The Journey Home
It’s now Friday morning and I’m sitting in some non descript bar in a lane around the corner from my hotel nursing my hangover, a consequence of my determination to make every minute of my last night in Thailand memorable. To my left sits Tony and Louise, a couple in their late forties, originally from England but now residents of Melbourne who are in Thailand celebrating their thirtieth anniversary. To their left is Maurice and Kim, a couple from Perth who are spending a week in Phuket and Phi Phi soaking up as much sun, alcohol and drugs as they can. Sitting to my right is Nam, a native that has provided me with a few memorable days in Phuket and, although she insists she is not a working girl she is no less adept than her solicitous sisters at parting me from my money; wearing the new T-shirt I bought her, “because I no have clean clothes teelak (my love) and taxi to my house cost four hunlet baht but look, t-shirt only too-let (200) baht. You can buy me?”
Underneath the top, her firm breasts poke out exposing the outline of the bikini I bought her a few days earlier, “cause I want look sexy for you baby when at beesh, you can buy me?”
She sits there quietly munching away on her plate of tom sam gung, every now and then trying to pop spoonfuls into my mouth but with the amount of alcohol I had consumed the night before, I really want a fatty, greasy burger rather than a spicy Thai salad, only I can’t find the energy to pry myself off the bar stool and walk the three blocks to the McDonald’s down the road.
“You want I go mardonal for you teelak?”
She slips off the barstool and I hand her a 500 baht note and she dutifully scurries off down the road to retrieve me my animal fat sodden hangover cure. Two months in South East Asia and I have eaten every critter that slithers, scurries or crawls, not having touched anything remotely western (except for the Aussie BBQ we put on in Bangkok) and here I was on my last day in Thailand about to woof down some Maccas.
She returns shortly, sporting not only the requested McDonald’s but also another four or five Styrofoam takeaway containers which contain an assortment of the local food.
“You buy for everyone honey?” I ask, laughing.
“Ohh, no baby I solly I not ask. Flend you want? I go get more” feeling extremely ashamed at not having offered to get food for the others sitting with me.
“No, no, its okay. I was just kidding.”
Nam takes her seat next to me and proceeds to pick away at the various containers of food and offer them to the others, still feeling a little embarrassed. The others politely decline because they, in addition to preferring western food anyway, like me are nursing hangovers and queasy stomachs.
“You sure?” she enquires, “aharn aloy muk muk.”
The others shoot me a confused look, “she said this food is extremely tasty,” I translate for them. They still politely decline.
“Mai pen lai,” (no problem) she chirps and proceeds to tuck in to the food. I don’t know how she does it but at five foot nothing and 38 kg she is about two-thirds my size yet can put away three times what I can. To a Thai, the worst thing in the world is to be hungry. It is a fate worse than death itself. I can not count the amount of times my little teelak decided that we had to stop doing whatever it was we were doing and had to go on an immediate and urgent quest for food, because she noticed she was a little hungry. It doesn’t matter that we’d just paid 200 baht to enter the temple (well I’d just paid, she didn’t have to pay as she was a Thai national), she was starting to get hungry and, “temple not have food darling!”
So that was it, we turn around and walk out to go and find something to keep the hunger pangs at bay. I tried explaining to her that being hungry was a natural condition of the human body and you could ignore it for a time, in the same way you could hold on for a while if you need to go to the toilet but, this was an exercise in futility. Needless to say, my hotel room was constantly stocked with all sorts of fruits and local foods. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was a top priority. Heaven forbid, she might wake up at 3 AM and feel a little peckish.
“We have room service” I tell her.
“Even at 3 clock morning.”
“It’s 24 hours baby.”
“Bes to no take chance darling, you buy foo anyway. OK?”
Kim and Louise duck off to the toilet so, I immediately light up a cigarette and as soon as the girls disappear around the corner I pass it to Tony. Having recently had a stent inserted into one of his arteries, Louise had forbidden him from smoking, so now he had resorted to sneaking them when she wasn’t around. He’d get a few drags in and then place it back in the ashtray when Louise re-emerged from the toilet. She would come back and just assume it was mine. A little routine that Maurice, Nam, the girl working the bar and I all found amusing and as best I could tell, Louise remained ignorant of.
