Profundity in newsprint

Tuesday, June 17. 2008
Though I regret making my first post in ages nothing but a direct quote, this was too good. From The Guardian:

In the era of CCTV, memory storage, eternal emails and Gordon Bell, we can all preserve our every asinine thought, meaningless utterance and minor accomplishment. That is why it is so important that the real achievements of history's greats be well preserved and presented, and as accessible as possible.

Ain't it the truth.

Thailand, part two

Sunday, June 1. 2008
Next stop was Phuket. I don’t want to enervate myself further, but let’s just say that I hated every single square centimetre of the island and one night was one too many. Perfect beaches with sand like talcum powder, covered in disgusting resorts and fat Eurotrash. Nights filled with neon and more go-go bars than you can count. If I was sixty, divorced and relatively wealthy, this would be heaven – and that’s exactly the target market. It’s almost no fun and totally the wrong scene if you’re me. Or have standards. Or morals. Or decency. Not to come off like a puritan – I spent quite a while looking at the menu, so to speak, at the bars, but it was just too much. A longer description would probably be ideal, because it’s quite a scene, but maybe some other day. Why couldn’t this shitehole have been ground zero on Boxing Day 2004? Maybe it would have been wiped off the map altogether and we’d all be talking about it in the past tense. Maybe all the resorts would have gone away and something more rustic, close to nature, something with some vibes would have sprung up – instead almost nothing was washed away, except the people who deserved it least. The whole place needs to be crushed. So I got the fuck away, ever more jaded at the whole of southern Thailand and what it’s become, the circus it’s become, the excuseless parade of crap that it’s become.

OK, that would be a cop out, to not tell you how it is, what the place it like. It’s paradise lost, it’s a natural beauty covered in horse shit, it’s an amazingly tasty looking plate of ribs covered in ants. I like the last one best. You can still see what it was, before the infestation, and you know how good it might have tasted. You might even still be able to eat it, if you were desperate enough, or didn’t care, or didn’t know, or didn’t realise. It is an island, blessed with some incredible stretches of sand, sand so soft and powdery you almost won’t believe it. It squeaks underfoot and doesn’t stick to your skin at all. The water, for all the people who come and visit and in spite of all the boat traffic, remains clear and blue. You can see the bottom all the way out as far as you might dare swim, lest you get hit by a passing longtail boat, and all the other factors, like the weather, are everything a tropical resort should be. It has everything, and after year upon year of being the it destination in Thailand, all the amenities and all the infrastructure is there. Hell, you can fly direct to the airport from most every major city in the region, and quite a few well connected terminals further afield, like Sydney, LA and Frankfurt, making it no more than a connection away. Getting there is easy, and as expensive as the top end might be, go mid range or budget and your winter holidays just became sun soaked at a more than reasonable price. Everything else is mostly Thailand prices too, from the drinking and eating to all the little bits of life. I see the attraction, don’t get me wrong, but I’m a snob sometimes, I admit it, and I like my beaches a bit nicer.

Nicer in this case means trash all the resort umbrellas on the sand (they stretch from one end to the other), get rid of all the people selling things (you want to eat, drink or get rubbed down? Get off your arse and cross the road) and move the development back (even just a little, so it’s not right on the edge of the water, and preferably a kilometre away, so some semblance of nature can be felt). How relaxing can it be to lie under one of a hundred or more identical umbrellas and be constantly badgered by sales people while the road thunders behind you? Not all if it is like that, sure, but enough if it is to make me think some folk are getting shafted there. But it’s been there for years, and my complaints are nothing new. If you don’t like it, leave. I follow my own advice. But not until I’d seen the nightlife.

Patong beach is just one stretch of sand that turned this place into a circus. And it’s the main spectacle once the sun goes down. Platinum card users but expensive seafood and deluxe hotel rooms, wine imported from God knows where, over-zealous locals shout about everything they want you to buy at inflated prices. Suits are the most vividly hawked item, for some reason these guys try 100% harder than the rest. The only thing not showed in your face are the strippers – and that’s because you’re in the wrong street.

Venture down that street and you’ll be blinded, either by neon or God himself, and more shouting girls than you could ever hope to grope. Or be groped by, because that’s how they get you in. Stand in your way and grab you. There’s nothing subtle about it, nothing at all, and each and every one of them could be yours. For a price. I’m telling you, it’s almost too much. Each place has its own name (I’d call mine ‘Slutte Garden’) and each laneway has a name, my favourite being ‘Soi Easy’. That’s ‘Easy Street’, more or less, and nothing could be more appropriate. There’s an average of two girls to a pole and not nearly enough guys to go around. This means they all try extra hard to get you in. It’s an experience, to be sure, but would I want to go back? The soullessness of it all sours me greatly, in hindsight. I’m not travelling to get a fill of that kind of action and if I wanted mindless titillation, I’d watch a porno. If I wanted to get off but didn’t have a consenting partner, I can jack off no problems. That’s what it’s all about, you getting off and them making their share for doing it.

So that’s Phuket. Pray for an earthquake, or go running directly there, because I’ve either described your heaven or your hell.

Next stop, Gulf of Thailand coast. The islands of legend, the real heart of why Thailand is the place to be, the real deal. Right? Dare I say I was disappointed by it all, again? Already? It was already clear to me that Thailand, or at least, the dirty south, was not going to be my gig. Still, I had to see it and I was fast regretting that I’d budgeted so much time to do so. The gulf coast islands are, in order of south to north and, incidentally, popularity – Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao. Samui was the first to be discovered, and it was backpackers who did the uncovering. Back in the seventies when all this was new, the original hippy trail types came upon an island of amazing natural beauty and splendour, a place so amazing that they couldn’t believe they had it to themselves. It wasn’t even a place the Thais were hip to, indeed, the whole tourism industry in Thailand would have been in its infancy. So they found it and enjoyed it and word got around about it. It started off in the hippy trail, but it was always going to get big, and eventually the 80’s happened and boom – now it’s famous, now it’s developed. Pha-Ngan was always there, visible from Samui, but was always more rugged and harder to get around, unruly to non-existent roads meant the first generation of beach seekers hired local fishermen to take them around. It remained more or less a low-key little sister to Samui, and still is in many ways, except once a month when the full moon comes around. Then it explodes. Back in the nineties, they say, at Paradise bungalows, I hear, it might have been someone’s birthday – they had a big party on the beach at Hat Rin and it was awesome. They went back the next month, and so it began. Now it’s the biggest beach party in the world, the new year’s event pulling near 40,000 people. It’s the stuff of legend and me, not jaded by it all, was planning to hit it up – hence the timing and all. Ko Tao, it’s there, it’s got a good diving scene – it’s not part of the story, so let’s let it go.

