Around The Traps in S.E. Asia Part 16
25 YEARS AND COUNTING:
In one of Stick’s recent columns there was a link to a Roger Crutchly article, reflecting on his early years in Bangkok. Roger has put in some serious time in the City of Angels, 50 years and counting, and it got me thinking how an earth does any farang survive half a century in this mad place? But then I realised I’m half way there already so perhaps Roger’s 50 years isn’t such a stretch after all. Compared to Farangland, time seems to fly when you’re in the LOS and looking back a lot of it seems to have mainly been about chilling out, hanging out, and enjoying one’s self. Not that there’s anything wrong with this but people back in the real world people often have a tendency to label long-term expats in South-East Asia as non-productive drifters, time wasters, or people who couldn’t make it back home. Water off a duck’s back of course and I find this outlook quite amusing. To those that have such a narrow perspective I offer a reverse analysis; how do those who live in the relative safety and welfare comfort of western, nanny states think they’d fare if they were dropped into South-East Asia and told “you’re here for the next 25 – 50 years, see how you get on.” Most probably wouldn’t survive 12 months. The reality is most long termers in the LOS, and other parts of S. E. Asia aren’t there because they are lost, or can’t make it back home, it’s because we quite like it here and feel relatively comfortable with our way of life.
Living in S.E. Asia suits my general outlook on life anyway. I’ve been flying under the radar for years, probably since I left high school, so dropping out of the western world some 25 years ago was just a natural extension of this. It’s definitely made for an incredibly interesting and exciting lifestyle and a life in the ‘burbs, on a quarter acre block, with one point seven kids, back in the “real world” was never going to be a fit for me anyway. Holing up in Thailand where I could cruise the beaches, enjoy an exotic lifestyle, drink cold Heinekens, and sample the charms of South East Asian lovelies seems a far better way to live. That’s not to say it has been plain sailing. There’s been quite a bit of drama along the way, particularly with the local ladies. But life moves on and lessons learned ensure a degree of hard-edged wisdom in our later years, enabling us to nimbly sidestep the pussy traps of those exotic little demimondaines in the region. In my 60s now and flying solo, the freedom and ability to go wherever I want in this colourful part of the world is priceless.
One of the great things about living in the S.E. Asia region is the ability to travel from one country to another in no time at all. Feeling bored with Phuket? No problems, a one-hour flight will put you in Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, or even Bangkok for a long weekend. Phuket is my current place of residence and even though I feel quite comfortable living there, after a month or so, the crowds of the high season get a bit too much and I find myself needing a change of scenery. In the past couple of months I’ve made two short trips to the Big Mango and actually found it quite enjoyable. There was a time I seriously detested the place but I guess it’s just a matter of accepting it for what it is – a large, chaotic, vibrant, mega city – and having an ambivalent attitude towards the things that previously got under my skin. Even though I still live in Thailand, a trip to Bangkok now has the feel of being a tourist. I’m a southern beach bum going to the “big smoke” for a few days to check out the rat race. Taking a walk around lower Sukhumvit no longer has the feel of immersing myself into a sleaze pit. Probably because I’ve accepted that areas such as this will always exist in large tourist cities and despite the negative aspects often encountered in the nightlife areas, it’s just the way of things. Visitors and tourists want to be entertained, and the locals who work in the industry need to earn a living. It’s quite interesting cruising sois 4, 8, and 11 in the evenings just to experience the landscape and the way in which the locals go about their hustle. Truth be told, it’s quite amusing.