“You should get a Rabies shot for that.” I say to Maurice, who is inspecting a dog bite to his left forearm. I first met Maurice and Kim two days earlier when I walked in to the bar to get a drink after spending a few hours wandering Patong with my little, brown skinned bunny, looking for any last minute souvenirs and then of course, on a quest for food. After three hours in the searing heat, I decided it was time for a refreshing lager. Maurice was standing on the bar, scrawling something onto the ceiling with a felt tip marker before handing it back to the girl behind the bar. He smiled and said “g’day” and we soon got chatting. It wasn’t long before Tony and Louise joined us. Tony and Louise had met Maurice and Kim at the hotel they were all staying at and were fed up with the snobby attitudes of the other patrons there, so had decided to venture further afield and happened upon this bar.
Maurice is the kind of guy that is every traveller’s dream. A real character, he can spin a tale and keep you entertained for hours. Not the kind of guy you’d admit to, or probably even consider associating with back in the real world but on holidays, thousands of kilometres from Sydney, anyone with a lively story is a good friend, at least for the day. Tales about the time he was picked up on that drug charge over on Trat and the 300 odd thousand baht (AU$10,000) it cost him buying off the local Mayor and Judge and the story behind the scar on his neck from the time he cracked the shits with the Bangkok gogo tout and thumped him, next thing he knew four of them were on him and after two of them went down a knife was pulled and that’s that.
“It cost me 50,000 baht for the two weeks in hospital, had it been a millimetre deeper I’d be pushin’ up daisies. Still I managed to break the fucker‘s face – even after he gashed me… And his mate, well I reckon he's still talking with a falsetto voice, damn near ripped those fuckers off.”
The dog bite to the arm is a story I’m witness to. Thailand is literally swamped with stray dogs and cats. Anywhere there are people, there are dogs and cats. Without the benefit of a dog catcher and city pound, there are strays running loose all over Thailand, particularly in the major urban areas. Soi dogs and cats, as they’re referred to locally, spend their lives scrounging for scraps from garbage heaps, soft hearted Farangs and the crap that collects in areas frequented by humans. Well Patong is no different to any area in Thailand in this regard and the bar we were at had its own collection of soi dogs. The resident male was a big bastard with a set of nuts to match. I mean this dog had a set of goolies that would put John Holmes to shame. Stuff a couple of tennis balls down a sock and you had this guy’s bad boys – seriously. We were all impressed when we saw them, I just wish I’d gotten a photo (Maurice did). Anyway, throughout the course of the night, as the beers flowed and the conversation returned to the anomaly that was this creature’s genitalia, Maurice decides that he has got to make sure that they are the real deal and proceeds to attempt to touch the hefty package hauled around by this Mastif sized beast. Said beast wasn’t too impressed, letting him know in no uncertain terms that if Maurice wanted to find someone who’d let him stroke their balls he could head the fuck over to club Crocodile on Soi Bangla and pay a few thousand baht to one of the ladyboys for the privilege – these gonads were for the express duty of servicing the local stray bitches that found their way onto Beach Road. Maurice got the hint and after getting bandaged up by the girl behind the bar, returned to admiring the package from the safety of his bar stool.
“Teelak, we go Jorn’s bar now – Alistair and Bjork say they meet you there 2 clock to say goodbye,” Nam chirped as she put away the last morsel of Pad Thai.
“Ohh, ok baby”. I said. As my flight out was at 8 PM, I had promised to meet a few other Farangs I’d met over the last few days for a final beer before getting my taxi to the airport at 5 PM. The Big Mac having done its job, I got off the stool and bid the quartet goodbye and was ushered down the alley by my little tanned nymph.
When we arrived at the bar the place was empty except for a couple of the girls who worked there. We walked over and said hello and Nam and the girls happily started chattering away in Thai (switching to Khmer when they didn’t want me to hear). Having neglected to mention to Nam that I had spent some time in Cambodia under the tutorage of a pretty little Khmer princess it was amusing to watch their complexion’s change from Siam brown to discomfited rouge when I sprouted out ”This barang won’t forget about you darling“ after the bargirls had teased her in Khmer about me leaving for “Farangland” to forget her and never to return. The result – they immediately switch to a Lao dialect (a language I have no competence in whatsoever) and continue their conversation.
