Land of Confusion Part 2
(part 1 link)
There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep. Except a good night’s sleep where you wake up at the start of a holiday in Thailand. Actually my sleep was more like an exhaustion-induced coma, and after a sleepless night on the flight from London and another sleepless night in the Bangkok Industrial Noise Research Institute (AKA the airport hotel in Suvarnabhumi), the six or seven hours I was able to get in this Loi Kroh Road flop-house made me feel at least half-human again. I waited in vain for The Lump to serve me breakfast in bed, and after it was not forthcoming, I started to become concerned, so I ventured downstairs to enquire after her welfare. There she was, Queen Bee, imperious on her throne behind the reception desk. Off to my right was a small courtyard where a few young Chinese tourists were having a Spartan breakfast and to my surprise, a table to the side of the yard was laid with a few basic items of food – I didn’t think this place would supply a breakfast. The night before, I spotted a coffee urn on a half-landing near the foot of the stairs, with a sign on the front – ‘free for guest’. The urn seemed full but was not plugged in. I decided it best not to loiter or fiddle with it in any way, lest I disturb The Lump from her lair. The red light was illuminated on the urn this morning, but imagined the contents to be the sort of brew Clint Eastwood spits on a desert campfire to extinguish it. The Lump smirked again as I crept past on the way out… ‘Thailand 1 Farang 0.’
A gorgeous morning in Chiang Mai central, I was looking forward to the arrival of my Thai ex-girlfriend, Jen, later that evening. I had a delicious cheap fried rice breakfast at a hole-in-a-wall bar and spent the rest of the morning in the quiet shade of temple grounds off Ratchamanka Road. A few other polite tourists were doing the same. I fought the urge to take photos; feeling this was a proper ‘Kodak moment’, I wanted to soak up the memory. A monk then appeared and requested that I please put back on my replica Chelsea shirt; my sunburned tattoos were spoiling the equilibrium in the temple gardens. My revelry only slightly broken, I continued to Café de Thaan Aoan for an amazing Americano, enjoyed outside, overlooking the main road junction. Constant streams of Chinese tourists, possessed by schedules and slaves to itineraries, hustled past (and in some cases even through) the coffee garden. All the lovely young Western girls I saw the previous day were nowhere to be seen – probably nursing hangovers or on tours that left early-morning. The obvious thing to do today is visit the temple on Doi Suthep mountain. I went up there back in 2008. It is worth the trip. But then I remembered the taxi driver that took me played hardball on the price…and also the 1 hour time limit he set. Remembering this put the idea out of my mind. I wasn’t ‘bargaining tourist’ today, I was Mr Grubhound again. I would have a nice lunch instead, and had all afternoon to find it.
I wandered along the canal for a bit and unexpectedly found a nice colour ‘piece’ on the side-wall of a shop house. I am a fan of retro New York-style ‘subway art’, and was an exponent in my teens – but only spraying with permission, you understand. And I loathe as much as anyone the practice of ‘tagging’, the inane monochrome scrawls of some moronic ‘handle’. But colour pieces like this I like, and I have snapped a few on my travels around Thailand:
It wasn’t me, officer…
I headed for Chang Klan (Night Market) and couldn’t make up my mind where to eat lunch out of the many restaurants and bars. There were a few lazy ‘hellooo welcomes’, cat-calls and other offers thrown in my direction. Eventually, I found an open-fronted pub and had chicken fried rice and an amazing green curry with prawns – the sauce was incredibly dense, hot and pasty and the opposite of the coconut milk-swamped affair that’s more commonly served. A smirking, sashaying ladyboy waitress added to the experience. Added what exactly, I’m not sure, but nonetheless. And, like young Luke Skywalker on seeking Yoda on Degoba, I had the distinct feeling I was being watched…for the whole duration of the meal, by the ladyboy and the other waitress. I hope I was good value – a friend once did say he’d ‘pay to watch me eat’. Back at the hotel, the late afternoon and early evening dragged on. I got no message from Jen saying she was at the airport, boarding, etc – very un-Thai girl-like. I read a bit of my book – the autobiography of Charles Richardson, the famed South London ‘gangster’ from the 1960s. The Karate Kid came on one of the movie channels and its mid-80s wholesomeness put me in a good mood and helped pass the time waiting for Jen. About half an hour after I thought she was landing, I got the call from her saying she was in the taxi from Chiang Mai airport. I’d be seeing her in about 20 minutes and I was feeling more excited than I thought I would be. Strictly, we were still going to be ‘just friends’.