One of the things which helps to create the atmosphere and by extension the attraction for many to the lower Sukhumvit area is Bangkok’s climate. During the day it can be oppressively hot but once the sun’s dropped beyond the horizon, the temperature is almost perfect for hanging out at street side bars, enjoying a cold pint or three, and watching the world go by. I can certainly see how this is the primary attraction of Sukhumvit Soi 4 and the area around the entrance to Nana Plaza is one of the world’s great human zoos. While a venue like Big Dogs is just a bit too chaotic for my taste, a couple of hundred meters down the road at Chequers the ambiance is great at around 6 – 7 PM. On my past two visits I’ve enjoyed a sundowner or three at Chequers bar with an old buddy of mine who’s a long-term Bangkok resident. It was great just to hang out in the warm twilight at the street side bar and mull over the range of issues which seem to be the main conversation points for most farang in Thailand. In no particular order those issues are; getting by in Thailand, visa runs, the price of a pint, and the girls. A place like Chequers also seems to be a gathering point for tourists and the range of characters enjoying a cold pint were quite diverse. There was the airline pilot who lives in Hong Kong but was in town to complete his nuptials to his Thai sweetheart. Then there was the two Kiwi sheep farmers, regular visitors to Bangkok, who were also having a range of dental work done during their two weeks in town. The family from London who’d dropped in for a thirst slaking beer after a hot day out along the Chao Praya River were also quite entertaining. They must’ve been newbies because the fell afoul of the “National Palace closed today” scam and were whisked off to other venues they hadn’t planned on visiting.
Being back on Soi 4 is a trip along memory lane for me. Back in the noughties I used to regularly stay at the Nana Thai Mansion, situated at the far end of the soi near the entrance to the Tobacco Monopoly. For anyone who’s interested the price of their 40-square-meter rooms hasn’t changed in over 10 years. It’s still 1200 THB a night and the buffet breakfast, with its numerous courses, is a bargain at 190 THB per person. A walk along Soi 4 evokes some strange old memories. Just up the road from the Nana Thai Mansion (aka Suites) there’s a condo complex called the Siam Court <You’d be amazed how many Bangkok bar bosses / managers / personalities have stayed at one time or another in Siam Court over the years – Stick>. Every time I pass by I think about an old buddy who lived there for a number of years in the early 2000s. He had a Nana girl as the love of his life and lost the plot completely the night he looked out his apartment window to see his paramour getting it on with another farang in the swimming pool.
Further along the road there’s a smaller, grimier apartment building where Nit used to live. Nit was a free-lancer I met at Angels Disco who had a fiery streak and large set of silicon boobs. One night as we were passing by the Nana Hotel I made an off-handed comment about her “not having to go to her office that night.” For some reason she took offence to what I thought was light-hearted banter, and broke down in tears telling me I’d “spoiled it.” Whatever “it” was. When we got back to the hotel room she sat in the corner of the lounge area with her head on her knees, sulking. Unmoved I put a one thousand THB note on the coffee table and told her she could leave whenever she wanted. 30 minutes later she hopped into bed and gave me one of the best shags I’d had for a long time. Made me realise that if you wanted a bar girl to perform, make them angry first. The last time I heard from Nit I was offshore on a job in Malaysia. We were close enough to the coastline to get a local phone signal and late one afternoon as I was walking around the heli deck I got a rather unexpected call from her. With hookers you can never know if the sob stories they tell you are genuine or just plain BS. When it comes to requests for a hand-out, it’s normally BS. It seems Nit had been beaten up in the wee small hours along Soi 4 and been robbed of her gold. Her facial injuries were such that she hadn’t worked for a month. Apparently when she went to a nearby Police station to report the assault and robbery, the boys in brown just laughed and told her to “find another farang.” I was in no mood to be handing out money to a bargirl so I just faked a poor signal and turned off the phone.
One of the benefits of being a long-term expat in the LOS is you’ve generally seen and heard all the scams and lines of BS that one might encounter in the tourist traps. A stroll along Sukhumvit Soi 4 inevitably gets the usual invitations from the massage girls and bargirls lining the sidewalks. All the usual nonsense of course such as “hello hansom man, buy me one drink, I give good massage and blow job,” blah, blah, blah. I don’t even respond these days. Which is not to say I’m cynical, I just smile, nod my head and keep walking. It’s just robotic, meaningless, jingoism on their part as they do their best to entice you into their establishments and have you open your wallets. It’s their job and you, the farang, are the job. And while it might all be nonsense, it’s still good for a laugh.
