Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 222: London

Well, I've exchanged the Thai climate for some English weather and arrived safely back in Blighty. To be honest, it's actually not as cold as I thought it would be and at least it's nice to see some early signs of Spring. I'd like to say that it's good to be home, but it's not, ... and can I really call this home? I got an email from Rick, a BMW riding traveller we'd met in back Siberia, he invited me for a drink in Bangkok. Unfortunately, I opened the email at Heathrow airport shortly after I landed, ..... next time maybe.

The Tiger is mobile again, at least it's a little more mobile than it's rider, but things have definitely improved since I last unsuccessfully tried to swing a leg over it. I can ride it normally now, no pain, no problems, just smiles. It's just as well, because back at the magazine Dave Gurman (Editor) has just thrown a brand new Triumph Rocket III down the road and I'm stepping in to pick up the next bike. I guess if your going to crash a brand new bike belonging to a third party, then you might as well choose the most expensive, the most powerful and the heaviest bike in their range. I'm just thankful that I didn't have to help him pick the bloody thing up because it must weigh as much as a small house. The good news for the magazine is that Dave is repairable, .... but the bad news for Triumph is that the bike probably isn't. Anyway, it looks like I'll be riding the new 1050 Sprint ST, ..... yes from Triumph, and I'll try not to crash this one for them. I'm not sure about the legality of me taking it out onto the circuit, so I'll say that I wont do any track-days and blame forgetfulness if I accidentally find myself out on Cadwell Park.

The Tiger is going in for it's MOT today and I decided to take the panniers off, ... the first time since I got home in December. Wow, .. they were bloody heavy. I couldn't even remember what I'd left in there and so I looked. Fortunately I opened them before I brought them inside the house because they were each at least 50% full of water, ..... water that had turned rusty as it had feasted on a variety of tools and spanners that I'd also left in there. The good new is that the panniers were outwardly watertight, .. they didn't really 'leak', .... they just simply 'absorbed'. Anyway, I hope it passes it's MOT first time because I'm feeling really lazy and I don't fancy trying to change brake pads and tyres just at the minute. It's still wearing the Scorpion front tyre that Roman found for me in Volgograd sometime last century, .... and that's got to be 15,000 gentle miles ago. Maybe I better check it before I take the bike down this afternoon.

Medically speaking, I've got a hospital appointment on April 6th, which I believe is also the beginning of the new 'Tax Year'. While I was away, I had an email from HMR&C telling me that as I hadn't used my 'Activation Code' to process my tax returns on-line, it had now expired. On a brighter note, they seem to have got my email address correct if not my home address, ..... Braintree wasn't built in a day.

Post 221: Bangkok .... Again

They talked in a strange and comical language, the rights to which I assume are owned in perpetuity by some Hollywood film studio. It’s a language in which everybody’s called ‘’Dude‘’, and ‘’Dude’’ is always preceded by either ‘’totally‘’, ‘’awesome’’ or ‘‘radical’’, …. surely real people don‘t talk this way? There were four of then, I guess in their mid to late twenties and from a town that I‘d never before heard of in a state that I‘ve since forgotten. It wasn’t California but it could possibly have been Oregon, at least it was somewhere on the West Coast where the surf was ‘’banging‘’, which I assumed meant that it was at least marginally better than ’good’. I’m getting older and with each passing year I’m constantly reminded that my mental dictionary is becoming woefully out of date but like flies to fresh poo, the four American’s were now sharing my small table in an otherwise perfectly acceptable bar. It’s a small place, a bar with no beer-girls, a bar where I can avoid the sex-tourists and read through the chapters that I’ve already completed, a bar that gets me out of my guesthouse and reminds that the world still exists beyond it‘s charming but claustrophobic walls. They’d come into this bar on what they try to tell me is the wrong side of the Chao Phraya River and on seeing my open laptop, had immediately decided to disturb the only customer who really didn’t want to be disturbed. They were loud, they were shouty and they were brash. After every couple of unnecessarily loud sentences they’d break into song or perform little orchestrated dances and then laugh uncontrollably at nothing in particular. Perhaps the fact that I was the only ’farang’ in the bar was the real reason behind their attraction, maybe they hadn‘t expected to find another Westerner here. In here, amongst the Thai’s and migrant workers of Bangkok, away from the dusky dancing damsels and purveyors of all things that are fake, I don‘t get disturbed by people the likes of which I have absolutely no desire to meet,….. until now.

