Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 22: The Free-flyin' Troubadour

I awoke to a text message from my home boy, Sav, telling me that Arsenal had beaten Reading away from home in the Capital One Cup, 5-7 after extra time, and that we were 4-0 down at one point. Part of me was glad that we won, but shipping five goals to Reading hardly screams out ‘Title Contenders’ to me, so I was a little bit annoyed at the same time. We grabbed a couple croissants from the restaurant and got into an awaiting mini-van, which had four Canadian twenty something guys already seated at the back. We said good morning, then started our adventure of the day with a one hour drive up a mountain, and into a rainforest where we’d be spending the day zip-lining. The company we’d chosen was called Jungle Flight and our guide introduced himself by saying “Hello, I’m Singha, I’m crazy” and that was it, we were strapped into our harnesses and taken off to our first zip line. The forest was full of enormous trees that were one hundred feet high and centuries old, which they had somehow managed to rig with thick wires and platforms to stand on in-between each potential death spot. We had clips on both our chest and back, which would be used individually and one hanging from our hip which would always be attached to a safety wire of some sort so there was minimal chance of taking a plunge. I was surprised at how safe and well put together it all seemed to be, until I saw how Singha was pushing people off of the platform, then I had my doubts about survival. Nevertheless, I’d bought the ticket, now I had to take the ride. My front clip was attached, as was my hip clip to the second line, just in case, and I took a leap of faith off of the platform, dropping a few feet then whizzing across to the next platform. Now things could only get easier, I thought, unfortunately that wasn’t the case, as after a couple more zips from tree to tree it started raining. Hard.
The rainforest was living up to its name as buckets full of cold water lashed down upon us, soaking the platforms and making the terrain infinitely more treacherous. Then we came to a platform with no line, and before I could ask, Singha pushed a small Chinese girl off the side, then stepped on a rope which was whizzing by just in time to stop her from splattering onto the platform below. He did the rest of their group the same way, then it was just Sarah, the Canadians and I left, and Sarah was first in line. She stepped up gallantly, and he attached the clip to her back instead of the front like everyone else, she begged him not to but with a shove and a scream she shot down safely. Usually if a guy was to push your lover thirty feet down from a tree you’d swing at him without hesitation, but instead I just laughed. My laugh, however was short lived as I was next in line, and beg as I might, I too had nothing to hold onto as I was clipped to my back and dropped like ecstasy at an acid house rave. It was terrifying, so much worse than the zip-lines where you got to fly, this was just straight falling with only a thin, white rope and a tattered, white plimsoll to stop your body being pulverized below. Still, the crazy bastard had his shit together, and the funny Canadians followed, all screaming “STONEY” as they plummeted. By this point we might as well have been seasoned professionals, the fear decreased dramatically and the buzz and excitement heightened with every line, which were increasing in length as we progressed through the now sunny forest.

We reached the mid-way point well in need of a break, so we stopped with the group to rest and sat eating these small, dry cakes with the most minimal, pointless swirl of icing sugar on top of each of them, which amused us probably more than it should have. It was like the baker only had enough for one cake but decided to split it between fifty instead. Yum. We washed it down with some warm water, then hiked off in front of the other groups and guides, across a rickety old rope bridge and through more forestry for five minutes. One of the other guides came running past us and told us to wait, then a second rushed by, then a third. By the time the fourth arrived, we asked what was happening, and he replied “Snake”. I could see the commotion twenty metres ahead, culminating in one of the guys striking five or six times downwards with a huge piece of bamboo. Each hit rang out, like bullets echoing through the trees. We moved forwards to see a giant, blue-ish snake which was nearly three metres long and headless, trapped between two sticks. These guys definitely don’t fuck about. We all said we were lucky that we didn’t reach it first, as we quite easily could’ve. Sarah asked how I’d have reacted and I told her that I personally would’ve strangled the fucker and made myself a new belt or two, but I’m obviously more conventional with my techniques than these raggo Thai guys.

Tonight's dinner for these happy snake charmers.
By the end of the route we’d done more lines than Kate Moss at a Rimmel Christmas party, thirty-two in total, and the last couple were the best. One of them was one hundred and sixty metres long, the other was three hundred. Sick. The view across the forest was amazing as I practiced my Superman pose, shooting along at sixty miles an hour. Unfortunately, due to the existence of gravity, what goes up must come down, and we still had fifty feet of tree between us and the end, so once again Singha lined us up, clipped our backs and bid us farewell. I screamed as I headed down first, being stopped with enough impact to nearly lose a nut, but luckily I checked as I made the ground, and the world had not been robbed of my potential future offspring. Next my lady fell, more or less into my loving arms, and we looked up to see a sign which said ‘Happy Ending’. Unfortunately, this didn’t mean our guides were going to masturbate us to relieve the stress of the day, but we did get a cheesy picture in front of it, before being taken for lunch, which was part of the package.

We both managed to squeeze in a power nap on the drive back to Chiang Mai, then spent the next few hours by the pool, where Sarah slept and I wrote. We returned to our room to become one, then split again for more sleepy Sarah time, whilst I continued to catch up with this beautiful albatross which I’ve carrying around my tired neck. Another two hours passed before I shook the dreams from Sarah’s hair and we showered and shot out of our room, and down towards a place called The Saloon, which we’d read about in the travellers bible and wanted to try out. It was decked out like the Wild West, except all the tables had writing in black marker pen all over them, and the menu consisted of some all-time American greats aka deliciously fattening, fried shit. I ordered chicken fried steak with mash potatoes, bread and white gravy, with a side of crispy onion rings and mozzarella dippers to share with Sarah, who had a burger with some of the tastiest meat I’d had in a long while. It was sickeningly superb. Sarah took a pen and wrote ‘Sarah + Dion’, and drew a heart around it, then for the second time on this trip, I wrote ‘The Freewheelin’ Troubadour loves YOU!’.  We gladly paid our bill and left feeling more satisfied than a nymphomaniac at a swinger’s party.

There was only one thing that could top off this day, a massage. After twenty-two days, thousands of miles and a number of missed opportunities, it was finally time to get soothed by some healing hands. We made our way down through the red light area and back towards our hotel. It was Halloween, and although there wasn’t much happening a few of the girls and lady boys had spooked themselves up a bit for the occasion.  In India, I would always walk ahead of Sarah to fend off leering men with their eyes on my lady, but after being grabbed up quite heavy-handedly by what I assume was a really strong woman giving me the ‘handsome man’ spiel, we swapped roles, and I made her walk ahead to stop them from intimidating me with their overly forceful come-ons. We reached a massage parlour near our place and I spent the next hour being fondled by a small Thai guy who was camper than a row of tents. The oil massage was amazing as I lay fully naked, being cracked into place, but I could’ve sworn the muscles around my bum and balls would have been alright had they been missed. Either way, they weren’t, and I left feeling more liberal and looser than I had in a while. All oiled up like St Tropez swimsuit models; we slid across the street to our beds, and drifted off on an oil slick that wasn’t caused by BP’s gross mishandling of their rigs.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 21: When nature calls, answer your phone. It might be important.

