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

Post 392: Political Problems in Paradise .. Posted 7th December 2013

Once upon a time, in a constitutional monarchy not so far away, a series of unfortunate political events were unfolding ......
In order to explain the current political turmoil in Thailand, which is like trying to explain the unexplainable, you need to find an appropriate place to begin. However, no matter where you start there’ll always be a day before, a day when something of political significance happened. Because, when it comes to political unrest, Thailand has more history than most. Since the dissolution of the absolute monarchy in 1932, only one Thai prime minister has ever managed to serve a full term in office and Thailand has experienced more military coups than any other nation on earth. Given that unenviable history, I’ll begin with that one prime minister, the one man that most people will recognise, Thaksin Shinawatra, or as the fans of Manchester City used to call him, Frank.
So, billionaire telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra became the first prime minister to serve a full term in office: 2001 to 2006. However, although he implemented policies that certainly improved the lives of many people, especially those in rural farming communities of the North and North East, his premiership was controversial and climaxed in 2006 with another military coup. Accusations of treason, corruption, cronyism, unusual accumulation of wealth and undeclared assets whilst in office, suppression of the media, fiscal negligence and tax evasion had flourished during his premiership and in 2008, tow years after leaving office, Thaksin was found guilty on charges of corruption. Perhaps fearing that the court's decision might not go in his favour, Thaksin wasn’t in court to hear the verdict and hasn’t returned to Thailand since. A year before his conviction, Thaksin had purchased Manchester City Football Club, but his subsequent application for asylum in the UK was denied by the British government. Thaksin sold Manchester City, was then ousted from its board and eventually settled in Dubai, and strangely, became a citizen of Montenegro. Shortly after the court’s verdict in Bangkok, Thaksin was sentenced to two years in prison and had personal assets to the value of $2.2 Billion frozen. 
Between 2008 and 2011, the Thai political landscape seemed to be dominated by supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Red Shirts, in constant confrontation with supporters of the Democrats, the Yellow Shirts, and vice versa. In December 2008, Yellow Shirts famously occupied Bangkok’s two main airports and their actions eventually led to the dissolution of parliament and the appointment of a Democrat led government. In April /May of 2010, thousands of Thaksin supporters wearing their famous Red Shirts then occupied the business district of Bangkok. They were protesting against the military appointed Democrat led government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and demanding new and fair elections for Thailand. After six weeks of mostly peaceful occupation, the military moved into the main protest site and ninety people were killed by gunfire and many more were injured.
Roll forward to July 2011, the Democrat government steps down and opens the door for new and 'fair' elections. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party has been legally disbanded by the courts, its successor the People’s Power Party has also been outlawed on the grounds that it was Thai Rak Thai under a different name, and the latest incarnation, the Pheu Thai Party, wins the general election. Thailand had just voted for its first ever female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister. 
 The fact that the Pheu Thai Party won the 2011 general election wasn’t really a surprise. The Thaksin years had cemented support in the rural areas of the North and in the poorer quarters of Bangkok and the people had voted in great numbers. However, to many people, inside Thailand and beyond, Yingluck Shinawatra was virtually unknown. Many supporters of the defeated Democrat Party suggested that Yingluck was simply a puppet for her exiled brother, that Thaksin himself was holding the reins of power and that in a very short space of time, he’d be back in Thailand with his conviction for corruption overturned and his fortune restored. It’s true that Yingluck hadn’t actually entered politics until just a month before she was elected prime minister, but the Democrats appeared to have very little evidence to support any of their claims. However, confidential documents supporting their claims may have recently surfaced via whistle-blower Edward Snowden, but I haven't seen them and given where I am, I wouldn't like to comment further.  
Yingluck Shinawatra’s first two years in office were to say the least, turbulent. Shortly after becoming prime minister, Bangkok famously flooded causing the recovering economy to stutter. A relaxing of credit rules and a new car incentive scheme designed to stimulate economic growth added to the increasing debt burden of households and a rice purchasing scheme to support the rural farmers in the North seemed to seriously deplete the nation's coffers. Things were difficult, but Yingluck seemed confident that her policies were leading Thailand in the right direction and her supporters continued to stand by her.
Then, on the basis that they’d given the orders for the military to disperse the 2010 protests in the business district of Bangkok, the current leader and former deputy leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Suthep Thaugsuban, were charged with murder and warrants issued for their arrest.  This act clearly pleased the Red Shirt followers of the Pheu Thai Party who demanded justice, but angered the Yellow Shirt Democrat supporters who claimed that the charges were simply politically motivated.
At around this time, the governing Pheu Thai Party presented a bill to parliament, a bill that Yingluck stated would help in the healing process and bring about reconciliation for all political parties and supporters. The bill became known as The Amnesty Bill. The bill was presented to parliament, and then amended, and then proposed again. Because the Amnesty Bill would clear Abhisit and Suthep of their recent murder charges, it seemed that the opposition Democrat Party would support it. However, once details of the proposed bill were made public, the people, Red and Yellow, reacted with anger. The Red’s didn’t want Abhisit or Suthep to avoid responsibility for the deaths in 2010, and the Yellow’s, well, they looked deeper into the bill and found something slightly more alarming. The bill had been amended in such a way that Thaksin Shinawatra would also be cleared of all charges, proven and pending, and would allow him to return to Thailand and reclaim his seized fortune of $2.2 Billion. Red and Yellow were angered by different elements of the Amnesty Bill, but both seemed untied in their anger at the perceived deception by their own elected government. 
Throughout November, demonstrators have been taking to the streets of Bangkok, waving their banners, blowing their whistles and demanding that the Amnesty Bill is defeated. Red and Yellow for the first time united? Well, almost. In response to the protests, parliament asked the senate to vote down the Amnesty Bill, and thankfully for all of the people concerned, they did. However, the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s really just beginning.
As the Amnesty Bill was buried, instead of dispersing and allowing government to continue its work until the next national election, the protests continued. Unsatisfied with simply defeating the Amnesty Bill, former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban is still out on the streets of Bangkok, vociferously urging his supporters to continue their anti-government protests. Suthep’s current objective is to force Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and to have the democratically elected parliament dissolved. In its place, Suthep is demanding an unelected council that will govern Thailand for the foreseeable future, I suspect with himself at the head of it.
The Pheu Thai government and half of the media are claiming that Suthep's demands go directly against the constitution and a warrant for his arrest has been issued. However, getting the police or the military to serve that warrant might prove to be difficult. Thus far, the army has remained in barracks and the police have dealt with the protests, in most cases, with velvet gloves.
But, and it's a big but, Suthep has today publicly called for Monday 9th of December to be D-Day, the day that he brings down the democratically elected government of Thailand. Let's hope that this all ends peacefully, because when politicians start openly playing with matches, it's usually the innocent who get burnt.      