Inevitably I still meet farang in the LOS who don’t get it. That they are the job. Sometimes I’ll get emails from guys telling me they’ve enjoyed my submissions and asking for advice on their latest love interest they met in a bar or a massage shop. Many seemed dismayed when they find out their girl has been telling lies or being deceitful to them. My standard answer is always, “Why would you expect anything different?” That’s what they do. That’s their M.O. Expect lies, dishonesty, and deceit and you’ll never suffer disappointment. The clouds of illusion will clear from your mind and be replaced by good judgement when interacting with them. It’s a transaction, sex for money. If you happen to get a good-natured girl, with sense of humour then that’s a bonus.
All around lower Sukhumvit the landscape is continually changing with new buildings replacing the ramshackle constructions of yesteryear. On one corner of Sukhumvit and Soi 6 a new luxury condo has gone up and across the road, another is on its way. Down on Soi 8 another high-rise will go up in the space where The Kiwi Bar once stood. Along Soi 11 a hording of corrugated roofing iron blocks out the space where that fantastic beer garden / restaurant was an institution for years. Sitting in amongst those old growth trees enjoying great Thai food and a cold beer, while a local jazz ensemble belted out some fantastic music was part of the golden age of Bangkok. Further down the soi a new building with fast food outlets now occupies the space where one of the world’s best nightclubs once stood; the Bed Supper Club. And around the corner is another reminder the golden age has passed. A Villa Supermarket now sits on the corner the Q Bar once occupied. The Q Bar was quite possibly Bangkok’s best ever nightclub. It was a cross between Hernando’s Hideaway and a lounge club where serious clubbers would converge to listen to some of the best house / dance music on offer. It also happened to be a place where the best looking freelancers in Bangkok could be picked up. In 2011 I met Sabina at Q Bar. Sabina was an attractive, leggy freelancer I spent some time with under the misguided notion that, although still a whore, she might be a reasonable option for a girlfriend due to her university education. Unfortunately whores will always be whores and expensive whores even more so. The last time I saw Sabina was the night she chased me along a suburban Bangkok street in the wee, small hours of the morning, in her SUV. Sabina was just another pretentious, nut-job on the bar circuit in Bangkok.
Almost 10 years ago and the golden age, as I knew it, was well and truly over. Or maybe it’s just changed as I’ve changed. The clubs that are left along Soi 11 no longer hold any attraction for me. The noise, the smoke-filled atmospheres, and late night imbibing are a memory I have no desire to resurrect. The last time I was in town I hooked up with my old buddy 006 and against my best wishes, he persuaded me to join him at Soi 11’s latest clubbing venue; Havana. After 30 minutes I’d had enough of the jostling for position in the stale, smoked-filled air, and the thumping techno. After quickly downing my beer I made a beeline for the doorway and shuffled off into the clammy, Bangkok night. These days a cold pint on the terrace of the Landmark is a more satisfying way to enjoy drink or three while I’m in town. I’ll leave the clubs to the younger crowd, enjoying their golden age in the City of Angels.
BACK TO LAOS:
By early March (2019) the high season crowding in Phuket was really starting to bug me and looking for a quieter, more sedate part of the world I put the wheels in motion for another extended trip to LAOS. My entry point for the trip would be PAKSE, after which I’d head up onto the BOLAVEN PLATEAU on a rented motorbike for another tour across this amazingly picturesque part of Laos. Getting to Pakse from Phuket involves a double hop with Bangkok Airways: Phuket – Bangkok – Pakse. Bangkok Airways has code share with Lao Airlines and a one-way fare, with a short stopover at Suwarnabhumi, costs as little as 5000 THB if you book early enough. As soon as you arrive in Pakse there’s a discernable relaxed mood about the place, when compared with being in Thailand. The fact that Laos is also one of the least crowded countries in the region (population = 4.5 million) also helps with the feeling of being in a place with a lot more elbow space.
