Monday, 6 January 2014

Me not man, me lady - Chapter 21

As soon as we'd crossed the border into Thailand, the chaos that I'd craved for almost a month instantly returned. Suddenly I felt more alive. It was only a week away from 1994 and we were heading for one of the biggest parties on the globe. It was full steam ahead in our quest to reach Koh Pha Ngan in the shortest possible time. If things went to plan we'd be able to catch both the Full Moon Party and the New Year's Party a few days later.

We'd heard about the Full Moon Party through the traveller's grapevine and we were eager to see what it was all about. From what I could gather, from the stories that I'd heard, our chances of getting laid were going to increase tenfold, and we were going to be left battered, bruised and bedraggled as we entered a whirlwind of hedonistic pleasure. What 24 year old in his right mind could look that gift horse in the mouth?

We decided to take a train from the Thai border town of Sungai Kolok to the ferry port of Surat Thani, from where we would catch an overnight ferry to Kho Pha Ngan. This was probably slower than a bus, but it had been almost a year and a half since we'd Amtrakked across the States, and a nice train ride seemed like a poignant reminder of our travels gone by. As it turned out, this train experience couldn't have been any different. The carriages were so crammed full of people that it was impossible to make a trip to the toilet. In fact, the trail of people sleeping on the train floor resembled a human carpet. Still at least we'd probably get there safe. Over the next few months we were to discover that we were putting our lives in danger every time we travelled by bus in Thailand, as each driver tried to outdo the previous one in his efforts to claim the title of the most dangerous driver on the road.

By the time we arrived in Surat Thani it was dark and the city was buzzing with adrenaline. We jumped into a tuk tuk and headed for the ferry port. The driver informed us that we didn't have a second to lose if we were to catch the night ferry to Koh Pha Ngan. Blatantly he saw this as an opportunity to extract more money from us. 

On the short journey to the port we saw not one, but two fatal motorcycle accidents. Suddenly the chaos that I had wanted so badly seemed a little less enticing. There's no better reality check than seeing two corpses laid out on the ground with sheets over them. That we made it to the ferry port alive was a welcome relief. After what we'd just witnessed, making it there on time seemed far less relevant.

Fortunately, there was space enough for us on the boat and we were able to cram our bodies onto the top deck, sardined between lots of other party goers. We laid down our sleeping bags and instantly fell asleep.

Ian and I slept like babies, and when we awoke the ferry had arrived and completely cleared of people. To say that this felt surreal was a vast understatement. The ferry had even made a drop off on Koh Samui on the way, and we'd slept right through it. Luckily we woke up before the boat set off back to Surat Thani. Although I doubt that we'd have known any different had we have woken up there. We would have probably spent the best part of two days searching for the Full Moon Party in entirely the wrong location.

That we'd done precious little research into the island turned out to our advantage. Almost every party goer that went to Koh Pha Ngan headed for Haad Rin. This was the epicentre of the Full Moon party and therefore it was extremely difficult to find adequate accommodation there. There was also major threat of theft whilst staying in Haad Rin, largely due to the fact that the thieves knew exactly where everybody was going to be for the night i.e. totally out of their heads at the party. 

Luckily for us we met up with a Scottish couple who were Full Moon Party veterans, and they showed us a great place to stay close to the ferry port. For a few dollars a night we got our own beach hut which even came complete with a monitor lizard. I shit you not! As I was getting up for a midnight stroll one night I almost trod on it when it popped its head out from under the hut just as I was stepping out of the door. I nearly had heart failure; those things are practically the same size as a crocodile.

There'd been a massive youth explosion in England over the previous six years regarding the taking of drugs (largely ecstasy) whilst listening to house music and dancing the night away. In fact my local area (Blackburn) had become famous for some of the first illegal warehouse raves in the country. Some of my mates had got involved in the scene, but it had largely passed me by. This has to be one of my biggest my regrets over the years. I would have loved to have caught this subculture in its infancy. By the time I jumped on board the initial euphoria had been somewhat subdued.

