Thursday, 13 December 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 26: Today’s salvation will be televised

After some well-spent time enjoying the north, it was time to go down south and finally experience some beach life, so we chucked our loads onto the back of a truck and headed back towards Chiang Mai’s airport. Due to time constraints, we couldn’t waste the best part of two days travelling down on numerous trains and buses, so instead forked out on a ninety minute flight which shot us straight into Koh Samui by mid-day. We realised soon after getting there that neither one of us had checked a weather forecast, both assuming incorrectly that it would be sunny. It wasn’t. It was gloomier than Jimmy Saville’s recently uncovered past, and started to rain as we rode towards Chaweng Beach. We got to a place called Z Hotel and hoped that its name wasn’t based on a rating scale. I checked out the room and it seemed nice, bright white walls and a Bob Marley stencilled canvas above the bed. “Alright Bob”, I said to our man, then turned to the manager saying we’d take it. He told us to return in an hour as the bed wasn’t made up, so we left our bags there and went off for a walk to see what was about. After going into a few shops it became apparent that shopping would be cheaper in London, where you aren’t quoted prices based on your complexion, so we headed back to check in to our hotel, and each other, after which I fulfilled my role as male by rolling over and going to sleep. After a few hours snoozing we awoke to the sound of crashing and banging outside of our ground floor window, and it turned out that a new hotel was being built next door, and they were still working at 7pm. Great news. We hit the street in search of somewhere to eat, and further realised that we’d made a big mistake. This place was a fucking cultureless tourist trap, offering overpriced everything, everywhere. We settled for one place on the beach after a long walk in disdain, witnessing the depressingly underwhelming faux paradise we’d found ourselves in. Why no one ever warned me against it, I’ll never know. You’d at least expect some great seafood, being on the beach and all, but I’ve made better calamari at home using frozen squid bought from my local Chinese supermarket in Hackney. How depressing. We bowled back, bemused, opting that an evening in together would greatly surpass that of going to a bar around there.

On recommendation from Rachael I’d picked up some tramadol in Cambodia, as she said they were a really strong painkiller with opiates which give a good high, so I gave them a try. We had no weed, as we had to finish it in Chiang Mai before flying, so we popped one each and stuck the telly on. In amongst the fuzzy Thai soap operas and foreign news, which I could just about ascertain was describing war everywhere and money ruling all, as always, I found one saving grace, a channel showing films in English. The first was the Martin Bashir documentary which he did on Michael Jackson. It was pretty sad viewing. We’ll never know for sure what he did and didn’t do behind closed doors, which I think is most likely bullshit stemming from the greed of immoral individuals and the media completing its celebrity cycle of building them up and then knocking them down, but either way he was clearly an abused individual, destroyed by those around him from an incredibly early age. I was feeling pretty mellow as I went outside to smoke one of my now favourite branded, Honghua Laotian cigarettes, and returned to find Sarah drifting off as Fight Club was just starting up on the screen. I sat up, in a blissful haze, and wrote a few days away as the film rolled on in front of me, and by the time I’d finished my down time, it was time to lay down. Finding Nemo was just starting, and I let it play in the background. As 4am became 5 sooner than I’d hoped, I finally slipped off the slope and slept.

I could hear builders banging outside, I was laying there, awake in my dream, getting more and more aggravated as it continued and rueing my luck at the choice of room and lack of warning I’d been given. It was too much. I woke up, realising it was still before 6am, and there was no building works currently happening outside. My earlier worries had obviously manifested themselves into my dreams, so I lay there, tired and then I heard it again. “BANG BANG BANG BANG” coming from somewhere outside my room. I opened the door to my room, shouted “SHUT UP”, slammed the door and then laid back on our bed. After a five more minutes of shouting and banging I walked out of our room and down the corridor in my boxer shorts, trying to see where the noise was coming from, but there was no sign of life, even my reflection in a hallway mirror didn’t seem to be there. Then all of a sudden a tubby Thai guy who I could only assume worked there came through the reception door. “What’s going on? I’m trying to sleep” I exclaimed. He looked at me blankly, I went back to bed.