We jumped on the back of the truck at 8.30am and said good morning to an American couple, three guys from Belgium and an older guy from Australia, then drove off to collect an Englishman who was born in Hong Kong and a girl from Argentina, who immediately said “I think I’m going to regret this, I don’t even want to go” as she got on and sat beside me. “That’s the spirit” I replied. We drove about an hour and twenty minutes away from Chiang Mai to the Mae Tang area and hopped off in a sandy little spot with a few huts dotted around and some stairs which led to a platform. We swapped cameras with the other couple, Dawn and Brian, in order to snap a few shots of each other from afar, then climbed on top of the thick skinned jumbo I named Dumbo. He was big and beautiful, like a fat girl with a nice smile, and his skin had course strands of hair sticking out, like a vegan chick’s armpit. I stroked his hairy head and stuck a banana in his trunk which he rolled around and into his mouth. There was a naughty little one that kept trying to nab all of our small, sweet bananas, we gave him a couple but had to save some, teaching the young kid the lesson of sharing. The elephants were all pretty disobedient, even with guides there to lead them, if they fancied stopping off for a munch on a few bushes, there was no way some feeble little humans were going to stop them. They weren’t whipping them or mistreating them, which we were glad to see, and we were happy to wait whilst they did their thing. We rode down and along a river valley where Dumbo had a drink and a few blasts of water out of his long schnoz, then hung out for five minutes with his mate and the little big nipper, before going around and back up the hill that had brought us there. We struggled to get snaps of Dawn and Louis as we were behind them and a few others, but they got some good ones of us, and we also bought one for 100 baht which was encased in a frame made out of elephant dung. Recycle, save the environment, have a house that stinks like shit. Sounds like most East London house-shares anyway, may as well take it to the next level, I thought as I handed the little old woman my crumpled cash.

Our group was whisked off on another twenty minute drive, but after that bonding session everybody seemed a lot more talkative and awake than before. We had lunch of egg fried rice, followed by some chopped pineapple and watermelon, then set off on an hour-long hike, hopping rocks and climbing gradually up a mountainside, until we finally reached a beautiful, cascading waterfall. I pulled a doobie brother from my box of tricks, and had a few number one hits, then pulled my Doors vest from off my back and dove into the blue pool of fresh water. The waterfall wasn’t as powerful as the last one, which was too powerful. With this one, although strong enough to blast me back, I was able to stand my ground with it a bit more, lashing blows into its mouth as it spat down at me, taking it on until I became tired, at which point we made friends and I laid next to it for a while, enjoying its onslaught of love. After half an hour swimming and splashing around with Sarah, we started heading back towards the van. Unfortunately for our gang, we were caught behind a group of Japanese tourists who clearly weren’t up for or informed about the hike. Most of the girls were wearing heels of various heights and screaming like Godzilla was attacking Tokyo again, every time they had to walk on uneven ground or skip a stepping stone. It was kind of funny for the first ten minutes, then it just became excruciating. Luckily Mikey, our guide, also got tired of the snail’s pace, and arranged with their guide for us to overtake them. He led some of us around them, and somehow I ended up crossing on a narrow log, all sweaty and stoned, feeling like I was tightrope walking with no prior warning. I noticed the older guy wasn’t on the same death trap as I was, so I jumped down the ten foot drop at a suitable point before I had the misfortune of falling like a fool. After around forty-five minutes trekking through the heat we made it back to our truck, which then drove us to a spot on the Mae Wang River where two inflatable yellow rafts were waiting. We split into two groups and started paddling down, through a few spots which you’d struggle to call grade one white water, but we had a few big splashes and drops on our thirty minute journey, so I was happy with that for a first try, although I’d quite like to try out some grade fives, but I’d have to do that without Sarah as she is scared of the water and doesn’t like being splashed in the face. I like to joke that she has a really dirty face because of this, but that is untrue, it is simply beautiful.

Don't go chasing waterfalls...walking there is less tiring.

We were promised a ride on a bamboo raft for the last part of our journey down river, and were expecting a venetian gondola type experience, so we laughed when Mikey said it was time for the bamboo submarine, however, he was serious. They loaded all twelve of us onto one raft, which completely submerged it and we sat for the next fifteen minutes in the murky, brown water which had more bugs than a Windows PC. It was far from peaceful or romantic, but it was pretty funny nonetheless. We got back to where the van was parked and Mikey told me to get on the roof. I asked why, and he said “for fun”, he seemed intent on getting me up there, so I didn’t argue. All I’d have needed was a straight road and ‘Surfin’ USA’ blasting from the stereo and I’d have been able to perfect some flips like Michael J Fox in Teen Wolf, but instead I laid back on the roof, drying off whilst numerous bumps and bends were navigated by the driver below, with various leafs and branches brushing over me every now and then. Ten minutes of roof rack on back brought me to the Shan village, and I jumped down to re-join the group. We had a little look around as the locals tried to peddle their wares, then made our way back for the hour and a half drive back to Chiang Mai. After dropping everybody else back to their hotels we were the last to get home, had a quick shower then went for an all you can eat sushi, which I demolished and Sarah despised. There was a nearby night market, and I managed to find myself a shirt to wear to the wedding that we’d be attending in Phuket, then we headed to a bar named Bo Bo Ba Ba which had the Rolling Stones lips and tongue symbol as its logo. We’d recalled it from passing the previous evening, and told the others from our trek that we’d be going there for drinks if they wanted to join us. Maria the Argentinian girl was already there with some Dutch friends she’d made at her hostel, and an hour later the Belgian guys arrived. We sank a few beers and shot some pool, and then headed back to the Top North to hit up a Buzz Lightyear before shooting off to infinity, and beyond.

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 20: Subconscious Terrorism

I was driving on a busy city motorway in the not too distant future when all of a sudden a happening occurred. The view of my front windscreen suddenly switched with the rear view, so I could only see what was behind me, not in front. After a few seconds of panicking I felt the impact, my car crashing into another and flipping over. I managed to pull myself out of the wreckage with blood pumping from my badly sliced foot. I phoned my best friend Sav to come and help me, but he was chatting to our old friend Dimitri about Arsenal’s recent poor form, so I had to wait for him. It turned out the car I smashed into was a futuristic police car and the officer was also injured. We were taken to a metallic shell of a room, in what looked to be a surgery, and my foot was stitched up hastily by an automatic needle and thread. A towering, powerful figure entered the room and stood over me as I sat tending to my wounds. He looked like the illusionist Derren Brown, but on a mega dose of steroids and sporting a shaved head. He warned me that what I had endured in the car was just a dummy run for what would be the largest terrorist attack on this future world, and it would soon happen to all the cars at once, causing carnage everywhere. He told me to say no more to the police, or I would suffer his wrath. I was unsure what I could do in order to stop this terrible attack, and he could read my mind, and knew that I was wondering how to save the world. He bought out the police woman, who had a large metal device pinned into her arm and was crying. He looked me in the eye with an evil stare, then as I looked at the police woman the device on her arm aimed at her head and blasted needle after needle into her skull, making a complete mess of her face and killing her almost instantly. I awoke in a cold sweat, scared shitless, buried my head into the soundly sleeping Sarah, thinking I may still be in trouble and then she awoke and calmed me down as I explained what was happening in the other world.

It was only 7.30am, but I had too much on my mind to go back to sleep so I laid there for an hour whilst Sarah snoozed and my tummy turned. I could hear the downstairs restaurant workers clattering around and I could smell the food, so when Sarah came to again and noticed I was still awake she said we could go and get something to eat. It was an all you can eat buffet, so I stuffed my face with an odd array of different dishes, then we returned to our bed where I soon passed out into a food coma. At around 1.30pm, we both awoke and I finally felt rested enough to start my day. We went down to the pool which was empty except for one guy who was with a Thai girl. After a while sunbathing we had a swim, and whilst in the pool I saw the guy smoking what looked to be a bifter. The way he was toking it made me think that it must be, so I went over and asked him if it was weed. He said it wasn’t, but that he did smoke it, so I asked if he could get us some, which he confirmed he could. He said his name was Richard, he was a thirty-something guy from Holland, although he looked more Spanish then Dutch, who had been in Chiang Mai for a few months. He said he could get us a portion for 1000 baht, so I said that’d be great, and he said he’d sort it in a few hours after he’d had ‘a shower, a massage and perhaps some sex’, looking towards the Thai girl who didn’t seem to notice his comment.