I wasn't altogether sure what a person on ecstasy would look like, but I was soon to find out. The next day whilst I was eating my breakfast in the outdoor common area, a Japanese guy approached me in a very jittery manner. "I've just dropped a pill," he informed me with genuine pride in his voice. He then spent the next hour showing me his dance moves as I tried to eat my omelette. In retrospect I can fully appreciate the feelings of pleasure that my Japanese friend was experiencing, but at the time I thought he'd gone quite mad.

Before we knew it the big day was upon us and we were heading for our first full moon party. We'd been informed that we could get a boat there from the harbour. What our informants didn't tell us was that we'd have to walk a few hundreds yards out to sea and then practically fight to get on board. By the time the boat left for the party it was over twice as full as safety permitted, and an accident waiting to happen. A problem solved by the downing of two quick beers so that I no longer cared.

There was no mistaking where the party was. We could hear it a good ten minutes before we actually arrived. The booming bass of the sound systems had become the heart beat of the whole island. We leapt from the boat and joined tens of thousands of revellers in the biggest party I'd ever seen. Rumour had it that entrepreneur Richard Branson was there, and had bought free drinks for hundreds of the party goers. Maybe this was true, but despite my best efforts, I never found him.

I'm sure I wouldn't feel the same way these days, but to a young guy in the prime of his existence this was an incredible experience, and one that I shall remember forever. All around me were happy young people living life to the full; people juggling fire, people making out, people dancing wildly and people doing just about any fun thing that you could possibly imagine. A quick scout around the beach revealed the source of their pleasure. The beach bars were selling anything from buckets of spirits, to speed punch, and magic mushroom omelettes. Earlier that day we'd seen signs in the local pharmacy informing us that they sold potions that would keep us up all night.  

I'd chosen to stick to alcohol and consequently I felt sleepy by 3 am. I found Ian and we caught the boat back to our haven of sanity on the other side of the island. Of course, I realised that the etiquette of the full moon party is to stay till sunrise the next day, but when I've got to sleep, I've got to sleep. And besides which it was New Year's Eve in a few days, and we were going to do it all again. Next time I'd trying something a little less sleep inducing.

Travelling by boat to the party had been fun but slightly chaotic. Along with our new Scottish friends, Ian and I elected to hire a motorbike (Honda MTX 125) to ride to the New Years Eve party a few days later.

The ride to the party was magnificent if not a little hair-raising. We'd set off a little later than we'd intended, which left us chasing daylight. Our timing turned out to be impeccable though because we caught the sunset at exactly the right time. From our elevated position in the mountains we could see the silhouette of the party goers set against a beautiful orange sunset. It was an image worthy of my mental camera.

Once again, the party went off. Only this time I loaded up on special mushroom omelettes and speed punch. This turned out to be a wonderful decision which enabled me to enjoy the party to the full, as I danced on the beach without a care in the world. I probably looked like a total fool, but as long as I didn't care then it didn't matter. Ain't that a recipe for success!

I even lasted until sunrise. The scene on the beach, as the sun came up to grace the day, was one that I will take with me to the grave. Thousands of bare chested young people, their arms raised to the sun, and dancing in the sea as if there was no tomorrow. It was a life affirming moment.

With that image still in my mind we rode back to our hut to sleep off our excesses. OK, so we hadn't got laid but I really didn't care.

A few days later in Bangkok we accidentally bumped into Paul and Brit on the Khao San Road. If you've been to Bangkok, or have watched the film, "The Beach" you'll know what I'm talking about. The Khao San Road is a traveller's Mecca. If you're going to bump into somebody again anywhere, then it's likely that it will be there. Basically, it's one street which is full of cheap guest houses, bars, restaurants, and market stalls selling anything fake. I went to the Bangkok, a poor, uneducated and unemployed person, and within minutes I had a Rolex watch, a degree and was employed as a journalist. Talk about a fast track path to success!

I wasn't after a cultural experience in Bangkok, I was here to experience every vice that it had to throw at me. Lady boys, prostitutes, ping pong know all the naughty things in life that have become synonymous with the city. By experience, I don't mean indulge, just witness (well apart from the ping pong show).

On our second night in Bangkok we headed to Patpong. This is where all of those things can be witnessed in one area. Each bar even had a menu outside to inform us what a pussy could do there - pussy drink beer, pussy write love letter, pussy smoke cigarette, pussy open bottle, pussy fire darts.

