Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bangkok Nights

It's a lot harder to get off a moving bus than it looks - the main thing you've got to remember is that even though you jump out of the bus backwards the ground is still trying to push you over from the bottom at the speed the bus is traveling. Even at 15 kms per hour this is quite a push and I'd be lying if I told you I'd remained upright.

Arriving back at Patong Beach I was invited by my English buddies Paul and Karl to cram into their small but luxurious hotel room whose remaining floor space was almost entirely inhabited by their giant friend Will - but we made it work. All that remained was to hit the town with the reckless abandon only Phuket can elicit.

Now, when I progressed through the ascending stages of technological advancement of Indonesia, Malaysia and then Singapore I was half expecting to be transported next to a brightly-lit techno-utopia with skytubes and floating screens. Similarly, after emerging from Sumatra, my brain prepared me for an encounter with a post apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Patong night-life is a hybrid of both of those visions. It was a scene of pumping music, huge distracting LCD screens, arrogantly drunk white tourists lumbering through the streets (not us of course) and cheeky prostitute girls (or at least very good imitations of girls) whose recognition of our personal space eviscerated the crotch area.

After a few buckets - a litre mix of whiskey, coke and Thai red bull - and drinking games with some Australians who had congealed from the crowd, we rediscovered the ancient art of buying cheap beer from 7/11 and storing it in our stomachs for slow release during dry bar visits. My last memories of the night involved us sitting on the beach helping some Thai prostitutes improve their (already excellent) English skills - although I'm fairly sure now they were actually after some help with their student fees.

The next day the three of us took the bus to Khura Buri for our subsequent boat trip to Surin Island. This little town was at the time hosting what they called the 'Watermelon Festival', which was really just a huge food-fest (but with no watermelons).

Speaking of food, I've noticed that it's changed significantly since Indonesia, in gradations small enough not to notice at the time. In Java I basically just alternated between Mie Goreng and Nasi Goreng (which were delicious), supplementing my protein diet by grazing on nuts during the day. In Malaysia the cuisine is either Chinese or Indian, depending on which part of each city you're in. In Thailand things are more complicated (I'll refrain from mentioning that I think Thai food in Melbourne is better than in Thailand itself) and I've found it harder to avoid meat. I've always been a bit suspicious about a food that when not cooked in exactly the right way will turn around and kill you. Also, I swear that I expend more energy extricating bone shards from my tongue than I get from the nutritional value of the meat. But at this festival I found the perfect alternative: fried insects. They contain no bones except a crunchy exoskeleton and I've certainly never heard of anyone dropping dead from a salmonella-infected locust. We were all insectivours not too long ago, maybe we were onto something.

The speed boat ride to Surin Island was a nasty affair. We'd actually bought a slow ferry ticket to save money but it turns out there is no slow ferry - the proprietors just like to divide up the market for greater passenger numbers, almost like the manufacture of hard disc drives. This trip taught me that anti-nausea pills warning of drowsiness are actually sleeping pills with an anti-nausea side effect: those of us who had taken the complimentary pills all managed to fall asleep sitting up and flailing around. This knowledge would later come in handy.

Surin Island is a remote and spectacularly beautiful tropical island national park. Paul, Karl and I rented a tent right on the high tide line of the beach and spent three amazingly relaxing days luxuriating by the water. Here my activities included reading a Thomas Hardy novel, lying aimlessly in a hammock all afternoon and making some serious head-way in ameliorating my fifteen year long disappointment at having been born into an age lacking cities floating in the gas giants and space elevators flinging passengers between the inner planets. This is, after all, the age of beaches. Soon to end.

Another day-consumer was snorkeling. I have never seen so much amazing stuff under water: endless intricate coral structures, vast schools of large blue fish unconcerned by a human joining their number, a probable mating-ritual between two tropically coloured flat fish swimming around each other in impossibly tight circles and a vertiginous abyss whose depths could be fathomed by sight into receding blackness. I spent a lot of my time perfecting a technique in which depths of about ten metres can be reached: find a spot at the right depth, breathe out all the air in your lungs and stay as still as you can - you drop like a stone to the bottom and you don't need as much oxygen while you're not trying to fight against buoyancy (just remember to leave enough energy to kick your way back up again). Unfortunately, this caused extreme pain in my sinus glands from the pressure (I should have been breathing out all the way down) which can probably be blamed for my sudden development of a cold. I find it ironic that in this region of fearsome tropical diseases I contract the common cold (self-diagnosed) - the only other illness I've so far experienced is one severe hangover (two if you count the one I brought from Melbourne).