By 5pm the sun was getting low, and Richard handed me a cigarette packet that seemed empty as we were heading upstairs to our room. When I got up there I opened it to find a shy amount of compressed weed, probably weighing about a gram and a half. I took it back down to the pool and said that although I appreciate the favour, there was no way that was worth £20. He said that he had bought it for me, so there was nothing he could do. I showed him how much was there and he agreed it wasn’t a great amount, and said he’d try and speak to the guy and get us a bit more. Now the chances are that he probably only paid half of the money I gave him, if that, for this measly bit of turf, but we had to bite the bullet and hope to find a better hook-up in future. I’d been ploughing through cheap cigarettes in the absence of weed, but Sarah doesn’t smoke them, so she was happy to finally have something she could pollute her lungs with. We showered then skinned up, smoking only half before both feeling happily high, then immediately going to complete stage two in the order of stoner living. Eat. We shared a few Thai dishes at the relatively swanky Hotel M, then went and booked an adventure trek for the following day. We strolled the streets looking for a decent bar, stopping at a place called Inter Bar, where there was a covers band churning out classic rock hits with a Thai guy singing. They were pretty tight musically, but the vocals killed it. The singer, a term I use loosely, was hilariously tone deaf and it sounded extremely similar to when the South Park guys do comical Asian impressions. Sarah and I were in fits of giggles as they did ‘Living on a Prayer’, ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and even Franz Ferdinand’s ‘Take me out’, to muted applause from the patrons of the place. After a couple of drinks, the band had finished and almost immediately another band started, you can’t beat that kind of efficiency, however they sounded worse that the guys before them so we decided to make like a rubber ball, and bounce.

We grabbed a bottle of water and some crisps from one of the ten million 7 Eleven’s that occupied the one mile radius, then headed home for a smoke on our balcony. There was a French girl sitting opposite us, having a Skype chat in her native tongue, so I pretended to Sarah that we were watching the French Big Brother on TV and that the girl was in the diary room complaining. I made up translations of everything she said, to make sense of my suggestion and we sat there laughing until the scented candle was burnt out. We returned to our chamber and laid silently in the darkness, awaiting the return of light. Goodnight.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 19: Everything in its right place.

I awoke with my arms around my lover, she said I had been sleeping like that all night, I said I was just making up for lost time. We snoozed for a few minutes then ambled downstairs at 9.30am for our complimentary breakfast of fried egg, frankfurter, tea and toast. We packed our bags, leaving them with the front desk when we checked out and headed off in a tuk-tuk to the weekend market at Chatuchak Park which I’d visited a fortnight previously. Due to the early hour the market wasn’t as busy as the last time I’d been, but it was just as sweaty as I remembered it, squeezing down the narrow isles filled with various goods. We both grew tired after two hours or so of passing pretty much the same stuff in different locations, but left with a few bags each. We took a taxi back to Sarasinee Mansions to collect our bags and change, then hailed another to take us to Don Mueng airport for a domestic flight to Chiang Mai. An hour later our plane touched down on the northern grounds of Thailand, and we followed the recommendation of some girl I’d chatted to in Phnom Penh, asking the taxi booker to take us to the Top North. She said there was both a hotel and guesthouse by that name, so I asked which had a pool and she said it was the hotel. The driver dropped us there, and rode off with our fare before we could discover that this place was way beyond our price range, and that the guest house also had a pool. My back was killing as I lugged my heavy backpack back and forth up the road numerous times trying to find exactly where this place was, spitting angry venom at the annoyance the taxi lady had caused us, and wondering why I’d paid for the pleasure of breaking my back walking around. Sarah kept her cool, asked somebody on the street and got directions for us to follow. Five minutes later, we were there. I threw my bag down, along with 300 baht, and went up to our room. We had a decent sized bed, our own bathroom and a small balcony with a view of another guest house ten metres away. It was perfect for what we needed.

Multi-talented, some might say, but his musicianship left a lot to be desired.
Rachael and Kat had spoken highly of the Sunday market and it’s variety of street food, so I’d planned our flights to bring us here in time to go out and sample the grub and goods on offer. We hit the strip by 8pm and browsed the stalls selling handicrafts and clothing, then grabbed some dinner. I opted for a decent selection of freshly made sushi rolls, which were all priced between 5 and 10 baht each, knocked them back in record timing, then returned for the same again, whilst Sarah sat at a plastic garden table behind the stalls, eating some delicious pork shoulder and rice. I concurred that the food there was excellent, feeling the sushi buzz as we strolled around picking up nice little bits and pieces at decent prices. I was digging Chiang Mai, it’s a fairly big city, but a completely different vibe to Bangkok, more laid back, not so intensely polluted by noise, smog and dirt. We followed the crowds down Walking street, and were faced with even more market stalls. It started getting a bit too much for me, I get stressed when unable to freely move through crowds and it was starting to feel like a festival for foreign tourists all wandering around aimlessly with no sense of direction or social awareness. We ducked down a quiet side street to avoid the crowds and made our way quickly back to the main street where the market started. We stopped into a place called John’s Bar to have our first drink together. Sarah opted for a large bottle of Chang, a local beer that is 6.4% alcohol, and I went for a Mai Tai, because I was tired of drinking beer, which I don’t even like, except for Beer Lao, which for some reason I find excellent. It made for a funny photograph of us with our first drinks, me looking like a dandy whilst Sarah sipped her man-sized bottle happily. They were showing the Liverpool vs Everton derby, so we sat watching that, rooting for Everton who are by far the superior team in my opinion. It was stuck at 2-2 for most of the second half, until the dying seconds when Liverpool banged one in. The scousers there all cheered, but their celebrations were short lived as the goal was ruled offside. I laughed and we left. We returned to the Top North hopped onto our bed and back into each other’s arms, where we would stay until the roosters started crowing again.
His and Hers beverages.

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 18: The Return of the red-eye

My alarm rang at 11.30am and I woke up dead. I rolled off of my lower bunk and promptly expelled a pint or two’s worth of alcoholic orange bile and noodles, that had still been doing its devilish work on my insides as I slept, into the blurry toilet bowl. After over two weeks without her, I was finally going to be reunited with my Sarah, and I felt both drunk and hung-over at the same time. Brilliant. I staggered around slowly packing, having breaks every minute to sit on the edge of my bed and hold my weary head, before making my way downstairs. Randy and Eric were sitting with two girls from America whom he’d told me about the night before. He’d been hoping to hook up with one of them, but he put her on the back-burner and she’d ended up copping off with some European guy or another, much to his annoyance. It worked out well for me though, as we had a great time together, but I’m sure he’d rather have had a cheeky bang instead of a six man dance-off, and who could blame him. Regardless, we sat around in a state of zombification questioning how we ended up like this. Randy’s eyes were redder than a prostitute’s lipstick and my tummy was turning like a washing machine on its final spin. I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything on the menu, so opted for a Fanta which I slowly sipped through a straw, then returned to the toilet to puke some more. I had enough weed for two more Boom-Bats so I rolled them up and sparked up the first. Weed is funny like that, whatever your ailment, I swear a few hits on a James Blunt and you’ll be feeling beautiful, it’s true.

I joined Randy and the girls for a swim in the dirt and pube infested pool, then showered and got ready for my flight, said my goodbyes and met Pauli, who was waiting outside for me. I sparked up numero dos, and floated towards the airport in my space-face-ship. By the time I’d checked in I was in dire need of food, so I stopped into some nearby joint for some fried squid and garlic bread, which I swallowed whole, then made a dash for the plane. It was only a one hour flight which I spent pouring Pringles and water down my throat at an alarming speed, trying to fix my battered bod’ as excitement reached boiling point. Not long now.

