly turning the dust to mud. Half the park is still dusty, the other half is mud. And then the wall slaps at us. Huge, bulbous rain drops that hurt when they hit you on the head. We take cover and watch the park metamorphoses from a dust bowl to a mud bath to puddles to a lake. It is not raining. It is monsoon rain. It is monsooning.
In the thirty seconds it takes me to run from the cover we stand under to put our packs in the luggage compartment in the bus to boarding it I get drenched. Lindsey is relatively dry, sitting on a choice seat near the front waiting for me. One of the advantages of traveling with Another. I see to the bags whilst Lindsey secures us decent seats.
It is only a short ride from the bus park in front of the port to Surat Thani railway station. But it took forever. Thee roads could no longer match the description of a tarmac thoroughfare that they once were. They were now flooded. River would bee a more apt description, with streams, side streets, adding to their depth. The water level was high enough to seep in under the bus door. If it was high enough for that, it was high enough to seep into the luggage compartments and flood them. When we retrieved our bags they were completely sodden. With eighteen hours before we would open them in Bangkok they would fester in their dampness and leave all our clothes stinking. Papers stuck together, the ink on the pictures of home we had printed ran making the images unidentifiable. This Israelis of course laughed. Their packs were kept dry in those waterproof covers that I'd earlier been sneering at.
Back in Bangkok
Back in Bangkok, last minute shopping and sorting out the visas for Laos and China. And then an email from Alex. He'd had a slight issue and was flying back to Koh Phanghan, so we were in Bangkok longer than we'd wanted to be.
Alex had unwittingly found himself at the painful end of a bar brawl, a rogue Thai fist had caught him on the cheek and sent him flying off his bar stool. He would've been alright if their wasn't a step in the way which the top of his head met with some force. Some stitches at the local hospital and a sporting a bandana to cover up the mess on his head, he left paradise, flying out quicker then we did.
In need of cheering him up, and getting away from the bowels of the traveling community, Ko San road, we decided that a splurge would be in order. Visa would feed us at what the guidebook billed as 'consistently voted as one of Asia's finest hotels', The Oriental hotel.
Dripping in genuine fake clobber; Evisu, Ralph Lauren, Armani, we took a cab to hotel. The driver charged us double because it was monsooning again. Just getting into the soaked us. A doorman helped us out of the taxi and a receptionist greeted us. "No, no reservation, but can we please take a table at your restaurant ". "Which restaurant?" and she listed every imaginable style of food that their different restaurants catered for. We decided to keep it local; we'd have a Thai. We make a reservation for a table and she asks me "what hotel are you staying at". The power of the blag suddenly leaves me. I stutter and find myself telling the truth. "A cheap one" I whisper, "on Ko san Road. Can't remember the name".
The food was fine and was accompanied by traditional Thai dancing. Two things struck me about this. Firstly, my parents, who have recently discovered the joys of cruising (would bore me silly), must be force-fed this kind of stuff on a regular basis. Every port they enter the local dancing girls are brought on for an evening of culture of classical X dance. For X read Thai, Balinese, Indian etc etc. And here's the second thing that struck me. I discussed it with Alex and Lindsey. In the UK what cultural event would play in the dining halls of the finest hotels. I've been to a few and the most I've ever seen is a pianist. No dancing. Dancing at teatime in the Waldorf, but no cultural dance. And then we discuss it further, and what cultural dancing could possibly be put on? Let' face it, England has only one dance that could be labeled cultural and we are not going to see men in white prancing about a stage in the Ritz ringing their bells and banging their sticks. Morris dancing as a culture we are proud of? I think not!
We retire to a bar, the Bamboo bar I think it was called. And there was a plaque informing us that Somerset Maugham had stayed in this hotel and drunk in this bar. And I reflect on how hotels around the world are associated with creative genius of the twentieth century. The likes of Grahame Greene, Ernest Hemmingway... and I'm thinking these hotels must've been something in those days. Thy must have had character. Now the big chains have bought up the worlds best they had flavored them all with the same, safe, bland and anodyne taste. Modern five star hotels are dull, monotonous and uninspiring. They are a sad indictment of the perils of globalization and its need for homogeneity. Wherever you go in the world, your five star hotel room will be the same. Surely if they were writing today, the likes of Greene, Hemmingway and Maugham would have avoided these places like the plague. This makes me wonder whether they could afford the room rates these places charge. Surely five star luxury at inflated prices is a reflection of the wealth of the global traveler. Did the great writers have such wealth?
Before leaving the hotel we check out the toilets (well as a budget traveler it is expected, almost de rigueur to have a dump in clean sanitary ware with your feet planted on opulent marble floors then wash your hands with savlon parfum and dry them on clean linen towels before throwing them in the whicker basket). Alex enquires at reception about doing a cooking course. At almost $100 a day he decides to stick with cooking Thai curries from a jar.
We look for a taxi and the doorman asks if we want to take a hotel car. I look around the cars in front of the entrance- Jaguars and Mercedes and decline. No, we'll take a taxi please. "Where to?" he asks and I rack my brains for the area that Ko San road is on. I just can't bring myself to admit we are staying on that road. "Ummmm, oh, what's the area called" I say looking for the word "Banglampu" but it doesn't come. The doorman winks at me. "Pat Pong" he whispers. No, we are going there, the red light district where in Spalding Grey's words 'the women do everything with their vaginas except for give birth'. We are going to Ko San road I sadly say. And we leave five star luxuries to return to the traveler's ghetto.
We take the overnight train, out of Bangkok heading north to the Friendship Bridge, the border with Laos. I pick up a copy of the English newspaper the Nation and am struck by an article that speaks to me volumes about the hurdles that are unnecessarily placed in the way of Asia by its people.
I started writing about Thailand with a newspaper article and will finish with one. It is a lesson on how to undermine the credibility of the nations largest university, allowing one to question the worth of their degrees. It all started several days previously when the prime ministers son was caught cheating. The university response is illuminating.
"Cheating by students is trivial," says the Acting Rector of Ramkhamhaeng University "students are youths, how can we punish them for cheating?"' This reminds me of newspaper reports in India some years back. Of students going on strike, demanding the right to cheat. Oh dear.