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 25: Poo Pie

One of the things I love about psychedelic drugs (of which there are many) is the lack of hangover or comedown the following day. I remember the morning after my first mushroom trip, when I was nineteen, waking up feeling great and wondering why alcohol was ever made legal over mushrooms. Of course, you might have to deal with those introspective thoughts on your existence, which probably wouldn’t inspire you to get up for your assistant team leader job at Argos, but if you ask me, that’s infinitely better than having a heavy hangover from a Tuesday booze-up. Despite our mixing of both acid and alcohol, we awoke feeling decent, had a shower with a few thousand ants, then started making waves away from yesterday.

I find it somewhat unusual how, when travelling, your trust in strangers seems to increase drastically. Few people in their day to day lives would leave all of their valuables with someone they don’t know, or in unsecured rooms, whereas when travelling the rules of karma always seem to be faithfully adhered to, you do good to others and expect the same in return. Once again everything we owned was left by a bookshelf at our guesthouse and we scooted off to enjoy our final hours in Pai before our 3pm bus back to Chiang Mai. We wanted to find the pool which we’d missed out on yesterday, but we had little idea where it was, and after driving for thirty minutes around where we thought we’d lost the gang the previous day, we realised we had no hope of finding it alone. We drove back to Ting Tong as the boys were getting up and readying themselves for another lunch, but time was short so we couldn’t join them. Tutu gave us directions and told us it was called the Phu Pai Art Resort, how I couldn’t recall ‘Poo Pie’ as a hotel name was beyond me, but with his brief but helpful directions we arrived around 11am, as the sun was reaching its peak. We ordered breakfast, and did a few laps in their incredible infinity pool, which was circled by a backdrop of rice fields, mountains and fluffy white clouds painted onto a bright blue sky. We remained there getting roasted like cheap chickens on a Tesco rotisserie until 1.45pm, then whizzed back to the bike shop to drop off our death-trap. As we were driving there, Tutu whizzed by, late for our date at the pool. He turned and drove along behind us, beeping wildly as we ground to a halt. He apologised for his lateness, gave us both a hug and handed me a watermelon, which he must have been bringing to share with us by the pool. What a lovely man.

Poo pie has never tasted so good
We collected our safely stored luggage and lugged it to the bus station and by 3pm we were ready to head back down the seven hundred odd bends and curves to the larger, louder city of Chiang Mai. Sarah believed that some money had been removed from our stash whilst staying at the Top North a few days before and didn’t want to go back there, I personally thought we’d more than likely spent it without realising, but regardless, we checked into some cheap dive opposite, dropped off our bags and then headed straight for my date at John’s Bar where we’d had a drink a few days earlier, to watch Arsenal play Manchester United. After the first three minutes seeing my former favourite player, Robin Van Persie, score against us after a calamitous clearance from our new captain, Thomas Vermaelen, I knew that things weren’t going to go our way. I suffered the full ninety minutes drinking Chang and smoking cheap cigarettes like they were going out of fashion, fulfilling my role as a typical Brit abroad by shouting profanity at the screen, as if the players could hear the echoes of my discontent. A fantastic consolation goal in the dying embers of this lukewarm game by one of our only glimmers of hope, the Spaniard Santi Cazorla, did enough to soften the blow of this wasted time, and then it was time for some guaranteed relief in the form of a hand-rolled goal-post. I toked myself happy, then took a brown-water shower as the dysfunctional plumbing coughed its catarrh all over my once clean body, then swan-dived onto my mascot for a cuddle and fell soundly to sleep.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 24: Too much Thai-high for one guy in Pai

Blue sky thinking

Like so many cash cows that came before us, we handed in our Blue Lagoon room key and moo-ved on to greener pastures. After a short walk up the road and down another we reached the Pai Pura, which had a series of small, clay-like huts, stone pathways, various greenery and an authentic buzz of bugs and life emanating from its simple but well-kept grounds. The room was formed with stone interiors and a raised platform which the bed rested on. It was quaint. The bathroom, however, nearly made us faint. There was a rather bad ant infestation, and even a few blasts from the booty hose beside the toilet couldn’t eradicate their existence in and around our crapper. This would have to be deemed a necessary evil in exchange for the greater character on offer at this relatively inexpensive guesthouse.