They insist on telling me tales of their travels, tales that I’d really rather not listen to tonight. I’m trapped between London and Khon Kaen, two places where right now I’d much rather be, but since the airline have informed me that my ticket is the lowest of the low, the kind of ticket that is non-refundable, non-transferable, a ticket that only allows me to return to London on the originally specified date, I‘ve become an accidental resident of Bangkok. Tassaneeya asks me daily me to return to Khon Kaen, and trust me when I say that such offers are very difficult to refuse , but if I return to Khon Kaen she’ll fill my days with distraction and the work will never be finished. The body of the book is completed, but now I have to concentrate and place everything into the correct tense and context. It’s a process that’s turning out to be a lot more difficult than I’d ever imagined and distractions will only confuse and delay me further. I’m not complaining that I’m trapped in Bangkok, it’s actually more of a comment and I appreciate that having the freedom to be here at all, makes me a very lucky boy indeed. It’s just that there are now places that for very different reasons, I would much rather be.

Ignoring my complete lack of interest, the four uninvited disturbances to my tranquillity inform me that they’re on a mission to discover the ’Real Thailand’. For two whole weeks they’re going totally native, they’re eating only Thai food and drinking only Thai beer and visiting the places where less adventurous travellers would fear to tread. Whilst undertaking this extreme and dangerous act of cultural integration, they’re staying at a hotel on Silom Road, the Dusit Thani, a hotel that I know to be five star rated and that I suspect charges well in excess of £200 per night, … very dangerous and native indeed. They ask me where I’m staying and I tell them ‘’around the corner’’, but I don’t tell them that it’s only £8 per night. The older Dude speaks Thai, apparently he’s almost fluent but tonight they’re travelling with a local guide, a guide who for what they deem to be a reasonable fee of 2,000 THB, (£40), is introducing them to the darker side of Bangkok. I tell them that the ’Darker Side of Bangkok’ is probably situated no more than a few hundred yards away from their hotel in Patpong 1 and Patpong 2, but they seem to see these two notorious streets as being the gloss of Bangkok rather than the tarnish. Thankfully, after a solitary bottle of Singha Beer apiece, their guide for the evening claps his hands loudly and informs his temporary charges in perfect English that it’s now time to move on. As they wave goodbye and file out of the door, I begin to question the older Dude’s fluency in the native language. The Thai’s in the bar are smiling and waving goodbye to the four young American’s who have now formed a conga chain and are singing and dancing their way out of the once peaceful bar, waving and smiling back at the other drinkers, patting their guide on the head and thanking him for an awesome evening of discovery in this apparently lawless side of town. The same faithful guide had just informed all Thai speakers who were willing to listen that it was time to take these drunken pieces of sticky shit back to their own world and apologised to all for their vulgarity. At least that’s what I think he’d just told them, but then unlike the Older Dude who appeared totally oblivious to this statement, … I’m not even close to being fluent.

My week of self imposed solitude here in Bangkok, admittedly with the support of the airline, has helped me to achieve at least two things. Firstly, and as mentioned above, the book is now finished and only the tedious task of editing it remains. I’m worried that the book might be too lengthy but it’s difficult to remove any of the constituent parts without ignoring some of the experiences that help to make sense of the journey ahead. Every single thing that happened had a direct influence on the next and by skipping individual and often unreported adventures, the story begins to make less sense. It’s probably really two books, ’’Ashes To Boonville’’ and ‘’Homeward Bound’’, because looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, the two parts of the journey were actually two totally separate adventures, ….. but I’ll wait and see what happens from here.