So what happened out there? I arrived in Surat Thani, the main transit point for getting a boat out there, and getting off the bus there was no public transport in sight. Just some asshole travel agent guys. I followed one and he wanted 650 to get to Ko Samui – I nearly swore at him. As I left he tried to get me to haggle. Haggle over the price of transport on a major route! This wasn’t a taxi to a distant border town or a boat to a far off beach, this was one of the most travelled routes in Thailand. He was set up just right to rip people off. I should have spat at him. I walked out and up the road, wondering where the bus station was. After all, the bus had left me there, so it couldn’t be far. It actually is, some ten kilometres away, so my conclusion is that the bus company gets a slice off one or more of the local travel agent guys to deliver ignorant tourists like me. Angry and confused, and it was late, I went up the road in search of something, and came across another travel agency (I passed a few but no-one talked to me) and the guy working there asked me where I was going. Ko Samui, I said, how can I get there? He’d sell me a ticket, and gave me a reasonable price. Lulled into a sense of security, I sat down and talked to the guy.

I had just met the friendliest, most honest travel agent in all Thailand, no shit. He was the real deal, and he talked me out of going to Samui. Why? The new moon was but two days away, and there’s half moon and full moon parties as well, you know. I knew of them, and didn’t mind the idea of seeing one of them, so I agreed and he told me the best way at this time would be to take the night ferry, leaving at eleven, and I’d be there at the crack of dawn. He was open about his commission and I was cool with it, so I got the ticket and thanked him. He let me leave my bags there so I could go get some food (it was about seven o’clock by now) and I did. Surat Thani is another concrete jungle that looks just like Hat Yai and with about the same amount of charm. The night market is big enough, and sees hardly any foreigners that they don’t even think to rip you off a few baht here and there. I got fed and went back to the travel agency. The guy was still there (his name was Joke) and we got to talking about the industry he was in and all of that, about how many rip-off guys you meet, and he told me I wasn’t just paranoid, it was all true. They’ll go for any white guys they see, some of them, unscrupulously. He didn’t use that word, his English was kind of sketchy, just good enough to get by in a conversation, but he would have used it if he had known it.

He was pretty grateful for the conversation practice and since his boss had gone, he let me use the internet there for free. I later heard he charges 50 an hour, a little steep, but seeing as it’s a duck shoot for tourists along that street, I understand. We talked until nine, when he closed, and then he gave me a lift to the dock and we ate dinner together, had a few beers, and then he paid half even though I had more. That’s how I knew he wasn’t just being nice to a customer – he’d just made himself a new friend. The boat left on time and he waved me off. What a nice guy.

The other backpackers on the night boat were not interested in talking. So much for that. It was easy enough to sleep, but before I knew it we were there, even before the sun was up. Off the boat and into the waiting arms of the taxi mafia. Waiting with laminated signs with the names of beaches distant, and vastly inflated prices. I tried to bargain, to reason with them, but no, they wouldn’t move – this was the ultimate example of the attitude towards tourists in this part of the world. Take them for all you can, especially when you have them over a barrel. Me, I walked. The shouted at me that it would take too long, but I still walked. The haven’t reckoned with the likes of me yet. And so I walked, and the sun came up, and it was hot. Bags heavy. Long way to go. A few people stopped and tried to get me to go to their bungalows, but they weren’t in the right place or price range. The girls (or whatever) still at the go-go bars from the night before called me over with the same vigour they would have been shouting with the night before. That’s stamina.

Eventually, not 20 minutes off the boat, a lady on a motorbike stopped and gave me a ride on the back. She asked no money and took me where I wanted to go. Well, almost. There’s Rainbow Phangan Bungalows, right in the middle of the south coast, and Rainbow Bungalows, almost to the end of the beach, right near Hat Rin. I wanted the former, but got the latter. It was no difference in the end, and I didn’t realise for days that I wasn’t actually at the place I thought I was at, and the price was 300 for a bungalow. I settled in. It was stuffy and the bed was hard, but that’s what three hundred Baht buys you there, I guess.

After food and a sleep, I rented a motorbike (fully auto this time) and went exploring. Hat Rin was right next door, which was surprising given that I thought it had been further away. A little home-away-from-home village is there these days, plenty of cafes and restaurants, guest houses and books shops, dive shops, travel agents, internet cafes, bungalows and bars. The only Asians you see are working there, the only foreigners you see are there to party in the sun. The atmosphere I didn’t find all that evil or wrong, but there’s nothing Thailand about it at all. It’s the difference between milk fresh from the cow and processed cheese that comes in plastic wrapped individual slices – it all came from the same place, only one is worth going out of your way for, and only one is any good for you in the end. It’s the junk food side of Thailand, the Disneyland style of backpacking. It all looks nice, inviting even, but it’s all priced like the taxi mafia and outside of full moon times it looks half empty. The legendary Hat Rin, now the epitome of modern Thailand.

Around the island on the bike and the west coast proved to be as disappointing as anywhere. The promise of nicer beaches and maybe some solitude was wiped away as every square inch of sand has been co-opted by some resort or another. No public beaches to be seen. So I went back, ate some pedestrian Thai food at the Thong Sala night market, walked around Hat Rin a little more, feeling incredibly lonely amongst all the people. So many nice faces and so little of them wanted anything to do with me. Even the people working there were indifferent, lest I go and partake of their service. For sure, it’s a BYO friend situation. It started raining and I went to go sleep.

The next day was Black Moon party. I took the bike out and went to the site of the party and met some English people there. It was at one of the beach side bungalows and they were going to be staying at ground zero. The site looked pretty cool and the staff told me that there would be several hundred people showing up. No kidding. Happy enough, I went out further on the bike and found the north of the island was simply amazing. The kind of quiet beaches with white sand and longtail boats I imagined. Bungalows scattered on the sand like Lego blocks dropped from the sky. And the water was turquoise, shining like a jewel in the sun. Hat Rin, on the other hand, looks distinctly grey, like there’s too many people nearby. The accommodation operations there are pretty cheap too, the only issue is getting there. The taxi mafia will sting you around 500 for a ride there, possibly double what the room costs. Still, if you were going to stay a while and not go down to Hat Rin, and if you squinted hard enough, you could pretend it was old-school Thai travel again. Almost.

I caught the sunset at a beach I had almost to myself and then got some food. I drove up to where the party would be and had a beer at the Seven Eleven across the road. There I met some people doing the same thing – an older Canadian guy and a pair of Japanese girls. We got some bottles and went to their place, where another older guy came and met us. The music was already pumping next door but people don’t rock up to those things for a while, and we had plenty to drink. The older guys were retired and semi-resident (as much as a foreigner can be in Thailand) in Phuket and had some very informative stories about the seedier side of life. The Japanese girls were fun until they drank themselves into an early night; in the end I went to the party alone. There were plenty of punters there, but on closer inspection it was mostly Thais selling things. Body paint, fake drugs, massages and drinks. Still there were enough people dancing to make it fun. Things get quite wobbly at this point, for reasons best not explored here, but suffice is to say that it was a memorable, if kind of stereotyped, night dancing in the sand.