Jen is 30, and hails from Nongkhai. The first time I saw her, six years ago, in Bangkok’s MBK mall, I was just knocked out. I spotted her across a food court. I was there having a quick dinner before going on to meet work colleagues from my Bangkok office who were taking me out that night. Jen was visiting a friend who was working at one of the outlets nearby. As I looked back through the central counter area in her direction a few times, making sure I wasn’t imagining those eyes, I could see her giggling with a friend. I wasn’t sure they’d seen me. After a minute or two passing, she appeared at my side. I didn’t see her approach, and still wonder how she did that! She had huge beautiful eyes (more Indian-looking that Thai), a shapely Latina-style body, long athletic legs and an ample bust. She wore her hair up in a lovely 1960’s movie star style, reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, that perfectly complimented her fine face. She spoke fairly good English, and seemed to enjoy the fact that I was interested in temples, Thai history etc. Luckily, I was right in the middle of Newcomer's Temple fever, so the conversation flowed easier. She was sweet, playful and girlish. She looked divine in her tailored shorts and a wool-knit cardigan, which made me inwardly laugh, being in the tropics, but it ‘was cold in the mall’ as she explained. At some point, her bare knee brushed mine…she made it seem innocent, but I was now lost. After learning we both had a day off the next day, she offered to take me to Ancient Siam, a sort of Thai History theme park on the outskirts of Bangkok. To me, that was the most wonderful ‘first date’ of my life…I later learned that to her it was nothing of the sort! And it was another 18 months before we would be intimately involved…
It seemed like 40 minutes before there was a sly knock on the room door. Jen stood there looking lovely but tired. I went to give her a hug and she only half turned towards me. We both felt awkward, falling back immediately to inane small-talk. I was prepared for this scenario, and deep down, I actually thought it would be the more likely course of events. I quickly processed the last few moments and sucked up pangs of disappointment and folly while trying to re-group, act nonchalant…’Yeah, let's go for something to eat…whatever’. Our small- talk was feeling strained pretty quickly as we waited for our pizza and salad in a tourist joint up the road. I looked Jen over. She’d lost a few pounds but looked good for it. The jet-black hair that she no longer wore up, was cut thinner and grown longer. I imagined her in the black bikini that would probably remain at the bottom of my rucksack – a keepsake from a previous time.
Catching up, I mention stuff that we recently discussed on LINE and in phone-calls, but Jen is half-listening and playing on her phone, checking Facebook. ‘Social’ media, eh? I noticed the service was really ‘weird’ and ‘off’ in this place. They were closing and packing up tables and pulling down shutters around us as we ate – the 11 PM Chiang Mai curfew again. As we paid and left, Jen handed me back all of my modest tip, commenting, ‘They not polite here’. I was sure that during the meal I’d overheard the silly waitress say something uncomplimentary about me to a colleague off-camera, but I didn’t quite catch what was said…
I still wasn’t sure what would happen once we got back to the room. Jen these days was less easy to read than previous times. At any rate, it wasn’t going to be long before I would find out. British readers of a certain age will remember Mr & Mrs Potter, the sexless Khaki-clad couple in ‘Carry on Camping’ (1960s bawdy British farce). Once we were back, Jen spent an age in the bathroom before emerging well-clothed and then dived under the duvet of her twin bed. I was still smarting slightly from her coolness in the restaurant and the whole phone / Facebook thing as well as being physically shattered but mentally wired-awake. Now I was Mr Potter, turning in for another unwanted early night. At this juncture, the bar next door would have been a good idea for another ‘chemical kosh’ to aid sleep, but for some reason I felt compelled to stay with Jen. ‘Independence Day’ played on the movie channel – how appropriate – to add to my torture and confusion. Jen was asleep in minutes. I turned off the Celluloid Atrocity…and didn’t sleep a single wink.
Next morning, we’re both excited about flying to Mae Hong Son and just have time for a quick breakfast up the street before checking out of the Flop House. The Lump is back on reception for the morning / day shift. I tell Jen to handle check-out, and ignore The Lump elaborately, taking my leave through the side door into the clothes shop. The Indian tailor, aka The Limpet, pounces on me immediately. ‘Something for your, Sir?’
During the cab-ride to the airport, Jen says, ‘The hotel lady said you didn’t give my name to her when you check-in’.
‘Yes I did, I gave her your name.’
‘No, she say you not give my name.’
Nice to get the benefit of the doubt…a couple of years ago I would have.
