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

Post 310: Through the Barricades ...

I’d walked a full circle of the Red Shirt encampment and outside of their small geographical stronghold, it seemed like business as usual. Bangkok still buzzed with it’s usual vigour, just as if nothing at all unusual was happening. It seemed that after six weeks of living with this Red inconvenience, the people had grown bored with it and just wanted to get on with their lives and businesses. Anywhere else in the world and I’d stay very much on the outside of that perimeter, but this is Thailand and Thailand is different. It was time to venture inside the Red enclave.

Visit any attraction in Thailand and as a Farang, you’ll be charged an entry price while access for Thai’s will be free. Passing through the checkpoint into the encampment was refreshingly different. I simply walked through unmolested while every Thai was stopped and searched for weapons.

Through the barricade, the road has been turned into a market on one side and an open-air hotel on the other. Everything that you could possibly need for six weeks of street-camping is available. They’ve created a micro-city with it’s own micro-economy and the place is positively buzzing with life and energy.

Providing that they have business in the area, goods vehicles and taxi-bikes are allowed through the barricades. It must seem like a pain in the arse having to stop and search all of these vehicles, but the people organising this camp are no fools. If they want the protestors to stick with the programme, then they have to make life as comfortable as possible for them. Every ATM is topped up with money, every open store is full of produce and every day, the shit is taken away. Hell, they’ve even built their own recycling centre for plastics, paper and glass. In six short weeks, they’ve built a City within a City. Screw giving major reconstruction contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan to Western firms, just send in the Thai’s. It’ll cost next to nothing, everything will get built on time and more importantly, it’ll probably all work just fine …. mai pen rai

The sound of Bangkok’s 24-hour traffic has been replaced by party political broadcasts played through walls of loud speakers and everybody listens. Well, they don’t really have much choice. Bugger me they like their shit loud here.

On the open area between the Zen and Siam Paragon shopping complexes, the main rally is in full swing. The people sit on mats cleverly constructed from discarded water bottles and they cheer in unison. Everybody except for me has a red and white stick with two hands or two feet on the end of it. As they cheer at the speaker, they shake their sticks and it sounds like a thousand sets of comedy false-teeth simultaneously chattering. It really is a weird and haunting sound. Speaker follows enthusiastic speaker and for all of the day and most of the night, they whip the crowd into a frenzy. I haven’t got a clue what the speakers are saying so I just smile and nod … smile and nod .... mai pen rai

Away from the central rally point, Bangkok’s newest open-air hotel caters for it’s thousands of non-paying guests. Families have made their homes here and it seems to be divided geographically with unofficial camps for people from Surin, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani etc. Each area has it’s own shops, soup kitchens and basic bathroom facilities. It feels like whole villages have been uprooted and moved south to Bangkok, and perhaps they have. The people are friendly, they smile and chat openly with me. They’re happy that an outsider is taking an interest in their cause. I smile and nod. Hell, I don’t particularly agree with their cause, but I’m hardly likely to disagree when I’m inside their camp. I might be a fool at times, but I’m certainly not a suicidal one … mai pen rai

One thing that you can certainly say about Thai’s is that they are very resourceful people. Here, they seem to have tapped into all of the resources of Bangkok on a no-cost basis. Power is taken from the electronic street furniture and water tapped directly from hydrants. Whole plumbing systems have been installed and everything possible has been done to make street life in Bangkok as comfortable as possible. From East to West and North to South, the whole encampment is covered in what must be the worlds largest tarpaulin. I’ve no idea where all of the material was taken from, but erecting it must have been an engineering miracle, it’s absolutely bloody massive. But it works. It lets in the light but keeps out the worst of the suns heat. It’s actually quite cool beneath it but obviously as the only Farang here, I’m the one that’s sweating buckets while everybody else looks as fresh as a bloody daisy. Maybe I’m just nervous? Smile and nod ….. mai pen rai

Post 309: Bangkok Barricades ......

When given the choice between tranquillity and trouble, I usually find myself heading for the latter. The signpost read ‘Nakhom Ratchasima 187 Km’ - ‘Bangkok 67 Km’. Bangkok was closer, easy choice …. mai pen rai

Returning from Laos six weeks ago, the roads were full of Red Shirt protestors heading down to Bangkok from the rural North of Thailand. I don’t think that anybody, including myself, expected their protests to last as long as this, but clearly they have. According to the BBC World News, Bangkok is in turmoil, the City at a standstill and Civil War is about to be unleashed. I was unfortunate enough to get caught up in the Yellow Shirt protests of November 2008 and I seem to remember similar reports being broadcast back then. I do understand that in the latest protests several people have sadly lost their lives, but in a country as complex as Thailand, things are seldom as clear as they appear to the outside world.