Pakse is the largest town in Southern Laos and is the stopover point for travellers heading up to the BOLAVEN PLATEAU, or down to the 4000 ISLANDS. Note that I said TRAVELERS because it is mainly that type of tourist demographic you see in this part of the world: backpackers and budget travellers focusing on adventure activities as opposed to the mainstream tourist hordes you see swarming into Thailand. In Pakse there are no Chinese and Russian package tour groups to be seen anywhere. Please note that if your trips to S.E. Asia are mainly about whoremongering then there’s really nothing for you in Pakse. There are no girlie bars to be seen anywhere just small street side bars, and restaurants, with great Lao and western food, and plenty of cold BEER LAO.
The BOLAVEN PLATEAU is an elevated region (1350 meters at the highest point) to the east of Pakse. The plateau has a wide spread and is formed by the remnants of an extinct volcano. The flanks are predominantly formed by rugged, jungle covered peaks with steep valleys and spectacular waterfalls. The top of the plateau is relatively flat and the volcanic topsoil, coupled with a cooler, drier climate make it an ideal coffee cultivating area. As you ride up to the top wide acres of neatly lined coffee plantations are in abundance and the primary bean is Arabica. If you’re someone who enjoys a good coffee, the brands that are being sold on the plateau are seriously good. And the prices per kilo for whole beans or ground are a bargain for Arabica. My favourite is a brand called BACHIENG. They have a coffee shop just 18 km out of Pakse on the road to PAKSONG (Hwy 16) and it’s well worth a 20-minute stop for an excellent cappuccino or latte. They also sell 250 gram bags of ground coffee for 30,000 LAK (120 THB) which beats the hell out of any coffee grown in Thailand.
Most travellers heading up onto the BOLAVEN PLATEAU are normally doing the motorbike loop trip which covers approximately 400 km and takes in a number of scenic attractions along the way. For an in-depth report on the BOLAVEN PLATEAU: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/the-bolaven-plateau-champasak-province-laos/
YouTube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Twm50V-QTvw&t=3s
Situated approx. 83 km north-east of Pakse, TAD LO VILLAGE is one of the stopping points on the BOLAVEN LOOP TOUR. It’s a small village, positioned along a scenic river with a number of visually impressive waterfalls, which features guesthouse / homestay style accommodation. From TAD LO Village a scenic hiking trail runs up the western side of the river to the base of TAD LO FALLS, a distance of around 2 km. Much of the trail has boarded walkways, with steps leading down to each of the falls, and a number of viewing points providing expansive views of the cascading steps in the river.
As mentioned, the trail along the western side of the river ends at the base of Tad Lo falls where you can drop down and take the boarded walkway across to the eastern side. Tad Lo falls is a beautifully scenic spot where you can spend some time getting a tan and going for a refreshing dip in the natural pool at the base of the falls.
Nearer to TAD LO Village another popular attraction is the Elephant bathing which occurs every day at 4:30 PM. Situated adjacent to TAD LO LODGE is a smaller waterfall which is has a great natural pool on its lower side for swimming. Every afternoon the mahouts will bring their elephants down to the pool area for bathing. A large rock just above the pool provides a great vantage point for spectators as the elephants submerge themselves nearby.
TAD LO Village is on the northern edge of the BOLAVEN PLATEAU and for those doing the LOOP TOUR, continuing on involves an ascent up to the highest point at PAKSONG. With an elevation of 1350 meters, Paksong can be quite chilly at night during the dry season (December – February) and warm clothing is well advised for those venturing up that way. If you look at a map you’ll also see that Paksong is virtually at the centre of the plateau and the surrounding flat terrain is covered with acres of coffee plantations. Paksong has a number of coffee factories where you can buy bulk product if you’re so inclined.
