Land of Confusion Part 1
“So, are we going or not?” “Where…?” my friend Don said after a long sip of beer and a smirk. “Thailand. End of Feb”. I got the short version – his funds hadn’t yet recovered from his last trip to Vegas in September. It’s hardly a place for those with addictive personality traits, and knowing this, I’d shepherded Don on his first visit to the Kingdom almost 2 years ago to show him it didn’t all have to be about over-indulgence – please stop laughing. Anyway, I’m not sure that plan worked, but it was clear that if I was dying to get away somewhere warm at the end of Feb, I would now be going there alone.
Jen, my Thai ex-girlfriend had been regularly contacting me for the last 6-7 months, mostly via the LINE phone app, and the communications have been good and even sweet-natured in the main. Lots of photos, the sort that are implied reminders of what I’m missing by being ‘just a friend’. While having learned to view all this with scepticism, however, there does seem to be a possibility that some intimacy might be rekindled during the trip. She will have her motives, I will have mine and we will play it by ear as we go. I thought it might be a good investment to send flowers to her workplace on Valentines Day, knowing the ‘face’ she would gain, and the photo of her posing in her sexy work uniform with her bouquet was reward in itself. This time, I really wanted to revisit Chiang Mai, a place I had not been back to since a brief two-day trip during my holiday to Thailand in 2008. Jen has read my mind on this, and has suggested we take a trip to the Mae Hong Son province lying to the north of Chiang Mai. It sounds great to me, so she sends the suggested itinerary which I agree to, and the request that I book the necessary flights. Whilst I like to watch the budget, I’m not one for settling for the cheapest accommodation and I do like my swimming pools. I pick a nice Chiang Mai hotel that we will only be staying in for one night, but no…Jen knows a place right near the night market, etc. My gut feeling doubts it, but I relent and let her handle all the accommodation side of the northern leg of our trip. With the flights booked, I then make reservations at my usual Bangkok residences.
I’m a planner, me, and I book ahead to get the best rates. So, two days after everything is booked I get an email from Jen. ‘So sorry, I can’t meet you in Chiang Mai on the 24th Feb. Now has to be 26 Feb because of audit at work. Can you change bookings please?’ Sigh. Jen has been at her workplace for five years now and they have never forced her to change her holidays. And that’s the problem with booking ahead! A Thai girl and the best laid plans…So, I now have to change two lots of flights – Bangkok-Chiang Mai and Chiang Mai-Mae Hong Son and my hotels in Bangkok. My initial change and loss quotes run to about 9000Bht! (including losing non-refundable nights in BKK) which doesn’t please me greatly. Jen can’t believe that the airlines want to charge me so much extra for changes, so I let her speak to them direct after I try the official routes through websites, etc, To give Jen her due, I think I only end up paying an extra 800Bht for the airline changes instead of a much larger figure. I will now spend an extra night in Chiang Mai to wait for her and also have a day there on my own. Not as bad as it sounded earlier then, but still stress I could have done without. I fear this was a constantly re-occurring theme during our time as a ‘serious couple’ until we called it quits two years ago.