Secondly, despite my failed attempt to gain access to a swimming pool here in Bangkok, an attempt that saw me being unceremoniously evicted from a Bangkok Hotel during daylight hours, I’ve continued my exercise regime and my medical condition has improved remarkably. The problem still exists, but it’s much less of a problem that it had been. I can walk, I can sit down and I can now even ride a bike. I’m looking forward to getting home, to start riding again, to earn some money and to begin dreaming of the next adventure. I know that London will be cold, and probably raining too, and I know that once I arrive in the unwelcoming surroundings of Heathrow’s terminal three, I’ll wish that I was back here in Thailand, ….. and one day soon, hopefully I will be.

My daughter Hannah wants to come here, perhaps not to experience the amazing culture, perhaps not to experience the seemingly unfathomable conflicts between ancient beliefs and modernisation, for Hannah is a teenage girl and as such has much more pressing desires. And so for Hannah, I post the photograph above. MBK, Bangkok’s Mecca for affordable shopping, .. bring an empty suitcase and shop until your heart is content, but please don’t be at all surprised if your designer frocks and tee shirts shrink during their first laundromatic experience, ….. for this is Bangkok where beyond the welcoming smiles, less and less of everything seems to be genuine.

Post 220: Khon Kaen Again

The more I visit Thailand the more I learn and the less I seem to understand. Like everywhere else in the world, Thailand is changing and I can fully understand that, but it’s the parts that never seem to change that I find the most difficult to grasp. The students in Kranuan were apparently due to receive their certificates for graduation and they’d asked if I could return to the college for the ceremony. It’s funny, but I thought that I’d already attended their graduation ceremony last week! It had been a good week in Kranuan and admittedly I’d consumed a fair quantity of Leo Beer and Lao Kau, the local rice spirit, but I’d definitely attended some form of ceremony at the college and had the photographs and friendship bands to prove it. But what the hell, the writing is almost finished and I could change my return flight to London. A couple of days away would be fun, … and cheap.

Return air ticket £60, bus ticket £8,… no contest. Because I’m a long nosed and pale skinned ‘farang‘, people assume that I dwell in a barrel full of money and no matter how often I protest this assumption, the Thai’s just smile and say ’mai pen rai’, it doesn’t matter, of course I‘m loaded. They automatically assume that I’ll be flying to Khon Kaen and to save face, mine of theirs I’m not sure, I don’t bother to correct them and head out to the Mon Chit bus station in Bangkok. It’s five hours to Khon Kaen and I just hope that the air conditioning is working and hopefully this time, …. the engine too.

For anything other than decorative purposes, watches are seemingly useless in provincial Thailand, outside of Bangkok nobody seems to care about time. Working in the UK, we exchange time for money and time becomes a precious commodity that there is never enough of. We might be Christians, Muslims or Jews, but whatever our faith, or lack of faith, we seem to accept that this life might just be our only opportunity to get everything done. We’ve only got seventy plus years and so we rush around like crazy people trying to get everything done in the time that we‘ve been allocated. In Thailand, a heady mixture of Buddhist and Animist beliefs allows them to see this life as nothing more than a temporary thing. What you do in this life determines your standing in the next and where you are today is a direct result of the merit that you gained in your previous life. This means that in my previous life, I must have been a very good guy and my current status as a ‘farang’ is a just reward for my previous good deeds. Perhaps the fact that this is only one of many lives that they will inevitably lead makes them less paranoid about time and punctuality and as a westerner, that’s something that I don’t think I could ever get used too. I arrived in Khon Kaen late on Friday afternoon, but I was too late, the ceremony finished hours ago. Nobody had felt it important to tell me when the ceremony was due to take place and I hadn’t bothered to ask, I’d assumed it was on Saturday. ‘Mai pen rai, it doesn‘t matter, …. but that doesn‘t stop me from wanting to scream.

