06/01/03: Hungover… Arise late; check out; kill the day carting our impedimenta around town and occupying cafés, drinking coffee and pop and eating sandwiches and crisps. Ride overnight bus to Bangkok via Surat Thani – a real drag of a day.
I take the Bangkok Post. The international reportage makes it perfect reading for the 12 hour bus journey from Krabi to Bangkok. Its sports coverage is excellent, giving comprehensive cover of both the FA Cup 3rd Round and the Ashes. Its ‘around-the-world’ anecdotage leads one to believe that everyday in Manila someone kills their best friend after some sort of clandestine, tragicomic turn of events. One’s honour seems to be a very serious thing in the Philippines…
I have very mixed feelings about our impending mission. The distance we have to cover seems rather considerable in its measure, and I am anticipating it to be physically discomforting. I don’t expect that I will get much sleep either, although my hangover gives rise to the possibility. And I’m a little sad to be leaving the south of the country and I am little apprehensive about this whole Laos-Vietnam thing. I am, however, strangely looking forward to relocating to Bangkok for a few days, something that I wouldn’t have thought possible 50 days ago.
The first part of the trip is straightforward enough: we board a single-decked coach that takes us to Krabi’s bus terminus. On arrival, the vehicular form of the second stage of our journey is as yet unclear. Our singular previous experience of the VIP Bus involved a very colourful single-decked coach of modest capacity, replete with chrome interior, but I suspect that this was tailored to the hedonistic destination to which we were then travelling.
I am now concerned by the many people who are apparently waiting for a similar charter back to Bangkok. I am concerned because I have hitherto noticed a tendency to squeeze as many people as is possible on to various forms of transport with a total disregard for notions of health and safety, or the description on one’s ticket of the service paid for. I am also concerned because a few of my fellow travellers are audibly voicing a similar tension. What is more, the VIP Bus is running late.
My fears are soon allayed when two double-decked VIP buses show up, both bound for Bangkok. True to form, they’re colourful things adorned with various cartoon characters – it’s a typical look – and there’s even a TV on board. Closer inspection reveals these vehicles to be older than they appear: a stain here, a cracked air-con funnel there. But they are air-conditioned and they do seem to offer a credible degree of leg-room. So I’m reasonably happy, although a little annoyed when our half-full coach alights in Surat Thani, of all places, to fill in the empty spaces. I’m getting a handle on how long-haul transport operates in Thailand, now. There’s nothing really VIP about these buses: they’re just regular, long-distance coaches with functioning utilities that charge probably about twice as much than the alternative public model. This still only works out at about £13 for a 400 mile journey, and it will pick you up and drop you off at locations that are convenient.
The only problem now facing me is the berk in front who insists on reclining her chair as far as its fixtures will allow. I would say something but she’s dabbing at a nasty looking wound on her lower leg, and her companion asks if he can borrow my paper in the most gentlemanly of manners, leaving me impotent to do anything other than sit back and suffer.
07/01/03: Book into the Khao San Palace; take a nap; Wally’s for brunch; apply for Laos visa; buy Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from a second-hand book store; Gulliver’s for dinner; Dong Dea Moon, and Hole in the Wall for a nightcap.
It’s about 5.30 a.m. on the Khao San Road and the previous evening’s entertainment is still in the process of winding itself down. I managed to catch about three hours of sleep, which under such circumstances is almost unheard of for me, and now we’ve got to contend with the lingering detritus from the night before. But there’s an excitement about the place, an energy and a coolness to the air, even though the temperature can’t be much below 25°C.
We have arrived earlier than expected – too early to find lodging. The staff at the Khao San Palace advises we return in a couple of hours, whereupon guests will have checked out and rooms will have been serviced. After about three hours, breakfast and many cups of coffee later the Khao San Palace is finally able to provide us with sanctuary.