My first hot bath in three weeks...
My own personal highway code is to always have the power on my side. I like to drive cars so that I have greater safety and power over cyclists, and if I’m ever cycling, I prefer to do it on the pavement, so I have power over the pedestrians. I don’t ride bikes anymore for that exact reason, and I don’t want to fulfil my own prophecy of dying in a road accident, as that is a lame way to go after surviving my near death experience in Monument Valley (see my first book) which would have been an infinitely cooler demise. Despite all this, I’d agreed with Sarah that we could hire a moped, so that we could meet the guys from Ting Tong, as planned the previous evening, and go out for the day to a nearby pool at a fancy hotel. My one condition was that I’d drive. I’d had my first ever practice in Laos and thought I’d be alright, which I was, whenever going in a straight line, but as soon as I had to turn, my arms would lock and I’d make some diagonal attempt at getting around a corner. By the grace of God alone, I managed to get us to the petrol station, handed Sarah the keys and didn’t bother after that. We drove to the Ting Tong bar to meet Tutu, Tek and Kwan, who were having lunch with a couple of American girls and greeted us fondly, offering up some home cooking. By the time everyone was ready to leave, we all hopped onto our bikes, and as we struggled to start ours up, the others all shot off. We tried to catch up and follow, but it was too late, they must not have realised that we had no clue where we were going and were nowhere to be seen. After a few kilometres of driving we saw a sign for the hot springs, which was the one thing we had wanted to do in this town, so we decided to go there instead. As we walked along there were a series of baths built out of stone which filtered down into the next one in the row. There were four or five which got progressively hotter, and after more than three weeks without my usual daily hot bath, this was heaven, I dived in and became more and more prune-like as I ascended. By the time I reached the hottest spot, which came with a warning against children or the elderly entering, like a teenage boy losing his virginity to a porn star, I approached it bravely but was in an out within sixty seconds. The next one up had a sign which said not to enter as it was eighty degrees, and you could boil eggs in it. It reeked with the eggy stench of a constant mass boil-off. We bought a small basket with three in it and submerged them, then stood waiting with the gathering locals, who were arriving in droves to make their dinner. After chowing down on our runny snack we headed back to our room just as it got dark.

We put all our eggs in one basket, we like to live dangerously.
My mischievous madam had chucked a couple microdots of acid into her first aid kit before leaving London, and had been carrying them ever since. They are the size of a grain of sugar and scentless, so the chance of discovery by customs was minimal, but this caused us a problem in itself, as we could only find one of them. After some advice from my Dr Feelgood and the internet, we discovered that the dosage was inside the red outer layer, and the best bet of splitting one was to crack the grain between two spoons, and somehow separating the tiny white inner core, which we did. We divided it as fairly as possible and hoped for the best. After about twenty minutes, I knew that something was going to come of this, as my body became heavy and my mind started fearing the forthcoming strangeness in a strange place. Sarah wanted to get out and get going, but I was functionless, allowing myself to be pulled further and further into the waves that were washing over me. We played ‘Heads or Temples’ with a 5 baht coin for an hour, every time Sarah said let’s go, I would let the coin decide. Head, we feed our heads with the weirdness beyond our four walls, and temples, we remain in our temple, safe from the uncertainty of the outside world. Fate kept deciding that it wasn’t time to leave, and by the time it did, I was just about ready to drag my body along with the spirit that controls it.
Outside, we lit the lantern which Tutu had bestowed upon us the previous evening, and made a wish as it rose into the atmosphere and became a golden star. After a short walk we reached the main streets, where a plethora of stalls had been set up, and everywhere was brightly lit and bustling. Instantly Everything became more vivid, and the intensity of our consumption was amplified tenfold, we weren’t ready for the world we’d entered, but it was too late now, we were in it. All the faces around us were slightly twisted, like we were surrounded by inbreeds with strange colourings and warped features, and their eyes all seemed to peer at us as we laughed our way down the street, checking out the odd stall until the fear crept in, or we were approached by sellers, who automatically gave us the urge to turn and run instead of communicating. “Are those lights moving?” asked Sarah, as we looked at a display of plug in glass air fresheners with small bulbs inside. “No, but the inside of your mind is” was my reply. We backed away after enjoying them for at least a minute more than we should have.