Post 391: Laos PDR .. Posted - 27th November 2013

I arrived safely in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos PDR. The bus journey to the North East of Thailand wasn’t great, but at just $15 it was difficult to justify the additional expense of flying. At Nong Khai bus station the Sam Lor, a three wheeled taxi-bike, whisked me to the Friendship Bridge and crossing the border into Laos had been easy. Given the early hour, I’d expected the Mekong crossing to be quiet, but it was far busier than I’d expected. Crossing the bridge with me were large groups of Thais, traders heading to the markets of Vientiane to buy stock for their respective stores back in Thailand. That didn’t surprise me at all, but what I found coming in the opposite direction, well, that was slightly unexpected. Small groups of sweet painted ladies, girls heading home after a night or weekend of commercial activity in Laos. Their shorter skirts and broader smiles set them apart from the locals, and a certain understanding of the laws in Laos, well, that kind of confirmed that the girls were Thai. I’m not here to pass judgement, but if there is an adult entertainment market in Vientiane, then it’s thankfully underground and discreet .... mai pen rai kap  
Over the years I’ve developed certain personal rules for travelling, and one of those rules involves a Country’s approach to the provision of electricity to its people. Basically, if a country can afford to bury its electricity cables, then it’s probably a little too expensive, and quite frankly a little too dull, for Poor Circulation. Thankfully, despite massive economic and structural development over recent years, Laos and Vientiane Capital have made absolutely no attempt to break that rule.
For a capital city that’s home to almost a million people, Vientiane still has a village feel about it. The atmosphere is gentle and relaxed, the people seem not to rush and although traffic volumes are rapidly increasing, walking or cycling is still the best way to explore.  
The influence of the French is obvious, and everywhere. The old colonial buildings nestle comfortably in the growing shadows of modern office buildings, the language of visitor’s seems to be French and the food is a cultural mix of East and West.
 Today, it’s almost impossible to visit any capital city without being overwhelmed by advertising for McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks et al. But, you won’t find any of that here. In Laos there are very few Super Markets selling convenience foods and Fast-Food outlets simply don’t exist. Along with the absence of McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut, there’s also a visual absence of obesity and a statistical absence of diabetes. I wonder if those things are in anyway related?

Post 390: Leaving Thailand ... Temporarily - Posted 19th November 2013

 I’ve no idea where the time goes. It seems that I arrived in Thailand only yesterday, but already it’s time to leave. Ironically, in order to remain in Thailand, I first have to leave. I’m heading to the bus station, the start of a journey into Laos. It’ll take ten hours on the overnight bus, and then another hour to cross the border at The Friendship Bridge that spans the Mekong River between Nong Khai on the Thai side and Vientiane Capital over in Laos. 
I’ll visit the Thai Embassy in Vientiane and hopefully, receive a double entry 60 day visa for Thailand. It means that after I come back into Thailand, I’ll be able to stay for 60 days before crossing another border, probably into Cambodia. It’s an administrative headache, but it’s not optional, so I’ll make the most of the opportunity and do a little more exploring in Laos. 
Last night in Thailand, it was the festival of Loy Krathong. I’ve written about the Loy Krathong Festival before, so I won’t bore you with details, but this year, well, things have moved on slightly. 

When you gently launch your Krathong, a decorated float made from banana trunk and leaves, into the canal, it carries away the ‘bad’ parts of your person and the coins placed on the float are meant to bring you good fortune for the coming year. In previous years, enterprising young kids would swim in the filthy waters of the canal and taken the coins out of the boats. This year, those same kids have become more enterprising. 
The young girl in the water charges 20 Thai Baht to launch your Krathong into the middle of the canal, far away from the other swimming money collectors. It sounds like good value because after all, the coins in your Krathong are going to bring good fortune. Good Fortune yes, but probably not for you.  From the shadows, a small boat emerges, a boat containing other members of the girl’s family. In the central waters of the canal a hundred yards downstream, they meticulously remove every coin from every Krathong.
Maybe that's why I'm destined to remain poor? ... mai pen rai kap 

Post 389: Home Sweet Home? ... Posted 3rd November 2013

I should really start riding. The Tiger Retro’s ready to go and the roads are calling, but something’s holding me back. I’ve been here for a week and the truth is, I’ve been absolutely nowhere. Okay, I’ve ridden to the market at Chat-u-Chak, and that’s a hell of a place to visit, and I’ve been to Chang Wattana Soi 14 for some amazing Street-Food, but apart from that, I really haven’t been anywhere. For the first few days I’d thought jetlag was holding me back, or laziness, or even that I’d caught some God awful disease, but maybe, maybe it’s actually worse than that.
 It seems that I’ve spent my entire adult life in a hurry, usually racing motorcycles from one destination to another. Sometimes that was for work, the way that I earned my living as a Despatch Rider in London, but more recently, it’s been overland travelling for pleasure. It’s been fun, and I’ve visited some amazingly wonderful places, but the process of racing between those places means that I’ve totally bypassed a lot of the really good stuff. The funny thing is, it’s only now that I’m beginning to realise just how much I’ve missed. Now that I’m on the wrong side of fifty, the life that once seemed eternal must be approaching its twilight, or perhaps it’s already there. Who knows?  Anyway, the truth is, I’ve changed.