Having already completed the BOLAVEN LOOP TOUR on two previous occasions I decided to head north from TAD LO to the little known and visited province on SALAVAN. Although only 32 kilometres from TAD LO, Salavan seems to be a location which most travellers aren’t much interested in visiting. Probably because the tourist infrastructure there (a lack of western food restaurants, hotels, and English language speakers) is barely developed. I spent four days in Salavan and in that time saw just two other westerners. Salavan is definitely OFF THE BEATEN TRACK in this regard. The primary attraction of Salavan Province is the recently developed PHOUPHASOUK NATIONAL PARK, approx. 32 km north of SALAVAN TOWNSHIP.
A full trip report can be seen on my website: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/salavan/
You Tube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khBJp-L6cd0
Is it goat or dog?
The ability to speak basic Thai is a blessing when traveling through remote locations in Laos. Aside from being able to ferret out information on distances and directions, it can also help you avoid making a poor choice at meal times. If you want to lose weight Salavan is great place to spend a few days because the only thing that seems to be available to eat is noodle soup, sticky rice, and barbecue. The thing is though you need to be sure of exactly what the barbecue is before purchasing. On my second night in town I was riding around looking for a barbecue stand and stopped next to an open air restaurant with a stack of meat roasting over hot coals. There were a good number of locals sat around with plates stacked high and Beer Lao. Feeling seriously hungry after an arduous days hiking in Phouphasouk National Park, I enquired about the barbecue.
“Gai Yang mee mai?“
“Ma”, said the cheerful local tending the roasting chunks of meat.
The answer left me non-plussed and wondering if it was dog or goat. I’d seen a couple of signs above street side restaurants in town advertising goat barbecue but wasn’t willing to take the risk. I jumped back on my bike and headed off to the noodle soup shop. Later on I realised most of the people sat in the dog meat restaurant were probably Vietnamese, as the border is quite close and Salavan was on one of the main trucking routes into Laos.
CAVING IN CENTRAL LAOS:
After an enjoyable few days spent touring around Salavan and Champasak Provinces it was time to head north to Thakhek, my favourite destination in Laos. Thakhek is a smaller provincial town in Central Laos which hugs the Mekong River and sits directly opposite Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. It is a beautifully relaxed place where one can enjoy a cold beer Lao at a river-side bar while the sun sets across the mighty Mekong River.
Thakhek also happens to be the start / finish point for one of South East Asia’s best motorbike loop tours, The Thakhek Loop: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/the-thakhek-loop-trip/
During the peak season months (November – February) the place is inundated with independent travelers (backpackers) and adventurers wanting to get their fill of the rock climbing, caving, and motorbike trips into the remote interior of Khammouane Province. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the tourist traps in Thailand, it’s a very sedate setting and one which hides a tragic past. Up until very recently I was completely unaware of the massacre which took place in Thakhek just after World War II. According to a report at the time by a French Missionary, up to 3000 anti-French locals were killed by French Paratroopers and their Laotian allies: https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=http://oblatfrance.com/index.php%3Fid_page%3D262&prev=search
For the past two years the town square (travelers central area) has seen the construction of an ornate building which I mistakenly thought was just another Buddhist temple of some sort. A long-term expat explained it was in fact a memorial to the 1946 massacre.