The last few days of February roll around in a moderately mild UK winter. The weather takes a noticeably colder turn on the day I’m flying to Bangkok. Despite over 10 visits to Thailand, I still feel a trill of excitement as I sit waiting in Thai Airways’ new home at Heathrow Terminal 5. There’s some great people-watching and eavesdropping to be had, and the three hours before departure whizz by as I contemplate being a single man, having a pocket full of cash, and two weeks vacation ahead. Surely I could be forgiven for looking smug. Damn, I nearly forgot – I have to get Jen some perfume. I open the LINE application on my phone and re-read her message ‘Can you get me this perfume?’ <pic attached> She wants Black Opium. A ‘please’ would be nice…
Hey – what’s happened to Thai Airways food and service?? I gave Thai a break for a while until EVA air’s rotten food and fare hikes forced me back to Thai two years ago. Thai never did have the cheapest direct fares or best in-flight entertainment, but you were always assured of excellent in-flight food. During the dinner service, one of the male cabin crew starts shouting at passengers and banging his trolley angrily against seats in the aisle. He’s run out of the two most commonly ordered meals and loses his temper with the people who can’t eat pork that are requesting an alternative which doesn’t now exist. There’s no excuse for this behaviour – you should simply order more of the most popular choices. I don’t have to heart to join in with this nonsense, so I take what’s thrown (yes, thrown) down in front of me whilst making a note of his name. I hope it’s not an indication of what to expect for the rest of my holiday…
The Suvarnabumi International Arrivals immigration hall has a new queuing system with supervised funnelling into multi-kiosk served lines. It’s a great improvement, doing away with the pot-luck queues for each kiosk, and brings me before a stern-faced official in no time. I kept an eye out for the attractive but super-strict young lady featured on the recent BBC series that supposedly polices this queue with military fanaticism, barking at queue-jumping miscreants whilst constantly keeping an eye out for ‘a Farang husband’, as she openly declared on camera. Her catchphrase is ‘Back of the line!!’ I don’t see her, and then seem to recall she works in Departures. As it is now 4pm and I’m flying out to Changers in the morning, I didn’t think it was worth the taxi trip to downtown Bangkok and back, so have booked into an airport hotel with round-trip transfer included. When booked through Agoda, there’s brief uncertainty while waiting for the hotel to contact you directly in order to arrange the airport pick-up. I felt reassured after receiving not one but two emails, from a service rep and then a supervisor in turn, advising me that my pick up details had been noted and booked. These eager people were on the case. Outside in the Arrivals Hall meeting points, I walk up and down looking for my name on a sign. (Real name today, not a silly one or famous mass-murderer in capitals, as I sometimes do with Pattaya taxi guys). It doesn’t help that there are 3-4 places where people congregate at ‘meeting points’ but it’s a fairly simple exercise to wander between these to look for your contact. After walking up and down for half an hour I give up. Thankfully with my confirmation email details to hand, I call the hotel. ‘You wait Exit 4, somebody come for you 15 mins’. I wait more than half an hour for a mini-bus to pick me up and drive me the 10 minutes to the hotel. After 12 hours on a plane and another hour waiting in a sweltering terminal, it’s an annoying welcome to Thailand. I hope it’s not an indication of what to expect for the rest of my holiday…
I’m starving when I get to the hotel so I order a Phad Thai and a Chicken with fried rice at the hotel restaurant. The food is well above average and puts me in a much better humour, so I forget about complaining about the airport pick-up debacle. (The reception girl who checked me in was far too hot to complain to). Instead, I go for a short stroll in the Lat Krabang neighbourhood. I’m a bit surprised to see quite a few Westerners passing me by at regular intervals in this outlying suburb. I soon happen on a shopping mall, which could partly explain this. In between the usual chain units are local food vendors stalls and I soon find a treat I was introduced to during my last visit – fried pork skin. Apparently they are a ‘northern’ delicacy, and basically what we call ‘pork scratchings’ in the UK – a favourite pub snack here – but there’s no comparison, really. These are gourmet ‘scratchings’ on steroids. I buy a medium-sized bag for 50B. I start grazing on them during the walk back to the hotel but these things are moreish to the point of insanity. I try and distract myself from them with a crap TV movie but its no use – I demolish the bag in short order. I get a LINE message from Jen asking if I arrived… its tone is a bit business-like. Exhausted, I turn in at 9pm. The lift at the end of the corridor has a very loud BING-BONG every time it stops at the floor – helpfully this sounds when the lift both arrives and departs. It seems there are hundreds of people coming and going from my floor, with the deafening BING-BONGS sounding every minute or so. This hotel is starting to feel like a Mr Bean movie. I drop off at some point but I am later woken out of a deep jet-lag coma by the sound of…charging hippos. As I come to my senses I hear screaming and banging doors in the corridor. It’s the staff going room-to-room. My pidgin Thai informs me that a large party are checking in…its 1am. Oh, and the large party are Thai, suffice to say that dreams went undreamt…I’m too exhausted to get up and complain and ponder how noisy a Thai party would be if they arrived in the early hours at the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, the famed Iranian monastery in the Yazd Desert. I think some monks would die of heart failure.