Dion and Sarah on acid.
I noticed a guy sitting behind a board which read ‘Your portrait, five minutes, 150 baht’ which had some atrocious looking examples of his work. It was so brilliantly terrible and reminded me of this guy called Chris (Simpsons artist) who draws hilarious attempts at copying the Simpsons and other characters from popular culture, usually backed up with hilarious descriptions which are completely incoherent. Look him up if you get the chance. I stopped Sarah and said “We need to get this guy to draw us”, but she didn’t feel capable of sitting for ten minutes without cracking up. Despite this, I convinced her that it was a must, and we approached him to request his services. I noticed him sketching one of the stalls to his left, and on further inspection I saw that he’d drawn a square box and a stick man in black marker pen. This was going to be great, I just knew it. He was a goofy looking guy of undetermined age, like most Thais he could’ve been fourteen or forty, and wore round spectacles and a red shirt. He reminded me of Simon from The Chipmunks and I found his odd demeanour to be very cute, albeit rather odd and jittery. Drugged and delirious, almost, or was that just me? He sat us down on two stools as we were already in fits of giggles. He gave Sarah an eye-line to look towards, and was acting rather professionally as he scanned her face from a low angle. I nearly lost my shit when he started drawing her, trying to hold down the shakes and ended up forcing myself to not look at what he was doing as it was too much. Sarah took a look and was uncontrollable, we hoped the guy just thought we were crazy as we’d been laughing the whole time, and obviously didn’t want to offend him or make him think we were laughing at his drawing, even though we were. I mockingly tickled Sarah under the armpit to try and style out her over-exuberant shaking. After a couple of minutes he’d finished her half, and gave me an eye-line in the opposite corner. ‘Don’t look down, don’t look down’ I kept saying to myself, like I was back on the mountain, ready to fall to my death. I fell, my eyes dropped and I was lost. It was too much. I was out of control. Once he’d done the outlines we sat and watched him further desecrate his drawing, mixing a few watercolours to paint us in a washed out yellow, and giving me a smoky grey mane of chest hair. Sarah’s usually wide, beautiful smile was depicted as a scrunched up little buck-toothed hole, and I was perfectly represented as a boss-eyed, square head with a glazed gaze. Good work. The phrase ‘on acid’ is often used to describe a twisted version of something, and this perfectly described the final product. Dion and Sarah on acid, although it looked more like the artist had been high, not us. I suspect that he and Chris (Simpsons artist) may be kindred spirits, or perhaps even one and the same. We happily handed over our cash, taking our still wet piece of ‘art’ away, stopping after one hundred metres or so to crack up completely, looking at what we’d just bought. It may have costed £3, but this shit was priceless. We marched it right back to our guesthouse immediately, worried that we may lose or damage this masterpiece, and discussing the clearly thriving art scene that Pai has on offer.

