Published: May 27th 2006September 4th 2005
A Buddhist Temple
One of many in Thailand, but definitely one of the more striking.
Thailand: 'The Land of Smiles' - this is how I had heard the country referred to before I arrived. The mental images that I'd formed from this description were soon dispelled when we reached the border; it would appear that the scowling and abruptness of customs and immigration officials is a global occurrence!
James and I had been a wee bit naughty as we'd crossed into a region of Thailand that the British Government are advising against 'all but essential travel' to. I've heard that the Thai Government have declared martial law there - but it's no Baghdad, you understand. We walked the short distance to the train station and then straight over all of the tracks to the ticket office, where we just about managed to work out which tickets we would need and what our onwards journey options were. I was a little twitchy on the train as we got on and sat down under a sports bag that was sitting unclaimed in the rack overhead. I wondered if it could be a bomb, but moving would have meant sitting far from the only working fan. Not an option in that heat! The journey turned out to be
Sunrise Beach in Ko Phangan
Scene of the monthly 'Full Moon Party'
fine, especially considering that the ticket inspector was walking the aisles of the train flanked by a uniformed man carrying a huge rifle. And you thought that the 10GBP fine for bunking your fare on the London Underground was harsh!
Our ultimate destination was Ko Phangan, home of the famous full moon party, although our revelry would have to wait another day as we couldn't make it that far north before the transport stopped for the evening. The day came soon enough though as the dreaded jangle of our alarm clocks dragged us from our slumber at 5am, with just about enough time to get back on a train bound for Surat Thani, the port town for boats to Ko Phangan. After a bit of a nightmare getting to the right port (there are three), we eventually managed to get over to Ko Phangan although we weren't up for too much that night as two days of travelling had started to take its toll.
We were happy with our place there and although the room was cozy, the pool more than made up for it. Howie and I spent a lot of time relaxing by it and he
Our pool in Ko Phangan
Jealous?... Christ, I'm jealous of myself!
must have thought that his luck was in when a gorgeous Israeli girl wandered over to him while he was catching some rays. Unfortunately for him (but much to my amusement) she asked him if he was from Israel! He maintains that it was because she was fooled by his olive tan, but I'm convinced it's because he's got a big nose. The jury's out.
We both had a few massages while we were there (sans happy ending) and at 3-4GBP for an hour they were cheap enough to try some different treatments out. It's because of that that I chose to get a facial one day. I expected a face and head massage... but oh no no no - she rubbed that slimy mud stuff all over my face and neck, put two bits of cucumber over my eyes and then left me for what seemed like an eternity. As if that wasn't enough, when she finally came back she cleaned the gunk off, gave me about three minutes of the face massage that I thought I'd signed up for and then proceeded to carefully rest long strips of cucumber over my face. She left me again, but
this the time feeling of foolishness that I'd felt with the mudpack was replaced by a severe bout of the sniggers - the uncontrollable kind that used to strike when you and your mates were getting reprimanded in the deputy head's office at school (or was that just me?). It was the thought of my friends being able to see me in that state and never
being able to live it down that got me chuckling and it's fair to say that if there's one thing more strange than seeing a man with a cucumber mask then it has to be seeing a man with a cucumber mask that is laughing to himself for no apparent reason whilst desperately trying to stop the cucumber from falling off and revealing his identity!
The last event of any note in Phangan was the night that we got an unwelcome visitor. Allow me to elaborate: James and I were watching TV in our room one evening when a dark shape appeared on our white walls from behind the TV unit. At first we both thought it was a harmless lizard, but then we both got a better look and saw that it
Sunset on Sunset Beach
And there was me wondering why they called it that!
was a pretty large spider. Now I'm no fan of spiders, but it was far enough away from me that I wasn't particularly worried. James, however, has a phobia of them and he jumped straight up onto his bed and backed into the corner, shouting 'Get it out. Get it out'. I obliged, after I'd finished laughing, by which stage he had run outside and told me that there was no way he could sleep in the room with that spider in there!
I wasn't too impressed with the part of the island that we were staying on because it is the most touristy part and it just didn't seem clean; it seemed 'spoiled'. Because of this we were keen to see what else the island had to offer, so James and I hired a moped, navigated some treacherous roads, and avoided a serious (but not unusual) monsoon downpour on our drive around the coastal road. There were other beaches that were nicer than ours but my overall impression of Ko Phangan was a mediocre one, much to the surprise of many people that I've met on my travels who loved the island. Perhaps I just went to the
After a few days on Phangan we did the short island hop to Ko Samui. We'd seen pictures of a resort that we wanted to go to and after our cab driver tried to drop us off at a different place (where he was no doubt earning commission for bringing unsuspecting punters) we finally got there, checked in and started the all too familiar process of sitting in the sun and doing bugger all. I can remember that day's activities being sunbathing, swimming in the pool and sea, buying a bat and ball, and finding a sports bar that would become my spiritual home. We even entered a 9-ball pool competition that evening, but after a decent start we were knocked out at about the quarter final stage - Howie going one round further than me. The Asians are the world's best at this game and they taught us a lesson that night!