We have a nap and then hit Wally’s for something to eat, with a new found sense of authority gloriously coursing through my veins. I have no problem waiving away the hawkers at lunch, and the pushy tuk-tuk drivers aren’t bothering me in the least. I may not have the most active tan in the world, what with the fair amount of southern cloud cover I’ve endured, but I feel a good deal lees conspicuous than some of the paler arrivals that occasionally pass us by, huge especially-purchased rucksacks strapped keenly to their backs. I’ve actually revisited three locations so far – Haad Rin, Surat Thani and Krabi town – but this fourth is by far the most poignant: after all, it has been almost seven weeks since I left Bangkok and the last time here I was a little freaked out.
It seems hotter than it did down south, more torrid than I remember it being in Bangkok the first time around – it could be the time of year. These are not perfect conditions for traipsing around and deciding which establishment one should trust to sort out one’s visa. It doesn’t really matter because, as with the VIP Bus situation, everything’s hooked up to the same infrastructure and as such will charge roughly the same price. That’s not to say that it doesn’t hurt to shop around, though, and iron out the possibility that some people somewhere might be trying to squeeze you for more than is good and proper. We are being thrown the curveball, however, that it will take at least three days to process a visa for Laos. This is not in any way unusual: passports have to be taken to the relevant embassies and are processed accordingly. One could always visit the intended embassy oneself, perhaps, but I postulate that this would be a process overly mired in bureaucracy. No, it seems very much easier to resign ourselves to a few bonus days in Bangkok, which I don’t mind at all; I’m starting to feel that the capital offers me some sort of ‘peace at the centre’, a base camp from which to evaluate this whole adventure. The only problem with this program is that one tends to drink more heavily in Bangkok.
Later, and we’re back at Gulliver’s for tea to exploit the rare air conditioning and their pork chops in pepper sauce. And when we’ve finished there it’s off to Dong Dea Moon for what turns out to be a relatively quiet night. I talk to an American called Steve who regales me with tales of his self-righteously tight-fisted adventures in Burma. When I attempt anecdoture of my own I notice his eyes idly taking in the bar’s surroundings. I am finding that Americans like to talk at you plenty, but aren’t so keen when they’re on the receiving end.
08/01/03: Taxi to Siam Square; Jim Thompson’s House; back to Khao San Road for a shandy; dinner; attempt visit to Hendrix only to discover it is no longer there; Dong Dea Moon, whereupon we meet J (Mk.2) and introduce him to the Bucket of Joy.
09/01/03: Awake with Sangsom induced hangover; lunch at Wally’s; Dong Dea Moon to meet J (Mk.2) and his Canadian chum S (Mk.2); take them to Hole in the Wall, before finding some new dive I don’t know where.
10/01/03: Wally’s; collect Laos visa; go to Chart for dinner and double bill - watch K-19: The Widowmaker and Panic Room; sneaky drink in Dong Dea Moon.
We never really escaped our little quarter of Bangkok the first time around. Sure, we made it far as the Royal Palace, the Golden Mount and Wat Indrawihan, but all this is navigable by foot, and abjectly touristic. My companion has a few ideas, though: she’d like to see Jim Thompson’s House and take advantage of the many shopping malls in and around Siam Square. I’m not that bothered about visiting Mr Thompson’s ex-abode, but the malls could be interesting and I like the general change of tack. So we will take a taxi to Siam Square – a proper taxi with a meter running, and everything – through heavy traffic and banal streets. It is estimated that it will cost about 200 Baht by our guidebook, and it does, factoring in a 20 Baht tip.
Our first port of call is the Siam Center (sic), outside of which our taxi-driver deposits us in great haste. Dating back to 1973, the Siam Center is one of Bangkok’s oldest malls. It doesn’t look too dated to me, but then my formative experience of the shopping plaza was based upon the Armada Centre in Plymouth, and then later the Treaty Centre in Hounslow – beige eighties fossils both.