When I arrived back in Lak Si, it wasn’t jetlag or laziness that stopped me from hitting the highway, it was roots. I swore that it wouldn’t happen, but it has. I’ve found a location and a community that I care about, a place that I could easily call home. Sure, there are lots of places that I love, places that I’d like to settle down, Boonville for example, but here in Lak Si I feel that I can actually make a difference. I’ve certainly spent time with less privileged people than I find here in the Northern district of Bangkok - the displaced people of the Hmong and Karen on the Northern borders of Thailand for example - and I’ve witnessed atrocities that can’t be mentioned in this blog, but here in Lak Si, well, things are different.  
I’m no richer than the average resident here so I certainly can’t help them financially, and aside from a knowledge of English I’ve no skills to share that they don’t already have, but there seems to be something that I can contribute. That something is basically, Time. I take time to stop and talk with people, and fleeting as it is, that seems to make a difference to their lives.  
Within a square mile of my apartment, there's enough to occupy the mind and soul of any traveller. It’s difficult to explain, and maybe in the coming weeks I’ll find the right words, but the truth is that I’m in no great hurry to ride away from here .. mai pen rai kap 

Post 388: Travelling West to the East .. Posted 30th October 2013

I swear, the flight from San Francisco to Bangkok takes at least a year. EVA Air do their best, but I honestly didn’t buy the ticket because EVA have the largest economy seats. No, I certainly didn’t. I chose EVA Air because they were the cheapest, no other reason. Thankfully when it comes to air travel, ‘cheap’ doesn’t mean ‘unsafe’, but it can mean ‘uncomfortable’. Looking on the bright side, even at half the price, EVA Air is still twice as accommodating as United or American. Travelling West to get to the East, I fly for 18 hours and arrive 36 hours after take-off. Crossing the International Date-Line, well, that really screws-up the body-clock. Compared to many airports, aiprots where Terminal really does feel like Terminal, arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport is an absolute joy. Walking from the Arrival Gate to Immigration you’ll pass four ‘Smoking Rooms’, important for some but not for others, and all of the Duty Free Shops before joining the queue for Arrivals.

Several aircraft have arrived at the same time, but the line of people keeps moving. With my Arrivals Card completed, I find myself standing in front of the smiling Immigration Officer. That’s right, he’s smiling. Looking into the mushroom camera, he snaps my likeness and flicks diligently through my almost full passport. Back to front, front to back. I like what he’s doing, it shows that he cares. He could take the easy option and stamp an empty page, but what’s easy for him would be unhelpful for me. It’s almost as if he’s read Pirsig’s Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and he’s applying Quality to his task. Finally he finds what he’s looking for. He looks at me and raises a questioning eyebrow? I nod and smile my thanks. Carefully, he places the rubber stamp on a page that has just enough space for an Entry and Exit stamp. He presses down and hands back my documents - ‘Welcome to Thailand Mr Thomas’.
At Baggage Carrousel 20, my tote bag is right in front of me, no waiting required. Green Lane, nothing to declare and nobody cares to check. A hundred Taxi-Touts, smiling and shouting, easily ignored. Down to Level 1, where the Meter Taxis are waiting: ‘Wat Lak Si, Highway Kap’, I talk like a native. A forty minute journey, a little conversation and $8 exchanged, I arrive at my apartment. Nothing seems to have changed. Have I really been away for six months?

Post 387: Summer in Boonville ... Posted October 11th 2013

After 150 days in Boonville it’s time to start moving on. In many ways it’s been a very productive summer, but in other ways, not so much. The first months of summer were spent navigating my way through the minefield of publishing, a journey that reminded me of trying to leave Russia with the Triumph Tiger. Lots of false hope, a good many 'maybe’s' and lots of dead-ends, but eventually things did get accomplished. With the help of Lemon Fresh Design and The Ted Simon Foundation, towards the end of August the first book in the Poor Circulation trilogy was finally published: Ashes to Boonville. I can’t tell you how excited I felt when I collected that first case of books from the post office, Well, I could tell you but you probably wouldn’t believe me. You’d probably think that I was being childish, over reacting, and you might be right. But, it really was an exciting day.
I donated a number of books to Loretta at the local bookstore, Laughing Dog Books. I like bookstores, especially those that are small and quirky, and Laughing Dog Books is certainly that. A few days later I looked in the window and almost fell on my arse with shock. Ashes to Boonville was on display, nestled between books by JK Rowling and Will Self. Me, sitting between two amazingly famous writers? I was certainly flattered. Loretta told me that the book was ’selling well’, though in Boonville terms, I’m not entirely sure what that means. Actually, I’m not even sure if I want it to be ‘selling well’ , at least not in a bookstore, even in a bookstore as nice as Loretta’s. I know I’m being selfish, but sales in bookstores might be good for a writer's ego, but they’re fatal for the bank balance. Of course, I didn’t write the book to make money, I’m not that stupid, but I’d at least hoped to cover my costs. Anyway, I hope that the local’s here aren’t too disappointed when they read Ashes to Boonville, because it isn’t really about Boonville, it’s just about the overland journey to get here. Perhaps they’ll prefer the 2nd book, Homeward Bound, because that is about Boonville? Well, at least the first three chapters are.  
I’m not sure if I’m getting old, or if I’m just getting lazy. Everyday I’ve been writing, sometimes way into the early hours of the morning, but you couldn’t really call that ‘work’. I’ve written a few articles for UK magazines and most of the chapters for the 2nd book, but that’s probably not a lot to show for my 150 days of opportunity. If I had a normal job then I'd probably be a lot more productive, and I'd appreciate my writing time more, but I don't, so the hours, days and weeks just seem to blend into one another. I’m not sure what I’ve achieved, or where the time’s gone, but Autumn’s already here and the lazy day’s of summer have simply vanished into an ocean of idleness. Sure, earlier in the summer I was a little help to the family here in Boonville, helping with the house-build and caring for their growing herd of livestock, but it really wasn’t a great deal. The truth is, they’re working on an ever tightening budget and when materials aren’t available, it’s difficult to build anything. But you know what, that doesn’t seem to phase them. It would totally freak me out, because I really don’t handle responsibility well, but they just seem to smile and get on with it. This summer they’ve managed to build the decks on the upper levels of the house, and some internal plastering and wiring, but there’s still an awful lot more to be done. Their home will get finished, finished in a Boonville way, but I'm not sure if anybody would be brave or foolish enough to suggest an actual completion date.         
I’m probably telling you things that you honestly don’t need to know, but I’m telling you anyway. You see, I’m becoming very forgetful and if I don’t write these things down, then I just seem to lose them. I can remember the shirt that I wore for my first day at Corporation Road Junior School, and even how many buttons it had and why I hated it so much, but I’d struggle to tell you what I ate for dinner last night. I used to keep a diary, religiously updating it every evening, but I don’t do that now. I really don’t like paper anymore. It’s not about how paper looks or feels, it’s more about how much it weighs and how much space it takes up in my luggage. Luggage is baggage and I’m bored with it. I should blame my growing forgetfulness on old age, but I don’t. I’m blaming gluten, because it’s an easier target to aim at. In SE Asia I don’t really eat gluten, I only drink it in beer. But since I arrived here in America, everything I've eaten has been wrapped in either pastry or bread, and usually washed down with beer. Gluten overload, not old age, that’s the culprit. I’ve been gluten-free for three weeks now, and I actually feel better for it. I've discovered the Boont Berry Farm Market & Deli here in downtown Boonville, and it's great for gluten free food. It's actually great for a lot of things, even if it's just chatting with the amazingly eccentric members of staff, but I particularly enjoy the organic gluten free meals that they serve. That’s probably something else that you didn’t need to know, but I’ve told you anyway.            

