Archive for November, 2012

Honda Dream 125cc

November 27, 2012

The motorbike climbed the empty curving mountain road until I reached the cloudline. Here, an old couple, a few stalls. There was a view of the land around, but this morning I only looked down upon clouds.

The weather was dry, not very hot. When the Honda went fast, I needed my coat.

No one else on the slope roads. Sunlight, canopy of trees, an unbroken yellow line. The line spun upwards around and around the mountain. I drove slowly, carefully, guiding the Honda around the next corner.

Butterflies, flashing. Yellow ones in pairs. One with brown colour on upperside, yellow colour on underside. A great dark one, looks black at first, on closer inspection it’s a deep brown. For a moment they appear in front of me, like the spots of sunlight that emerge from the gaps in the foliage, making eyes squint, just for a moment, then as the road rolls on, new spots of light and different things appear.

A smile and a sense of wonderment, a slow ride on an empty highway. Something happens that leaves my eyes wide and my mouth open with glee. A little sparrow sits on the unbroken yellow line in the middle of the empty road, twenty feet in front of the Honda. I approach directly towards him. As I near him, he leaps into flight, dashing back and forth just a few inches above the road, just in front of the bike. He’s playing with me. He darts ahead and again settles twenty feet in front of the bike. Again as I bear down upon him he leaps into the air and flies ahead. This happens three or four times, he could play this game all day. Where else could this happen, but on the Doi Thung mountain road, 30km north-west of Mae Chan?

Border police checkpoints, a small hut, two or three uniformed guards, a flimsy striped barrier. Sometimes they ask for your passport, sometimes not. Sometimes they ask where you are staying and where you are headed for, often they will just wave you through. At first I am concerned that I am actually crossing the border into Myanmar, but actually the official station is 20km down the road in Mae Sai. Presently I see barbed wire in the ditch marking the border. In the opposite ditch, huge Rhododendron trees beget glorious flowers of such size and of such deep red I have to stop and look at them to believe them.

The Rhododendrons remind me of England. As I climb higher, something else. The dampness from the overnight rain is still here, trapped in a bed of leaves and plant matter. The smell is of a European forest, of pine needles. The trees up here lose their leaves. Somewhere, a fire, woodsmoke.

A sign in English tells me which way to the temple. The Honda keeps climbing, looking for Wat Phra Tat Doi Thung, a temple in the clouds. I reach a sudden end to the road. The tarmac is replaced by clay. A huge blue mechanical digger has scooped out the mountainside, a team of twenty men mill around. I turn around and drive back down the road, stopping to ask two passers by the way to the temple. Yes, that is the road to the temple. I return to the building site. I see a man on a moped ride on a path high above the digging. They have scooped a great trench from the mountain, leaving a one-metre wide shelf of clay. This is the road to the temple.

‘Keep going, 500m up there’ shouts one of the workers, in Thai. ‘Be careful’ and many of the group laugh. They watch me with amusement as I walk the bike up the shelf path, around the building site and on to the tarmac at the other side.

Down a great hill with my brakes on the whole time, and I’m at the foot of the temple steps. A couple of Thai guys sitting around, no tourists.

A long way up to the temple. Many steps, guarded as one expects by the long painted concrete dragons on either side. At the top of the steps, something unusual. Two colourful statues of demons guarded the threshold of a long path, lined by hundreds of bells. Ornate bells of brass or iron, each up to two foot tall, suspended from wooden railings on either side of the tiled walkway. Grass and fungus sprouted between the terracotta tiles.

Finally I reached the twin domes of the Wat Phra Tat Doi Thung. The expected golds, statues, paintings that I had grown weary of seeing, but this setting was different. No-one here. Mountainous mist drifting in and out of the grounds. I approached the entrance of the temple to see a lone monk in orange robes, dozing in the doorway. He woke and smiled at me.

Later, the Phanon Yothin Highway takes me directly home. As the sun sets, the three lanes heading west are largely empty, so I open the modest 125cc engine as far as possible and ride towards the sun. The landscape is open now and I race into a beautiful painting, the sun dropping quickly into the horizon, the sky dissolving from blue to orange to red to brown to grey to dark. The Honda not making a noise to my ears but emitting a drone, a monotone, the sound of travelling at one speed in one straight line, the undertone of my meditation driving sight, the eyes follow the road, the road is constant, the Honda is constant, the markings on the road approach in a stream, the life at the side of the road hurtles past me at speed, my peripheral vision is the sunset, the mountains, the far-off lights, and if there is something there I cannot see I can see it, my awareness fills the vision, my head presents the whole picture, a huge, wide, beautiful, red, grey and orange sound.