On nearly no sleep…BING-BONG!!…I’m a walking shell in the morning. BING BONG!! At breakfast, the Asian fare looks more appealing than the Western spread. I load up tentative portions of rice, kale and a chicken katsu. It tastes divine. The shuttle to the airport leaves in 5 minutes, but I just have to run back for second helpings. The staff laugh as I shovel down what will be the latest entry into a hopeless grub-hound’s memoirs. Its 9 am and I’m back at Suvarnabumi in the Bangkok Airways check-in line, which is worryingly long. I’ve got an hour before boarding but it still looks dicey. People leave the queue and try the self check-in kiosks, but about 50% return to the queue after striking out. Regardless, I make the flight and arrive at Chiang Mai International airport just before midday. The airport is a treat to navigate, and I’m in a fixed-fare taxi in no time. Chiang Mai city looks pleasant in the sunshine, Doi Suthep rising above the town in the distance. The cabbie asks if I have a map of the hotel – all I have is the name from Jen. He shouts this at a local who points the direction assuredly. I’m dropped close to the ‘gate’ end of Loi Kroh Road and the hotel indeed matches the name I’ve been given. Entering, I’m already getting a quizzical look from the woman behind reception as I head in her direction. ‘You have booking?’ ‘Yes – (I give my name)’ ‘No…’ She says this with detached distain, sounding like the Hispanic maid in Family Guy who’s catchphrase is ‘No…no…Misser he no home’. She doesn’t check anything to arrive at this conclusion. ‘Ok, maybe booking is under my girlfriend’s name (I give her name). ‘No…no hab booking’. Again, nothing is consulted – neither paper nor screen. The only thing I get back from her is ‘maybe you wrong hotel…other hotel hab name same’. I leave and wander aimlessly to find shade and call Jen. And if you think she picked up, you’re clearly not a golfer. An hour later an SMS is answered, then a call gets through. Jen is apologetic, the address is confirmed as the place I initially arrived at. Walking back in there again, perspiring, The Lump stirs in her lair and stares with only the mildest trace of curiosity. A look I recognise as having interrupted someone’s profound boredom. She says nothing. I say nothing to her and instead take one of the seats near the reception desk. The height of the desk thankfully blocks her dumb mug from my view. As I enjoy the relief of the cool hallway, the hotel’s phone rings. From my basic understanding of Thai: ‘Yes…he’s here again…I think he was at wrong hotel. He did not say your name…Yes, he should have given your name, ka’
I’m given the Presidential Suite…the room at the top of the stairs on the 1st floor (2nd for you sarsaparilla slurpers) next to the service lift. The hotel is a flop-house and room is a flea-pit. Jen calls, hears my update and wants me to leave, but I tell her its ok…I can suffer it for two nights because she will lose money if I do leave, (and besides me being so chivalrous, it might add a bit of colour to the trip). I fear for the noise at night…the back street outside my window looks like it could double as the pit lane at Indianapolis. I hear hammer-on-metal and revved scooters I could liken to the death throes of a billion mosquitoes. Mercifully, I hear no ‘bing-bongs’. The Lump smirks to herself as I pass the reception desk on my way for an afternoon stroll. I find a small restaurant, wedged between chain-looking coffee shops, just on the other side of Thapae Gate overlooking Ratchamanka Road. I enjoy a delicious Tom Yam Kung and am invited to join a pleasant conversation outside the next-door coffee shop between a 30-something American and a retired Norwegian couple. I mostly listen as the American, who apparently was in the LA music biz/scene regales the knowledgeable Norwegians with stories about Motley Crue and others. A 50- something Swede and his 40-something Thai wife ask to sit at my table in the restaurant and I’m soon in a cheerful conversation with them, discussing their life in Stockholm – with much joking between the pair over the wife’s culture-coping mechanisms. This is all really nice…I’ve sat here for 20 minutes and had a ‘normal’ (read non- nightlife focused) conversation with as many Westerners as I have probably had in over 9 years of visiting Bangkok and Pattaya. The Swede lived in London for a few years so we have some more laughs about the flaws and trials of living in the ‘Bladdy Smoke’. After lunch I wander around the numerous temples on or just off Ratchamanka and eventually stop off at Wat Meun Tum for a look around the food stalls. I score my favourite sticky rice and mango dessert and scoff it down to the approval of some Thai old biddies sitting nearby. I’m already enjoying the laid-back and convivial atmosphere of Chiang Mai central and on the way back to the Flop House, I get caught up in a Japanese carnival parade coming the other way. Kids and adolescents in all sorts of costumes, playing their parts to the hilt. There’s even a Nana Rainbow 4 Customer Float being towed with caricatures of plane-fresh Japanese men towing their suitcases (only joking).