I found the protestors encampment quite easily, probably because I knew exactly where it was. They’ve made their main base west of Sukhumvit Road between the Sky Train Stations (BTS) of Chit Lom and Siam. Strategically speaking they’ve made quite a good choice. It’s a long stretch of road, possibly a kilometre in length, and all of the side streets already have barriers in place to prevent traffic from entering. At the main intersections to the West and East, they’ve simply built barricades and have quite effectively sealed off the whole area.

To say that the City of Bangkok has been brought to s standstill is ridiculous. If this were London, then the protestors would have closed down Regent Street and life in the rest of the Capital would continue as normal. They’ve effectively closed down the Westernised Shopping Centres of Siam Paragon, Zen, Central World and Amarin Plaza. McDonalds, InterContinental Hotels, Burberry, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior will not be happy, but all of the Thai businesses appear to operating as normal, so it’s probably no great loss …. mai pen rai

The barricades themselves have been made from old tyres, razor wire and sharpened bamboo poles. They sound quite flimsy, but these people are predominantly farmers from the rural North of Thailand and they certainly know a thing or two about creating something quite substantial from crap. They wouldn’t stop a Tank, but I sure as hell wouldn’t try to climb one.

The barricades are manned twenty four hours a day by teams of volunteers and I’m certain that there’s a system in place to warn of any possible threat to their position. At each barricade there are a few riot shields that seem to have been procured in battle, and hundreds of copies that they’ve quickly fashioned from old oil drums and Perspex. More menacingly, there are also sacks of palm sized rocks, sharpened bamboo steaks and hundreds of empty glass bottles.

As an outsider, I certainly hope that this protest ends through negotiation and not force, because if force is used to evict these people, then it certainly looks like they’re well prepared for a battle. It’s a battle that they would inevitably loose, but it’s frightening to think about the human cost.

Post 308: Honda Super Cub .... or not

“You meet the nicest people on a Honda”. About a month ago I was openly declaring my love for the Honda Super Cub and wondering why Honda hadn’t reintroduced a retro version of the model. With global sales in excess of 60 million, it’s by far the most successful powered vehicle that has ever been produced.

Across Thailand, and possibly across the whole of Southeast Asia, Kids are buying up old and forgotten Super Cubs and returning them to the road where they belong. Some of the modifications might be of questionable taste, but there is no doubting that the Super Cub is now the coolest ride to have.

This morning I was chugging past a Honda Dealership when something very yellow caught my eye. I turned around to investigate and what I found was a brand new, box-fresh, Honda Super Cub in canary yellow. It was indeed, a thing of beauty. My new love affair lasted for all of a minute. Something was wrong. It had a bright orange electric start button and the engine casing didn’t scream ’Honda’. In fact, it screamed ’Tiger’, made in Thailand.

I suspect that Tiger Motorcycles of Thailand bought the rights to the Super Cub and they’ve really made a fine job of reproducing it. The engine is a newer 110cc unit but beneath the fibreglass frock, it looks truly original. The rest of the bike seems almost unchanged, which in a way is a shame. The Super Cub was first produced in 1958 and technology has moved on. I’m sure that modern suspension and brakes would have made the package far more attractive, but at around £600 on the road, it’s still very tempting. On the other hand, it’s really motivated me to go out and find an original Honda C90 of my own …. mai pen rai

I'll be 'On the Road' for the next few days and probably wont be adding to the Blog. I'll try to behave myself and stay out of trouble, but I'm not making any promises .... mai pen rai

Pos 307: Ayutthaya .... the final part

Please excuse the photographs, but I’ve discovered that the cheap 'Kodak Easyshare' camera that I bought back in Irkutsk after being mugged by kids, reacts quite badly to monsoon rains. I’ve also discovered that unless the Chao Phraya River has suddenly started flowing uphill, then the River in front of the Ayutthaya Riverside Hotel is actually the Pasak River …. mai pen rai

You might be getting bored with ancient relics and ruins, so I’ll try and make this one the last. Wat Phra Si Sanphet is located on the island of Ayutthaya and of all the ancient sites, this is probably my favourite. The whole site appears to be unrestored and you reach it through one of the crappiest car parks that you’re ever likely to see. I don’t know why it‘s my favourite site, it just is. It’s probably the kind of place where you’d take Lara Croft on a first date, but probably not a second.