Next day I managed to check out the bungalow and fully intended to get off the island, having had more than my fair share or things. This too proved to be a step too far on the ambition scale and I got as far as a café in Hat Rin, where I’d stopped for a drink two nights before. They remembered me, as I’d stayed chatting for a while. One of the guys there was Burmese and I was eager to hear about his story, as a bit of prep for my upcoming side-step to Myanmar. He told me a lot of the staff on the islands were Burmese, either with a proper working permit or not, because the Thais can pay them half the proper rate. I heard about life in Hat Rin from his point of view and felt disappointed I wouldn’t be there for Full Moon, but there was no way I’d be staying that long. I sat and got some water and discovered that my hangover was worse than anticipated. Family Guy swirled on the screen in front of me and it was raining like the end of the world outside. Eventually it eased off and I wandered off to get a room. I found a cell-like place for 200 Baht and was happy enough. It didn’t look terribly secure so I kept my valuables close by. I made it back to the café and stayed another few hours and by then it was getting dark. What a day.

The next day it rained some more and I thought about getting a bike and going looking for the people I met at Black Moon party, but apathy got the better of me. I went and bought a book at one of the shops (the lady remembered me from the last few days but despite her friendly ribbing me – ‘that three times you come my shop now!’ – I didn’t get a discount. No haggle zone, indeed. I hung out at the same café again, eating this time, and in the evening my Burmese friend took me for a walk around and onto the beach. It’s kind of nice there at night, the distant sounds of music and TVs far enough away to make the waves the principal soundtrack, and the lights glittering like candy in the water. Neon on salt water is an appetising and tempting combination but I was feeling the paranoia creeps and half expected the guy to try something, or sell me something, but his agenda was clean. I feel bad for brushing him off now, in hindsight it’s clear now that he too was a good guy on an island of shysters and punks.

I made it off the island the next day, on a boat to Ko Samui. In giving Ko Pha-Ngan one last summary, I have to note that not having seen it during Full Moon, I can’t give a full picture, but as much as my personal distaste for the place might be, I don’t outright hate it, and might well go back in days to come. It’s not genuine anything, it’s an arcade game where you have to keep feeding coins to get the fun coming out, but taking it for what it is, hell, there are much worse places you could be. It just isn’t my scene, it just isn’t what I’m searching for, it just isn’t what I’m about. But there’s worse, and I was just about to find out how bad things could be.

The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami hit the wrong island. As much as Phuket needs a biblical flood to purge the earth of its stinking taint, Ko Samui needs it even more. If there ever was any natural beauty about it (and I’m sure there was, once) it’s all gone now. And endless stretch of concrete and buildings, I haven’t got the intestinal fortitude to describe it in any kind of gory detail it deserves. It rained on the boat on the way over and a lot of bags got wet. Not mine, you understand, because I am vigilant. Off the boat and the taxi mafia are waiting, this time with double extortionate pricing. Chaweng and Lamai are the it beaches and they were taking 200 and 250 for a 15 minute ride. That kind of money would be a rip off to get all the way across the island. I walked right past, found a friendly looking place and ordered an ice tea. The people there were good sorts and let me leave my bag while I went searching for a room. That was harder than expected, made easier and harder by a guy giving me a ride on his bike, but to an expensive place where he would have got commission on my room. But he cut down a long walk by half, and I managed to track down a 300 Baht room and a cheap bike. I went back for my bags and set off around the island.

It was horrific. Worse than the ecological destruction in Phuket. Did I ever think that was possible? Ko Samui has been known about since the early seventies and forty years is a long time for people to get busy with the concrete, especially in a land where tourism is the big dollar. I understand how it happened, but on my loop of the island I still shuddered to see every piece worth taking advantage of has been taken. Everything even remotely worth cashing in on has been cashed in on. Around at Lamai it’s clear the beach is stunning, but lined with crapola and bars. All the pretty girls are either for sale or currently rented out. There’s no love for a solo guy surviving on his wits and morale. Chaweng was worse, you can’t see it from the road. You have to dismount and wade through car parks and gardens attached to hotels to even see it, where it’s lined with restaurants. I didn’t find it till after dark. I missed nothing. I got a curry at a local market and cruised past the girlie bars but found I didn’t even have the get-up-and-go to be groped by a stranger over an overpriced beer. That’s how defeated the place made me. I went to the bungalow and checked out first thing in the am.

Taxi to the dock, boat to the mainland, bus to Surat Thani and back to hang out with Joke at the travel agency. He was still there and happy to see me, and talk about where I’d been, and what I thought of it. He sounded like he agreed with my take on things, but not too much out loud. He was impressed at my bargain room finding skills and looked up the train times heading north, then we parted ways.

The bus leaving to Phun Phin, where Surat Thani’s train station is, went nowhere for a long while, then rolled along for a longer while, getting to the station too late to make the 6.30 to Bangkok. I could wait for the nine o’clock train, but that would land me in my destination at 2.30 am. Undesirable. Dismayingly I sank into the gutter and went for the Lonely Planet. I could quote exactly from it, but it pointed me around the corner to the Queen hotel and it was indeed around the corner. And cheap. Not all was lost. The first train in the morning I could get on was at 10.40, so I was only really half a day in arrears. I would be there in plenty of time to look around and be able to leave the following day. So it was I wandered around Phun Phin at night. It is a real nothing place, the sole redeeming feature is that lost travellers seem to be common enough not to earn too much attention. I think I planned to do some writing there but ended up jerking off and going to sleep, the frustration at the island experience melting away.

To be honest, I don’t know what I was expecting from that end of the world. A budget tropical escape, a truly cheap getaway in a poor land, where service is bad and conditions worse, but it’s cheap. That’s what I wanted, but somewhere the locals figured if you build luxury of varying degrees, people will still pay for it. And then there’s more money for everyone. I wanted what it once would have been, but like I already said, 40 years too late. It’s a recurring theme in Asia. The hippy trail is long, long dead and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar and a charlatan. There’s traps for people who go looking for just that and I’m glad my sense were up to the task of sniffing it out. I could go on, but like all adventures, this one has to move on.

Prachaup Khiri Khan is about halfway between Surat Thani and Bangkok, and so even if there wasn’t any good reason to stop I might have done anyway. After Indonesia I shudder at the thought of longer than needed bus or train rides. So at about two in the afternoon I got off the train (the only one to get off there) and found no-one. No people, taxi drivers, travel agents, nothing. It was so refreshing I can’t even tell you. That it was blazingly hot didn’t help but didn’t hurt either. I ambled (yes, it’s the kind of laid-back town where ambling is possible!) down the street to the hotel and checked in then went for a walk. The esplanade curves around three semi-circular bays, each with a little mountain at the end, and from the point right in the middle you can see almost all of them. The ocean is dotted with fishing boats and small islands and the road is lined with racks of drying fish hand squid, so it smells pretty rank. But it all looks pretty, none of the soullessness of the south to be seen, and later on I found out how fast this kind of town can shut down. Past sunset there’s the night market and not a great deal else going on. A good time to get some reading down, or whatever.