No problem, I want to visit the shrine standing above the lake on the edge of Khon Kaen and take some photographs of the place. Great, it’s all arranged, Tassaneeya will drive me out there after I’ve found a decent cup of coffee,… my caffeine levels are running dangerously low. In the market, the heat beneath the corrugated tin roof is almost unbearable but the noodles are perfect, ‘a-roi mak, very delicious. Apparently not, I’ve forgotten that this is Isaan and the language is different, I should say suay mak. I’m confused, ‘suay’ means beautiful or unlucky, depending on how you say it, but here in Isaan it also means ’delicious’, …. no matter which way you say it. The sweet iced tea keeps arriving and I keep drinking but there’s still no sign of any coffee. People stop and talk with Tassaneeya, they’re interested in me but are scared to approach me directly, all except for the kid’s who don’t seem to mind who they approach. The time passes and the sun sets, we’ve missed the visit to the shrine but there’ll be another day. It’s frustrating, I still wear a watch complete with an accurate date function, my seventy years are vanishing fast, I’m well past the midway point and my tomorrows are diminishing at an increasingly alarming rate. The Thai’s don’t understand why we’re always in a hurry, I’m not sure that they even have a word for impatient, they just keep telling me to relax and take it easy. Anyway, Tassaneeya tells me that she’s wearing shorts, a fact that hadn’t gone unnoticed, and they’re not suitable for visiting temples or shrines .… mai pen rai.

On Sunday, using my accurate watch so as not to be late, I repeat the hot process of returning to Bangkok. Thankfully, although it’s the middle of the dry season, it rained last night and the air is cool and clear. The locals are wearing jackets and scarves, it’s similar to the hottest day of a British summer but while I’m enjoying the sudden drop in temperature, they’re all catching chills. Bangkok is just as I’d left it on Friday, busy, loud, vulgar and fragrant. I should take a bus, but I don’t understand the system. BTS, which I suspect stands for ’Bangkok Transport System’ is known to most people simply as the Sky Train, because that’s exactly what it is. It’s built high above the main roads of Bangkok on the ugliest concrete pillars, but it works perfectly. Fifty meters above the insane density of life and traffic, the Sky Train whisks you along in air-conditioned comfort and the most expensive ticket is probably a lot less than £1,… it works perfectly. Apparently there is also an underground system in Bangkok but I’ve never used it, or if the truth be told, I’ve never even seen it. In Thailand, things seem to work better if they’re not buried, like the electricity and telephone cables,… so I’ll stick with the BTS. I check into the hostel for two nights, my flight back to London should be on Tuesday, but the booking is not confirmed yet ….. mai pen rai’.

Post Script: I'm back in Bangkok and apparently my air ticket is the lowest form of ticket available, no real surprise there then. I expected to pay a surcharge to change the return date but I hadn't expected to be charged for the full cost of a new ticket if I wanted to simply change the date of travel. Needless to say, ...... I remain here possibly until 25th March.

Post 219: The Village, Isaan, Thailand

Thailand has chosen it’s marketing strap-line well, ‘The Land of Smiles’. Everywhere that you go it’s the smile that welcomes you and it’s the smile that makes you want to return, or in many cases, never to leave. Every province is different from it’s neighbour; culture, personality, cuisine language, yet every thing and every place still remains uniquely Thai. It’s a little like the United Kingdom where England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island are very different from each other but together they form part of the same United Kingdom. However, unless you can imagine a Wales or an England where everybody is constantly happy and nobody ever moans about their lot, then that is precisely where the similarities between these two Kingdom’s end.

Khon Kaen is situated in the North Eastern province of Isaan and while it might lack the beautiful beaches of the south, in my eyes it more than makes up for it in the richness of it‘s culture. The people here in Isaan are very proud, their traditions are as old as the fields that that they farm and far older than the machinery that they use to work their fertile land. Twenty years ago when I first came and fell in love with this region, the land was cultivated with ploughs drawn by animals and the crops were harvested by families. A wealthy rice farmer may have owned a Tak-Tak; a petrol driven rotivator that is also used to tow trailers and transport children to school, but most farmers would simply have shared a water buffalo or an ox with their neighbours. Things have changed, the Japanese pick-up has replaced the Tak-Tak as a means of family transport and the only animals that you’ll see are more likely destined for the dining table than a life of toil in the paddy fields.