Who would have known that a pussy could be so versatile!

Needless to say, we spent the next hour witnessing a freak show, whilst worrying that we were going to get ripped off for every penny that we owned. Thankfully, the show only cost us the price of one expensive beer ($8), although our innocence was lost forever. Navigating our way out of Patpong after the show proved to be difficult though. We were accosted by wave, after wave of prostitute salesmen armed with sex menus.

"You want girl sir? Girl very good, girl very cheap," they called out to us. We politely refrained.

Our curiosity quelled, Ian and I headed north to Chiang Mai to escape from the smog and vice riddled city that was Bangkok. On the bus to Chiang Mai we met Neil and Rob, a couple of English guys. Unlike us, they were posh. And I mean this in the best possible way. I found their upper class English manner to be most refreshing; top class entertainment all round. The two lads would stay with us until the end of our Thailand trip.

I'm sure that Chiang Mai would have been a peaceful city, if only we'd gone there a few years earlier, or a few years later. However when we arrived back in January of 1994, the whole city had been turned into a giant construction site. It's hard to take in the tranquillity of a temple (or wat as they are known in Thailand), when a pneumatic drill is hammering away, not 10 ft behind you. 

We found the calm that we'd been searching for in our next destination, Pai. At the time Pai was fresh to the backpacker scene and there was only one place to find accommodation. For a few dollars a night, we rented a beautiful hut on stilts down by the river. It was so serene there that I felt the urge to do very little. I was quite content to either, sit and stare at the river, read my book, or chat to Rob and Neil. It was nice to meet people from very a different background than my own. As far as I am concerned this is one of the key ingredients in what makes travelling so fantastic. And why you learn so much.

Neil, had worked for the radio station Classic FM, for a year or so before heading on his travels, and Rob had worked in some equally interesting profession in London. This contrasted greatly with my factory background. Although, I liked to think that I could hold my own in any conversation with anyone.

Any trip to Northern Thailand wouldn't be complete without doing a trek. We'd been informed by other travellers along the way, that Pai was a great place to do this because it was far less commercialised than either Chiang Mai, or Chiang Rai. And therefore the local hill tribes were more genuinely welcoming. We got ourselves a guide and headed off in the direction of Burma, some 50 miles away.

Although my shoes fell to pieces on the second day of our four day trek, it was all quite wonderful. It felt so reinvigorating to escape the humdrum of the city to a place that we could actually see the stars at night. Soon we were heading through foothills and poppy fields, without a care in the world.

On the first day we arrived in a small village around 5 pm, where we were greeted by a bunch of marauding pigs, and a procession of curious kids. Our guide informed us that they'd seen very few Westerners in this village because it was so remote, and he'd only taken us there because it was the village of his family. Whether this was true or not was open to debate, but the villagers there certainly displayed the right level of curiosity to suggest that it was.

We were summoned to the residence of the chief of the village to be greeted. His house was basically a flimsy hut made of bamboo and cloth. We'd been told by the guide that packets of instant noodles would make good gifts and would be greatly appreciated. He wasn't wrong! When we handed the noodles over to the chief, he looked like he was going to spontaneously combust with excitement. His infectious smile was replicated by all those around.

We were about to leave the hut, when the chief darted off into a side room and rather curiously returned with a military hat on his head. In his hand was a gift for us, wrapped up in a plastic bag. The strong aroma being emitted from the bag ensured that we knew what the gift was before we even opened it. Inside were mounds and mounds of fresh weed. Seriously, it looked like the guy had just mowed his lawn and emptied the contents into a carrier bag. We couldn't believe our luck. We'd given him 20 packets of instant noodles, and we'd been rewarded with a ridiculous amount of grass. We later estimated that the street value would have been thousands of pounds in England.

As we were shown to our room we were practically bursting at the seams with excitement, eager to try the weed out. Our guide's consideration was such that he left us a pipe before leaving us to it.