Feeling hungry and seeking further hilarity, we hit the streets once more. I’d seen a sushi stall and I wanted in on the action, but after half an hour rambling around the same streets it had seemingly disappeared. We said it’d be funny if we went back and got the guy to draw us again, but as we passed his spot, he was nowhere to be found. Had he existed at all? We’d have to check when we got home. As we strolled Sarah stalled at a stall and said “You should try that on”, pointing at a maroon linen tunic which had various embroidered panels, gold bells for buttons and two sun symbols which she originally mistook for 3D plastic patches and was hanging from a rail behind the seller. I tried it on but was unsure, and there was no mirror, so she took a photo. I wasn’t convinced but she was adamant, I thought it could be a drug impulse, but asked for the price anyway. ‘250 baht’ was the response, we didn’t even barter, £5 for a lairy jacket was hardly going to break the bank, which I’d already been smashing to smithereens. I left it on and became happier with it as we proceeded. Sarah also found a tie-dye dress at the next place along which we liked, haggling the seller down to 300 baht, using my tunic as a reference against his attempt to rip off us ‘rich’ foreigners. We agreed that we’d each treat each other to our new finds.

We passed a stall selling chicken nuggets, and opted to share some of them to line our stomachs before we started drinking. We were served by an odd, little lady who was very animated. She resembled a shrivelled prawn and scurried around, counting out nuggets with her claw like hand and chucking them into her oil-filled wok. She looked up, almost mesmerised by my presence and said “Oooh, nice jacket, where you buy?” I told her that it was just a few metres down the road and she asked how much. When I told her the price she was flabbergasted, spinning in circles and raising her hands to the sky. Her reaction was that of both shock and disbelief, she even summoned a couple of friends who quickly checked it out and agreed that I’d got myself a steal. Part of me wanted to give it to her, but the other part fell in love with it due to her reaction. An Italian guy beside me said “Give him one thousand nuggets for it”, and she fell about laughing her head off and nodding in agreement that she would. Bless her, I wanted to cuddle her, her presence was so uplifting. We’d doubted we’d laugh as much at anything else after the earlier drawing, but she gave us our second round with her sheer love for my new purchase. It was the sort of thing you couldn’t make up, too magnificent for words to fully do justice, another priceless moment in an amazing adventure. I found another sushi stall a few steps down from our new friend, but put it down to luck that we’d got to meet the nugget lady instead.

We heard some live music being played and entered a courtyard which was decked out with seats and tables and had a band playing indoors beside a small bar. We joined the twenty odd customers that were drinking there and ordered a couple Sangsom rum and cokes. This was the first time we’d stopped in hours, and I felt like I was in a crooked house as I admired the angles of Everything around me. We sat and drank for an hour, settling ourselves down and pointing out the strange things we’d spot in our surroundings as the musicians played covers of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dire Straits and various other classics. We agreed on the need for some weed, so finished up our cups and set off towards the Ting Tong. As we approached we found Tek and Tutu who greeted us with love and we explained how we’d lost them that afternoon. We bought a bucket of Sangsom and coke with our last remaining 200 baht and retreated to the back room to sit on some orange sofas and smoke. We spoke to a fifty-something year old Thai guy called Tom about our night, our trip, his life in Pai etc, and then showed him a photo of our portrait from earlier. “I don’t think this guy knows how to draw” was his reply. Fuckin’ ay, Tom, fuckin’ ay. We got chatting to the English barmaid whose name was Sofi, and she said she’d let us know about where to stay in Ko Phangan. Sarah added her on Facebook and it turned out that she went to school with Victoria, Sarah’s best friend at work. It’s a small world after all, but you already knew that. I laid out front, by the fire, in a stoned haze as tiredness crept over me and I witnessed the waning moon being passed by clouds, she looked beautiful. She always does. We wished the guys goodnight, then made our way back to our ant farm to lay beside each other, laughing at the events of the evening, and taking frequent looks back at our superb drawing, which we planned to frame upon our return. As Ice Cube would say, ‘Today was a good day’.