Alistair wandered into the bar just before 2. Looking a little worse for wear, he was also putting away a couple of Macca’s finest. Alistair, an Aussie from Brisbane, had just flown into Phuket three days ago and had happened upon this bar while out taking a look around Patong. Myself and Heinrik, a Dane in his mid forties were playing pool in the bar at the time. Alistair will be spending a month travelling through Thailand heading off north tomorrow following in my footsteps two months earlier. Heinrik who was in Phuket for a two week holiday and except from revealing he was recently divorced, didn’t otherwise let on too much about himself arrived shortly after 2. We sat down and shot the breeze for a few hours over a couple of Heinekens. “This is the last time I will get a beer for two dollars,” I pondered as I paid 60 baht for my last beer before my ride to the airport.
At ten to five, the bar’s owner who was also my chauffer for the jaunt to the airport, Jorn, walked in as I was finishing the Heineken. Alistair and Heinrik got themselves another as I bid them farewell and headed out to Jorn’s car with my doting, little Siamese princess in tow, now munching on some dried fish which she proceeded to feed me as well.
“How come you not tell me you speak Khmer?” she asked me.
“For the same reason I not tell you I speak Lao.” I replied, calling her bluff.
“You speak Lao?” she said, looking mortified.
I just smiled at her and raised my eyebrows briefly and then proceeded to Jorn’s car.
“How many language you speak? – what you write diary not English,” she continued.
I had worked out early in the piece, that despite my efforts to learn the Thai script, there is a big difference between understanding the standardised printed script, and the natural deviations that come from handwritten Thai, or promotional literature. Having discovered that I had problems reading handwritten Thai, I had taken to writing in my diary with basic cursive, which although perfectly legible to anyone with a third grade Australian education, was about as incomprehensible as Swahili to any Thai that had learnt to read standardised English Helvetica script.
“Yo soy arblas ee-diomars muchos, bombon” (I speak many languages, babe) I replied in what limited Spanish I can speak. “ooh fransay si voo pre-fa-ray, mon-sheri” (or French if you prefer, my love) I further volunteered, about the only French line I know, stemming from watching Braveheart ad-nauseam.
Little darling shot me a look of “Yeah, yeah – shut up smart arse.”
“No have boom-boom in back seat.” Jorn said laughing, as we jumped in.
After a quick stop at my hotel to collect my bags, Jorn was happily propelling the little car down the highway at speeds in excess of 160 km/h through Phuket’s Friday afternoon peak hour traffic. This in and of itself was not such a problem except that he spent more time looking back over his shoulder at me relating stories about the tsunami, S.A.R.S, the Military Coup and the issues with the separatists down south than he spent looking at the road ahead, whilst the car happily pushed 5000 RPM in 5th gear with other cars and bikes cutting in and out in front.
Once we got to the airport, my little teelak dutifully scurries off to find a trolley for my backpack. She returns in short order and then attempts to lift the pack that was only 4 kg lighter than her out of the boot, whilst I rummaged through the daypack for my passport and boarding pass.
“My-Kan, bag too heavy” she calls, exasperated after her fruitless attempt at getting the back pack out of the boot. “How you can lift?”
“Same-same pom choo koon,’ (the same way I can lift you up) I whispered at her.
“Ohhh” she gasps and slaps me on the shoulder, giggling and whispers “Shhh…”
I had so much fun creating innuendo with Nam. Thailand is a land of contradiction, whereby prostitution is ‘technically’ illegal, yet at the same time one of the greatest contributors to the country’s coffers. With such a tolerated and indeed encouraged sleaze industry, it was surprising to learn that in the mainstream, Thais are very conservative when it comes to public intimacy. My little teelak, despite wanting to look sexy for me at the “beesh”, would not even hold hands with me whilst we were out in public generally. Such a display of affection was all but unheard of.