We loaded up the pipe with the tiniest fraction of our grass, and lit it. Because we were unsure of exactly how strong the weed was, we took only one hit each and then passed it along. The result was unbelievable. Within seconds the four of us had closed our eyes and were experiencing exactly the same images in our heads, at the same time.

"I can see a girl flying a kite," I called out. "Yeah, the kite is red and it's flying through cotton wool clouds," said Neil. "The kites turned into a ball and it's bouncing over a wall," Ian interrupted. "Yeah, yeah, the ball's turned into a rocket and it's flying to the moon," Neil piped in.

This went on for around 30 minutes, during which time we were all completely captivated by exactly the same images. I don't say this lightly but it really did feel like something spiritual had just taken place. We only had a month or so left in Thailand though, how were we going to get through our supply? At this rate, we'd have to smoke every night for 10 years to empty the bag.

We quite sensibly decided that smoking the weed whilst we trekked was not the most practical idea, so we reserved this for our evening's entertainment. There wasn't much else to do in the villages to be honest, apart from slaughter a pig, or get stared at by the kids. We'd just spent the day hiking and taking in the scenery, so we felt no guilt in kicking back with a pipe in the evenings, and smoking our way to Nirvana.

A few days, and a lot of beautiful scenery later, we were back in Pai. Although we'd smoked our stash every night, we'd barely made a dent in it. So, what exactly were we going to do with it? I'd seen the movie the Bangkok Hilton, and I didn't fancy transporting it around the rest of Thailand with me, for fear that I might get imprisoned, or even worse executed.

"Why don't we sell it?" I suggested to the others. It seemed like a good idea. But who could we sell it to?

This question was answered later that evening as we sat in a restaurant having dinner. Four Australian guys were sat next to us and were quite openly talking about wanting to score some weed. 

"I think that we may be the answer to your prayers," I told the lads.

We relayed our hallucinogenic experiences to the Aussies, which left them chomping at the bit to try out our wares. Ten minutes later, and we were all sat around in a circle in our hut, passing around the pipe of peace. Once they'd experienced it for themselves they'd be like putty in our hands. Or so we thought! In retrospect, we should have maybe laid off the stuff ourselves until the deal was sealed. I took one blast and turned into a gibbering giggly wreck. Not the best state to be in when you are surrounded by four burly Aussies who are trying to offer you as little money as possible for your goods.

"It's fucking shit mate," the chief of their pack had the cheek to tell me.

"We can get better stuff than this in our local pub mate," he blatantly lied.

I looked around at their faces and saw that everybody was clearly baked. There was no mistaking the gormless expressions upon their countenances.

"Is he taking the piss?" I shouted out to the others.

My question clearly riled the chief Aussie, whose voice took on a more aggressive edge.

"Look mate, I'll give you 100 baht (round about $12 at the time) for the lot", he spat at me with the venom of somebody that was willing to use violence to get what he wanted. This only made me laugh more.

"Maybe I should punch him in the face," I told my comrades, as I attempted and failed to get to my feet.

From the looks on the faces of all those around me, it would seem that I found this to be far more humorous than anybody else in the room.

"Look mate, you're clearly a mess, and if I wanted to I could take this weed from you for free. So, let's say you give us half of it for a few hundred baht and you remain with your face intact."

Needless to say, the Aussies got their grass at an incredibly low price and I kept my facial features. The only good thing to come out of this little interaction was the reduction of our supply to something that would only get me five life sentences and less chance of execution.

I'd arranged to meet my sister (Janet) in Bangkok the next day. She was coming out for a few weeks for her annual holiday. What I'd failed to tell her, is that Ian and I would be leaving Thailand for Cambodia in a week's time, and I'd be leaving her with Neil and Rob. My plan was to ply her with alcohol, and then drop the bombshell. Hopefully she'd be okay with it.

First we had the decision of whether we were going to take the weed back to Bangkok with us. The others seemed against it, but I'd been drawn in by its special powers, and I was loathed to throw it away. In an attempt to mask its potent scent, I sprayed it with deodorant and pushed it deep into my dirty laundry bag.

Halfway to Bangkok and the Thai guy sat in the seat next to me began to make idle banter.

"Hi, how are you?" etc.