The name 'Wat' refers to Temple or Monastery and 'Phra Si Sanphet' is the name of the 16 metre tall golden image of Buddha that once stood in the main hall. In 1767, the invading Burmese found the temptation of so much gold too good to ignore. They melted down the statue, took away the gold and left the site in ruins. The original bronze core of the statue is now on display somewhere in Bangkok but I can‘t say that I‘d ever take the time to look for it …. mai pen rai

The three tall 'Chedi' that stand in line along the centre of the site are actually tombs for the ashes of three former King’s. They dominate the site and are probably the main attraction, but everywhere that you look you'll find something of mysterious interest. Thankfully there are information signs around the site, in both Thai and English. They explain a little about it’s history, but it is only a little. Wat Phra Si Sanphet was formerly part of the Grand Palace, the home of the King and his entourage, but bares absolutely no resemblance to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. There are very few remaining Buddha images on this site and those that are here have been destroyed almost beyond recognition. I can only assume that when the invading Burmese army reached this particular part of the city, they must have been really pissed about something ….. mai pen rai

Post 306: Ayutthaya ... continued

Last night I sat in the Riverside Hotels floating restaurant eating fried chicken with cashew nuts and boiled rice, nicely washed down with a large bottle of Singha beer, no ice. I’d eaten there before, it’s definitely the same hotel that I stayed in more than twenty years ago. A hundred hotels and guest houses in Ayutthaya and I’d accidentally returned to the place where my love affair with Thailand had begun. Another bottle of Singha beer. A tug boat towing five huge Thames Barges chugged slowly past making the restaurant sway in it’s wake. A cargo of something heading down the Chao Phraya River towards Bangkok and in the opposite direction, a charter boat with a happy party of revellers aboard. Two girls stood on a platform on the top deck, staring at a large TV screen and singing their little hearts out. The table next to me had stopped their chatter to stare at me. They probably thought that I was mad, or possibly just that I was a normal ‘Farang‘. I was laughing, side-splitting uncontrollable laughter. The girl’s were singing a far too familiar song, Ra Ra Rasputin. They were Thai and had the unique Asian way of mispronouncing the ’R’ and the ’L’. Think about it for a moment, but you really had to be there ….. mai pen rai

This morning it was raining. Proper rain that was as loud as it was wet. Overnight, my crash helmet had been sitting in the basket on the front of the little Honda. Upside down, a perfect receptacle for harvesting rainwater and bugs. Not a problem. I seem to be the only person in Ayutthaya who wears a crash helmet anyway. It’ll dry out eventually … mai pen rai

By 9am the rain has stopped and I ride on amazingly slippery roads to what is probably Ayutthaya’s most famous ancient ruin. The monastery of Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. Of all Ayutthaya’s ancient sites, this is probably the best preserved and therefore, the most visited. It’s still quite early but the car park is already filling up with local tuk-tuks and tourist buses from Bangkok.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon dates back to the 14th century, our 14th century not there’s, which I think makes it around seven hundred years old. I guess that it also makes the term ’Ancient’, quite subjective. I’ve frequented pubs in England that are far older than this, but here in Thailand anything that is relatively old actually feels positively ancient. I don’t know why that is, it just always feels that way. Despite this being Ayutthaya’s most well restored and manicured historical site, I don't love it but I do quite like it. It’s not ’mysterious’ or ’tranquil’, there are too many tourists for that, but there is still something quite beautiful about it.

Close to the entrance is a white statue of a reclining Buddha. It’s much larger than the reclining Buddha at Wat Phutthaisawan and having been quite recently restored, it looks a little out of place amongst the crumbling walls that surround it. On the small altar in front of the statue there are a mass of burning candles, flowers and incense sticks, evidence that this statue is well revered. Normally I’d leave my own offerings, as I did at Wat Phutthaisawan yesterday, but here I’m getting more of a feeling of ‘Disney’ than ‘Destiny’ …… mai pen rai

Around the imposing Chedi, the tall pointed tower at the centre of the complex, sit rows of statues wearing yellow silken drapes. In the hands of each statue sit’s a small carton of water, a daily offering from the monks of the monastery. These statues all seem to have kept their heads, so I suspect that either the invading Burmese forces didn’t reach this side of the river, or perhaps the Thai restorers have just been amazingly busy.