I’ve bought my air-ticket out of here. EVA Airlines, San Francisco to Bangkok via Taipei. I had to buy the ticket at a travel agent, on account of not having a credit card, but I really don’t like travel agents. In England, travel agents are quite large and glossy, but here in America they’re a little bit different. Cold stark offices with a computer screen that they never let you see and a lot of out-of-date brochures for places that you’re never likely to visit. They don’t give me confidence and I’m always worried that they’ll somehow rip me-off. It’s silly really, but it’s just the way I am. Anyway, I found such a travel agent in Ukiah, and the ticket was almost $150 less than I would have paid if I’d bought the same ticket on-line. That made me happy, so I gave the young travel agent a copy of my book. I doubt that she’ll read it, she didn’t strike me as the reading type, but I gave it to her and it seemed to make her smile. I’ll arrive in Bangkok for the last week in October, and I’ll have to knuckle down to some serious work. I need to write more articles and do something about promoting book sales in England. I might be gluten-free, but a man’s still got to eat.  

Post 386: Thai Households Underwater

In November of 2011, the district of Lak Si on the northern edge of Bangkok was strategically flooded. That year, Lak Si was just one of many areas that sank beneath the putrid sewage mixed flood waters but for me it was the most important, because it’s the place that I call ‘home’. In 2013 it seems highly possible that the flooding will happen again, but in this post I’m actually referring to a very different kind of ‘underwater’.
Back in 2008, while travelling through Thailand on a scooter, I witnessed a fundamental economic change, a change that impressed and worried me in equal measures. Following the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997, Thailand had experienced a high and consistent level of economic growth and the evidence of that sustained development was clearly visible. The good people of Thailand were living the material dream and new scooters, motor cars and apartments were everywhere. In Ashes to Boonville I commented that the dreams of parents had apparently become the expectations of their children, but just as had happened in the West, the availability of easy credit for low income families would be a slippery slope to ruin. The previously frugal lifestyle of the Thai’s had dramatically changed, taxi-bike riders earning THB 15,000 per month ($500) were riding brand new Honda’s, living in THB 1,000,000 apartments and every home had a brand new Japanese car or pick-up truck in its driveway, often both.
Recently released figures show that in 2012, the registration of new vehicles in Thailand had rocketed by 81%. Of course, some of those vehicles were replacements for those lost in the floods, but most of them were actually purchased by virgin owners under a government backed scheme. That scheme was the Thai version of ‘Cash for Clunkers’, but without the ‘Clunkers’, where the government offered a THB 100,000 ($3,000) incentive to first-time purchasers. The result was a huge increase in the sales of new vehicles and the fallout from that huge increase is already visible.
To buy a new vehicle in Thailand, you’ll pay slightly more than you would in the USA and slightly less than you would in the UK or Europe, but the average income for a Thai is substantially lower than in the West. After removing the top 5% of high-income-households, the average income for a Thai worker is approximately $7,000 per annum. For many of these first-time vehicle buyers, the delayed monthly payments are kicking-in and the households are sinking beneath the flood of easy credit. Repossessions are rocketing, residential car parks are emptying and the used car lots are overflowing with nearly new merchandise. 
I'm not sure what the final outcome will be, but I am sure that whatever it is, it won't be pretty... mai pen rai kap    

Post 385: New Plans

The summer has vanished and I'm already counting down my final days here in Northern California. It's almost time to start heading west, which means that I'm returning to the East, Bangkok to be precise. I'd hoped to attend the Horizons Unlimited travellers gathering down in Cambria, but sadly that's not going to happen this year. My US Visa will expire just a few days before the event and if I don't leave America on time, there might not be a 'next time'.  

This summer has been busier than usual, so busy that it almost feels like 'work'. By day I've been navigating the confusing maze of publishing Ashes to Boonville and writing the second installment of Poor Circulation by night. Thankfully, Lemon Fresh Design and the Ted Simon Foundation have held my hand through the publishing journey and North Coast Breweries have assisted with the writing, so hopefully the results will be positive.

I'll return to Lak Si on the outer reaches Bangkok for the last week of October, where I'll be reunited with my scooter, the Tiger Retro 110. I shouldn't have to contend with the floods of previous years and hope to begin riding shortly after landing. Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia are on the agenda for this Winter, but my plans have a nasty habit of changing, so I'll keep you posted.

Southeast Asia here I come ... Arm doors and cross-check for landing.        

Post 384: "Poor Circulation I - Ashes to Boonville" has arrived ....

This morning, August 22nd 2013, a package was delivered to the Mercantile here in downtown Boonville CA. A hefty box, a box full of books, my books. After five years, 'Poor Circulation I - Ashes to Boonville' has finally arrived. The book is now available in 'Print' format from Amazon, Laughing Dog Books in Boonville and Village Books in Ukiah. If you do happen to buy a copy, then please feel free to send me your thoughts or to leave a review on Amazon. 
Many thanks for following this endless journey, and apologies for the long delay in publishing.