I walked south down the esplanade and jumped a wall onto the beach and walked toward the hill. There’s an airstrip and air force base there, so you can’t wander too far, but along the water was fine. It looked amazing, not quite the scenery I saw in Krabi but still a wonderful tropical stereotype of a picture. Up the hill I was beset with local monkeys and the view was outstanding – two of the bays stretched off in perfect half circles as the town lay below. It was even hotter up there as the breeze bypassed it all, but it was an astoundingly good moment. I wandered back down and looked at the other bay and unfortunately it had the same problem as the other side – jellyfish. I’m sure they weren’t killers, or even painful, but better not to find out. Still, a swim would have been nice.

I walked back into town and found some food and internet café, had a lie down and then went to the night market. Wonderfully mundane and not another tourist in sight. Every face at the market gave me the same reaction, and I ate for cheap. I ended up sleeping pretty early that night. There wasn’t all that much to do there but for a laid back little fishing town, a brilliant overnighter between more vivid adventures.

In the morning I walked north and climbed the hill there. That one is in town and there’s a temple on top, which I had to myself. There’s even more monkeys there, and a statue and pond at the bottom. The cheeky little devils have the most fun climbing the statue and leaping off into the pool below. The view at the top was as good as the day before and I also figured that you could see over to Myanmar, since it’s at that point that the border is closest. It looked the same to me, but I know things are different over the other side.

All that was left to do was get a bus to the next town. Hua-Hin would be it. Less than an hour later I was there, almost leaving town because the conductor didn’t let me know it was time to get off. It was on the way out of town he dropped me, where the locals came to my aid and pointed me in the right direction, even calling ahead to the guest house I had picked out. That was another unexpected moment. The guesthouse was called the All Nations and it was run by an old English man who was most helpful and friendly. I got the room above the bar, which was a nervous moment because it had the potential to be noisy, but it turned out that I wasn’t ever there at a noisy time. For the best, really.

I took a walk to the beach and was instantly annoyed. Massive hotels crowd the shore and the usual mix of package tourists line the way, some clinging to their Thai women, all depressing as hell. I guess the beach epidemic is a nation-wide disease. I took a swim and went right on back, nearly getting brained by a kite-surfer. Getting back to the guest house there was another guy talking to the owner, and we got to talking, and then another English guy came out and that is how the drinking began. It all spiralled out of control, from the bar at the All Nations to a karaoke place to a few go-go bars to the Seven Eleven to another karaoke place… It was a classic bender of a night and all appendages were kept pantsed. But it was a close thing, since Hua-Hin has a healthy selection of go-go bars, and the ladies are much less aggressive than further south. So you can hang out with a drink or two and play pool or table tennis and not get groped too violently. Still, it leaves a man with ideas, and the power of ideas is not to be taken lightly.

Woke up the next day with a horrific hangover. Stumbled out and bought some water and went right back to bed. Emerged again past midday and had breakfast with the English guys. There was breakfast beer. It wasn’t bad. The day was wasted hanging out and talking. By the time we felt right again it was dark and we went for a walk around the streets we’d been on last night and we remembered not very much of it at all. A few of the girls knew our names, which was a little much. We chose a few places and had fun flirting with the girls but had a pretty early night. I went out for one last look around, about when things were closing, and a girl picked me up. Took me back to her room, showered me and then didn’t want to sleep with me. I found it impossible to sleep next to her, and she was quite open about being a working girl – she told me that she hadn’t gotten paid that night because her client’s dick was too big for her. That’s honesty. I think she just wanted to wake up next to a nice looking guy (and no bonus points for bigging myself up – there was no hard sell to pay her for it, it was quite odd) and it’s as simple as that. I couldn’t do it and ended up walking home at about 2 am to my own bed.

I took these adventures as a sign that maybe Hua-Hin could be addicting, and character destroying. So I up and left to the next town down the road, Cha-am. That was a mistake. It just wasn’t much fun there. The beach is ok, but the main activity is jet-skis with banana boats tied to the back. It’s a Thai thing. They go flying along, fully clothed (Thais really are quite conservative, the ones who work in ‘entertainment’ industries learn how to act around white guys so they can make it) until they wipe out. It’s great fun to watch but a real hazard if you’re swimming. And that’s all there is – a strip of buildings, foreshore full of food stalls and souvenirs, beach. I walked the length looking for a place to stay that was reasonable, and eventually found it, but by that time I’d seen most of the strip. In the heat. With my packs. So I hung out at night and got going in the morning. No adventures, funny tales, interesting bullshit, nothing. And then it was onto Bangkok.

The bus arrives at the southern bus station and I swerved past all the taxi guys onto a mini-van. Not the real bus but he was cheap and going my way, and the locals paid the same. There was a Swiss guy in there too and he’d been to Khao San before, so he helped me find my way. Khao San Road is another part of backpacker legend, since the hippies set up their first guest houses in Bangkok away from the city centre all those years ago. It has now evolved into a monstrous mess of neon, street stalls, taxi drivers, shysters, massage places, guys selling suits, guest houses, classy hotels, restaurants, everything the traveller of any budget might require. Everyone knows and everyone goes. It has its fair share of scams and dodgy business but for the most part its safe fun. But like all circuses, it gets old fast and is much better when you have someone to laugh at it with.

The Swiss guy took me down the road and onto the next street, the blessedly laid back Soi Rambutri, where there’s no booming music or neon. It’s more like Hat Rin than its neighbour and actually has trees. The guest house was right at the end and featured prison-cell like rooms for cheap. Can’t complain. I had several things to organise so I hit the ground running and went to soak up the atmosphere, weigh it up and judge it for myself. Mostly, I felt lonely. I figured that meeting people would be easy there, but how wrong I was. Backpacking in Thailand is a lonely experience if you came alone, don’t think it’s any other way.

So Khao San Road. The first issue and number one bugbear is not surprising at all. Taxi drivers. All of them need to go and die in a hole. I know they’re just making money, making a living, but the Khao San crew are a tight bunch who fix prices and don’t budge. So they sit around all day waiting for the one or two foreigners they can rip off, instead of making an honest living driving around the city picking up real fares – that they don’t make as much money from. So they sit around all day, leeches that they are, and shout ‘hey where you going’ at every foreigner walking past. Lazy, indecent pieces of shit. I dreaded walking outside because I hate the inevitable hard sell, and I hate having to stone cold ignore all of them. After that, the ‘buy anything’ places were pretty damn annoying. They have signs claiming to buy anything, but give terrible deal and then re-sell at vastly expanded prices. But they don’t shout, so it’s ok. Then there’s the suit guys. They work the hardest, following you down the street with the sales pitch, and if you shake their hands, they don’t let go. I guess they don’t sell many suits – and they get quite a commission. Everything else is just a minor annoyance after that, from the people selling t-shirts and books outright refusing to bargain, to staff being all too willing to short change you or otherwise fuck you over.