By 11am, the whole area is crawling with tourists and a small army of touts are lingering around the entrance selling everything that nobody ever wanted. Time to leave ….. mai pen rai

Post 305: Ayutthaya ... ancient capital of Siam

Having laughed at the unique Ayutthaya tuk-tuks, I turned the corner and found myself facing an evil temptation. “Ayutthaya Riverside Hotel - Rooms 600 THB”. That’s £12 for one night, double what I’d like to pay. But, it was right there in front of me and probably had a bath in every room. I haven’t had a bath for longer than I can remember and sometimes, it’s the little things that I miss the most. In reception it all seemed very familiar. If it wasn’t for the famous Thai smiles, then I’d swear that I was back in an old Soviet Hotel in Siberia. I asked the receptionist for her cheapest room and she offered me a River Room for 1,250 THB including breakfast. I didn’t want breakfast and I’ve seen the Chao Phraya River before, so now give me your cheapest room. She asked if I’d be staying alone. I could see my reflection in the giant mirror behind her and wondered if she really needed an answer from me. Eventually we reached a satisfactory compromise. I’d move my bike if she’d cut the bullshit and give me what I wanted. As I followed the uninterested hall porter towards room 312, I reflected that this must once have been a great hotel, but unfortunately ’once’ was clearly quite some time ago. The room smelled even older than it looked, but at least it had a bathroom with a perfectly functional bath. I held up a bathtowel the size of my arse and raised an eyebrow to the still uninterested hall porter. He just shrugged his sunken shoulders and left without a ’tip’. For the first time in three long months, I settled down to soak in a bathtub filled with piping hot water and every bottle of shower gel that I’d managed to lift from the room-maids trolley. Not quite heaven on earth, but after too many miles on too small a bike, it was pretty damned close.

For around 400 years, Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam and as such was one of the most prosperous centres in Southeast Asia. The city itself is little more than an island created at the junction of the Chao Phraya and Pasak Rivers. It’s location was probably chosen because of its defensive position but in 1767, Ayutthaya’s defences were breached by invading Burmese forces and the city all but destroyed. Since 1991, the city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Situated just forty miles North of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions and has somehow managed to divorce the culture from the crude. I’m sure that the ‘crude’ exists here, but at least it’s in the back-streets and not your face .... mai pen rai

Wat Chaiwatthanaram is located to the West of Ayutthaya on the opposite bank of the Chao Phraya River. I accidentally found this place on my way towards Chai Nat in 2008. I remember sitting here with a group of Thai's watching an amazing sunset in silence. Today it’s quite early in the morning and apart from a couple of gardeners, I seem to be the only person here. I wander around the ruins and climb the steps of the main tower, the ‘Prang Prathan‘. Around the outer wall, the smaller statues of Buddha all have their heads removed, a reminder not only of the violence of four hundred years ago, but also of more recent acts of theft and vandalism. While work has been undertaken to prevent the entire structure from collapsing, visually things have been left as they were found and I really like that approach to conservation.

I know that I've been here before, but even so, it all seems much more familiar than it ought to. As I ride away from Wat Chaiwatthanaram it suddenly dawns on me that I have been here before. Not just in 2008, but twenty years before that on my first visit to Thailand. Back then the whole area had been overgrown with shrub and only the main towers had been visible from the road. I remember scrambling through undergrowth, climbing the crumbling walls to find hidden statues of Buddha and wondering why on earth this place wasn't a major tourist attraction. In 2008 I hadn't recognised it, but thinking back, twenty years ago I'd probably stayed in the same bloody hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River .... mai pen rai

A few kilometres North of Wat Chaiwatthanaram is Wat Phutthaisawan, a much smaller monastery that’s also deserted. Not a single person, not even an attendant to guard the entrance. I walk inside the grounds and it’s access all areas. This complex seems to be unkempt, slightly wild and overgrown. To the rear of the complex is a large white Prang, the Khmer influenced rounded top tower and a few Chedi, the smaller more pointy towers. I know absolutely nothing about this place and there are no signs, in any language, to help me. The only sign of human contact are the drapes, candles and flowers that are placed across the hidden reclining statue of Buddha. The statue is surrounded by a crumbling wall and while it seems to be the centre-piece of the complex, I suspect that most visitors don’t even know that it’s here. Having said that, I somehow doubt that this place has too many visitors, it just doesn’t look the type ….. mai pen rai

Post 304: Road to Ayutthaya ....