Ride safe and Smile


Post 383: 'Poor Circulation I - 'Ashes to Boonville'

Five minutes in the Planning and five years in the making, 'Ashes to Boonville' is at last on its way to the printers. 'Homeward Bound' and 'The Accidental Pilgrim' will hopefully follow in a much more timely manner ... but that's not a promise ... Thanks to all who have helped to make this possible.

Post 382: Boonville Bound: California USA

The last few months have vanished, gone in the blink of an eye and it’s time to move on.  The monsoon rains of Thailand I certainly won’t miss, but the people and the place I will, especially Nongnoo. The book; ‘Poor Circulation Ashes to Boonville’ is now finished and should be available in the UK within the next couple of weeks. I’ve got to thank so many people for making it possible, all of whom get a mention in the Book, but a special ‘Thank You’ goes to my sister-in-law Torrey for having the ability to polish the detritus that I called a manuscript.
I’ll be flying to California at the end of April and spending a few months with the family in Boonville. It’ll be good to be back there, hanging out with friends and hopefully lending a helping hand with the final stages of the house build and with the animals around the farm. My nephew and niece Sam and Willow are growing up quickly, and after six months away it’ll be amazing to see how much they’ve grown. I’ve bought them clothes and shoes that I’m taking with me, but I’m useless at shopping for myself never mind others, especially buying clothes for kids who always seem to be taller and broader than you remember, so I hope they’ll forgive my taste in fashion and sense of size. I'm also missing my daughter Hannah who I haven't seen for far too long. She'll be leaving college and starting university at the end of the summer and I want to be back in England around that time. Birth to University in the blink of an eye! If I ever needed one, it's a reminder of how old I really am and a motivator to get the things done that I need to get done while there's still enough time and mobility to do them.  
In Boonville I’ll be writing/finishing/polishing the second book; ‘Poor Circulation Homeward Bound’ and hope to have it finished and available before Christmas 2013. Writing and rewriting the first book so many times has taught me some valuable lessons, one of which should be never to promise a delivery date, but hopefully the peace and quiet of Boonville will help me to concentrate and get this one out on time.

Thanks for following, and internet permitting, I'll be back here soon.     

Post 381: Laos, Vang Vieng

My original intention was to ride up to Luang Prabang, about another 250km to the north. But, I’d originally planned to be riding a motorcycle with slightly longer legs than the Suzuki Smash. The bike’s casings tell me that it’s blessed with an engine capacity of 110cc, but from the feel and sound of the motor, it seems to have a 100cc piston slapping around in its oversized bore - a piano playing in a great cathedral. Luang Prabang will have to wait, but the charms of Vang Vieng are drawing me in.

The hills surrounding Vang Vieng are not really mountains; they’re what my old geography teacher always referred to as ‘hummocks’. Tall fingers of rock with rounded peaks covered in vegetation and marbled with natural cave formations. At the undisclosed entrance to one of these caves, I find a local entrepreneur who wants to be my best friend and guide. At each of the caves, the price is always the same, 10,000 kip ($1), but it’s a price worth paying. Without the local guide you’ll struggle to find the hidden entrances and if you haven’t brought your own flashlight and large ball of string, then you’ll likely get lost inside, or fall down a chasm and die.
Inside one of the cave complexes at Pheung Kam, the air is strangely cold as chilling currents flow from somewhere far below ground. Stalactites hang from the high and not so high ceilings, and stalagmites rise from the ground to meet them. The tunnels are narrow, the floors are well trodden and unannounced gullies threaten to swallow the incautious tourist. And then, around a corner, ducking to avoid another collision between forehead and rock, sits a substantial image of Buddha. Too large to have come in through the entrance, it must have been constructed where it sits. It’s old but not ancient and according to my guide, it dates back to the 1970's when these caves were used by ‘People’ to shelter from the almost continuous US bombing raids. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but being here now feels quite claustrophobic and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like in a time of war with bombs raining down on the mountain above. Actually, I don’t think Laos and the USA were ever technically ‘At War’, which seems surprising, because in the 1970's America dropped more ordnance on Laos than the total amount of ordnance dropped on the entire world during World War II .... mai pen rai kap. 

Back on the roads around Vang Vieng, sandy tracks that cross dry river beds and shallow flowing streams, the majority of the people in and between the small hamlets are young. School kids ride from school to the river on their bicycles while younger kids hang out of their clothes and around their grandparents on the bamboo porches of lopsided homes. Apart from those people working in hotels and restaurants, the people here are either old or young, there's nobody in the middle. The parents of the kids, I suspect, are away making money in the city while the older folks take care of the family.  I’d earlier joked about feeling like the poorest kid in town, but that had been back in Vientiane. Here things are different, very different, worryingly different. The shirt on my back makes me feel rich and I suspect that tonight I’ll be eating far better than many of the people that I’ve seen around here today. I don’t feel guilty for being here, I just feel ‘aware’ of my surroundings. Laos is clearly experiencing a period of rapid economic change and in Vientiane that new wealth is visible, often rudely so, but it’s an economic surge that appears to be bypassing these rural communities to the north. 
The town of Vang Vieng is now a community dedicated to the service of tourism, but thankfully, not in a trashy kind of way. In Laos there are no McDonalds, Starbucks or KFC’s, and aside from fuel stations and convenience stores, most small businesses seem to be independently operated. I like that, it gives a degree of uncertainty and character to a place and makes everything feel just a little more genuine. 
Outside of the small towns, agriculture is the main activity and it reminds me very much of Thailand back in the 1980’s. It’s a manual economy that runs with the seasons and still employs more buffalo power than diesel. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed, but that’s very easy for me to say. I’m not the one who’s bent double in a field beneath the burning sun thinning-out the rice crops.