Returning to the mainland we all took the night bus to Bangkok - twelve hours away. I ended up being so concerned about missing out on the scenery that I got off at a town called Chumpon, walked most of the very long distance to the train station and slept the night there through the most unpleasant stage of my cold, attacked by a constant swarm of mosquitoes and woken up every hour an a half from trains turning up. This is where my new sleeping pill discovery came into its own.

But the train ride was worth it all - local of course (it took a lot of effort to convince the ticket office that I actually wanted to go slowly), sharing the seats with the real denizens of Thailand, watching the beaches and karsts fly by along the narrow spindly bit of the isthmus and, importantly, reading through a few more grams of the column of books I've now accumulated (I feel like a caryatid). Before Thailand I was reading at an average rate of three millimetres per day but here it's slowed to just over one millimeter per day - a mere seven times faster than India is crunching into China and only twice as fast as the top land-speed record for a continent - so I have a lot of catching up to do.

At last, Bangkok. A new world. Or at least lots of different worlds squished in together and forced to get along. I spent most of the diminishing daylight hours (I've traveled north a fair way now) navigating the Chao Phraya River by local ferry and visiting various wats (Buddhist temples) around the city. I also made an excursion to pick up several more kilos of books kindly donated to me by my Auntie Su through Poste Restante. From here I also undertook a grueling cross-city expedition to replace my purple-smearing camera, which I luckily retained for sentimental reasons as my new one turned out to be just as buggy in its own special way. The next day I managed to get myself all over Bangkok using almost every mode of public transport available: ferry, bus, subway and skytrain. One interesting encounter was a whole linear community built over a functioning railway line, using small rail carts as goods transport but having to disperse several times a day.

The evenings were a different matter. The biggest night involved my old re-acquaintances Paul and Karl and some of their new co-travelers in a Khao-San Road bucket-filled booze-up. I ended up mysteriously possessing a couple of buckets the next day but we put them to good use. Earlier on in the evening we witnessed a white guy being brutally beaten up and even repeatedly tasered by a bunch of bulky Thais in a popular restaurant, which was pretty distressing. I'm sure it was drugs related.

On my last night I met up with a mixed group of local Thais and Queenslanders I'd met on the bus and we went to a great club with a live band playing a jazz/traditional Thai fusion. I'd arranged to meet up with a young co-worker from the Westgate Project here but I must have missed him by mere minutes or metres.

Chiang Mai was next after a long but (sorry 'and') terrific train journey. After an epic quest finding somewhere to stay I wound up at a huge and central wood paneled hostel with bay windows overlooking the city. After a quick and, importantly, successful geohash (Thailand's first) I got down to the serious business of dental tourism. Here I got a few cheap and professional fillings and decided to one day have a wisdom tooth out. It's quite sad to abandon a seemingly permanent part of one's own body, particularly as a result of one's own negligence. I'll run it into the ground first.

The next day I visited some of the thousands of wats around the city. Fading tiles on crumbling stupas next to sparkling new gold-clad Buddhas. A sentence without a verb. Pretentious really.

I leave you on a sad note. Within the grounds of one Buddhist monastery - yes, inside a monastery - I left my hired single-speed bike unlocked outside a temple while I had a peak inside. Of course, returning after a few minutes I found it gone. Gone in that typical way a bike is nicked (I'm used to it now) where you're left wondering if you ever even had a bike in the first place. Now I know you're all going to say "Well you should have locked up your bike then, hmm?". But I actually remember thinking as I mulled over the decision to get the lock out, "I know the situations in which bikes are nicked. This isn't one of them. I'm an expert". Hubris I guess.

I quickly alerted the monks and they took me to room full of giant-screen audiovisual equipment to search the security cameras. I found the yellow-robed techno-monks (they were also the security staff) so incongruous I took a photo of them telling me they'd run out of free disc space just before the theft (see it on facebook!)

Well I could have easily left Chiang Mai, which I was doing in a few hours, without alerting the totally disorganised hirers but instead I handed over 3000 Baht for the bike. Although this is only about $100, to put it in perspective I could have stayed at my hostel for three weeks with that.

I was so depressed the other guests at the hostel took me out to the weekend night market and shouted me a few beers. I'm still getting over it.


  1. Good Read mate, you obviously read a fair bit.. Brings back a few memories of one of my favourite countries! Hope the rest of your travels are filled with similar adventure! Cheers, Will

  2. Loving it as usual Felix.

  3. Oh my god, what a note to end on!. A great read. I seriously thought that Thais did not steal.Such bad luck. But it's overnow. And isn't thaoland great. wonderful to hear from you again and be so well entertained