The post Songkran rains had stopped and it was time to start moving again. I was heading for Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam. According to my map, Ayutthaya is just two hundred kilometres East, but a less interesting two hundred kilometres would be difficult to imagine. Bored with everything that the highway didn’t have to offer, I decided to leave the main roads behind and head out across country. That probably wasn’t the wisest decision of my life. The journey became far more interesting, but mostly on account of the three consecutive punctures. Fortunately in Thailand, you’re never too far from a tyre repair shop and even in the back-end-of-beyond, I didn’t have to ride any more than a few kilometres on a flat.

The first repair reveals that absence of a rim tape to protect the inner tube from the sharp end of the spokes, just a single layer of insulation tape. The young mechanic chats away excitedly in Thai as he goes about his business and I try to nod and smile in all of the right places. Thirty minutes later and the little Honda is good to go. New rim tape, two patches on the tube and 2 Litres of petrol from the Hong Thong and 100 Pipers whiskey bottles on his fuel rack. Total price, 100 Baht (£1) ….. mai pen rai

I decide to move back onto the Highway and within a few kilometres, I come across one of the weirdest places that I’ve found on the journey so far. Just outside of Sarraburi, I pass the entrance to what I think is a vast temple complex. I have no option but to explore, it’s part of my contract with life. It seems not to be a temple, but more of a deserted adventure park. It’s difficult to tell really. There are plenty of signs, but all are written in Mandarin and Thai. Dyslexia might help me to unravel anagrams, but it certainly doesn’t help here. The photograph shows an ’attraction’ close to the entrance. You climb into the concrete Tiger’s mouth, exit through it’s anus and then climb to the comedy Buddha at the top. Hilarious ….. mai pen rai

It’s taken me seven hours to cover the two hundred kilometres to Ayutthaya. Three punctures and endless police roadblocks didn’t help, but perhaps the main reason that it’s taken me so long is the fact that I’ve somehow ridden more than three hundred kilometres to get here. I’m hot, sunburnt and dehydrated, but as I ride into Ayutthaya in search of a cheap hotel, all of the punctures and kilometres are forgotten. In front of the railway station I see a line of Ayutthaya’s unique style of taxis. I’ve arrived in Toy Town and it’s hard not to smile ….. mai pen rai

Post 303: After Songkran .....

The Songkran Festival marks the end of the dry season in Thailand and this morning, sure enough, it’s bloody raining. None of your British drizzle, this is a full-on monsoon and the first rain that I‘ve seen since arriving. It makes a welcome change from the blistering heat and despite the flooding of roads and residences, everybody just seems to go about their day as normal. The only real downside to the rain is my camera. It survived the many drenchings that is received over Songkran but has been temporarily defeated by the rain. It will dry out eventually and at least the photographs already taken are safe ….. mai pen rai
I’ve suffered from tonsillitis and glandular fever before, admittedly when I was much younger, but at least I knew exactly what to expect. You begin by feeling crap, then the tonsils begin to swell and the throat eventually closes. This is closely followed by swelling of the more southerly organs but I knew that the antibiotics would solve the problem and that within a few days, normal service will be resumed. What I’d forgotten about was the fatigue that follows. Maybe it’s just that I’m a lot older now, but even dragging my arse out of bed in a morning seems difficult. As a result, I’ve spent the past couple of days mooching around and catching far too much of the BBC World News.

It’s not difficult to see that an election is looming back home. Concerned for the welfare of UK Citizens abroad, Gordon Brown is apparently deploying the Royal Navy to rescue holidaymakers stranded in the South of Spain. Holidaymakers stranded in the South of Spain where they went in order to temporarily escape from jobs that they probably hate. I’m sorry, but I’m not really feeling their pain. Then, Gordon Brown is seemingly overcome with anger at the actions of Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs apparently sold a shed load of CDO’s to one group of customers and negative Hedging Contracts to others. I know that he’s partially sighted but what I didn’t know was that he also had a restricted sense of smell and short-term memory loss. While he was encouraging ‘Light Touch Regulation’ and busy counting the abundant tax revenues coming into the Treasury from his "Favourite Bank", the coffee had been wafting beneath his nose but he’d chosen not to smell it. Are we to believe that Goldman Sachs were the only Investment Bank with their noses in these two particular troughs? No. But the Government don't own any part of Goldman Sachs and they're hardly likely to take themselves to court are they? The man protests too much me thinks …. mai pen rai