Is it fruitless to try and evoke it, put it into words, or a painting, or photograph it, film it, try to capture it? This immersive, psychedelic, hurtling experience? When the senses combine as closely and harmoniously as the elements of a musical quintet, to produce the kind of unique experience that leaves you humbled with streaks of moisture from your eyes, or laughing like a goon, or your heart rising from your chest. One moment when your awareness peaked, and sights could be more than seen, sounds could be more than heard, riding your motorbike westwards at speed on a deserted highway at sunset, in the landscape and life of Northern Thailand.

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Walking around Chiang Rai

November 9, 2012

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I saved a few quid by deciding not to rent a scooter. I stayed at a couple of central guest houses, there are enough to choose from.

I was on strong antibiotics for a few days due to an ear infection. Or I thought it was an ear infection. In fact when I went to see a doctor on Sunday morning at Overbrook hospital, he took one look down my ear hole and said ‘your ear is blocked with wax’. The doctor prescribed me some solution to drop in my ear. The cost of this consultation was 70 baht, registering at the hospital cost 40 baht, and the prescription cost 115 baht, for a total of 225 baht or nearly £5.

I walked out of the hospital feeling a darn sight better. I rued self-diagnosing a few days earlier and buying some antibiotics over the counter at the pharmacy. The antibiotics had made me feel like shit, and I was convinced that I had some kind of virus. It seems not. So I had wasted 400 baht on some antibiotics. On the plus side, taking the medicine had precluded my drinking for a time. I decided to compensate tonight, with a few beers on my last night in Chiang Rai.

First, a latte yen in one of the coffee shops. They love coffee in Northern Thailand and its good quality too. A big cup of Iced cappuccino or latte or whatever for 45-60 baht. Forget about getting a Great British Cuppa, but if you like coffee you’re laughing.

I hail a tuk-tuk and he wants 400 baht to take me to Wat Rong Khun, which is about 10 km south of the city, wait there for an hour then drive me back. I insist on 300 baht because I read another guy’s blog where he paid that much.

This is an extravagance I can afford because I’ve been walking round Chiang Rai for nearly a week now. Also Wat Rong Khun costs nothing to enter. This is the second time I have visited, I had to come back to take another look at ‘Hall of Masterworks’. Charlermchai Kositpipat does not seem to be a modest guy. In addition to entitling his exhibition ‘Masterworks’, he has erected several life-sized cardboard images of himself around the temple grounds. Still, he is irrefutably a Master. He has designed a modern site of Buddhist worship comprising of several temples and buildings as well as housing his incredible artwork. I had to return to stare again at the scores of canvasses depicting Buddhist icons, personal images of heaven and outrageous scenes of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden riding rockets.

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One wall of The White Temple is painted with a mural entitled ‘Buddha triumphs over Mara’. When you first see it you’re standing there open-mouthed, then grinning, because you haven’t seen anything like this before. You’re in a temple in Thailand. Another temple in Thailand. They’re all beautiful and decorated with very old statues, ornate metalwork, mosaics, ceramics, tapestries, paintings etc. You respectfully and slowly walk round, admire it, absorb it, and leave. This WhiteTemple, however, is something else. He’s got Lord Buddha floating over an apocalyptic war zone cartoon Earth. Giant snakes smother the twin towers. The guy from Avatar swoops down on his dragon. Also Transformers, Harry Potter, Ben10! Satellites and rockets, spaceships. Freddy Krueger. Trust me, you have to see this.

The temperature in the exhibition hall is uncomfortably close. Dim lights, no air con, though mercifully not crowded. Uninterrupted long gazes at the canvasses. I like the brightest ones, the Mythical Rabbit, My Idea of Heaven. The purples, blues and golds so bright, glowing, outrageously bold. I get uncomfortable with the heat but I resolve to stay a few minutes longer, feeling my way into this imagery, wading through the scenes in the paintings. I love this aesthetic.

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Another latte yen before I meet Khun Saphan the tuk-tuk man and back to the guest house. He writes his phone number on a pamphlet, its a generic tour-operator advertisement. ‘Long Neck Karen’ ‘Hill Tribe Villages’ ‘Palong Big Earring’. From what I can gather, for a couple of thousand baht they will pick you up from your hotel and take you round a number of villages, where the tribes people will put on a bit of a show with costumes and dancing. I’m not really up for these tours myself.

I continue my own private food tour of Thailand, which consists of stopping two or three times a day at restaurants and cafes and roadside stands to load up on spicy, fresh and aromatic soups, salads, curries, indeterminate things wrapped in bamboo leaves, meat things on sticks, seafood in little plastic bags etc etc etc. It never ends. No wonder I have added 4 kg to my waist within the first week!

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The food is everywhere and the choice is huge. Bounding out of my guesthouse I consider a noodle bar and a curry café before settling for a restaurant with a board outside reading ‘Northern Thai food’. Ashamed to say, but my Thai is so poor I am often attracted to places with an English language menu. Or places where all the dishes are on view so I can point to them. I choose Sai Aur, or Lanna Sausage, and some Laab Moo (a minced pork curry) with rice.