Misty Moon

Freewheelin’ in S.E.A - Day 23: Pai in the sky

My usual habit of waking up and hurriedly packing occurred once again, Sarah had sensibly packed the night before but my shit, as always, was spread out around the four corners of the room. The minivan which was taking us to Pai arrived promptly at 10am, got us first, then spent nigh on an hour picking up its other passengers. You win some, you lose some, we lost this one. After all the milling around we hit the winding roads towards Pai. Apparently there are over seven hundred twists and turns on the three and a half hour drive, but I was busy doing my homework whilst we winded up and around the mountain roads, so I didn’t notice much else. We stopped off half way and sat amongst some sunflowers, sharing a friend-maker with two Irish guys called Gerry and Philly who had been to Pai already and loved it so much that they were heading back. My friends Kat and Rachael were also planning to do that, which says a lot about the place. We arrived and checked out a hotel called Blue Lagoon which was meant to be pretty nice and have a swimming pool, which is useful in places where there’s no beach nearby, and checked in for the reasonable price of 400 baht. We realised soon after that the place was in major need of upheaval. The pool was really dirty and filled with dead bugs, there was only one sun lounger, a few broken chairs, a rusted, unusable exercise machine and a busted up pool table on offer to what few guests remained in this dilapidated dwelling. Regardless, I did a few lengths making sure my mouth stayed closed, as I’d already eaten lunch, then lay with Sarah catching the last rays as they dropped behind our building, and watching the highlights of Arsenal’s match the previous day. It was a strange, entertaining game which excited and annoyed me in one fell swoop. Typical Arsenal, conceeding a load of goals but still scoring more. Not only was our hotel in need of some drastic T.L.C, it had absolutely no vibe or character to it at all, it was the hotel equivalent of a bookish fifty year old that got left by their lover twenty years back and didn’t have the heart or confidence to try again. We decided to leave the next morning. We cleaned up, then went off to explore the town. The first thing I saw was a sign outside which read ‘Hotel for sale’, which I hadn’t originally noticed when lugging my luggage in the sweltering heat of the mid-afternoon. It all made sense after that. We checked out the main square, and walked along a rickety old bamboo bridge and back as the sun was lowering in the sky, then went off for an early steak dinner. I’d heard this town was laid back and stoner friendly, so we thought we’d test the water by smoking an appetizer at our table in the restaurant’s front garden. Nobody seemed to care or notice. Nice…nice.

A river runs through it
Our next stop was a happy hour bucket of Mai Tai at a small bar called Almost Famous, after I’d heard them playing ‘Who loves the Sun’ by The Velvet Underground as we were walking by. Whilst drinking from our bucket I noticed that one of their signs said ‘Est. 1978’ underneath the bar’s name, and another said ‘Est 1987’. It made me laugh, because both of those dates were probably made up anyway and the place was more likely only a few years old. As we were leaving they played ‘Nas is like’ by the man himself, so I insisted we stay until it finished. Pretty good work for entrance and exit music in the film of my life. As recommended by Kat and Rachael, the sisters I’d befriended in Laos, we sought out a bar called Ting Tong, which apparently means ‘crazy’ in Thai, and took a seat in front of a fire that was burning out front with chairs and cushions all around. There was a mirror which had ‘Are you Ting Tong?’ written above it, and a sign in a tree which read ‘Welcome to Pai’. There was a good energy in this place, and some cool looking Thai guys working there. I started chatting to them and it turned out that they were Tek and Tutu, the two guys who the girls had told me to find. I passed on their messages of love to the guys, had a few drinks with my lady and found a book called Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, which somebody had left there. Sarah said it was a great read, and as I wasn’t really enjoying the ‘Gig!’ book by Simon Armitage, which I’d been given for my birthday, so I asked the guys who it belonged to and they said that they didn’t read, and I could have it. As we left we made plans to spend the following day with them, and Tutu gave us a paper lantern to send into the skies with a wish. We decided to save it for the following evening as we’d been planning to make it special one, then turned in for the night at our neglected step-child of a hotel. I could hear the walls weeping after another night with no supper, so I gave them a stroke and said that I loved them, before switching the light and ending my night.