Post 380: Laos, Vientiane to Vang Vieng

Memo to Self: ‘Keep Right Stupid’. Yes, here in Laos they like to drive on the right side of the road. Riding on the right isn’t a challenge, it’s forgetting to ride on the right that seems to create the problems. Hopefully I’ll remember and not become another painted outline on the road.
Vientiane is a great city, but leaving it is easy, Highway 13 North. The roads are busy, busier than I can ever remember. Congestion, lots of cars, many of them shiny and new. Billboards to the side of the road explain why. ‘Cars 4 Cash’ - ‘Cash 4 Cars’ – ‘No Deposit + Easy Payments’. The world of Easy Credit has arrived here in Laos and I’m suddenly feeling like the poorest kid in town. Laos is starting to mirror Thailand, but with longer skirts and slightly shorter smiles. Even the rural farmers are the same. Each and every one of them is a pyromanic with a penchant for setting fire to anything that’ll burn. I twist the throttle wide open and try to outrun the choking smoke, but all I seem to get is a lot more noise. It’s another 150Km to Vang Vieng, but fortunately I’ve got a 30 Day Visa .... No need to hurry.
The density of buildings reduces and the road imperfections increase, but the Suzuki Smash just seems to fart along like a vegetarian grandmother. Random detours down sandy tracks and across bridgeless streams add interest to a maximum speed of 80Kph and away from the tarmac, the Suzuki starts making me smile and reminding me that I’m free. All is good in the world. 
Vang Vieng is an interesting town with a local populous of older grandparents and younger kids, and a tourist population of twenty-something Europeans who appear to be strangers to grooming. I feel like the oldest Farang in town riding the slowest scooter in Laos, and it's probably true. Vang Vieng reminds me of Goa thirty years ago, but without the beach and the blow. It’s a good place to kick-back with cheap rooms, stunning views and a relaxed approach to everything. Beyond the town, rough tracks lead to swimming areas, deep caves and tall mountains. With a total disregard for Health & Safety, Kids jump from high bridges into not so deep rivers below and European travellers swing from high rock faces on unreasonably skinny ropes. But, nobody dies and everybody seems to smile.     
At the side of every track, I find constant reminders that life in Laos hasn’t always been quite so carefree. Shell casings litter the area, hopefully dormant or defused, but there are no guarantees. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 280,000,000 bombs onto Laos, that’s 47 bombs for every man, woman and child in the country, and according to the Mine Action Group, at least 20% of them failed to explode and many remain deadly to this day.

Post 379: Accidentally Into Laos

Entering Thailand from Cambodia at the small border town of Ban Laem, is normally an administrative breeze. However, experience tells me that even the easiest of border crossings can be unpredictable:
Official: ‘Your Thai visa expired on March 11th, today is March 12th and your visa is invalid’
Me: ‘Please look at my passport, my Thai visa expires tomorrow, March 13th, my visa is still valid’.
Official: ‘The computer says 11th March. Sorry, entry is denied’
It was like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, but for a traveller with very little money, it was slightly more serious. Unfortunately in this particular version of the game, it seemed that ‘Computer’ trumped ‘Passport-Stamp’ every time. I was clearly on an administrative hiding-to-nothing and decided to cut my losses. After much discussion, they finally compromised and allowed me to enter Thailand for just 14 Days. It wasn’t the 60 Days that I’d expected, but it was certainly better than the alternative: ‘Entry Denied’.
It’s always surprising that a task’s appetite for time can ebb and flow according to the amount of time that’s available to complete it. So, after just 12 Days in Bangkok, my tasks were finished and it was time get out of Thailand. At Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station, I boarded the overnight VIP Coach to Nong Khai and 12 hours later, I crossed the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Laos.

Welcome to Laos, or to use its fuller name, the Laos People’s Democratic Republic. Any nation that feels the need to include the words ‘People’ and ‘Democratic’ in its name, always makes me slightly suspicious. Such inclusions often reflect a gentle misinterpretation of the facts, like a chocolate bar described as being ‘Fun Size’ or a tent that ‘Sleeps 4’.  But, when applied to Nations, such misrepresentations are probably slightly more serious. North Korea is officially called The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I rest my case. 
Democratically speaking, the 6,500,000 citizens of Laos are represented by 132 elected members of the National Assembly.  Every five years, National Assembly members are elected via a national ballot, a ballot that seems to include everything but choice. It appears that all electable officials are members of the only legally recognised political party in Laos, The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Thus, I suspect that the words ‘People’ and ‘Democratic’ in Laos’ name are as silent as the letter ‘S’ in Laos.
So here I am, an Englishman governed by Cameron and Clegg, a man living in a world shaped by Bush and Blair, and I’m questioning the true level of democracy here in SE Asia. Shame on me. 

Moving on, in order to travel in Laos, I’ve secured a rental scooter from a Vietnamese food vendor here in downtown Vientiane Capital. It’s a little red Suzuki Smash with a big chrome exhaust pipe and four evenly spaced gears, all of them down. What else can I say? Well, what I should say is that before leaving Thailand I’d pre-booked a rental bike, a 250cc Honda Baja, but when I’d arrived to collect the motorcycle from Jules Classics they’d denied all knowledge of my reservation. I’d shown them the booking request and their subsequent confirmation, but the man from Jules Classics had simply said ‘No’.
Having collected the unfortunately named Suzuki Smash, before leaving Vientiane I stopped to visit a chirpy gentleman who sells handmade wristbands on the pavement outside of Jules Classics. Yesterday I’d left Jules Classics feeling slightly pissed-off with the world, but this man had put everything into perspective. As a youth, he’d lost the use of his lower legs in a landmine incident but had smiled, got over it and got on with it, making the most of what he could do and ignoring what he couldn’t. I chat with him for a few minutes before selecting ten of his beautifully crafted wristbands and handing him a sum of money equal to the cost differential between renting the Honda and Suzuki. It felt good to make someone’s day, but I also introduced him to the wonders of Marmite and that was quite a different story .... a different story for another time.