I made it back to Bangkok feeling a lot better than I had done earlier, hopped on bus 150 towards the Sarasinee Mansions where I had booked us a junior suite, then spent twenty minutes lugging my bag up and down the streets until I found it. The little cash that I had was all but spent, and Sarah was bringing me some more, so even though I’d paid for our room entirely upfront, the little old woman on reception wouldn’t give me our room key without a 500 baht deposit which I didn’t have. I was too tired to argue. I waited in the lobby for about an hour before leaving my bag there and making my way back to the Saphan Kwai train station to find Sarah, who had now landed and was on her way to meet me. I danced around the platform listening to ‘Baby it’s you’ and ‘Do you want to know a secret’ by The Beatles repeatedly, singing along and staring out across the barrier whenever a train arrived. After about half an hour, I looked up to see her, my heart automatically kicked in, pumping harder than it had done in weeks, the wait was over, my best friend and lover was finally here. We kissed immediately as she came through the gate, gripping each other tightly as if we were in the midst of a tornado and didn’t want to risk being separated again. It felt magnificent. At long last, we were home, in each other’s arms once again. We hurried back to our hotel, finally got our key then headed upstairs. After a quick shower we fell straight into bed, our energies combining passionately, dancing through each other's souls for what seemed like an eternity in heaven. I held her tiny body close to mine, she laid her head on my chest, Everything was right in the world once more.

Both drained and feeling slightly peckish, we hit the street to search for supper, but neither of us really fancied anything. We saw a sign which said Tesco Lotus, so we decided to grab a few bits from our favoured supermarket back home. I didn’t get any Clubcard points and they never gave us a Tesco carrier bag, it was just plain white. What a jip. We spent the rest of the evening catching up, exchanging small gifts and getting used to being with each other again. As great as it felt to be reunited, we both agreed that something seemed odd, I assumed that it would just take a few days to get ourselves in-sync again, but after eighteen days apart I was more than happy to put the work in. As my eyes finally flickered to a close, the butterflies in my tummy rose, I had my best friend back, and the whole world was our oyster card.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 17: Death and Disco


I showered the sleep from my tired eyes and jumped into Pauli’s tuk-tuk which was waiting for me outside. He whisked me off to my first stop, the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum, aka S-21, a former school turned prison under the ruling of the barbaric Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. As I went to go in I was approached by a guy whose face looked like it had been melted with acid, it was a featureless puddle of muddied orange skin, swirled together in scars which looked like they’d still cause him great pain to this day. His eyes were filled with agony as he gestured towards me with his cap in hand. I dropped a few bills in it and moved along quickly. This was all the introduction I needed to a day in which vast quantities of both pain and suffering were on the menu. I walked into building A, the first floor had ten rooms, each with a rusted iron bed in the middle, some sort of container for excrement, and an array of chains or bars, differing slightly in each. These were formerly used for jailing, interrogating and torturing prisoners who were once high officials. The idea behind this genocide was to eradicate all of the educated Cambodian civilians and turn their nation into one of agriculture and submission, with no intelligent people left to lead the population away from slavery. Apparently even the slight sighted would be killed for wearing spectacles, even though we all know that despite that old stereotype, having a stigmatism is no sign of intelligence. That goes to show both the stupidity of these murderers, and their utter disregard for human life. Each room would only feature one picture, that of the decomposed body which was found there when the area was reclaimed by the resistance. They were in such bad states after being left there to rot that they were unidentifiable when discovered.

Faces or torment
The second and third floors were both split into five large rooms, with a few beds in each and a blackboard still on the wall. These were used for the same purpose as downstairs, except large groups would be gathered here. There was a sign on the bed of this former classroom which read ‘Do Not Touch’. I followed my urge and placed my hand on the frame, instantly witnessing the screams of the death and torture of hundreds of people flash through my mind in that split second, before pulling my hand away. Should’ve done what I was told. It’s not the first time I’ve thought that.

Building B was filled with photographs of the victims, looking under fed and desperately miserable at the fate they had been dealt. None of them deserved this, but like many places, even to this day, thousands of people die for no need due to the greed of their leaders. Building C comprised entirely of very simply built cells, cement and brick shoddily thrown together to create these claustrophobic sections which measured no more than three and a half feet across and had chains cemented at the ends to shackle the prisoners. You could imagine the mass wailing of forty chained people who were slowly dying, away from their families and loved ones. It was breathtakingly grim.

Building D was a whole different kettle of fish altogether, it was now used to display various pieces of artwork from local school children, all of which portrayed a future much brighter than the past that they have been born out of. My favourite piece was a painting which depicted an hour glass with missiles, grenades and barbed wire in the top half, filtering down into water with a single leaf growing out of it. In the background a young child prayed. It was titled ‘A sandglass to the future’. Let’s hope so.

To put this into perspective, approximately a quarter of the population were murdered during this period, which basically means you would be hard pushed to find somebody over the age of 35 that hadn’t lost either a friend or family member under the ruling of this barbaric regime. The youngsters I’ve met have all seemed upbeat, positive and generally happy at face value, however when you look into the eyes of the elders you often get the feeling that there is a lot of darkness behind their weathered smiles, and it is something that constantly made my heart hurt during my stay.

I left and waited for Pauli who was late to pick me up, but I ignored the advances of some other Tony that was trying to steal me away, and after ten minutes, he turned up to take me to the killing fields. On the way there, he pulled over at a shooting range and gestured for me to go inside. I am of the thinking that no human being should ever be allowed to own a gun, especially when you factor in all the drugs, alcohol, aggression and greed that play a part in our day to day lives. However, I played a lot of video games in my younger years, ranging from Goldeneye, to Call of Duty, to Grand Theft Auto, in which I must’ve shot thousands upon thousands of fake bullets, but never in the real world (unless spud guns count). Curiosity had me, and the chance to try out an AK47 saw me pulling $40 from my wallet to cover the cost of this new story in my quest for YES! I realised it was a strange mid-point during my day seeing the exact reason why guns and armies shouldn’t exist, but fuck it, I was there, I had a full clip and a target thirty feet infront of me. I let off some single shots, feeling the force of each bullet kick back against my shoulder, then switched it onto automatic and sprayed my final bullets in a matter of seconds. The guy filming asked me how it was, to which I replied “Fun. Now I never want to shoot another gun again”. The power I feel when coming off stage after doing a spoken word set to a silent room, filled with ears that hear and then cheer, surpasses that of pulling a trigger one-hundred times over. True power comes with love and is given gladly. It cannot be stolen, nor gained through fear via the barrel of a gun. The most truly powerful people throughout history have been those that share knowledge and enlighten the masses with peace, and they remain revered continuously, with people still quoting their thoughts and theories freely, because it makes sense to real life, and makes that life more bearable. Those historical characters that have used force, despite periods of power, always end up condemned for their actions, their entire existence left to fester and stink in the cess pools of time. In a world that’s constantly changing, only one of these paths is worthwhile, even if you do enjoy a spell and the top, sooner or later you will die, and then all that is left behind is the memories you instil in others. Obviously, as we all know, history is often manipulated, but even if you do manage to polish a turd it will still stink like shit.

True power lies in peace
I arrived at The Killing Fields and it was beautiful, from a distance it was just a blossoming landscape in a rural area of Phnom Penh, but when the headphones were turned on and the tour began it soon became ugly and sad. I was led around by numbered signs, walking from spot to spot and sitting to listen to the atrocities which took place. Even with the grass and greenery growing all around you could still see the signs of past terror on the ground, where bone fragments and items of clothing were scattered around, semi buried with the soil but protruding enough to make you aware that they were there. This was the spot where the prisoners from S-21 were brought to be killed off like diseased cattle, in the most efficient and cheapest ways possible. Many skulls found were cracked from blows with axes and hoes, headless skeletons were grouped in mass graves, hundreds at a time, and blood stains still remain on the floor as throats cut with jagged saw-like leaves from trees would have dropped victims to their knees. Death was everywhere. The worst point for me was the killing tree, where soldiers would take the children of the prisoners by the legs, swinging them head first into it to kill or badly injure them, then tossing them into a nearby pit, one by one. The most precious possession of each parent, left as wasted scraps of worthless life. It’s unthinkable to us uninformed westerners, but whilst we were dancing to the early sounds of disco, this was happening on the other side of the globe.
The Killing Tree
The tour concluded at a building which was erected in more recent years to commemorate those lost, and it held many of their recovered remains. On each tier sat hundreds of skulls, assorted bones, and the clothes of the victims. As shocking a sight as it sounds, I was so numb by this point that it didn’t really faze me, the tears had been and gone, and like the beautiful people of Cambodia, I was moving on.
Just as the body is destined to perish, the spirit will never die...