The rest, as I say, is a circus. After dark it really comes alive. And on a Saturday it goes crazy. Things get worse, too, as the taxi drivers morph into dealers (who then call their policeman friend down the other end of the street with your description so he can bust you easily) and the working girls emerge. But sitting at the street side bar and watching it all go past is easily a Bangkok highlight, even if the beer is overpriced and the girl got the order slightly wrong. And if you happen to be in the market for fisherman’s pants, novelty t-shirts, souvenirs, dreadlocks, second-hand books, spice-free Thai food, fruit shakes and tailored suits, you are in the right place. If you want peace, quiet and any kind of connection to real Thailand, you are shit out of luck.

So I took myself off on my little two legs that night to go looking for it. Down alleyways and lanes, over bridges and in doorways, should you go looking? You can catch a city with its proverbial pants down, maybe checking its makeup in a side mirror or even adjusting itself in a shop window. You can steal a sideways glance at how the locals see it, you might even catch some colours. That night I saw a little slice of Bangkok and it’s nowhere near as noisy, crowded or chaotic as reputation would have you believe. Sure, next to the rest of the land it is the ugly beating heart, but that’s because it is home to so many people, where the next biggest city doesn’t even come close. It is the biggest city in mainland Southeast Asia, and the only cities it really rolls in the same division with are Jakarta and Manilla. It’s not as dirty as legend would speak of, but again – compared to the rest of the land… This reputation clearly comes from the fact that a lot of travellers land here and get their image of it out of context, then go on to the more sedate corners. Up against a city like Jakarta, Bangkok is almost serene at times. Not to say it’s quiet, but it has corners of no hassles. I walked to the centre of things, Siam Square, and the footpath was jammed with an impromptu market and hard to get through. The only logistical issues are pedestrian related – walking around is a bitch, and local train-based public transport doesn’t go nearly far enough. If only the underground Metro went as far as Chinatown, maybe even up to Baglamphu, then everything that needs to be connected would be and life would be grand.

Bangkok is just too big to be taken in like that. So I went back, overwhelmed, perhaps more than I care to admit, because the next few days I felt like shit and emerged only when necessary. Part let down at the lack of meeting other travellers, part being overwhelmed by the big city, part the heat – I didn’t get too far.

A few more night and day time excursion out on foot, some experiments in using the local busses (when all the destination are in Thai script only it’s kinda hard) and a trip to the biggest market I ever saw later, plus a run-in with a familiar face from Indonesia, and I had to get out of there. I packed my things and made a dash for the southern bus station. I made it, two busses later, and had a ticket to Kanchanaburi.

In the meantime my passport was in the capable hands of a travel agent. I had a copy, so I was all good to leave it there. Kanchanaburi arrived in the window and I ran past the now-obligatory gauntlet of taxi drivers to walk into town. I found the guest house area without issue and set up shop at the Jolly Frog. The plan was for a few days at most, but the story will unfold that I was there a good nine days. I don’t stay anywhere for nine days, so clearly something happened. Long story short, after seeing the war cemetery and couple of museums around town (Kan is the site of the POW cemeteries from the Siam-Burma Death Railway and home to the Bridge on the River Kwai) and getting out to Hellfire Pass and hiking along the old railway bed, I actually met some cool people.

First was Dan and Jenny, followed by Dan, and then Jack and Ben. They all happened to be English and easy going. Later there would also be Tim and Carrie but we’ll get to Carrie later. We took to hanging out in the guest house and drinking, mostly in front of the Seven Eleven and the little pier that the guest house had. It’s as simple as that – I spent a week partying on down, budget style, with some friendly folk, while waiting for my visa to come through.

Dan and Jenny were a couple who had been travelling for a long while and were getting to the end of things. Dan had been there for three weeks already because a local Thai girl had got her claws into him. Ben and Jack were just starting a month in Thailand and were proper English lads. Together it was a good combination, although hangovers like that I can always do without. Later, during a beer run, we would find Carrie barefoot and we took her in. Carrie was a Salt Lake City refugee, running away from being a Mormon by doing as much crazy shit as possible. She was very much the catalyst for a lot of what came after. It all started drinking b the river, and someone suggested swimming. It looked kind of dirty in there, but what the hey, and we jumped in. Soon it was diving off the side and off the rails, and then from the roof when we could get up there. Someone spotted a building overhanging the river down the way – the next day we swam down there and there was a ladder to climb up to it, leading to a nice platform to jump off. Eventually Dan went first and it was deep enough, so it was on for young and old. We went from one dare to another, jumping, diving, backwards, naked… it must have been nearly 20 metres up, and the ladder to get back up was right there.

It turns out it was part of the water tower facility in town, so when attempts to swim up the river back to the Jolly Frog failed, we just walked through the buildings and out onto the road and back in the front. No problems, no security issues. It’s kind of a laid-back place.

Such days were good fun, and the people were awesome fun to hang out with. It turned into kind of a sepia montage toward the end, some four consecutive nights drinking at the dock and into hangovers the next day, and into more idleness in the end. I had to leave because I had a flight to catch – and I escaped the days of Thailand, the nights of loneliness, all of it – the bus back to Bangkok, one more night at the same guest house, collect passport, get bus ticket to airport for the four am run. All this was done, and after negotiating Bangkok International, I was finally the fuck away from it.

Thailand, part one

Sunday, June 1. 2008
Many things, is this place. Many things, and many more that are central to the backpacking mentality that not coming here would be inconceivable, that avoiding it for whatever reason would just be an outrage. I knew what I was getting into, I knew what to expect, I heard all the hype, I saw the movie but didn’t, unfortunately, get around to reading the book. So entrenched, both historically and geographically, in the ‘hippy trail’ is Thailand that skipping it is not even on. I was looking forward to it, and to a degree, I bought into the hype. I’m going to go out on a tangent that even I stutter with, but it’s so apt that you got to hear me on this one. Just work with me, people.

As far afield as there are youth hostels and backpackers, you hear about Thailand. I had conversations about it over pints of beer in Estonia, Scotland and China. I don’t doubt that the same is more than possible the world over, much the same way as a cultural reference in US television becomes known even in places where the products or places are unknown. Everyone knows about New York, or San Francisco, or about Starbucks, or Krispy Kreme. Krispy Kreme is the real headline here.