Post 378: Iron Butt Asia

In a long list of dumb ideas, this was right up there with the worst of them. I could tell you that it wasn’t my fault, and in a way, that would be the truth. You see, when it happened I was just a bystander, an innocent man floundering in a raging confluence of beer, boredom and bullshit. All of the danger signs were there, signs that I was about to be engulfed by a perfect storm of stupidity. But, at the time, I honestly hadn’t seen it coming.  
It was the tail end of the Horizon’s Unlimited meeting, way up in the north of Thailand, and I was sitting in a bar with a group of fellow travellers. We were stragglers with nowhere to go, and in no great hurry to get there, travellers without a purpose. There were four or five us, possibly even six, I really can’t remember. We were just killing time, drinking cold beer and chewing the overland fat. I can tell you, when bikers have finished biking for the day, they can really chew that fat with a beer or two. Beer seems to have played an important role in most of my bad decisions, but I’m not going to blame alcohol, not this time at least. The beer’s just the catalyst, the shit that fertilizes the dormant seed, the seed that grows into a fertile garden of stupidity.  I don’t mind telling you, for two hours we’d been killing each other with kindness. We’d blown so much sunshine up each other’s arses that if we’d farted in unison, I swear, we could’ve melted most of Siberia. Then, having discussed who’d travelled where riding what, and established beyond all reasonable doubt that all of us were amazingly brave and incredible individuals, the conversation had moved onto more mundane matters. Jesus Christ, it was like a game of Top Trumps for Round the World Travellers, and once we’d got passed mileage, I was losing every hand we’d played. One man’s mundane is another man’s porn, but honestly, BMW Adventures, Touratech Trinkets and Garmin Gizmos really don’t do it for me.
At that point, I’d kind of switched-off from the conversation. Over in the corner, some guy in a bad tuxedo was murdering Jason Mraz on the microphone. He wasn’t very good, but his enthusiasm was killing me, in a good way. I like that sort of thing, and I think you know what I mean. When someone’s enthusiastically bad at something and really couldn’t give-a-shit about what anybody else might think of them. That was the guy in the cheap tuxedo, and I liked him for it. Anyway, that’s when I heard it, the thing that got me thinking. It might have been the German guy who brought it up, the guy who’d sent me to sleep an hour earlier with his extensive knowledge of ‘Geocaching’. Well, even if it wasn’t the German guy, somebody damn well said it – “Iron Butt”.
At first they’d all laughed, but after a while, they’d kind of realised that I was serious. Damn, my horse was really high that night. So, they’d all stopped laughing and started arguing down my latest bad idea. An Iron Butt in Thailand would be impossible. One thousand miles in twenty-four hours, riding on Thai roads? If there was a word bigger than impossible, then that’s the word they’d been looking for. Then I’d told them straight, I wasn’t totally stupid - a Metric Iron Butt – not a thousand miles but a thousand kilometres. That’d softened them a little, but what I’d told them next, well, that almost bloody killed them.  No, that wasn’t my BMW GS parked outside on the pavement. No it certainly wasn’t, I don’t do BMW’s. I’d pointed to my bike, the cute little scooter hiding behind the big Bavarian brute, the red and white Honda Super Cub C90. Yes, the one with the bamboo shopping baskets. I should’ve told them straight, told them that it wasn’t a Honda Super Cub C90 but a Thai built copy, the Tiger Retro 110. But I didn’t tell them, and anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t think it would’ve lessened their laughter.
The sun rose early, too early for the guest house porter who’d locked the gate and trapped my scooter inside of his yard. I woke him up, and the yappy dogs, but I tell you, none of them were happy to see me. I really didn’t care, because all I wanted to do was to start riding home, that’s all that was on my mind. Taking the scenic route, Bangkok was about 800km to the south, maybe a little more, or a little less, so I’d have to take a detour. North would be good. I really liked the look of north. When the sun’s low, I kind of like to chase my shadow. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel good doing it. What I don’t like are big hills, but North was full of them. I used to love hills, but that love affair ended when I bought the Tiger Retro 110. When you’ve only got five brake horsepower, you’ve got to work pretty damn hard to defy gravity. Going down hills is a blast, but climbing them, well, that’s a bummer. But, I headed north anyway.
It was so funny, I couldn’t stop laughing. The sun was low behind me and my shadow stretched halfway to tomorrow. With a skinny scooter and a big crash helmet, it reminded me of the cocks that I used to draw on everything when I was a goofy little kid at school. I don’t know why, it just did, but it was funny all the same. Maybe I’m still a goofy kid at heart? Anyway, by eleven o’clock I’d seen enough hills to last me a lifetime, I was as hungry as hell and back to roughly where I’d started the challenge in Chang Mai. I’d been up towards the Myanmar border, and it had been a really sweet ride. I’d seen more trees and water buffalo than people, and I like that. It’s not that I don’t like people, because I do, sometimes, I just prefer water buffalo, that’s all. Anyway, I bought a plastic bowl of chicken and rice soup at the side of the road, kow dtom gai,  and drank a million gallons of iced tea. Man, it was a hot day for riding slowly. I’d already used two full tanks of gas. That’s about three hundred kilometres because it’s only got a three litre fuel tank - less weight. I was feeling good, the new seat that I’d bought in Bangkok was a peach and my butt was almost as happy as my belly. I really like Thai food, and the kow dtom gai tasted especially good. Boy, I was killing this Iron Butt thing.
Heading south, Highway 1 was a bastard. I preferred the hills to the north, but I needed to pick up the pace and keep riding south. 75kph with the throttle hard against the stop, or 80kph downhill, Tiger Retro’s aren’t too fast. And boy was it busy? The traffic was damn near crushing me. Huge trucks loaded with sugarcane, or something like that, passing within an inch of my bamboo panniers and blowing me halfway to hell and back. Speeding taxis, lots of folks in a really big hurry and everything passing me at a million miles an hour. Highway 1 was a moody kind of road, the sort of road where nobody ever waves or smiles at you.       