I guessed that the man sitting cross-legged beside me on the floor was in his early eighties, perhaps a little younger, but then perhaps I was being unkind. A life spent farming beneath the year round blazing sun with absolutely no knowledge of SPF creams and lotions, I suspect does little to reduce the aging process. He points to his bright orange tractor and smiles at me with pride. It’s a small tractor, probably half the size of the kind that you’ll see in England, but it’s perfect for the narrow furrows of his rice fields. He knows that my Dad was a farmer, he wonders why I didn’t follow in his footsteps. He only needs to look at me, I might make a good office-boy but I’m not biologically built for even the mildest form of manual labour. We’re eating Tom Yom soup and sticky rice, it’s been prepared especially for me, ’mai phet’, not spicy. The beautiful Tassaneeya comes out onto the veranda, hands me a cold LEO beer and sits beside me on the raffia matting. She’s acting as translator. Here in Isaan they speak a language derived from Laos, a language that is a million miles removed for my ever diminishing grasp of Thai. The old man is her Grandfather and the man sitting next to him is her Father. I recalculate my estimation of his age, it must be closer to ninety. It seems that the entire family has gathered and they comment on the friendship bands that have been tied to our wrists by the students at the college. They laugh, they joke and the family drink beer while the mosquito are content to gorge themselves on my blood. Everybody is happy.

It’s very late, Tassaneeya’s parents have seemingly retired for the evening and the relatives have silently drifted away leaving her Granddad and myself alone to talk. The detail of the conversation I miss, some of the Laos I just simply don’t understand, but the overall meaning seems only too clear. The affects of the beer instantly vanishes, the blood sucking mosquitoes become irrelevant. He’s joking, he must be joking, or perhaps I’ve simply misinterpreted the conversation. I ask for clarification and he willingly gives it. I laugh nervously and he smiles at me with a gleam in his eyes,….. time for bed.

One day I’ll feel brave enough to recount that conversation with the old man in the village with no name, but that day might be a long time in coming. I hate leaving, especially if I’m leaving for a place that is less inspiring than where I am already. It’s even more difficult when I’m leaving good friends, no matter how temporarily, behind me. My destination is Bangkok and then onwards to London in a few days time. I say goodbye to Tassaneeya, she wants me to stay and I certainly don’t want to leave but there are as always, a million things that need to be done.

Post 218: Winter Sunshine, Kranuan, Thailand

If musical notes came complete with fool-proof instructions and carrying handles, this expatriate Geordie would still find it impossible to hold one. When it comes to the musical gene pool, I was definitely born in the shallow end. Thankfully for me, here in Thailand supper is cheap and no matter how badly you sing, you’re very unlikely to starve.

The travel voucher arrived, there would be no flight confirmations but the promise of available seats on a turn up and wait in line basis was good enough for me. A suitcase with wheels for everything weighing more than a few ounces and a pair of multi-pocketed combat trousers for everything else that I might need for the journey. A night at Heathrow’s terminal three, an abundance of empty benches but any prospect of reclining along them for the night had been destroyed by the addition of needless armrests between each seat. The trolley suitcase, a prefect height for my inclined feet, the early morning alarm set and all things considered, a very good nights sleep. One thing did surprise me however was the number of drunks wandering around the airport in the early hours of the morning,… surely there must be more comfortable and inexpensive venues in which to get hammered?