Despite this, the mood is lighter today and we’re in cheerful spirits once we’re waiting in the departure lounge. Jen is at least including me in her incessant Facebook activity, giving a running commentary on who she’s talking to. My own Idiot Brick is firmly at the bottom of my pocket and I’m so glad it is…through the full height glass wall, I suddenly see four jet fighters appear stage-right and taxi on the runway in front of us after just landing. No-one else seems interested, but I run over to the glass wall like a kid to get a better look. They’re lovely birds – F16s possibly? They’ve got the Royal Thai Air Force roundels. Spotting these at Chiang Mai Airport would be a fairly rare sight, I would imagine. Or, I could have had my face in some ‘social’ media snore-fest.
When we land at Mae Hong Son, Jen goes off momentarily, looking for the taxi but comes back looking rather sheepish. ‘There’s a problem’.
‘Oh, right…What problem?’
‘Taxi 2600 Baht’
‘What!!’ I exclaim, thinking of my bartering with the good lads in Bangkok over the price to Pattaya, or the 4000 Baht we paid a couple of years back to be driven all the way to Ko Chang.
‘Ah…they’re the only company here…monopoly’, I say, resigned, but thinking ‘this ain't right’.
It comes out in bits…we’re actually going to Pai resort. There’s an airport only 5 minutes from Pai resort. Jen booked Mae Hong Son airport by mistake. ‘How long to get to Pai?’
‘He say about 2 hours – through mountains’.
I don’t hide my brief annoyance processing this information, but recover myself. ‘Ah, right…that explains the price’. And boy, this guy will earn his money.
A Toyota minibus eventually arrives and we pile in with our luggage. The driver is in his 70s. After five minutes we’re already into steep, windy inclines and after another five, we’re inexplicably stopping at a hill-top temple. It’s roasting in the noon-day sun but luckily there’s a couple of food shacks up there. I get served chicken fried rice with meat that I instantly know is bad (a first ever in Thailand for me) but I’m starving so just scoff all but the meat. I was still grumpy at the prospect of the impromptu road trip, but the views from the temple were nice. It was better than the photo shows, but for some unknown reason at the time, all I could think of was a shot looking back at the airport runway:
The ‘unknown’ temple overlooking the airport
After the pit-stop we hit highway 1095, an arduous winding mountain pass, linking Mae Hong Son town to Pai – and way beyond. Check it out on Google if you like…it's windy! This would be a great journey on an Enduro bike (check out some of Caveman’s reader subs from a couple of years back, I think he did this very highway on his bike). In a Toyota minivan, it’s not such a great journey. Our driver was doing a fine job, throwing the van around the torturous bends as well as possible, but we were already feeling decidedly green around the gills. Jen didn’t last half an hour before she was discreetly – and as ladylike as is possible – throwing up into small plastic bags that this nation loves so much. For me, this, if part of Apollo Mission Selection, would also have been where I would have gotten off. The 1095 highway has each kilometre marked off with a white stone – and in the roiling, lurching Toyota, it was an eternity between each. I barely noticed the wonderful lush scenery passing though my nausea. Jen was having a worse time, and edged away when I offered an affectionate arm around her shoulder. Siiighh. As I got used to the pitching and yawing, the travel sickness subsided a bit. Somewhere, we started taking another detour off 1095, and a while later pulled up at a shack. In gets the driver’s wife, similarly-aged, holding a baby boy of about a year old. It cheered the journey up somewhat…the kid could NOT stop staring at me, even Jen laughed through her pain. I played several games of ‘peek-a-boo’ with the kid…I’ve always loved taking my hands away from my eyes and discovering that the baby’s still there…
We start our descent from the mountains and the spectacular views begin to assert themselves. My car-sickness has eased and I’ve got The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers playing on the stereo. I think it still sounds wonderful, especially when not heard in a long time. The George Harrison song Within Without You begins just as we are descending a particular section of road that offers a beautiful vista onto the town beyond – and it’s a magical moment, I’ll never forget it. After another aeon of never-ending bends, winds and turns we finally sight the town of Pai. We cross a bridged section of road and the driver delightfully points out Pai airport on our left hand side. “Mae Hong Son…no need!” Yeah, mate – thanks for that.
Five minutes later, we are turning into a stunningly picturesque resort set beside a river. The air is heavenly fresh and lush greenery seeps in on all sides. This really is an escape from the Thailand I’m much more familiar with. Despite feeling an unease over how things are panning out with Jen, I’m already glad I have come to this place. Again, I’m unsure of the sleeping arrangements having assumed nothing. We check into separate chalets adjacent to each other, looking right onto a gliding, glassy river.
