#20 Gibbons and Gurners

Sent: Tuesday, December 11, 2001 9:45 AM

Arriving in Bangkok is like a trip to the pictures.We climb into the taxi at Don Muang airport with the dust of Kathmandu on our clothes and it's narrow streets shaping our expectations..

The Toyota taxi is some 29 years younger than its' Nepalese great-grandfather and the ride is far smoother as we pull out of the airport into the orange glow of the Bangkok evening..

Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of Bladerunner, suspended in mid-air on the Bangkok Expressway, cruising along amongst garish, multi-coloured, everchanging neon hoardings.Every building is a billboard either for its' occupants or the latest in cars or electronics and our eyes recoil at the lurid assault..

The Expressway is as quiet as most urban toll roads outside of rush-hour and it is only when we pull off it that I am reminded of the preferred Thai driving style, accelerate hard, brake late and keep to your lane, the last a very novel experience for us after the last 3 months..

We get out of the taxi at the Eastern end of Thanon Khao San, a longstanding travellers enclave.We need to walk the entire length of the broad, more or less pedestrianised road to get to our guest-house.It is Friday night, although the neon leaves no space for darkness, and Thanon Khao San is packed to capacity.There is hardly a Thai in sight except for those trying to sell you something.Two pissed-up white English lads are serenading anyone unlucky enough to cross their weaving paths with bellowed ragga tunes.Another, more beatific, English boy thinks that the middle of the street, which is a bit like Waterloo Station in rush-hour, is a good place to sit down to try and meditate..

Overall the atmosphere reflects the lowest common denominators you would expect to find in large crowds of Westerners abroad, lots of drinkers, their associated lairiness, a quiet contempt for the locals and a startling insularity.The whole place is deeply depressing..

We cram ourselves into an over-priced broom cupboard and immediately convene a meeting of the escape committee which approves a plan to escape 48 hours later on a sleeper train..

The next morning after a night spent wondering what time the music would finish (2.30am) and then what time people would stop shouting (not at all), we catch a bus to Wat Po for a massage..

Wat Po is a large temple complex famous for its' reclining Buddah, an immense gold-coloured statue 46 metres long whose impact is unfortunately severely reduced at present by renovation works to the building in which it resides. It's hard to be impressed while enmeshed in a spider's web of scaffolding..

The massages are really good.I have 45 minutes of Reflexology while Sausage has an hour of Thai Massage, both of which have flight paths directly along the border between pleasure and pain with frequent incursions into the no-mans-land on the pain side of the border..

We emerge refreshed and go shopping. Central Bangkok is dominated by a number of very large shopping malls each of which aims to offer the complete retail/food/entertainment experience within its' walls.They also vie for attention by the special events they promote.Toady we come across two such events.We walk into one mall to be confronted with the Denon Digital DJ competition where very serious, very nervous looking young DJ's play short sets to watching shoppers and bored looking judges, riveting it ain't..

Round the corner at the Tokyo mall it's a very different ball game.A large open-air stage has been set up with a meaty PA system, lights and a seating area which is already full together with a large standing crowd, all waiting patiently for the action to begin..

The stage is decked out in pink and carries the legend: "Eversense." Amongst the crowd we notice little clusters of bright colours, a flash of white satin here, a shimmer of pink there, and we start to notice that these groups of people have stickers with numbers on them..

Eversense are running a competition to find a teenage dance troupe to promote their new product.There are nearly 100 dance troupes, all kids from 12 to 18, all in their homemade outfits, all nervously practising their homespun choreography.There are some of the prettiest, campest boys you have ever seen flouncing around in pink chiffon with their make-up cases..

A succession of troupes take the stage, each using their own music, each striving more or less successfully for coordinated movement and all including a hugely telegraphed spray of the product in their routines.It is without doubt the sweetest, most energetic, funniest, campest thing I've ever seen. Sausage and I watch open-mouthed, turn toward each other and say as one "Nickeli Nickeli Nickeli Dyeeeeeeeeeeee!".

Big Nick is called Big Nick to differentiate him from Little Nick and Bedford Nick, obviously, but also because at 6'6" he fully deserves it.But inside his large frame, just below the supercool Financial Director external appearances beat the rhythms ofBananarama and Hazel Dean.In the same way that Tom Baker will always hear "Dr Who!" shouted at him as he walks down the road so it is for Nick who often finds men staring at him quizzically and then saying " You're the Bananarama man from the White Swan!!".

Watching the cavalcade of youthful exuberance in Bangkok it is clear that Nick is living in the wrong city, Bangkok needs to see his dance moves and would go wild for his self-made costumes.I only hope I live to see the day..