For years, US sitcoms and movies would mention Krispy Kreme, interviews with bands would mention them, and writings on the internet, webcomics and the like, would drop the name without a second thought that the readers would might not know what it was. It has come close to becoming what Biros are to ball-point pens. In Australia, we certainly knew they were donuts, but as to the flavour and texture? Clueless. I always imagined a crisp, slightly crunchy feeling as the main drawcard, based on the name alone, and I assumed from the references that they were popular and that popular would equal quality. I guess that’s the real point here – popular equals quality. That real hype won’t set you wrong, that a true superstar is impossible to ignore or be repulsed by, that the genuine high quality of the goods on offer will always win the day.

Then Krispy Kreme set up franchises in Melbourne. I assume other cities in Australia felt the wrath of the calorie binge, but this is a focus group. One in Collins Street, down the end with all the gleaming office buildings, close to the corner with Spencer Street. The other underground in the shopping complex under Melbourne Central. This was the busier one, and the one that first took my tastebuds to the promised land. I lined up, bought two donuts, each with enough calories to satisfy a human adult for the better part of two days, and got ready to taste the dream, to feel the hype on my tongue, to get some of what I knew was surely the most popular donut in the world – and therefore the best.

And you know, it was ok. Too sweet for my taste, too unrefined sweet. The glaze is the crispy part, I’m guessing, because it was otherwise a standard affair. How these got to get so damn big, I couldn’t fathom. Maybe my tastes run that contrary to the rest of the demographic? Or I’m just unlucky – whatever the case, Krispy Kreme didn’t set my world on fire and the disappointment was all the more, having heard so much of them in the years before.

See where this is going? Thailand is nice, to be sure, but it’s not the be all and end all of travel. For some people, it may well be. This backpacker will not be counted on that list, but anchors up people, because that doesn’t mean it didn’t bring some cracking stories out. One thing after another, the one thing I can say for certain is that Thailand sure ain’t boring.

“Don’t believe the hype!” is hype. Thailand enthrals me. Thailand entraps me, Thailand pulls me in and showed me what it’s like to be sent through a washing machine on spin cycle. Thailand also disgusts, annoys, distorts, depresses, crushes and infuriates me. Which side will win out? Which part of this sage will capture the headline? Will I discard the Krispy Kreme for the sweet and juicy mango, or turn into fat bloated man chasing after skinny twenty-two year olds from dirt poor families with a fistful of 100-Baht notes? Where will our hero end up? Or has he revealed too much already?

Sungai Kolok is your beat up border town. The only claims to fame it can muster are being the closest thing to Malaysia’s east coast and the odd bomb threat called in on the train station. Down south, way south, past the dirty south where things get genuinely real, the locals are Muslim, and not the kind and pacifistic Muslims they are supposed to be, but the we want independence at any Goddamn cost and anyone who stands in our way we see not moral issue with blowing them away type. The kind that gives the rest of them a bad name, the kind that makes the Thai government look like total jackholes when the troops get rolled out against them and everyone loses. But that’s another story, and all it does here is explain why the station was positively crawling with dudes carrying very, very big guns. Big fuck-off guns, and huge smiles. What on earth was going on here? One such weapon-toting Guy Smiley helped me buy a ticket for the next train, after I espoused the local taxi mafia and walked there, and I had myself two hours or so to kill. I sat and waited, and I can’t say if this is totally accurate but maybe a quarter of the folk waiting around had guns. I’d heard that the area had a separatist problem, but was this really necessary?

On the train, every single bag was inquired about, so security (all smiling like maniacs) could see if there was an abandoned and potentially explosive bag in the mix. There were not, and we all went on our happy little way to the north. Later, I would read that travel in the area is advised against by pretty much everyone and that the Sungai Kolok station is especially dangerous and has been attacked before. The last I heard was that the locals don’t target civilians or tourists – I guess they updated their rules, and I failed to get the newsletter. Either way, I got out alive, and all the guns were not just for show, there was a decent chance something might have gone down. Fuck me dead.

Getting off in Hat Yai I was confronted with a city of monumental ugliness. Someone said this place was nice, what the hell was going on here? It’s more of a border town than anything, the crossroads where lines south to Malaysia and north into Thailand all meet, and I got there maybe in time to get a bus elsewhere but since it had been a long enough day anyway, I stayed on plan and found a room. Exceptional value at 160 Baht, but worth every cent I didn’t spend, I found the grungiest room in town. No sweat, I can deal, and there was a fan and a power point. The mattress could have been softer, but I was to learn that in the sub-200 Baht category, this was very, very normal. Thailand will cost you more than the southern neighbours, and the lower end is lower again, so cheaping it out leaves you with a case of envy (if you’re a lesser soul than I) and in anywhere worth being (as in, anywhere but Hat Yai) the lowest you can get away with paying is 300. That’s 10 Aussie dollars, just about, and at the current rate, it’s ten American too. Which is a lot of cashola to be doling out on a bargain basement room – and damn, this is just the beginning.

So Hat Yai was a concrete jungle, and I was feeling queasy. Something had upset the equilibrium of my digestives, so I took it easy and opted out of going for local food, finding something more familiar. Sometimes, you just need a hamburger. It was also raining heavily, so there was little choice in the matter, as stalking through the night market was going to be wet. And it transpires that our hero stumbled upon a too-true fact about Thailand in his decision to stay away from local grub – but we won’t be premature about this just yet.

In the morning I left the cheap hotel and tried to wrangle my way to the bus station. This was an altogether too difficult task, it seems, because around the venerable train station is a small city of travel agencies and transport privateers, all wanting to take you not to the bus station but to their friend’s travel agency. The tourism industry in Thailand is so well oiled, entrenched, maintained and unopposed that real backpacking, in the independent travel sense, becomes almost hard, almost impossible in places. Overrun as it is by visitors and with the twin sucker punch of most visitors (myself included) being illiterate in Thai and with public transportation often far removed from centres of society and commerce, it’s all too easy to bail out and just go with the friendly, smiling (I mean, what’s with all the fucking smiling?) and overcharging travel agency man. This is not what I am about, and avoiding it as long as possible is my mission. So I left the jerks at the train station, walked in the general direction of the bus station and on the way caught a taxi who offered to take me the rest of the way for a decent fare. On the way he happened to take me to his friend’s travel agency. Looking back, I should have known. They offered to take me where I wanted to go for double the price I’d been quoted at the train station, and put me up in a resort that was going to cost a week’s budget every night. I said a polite no and skipped out of there, making the taxi guy take me to the bus station.