“We cannot baby, everyone think I lady work bar, everyone think you kwai.” (buffalo – slang term for the fat, rich westerners who hire bargirls, which they then proceed to milk).
If we ventured off the street into the tourist bars, she’d let her guard down and act like any western girl would but, once outside she was back to her typical Thai behaviour. Needles to say, whispering subtle, yet suggestive phrases to her in Thai, in a public place could guarantee a response.
After placing my pack on the trolley, I wheeled it through the sliding glass doors and all of five metres to the X-Ray machine which was to scan my equipment. I placed my pack on the conveyor belt and surrendered my trolley confounded that Nam must have wandered twenty or thirty metres up the terminal to find a trolley that I would utilise to move my pack five. I now had to pick it up and carry it the remaining fifteen or so metres to the check in counter. Thai logic I guess. Oh well – Mai pen lai.
After checking my pack in, I turn to my little teelak and say to her, “Well baby, I guess this is it.”
She smiled at me and said “come darling,” as she ushered me across the terminal. She had found a small alcove out of view of the rest of the terminal and the instant I walked in, she jumped on me, covering me in kisses, tears streaming down her face.
“I not forget you My-Kan, you promise not forget me, jus like you say in bar?” she wailed, pushing a piece of paper into my hand. “I wait you teelak. Shan rook kun muk muk.” (I love you very much.)
“How do you love me baby, you’ve only known me four days?” I said. Looking at the paper she’d handed me, I could see her phone number, Skype details and email written on there.
“Baby, I’ll get home and send you a message OK? Lets see what happens.”
“Okay,” she said despondently.
“I’ll miss you muk muk baby, when I’m coming back I tell you okay?”
“Yes baby… You promise?”
“I promise baby.”
For the first time, Nam was not concerned about perception as she walked to the departure lounge, arms around each other's shoulders and giving me a kiss as I left to walk through the gates to the lounge. One last kiss and she turned to head off back outside to get a taxi back to Phuket Town. I turn around and make my way into the departure lounge.
Cheap-ass Jetstar, not serving alcohol on their flights, instead you’ve gotta pay $6 for a beer / wine / 50 ml spirit, so I decide to smuggle a bottle of Maekong Whisky onboard. Stealthily wrapped inside a washcloth to disguise it’s shape; and a ‘Camelbak’ full of water, I get past the lounge check in personnel. The first guard feels the pack and can feel the bottle of Maekong inside and says “you have to empty that.”
“No problem,” I say and move to the second guard, who watches as I rummage into the daypack and pull out the Camelbak and proceed to tip the water out of it – assuming that is what the first guard told me I had to empty out.
Having drained the Camelbak, I proceed through into the departure lounge and look for something to eat. I find a few shops and rummage through my wallet for the few remaining baht to purchase a sandwich and drink. Stupid me, I had assumed that the shops would take credit cards as most people would have spent their local currency before departing but, to my chagrin I discovered this was not the case. In the departure lounge, cash is King.
Come twenty to eight and the call to board my flight home is announced over the P.A. We are led through a narrow corridor that contains yet another checkpoint, searching people’s bags to ensure that no one is bringing liquid on board. Despite having made it past the entry to the departure lounge, where every container of liquid over 100mL was confiscated, Jetstar being the tightwads they are, were checking yet again lest anyone had purchased alcohol at the duty free outlet prior to boarding the plane. I could see a few disgruntled customers forced to surrender expensive bottles of alcohol that they had purchased only an hour or so before. As my turn to be checked approached I could do nothing but throw myself in the laps of the gods and await my fate. The gods took favour on me and the guard checking my bag opened it and peered in the top and then patted it down briefly, before waving me through, my bottle of MaeKong undiscovered perhaps more due to the ever increasing line building up behind me than anything else. At least I could have a few drinks on board without paying a fortune for it, not that I had any cash on me anyway.