After four days spent chilling out in Thakhek and enjoying a Beer Lao or three each evening I directed my attention to my primary reason for being there; doing tours to the two of the biggest river caves South East Asia. I’d made previous trips to both caves but wanted to do some more extensive video and photography work for my website. For anyone who’s interested, full trip reports on both caves are here:
KONG LOR CAVE: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/khong-lor-cave/
XEBANGFAI RIVER CAVE: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/xebangfai-cave-update-2018/
If you don’t have the patience to read through the trip reports, these are the YouTube Videos:
KONG LOR CAVE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ToXuWrP8-_0&t=77s
XEBANGFAI RIVER CAVE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqANl6nN6MI&t=2s
And for those who want to get OFF THE BEATEN TRACK in LAOS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-4qU2neGy8
XEBANGFAI RIVER CAVE:
The XEBANGFAI CAVE is reputedly the world’s largest river cave and, if you’re into caving adventures, is a seriously spectacular sightseeing experience. However, getting there is not for the faint hearted as the road to the nearby village of NONG PING, from Thakhek, has approx 85 km of worst dirt roads I’ve travelled over in South East Asia. It’s only 148 km from the Thakhek to the cave site at HIN NAM NO NATIONAL PARK (on the border of Vietnam) but with a meal break on the way, the trip takes all of 6 hours.
There are currently two operators in THAKHEK running tours to the Xebangfai. The longest established is www.greendiscoverylaos.com who’ve been doing kayaking tours through the cave for the past ten years. They run a good, all round operation but their prices are a bit on the high side. If you’re on a budget then the new operator – XEBANGFAI CAVE TOUR – is a good option. The manager is a Thakhek local by the name of KHUN YUI and he’s recently opened a restaurant and camping ground at NONG PING VILLAGE for those either doing the 3 day / 2 night cave tour package with him or who are hardy enough to ride down there on motorbikes. The contact details for the XEBANGFAI CAVE TOUR GROUP are: Tel: +856 2096116712 +856 309996296. Email: [email protected]
NOTE: Kayaking tours through Xebangfai River Cave are only possible from the beginning of November to the end of May.
RAINY SEASON IN PHUKET:
This is my favourite time of the year in the LOS. The high season crowds have gone home, leaving the beaches uncrowded, and the roads are much easier to negotiate, having far fewer vehicles whizzing about. It’s also a time of year where I spend more time at my digs, and less time traveling about the region, meaning I have more time to reflect on issues I might read or browse on Thai-centric websites. A recent news article posted on ThaiVisa was about how the local authorities are trying to persuade the Phuket tuk-tuk mafia to stop cheating, and beating up tourists. The inevitable responses in the comments section below were quite amusing – something along the lines of “and pigs might fly” – but it also highlighted what a blight these guys often are on the tourist landscape of Phuket and how the local authorities are powerless to do anything about their cheating, and beating, ways. On the odd occasion I’ve used a Phuket tuk-tuk in the past, I’ve never had a problem with them. Simply because I negotiated the fare before getting into the vehicle. However a couple of first hand experiences during taxi rides to Phuket Airport, highlighted just how potentially volatile these guys can be. On two occasions I’ve been taxis where the driver got upset over being cut off, by another taxi or vehicle, and went into a fit of pique, tail gating, honking the horn, and swearing under his breath. It was that bad I thought they were going to ram the other vehicles.
When I say “guys” what I’m really referring to is a certain grouping of people who work in the tourist industry in Phuket as tuk-tuk owners, taxi drivers, minivan drivers, and even beachside jet-ski operators. This grouping has a common background. They mainly come from an area in Thailand called Nakhon Si Thammart, and they are typically darker skinned, surly, and aggressive in manner. Other Thais know this but out of fear of retribution, will not say anything about it. A recent comment I made to a lady in a massage shop, and her response, made me realise just how aware other Thais are of the potential violent nature of this lot from Nakhon Si Thammarat. I mentioned “tourists needed to be careful when dealing with tuk-tuk drivers, or else they could be beaten up or even kileed” and her response “and quickly” stunned me. I asked her if she’d just said that, and she nodded quite solemnly. As if to say “don’t you know that?” So there it is, other Thais are well aware of the potentially violent nature of the Nakhon Si Thammarat mafia, but not much is said about it in public. My advice to anyone coming to Phuket is be extremely careful when dealing with these people. If you get a tuk-tuk, always negotiate the fare before getting into the vehicle, and for your own personal safety never get into an argument with them or else you might be beaten up, or killed, quickly.
Mega can be contacted at : [email protected]