He was not so friendly after that, having missed out on what he thought would be a very juicy commission sponsored by me (ha!) and I could hear his ragged, shallow breathing as he took me where I actually wanted to go. He didn’t even say thank you when I paid him. The bus station was surrounded by travel agencies, and the chorus of “hey you where you going… Hey you, where you go…!?!?!” rang out as I was spotted and marked. I got in, saw the counter and bought a ticket to Trang. It cost me eighty baht, and eventually, I relented and took a private mini-bus from there to Ko Lanta, but only because this was my only option. Instead of paying about 500 straight from Hat Yai, I got there for about 300, plus that taxi guy, but with a whole lot of extra crap caused not by any difficulty or situation I had to get through but by the army of private transport goons who put themselves in my way. All through Thailand you get harassed, annoyed and harangued by these guys. Walk anywhere with a backpack and they all assume they have hit the jackpot and either shout the eternal cry of the private transport industry bastard (“hey you where you go?”) which tails off into a whine if you ignore them, and get repeated with a slight trace of anger if you keep walking, like you didn’t run right in and throw your wallet at the guy simply because you didn’t hear him the first time. Is this genuine, this petulance? Or put on in the hopes you might feel sorry and go anyway? Or something about the Thai people I am yet to discern? I hold my judgements, because I know how these things can get taken out of context and mixed up – but I know which way my bets are hedged.

So yeah, I missed something there. The ordinary public bus got me from Hat Yai to Trang, and Trang is a town I half thought I might spend the night, but on a rival it looked like a younger brother of Hat Yai’s concrete and crap veneer, so I resolved to get to Ko Lanta. A look around revealed the public bus station was a long way away and a quick canvassing of local business people told me that if I was to get local transport that way, there would be two busses and two ferries and I would be a long way from the beach. I believed them, and I actually think they might be right, but we will never know. In the couple of hours I had to hang around in Trang, waiting for the next mini-bus to go, I sat at a café next to the train station and had myself a mango shake. One of the waitresses took a keen interest in me, but being too shy to talk to me, I found myself in a surreal high-school-romance drama. I got little notes passed to me by her friends. Eventually I had to leave, having not actually spoken to her, but I wrote down the old e-mail address and left her to it. I didn’t actually see her too well, but she might have been cute. Her little notes were, and I kept them all.

Ko Lanta was disappointing. The mini-bus, packed like a sardine can full of white people, with me right in the back getting leg cramps (I was paying extra for this?) took two ferries to get to the beach and where we got out was camped a couple of taxi drivers. Bidding for the car started at a thousand baht. I heard this, went ‘fuck that’ and started walking. I earned the honks of every taxi on the road, maybe they thought I just couldn’t hear anything but their honking, and so then they all slowed down and yelled at me. I was willing to part with about 30 baht, mostly because I didn’t know the way, and eventually I got a ride for that much. The driver took me into a side street and there seemed to be a lot of accommodation options along the way. He tried to get me into his place, for the princely sum of 600 a night, with the lie that it was high season (half true) and that everywhere else would be full (totally untrue). I told him no thanks and walked off. He didn’t try to follow.

About ten minutes of walking past some very expensive looking options (and worryingly full) and I spotted a guy who asked me if I wanted a room. He pointed me across the street where I was shown a bungalow on stilts with a big double bed and told I could sleep there for 300. I said fine, as it was the cheapest I’d seen all day. You might be able to find that mystical cheaper option somewhere, but like I intimated, it was sort of high season (Lanta isn’t that popular yet to really heave at any given time of the year) due to the winter holidays gripping Europe and the hundred-baht-hero is never going to win easily. At least not without spending a fortune on taxis to look around, or all day with his luggage. The hero concedes, and promises himself to eat cheaply. No sweat, captain.

Three hundred baht is, like I said, ten Aussie, and in Malaysia you could get by on that for a whole day, maybe just a little more, if you didn’t drink. In Thailand, or in the south at least, it sounded like that would all go to the room and anything on top would be piled into the budget, potentially causing a crisis down the line. Food is cheap enough, but not as cheap as elsewhere, same goes for transport, even when the real public deal is tracked down. At least beer is cheaper, and cheaper still when you don’t pay – like we will find out soon enough.

The bungalow was nice, if the place overall was a little shabby, but hey, we who don’t want to pay for comfort don’t get it. The room was nice but the mosquitoes were angry and seemingly not held at bay by the mozzie net. Nearby was a cheap Thai food option and reasonably priced motorbike rentals. The beach, called Long Beach, was indeed long, but lined with restaurants and massage places. That’s legitimate massage too, for the connoisseurs out there, so don’t get too excited. It looked a little grubby too, but it was the main beach and there were others about. The first night I was there I wandered down to check the night life and was underwhelmed, because it was supposed to be pretty busy, but I found little evidence of this. Still, I sat and had a drink, hadn’t done that in Thailand yet, and eventually got talking to two Germans. Their English wasn’t so good but we got by, and they told me the island was mainly the choice for older people, not the party-all-night crowd. Great. Hopefully I’d salvage something from this, having already been unimpressed by the weather, the scene, the cleanliness, the crowd and the overall vibe – and I saw what might be the answer come over and sit down on a sitting platform on the beach.

The question really is, where are the Thais in all this? They’re there, trying to rip off or serve the tourists, who are the lifeblood of the local economy. Most visitors who come are short term and care so little about the people and culture side of travel that they stomp all over it like an unwanted slice of watermelon. They want their two weeks in the sun, they want to escape from freezing winters and snowy nights, they want their little slice of paradise – or something darker, all too often – so the kind of vibe I like to travel on is almost always totally missing from the picture. The Thais are reduced to bus drivers, waitresses, hotel workers, cleaners, cooks, masseurs, tour guides, shop attendants – the underclass, you might say. They work hard, oh so very hard, and see hordes of white, rich tourists come to see their beautiful piece of the world and turn red on the sand for a while, pick up and leave. On the Andaman Coast it would be possible to go from beach resort to beach resort via boat and never see anything that wasn’t a fancy hotel or nicely groomed section of sand for weeks. It’s no wonder they work so hard to get every last drop out of these visitors as possible. But that also leaves almost no room for anything else, and the youth scene, I am sad to report, is in a bad way of its own.

So the locals, what of them? I walked over and started my half-drunk rap on the two girls I saw come over. They were, honestly, the only things worth talking to on the beach, and this one bar I was at seemed to be the only place doing anything worth talking about. So we talked, and their English was just up to the task, and a few more drinks later I went for a swim with one of them. That was fun. I left my shorts on the beach and when I came back a crab had taken up residency in them. My t-shirt was very wet, but she was too. It was time to get to bed at that point but she told me to be there the next afternoon at one, and I went to bed. Things had gotten a little crazy, and pointed the way to further fun. Maybe even that double bed wouldn’t be wasted all on me.

The next day I showed up on the beach at one, but no sign of the girl. Fair enough, seemed about the flavour of the story. So I rented a motorbike and took myself around the island. Getting away from the main commercial strip on the north side of the island you get to a series of nicer beaches and on the far side you get to some amazing scenery, as the road runs next to some cliffs that drop into a turquoise jewel coloured sea and off the way sit numerous perfect looking islands. Did I nearly drive right off the road because a curve came along and I was staring at the view? Maybe. Yes. Hell yeah, it’s really amazing, and this is where I first realised why people come from all over the world to see this part of Thailand. It looks better than the photos and postcards and movies, because it’s there in full 3D panoramic reality, genuine surround sound and smell-o-vision optional extras if you have the senses required still intact. Best yet, down the back road of the island, I had it all to myself, more or less. Sure, another vehicle came the other way occasionally and there were cafes and guest houses dotted along the way, but compared to the overcrowded parts I’d seen of Thailand already, this weren’t bad at all.