I arrived back at my hostel, threw twelve bucks at Pauli and thanked him, then arranged for him to take me to the airport the next day. I dove into the pool, then swam into the evening, sitting and writing a while whilst the staff set up for a pool party that they were hosting. The manager, an American guy named Eric, told me it was the biggest night in Phnom Penh and would be pumping. I was sceptical to say the least. What with the events of my day, I wasn’t in the mood to party at all, I just wanted to catch up with some work and get a good sleep so I was well prepared for the arrival of my sweetheart the following evening. Then the music started. Hip hop and funk classics were shaking the walls of my room as I wrote, and after an hour I gave up, showered, then went downstairs. There was one person staying there who I’d met briefly in Vang Vieng. Her name was Hannah and she was friends with the other Dion I’d met. She was playing pool with some other early arrivals, so I went and befriended them and stuck my name on the board to play. Over the course of the next hour the place turned from the equivalent of a sedated school disco into a wild party at the playboy mansion. By the time the main DJ, some guy from San Francisco, got spinning it was popping off big time, there must have been about two hundred party people in the place, off their face, dancing wildly, diving fully clothed into the pool, or simply playing pool with me and our new gang. I ended up playing all night, on and off, it was not like I had friends to dance with, nor the need to try and pick up some skirt, so pool seemed the best bet to escape boredom. It was pretty great fun to be fair, bantering and teaming up with both locals and fellow travellers, chatting and getting progressively more inebriated as time went by. Before I knew it, the music was over, and I spent a while hanging with my two remaining pals, Denny from Holland, and Simone from Italy. When one of the locals asked us out for more drinks, we all declined, but something inside felt wrong, so after a few seconds discussion, we all changed our minds. I got chatting to Randy, a fellow Freewheeler from Australia who worked at the hostel and convinced him to show me what Phnom Penh was all about. Whilst devising a plan I got chatting to one of the other managers, a fifty-something Liverpuddlian wide-boy by the name of Anthony, who wouldn’t stop going on about how ‘Cambodia rocks’. I challenged him to show us why, and we headed out with a few of his young staff, Nob, Tona and Randy, along with Denny and Simone.

I had about $10 on me, and the rest of us had the same or less, but it didn’t matter because Anthony was on a big boy buzz and said he’d get the drinks in. “Watch and learn” he exclaimed, as we entered his chosen destination, The Rose Garden, a bar full of working girls and very few guys. I watched from close distance, sipping my free beer, as Anthony was seemingly rejected by every prostitute in the place. It was astonishing. They treated him like his breath smelt of death and they were all rich. It was unimaginable in this kind of environment, or so I’d have thought until seeing it for myself. The rest of us weren’t digging it at all. We wanted to dance, so we managed to drag the money man away from the uninterested brasses and hopped into a tuk-tuk, which took us to a club called Pontoon. This place was kicking, Kanye blasting out from the speakers as we bowled in, ready to move. Anthony got me another drink, followed me to the dance-floor, and then vanished almost immediately. Perhaps the less obvious hookers there had yet to bear witness to whatever it was that soured the mouths of the girls in the last joint. Regardless, we remaining lads all got bopping, shaking down the dance floor as the DJ played an array of genres with no coherency from track to track, the tunes were all decent though and no one seemed to mind. As the last song, ‘I can’t wait’ by Nu Shooz, faded out we gathered our gang and left, except for Simone, who was chatting to a pretty, local girl. It was his birthday, so we left him to it, and shot off back to the Eighty8 without him. Five minutes later as we sat back smoking in the closed bar, he turned up and we asked what happened. He said that the girl wanted money to come back with him, and he wasn’t willing to pay for sex. Out of curiosity, I asked how much she wanted, and he replied “Five dollars”. I don’t know what was more shocking, the ridiculously low figure she had priced her company at, or the fact that our man thought he was gonna get a free fuck at 5am, from a Cambodian chick. Still, I respected his reluctance to pay when he was quite clearly attractive enough to not have to, a stance which I also share. On the other hand, I’ve spent more money than that on a bag of sweets at the cinema, and I didn’t get to ejaculate into it after.

We were all starving, so I went out on the hunt for food and found a little old lady selling bowls of noodles on the street. It was all that was on offer, so I purchased her watery concoction with the odd bits of mystery meat thrown in, and shared it out amongst the three of us in a vain attempt to counteract the booze. The new people that had moved into my dorm for the night were already awake and getting ready to leave. I wished them safe travels, took a shower, nearly slipping over in the process, then drunkenly fell into bed by 7am. I had to check out at 12. Fuck.

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 16: Once upon a time, nothing happened. The End

I arose at 11am and threw everything into my bag, heading downstairs to check out before diving into the pool. Maddie turned up to hang out with us and wish me farewell, and we laid getting roasted for a few hours until my ride arrived. I hugged my three sisters goodbye, hoping we’d meet again. I sat in the van excited by the prospect of not knowing what was to come, except me, when my lady finally arrived in a few days’ time.

I was dropped at the office of the travel company that I’d booked my ride with, and waited until 2pm so we could depart. We all loaded in to a fourteen seat mini-van which would be taking us on a five hour journey to Phnom Penh. There was a bigoted, old guy from New Zealand who spoke to me for a few minutes, but he kept referring to me as a ‘Pom’ and coming out with crap about England, so I ended up introducing him to another, younger Kiwi guy, then ignoring their banal conversations . I see race and nationality as irrelevant to who I am, and who others are. I am defined by my city, London, and the assortment of everymen who inhabit it with me. We’re not English, we’re Everything. I spent pretty much the whole of the first three hours writing, and was finally catching up with the ten day deficit I’d given myself, which pleased me no end. We had a short stop in Kampong Thom which allowed me some time to have a dance with sweet Mary Jane, before exhaling my way back onto the van for another few hours. I wrote until I could no longer see, as there were no lights in the van, and very few along the windy, rubble roads to illuminate the night for me to write. I shivered the rest of the way, as boredom made the air conditioning less bearable to my near bare body, in only my old Arsenal Shorts and a vest.

By 8pm, we arrived, and I stepped onto the street to appreciate the evening heat. A couple of Tonys approached me, and I told them I wanted another place with a pool, so they took me to The Eighty8 Backpackers, a cool looking hostel with a bar/restaurant and young staff. I booked Tony, whose name was Pauli, to take me out at 10am the next day and went to check in. “How you do brother?” said one of the two guys behind the counter, asking my name and introducing himself as Lay Lay. The other, who checked me in had a name tag which read ‘John Mclane’, and I told him that I loved that the name he’d chosen for himself was Bruce Willis’s character from Die Hard. ‘Yippie Kai Yay, motherfucker’. I dumped my stuff in a locker in my empty, eight bed dorm, then did a few laps in the pool before going up to shower and change. I took a walk around the surrounding area of the hostel but there was nothing there, not even a place for dinner, so I returned to eat and write by the poolside whilst hip-hop classics were blasted out in the background. After dinner, I returned to my room which was still unoccupied, wrote some more, then fell into the world of my words, wrote myself a dream, and drifted off downstream.

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 15: Angkor Wat? Angkor Who?