There’s a bar that I like the look of as I wander back to base, and it’s almost next the hotel – it could be a gimme for the evening’s entertainment. Directly adjacent to the hotel on the other side is a large apparel shop. Slightly more interesting fare than the usual stall fodder, there’s even some aisles of vintage clothing to browse. Unfortunately, there’s an over-attentive Indian assistant in tow – he’s like a limpet. I spot a side-exit that leads directly into my hotel lobby and it brings me out on the rear-side of the reception desk. This means I can avoid The Lump if I’m prepared to run the gauntlet of The Limpet! After a snooze, and a couple of turkey movies, it’s time for a beer. That nearby bar wins – the same way a ruling Communist party wins a national election. There’s a good band, one hot hostess-waitress and several plain ones. Requiring a ‘chemical kosh’ to ensure sleep later, I’m pleasantly drunk after a while and enjoying the evening. I’m obviously the only ‘single’ bloke in the place. The hot hostess seems put-out by my lack of flirting, even though she probably wouldn’t give me the time of day. I send a couple of jokey LINE messages to Jen…her replies are quite cool…again…hmmmmm. A better band follows the previous one, beers go down and time runs away as quite a few groups of young attractive western girls come and go. It was something I noticed during the day as well – lots of Uni-age western girls all over the place. A young single guy with some game would have a field day here. I realise it’s just gone 11pm – damn, I better take a wander for a late dinner.
I pay up and head back towards Thapae Gate and Ratchamanka road with its many restaurants. I’m slightly mystified that the few eateries immediately outside the bar are now in darkness. Crossing Thapae Gate, I find more restaurants in darkness and an absolute first in Thailand…no food carts in the street! What’s going on? There’s lots of activity as stall holders pack away their stuff and tourists seem to be running home or running for cover. Curfew?? Don’t these people EAT?? I’m in a mild panic as I reach the junction of Sam Lan. The only lights on amongst all the restaurants here are those of 7-11, and there’s not ONE som-tam cart in sight. It’s about 11.30 now. Pretty hungry now, and knowing that not eating is not an option, I traipse forlornly back towards the Gate, resigned to my awful fate…earlier on in my panicked dash in the opposite direction, I noticed the Golden Arches skulking in their corner of the square. Now they seem to grin malevolently at me, doing nothing for their awful reward like a Venus fly-trap. Can it be that McDonalds is the only option at 11.30pm in the centre of Chiang Mai?? I check my idiot brick again to make sure I set the time-zone correctly or didn’t come out 3 hours later than I thought I had. It’s been well over 10 years since I’ve had to eat something in McD’s (in similar circumstances) and I approach the counter like an outnumbered man trying to work out who’s the weakest in the approaching gang. Damage limitation – I get a Chicken McSomething and fries, take my tray outside, slump into the plastic seat and…Oh my God, it tasted wonderful.
I flounced back to the hotel feeling like I’d just had a freebie threesome from Rainbow 4, thinking ‘Jen arrives tomorrow, and we’re off to Mae Hong Son…’
To be continued…BING-BONG!!