I stopped at a place called the Panorama café, because the view was surely worth the overpriced food they were going to serve up. And I was right. I’m always right. The food was expensive by Thai standards but the view was magnificent. The sky was partly heavy with tropical clouds, bruised and blue and all grey, and the southern sky was clear blue. The ocean below reflects the sky above from a prism is perfect blue tones and it swells and flows. A handful of islands are visible from the deck perched on the cliff where I was sitting, most of them uninhabited but very visitable (by overpriced longtail boat charter) and one even had a fully fledged resort on it (on the side you couldn’t see from the main island, wow). I was more than happy with the view I had gotten myself and if the huge clouds hadn’t spurred me onward to finish the day’s riding I might have stayed even longer. The people running the show were over-the-top friendly and all smiled like it was going out of fashion. Again, why all the smiles? I didn’t dwell on this as I followed the road to the fishing village at the end of the line, a place where life seems to go on like it always has, oblivious to the touristic orgy going on elsewhere on their island. Doubtless, slightly more intrepid souls like mine where the only white people to get that far, because there wasn’t a sandy beach no-one was interested. Simple houses with simple people, most of who waved and smiled. This point of the island would have been washed away by the tsunami, I thought, as I climbed over the rocks at the point and went as far as I could before going back. I thought about how far I’d come since Meulaboh and how such a disaster could be felt so far apart. It’s a sobering thought, so I stayed with the beauty of the place a while and drove back to the bungalow. I got caught in the rain, but no-one’s counting.

Back at the beach that evening, I ran into the same two girls as the night before. Things were going swimmingly, I was buying drinks for me and them, and I just about had my hands down her underwear when we all got distracted by some fire twirling. Oh, ah, very nice. But when I got back to the girl, she was off in a dark corner with some other dude. Confused, balls busted, drunk – pissed off, annoyed and downright messed up. Did I read the signs all wrong? Or was this a strange place? I took a walk down to the water, and her friend followed me. Oh well, she said, there’s other girls out there. Are you coming back? I imagine her concern was for the bill, not for me, as cynicism was at an all-time high. I said yeah, in a minute. I need a little bit of a walk here. Ok, she said, and left. I took my chance to wander up the beach a ways, then double back in the dark and scarper to the bungalow where I showered and slept. First thing in the morning I paid up and took the first mini-bus that had room for me and I was so far out of there, several thousand baht in unpaid bar tab and one emasculating bitch later. I can never go back.

The next stop was Krabi. Krabi Town, to be exact, since Krabi is a province, and most of the action there is beach-related and nowhere near Krabi Town. But high demand and little beach front property means expensive digs, so Krabi Town and a rented motorbike are you best friends. The mini-bus dropped me at a travel agent type’s place across from the dock, no doubt there was a commission thing happening here, but the room was only 150 and the bike 200, so the numbers were good. The guy running the place was nice and friendly, but this was only for show, as I later found out. Not wanting to dwell on the rest of the day’s events, because it wasn’t the best day I’ve even had on the road, I’ll fast forward.

The beach at Ao Nang is nice, long and clean, but cluttered with fat Europeans getting their two weeks in the sun. The locals? Serving drinks and food to them. Resort town, I thought to myself, and wished I had something more to do. I eventually went for a quiet drink and had to fight off the advances of the most desperate bar girl hooker in town. I won’t say it wasn’t fun, but it got really old and old fast. Annoyed with that scene, I got some food and looked elsewhere. Pause, now, for a minute, to learn something.

A go-go bar is a regular looking bar, perhaps with more neon than is really needed, and with the addition of slightly more expensive drinks, a stripper pole and way too many female staff. It’s illegal to show naked boobies in Thailand, so any dancing that the pole sees is simply suggestive, but not much is left to the imagination. The deal usually is, you go in, buy a drink, talk to the girls, play pool, Connect Four (every bar in Thailand has a set, how this came about I am mystified) and various other bar game, watch the inevitable Premier League game on TV and have some fun. The girls speak enough English to get by, but the conversation is pretty limited. Should one of them catch your eye, you buy her a drink, at about double the going rate, and half goes to her in commission form. This is the introduction, the prelude, to paying for sex. After such an occurrence, you can pay a ‘bar fine’ of a few hundred baht and take the girl home. Or to her place. After that, how much you pay her is negotiated. I’ve heard anything between two thousand and two hundred in possible, but here’s the most important thing – I never actually did any of this, I learned about it the hard way, and from people telling me, and every single girl you see in these places is for sale. All of them. I knew none of this before finding the next place.

And we uncaused to see our hero in a laneway full of bright neon and pretty girls all calling to him. It’s widely known that he is attracted to bright and shiny objects, and it’s also pretty well known it’s been a while since he got any. This is a bad combination, when his ignorance of the whole scene is taken into account. He’s what you might call a ‘greehorn’, and very nearly gets taken – only his tightarsedness gets in the way.

He chooses a bar and goes in, gets a drink and plays pool with an unexceptional looking girl. He feels tired, sits down and immediately sees an amazingly pretty girl. Just unbelievable. They talk, her English is not so good, but they talk and he gets another beer. Eventually the owner, always the oldest and most wily of the ladies, tells him he could take her home and it will only cost 2200 baht. He makes a repulsed face at this, knowing how much food that could buy. He regrets both his small budget and moral compass (which told him to leave a long time ago) and quickly leaves. Truth be told, he was only a beer and a half away from saying ok to this – which makes it all a very dangerous combination. Neon, beer and working girls. It had been a lesson, and on the way back to Krabi Town the bike gets a flat. What a night.

In the morning, extortion. The once-friendly guy makes up some story about the bike needing major repairs, maybe, and I should pay for it anyway. What? How does he know? We should take it to a shop. The argument rages, and the fact that nothing was signed and no liabilities talked about makes it a very harsh scene. I knew that this kind of scam took place, and that the almost too cheap prices hinted at a sinister underlining. I argued and argued, the dude eventually falling into the realm of incomprehensibility and walking off. I take the bike to see if it needs serious repairs and its doesn’t. Just a new tube. Fine, that won’t be too much – but the guy asks for five hundred and I gag at this. He actually stuck his middle finger up at me, can you believe it? So friendly the day before, now trying to stick me for all it’s worth, and he’s left without a leg to stand on. Unlucky for me, some other tourists were there and they took his side, telling me to just pay and walk away. So I did it, and left without saying a word. What a motherfucker. Two lessons in 24 hours, Thailand was turning into quite a tough place to get by at times. Maybe you do need to know the rules.