Angkor Wat

My alarm sounded before those annoying roosters even got a chance to crow their first of the morning. It was 4.30am which is usually my bed time, and I wasn’t that happy about getting up. However, it was a necessary evil as we’d planned to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise, which would be coming up like Bez from the Happy Mondays in about an hour. Katherine and Rachael’s friend had just flown over from Australia and was feeling jet-lagged, so they decided to do it another time, leaving Maddie and I with her tuk-tuk driving friend, Buntan, to head towards the temple. We drove for about fifteen minutes to the ticketing office and bought a one day pass which had our tired mugs printed onto the front, then went back on the dirt road towards the temple. After another couple hundred metres we unexpectedly ground to a halt. Buntan told us that we had a flat tyre due to a nail in the road and would have to wait for a replacement vehicle to take us to the temple. Dawn was cracking through the black blanket in the sky, and it started to rain. Heavily. I sparked up a banger and remained cool with our bad luck, feeling that perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, and that such a special moment should only be experienced when I have my lover in my arms.

I wrote:

“You can’t stop the rain from falling,
you can’t avoid every nail which is in the road.
If you miss the sunrise there will be one tomorrow,
what will be, will be.”

whilst sitting patiently as the rain lashed against our broken vehicle and the sky got lighter and lighter. After about thirty minutes, a tuk-tuk pulled up next to ours and was positioned perfectly by the driver so that we could hop across from one carriage to the other, like The Beatles running through black cabs in e from ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. We were on the road again, and arrived shortly after. There was not much sun to be had on this gloomy morning, and it was still pissing down, so we remained seated until it lessened, then got out to explore the temple in all its peaceful early morning glory. There were few tourists at this early hour, which meant we had the place pretty much to ourselves, and we strolled around admiring the sheer extent of the work. Everywhere you looked, something was carved. Be it ceiling, wall or floor, hours and hours of repeated pictures and patterns adorned the spaces, leaving no inch of the building anything less than majestic. It was quite incredible. After an hour or so, we found Buntan, who took us up to the beautiful ruins of Bayon, and we spent another couple of hours walking around the fallen stones and dark, damp tunnels, exploring the area, which was now getting busier with tourists. We befriended two old American couples from California, and spent some time walking and talking with them about Obama, Romney, and Lance Armstrong’s recent fall from grace. I stated my disappointment in all three. We visited a few smaller temples on the outskirts of Bayon, then met Buntan who whisked us off to Prohm, which would be our last stop on this temple run. Prohm is the temple where they shot Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie, a kind of in-door jungle which has huge concrete faces carved into the side of the stone rooftops. By this point it was nearly mid-day, and the place was swarming with Japanese tourists, all slowly ambling around and squeezing as much time as possible out of every photo op. At one famous point from the film, I posed for a photo by throwing a punch towards the camera. The twenty-odd Japs that were looking on all cheered and clapped at my gesture, saying “Kung Fu” excitedly and smiling at me as I disappeared through the stone doorway, feeling like David Caradine’s illegitimate lovechild. By this point, I was tired and templed out.

Boom Raider
Maddie and I had agreed on getting some Cambodian barbeque for lunch and a blind massage, but we stopped off to visit the cafĂ© that her friend Cassie was opening first to say hello. It looked really nice and I was happy to see these guys setting up new lives for themselves in this beautiful, developing land. Cassie and her friend were on their way for lunch at Viva, and Maddie decided to join them, but I’d had my last meal there, and my heart was set on barbeque, so I went off on my own again to eat. I was sat at a table with a metal container in front of me, it had coals in the middle which heated the grill part above it, and there was a circular channel around the sides that was filled by the waitress with stock, poured from a big metal teapot. She presented me with a wicker basket filled with chicken, beef, pork, crocodile and squid, and a variety of greens, noodles and rice. I threw the greens and noodles into the stock to make a soup, whilst grilling the different meats as I went on, then throwing the whole concoction into a bowl to be devoured. It was delicious, and I enjoyed cooking for myself for the first time in weeks, another one of my passions that I’d been living without.

Feeling pretty drained, I returned to Siem Reap Temple Villa, dived into the pool to swim off my lunch, then got back to my writing until the sun went down. I returned to my room at 6pm for a one hour power nap, and ended up sleeping until 10pm. Hungry, I went into town and had a small supper whilst writing some more at my table in the midst of the madness, as various music blasted loudly from each surrounding bar, then returned home, again writing into the early hours of the morning, then having my last sleep in one of my huge, comfortable beds. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 14: Getting off your boat, alone

I was awoken by a banging on the door, I opened it whilst rubbing the sleep from my eyes to be faced with Maddie. “Wake up, lazy, it’s 11am”. I explained that I’d been up late writing, and she explained that she’d been there since 9am, waiting for the sisters and I to arise and that they were downstairs having breakfast. She left me to get ready and I joined them by the pool soon after, swimming away from yesterday and into a new afternoon. I wrote, then swam, then wrote some more, then had a final swim before going upstairs to shower and get myself ready. The previous evening my darling in London had told me that I must visit the floating village whilst in Siem Reap, as the lake nearby is one of the most peaceful she’d ever been to, so I rolled myself some tweed blazers, smoked half a sleeve, then found a Tony to take me away for $5. I was told it was about an hour away, and during the journey I noticed my driver had Lucky written on the back of his helmet, and since 8 is my lucky number I decided that I’d give him $8 for his services instead. When I got dropped off I was informed by a guy in a booth that it’d cost me a further $20 for a boat ticket, which would then take me another hour down the river. I only had $30 in my wallet, but I begrudgingly handed the guy a twenty, then got whisked away by a kid named Sok across one longboat and onto another, then we were off. As my boat slowly chugged its way up the river I sat writing a story about two fishermen and their friendship, arriving at the village before I could find a suitable happy ending. Not that kind of happy ending, just a written one. I don’t think two mates tossing each other off into a river when they’re meant to be feeding their families would suit any story, except in Brokeback Mountain, but that’s already been done and I don’t like to plagiarise my homo-erotica, I just let it come from the heart. And the penis.

I grabbed hold of some sheet metal roofing and pulled myself into a floating restaurant on the river. It was a very basic building, but enough for them to chuck a few tables and chairs on, selling cold drinks from a cool box. At this point, I was welcomed by a guy who told me that in order to see the floating village and forest I’d need to make a donation to them and be taken on another small raft. I only had $10 left and still owed my driver, but I gave them a high-five in the hope that it would actually reach the village instead of lining the pockets of some tubby rip-off merchant. There was a raft which must’ve measured about ten feet by four, and I slowly sat my big frame behind that of my guides, a tiny teenage girl in a brown floppy hat and orange shirt. I immediately felt like a fat fucking tourist being paddled around by some poor kid whilst drinking coke and talking about forthcoming meetings on a cell phone. I don’t even like waiters pouring my water for me, I see myself as a servant and dislike being served myself, so I wanted to paddle, although if I’d suggested it she wouldn't have understood me, and I’d have probably sunk her clapped out vessel in a matter of minutes anyway. She paddled us through a few tree-tops which looked like bushes in the water, and we soon reached the flooded village. There was a population of around six hundred Cambodians that lived in these houses that were built on high stilts about eight feet above the water level, with stairs going up to each front door and boats anchored underneath most of them. As we paddled down the water street children on either side would wave and say ”Bye bye”, or stare at me with puzzled expressions on their faces as both the adults and I smiled on at each other. They were all grubby and barely clothed, running around playing as I went by, blissfully unaware of anything beyond their simple existence and seemingly happy to be where they were. I couldn't blame them, it was beautiful, the sort of place where community spirit still exists in abundance and trades are made so that everybody had the same. Very little, but equal. I’d be happy if the whole world was like that. As we paddled back through I saw a boat with various supplies delivering orders to the houses as it drifted past them, and a kid no older than four years old trying to row his own boat somewhere. It was infinitely more impressive than “Oh look Bill, Daisy has learnt how to turn on the iPad”. I waved goodbye to the villagers and said “Hello” so as not to upset the status quo, and then removed a sparkler from my packet of cigarettes and took a toke or two as we drifted into the forest. Now this is nature as you’ve never seen it before, the trees were deeply submerged and we made our way past the top branches of each one, through the path that was created by the spaces in-between. It seemed rather haunting, but so peaceful at the same time, both of which were probably enhanced by the stonedness coming down like the sun.