These Lanna Sausages are really something. They are huge and made in a ring like a Cumberland Sausage. They are made with finely minced pork and a lot of spices, which give them a fiery red colour. They call out from every market and roadside food vendor to sausage lovers like me… eat me.

As fond as I am of street food and street markets in Thailand, I was not ready for the Chiang Rai Saturday Walking Street market. Full of medicine, tired and irritable, I paced down Thanalai Road towards the Night Bazaar. I noticed some stalls set up at either side of the road. As I got closer I saw the crowds of people. The street had been cordoned off to traffic and there was a third row of stalls down the middle of the road. There was an unwritten rule that you had to walk on the left side, which was a good idea, but for the fact that the stalls were solid down the middle and you couldn’t really get through them to change direction. This went on for what seemed like a mile. Hypnotic sensory overload. Stall after stall after stall of knick-knacks – tin cans turned into tuk-tuks, dolls. DVDs, t-shirts, hats. People there in tribes costume, people in normal clothes. Faces looming from beneath the phosphorous low lamps in chains strung down the never-ending line of stalls. Your feet marching in the slow pace of the crowd, fighting it, I can’t be arsed with this, then going with it, your tired eyes consuming the sequence of images too many to see. No pattern, exactly. The same items repeated many times of course, how many times have I seen those fucking little tin tuk tuks, or the pointed woollen lanna hats with multicoloured bands. Then bouncing out of the sea comes something really bizarre – a guy bashing a battery-powered plastic tennis racket on to multi-coloured foil tinsel to produce crackling bright loud sparks. Or a face – your tired eyes staring too long at a girls face, because you haven’t seen a face quite like that before, huge eyes, caramel skin, rounded. The low chains of lamps also light up the steam rising from the food carts. Whats that sound? I swear it sounds like Christians strumming sing-a-longs. It’s a group of thirty Missionary Thais singing songs about Jesus. I watch for a minute, its too bizarre, I make haste. One of the parking lots of one of the temples has been converted into another food market surrounding a stage, before the stage they have laid down mats and little tables and bottles of water. I buy some little parcels of sweet fruit, I don’t know what it is, and some fried chicken. The fried chicken tastes as I would have liked every piece of fried chicken hitherto consumed to have tasted. As well as bagging up the two huge pieces of chicken I have selected, the vendor also bags up some sweet chilli sauce to drip over it.

Fried Chicken is a traditional Thai dish. Also, pork scratchings or Cap Moo are a traditional Lanna side dish. You will find them in packets ready for you to eat with your meal at any Northern Thai eatery, in the same way that there is always bottled water and condiments ready and waiting for you at your table. I first bit into the floury, crispy, curly item as part of a Khantoke traditional Lanna platter. My eyes lit up in amazement as I confirmed that yes, these were pork scratchings. I tried to explain to my dinner date that these pig products were consumed with beer in every other British pub. I don’t think she understood what I was saying.

The Khantoke meal we went to was a crazy rip off, in a courtyard restaurant where tourists are bussed in from their hotels and led by an army of traditionally costumed staff to low tables on the Thai cushions and mats. While you eat there are lots of dance and costume performances. Nothing wrong with that, but you can eat this same food at the street vendors for a fraction of the price, and you can see the performances for free or for a tip at the Walking Street markets, or every evening at Chiang Rai Night Bazaar.

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The only gob-smackingly cheap meal I ate in Chiang Rai was 15 baht for a plate of rice with two ladels of the curries of my choice, at a roadside counter at the corner of Uttarakit and Ngam-Muang. Yes, it was delicious and some of the best curry I’ve tasted. Unfortunately it was closed every time I went back to try again.

After washing down my Sai Aur and Laab Moo at the Northern Thai restaurant with a bottle of Leo, I bounce down the street towards a couple of bars I have been waiting to try. I haven’t been drinking because I’ve been on the antibiotics, and also I’ve been early to bed each night. Haven’t been in drink since last Monday and that crazy night at Par-club. I decide to let myself loose a little bit this evening. I bypass the Kaffee Hub at the clocktower, where the boss stands outside rubbing his hands as the steady flow of tourists drifts into his premises. They can sit here and see the clocktower lit up, or listen to some Thai guys strum a few covers on the guitar.

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I move on and turn down the Thanon Phahon Yothin, walking past the bus station and night bazaar to the intersection of Sanpanard Road, where a beautiful US Army Jeep from the 1960s is permanently parked up, advertising the Hangovers Corner bar. The bar is a few metres back on Jetyod Street. I sip a large Leo beer quickly and chat to some expatriates. I haven’t been to one of these bars for ages. The familiar holiday bar scenario, a wizened middle-aged guy from the UK or Australia, a native wife, and a loyal customer base of local white guys. A fridge full of cold beer at reasonable prices. When I leave the Hangovers Corner I think about the many bars like this I have visited on beaches on Koh Samui. Its nice to go somewhere where you can have a chat with someone in your own language, but of course I didn’t come to Thailand to do that.