Bored with Brown’s false anger and concern, I’ve now switched to following the news on Thai TV. Most of the coverage concerns the Red Shirt demonstrations in Bangkok. With hours of coverage and disjointed Thai commentary, I haven’t got a clue what’s really happening. To me, it’s just fun playing the most difficult game of "Where’s Wally" that you could possibly imagine …. mai pen rai

Post 302: Songkran .... Continuing Chaos

At the end of the Canal Road, the convoy turns down a dusty track and enters a small village. A wall of speakers blasts out distorted tunes and every person in the village is dancing with their arms held high. A voice breaks through the music and the would-be-but-never-quite-was DJ, with the gold laden neck and strategic comb-over, announces the arrival of a Farang. Thanks for that, I really need the extra attention ….. mai pen rai

I’m immediately adopted by the only guy who speaks more than five words of English, probably the DJ’s brother. He leads me around the village introducing me to everybody as his long lost friend from America. I keep telling him ’England’, but that doesn’t seem to matter. I must go to the Temple, I must see their prized possession, "ma-hat-sa-jan Kai". I must be confused, because I think that means ’Astonishing Egg’. I’m guided to the upper floor of the Temple where it’s thankfully cool, dark and quiet. The monk sits cross legged on the small platform and I kneel in front of him. He blesses me and then vanishes through a door at the back of his stage. Minutes later, he emerges with their most treasured possession … "ma-hat-sa-jan kai". Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s an ostrich egg sitting in a ceramic bowl …. mai pen rai.

Having duly shown my amazement at the sight of the astonishing egg that they truly believe was laid by some strange and mystical creature, I’m taken outside and thrown to the ladies of the village. They show me no mercy and I’m forced to dance in an enclosure with some sort of Maypole at it’s centre. I am clueless as to what is actually happening but I go with the flow and get down with the Mamma’s beneath the blistering sun …. mai pen rai

An hour later, possibly two but certainly no more than three, I’m on the back of yet another truck and returning to the City. The mayhem continues and the novelty of being drenched in water and talcum powder is beginning to wear off. I want my bed, I want to be alone and quiet for just an hour. I want to have a conversation in English and eat a meal that I can fully identify. Like the policemen who are tasked with keeping order amongst this chaos, I just want to return to normality …. mai pen rai

Post 301: Songkran ..... the Reality

Normality has been temporarily suspended. It’s the festival of Songkran and Thailand has gone collectively bonkers. It’s just after 9:00am and looking down from my balcony, I can see that the festivities are already underway. I didn’t even need to look outside for confirmation. The sound from the banks of speakers stacked high in front of every house and shop along the Soi has been ‘Banging’ for at least an hour. Thai music, too much treble and too loud for the ancient speakers, but the only acceptable volume level is ‘Full’. From my reasonably priced vantage point I can see approximately 100 metres of mixed residential and commercial street and count at least forty 50 gallon water containers at the side of the road. Each full container is manned by a small army of people ranging from Kids to Grandparents. All traffic and pedestrians are legitimate targets and most targets are armed and ready to return fire. It’s Thursday 15th of April and this is the third consecutive day of non-stop partying. Don‘t these people ever get tired?

To become fully involved in the festivities of Songkran, there are several essential ingredients. Firstly, you need to acquire a ‘Songkran Shirt’, the louder the better. Secondly, you need water. Lots of water and something with which to dispense it. Most seem to go for the traditional bucket but super-squirting-water-guns are also very popular. The more technically able locals use immersion pumps to ensure a greater range of fire, but in my mind that’s just showing off. Once armed and dressed accordingly, you then need a large quantity of talcum powder mixed with mentholated oil so that it sticks well to it’s target. Then, find a plastic bag for your money and camera and your ready to go and find yourself a ride.