The plane lands at Sydney Airport at 9 AM local time after a relatively uneventful (and extremely short, due to the time difference – 9 hours, not 13) overnight flight. I head off the plane and make my way down through duty free to pick up a few goodies before I leave the terminal. I pay for the goods and give a pleasant “Korp Koon Kup” to the cashier who flashes me questioning gaze. “Oh sorry” I say, “thankyou very much”. After two months in Asia, ‘Sawadee Kup’ and ‘Korp koon Kup’ just roll of my tongue unconsciously now and it takes me a couple of weeks to break the habit and return to an unconscious ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ instead.
I proceed through immigration, get my passport checked and am admitted back into my mother country. I collect my backpack from the carousel and proceed towards customs to join the line for people with items to declare. Immigration having taken one look at my passport stamped with land border crossing, entry and exit visas through Thailand and Cambodia and then all throughout the golden triangle, had obviously passed this information on and needless to say, I didn’t even get a chance to line up for customs. The minute I picked my bag off the carousel an exceptionally kind representative of the Australian government suggested that I need not wait in the line, as he would personally help me get through – just come to his special desk over in this room here, that’s right the room with all the Federal Police wandering around in it. Just ignore the guy in handcuffs (hey wasn’t he on my flight?) I just hope I don’t get a flashlight shone up my backside. Not that I am pro or anti drugs; I remain neutral on the issue but, am I stupid enough to try and buy them in Asia? No fucking way – and I’m sure as hell not that short of brain power to consider trying to ship the stuff into Australia. Anyway, aforementioned government guy goes through my customs declaration form.
“Now let’s just have a look here shall we… Oh… You’ve said yes to everything, except explosives?” he asks in a surprised manner.
“Look” I say to the Customs officer “I’ve been traipsing all over South-East Asia for the last two months and have brought back all sorts of souvenirs, I have no idea what I can and can’t keep so I figured I’d say yes to everything and let you go through and tell me what I can keep and what I can’t”.
Somewhat shocked Customs agent nevertheless spends the next hour rummaging through the contents of my backpack and daypack ensuring every last pocket is opened, searched and swabbed – oh well, I guess they are keeping the country safe, completely different from the arrival at Phuket airport where it was more a case of wait in line for two hours to get your passport stamped because there were only two people working despite the fact that three aircraft had just come in. Then proceed to the carousel, wait even longer to collect your bag (must only be one baggage handler) then out through the glass doors into the circus of taxi and tuktuk drivers who want to very conveniently give you the “best” rate and will kindly inform you that your chosen hotel is no good / dirty / closed but he can take you to a place very much acceptable and he can even show you some gem and tailor shops along the way!
After an hour or so in immigration, I’m given the green light without having had a flashlight suck up my butt and allowed to repack the contents of my packs and proceed on my way. Ten minutes later I’m walking down the arrivals ramp and am officially back in Sydney. As I walk out through the glass doors opposite the arrivals gate, there is only one thought that goes through my mind, “JESUS FUCKING CHRIST”.
The mid autumn, morning breeze hits my recently bronzed and very exposed flesh and, as effectively as a razor blade cuts a chill through the flimsy T-shirt and pants that had been quite comfortable in the 38 degrees Celsius + weather of Thailand, and reasonably comfortable in the air conditioned plane and subsequently the temperature controlled terminal. However in the 10 degrees Celsius ambient Sydney weather and associated wind chill factor, my ensemble does nothing to protect my flesh. I immediately drop my gear on the nearest available bench and start to rummage through looking for a jacket. I know there is a jacket in here – I bought one for next to nothing baht before heading into the hillier areas of Laos and Myanmar, but can I find it now – not on your life. Finally I locate it, body convulsing and shaking so much that I resemble a bad (or perhaps good) impersonation of Peter Garret getting electrified whilst dancing. I drag the jacket from the bottom of my pack and wrap it around my, by now on the brink of hypothermia, body. As my skin begins the slow reversal of colour from blue back to bronze, I repack the contents of my packs for the second time in an hour and head off to find a taxi. As I climb in to the cab I catch myself in time, before asking him to turn the meter on – no haggling over fares here.
“Where-ah, you wantoo-ah go-ah to, mate?” enquires my Middle Eastern chauffer.