A security officers curious eye takes a second look at the strips of tablets that I’ve taken out my pocket for the walk-through metal detector, no boxes, nothing to identify their purpose or legality, he frowns and lets me pass. The flight to Bangkok, no delays, no interruptions and plenty of seats for all. It lands on time, immigration is a formality and thirty minutes later I’m sharing a taxi with three previous strangers towards Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport and a flight onwards to Khon Kaen. Thai Airways take some convincing that my ticket is valid for ninety days, they point out that I didn’t use the ticket on the specified date back in November 2008, I explain that at the time their fine airport was being held hostage by a few thousand pro democracy supporters, ‘not flying‘ wasn‘t a choice that I‘d made, it had been a choice that had been made for me. They concede and after paying a fee of 500 Thai Baht, they issue me with a new ticket to Khon Kaen,…. which brings me back to the ‘singing‘.

Three hundred students aged sixteen to nineteen, it’s the end of the school year and everybody is in jubilant mood. I’d understood that I’d be ‘Teaching’, but once again I’d either misinterpreted the situation or I’d arrived later than expected,… or more likely, the staff had simply been winding me up. The assembly hall of Kranuan Industrial & Community College was ringing to the sounds of constant chatter and karaoke, everybody was singing, dancing and having fun. What is it about Asia, everybody across this vast continent seems to be able to sing in almost perfect key, except for the visitor? There was no distinction between students and staff, there was no embarrassment, everybody joined in, it was the only thing to do. I find it hard to imagine this atmosphere at home in a High School or College, there is no attitude, no segregation or separation, the students respect the teachers and in turn the teachers respect the students. There seems to be no form of discipline but there are no disciplinary problems, no disruptive kids, no truancy, no exclusions. The teachers teach, the students learn and everything seems to work exactly as it should. From the stage, the monk gives a blessing for the students and makes a joke about the single ‘farang’ guest, everybody looks at me and laughs. Apart from saying something about not riding a motorbike, I have no idea what else he’s said and afterwards, nobody seems to remember or they‘re too embarrassed to tell. The students take photographs of everybody, they exchanged gifts and friendship bands and as the day draws to a close, a row of silk and cotton ties has stretched almost to my elbow.

In the evening, I go to dinner with twenty of the oldest students who are leaving College and five of the teaching staff. An open-air restaurant where we cook food on small grills and boiling bowls in the centre of the tables. We start on water and slowly progress to beer,…. and then to whiskey. The teachers control the flow of alcohol down the long tables towards the students and as the evening wears on their generosity increases,… but everybody seems to be drinking responsibly. Nobody gets hammered, but in Thailand when people are out celebrating, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between drunk and sober, they just enjoy never fail to themselves.

I’ve been here for four days now and I’m helping out where I can, it’s fun and it’s relaxing. Away from the college I write in an open air café where they provide me with power and keep adjusting the sun shades to keep me cool. I eat constantly and the flow of LEO Beer seems endless. They laugh at my attempts to speak Bangkok Thai and I laugh at their responses, they try to teach me more of this Laos based language but it’s along and difficult journey. I’ve been given an exercise regime to follow, it involves a lot of swimming and sitting in a semi-lotus position. It seems to be working, life’s a lot more comfortable than it had been at home, I can walk, I can sit,… and an average daily temperature of 97 degrees does wonders to relax muscles in the offending region. At the end of each day at the café I pay my bill and check their arithmetic; three good meals, two pitchers of beer, hundreds of glasses of iced tea and I‘m never charged more than £3. I feel guilty, if only as a reflection of the time that the staff dedicate to me, the bill should surely be far higher,…. but that’s just the economics of the area. There is no minimum hourly wage, there is no statutory maximum working day, business opens when customers are available and it closes only once they’ve left. Few people here are rich but all of the people are fed and without exception,… are constantly smiling and seemingly happy with their lives.

I’m not sure how long I’ll stay here, economically it makes no sense to leave but with a million things that I want to be doing and a few things that I simply can’t avoid doing, I’ll have to make my plans soon. One good thing about being away from home is that each morning I avoid looking at a bike that I can’t ride, being here makes me enjoy doing the things that I can do and avoid thinking about the things that I can’t,… to a point. If the therapy keeps working it’s miracles then I might try riding a scooter in the next couple of days and if that works out,… I’ll decide then. I’m not missing home at all but I am missing doing the things that I’d planned and of course I’m missing the people.