I tried circling on the Honda, but on a bike it’s just an unfair contest. The best option is just to jump aboard a pick-up truck. Any pick-up truck will do, you don’t need to know the people but if there are less than twenty others already clinging to its back, then there’s always room for one more. As the only Farang in these parts, I’m spoiled for choice. The Farang gets all of the attention and thus gains respect for the others on the truck. I end up jumping from pavement to truck, to pavement to different truck and eventually find myself heading slowly out of town in a stream of traffic …. mai pen rai

We seem to be in a convoy, but I’m not sure if anybody knows where it will take us. Behind my ride is another pick-up truck. They’ve identified the Farang and try to make me feel welcome by playing their only Western tune over and over again through a loud speaker mounted in the rear. Rihanna bless them … ‘’you can stand under my umbrella .. ella ella eh eh eh eh’’ …. give it a rest. Collectively they want me to join their group. The two girls in the front want to take me home to meet their parents while the third girl in the back is slightly less reserved about her intentions. I fear that alcohol might have lowered there levels of taste and expectations but once again, that’s not a complaint, just an observation … mai pen rai

In the middle of absolutely nowhere, we crawl along a dead straight road. At the side of the road, high powered pumps lift water from the canal and replenish the 50 gallon water drums on each and every vehicle. My personal progress is slower than most, I can’t move more than a meter without being showered with water and plastered in mentholated talcum powder. Some of the younger revellers speak a little English, they ask me very politely if they might possibly shower me with water and coat me in powder. The others, well, they just do it anyway …. mai pen rai

Post 300: Songkran .... the Traditional

Just like in the West, the calendar year in Thailand begins on the 1st of January, but New Year is really celebrated in style at the end of the dry season from the 13th to the 15th of April. That might sound a little confusing, and the fact that it’s now the year 2553 here in Thailand doesn’t really help. So, just ignore the dates and remember that Thai’s love to celebrate everything .. mai pen rai
The ‘Songkran Festival’ really began in Northern Thailand when people took the remainder of their precious water supplies and used them to cleanse the images of Buddha in their local temples. In doing so, they believed that they would wash away the bad things from the previous year and bring good luck and prosperity for the next. After cleansing the images of Buddha, they would then ritually anoint the hands and feet of family elders before taking handfuls of dirt to the temples in order to replace that which had been taken away on the soles of their feet. The earth redelivered to the temples is then built up into towers, the higher and bigger the tower, the more important the temple is seen to be in the lives of it‘s congregation.

All of these traditional things still happen today and I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in all of them, but it’s as difficult to separate Songkran from the partying as it is to separate Christmas from the presents. So I wont even try. I’ll leave Wikipedia to explain the cultural history and I’ll concentrate on immersing myself in the more frivolous elements of Songkran ….. mai pen rai

Post 299: Ubonrat .. Moving On

The burning Asian sun had done it’s job well, and the Englishman in me had certainly done nothing to thwart it. No sun-block and too little water, not a good combination for six hours of riding in an open face helmet, flip-flops, tee shirt and shorts. One day I’ll learn the lesson, but until that day arrives, I guess I’ll just remain terribly English …. mai pen rai

The hotel was easy to find, I’ve stayed there before. Good air conditioning and a roof-top swimming pool to wash away the day. The hotel seemed very quiet and they were happy to see me, or more importantly, they were happy to see my money. They didn’t like where I’d parked the Honda and I was in no mood to argue. I took the key and went up to my room while the Honda stayed exactly where I’d left it. The room smelt of better days, the air conditioning sounded like the little Honda on full throttle and the swimming pool was a deep shade of green. Either my mood on previous visits had prevented me from noticing these things, or perhaps Khon Kaen just beginning to lose it’s gloss for me?

The air conditioning might well have been loud, but it was certainly effective. I woke up at sunrise on top of the bed, freezing cold but drenched in sweat. I found the little Honda exactly where I’d parked it and before Khon Kaen had even thought about rising, I was heading North on Highway 2. Lying 40 Km outside of Khon Kaen, Ubonrat is one of my three very special places. It’s not as beautiful as Lake Dahl in Kashmir and not as tranquil as Lake Baikal in Siberia, but on the plus side, it’s a hell of a lot easier to reach.

Aside from a few mobile food vendors claiming their pitches early, and the odd wild dog, the place was totally deserted. I walked across the dam and climbed the steep rock steps towards the small shrine on the west side of the reservoir. As I climbed, I passed the small rock pile that I’d built with Tassaneeya a year earlier and the sticks that we’d placed beneath rocks on the side of the hill. I was surprised to see that they were still there and wondered if they'd still be here if I were ever to return in the future.