We take all this in during the early afternoon, and return to the same part of town later that evening to go to the pictures and they're still hammering away at it.By now the presenters and judges have the haunted look of QVC presenters, their saccharine smiles looking more like twisted grimaces, but for troupe no. 89 this is their one BIG CHANCE and they go for it with maximum energy, limited grace and the obligatory 'Pshiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiish' of Eversense.Still no-one is close to Nickeli Dye in their grace, commitment or sheer enjoyment of the spotlight.For a moment he's with us, which is a lovely feeling..

The sleeper train from Bangkok to Surat Thani is a very pleasant surprise being spotlessly clean, spacious and smooth.The only downside is that for some reason they leave the carriage lights on all night, so next time we'll make sure the eyemasks are to hand..

At Surat Thani I get a real bee in my bonnet about a tout who seems to think that his fare of 150 baht to Khao Sok is reasonable despite the fact that the actual fare for the journey is less than 50 baht and all he does to 'earn' his commission is to walk us 200 metres to the local bus stop and leave us there. I end up telling him to sod off and we pay 55 baht each for the journey, still over the odds , but we couldn't get tot the bottom of the actual fare.I don't mind someone adding their profit to a deal, as long as they don't try to take the mickey or treat me like I'm stupid.This guy tried to both and stomped off indignantly when he realised that his 200 metre walk wasn't going to earn him over 200 baht..

Khao Sok is one of Thailand's 89 National parks and is a land-locked island of jungle in the middle of peninsular Thailand.The landscape through which we pass on our way to the Park fulfills the stereotype image that I have of the whole of South-East Asia where vertical limestone karsts climb out of the flat landscape a bit like dark green sharks fins swimming in a rice-paddy sea..

Khao Sok Jungle Huts prove to be an amiable place to pass a couple of days hosted by the high-energy trio of Monkey-Woman, Chicken-Woman and Spider-Woman (unfortunately no costumes are worn)..

The environment within the National Park fits much more closely my expectations of the word 'jungle' than did the New-Forest-like Chitwan National Park in Nepal being dark green, humid and overflowing with vines, roots, butterflies and the bizarrely high-pitched and protracted hoots of gibbons.We walk out along a jungle trail and picnic sitting alongside a waterfall.On the way back we pass a large group, one member of which has fallen.We see the guy only from his right hand side and move on having been assured by the 2 doctors and others present that there is nothing we can do to help.It is only later that we learn that had we seen the guy from his left hand side we would have seen that he had an open fracture of his left ankle with the bone protruding through the skin.He wasn't the lightest of men and it took four hours to carry him to the nearest road..

The peace and quiet of Khao Sok is a welcome antidote to Bangkok but after a couple of days we make plans to hop on another couple of buses and a ferry to make our way to Kho Pha Ngan an island which nestles in the Gulf of Thailand an hour by boat North of Ko Samui and 2 hours by car ferry from the peninsular port of Don Sak..

But before we can leave it is, once again, time for me to hurt myself, though the methods are getting more complex.We zip up the rucksacks and there is a big lump protruding from the top corner of my sack.I shove the lump hard to try and get it back into a more normal position and jump back in pain. The lump is our first aid kit and I have managed to force a scalpel through its' plastic case, through the double thickness First Aid Kit bag, through the tough outer skin of my rucksack and deep into the fleshy part at the base of my right thumb from where a neat incision is now oozing blood and waiting for the arrival of yet more hemaglobin.I am more of a danger to myself than the average two-year-old..

For a number of years Kho Pha Ngan has had a reputation as a place to dance on the beach to very loud music every Full Moon.To many people that may sound like a trip to hell in a handcart but we've been known to enjoy wriggling our behinds rhythmically (how do you think we met Nickeli Dye?!) and so we have come to see whether the place lives up to its' hype..

The island is small, roughly circular, with a diameter of 12km.The party is on Hat Rin, the Eastern of two beaches on a thin isthmus jutting out into the sea in the extreme South-East of the island.The landscape is rugged, steep tree-covered slopes rising out of the bleached turquoise sea.But we don't see that on the way to Hat Rin from the ferry port at Thong Sala because from the back of a songthaew, a half-taxi, half-bus operation which is actually a covered pickup truck with two rows of seats in the back, you can see exactly nothing, a lack of visibility which will cost us 500 baht in 2 days time..

We splash out on a Suncliff Bungalow on the quieter side of the isthmus and revel in our comfy mattress, fridge, verandah and hammock.Although the 500 Baht (7.70pounds) a night we are paying is relatively expensive, it starts to look good value when we look at what you can get for less elsewhere..