The flooded village of Kompong Pluk

In the ghetto, hanging out on the stoop
Mystic river, setting sun
A forest

It was dusk as I arrived back at the restaurant and the twists and turns of my tummy reminded me that I had forgotten to eat all day, problem was, I was running out of money. I wanted to tip the girl, so I gave her a dollar out of the five I had left for the driver, then gave another two to the woman at the restaurant for a can of Fanta and some home-made sweet potato crisps which I swallowed whole. I jumped back onto the boat and Sok took me out to a spot on the lake so I could watch the sun set and admire the twilight. Sarah was right, it was one of the most peaceful spots I’d ever found myself at, and I stayed there admiring it for a long while until Sok asked if I was ready to return. We were the last boat out on the water and by the time we arrived back it was pitch black, and I had finished my story. I gave him a dollar, then went and bought a water with my last buck, before asking ‘Lucky’ to take me home. When there, I ran into my hotel room and grabbed $10, then ran it outside and explained that because his helmet said Lucky on it, I would give him $8 instead of five. He said he didn’t have any change for the ten, so I told him that he was extra lucky, and he rode off into the night with double the dough we’d originally agreed. After what he’d taken me to go and see, money seemed even more insignificant than it usually does to me. I spoke to Sarah briefly whilst waiting for Katherine and Rachael to return so we could go out for our Mexican dinner date at 8pm, but when they got back they’d only recently eaten and had decided to stay in instead.

I shot off into town feeling pretty starved and tired, but got waylaid by a bright sign which read ‘Night Market’. I went inside and there was a lot going on. I followed the sound of the music to find four young girls doing a traditional dance for forty or something forty-somethings and their offspring. I watched for a while before going into a silver jewellery store and buying a bangle for my baby. There was a tank full of fish and a sign that read ‘20 minutes for $1’ so I stuck my feet in and let them nibble until it became too ticklish to bear, then taking them out for a break before returning them for another round. I don’t know how good it was for the smoothness of my soles, but I enjoyed chatting to the young boy about Cambodian Kings, and The Beatles, which it turned out his English teacher was teaching him about. If only I’d had teachers like that at Kingsmead School, I might have been a musician sooner than a prize fighter. After my time was up I made my way out, past a massage place. I’d still not gotten one and would have considered it after dinner, but I was accosted by one of these masseuses saying “Please come for a massage, handsome man, I have private room” and clinging onto my hand like she was about to fall off of a mountain. I shook her off with my usual ‘I’ll come back tomorrow’ spiel, and she made me promise before letting go that I would. It was a promise that I’d have to break, in order to keep a more important promise to a more important person. By this point, I was ready to pass out from lack of sustenance and I got to the Mexican joint, Viva, just as my legs started to feel weak. I went to check out the menu, then saw that they were showing the previous night’s Arsenal match and walked straight in, ignoring all else. They even turned the volume on so I could follow exactly why my team ended up losing to Norwich, whilst stuffing my face with an amazing array of dishes, drinking extremely strong strawberry margaritas, and not doing the writing which I’d planned to catch up with. By the end of the game I felt sick and woozy, from both the overindulgence of my feast, and my teams underwhelming, average display. I staggered back to my princely suite, washed the delicious grease from my pores and poured the alcohol from out my skull, then tucked my tipsy body in bed. A lovely day spent with myself, now over, I disappeared into tomorrow.

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 13: Unlucky for none

Siem Reap Temple Villa, not bad for $8 a night.

I was woken about four hours after I’d gone to bed by Maddie, who was leaving to stay at her friends’ yoga retreat nearby. I said goodbye and got myself ready, then took the ten minute march towards the old market in the town centre. There were goods galore on offer from the persistent but friendly market traders. “Hello sir, you want something?”, “Have a look, sir”, “You want buy dress, sir”, “A silk scarf for you, sir”. It was non-stop, but they weren’t as pushy as their Indian counterparts that I’d experienced a year earlier. I bought myself a white cotton tunic shirt, and a similar silk one in black, both of which I’d haggled down from $15 to $5 each, a hammock for the bargain price of $2 and a few gifts, generally paying a third of whatever price I was originally quoted. I returned to my hotel, stripping off as I entered and jumping straight into the pool to cool down. After a few laps I sat down, rolled a Boom Boom Bat and went to start writing. Pretty much immediately the sun disappeared, I heard thunder breaking in the distance, and the skies opened up, lashing down on everybody around the pool. I calmly closed my laptop, put it in its case, said “If you can’t beat them, join them” to the Dutch guy beside me, stepping out from under my parasol and diving straight into the pool. It felt incredible. I raised my hands to the sky and goaded the Gods, who responded by increasing the force of the rain upon the water. It felt like the pool was now warm, contrasting the cold blasts of rain that beat down against my body like a power shower. It was clear to see that I was having a great time, and one by one the other people all jumped in too, until there was no one left on the outside. The energy between everybody was electric; we were all giving a middle finger to sky and splashing around ecstatically. I remarked “It’s hard to feel anything other than free when you’re swimming in the rain” to the Dutch guy who had followed me in in his canvas shorts and sandals, and he agreed. This wasn’t your average Monday to Friday monotony; I was guzzling from the lake of freedom, chugging at it like an American frat boy on spring break, and wasn’t going to stop until I passed out.

The rain stopped after twenty minutes and I went up to my room to write for a few hours. When I’d finished I knocked next door for Kat and Rachael, and we went downstairs for dinner, also scoring some weed off of the waiter after we inquired about the inclusion of ‘Happiness’ as a topping on the pizza menu. We got a lot less for our money than I’d had in Laos, and it was nowhere near as nice, but a top up was necessary and it filled a void in my decreasing stash. I gave the sisters a master class on how to roll an L-skin, then we sat around the pool smoking it and chatting about our lives back home. I wished them goodnight and went back up to my room to continue writing. I was loving the frequent spells of solitude after nearly two weeks travelling with others, finally having the freedom to walk around naked singing to myself, and the luxury of having two beds, one to write on and the other to sleep. By the time I’d finished a couple of days’ worth of my diary I looked at the clock and noticed it was gone 4am. Time flies when you’re recalling times of time spent so that you don’t forget spending those times when you’ve spent other time spending time. Time for bed.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 12: Off The Road

“THIS IS BULLSHIT” I declared to the skies as my 6am alarm clock tipped me out of bed and into another day. I packed all of my possessions in thirty seconds flat and headed off with Maddie to pay our debt to Mr B’s society. We met the other four horsemen and ordered breakfast from a set menu which was included in our excursion. After eating, we took our backpacks to the travel agents store to be shipped across the river,and then driven down to the border for us to collect in time to catch a bus. We all got into the kayaks which were lined up and waiting for us at the little inlet, then started making our way towards the border, which was 17km away. After about an hour of steady rowing, our kayak hit one of the 4000 islands that was almost completely submerged. I tried to push back away from the branches that were stabbing me, and rocked the boat, don’t rock the boat, baby. I rocked the boat, and tipped the boat over, smashing me knee onto an underwater rock. Maddie was bobbing there laughing, then instructed me on how to get back on, before doing so herself. My knee felt alright, I felt refreshed, and we carried on going. Soon after we pulled in to a little island, and were told by our guide in English which wasn’t so much ‘broken’, more ‘smashed into pieces’, that we were now in Cambodia. Unfortunately, we’d soon have to leave, kayaking back into Laos to then cross the border officially.
"Excuse me mate, which way is Cambodia?"