As is often the way of the shopping mall, the Siam Center seems to attract those of a more youthful condition. But what strikes me most here is how much ‘neater’ these juveniles are, and, dare I say it, more effeminate. Nobody is wearing shorts, for instance, clothes are of a tighter fit and the prevailing fashion appears to be highly accessorised (hair product, handbags, watches, brand names, etc…). I’m wearing brown needle-cords, a lank white t-shirt and a shabby pair of Converse, and I feel almost filthy in comparison. Moreover, these more affluent folk seem paler of complexion than their out-of-town cousins, or even those I have seen working on the Khao San Road. This is not so surprising when one considers it. A preference for fairer skin pervades in many Southeast Asian countries, Thailand being no exception, and a whole cosmetics industry is built upon that fact. It might be fair to speculate that – as was the way in Victorian Britain – darker skin brings with it an association with the labouring classes, and that whitening one’s complexion suggests a higher position within the social strata.
The shops themselves are your standard high-street conglomerations with goods priced to match, so it isn’t long before my colleague and I depart to inspect shopping mall number 2. The more recently constructed Siam Discovery Center (sic) is more upmarket than its sister mall in which we started our retail adventure, meaning that I feel even more under-dressed than I did there. The air-conditioning feels more aggressive too, and the garments are priced even further beyond my range (constrained by my traveller’s budget or otherwise). A modest exhibition of photographs is on display on the ground floor; a collection of various national scapes. Below each image the camera settings employed are revealed – aperture, focal length and exposure – alongside the author’s name. The photographic aspect of my own travels should not be underestimated: I’ve already rather petulantly declared to my colleague that I wouldn’t have bothered coming to Asia if I didn’t own a camera (which, unfortunately, is probably true).
I employ a Lomo LC-A, a fixed lens, 35mm compact camera of Russian extraction. Loading, winding and focusing aside, the LC-A is designed to be used fully-automatically. One can adjust the aperture, but in doing so the shutter speed will remain fixed at 1/60s. Really, the adjustable aperture is only intended to be used in conjunction with a flash, and not having a flash I’ve seen no need to interfere with it. Strolling around this exhibition now, though, has got me thinking: maybe I could pre-select the aperture under certain lighting conditions, 1/60s permitting? I make a point of emailing my father for advice on f-numbers (manipulation of depth-of-field being the objective here; him having knowledge of such things).
The MBK Center (sic) is up next, a leviathan of a shopping mall eight stories high, stranger than known, attracting over 100,000 visitors a day, it’s claimed. MBK was constructed in 1986, and this time it shows. Not as up-market as the previous two malls, from which it can be accessed via a footbridge traversing the busy junction which all three overlook, one can find both the authentic and ersatz on sale here. The place is a little too hectic for my liking, especially relative to the babbling serenity offered up back at the other two malls, so I leave my companion to get on with it and seize the opportunity to inspect the Suphachalasai Stadium – or National Stadium – just down the road.
On my way, I witness some sort of sting. Not 10 metres away from me, the Police swoop down upon some poor chap and put him in handcuffs, bang to rights judging by his demeanour. I then proceed with my tour of the stadium. I’m not sure whether the general public have access, but I find my way in through a side door anyway. A lady there is pushing a pram around the Tartan, so I relax and take a photograph of this not particularly impressive theatre.
All malled out, it’s time for us to visit Jim Thompson’s House. I shall not bore you with the details, suffice to that Jim Thompson was an American silk-merchant who put down routes in Bangkok in the 1950s before making a strange disappearance somewhere in Malaya during 1967. In-between he built himself a house wherein he amassed a vast collection of Southeast Asian art. Now it operates as a kind of museum and one can pay to have a gander.