Its buzzing to know enough of the language to bowl in somewhere, say hello, how you doing, ask whats your name, tell them where you are from, where you are staying or where you visited today. Usually you will get a great reaction, smiles all round and be congratulated on your amazing Thai language skills. Of course you know and they know that you are shit at speaking Thai, but fuck it you’ve just enjoyed something approaching a conversation, however limited. So true it is that a little bit of language knowledge goes a long way. So far I’ve only had two or three encounters out of say, one hundred, that have left me feeling pissed off. At a food counter or in a shop, where I’ve tried to ask for something in Thai and been greeted with a bad attitude, a piss-taking or belittling response.

Some of the ex-pats at the bar have only bad things to say about the Thais. Often it’s a guy on his own, in the same place every night or on the same circuit every night, doing his best to carve an indentation of his flabby arse into his favourite bar stool. He knows ten words of Thai and one-hundred Thai stories, usually involving people trying to fuck him over (or fuck another white guy over), con him, rob him or otherwise molest him. These geezers love exchanging horror stories across the bar. In fact, they don’t seem to have a lot of good things to say about anything or anywhere, including Her Majesty’s Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. From one Kingdom to another.

One man calls after me ‘if you want the girls, go that way’. I go the other way. ‘I know where they are, I’m trying to stay away from them’, I call back, with a laugh and a smile.

Back up Phahon Yothin and to the Teepee Bar, a weird place I’ve also passed loads of times and never visited. I’m the only customer, cross-legged on straw mats, watching a concert video of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. I’m enjoying myself, sipping on Leo and trying to figure this place out. It looks like some kind of magical attic, cluttered with music memorabilia, posters, signs and even Fender Stratocasters hanging from the walls. Its really dark in here. Perfect place to come if you were stoned.

A march up and down Jetyod street, the bar soi, wondering where to try next, looking to keep clear of the bar girls who will welcome me so warmly and relieve me so quickly of my money. The Easy House looks OK, a couple of bottles there and a chat to some Thais – the friendly bar maid and a small group sitting next to me. From my bar stool I can see straight through the Kitchen hatch. I get a little bit drunk and hypnotised by my surroundings. I’m watching a small woman hack up Octopus on a large wooden chopping board with a huge cleaver. A small boy (or girl?) ferries the food from the kitchen to the tables behind me. I notice this place is a guesthouse as well as a bar and restaurant. Everything here seems to be made out of wood. It starts raining. I start day dreaming of medieval Inns, Don Quixote. I scribble fervently in my notebook. The bar maid asks me if I’m OK.

Further down Jetyod and the rain starts coming down properly. Real, South-East Asian rain. Sheets of it, bouncing off the road. Soaking you instantly but not unpleasantly. Its not cold. I take refuge on the front porch of one of the massage parlours, where the women shift around their little concrete table and chairs to make room for me. They sell me bottles of cold Leo for 50 baht and feed me strange dried seafood snacks, bought from a vendor still shuffling down the rainy road in a poncho with stick on shoulder and bag of wares dangling from stick. They are amused when I ask one to please pass me the chilli dip, as a lot of Thais are not ready to believe that a farang can eat chillis. ‘Ped Mak!’ they chirp, and I say ‘Pom chob a han ped aroy mak!’ and we all laugh well, and I am more than happy to be the clown-butt of the joke if that so be. I drink too many bottles of Leo and fall into a drunken reverie of the rain, and love and satisfaction wells in me, loving where I am, sitting on low concrete stools outside a massage parlour in the rain as people rush back to the guesthouses, until one of the girls throws me on the back of her scooter and drives me back to my guest house, sees me inside and makes sure I will be OK, drunken fool that I am, and she drives off again.

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A Note about this Blog

November 8, 2012

I started this Blog a few years ago as an exercise to get me writing regularly, and for the good feeling that comes from composing one’s thoughts on paper.

I lost interest in the blog around the same time as returning from my first visit to Thailand in Spring 2010. Now I am back in Thailand for the third time and for an extended period. I have decided to kick the blog off again. I was about to open a new WordPress page before I reviewed the last few entries and realised that there will actually be direct continuity between my last post over two-and-a-half years ago and my next post today. Also, this means I will not have to bother opening a new page.

My reasons for re-starting the blog:

1. Keep friends and family updated regarding my travels

2. Dedicating more time to creative writing

3. As I’m in a different country experiencing weird things and seeking an alternative lifestyle, there is an outside chance that the blog will at some stage actually become interesting for others to read.

4. Documenting my life for my own future amusement and reference

5. Because it feels good.