Ko Samui was the place where I got my first taste (not literally, ahem) of the infamous Thai Ladyboy. There were tons of them there, most of whom seemed to ride around the streets after dark and grunt sweet nothings from the safety
of their mopeds. After hearing stories to the contrary, I think that it's quite easy to spot them, in fact it's quite easy to spot them a mile off, you'd have to be seriously drunk/paralytic to get caught out!
James and I were really pleased to see Arthur again as he came to Ko Samui with his girlfriend. She had come to Thailand for a couple of weeks holiday and they were to return to England together. Although we only had a few days where we were reunited, it was a good few days! In fact, it was SO good to be back together that I compromised my street-cred by going out in public with them after Arthur had a hairy stripe shaved into his head and Howie had ginger highlights: 'Minge' and 'Ginge'.
Ko Samui is, like Ko Phangan, a very nice island with an overdeveloped tourist stretch. The difference between the two is that Ko Samui's tourist stretch is about 6km long and although the beach is very nice, the development on the road that runs parallel to the beach detracts from the area's natural beauty. Honking taxis, people stopping you in the street to peddle
The Sportsmans Inn.
Heaven IS a place on earth.
their wares, cars (and boats!) with PA systems bellowing out details of forthcoming boxing events - all of these reminded me of Kuta (Bali), where a quiet life is almost impossible. Nonetheless, the plus side was that the night life was very good here, which was a bonus considering it's currently low season in this part of the world. We also found a pub called 'The Sportsmans Inn' where there were well kept pool tables, friendly staff, cheap(ish) beer, good food and every conceivable sports event showed on their screens. What more could a man want?
As in Ko Phangan, we all hired a moped and took a self-guided tour around the island. Once away from the hectic Chaweng Beach area it was evident that there were plenty of other unspoiled beaches. We drove to one of the inland waterfalls and we took a refreshing dip in the cool water at the base of the falls, then we dried off and got an elephant ride. The elephants were very well trained: they could 'dance' upon command; they could pick things up with their trunks and pass them up to us; they could honk (or make whatever noise an elephant
The Beach road in Ko Samui
Kilometres and kilometres of this...
makes) when the guide asked them a question. The ride was ok, but now I've done one I doubt that I will again.
We all went for a curry that night which was very nice, but it got the fires within burning brightly! Already hot enough from the air temperature, I was dreaming of getting home to our chilly air-conditioned room, but when we got back we found out that our room (and just our room) had no electricity. It was a horrible sweaty night of broken sleep and we couldn't even ask for some money back as we were off early the next morning.
That day's travel involved a ferry back to the mainland, a transfer to the train station and then an overnight train to Bangkok. I was pleasantly surprised with the standard (and size) of the sleeper berths and I had little trouble getting to sleep. Waking up was even less trouble as Thais rise at about 5am and the cacophony that ensued meant that there was no chance of getting a lye-in. We weren't too fussed though and we were pretty keen to see Bangkok for the first time when we rolled in to
the station at about 10am.
All taxis in Bangkok have meters, but most try to negotiate an extortionate fare in the hope that you're gullible enough to believe that it is a good price. A bit of persistence and/or walking away usually yields the desired result though, and once the meter is switched on, travelling around the city is very inexpensive. We headed for the Kao Sarn Road, Bangkok's nexus of the travelling fraternity, as we'd heard good things about the place and were confident that we could get a room for a good price there. We weren't disappointed with the room that we found and the place even had a rooftop swimming pool!
We only had a couple of days until Howie's fiancee arrived with her friend for a three week holiday, the day after which my Mum would arrive for a two week break. It would be the first time that we all went our separate ways so we tried to have as much fun as (decently) possible before our nearest and dearests arrived. Unfortunately that wasn't as simple as we'd hoped because it was the first day of the two-day Buddhist Lent which forbids drinking
Getting the ride of my life
It's just the angle, honest!
or the sale of alcohol! We didn't realise this until we found a bar where they were showing the first Ashes Test. We'd settled down to watch but before we got the beers in we noticed that their were far too many burly men drinking orange juice and iced coffee for it to just be a coincidence! It was safe to say that the vomiting basin in the gents would be getting a night off (see photo below)! We weren't even allowed to play cards, even though no money was changing hands!
Howie left the next day to meet his fiancee and I wasn't alone for long because Arthur and his girlfriend had arrived in Bangkok and they came to meet me to watch the second day of the cricket. It was still Lent, and after a few hours of coca colas we decided to go to the Kao Sarn Road where we managed to get a sneaky beer from one of the bars.
I met my mum at the airport the next day and we checked into the nice hotel that she had pre-booked. It was a reminder of how I used to be able to live
before I became an unemployed bum! It was also the start of a couple of weeks of really miserable weather which almost entirely washed my golden tan away! My mum was loving it though as she hates the heat. Unfortunately it wasn't ideal conditions for taking advantage of the swimming pool, so with my mum sleeping off her jet lag I got opened three months' worth of mail that she'd brought with her for me. I can honestly say that there was not one thing there of any interest!
We spent the next couple of days exploring Bangkok: shopping malls; the (stunning) Grand Palace; a boat journey on the river; the Skytrain and some lovely restaurants. The best of the restaurants was a place called 'Cabbages and Condoms' and I strongly recommend that anybody going to Bangkok checks it out.
After all of the sightseeing we jumped on a plane to Cambodia - for more sightseeing! I'll tell you more about that in the next blog.
There are more photos below