No disrespect to Mr Thompson and his beautiful home, and maybe it’s just because I’m starting to wilt in the heat, but I’m more enthused by the cup of tea I’m given after – no milk – at the café around the corner. I say ‘given’ because I don’t actually ask for any tea. I order coffee but I’m also served a complimentary cuppa as some sort of chaser. Initially the proprietor senses my perplexity and reassures me as to what it is. She misses the point: I am not thrown by the contents of my cup – it’s plain to see that it’s tea – but merely why she felt it necessary to provide me with it at all. Place it in the context of the weather and it begins to make some sense: ‘If you must drink hot liquid when it’s touching 35°C – and coffee at that – then at least take a sip of this.’ And she’s right. It really is quite a revelation, the most refreshing cup of anything hot I’ve had in all my life.
There’s a sense of relief as we step out of our cab back onto the Khao San Road. I’m not used to this level of activity and it’s gotten very hot, but I’ve enjoyed myself thoroughly. We indulge in a shandy to celebrate and refresh.
We’re set on having barbecued sea-bass tonight, sitting outside, serviced by the restaurant that rests beneath Dong Dea Moon. The fish turns out to be not all bad, despite the battle with its bones, but I do feel a little exposed eating on the road-come-pavement. But this is a mere introductory offer to the evening, for we are building towards a night in the Mango – aka Hendrix!
I almost passed out. There before us was nothing but a pile of rubble. At some juncture during the six weeks we had been away, somebody had decided that the Hendrix wasn’t worth the recovered timber it was built from. This humble bar, where I got stuck into some serious drinking that first, fragile week, covered in sweat and bothered by mosquitoes, to be reduced to this…
So instead we returned back to Dong Dea Moon and befriended J (Mk. 2), a newly arrived English chap who was travelling alone. He took great interest in our stories from the south, as The American occasionally glanced over at us from the opposite side of the bar, and when it came to the subject of the islands and their accompanying Buckets of Joy, my companion saw fit to educate him in the procedure. So comprehensive was her teaching that I was forced to bale out of the lesson prematurely. The walk home was an unsteady one, but I recall every moment. I remember a desperate need to be back to my hotel room, and a real fear that I might not make it. It wasn’t that I thought myself incapable of walking the 300-odd metres to the hotel, but more that I might not be allowed to. Whether it be the police who stopped me, or hostile travellers, or opportunist citizens, it was a tough call keeping it together without collapsing into a group of strangers or some roadside vendor’s stand – and what would become of me then?
Not surprisingly, the next day was a bit of a write-off for the both of us, although, weirdly, more so for me than for my companion, who had shared in a second bucket with J (Mk.2). I spent much of the day getting stuck into Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas for the first time, having read Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail many years before but never having gotten around to reading Thompson’s more (in)famous tome. It seemed suitable material, especially given that I was keeping a sort of journal myself.
If any literary insight can be gleaned from the reading of Hunter Stockton Thompson then it shouldn’t be that intoxication or the unleashing of hand held munitions are dangerously enjoyable past times – any healthy teenager should be able to testify to that, even if he/she doesn’t have any first-hand experience concerning the latter (nominally, I do – refer my mention of the A.T.C. in Chapter 8 for clues). No, what can really be found in Thompson’s prodigious text is the reality of resigning yourself to the contradictory duality of fear and self-confidence: discard feelings of insecurity, give deference to your bravado and embrace anxiety. And then what self doubt one may be left with, as a ‘writer’, is not concerned with whether one is capable as such, but, rather, does one have anything of interest to say? Or something like that…
Rather perversely, we met up with J (Mk.2) again that evening, who this time brought along with him a Canadian chap he’d befriended somewhere along the way. Not even the Hole in Wall could inspire us this time around, as my companion and I wearily shuffled through the motions, and soon bade our new found friends farewell.
On Friday we collected our visas and prepared for our exodus to Laos. One such job we couldn’t afford to postpone any longer was the acquisition of anti-malarial tablets, the north of Thailand and beyond delineated as a higher-risk environment. Actually, we were probably over the worst of it because the rainy season had come to pass, depriving the common vector – the mosquito – of the conditions necessary to reproduce en masse. In any case, malaria isn’t a big problem in Thailand (although persistent enough not to be discounted completely), but near and across many of its boarders one is advised to take precautions whatever the time of year. This is because the prevalence of jungle wetland often found there enables the vector to proliferate. In Bangkok, on the other hand, the chance of infection is practically nil.