"Oh, here it is!"
Our guide handed us some lukewarm egg baguettes and we had lunch, at 10am, and started paddling the rest of the way down the Mekong, where we were lucky enough to see some very rare Irrawaddy dolphins swimming about in the distance. I put my hand in the water and sent out a mind message, willing them to come closer. A few seconds later I saw a water snake, and the little bastard was coming right at me, looking like he was on a mission to attack. I raised my paddle and took a big swing at his head, nearly tipping us back into the water with my blast, and he fucked off sharpish. After another hour and a half we rowed ashore, and awaited the van, which arrived with our bags about fifteen minutes late. Worried that we’d not make the last bus to Siem Reap, the gang decided that we’d have to miss out on the waterfall that we were meant to be going to see prior to our border crossing. I was the only one that was willing to risk it, and was sad to have to let the opportunity pass me by, however, being stranded at the border on a Sunday didn’t seem like a great prospect either, although I’m sure we’d have survived. Regardless, the instruction was made, and we were driven right up to the border.

Now, although I generally have weed on me wherever I am, whatever I’m doing and on any occasion, I’d never attempted to smuggle drugs across any borders or check points before, but I thought the chances of getting checked by any of these lazy arsed Laotians or their Cambodian counterparts was so miniscule that it was worth the risk. I put my baggy into my cigarette box, and stuck them in my now dry Arsenal football shorts that I’ve had since I was about eleven years old, which still fit me now. That’s single Mums for ya, they are basically wired so that whatever they buy will be optimised to last forever, passed on, and never get too small. They’ve gone from royal blue to grey over the years, but I’ll probably be rocking them until they’re white, at which point my son or daughter can have them to wear until they turn blue again. It was fucking hot. I was sweating, but trying to seem cool, which isn’t easy when you’re doing something that could get you thrown into a foreign prison. All these dodgy motherfuckers live off of bribes anyway, so I thought I may as well at least get my monies worth. To exit Laos we needed to be stamped out at a small window which I was too tall for. I hunched down and the guy asked me for two dollars, so I handed him a ten. He handed me back my passport. I waited for my change which didn’t come, so I hunched back down, sticking my head in the window and said “Change?” He handed me back a five. “What about the other three?” I enquired. “No exit card, five dollar” he replied. Now I’m ninety-nine point nine percent certain that it was stapled in there when I handed him my passport, but I wasn’t going to argue when I just wanted to get across. I bet they make most of their money from people on that reasoning alone, nobody wants enemies at customs, especially not me. Next stop, we had to go through quarantine to make sure we weren’t ill, and that cost us another unofficial dollar each. We then had to pay for our Cambodian visas, which were $25, which was the only official fee there should have been. Finally, I passed through passport control, and I didn’t give them a dime.
I had made it, and I didn’t have to throw my baby away again. Having to throw an ounce of Cali bud and over an ounce of ‘shrooms into a bin in Tombstone, Arizona, still hurts me to this day. Now, after your first time successfully smuggling drugs across the border, I’d imagine it becomes a hell of a lot easier to do. I’m sure I’ll find out at some point, although it’s not something I’d like to make a habit of, especially as drugs are available pretty much everywhere in the world if you ask the right people and it saves the stress. It’s just that it seemed too easy, plus I was a big fan of this stronger than usual Thai weed from Vang Vieng.

We were approached by the guy with the only bus there, which was soon to be departing and quoted $35 each to take us to Siem Reap and $30 each for Ryan and Marie to get to Phnom Penh. We weren’t best pleased with the price, but it was clearly a sellers’ market, and we had to buy. We rolled off and along the bumpy road. Sorted, we’d made it. Then all of a sudden I heard a bang and the bus screeched to a halt. We’d been driving for less than ten minutes and were already broken down. Brilliant. The A/C had stopped working and it heated up real quick in there, so everybody got off and stood on the left hand side of the bus, in the slight slither of shade that it provided us from the scorching mid-day sun. “Twenty minutes” said one of the bus company’s crew, which I believe are the only time related words that get taught to South East Asians when learning English, as that’s all I ever seemed to hear. They are probably told “You want farrang to shut up, say twenty minutes”. I tested my theory by asking him how long an hour is. “Twenty minutes”, he replied. Good work. After an hour, I started feeling a bit weak and weary, and I turned to my mobile notes to put this situation into poetry form, laying down a little story based on these events. Half way through writing it, I was glad we’d broken down. That’s the thing with the art of alchemy, you can take a turd and polish it into a piece of gold. I’m generally thankful for all the practice I get.

“I forgot what I was thinking at the side of the road, the sun was too much to bear.
It was mid-day by the border, we'd just crossed over there.
We'd been on the bus for 10 minutes, then beside it to wait for a tyre,
as the minutes grew longer the intensified heat began to feel like a fire.
The flames in my brain they were flaring, no water to cool off the heat,
the tarmac seemed near boiling point as it burnt the soles of my feet.
‘This will make me stronger’, I told myself, as I grew weary and weak,
I laid in the shade like a dying dog, I had no strength to speak.
The wait seemed to last for hours, nothing moved but the clouds,
as I clung on to my sanity, I lost all the baggage I'd found.
All I cared for was survival, I had to keep my grip,
until salvation is on the horizon I mustn't let it slip.
A car hummed out in the distance, it was approaching at speed,
as it pulled in, there was no driver, just a note which read 'Here's what you need'.
I screamed to high heavens, 'Thank you world', with great relief, I laughed.
We're always first tested, then given what we need, when we're travelling on the right path.

A car pulled up, and the bus operator said that we could pay his friend to take us to an ATM as a few of us needed dough, so Rachael, Ryan and I got into this car. We were whisked away from our other three amigos who stayed to wait for the bus to be fixed, before picking us up elsewhere along the way. After fifteen minutes of being driven by a boy that looked no older than thirteen, our second vehicle now grinded to a halt. What are the odds? Probably pretty low in Cambodia. Somehow or another he’d seized the engine, and we were stuck there. We were told to walk the rest of the way to the ATM whilst they waited for the ‘car fixer’ to come. After a ten minute walk we reached the cash machine, and withdrew some dollars, then instantly went and bought beers from a stall on the street with a kid who spoke amazing English. He was a chubby cheeked cherub, and I complimented him, saying that he’d be rich one day, he was clearly a bright spark and a born salesman, even trying to sell us some beef jerky which he had hanging on display. We cracked our cans and said cheers, then walked back to where the car was. After about twenty minutes the drivers mate pulled up on a ‘ped. He whisked Rachael off first, then came back for me and Ryan. We both got on as he was hurrying us, and he worried me by using his mobile, whilst carrying our two precious lives, along with his own, which he was welcome to risk if he wanted as far as I was concerned, just not with me there to witness it. Regardless, we didn’t die, so that was good, and got back on the bus to explain to everyone that we’d broken down again, which they all found amusing. We were finally on our way, and only two hours behind schedule. Because of this, we had to take a faster route down even worse made roads, which meant a much bumpier ride. The driver didn’t seem to mind, singing whilst simultaneously texting and rolling a cigarette. My best advice when being driven around foreign countries is to not watch the road, or the driver, or you will be freaking out the whole time. Valium may also aid this, by knocking you out the entire time, however in this case I didn’t partake. I tried to sleep, managing to drift off only to be jolted from my seat when we nearly crashed into the back of a truck. We had a stop for sandwiches, then got back on, and were driven another three hours by the same maniac, but I managed to catch a few Z’s as by this point I was shattered.

We stopped again for dinner at about 10.30pm, then said farewell to more family as Marie and Ryan went to get on a different bus. I would miss those guys. Ryan was really great to have around, and a lot like my brothers back home, and Marie had an amazing wit, that sometimes seemed to go under the radar, but not with me, she cracked me up constantly. The four of us then got on another bus, which would carry us for the next four hours into Siem Reap. We each had more space now, and passed out from exhaustion. Finally at 3.30am we were there, and we got onto a tuk-tuk, telling the driver that we wanted a hotel with a swimming pool. After a rough few days, we wanted a little treat. We managed to score two rooms at the Temple Villa with two double beds, en-suite bathroom, and a TV, for $8 a night. Sold. I got into my room and had internet, so I called Sarah and we ended up chatting until it was around 6.30am. I sent her some digital love, then disappeared into my white sheet like a member of the KKK getting ready to rally.