Pai Riverside Resort
The chalets are apparently 900 baht a night and basic, but tastefully and quirkily decorated. I go for a walk into the main village – it's young, new-hippy backpacker heaven. Summed up nicely by Frank Zappa’s ‘Flower Punk’:
Hey man, where you goin with that button on yer shirt?
I’m going down to the love-in, to sit and play my bongos in the dirt
It’s “Hippydom by Numbers”, but that’s okay. There’s a relaxed atmosphere amongst the crowds – being mainly young Westerners. There are many open-fronted food outlets and bars lining the main streets. Touts and hawkers are thankfully absent. That night, we grab a seafood dinner on the main drag – it was average. Jen re-appraises the tip I leave and hands me back some notes. ‘Not very good here’. Jen has recovered from her car-sickness and is in better spirits as we discuss plans for tomorrow. I’m totally sleep-shafted, only having had one decent 8 hours in the last 3 days. Despite some ballyhooing from some loud young Americans a few doors up, I pass out and crash till 7 AM.
Next day, we have breakfast by the river and grab a map from reception with all the local attractions. There’s hot springs, canyons, temples, elephant rides, a Chinese-Yunnan village – all within a 10-mile radius. Hiring scooters will get us around these places. I’ve never ridden any sort of motorbike in my life, and rural but busy Thai roads don’t seem like the place to learn, so I convince Jen to let me ride pillion on hers. She exhibits some reluctance, but turns out to be an ace driver and with my navigation skills, we could be this year’s dark horses in the Paris-Dakar rally. Maybe not. The weather is perfect – warm sunshine with a fresh breeze. Leaving the town, the hills and plains remind me of southern Spain – Andalucía in particular – but with more greenery.
Our First stop is for an elephant ride – another first for me in Thailand. As with the bike, we share the beast as he bucks and lurches through thickets and ambles along the riverside, soaking us with water. I have to frequently tighten my grip on the rope to avoid falling off the back of the elephant and this forces my forearms into Jen’s denim-clad thighs. This is an unavoidable but enjoyable bonus for me. After the previous evening’s stunted conversation and coolness between us, I had totally accepted our time on this trip was going to be platonic-only. This day however, I was enjoying the physical closeness enforced by bike and elephant and took time to appreciate Jen’s beauty if only objectively. After the elephant farm, we found one of the hot-spring spas. Neither of us were going to bathe in the water and the entry price was expensive (I think 400 baht?) just to look around the place. A young Swiss girl and her friends pulled up on bikes near us and asked about the entry price. Elephants were also mentioned and she decided to launch into a lecture aimed at me about the cruelty of guided elephant rides using bull-hooks (she blithely and wrongly assumed that’s what we’d just had). I didn’t care for her loudness or general manner and she equally hadn’t reckoned on my skill in evading unwanted conversations. Before she realised it happened, I’d executed a simple ‘fade and melt’, leaving her talking to (or more accurately ‘at’) a couple of non-plussed Thais.
We stopped at a roadside café for an early lunch. Jen now seemed to have a pout forming, judging by the clipped questions and replies. At some point the Swiss girl was mentioned and, surprised, I simply said ‘Her? She just had no manners’. The food at the shack was simple but magnificent – my Tom Yam Kung was the best I’ve ever had and ‘something-I-forget’ fried rice almost as good.
The sun really started beating down on us as we arrived at Pai Canyon, and I had some nice idle chat with a few young American guys. The high ground afforded breath-taking views over the peaceful landscape. We took in a deserted temple or two, then stopped for a coffee at a spotless, modern roadside café. I suddenly felt lonely in the idyllic shaded terrace overlooking stepped fields at I sat there with Jen. But I was not going to go down any road of asking ‘Hey…what’s wrong?’ with Jen. I’d listened to entreaties in the weeks leading up to this trip of how much she wanted to and was looking forward to visiting Pai with me and now was in a sulk. I’d done or said nothing wrong I could think of.
We set off again for the Chinese Village. It took a while to find with the odd wrong turn, and we got there to find it ‘closed’. To me, it just looked like the typical themed village with knicknackery for sale. The setting was no less stunning than all else we’d seen that day. A waterfall was the last thing on our list, but the sun and early start had got the better of us and we headed back to our base by the river.