Flutt .... Flutt ... Flutt.. Flutt Flutt Flutt Flutt. Jesus Christ, I hated that sound. A puncture in the rear tyre.  Spoked wheels meant inner-tubes and inner-tubes were bitches to replace or repair. I like tubeless tyres, they’re easy to plug when they go flat on you, but Tiger Retro’s have spoked wheels and my smile had disappeared. I didn’t have to wobble too far, it was my lucky day. A good sign, a red and white painted tractor tyre at the side of the road, a tyre fitter was close by. The old tyre-fitter wasn’t big on talking, so I handed him some money and he went off in search of a new inner-tube. The only available shade was under two banana trees, but I didn’t choose to sit there. Instead, I hunkered down and had a smoke on the gravel path beneath the burning sun. I like banana trees with their huge green leaves, but I don’t like the things that live around them. Spiders and snakes. It’s not just the traffic that tries to kill you in Thailand, it’s everything.  
The old tyre fitter eventually wobbled back with a new inner-tube and a bottle of rice whiskey. I probably paid for both, I’m really not sure. The funny thing was, for a tyre fitter I mean, was that he only had one tyre lever. Two hands and only one tyre lever? I really should’ve carried on wobbling down the road and found a guy with the right equipment, but I didn’t. I mean, did he struggle? And you know what, he was such a stubborn old bastard that he wouldn’t even let me help him. I just smoked more cigarettes and watched him struggle away. At one point I thought he’d given up, because he’d thrown down his tyre iron and stormed off to his house. He hadn’t though, because a few minutes later he came back, with a spoon. A spoon for Christ’s sake, what proper tyre fitter uses a bloody spoon? It took almost an hour, an hour that I couldn’t spare, and when he’d finally finished he couldn’t find the security bolt that fits onto the torque arm. I think the torque arm is the thing that stops the whole inner hub from spinning with the wheel, or something like that. Anyway, he couldn’t find it and he seemed to blame one of his dogs for eating the damn thing. I didn’t care, I just wanted to keep on riding and get the hell away from him. He really was a miserable old bastard, and that’s unusual for Thailand.
 Flutt .... Flutt ... Flutt.. Flutt Flutt Flutt Flutt. Not again? I’d only ridden a kilometre and the back tube was flat again. Just then, four young kids on a scooter came by with big smiles and a little advice. They were fun kids, probably on their way home from school, it really was that late in the day and I really was falling that far behind my schedule. Thankfully, they knew a good guy with two tyre levers and he wasn’t too much further down the road. I found him no problem, and when he removed the flat tyre do you know what he found? He found the bloody security bolt that the miserable old bastard has lost just a few minutes earlier. Yes, he’d found the security bolt trapped inside the rear tyre, and it had totally shredded the new inner-tube. What a bastard. I’d wanted to ride back down the road and do some damage, but I didn’t. I’m not really that sort of person, I just get a little angry at times. Anyway, the young guy fitted another tube and fixed it up real good. He even wiped his oily finger prints off the chrome work. I liked that, it was a little touch of class and it showed that he really cared.
Highway 1 didn’t improve, so I pulled off onto a smaller, slightly quieter road for a time. You remember my long list of stupid ideas? Well, that’s when it got a little bit longer. The road surface soon changed to shit, and then it turned out to not be a road at all, at least not a road that would take me anywhere. An hour lost, an hour that I’d never get back, and it was already getting dark. Do you remember the bamboo basket that I’d told you about? The one on the front of the scooter that the BMW guys had laughed at? Well, maybe they’d been right to laugh. The Tiger Retro’s tiny headlight shone right into that basket and reflected straight back onto the tiny windshield. Honestly, I couldn’t see shit. I should’ve stopped and taken that basket off the scooter, or removed the windshield. But I didn’t. That old tyre fitter, the one with a tyre lever and a spoon, well, he’d got to me. I was trying to out-stubborn the old bastard, so I’d ploughed on regardless.     
Another thing, I’d forgotten to bring my goggles. I had my fake Ray Ban’s, but sunglasses at night aren’t a good idea. Even I know that. The night air was full of flies, mosquitoes and moths, and I had to squint, to close my eyes and keep on riding like a lunatic. I can tell you, I really wasn’t comfortable doing that. It was probably dangerous too, but I had another three hundred kilometres to cover and I didn’t want to fail the challenge.
Midnight came and went, I’d ridden into tomorrow and tomorrow was colder than a witch’s tit. I stopped and unpacked my luggage. I wasn’t carrying a lot, you really can’t carry much on a Tiger Retro, but I pulled on every piece of clothing that I’d had with me. It’d felt better, but I still wasn’t warm. I’d wanted to find a hotel, to give up the madness and admit defeat, but, I’d still wanted to out-stubborn the old tyre fitter and prove the BMW riders wrong. Gas stations were closing, but thankfully, a Tiger Retro will run forever on a full tank of fuel. Well, at least with a top speed of 75kph, it certainly feels like forever. Every time I stopped for a smoke, and I was stopping often,  I didn’t even bother to get off the scooter. There hadn’t been any point. Even when I’d climbed off, my body had been frozen in the rigid riding position. I’d probably looked like a madman, loitering by the side of the road, smoking a cigarette, shivering like a bastard and standing like a guy who’s straining to take a dump with his pants still on. Honestly, by that time, I didn’t feel good at all, but at least there’d been nobody around to see me. At that time of the morning I’d had the road to myself, nobody else had wanted to share it, probably because most other people weren’t quite as insane.
Someone had been teasing me, I swear it’s true. They’d altered the signposts and moved the mile-markers an awful lot further apart. I hate it when people do that sort of thing, it’s just not fun when you’re heading home after a long day in the saddle. I couldn’t even manage to change gear anymore, so I’d just left it in fourth and hoped that I didn’t need to stop. Ang Thong, two hours from home, Ayutthaya, one hour from home. The Tiger Retro would make it, a thousand kilometres in twenty hours or so, but I’ll tell you, by that time I wasn’t sure if I’d make it. I was empty, a crumpled mass of flesh and bone, a broken man dreaming of Corbin seats and BMW ergonomics, a victim of his own stupidity.  
Then, after nineteen hours and too many minutes of riding, I’d crossed the canal and arrived at my destination, the invisible finish-line on the outskirts of Bangkok. I’d pulled to a halt, killed the Tiger’s tortured engine, and immediately burst into tears. I’d ridden 1,027 km, most of it at full throttle and some of it on sand, but the diminutive Tiger Retro hadn’t missed a single beat. Inside our apartment block I’d waited for the elevator, the longest wait in history, then hobbled to the door to our apartment. She must’ve woken as I’d turned the key in the lock and she’d looked sleepy and startled as I’d entered. She’d also looked amazingly beautiful, but not at all tempting, not after a thousand kilometres on the saddle of a scooter. “You actually did it? ... You’re a crazy bastard”. And this time, she wasn’t wrong.