Ideally I’d like to go and collect my car so I could drive home, however a pickpocket on Koh Samui foiled that plan, because alongside the 300 baht he scored when he lifted my wallet, was my driver’s license. In New South Wales, it is illegal to drive without having your driver’s license physically on you at all times, so ultimately, my first stop was the motor registry to get a replacement.
What a sight I must have looked as I trudged into the motor registry; unwashed, unshaven, backpack on my back, daypack on my chest, wearing a t-shirt commenting on some of the social aspects of Patong and having barely slept in the past 24 hours. The photo on my current driver’s license says it all.
License in hand, it is another quick taxi ride across town to the ex-girlfriend’s place to collect the car and cat she had been baby-sitting for me and I can finally get home and grab some sleep. As I jump out of the taxi, I spot my car sitting where I had left it two and a half months ago, only now it was covered in about an inch of cobwebs and leaf litter. The ex-girlfriend appears as my taxi departs and she hands me the keys. The button on the key, won’t pop the boot – I don’t know if it’s the key malfunctioning or the inch of cobwebs holding the boot shut. I place the key in the boot lock and turn, ‘click’ the boot pops open and I start loading my gear in. As I throw the last of my gear in, I notice that the light is not working. Oh no…
I try the remote central locking, nothing…
Key in the door and turn, ‘click’, the door opens but the light doesn’t come on.
I don’t want to do it because I know what’s coming but nevertheless, I place the key in the ignition and turn…
“How often did you kick this over?” I enquire of the ex.
“Never – was I meant to?”
None of the neighbours have jumper leads so I make a few calls. The earliest I can get a jump-start is tomorrow morning. I explain to the ex, that batteries slowly run down and cars need to be started periodically and let run / get driven for a little while to recharge the battery and this was the reason I left the car and keys with her instead of at my place.
“And guess what?” I say,
“You’ve got a guest for the night” I reply as I pull my bedroll and sleeping bag from the boot.
We head inside, I sit down with a beer and tell her the stories of my travels in Asia (the G-Rated version anyway – she is the ex and doesn’t want to hear about the little German backpacker in Ratchaburi or the little Khmer princess in Phnom Phen or the little darling I was cuddling up to less than 24 hours ago etc.) She is particularly amused with my severely degraded command of the English language, which has become little better than the general Thai Pidgin English. A lack of contextual verbs and nouns ‘tomorrow friend come fix car’, ‘I go sleep now OK’ and so on cause her all sorts of amusement as does the abhorrently grammatically incorrect phrases I have picked up ‘same same’, ‘I don’t sure’, the dropping of the last hard consonant ‘a litten bit’, ‘which hoten you stay?’ and the universal substitution of ‘L’ for the hard ‘R’ sound ‘flie lie’, ‘it’s laining, wet too much’.
Every ten minutes she would crack up and burst out with “you sound like a bloody Chinese, ha ha ha ha ha!”
I didn’t point out that that particular phrase was of itself grammatically incorrect, however I was glad she brought it to my attention and kept making fun of it as I had to be back at work in my middle management role on Monday (it was now Saturday afternoon) and could not walk in sounding like I’d just walked off an Isaan rice paddy. It also brought to my attention the need to seek out and associate with other native English speakers periodically if you spend any length of time in a foreign country, something I had actively avoided for most of my trip, instead trying to immerse myself in the local culture I encountered.
I did get most of it out of my system, but my English was still not perfect when I got back to work, however my boss has since found a new job for me. As our plant is to be closed down and the manufacturing outsourced to Thailand, my boss, the Plant Director, has a lot of contact with his Thai equivalent and various other Thais. So now on top of my other duties, I also get the dubious privilege of translating the Pidgin English emails he receives and surreptitiously sitting in conference calls and eavesdropping on the Thai being spoken in the background.
With the car kicked over the next day, it was subsequently loaded up with my sleeping gear and the cat and I was off on the last 30 km stretch of my journey home. Back to the real world and awaiting the next big adventure.
Who would have thought that the end of a trip could be made so interesting, and such a fun read?
I really do like your style. Trip reports are perhaps not in vogue like they used to be but I thoroughly enjoyed this.