The conversation progressed into my worst nightmare. The guy only turned out to be an off duty policeman. To make things worse he was spouting off to me about how some tourists like to take drugs, and how it was his job to catch them. No joke, when he's sat but two feet from my stash. It had to be the longest bus journey of my life.

I met Janet at the airport the next day and we booked into a room just off the Khao San Road. That evening I got introduced to the poison that is Mekhong whiskey. All the bars on the Khao San Road sold this lethal potion by the bucket, complete with straws. It was customary for a group of people to join forces and then down the bucket as fast as possible before going to the bar for another.

The recipe for Mekhong whiskey has long been a secret, but it was rumoured to contain amphetamine. That's probably why I ran out of the bar like a lunatic on a mad mission. My progress was only halted by a blatant lady boy who tried to lure me into his/her bed by pretending she/he was a lady. Some of the lady boys of Thailand, I have to say are convincing. This one was not.

"You want fucky fucky, sucky sucky," she/he propositioned me.

"You're a man," I blurted out. Much to the annoyance of the lady boy.

"Me not man, me lady", I was informed.

This went on for a good few minutes until the argument was settled by a closer examination of his/her genitalia.

"You see, me not man, me lady," she gloated.

And she almost got away with it, until further investigation revealed that it wasn't a vagina as such but an inverted penis. Happy in the knowledge that I'd won my argument I went back to room.

Propelled on by my apparent victory over a Bangkok lady boy, and the amphetamine rush of the Mekhong whiskey, I took it upon myself to wake up the entire room. Since their whiskey consumption had all but rivalled mine, this was not a difficult task. One bounce on my sister’s bed was enough ping all their eyes open. I took this opportunity to tell my sister that we'd be leaving her after a week. Fortunately she was wired enough to not care.

A few days later we left Bangkok once more, this time for Kanchanaburi via the floating market of Damnoen Saduak. The floating markets used to be the way that produce was sold in times gone by, with long wooden canoes used as floating market stalls. What we witnessed there in 1994 though would clearly not exist without tourists. Although there was no denying the authenticity of the dead rats floating in the water.

Kanchanaburi is better known as the home of the Bridge on the River Kwai. In 1942 whilst under Japanese control, Allied POWs were forced into constructing the Burma railway which included the infamous bridge. The bridge provided a faster alternative to sea travel to take Japanese supplies to Burma. This was forever immortalised in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai. Over half of those involved in the railway's construction died of disease, maltreatment, and accidents. The railway therefore became known as Death Railway.

It was over 50 years later that my sister, Ian, Neil, Rob and I visited the bridge, and I must say the peacefulness of the place belied the trauma that had taken place there a relatively short time ago. I almost suffered my own trauma there when I tried to feed a banana to a lonesome elephant that had wandered onto the bridge, and it almost took my hand off.

Our group chose to spend our last week together on the beautiful island of Koh Chang. We'd heard very little about the island to be honest and fancied a voyage into the unknown rather than heading off to Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samet, or any of the other better known islands. Back in 1994 Koh Chang was hardly developed as a tourist destination and probably far better for it. I haven't been back since, but by all accounts it's a totally different place these days, and has been since mass tourism arrived in the year 2000.

The island got its name because it's apparently shaped like an elephant's head, and chang is the Thai word for elephant. It's the second biggest island in Thailand. So quite why it took so long for the island to be fully discovered is anybody's guess. As far as I was concerned it was equally as beautiful as Ko Pha Ngan. I can only assume that location was a little out of the way, tucked up almost against Cambodia in the east of the country.

We spent our days on the island swimming, eating and getting a daily massage. The massage was actually more exhausting than it sounds. The masseurs may have only been small but they could sure yank our bodies around. I've never heard my body crack as much as it did during that week in February 1994.

On our last night we all got well and truly hammered on Mekhong whiskey. Which lead to a skinny dipping session. A little weird when one of your group is your sister. Thankfully the whiskey was strong enough to save me from any psychological damage.

The next morning, Ian and I said our drunken goodbyes and left Janet with the posh boys (and a massive bag of potent weed). Our destination Bangkock airport from where we would fly to Cambodia. It had been an interesting two months in Thailand, but once again it was time to move on.

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