After dropping the bike back, we meandered through the early evening street stalls. I suddenly noticed all the vendors with strawberries on sale. The Pai region is apparently quite famous for them – as all of you sitting on Soi Cowboy’s decks with those well-thumbed copies of the Thailand Agrarian Atlas 2015 would be able to affirm. Big plump fruits spilling over the sides of punnets, they looked really good and were reasonably cheap.
Back at the chalet, I had an hour alone with Charlie Richardson – I read the bit where, after serving 18 years, he escapes from prison. He makes it to a rendezvous point in a rural English pub car park, only to find his getaway driver not there. He has to break back into prison that night and re-attempt his escape the following evening. On this trip, I was starting to know the feeling. A bad band set up in the bar across the river from us and they quietly murdered well-known Rock and Indie classics from the past 25 years. Their insipid vocals floated on the wind…Radiohead’s Creep: ‘Cause I’m a creep…I’m a weirdo-ooohh…’ The incongruity of those words being sung in this idyllic place by young Thais was not lost on me. A few families with young kids traipsed across the river bridge as the band chose not to omit the song’s line: ‘I’m special…so f**king special…’ Stay classy, dudes.
Night fell and we went for dinner in the town, which immediately started off on the wrong footing. I think I dithered over one particular restaurant and suggested we check out one or two more. One place a short distance away looked appealing but had no tables free. There was a sudden outburst from Jen. ‘Now we go back to this one, you already looking!!’ Er…yes…now we’re back at this one, Jen, in the absence of other alternatives I sought for all of 2 minutes! We sat down and quickly pointed at a few items but the waiter didn’t have maybe 5 out of 6 of them. I politely said ‘thank-you, we try tomorrow’. We went back to the main street and found a very modest-looking place that Jen recognised as authentic Isaan. After some excellent past meals amongst Jen and her friends, I will eat Isaan all day long and was happy to settle for this. Regardless, Jen was now in a full-on sulk, and the ‘companionship’ side of this trip now seemed to have been a total failure.
Okay, if still reading, you might be thinking ‘What the hell, man! Just leave her to it!’ As I outlined in Part 1, all indications just prior to me arriving were of us being on a friendly footing. I have attempted to reason with Jen many times in the past when problems arose between us but I’ve become resigned to the fact that such events must just be ridden out. I knew this, signed up for the trip, have made my bed and so must now lie in it. I’m a big boy. I want a nice holiday with no arguments, scenes, etc. I like to keep a cool heart and avoid confrontation. Jen has been a great girlfriend to me in the past, and this moodiness from her is probably down to being in each other’s company again and her not having properly forgiven me for ‘not coming through’ for her, rescuing her, etc. I’m now just paying for this in small increments of attrition.
Back at the table, conversation was now in ‘back-up battery’ mode and to keep a lid on things, I was sure just to keep it to her interests: discussing Isaan food, Facebook, etc until we could leave.
Oh, I almost forgot – I had inadvertently given Jen a specific reason for at least some of her reproach that night. We’d briefly stopped at a 7-11 just before finding the Isaan place, and in the checkout line, I’d grabbed Jen’s items to offer to pay for them. I dropped a 20 Baht note and as a reflex, stopped the note from blowing away in the A/C draft with my foot, retrieved it and paid up. Now in the restaurant, as she filled my bowl with tom sep moo she said ‘everybody stare at you in the 7-11…you know why?’ I was completely unaware of anyone looking at me at the time but now I knew what was coming. ‘You stand on the money…nobody ever do that in Thailand’. Obviously it was a mistake, I would be aghast to intentionally offend Thais like this, but that cuts me no ice in Jen’s present mind. (For the unaware, it’s considered bad etiquette in Thailand to touch things with your feet, and deliberately standing on a note/bill bearing the King’s image is a real no-no).
Siiigh. It was time to write this trip off, to some extent, as a bad mistake and cut our losses. We ambled back through the Walking Street and I was on impeccable behaviour, waiting dutifully for Jen as she browsed the stalls. I resisted the urge to buy a T-Shirt displaying a cartoon squiggly road and underneath: ‘768 Turns’, allegedly referring to the section of Highway 1095 between Pai and Mae Hong Son – our fate next morning. We got back to our separate chalets at around 11 PAM and it was time to pack for our 5 AM start for the long, long drive back to Mae Hong Son airport. Re-packing the small rucksack, I had to laugh inwardly again at my folly. There, at the bottom, was the black bikini Jen once gave me as a keep-sake. I had brought with me in the hope of seeing her in it again. Wishful thinking indeed. This time tomorrow, I would be in Bangkok proper for the first time on this trip. An adventure or two would surely await me there.
To be continued…