At the small shrine, I lit a single candle and three incense sticks before offering a prayer for Tassaneeya's future well being and happiness. It wasn't a long prayer, but I said everything that needed to be said before offering my final three 'Waai' and shuffling respectfully backwards on my knees. Looking back across the reservoir towards the imposing statue of Buddha, I reflected on what was and on what might have been. The many happy times that we’d shared and then the fateful conversation that I’d had with her late Grandfather in the Village without a name, a conversation later repeated with a 'well meaning' Aunt at Phu Pha Man. "Cultural differences" had forced us apart, or as Tassaneeya would say, "It was our Destiny". It was time to move on, time to leave the past and a pink flowered Spada crash helmet, exactly where they belonged ........ mai pen rai

Post 298: The Road to Khon Kaen .....

It was time to move on and begin the next leg of this exceptionally disjointed journey. I had the bike, the luggage was packed and I had a few farewells to say before heading North for Khon Kaen. It never crossed my mind to stop, and thankfully it never crossed the guards minds to shoot me. Probably too much red-tape and paperwork. I was riding my new pride and joy, the Honda Wave and hadn’t even thought about the lack of a distinctive security badge that was necessary for entry onto Fort Suranaree. I’m not even sure if the guards carry live ammunition, but I do know that those carrying the guns all seem to wear fluorescent orange jackets. Maybe it’s a simple Health & Safety regulation so that prospective attackers can avoid shooting unarmed men? … mai pen rai

I’d spent much of the previous day trying to find a luggage rack to fit the Honda, but without success. It seems that despite there being millions of these bikes here in Thailand, nobody has ever requested a luggage rack for one. The shops asked me why I’d want such a thing and my reply was that I wanted to carry luggage, or more specifically, my topbox. They then asked why I would want to do that and I told them that I was heading out of town. They found it difficult to understand why anybody would want to ride a bike to the next city and beyond when there was a perfectly good bus service. In the end, I gave up trying to explain my weird ways and went in search of an engineering shop.

I found a small one-man operator who could attend to my strange request immediately. Together, we set about butchering and reforming a spare pillion hand rail that I’d bought for 50 Baht (£1) from a breakers shop. We had different ideas about how best to make and attach the rack. He wanted to mount the topbox on the front of the bike, but I pointed out that this would totally cover the headlight. He didn’t see the problem with that. Korat has street lighting, why did I need a headlight? It was 9am and as he was already totally pissed and I was surprisingly sober, I insisted that ‘My way’ was the ‘Only way’ and got on with it.

He was as much impressed with my engineering skills as I was with his range of tools, but we soldiered on. For two solid hours, we welded, grinded, hammered and drilled until finally I had a workable luggage rack that was strong enough to support the Krauser topbox. He stood back, opened another bottle of Leo Beer with his teeth and declared my new luggage rack to be the best thing since Taksin Shinawatra’s "BOGOF" deal on cows. Praise indeed from an Isaan engineer, even a pissed one. The total cost including labour was 200 Baht (£4) ….. mai pen rai

The day was as hot as the road was straight, long and boring. But, as I left the city behind me, the little Honda found a new turn of speed. 65 Km/h to be precise, which is around 40 mph. I was flying. It would go faster, but only under protest and if the little engine was suffering from the heat as much as I was, then 65 Km/h would do just fine. I was sticking to the “Shoulder” and in order to lessen the boredom, a few additional hazards had been provided. A recent outbreak of collective pyromania meant that Thai’s were setting fire to anything that would possibly burn. It had started with the Honda C70 at the petrol station back in Surin and now it had spread to the side of the road. They burn off the old rice fields before the start of the rainy season at the end of April, but the ’Burns’ are not what one could possibly described as ’Controlled’. It’s much more a case of start a fire, piss-off to the pub and deny all knowledge when it gets out of control.

At 65 Km/h on a deadly straight road, the mind starts to wander. But, not half as much as the minds of those employed to paint the road lines. For a stretch of around 20 miles, every few hundred yards the white line begins to resemble a measure of Charlie before being straightened with an Amex card. At first I think it’s the heat haze in the distance making the line look wavy, or the effects of the burning sun and boredom, but it’s not. Either the painter was pissed or asleep, possibly both, but nobody ever thought about coming back to correct his work and that’s just another thing that I find likeable about Thailand …. mai pen rai

Finally, after six hours beneath the blazing sun, and just three hours later than planned, I’ve finally reach Khon Kaen. I could blame the road conditions or the slowness of the bike for the length of time that it’s taken me to get here, but the truth of the matter is, I’m not sure that I really wanted to arrive here at all. Khon Kaen is where this Asian journey really began and I’m coming here again, under circumstances that I’d never anticipated. This is the completion of another full circle, the ending of the most surreal chapter in my life so far .... mai pen rai