Kho Pan Ngan has accommodated it's developments well until now.For somewhere so famous it isn't too bad.It's easy to find people with 'back in the day' stories of more makeshift fun but I'm pleasantly surprised at how the bungalows disappear under the trees and majority of the bars and restaurants are far more laid-back than they are full-on..

It's odd how an idea sometimes grips a place.In Chitwan, Nepal every restaurant plied its' customers with free popcorn, no-one daring to be left out.Here the lure is the very latest films on pirate DVD's shown on TV home cinema systems in almost every restaurant, each of which has four or five films a day running from lunchtime 'til closing.Sausage has already sat through Harry Potter and is threatening me with Monsters Inc in the next day or two. It can be hard to concentrate on one film with two more going on on either side and another directly opposite, but if you choose your restaurant carefully then most of the dialogue is audible..

On our third day we hire a moped and set off to see the rest of the island. This is where our songthaew ride proves to have been unhelpful.Hat Rin was protected from development for years by its' inaccessability and the road in has only recently been paved.But what a road!We set out two of us on a 80CC Honda and take a collective deep breath as we start to go up and down some of the steepest hills I've ever attempted on any kind of transport..

At the top of the descents it feels like a roller coaster and it is the biggest climb that proves to be our downfall.We set off and get about halfway up when the front wheel starts lifting.I'm too slow to close the throttle so the back wheel continues climbing the hill while the front rises vertically past my nose.The bike is so small that Sausage and I simply put our feet down and the bike glides between our legs.When it reaches vertical gravity persuades the bike to come down and it then describes a lazy downhill circle, with me still clinging on with one hand, before collapsing in a revving heap on the steeply sloping road.The good news is that there is no other traffic anywhere near, and Sausage and I are completely unhurt, the less good news is a broken light, bent footrest, broken brake lever and mangled basket on the front. Fortunately it is still rideable and we limp back to Hat Rin to shown the man what we've done to his bike.The man is in fact a boy and he is more nervous then we are.The back of the rental form contains a shopping list of damaged items, but he only notices the basket and the brake lever and charges us 500 Baht instead of the 3000 B he should have charged usfor the damage he missed.I had put our correct address on the hire form (what was I thinking of?) and we go back to our room fully expecting a knock on the door demanding more money.When the knock doesn't come we give the hire place a wide berth for two days, not easy when it's at the end of the road leading to our bungalow,but eventually we walk past looking completely in the opposite direction without getting shouted at and normal service is resumed..

All of which puts us off motorbikes for at least 48 hours when cabin fever propels me to a different bike hire place where I hire a 225 trail bike, now that should go up the hills no problem..

We must look a funny sight, going up these really steep hills with me bent double over the petrol tank and Sausage climbing up my back and putting a boob in each of my ears so keen are we to make sure that the front wheel stays firmly on the road, which it does, thankfully..

So we pass though the port of Thong Sala and set out up the West Coast. Not long after leaving the port behind the tarmac runs out to be replaced with rock hard clay, covered in a thick coating of dust and deeply rutted by the monsoons.Progress at first is good but then we start sliding slowly sideways off the top of the ridge.I gently ease the brakes on and manage to keep the bike upright by putting my left leg down.Unfortunately the bike's boiling hot crankcase ends up against my leg and by the time I get the bike upright a bright pink burn is staring up at me..

Fortunately we round a corner two minutes later and there is Kho Phan Ngan hospital where a very nice nurse cleans me up and sends us on our way. Equally fortunately there are very few nerve endings in your calf so the whole thing looks a lot worse than it feels.I can imagine Helly-Belly and Alex reading this with a smile as yet again I find out how dangerous I am outside the first world.At the moment I view a week without blood-letting as some kind of triumph, let's hope I can achieve one sometime soon..

The West coast is very pretty and we visit a succession of gently curving white sandy beaches some of which offer good snorkeling to people who don't have burns on their legs.Oh well, another time..

As we drive around it is impossible not to be struck by the Thai's ability to build a seaside bungalow or bamboo hut ANYWHERE they damn well like.Near vertical hillside?We'll just use longer stilts.No access other than by sea?We'll build a 400 metre long wooden walkway on stilts just to get to the site. Ete etcThey are absolutely indefatigable..

I hadn't expected to find on Kho Phan Ngan an island that I could happily come back to without the attraction of a Full Moon Party.But I have and I would..