Malarial or otherwise, the mosquito is still an irritant that needs to be confronted. So far, we had been relying on N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide – more commonly known as DEET – as a means of self-defence. DEET was developed by the United States Army and it is a pretty aggressive solution; sold as a ‘roll-on’ or ‘spray-repellent’, I’d knocked out a couple of unwelcome bugs on the islands with this stuff. Directly applied, it can kill a cockroach of substance within a matter of minutes, although I’d more commonly spray it on our mattresses – in anticipation of bedbugs – or beneath doors, or into any ominous looking holes where creatures might feasibly take refuge. The idea really, though, is to apply the liquid directly onto the skin, whereupon one will experience a general ‘tightening’ of the epidermis, or maybe even a burning sensation, but should otherwise remain unbitten.
Another weapon in our armoury is the ‘mosquito coil’. Made from pyrethrum – a natural insecticide derived from the dried flower-heads of the humble chrysanthemum – the coil is made to smoulder, mustering a light vapour repellent to most insects. It is as effective as any draught will permit, and as such best utilised in enclosed spaces. Only the reluctance to let them burn whilst one is sleeping – especially in wood-based dwellings – prevents their more regular usage (it is claimed they will last for up to 8 hours).
If the mosquito succeeds in breaching these defences, one can alleviate the discomfort with a camphor/menthol based balm. I use the White Monkey Holding Peach brand, for obvious reasons. It’s a competent application – as good any balm, I should imagine – but when confronted with the work of the Asian Tiger Mosquito [Aedes albopictus] it’s often found wanting. The wounds these insects can inflict are pretty nasty: bruises as big as your fist, throbbing welts that visibly pulse, and blisters prone to infection. Fortunately for me, mosquitoes aren’t too interested in my blood. Unfortunately for my companion, they are really rather keen on hers.
Of course, I should have sorted all this out before we left England. I actually obtained a prescription for Malarone three weeks before I was due to travel, but it took me another two weeks before I bothered doing anything with it. Visiting my parents in Plymouth a week before my flight, I sauntered on down to Hyde Park Pharmacy, not realising that anti-malarials aren’t the sort of thing a chemist stocks as a matter of course. Assuming my departure to be still some way off, the staff there seemed quite put out when I told them how quickly I needed these drugs in my possession. And when they offered to rush the order through, only for me to balk at the price (over £120 for a month’s supply) and tell them not to bother, they appeared even more so. But it was the right way to go because we managed to find Malarone in Boots on the Khao San Road for less £40, and we embarked on our 37-day course – as prescribed – with immediate effect (This is no longer the case: on subsequent trips to South Asia I have found that the Malarone on sale there is nowhere near as affordable as it once was. Conversely, charged by the pill, it is cheaper in the UK in 2012 than it was in 2002).
With greater motivation we could have departed there and then but for some reason we decided against it – we had the days to spare on our visa so might as well use them. It was also decided that we would try the overnight train, offering us the beauty of sleep and saving us a night’s rent, a trick that we’d pulled off on the journey back to Bangkok.
We agreed that drinking profusely was best avoided, and settled for supping a few shandies and watching a couple of films in an institution by the name of Chart (if one had not deduced it already, it is best assumed that, unless noted to the contrary, every evening of my travels involved the inveterate consumption of at least a few light beverages). K-19: Widowmaker & Panic Room were the movies in question, and they weren’t too bad – the former in particular – although the watching of films plein air in somewhere akin to a backyard felt innately odd to me.
We dusted off with a drink in Dong Dea Moon, possibly to keep at bay the inchoate unrest that tomorrow’s activities would assuredly deliver, and certainly because there’s very little else to do at night when one’s slumming it in Bangkok.