Our bungalow is perched on a hillside amidst lots of trees and the view from the verandah, framed in green, is of Hat Rin Nak pier at which boats from Ko Samui arrive four times a day.With each passing day the boats arrive more laden and by two days before the Full Moon Party people are wandering around with slightly haunted expressions that say 'will we ever find a room?' We're glad we heeded the advice to get here early..

The Full Moon Party itself proves to be disappointing, crap music, very drunken crowds, and none of our mates turn up citing pathetic excuses to do with time zones and air fares or some such rubbish and the aftermath marks the return to my nose of a cold which passed through on its' way to my sinuses four weeks ago and has now decided to undertake the reverse journey..

We spend our last couple of days on Leela beach , 10 minutes walk around the headland from our bungalow and as quiet and idyllic a beach as it is possible to imagine so close to a resort like Hat Rin..

I came to Kho Phan Ngan expecting to find a great party on a less than wonderful island and I found the exact opposite.And if I came again I'd make sure it was the week after the Full Moon Party when accommodation is as cheap as chips..

Our next stop is Chaing Mai in the North of Thailand and I'm writing this on the penultimate leg of another marathon journey, 31 hours of taxi, ferry, bus, sleeper train and day train. Yesterday was a day of ever increasing stress as the safety margins in our itinerary kept evaporating with successive delays. We eventually arrive at Surat Thani station at 5.36pm for our 5.37pm train with our eyes bulging and heart rates soaring only to find that the previous two hours of near apoplexy has got us to the station just in time to catch an announcement that our train is running a whopping 2 hours late.The worst kind of stress is wasted stress..

Time is a little tight for us in South East Asia as it is everywhere in what feels like a quick jaunt round a huge planet.We passed 4 days in Chaing Mai on our honey moon in March 2000 but saw nothing of the place because we never left the sumptuous confines of the Regent Resort where we were pampered to within a inch our lives..

This time around we will stay for 3 days and have decided not to undertake one of the '000's of Hill Tribe Treks for which Northern Thailand has become renowned.Our reasoning is the same when we declined the Village Safari in Jodhpur. While there is a case for looking at the treks as viable eco-tourism and a good way of bringing revenue to the tribes while preserving their way of life that very word 'preservation' makes me think of living museums and their pastiches of the olden days and I feel happier simply to steer clear..

Chaing Mai possesses the friendliest people we have met in Thailand.The people at Nice Apartments could not be nicer and everywhere we go we are met with a laidback friendliness that very kindly insists that you chill out and smile back..

The town itself is nothing to write home about, it's wide streets and modern buildings offering little of interest.On our second day we rent a motorbike and ride out 35km to the San Kamphaeng Hot Springs which prove to be great fun.In the Public Springs (20 baht, 30 pence) we stroll around gardens landscaped in the style of a park in an English town circa 1935 and watch the geysers blowing, the hot springs bubbling and the Thais boiling eggs in the springs.A short hop on the bike takes us to the Roong Aroon Hot Springs Resort where the landscaping has moved on about 30 years and we stump up for a sulphorous Jacuzzi and a massage each.Sausage is given a very fetching nylon swimsuit to wear whose frills annotate beautifully the brown material with white, burgundy, orange and yellow spots.Tragically the Jacuzzis are segregated and I never glimpse Sausage in her Victorian bathing belle outfit..

Our massages are carried out on adjoining tables and are strange, swoopy, swirly, non-stop-movement affairs that seem like they are not getting into our muscles but leave us both feeling like we are walking on air..

In the late afternoon of the same day we ride out 10km North West of the city up a long snaking climb to reach Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which our guidebook tells us is probably the most harmonious piece of temple architecture in Thailand..

The view from the terrace of the temple looking out over Chaing Mai is fantastic and the temple is beautiful.A cloistered courtyard with 2 small viharns (chapels) on opposite sides surrounding the chedi a dazzling gold covered central spire climbing to 30 metres from a multi-layered plinth. The viharns are ornately decorated in gold, red and green with steeply pitched roofs running from front to back.All the buildings, everything, is in immaculate condition and looks like a just completed showhouse.It is the lack of any sense of antiquity that detracts from my enjoyment.It almost feels like I might be stood in a very exotic shopping mall so shiny are all the surfaces..

The next morning we climb aboard a mini-bus and five hours later find ourselves stood on the banks of the Mekong waiting for the ferry across to Laos..

Thailand Part 1 has been a reintroduction to a more mechanized, Westernized way of life, characteristics that we seem less likely to encounter on the far side of the broad, brown, fast flowing river where the Lao People's Democratic Republic sits waiting for us in the pale afternoon sunshine.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages