On this day in 2011….Rain Day in Vang Vieng #Otdi2011

11/01/2011

It was raining when we got up and it rained for pretty much the rest of the day and so a second consecutive day of Tubing was off the cards. Bumped into the Weymouth lads again, who were occupying the cabin a few doors down. Today would be a chilled one, and would consist mainly of eating and watching Friends and Family Guy on sofas and pillows in one of the many hangouts. What must the local people, with all their hardship, think when they see us Westerners sitting around all day getting stoned and laughing at a talking dog or sympathizing with a group of people in a coffee shop? What must they think of the Western comedy scene, when we’re still stuck watching quintessential 90’s comedy.

Though I actually don’t mind Friends, but would never let Ben know that. Though I do concede at “Well, it’s better than all them fucking other ones….Chandler’s pretty funny – only because he’s the only member of the gang who wouldn’t actually approve of a show like Friends in real life”. Ben meets me half way on this, but really he just takes my word for it.

Later that night went for a few whiskey buckets and games of pool hall. We didn’t stay long so didn’t crack on with any more Shakes, as we had the West Ham Vs Birmingham Carling Cup Semi-Final to look forward to. We had nowhere secured to watch it but luckily after much hunting, we found a Guesthouse down one of the side streets that were prepared to let us watch it in their reception area. The Hammers won 2-1 and it looked like I could start looking forward to watching the Final in LA in 6 weeks time. We walked back to our cabin with an extra spring in our step.

On this day in 2011…Winning a BRIT Award in Vang Vieng; an introduction #Otdi2011

10/01/2011

Leaving the hostel, we moved to our new headquarters and our home for next couple of days, Otherside Bungalows. For little under £3 a night we got our self our own private twin-bed bungalow, constructed of wood. There must’ve been atleast 10 other bungalows, but aside from them there was very little else except for the fields that stretched towards the mountains on one side, with the flowing river to the other. It was peaceful, but was also comforting to know the mayhem was only a few planks of wood away.

The bridge to The Otherside
The bridge to The Otherside

After dumping our stuff off we were keen to get going with some of this tubing malarkey. Back on the original side of the river, we walked through the main strip and saw the Chilean Girls (and their Mother), who were renting out kayaks for the day. We arranged to meet them later on the river, but never saw them again. Shame really, as I really thought we all shared something worth reconvening for. I won’t forget the sparkle in the eye of the eldest sister when I played the part of the affable fool. It’s been a long time since a girl gave me that look. A certain shared look, the odd glance, a reminder of true meaning in a region full of fake local salesmen with smiles and promises at a cost. Being from Southern Chile, they may even have a word for it; Mamihlapinatapai – “Two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do” (Urbandictionary.com). In England it’s known simply as keeping your head down and suppressing all feelings deep within.

But anyways back to the job at hand. Once we’d picked up our rubber tyres (commonly know in the West as ‘donuts’), we got ourselves on the next truck that was heading up the river to the starting point. Without delay, we grabbed a few beers and took to the stream in tubes that at one stage in their life cycle were inner lining of a tractor wheel. The first bar we jumped out at, or rather dragged into by one of the guys throwing ropes out for you to catch to be pulled in, had a selection of whiskeys in bottles with snakes and scorpions in. On the deck, we played table tennis and drank whiskey in the morning sun, while more and more people started pouring downstream. Afterwards, we got back in our tubes and drifted further down stream until we came to one with a trapeze and huge water slide (probably from the same former London council-run leisure centre as the Slush Puppie machines in Chiang Mai). This place really was the nuts and after a go on both, and a few more drinks, we set off on our way again. We were using this first day as a way of just getting a feel for the place and it was going well. It felt amazing being this pissed at 11am floating down the stream, beer in hand while Feel The Love, Generation played from one of the many surrounding bars. It’s a semi-shit song, but I think its release in 2005 was a much-needed one, as it was at a time when with all the terror and pessimism. This was of course, my drunken nostalgia kicking in but it felt good. Than disaster struck. Ben was calling up to me from downstream. He was out of his tube and walking towards the banks. He had lost his camera and with a helping hand from the locals was searching the water in the same way police search for dead bodies or criminal evidence. The search proved fruitless, and we were gutted. Although all the photos had been backed up on his computer the night before, it was the only waterproof camera we had. Well that was my selfish reason to be annoyed. Ben’s was perhaps worse as he had lost a very expensive camera.

After a good search, we had to concede defeat that it was gone, something neither of us took too kindly to. Oh well, it was lost now and without the tool that people rely upon to prove just how good a time they’re having on holiday gone from our possession, we could now concentrate on actually having a good time. No pressure to base our fun around getting pictures. After a few more whiskey shots, this more positive slant began to reign supreme amongst our thoughts. The local whiskey here, Whiskey Lao, is actually manufactured locally and by locally I mean in peoples bathtubs and sinks. I mean I’m sure it’s hygienic, but the problem is that consistency between brewers is rarely achieved and as a result alcohol levels fluctuate massively from shot to shot. You could be inadvertently necking 80% shots for fun before realizing you’ve shat your pants or worse, struggling for air on the bottom of the river bed.

Although we were having a great old time with some cool people, the River did not seem as packed as it had appeared on several photos and YouTube clips that I had been scrawling through on the internet at work over the past couple of months in anticipation. It was strange considering it was high season, and the town was overrun with backpackers. We had to be back by 6pm to drop the tubes off and collect our washing from a launderette before it closed so began our descent back down, stopping off for a joint and a drink at a Bob Marley themed venue with some Canadian girls. After this we jumped back in our tube, eager to make our deadline.

Although, we just simply had to make a visit to the Illution Bar, which appeared to be the last of the drinking dens before the long stretch back to town. The PA system, with the distortion on full effect, blaring out the incoherent promotions from the local owner gave the place some form of appeal. Plus, they had mushroom shakes. My only experience with mushrooms came a few years ago when me and a good mate sat atop an old Georgian town house just off Tottenham Court Road, watching planes coming into London’s City Airport, trying to analyze the motives of the people on board for taking that flight. The rooftop of a 6 storey building is no place to be experimenting with drugs, especially if making your debut with an infamous hallucinogenic. The Shroom Shakes were actually quite nice, and our party loving spirit was quickly noted by the owner who handed us the role of chief promoters, along with the microphone for the PA. We were heroes, bringing the crowds in. This is where I belonged, with the microphone to peoples hearts and minds. Making our 6pm curfew, time was not on our side, but the drugs were and that’s what came up trumps. For our hard work, we were rewarded with a joint to take downstream with us. So there we where, pleasantly stoned drifting down towards Vang Vieng, passing the smoke to and fro. Even in our state we had to be careful of river police. We had been warned of marijuana being handed out to tourists only for police turning up shortly after and detaining you until you coughed up $500. Similar to the warnings we received in Pakbang. This you could not haggle as they received almost as much for arresting you and getting a conviction.

Water and drugs are in my blood, even as we speak. They go hand-in-hand with each other. Right hand, water. Left hand, a perfectly rolled jigger. But the mushroom’s in my stomach are all new to me. I’ve several aqua-related experiences with other drugs.

I’ve heard that one of the big risks facing anybody on ecstasy, is drinking too much water, and effectively drowning themselves on the dance floor in Oceana (that’s the name of a club and a key date on the Peter Andre/David Hasselhoff/Pat Sharp tour – although the irony of drowning at Oceana was not lost on me). However, I have come close to drowning several times when high, and I am keen to explore the relationship between this self-inflicted artificial euphoria with H20. The first time I ever dropped a Gary Ablett was in the summer of 2006, Benicassim Music Festival. After scoring some with my dear friend who had discovered them a few months earlier at university, we paraded around the campsite meeting fellow campers as the sun set behind the mountains that sandwiched us against the sea. After exchanging our pleasantries with anybody and everybody, we gathered the rest of our group and headed down to the beach. It was our first night, and we’d only been there hours, but this was the best place on earth. The beach was littered with large groups, small groups and nomads all clustered around small fires and music systems (or the odd roving acoustic guitar player). We decided it was time for a swim and in minutes we had joined the dozen or so people in the Mediterranean, happily basking under the moonlight. It was a happy time, and we swore we could see Morocco.

“Well let’s go and find out” I said.

In retrospect, we both thought it and simultaneously decided the optimum outcome would only be achieved if we swam out to Morocco. Just in case you think this story ends with us washed up on the beaches of Morocco, it doesn’t. I just wanted to nip that in the bud, before you get your hopes raised. Besides, why would we go to Morocco when we had The Strokes doing their sound check about ½ mile inshore (it was the night before the festival and in my opinion the best). But we did swim out far. Really far. Far enough that we could no longer hear the music or the laughter on the beach. Just the two of us out at sea, with only the lights and campfires in the distance as our guide back. It was only when we started humming the jaws song that the attractiveness of our surroundings began to fade.

Fast forward a year and it is the night before the AC Milan vs Liverpool Champions League final 2007 and the city, Liverpool where I was studying, was buzzing. We had headed to a house party that was thrown by some friends of ours. Term had finished, and these were the last days of our second year of university. We decided the “night was still young” at 3am and we should “go to the 24 hour ASDA and pick up some more booze”. Clearly the night was still young. So young in fact, we needed to rely on ASDA and it’s anti-social opening times. After picking up booze, and the weed (which at 4am, for a student district, is harder to get than a Happy First Communion card or Frozen peas surprisingly) we all piled back to another friends house. Now really stoned, and with it offsetting the serotonin fueled buzz I had endured for the past few hours, I decided I needed to head upstairs. While pissing the remains of my night away, I stared dreamily at the bath. Dreaming of how nice it would be to get in. Now most dreams I have when asleep are just a jumble of images, where one minute I am speaking to somebody and then next, I’m speaking to the same person, but it’s somebody else. I’ve never dreamed of scoring at Wembley. I’ve fantasised about it of course. But dreamt about it? No. I’m positive Martin Luther King was being hypothetical when he made that famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in ‘63.

But this I could actually imagine doing, I was actually dreaming about having a bath.

Next thing I know, somebody is banging on the door waking me up instantly. I’m in the bath. Fully clothed. The water is pouring over the edges, the taps are running on full. Panicking, I open the door only to be greeted with “What the fuck is going on in here. The kitchen downstairs is completely flooded!” Yes, this is more like my dreams. The bathroom floor was submerged and the soapy water (I had even went as far as add bubble bath) was filtering through to downstairs, where there was now a gaping hole in the kitchen ceiling, with water gushing through it. I head down, and some of the other guests are standing, bemused as one of the housemates feebly attempts to catch the waterfall with a saucepan. Some cannot help but snigger, while pretending to look busy. “It’s not funny; the roof’s going to collapse”. Now when somebody says “it’s not funny” in these situations, it’s fair to say it most probably is. But this wasn’t funny, this was serious. Well for me anyways. We eventually stopped the flooding and cleared up the mess. Luckily all the other housemates were too whacked to get up and investigate what all the commotion was about.

The following day, the lads of the house invited me over for the Liverpool game. Yes, they invited me over. I was expecting to walk in and be given a kick ‘in, but it was cool. I spent half the time watching the game, the other half praying the Kitchen roof didn’t collapse under the damp rotting wooden floor boards.

Another year on, and after Man Utd beat Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League Final, me and a good friend again find ourselves at another house party. But this time struggling to find any magic dust, shamelessly resort to gobbling a whole pack of pro plus just “for a laugh”. After opening a bedroom door we discover a room full of prancing hippies out of their heads. I think this was the room of the housemate who was under strict instructions from the rest “now, when everybody arrives, it is imperative you and your friends stay in your room. You’re aloud a drink, but just remember, stay in your room”. We bought everything they had to sell. It was a great remainder of the evening. The next day was spent suffering the worst come down. Normally, you have the world of sleep to find solace in and live out your nightmare. The dozen or so Pro Plus made sure that didn’t happen. Maybe, Champions League finals have about as much of a positive relationship with reckless drug taking as does the presence of water.

After drifting for what seemed like hours (probably minutes) the charm of floating down a stream in a tube began to wear off and our satisfaction with novelty was being replaced by a mild, although good humoured paranoia, which led to “get us out of this” being the general view. As if by magic a little sign with the sacred words “Tuk Tuk this way” painted on it, came into view on one of the grassy banks. It pointed up towards the woods. Result! Next thing, we’re climbing this hill on our hands and knees (tubes around our necks), spurred on by the fact the alternative of tripping out in the middle of a river surrounded by nothing more than woodland and the odd shanty town. We get to the top and there is a smiling Laotian who has probably seen this scene a thousand times. We get in the back of his truck, while he puts our tubes on the top. Ben asks him if he “takes wet money?” but then stops. Given the guys niche market, its obvious that he “only knows wet money”. It was good to be riding back now, although we did feel somewhat like the village idiots being brought back after attempting to show off, but ending up requiring the help of the emergency services. It was a humbling experience, and I could somehow relate it to that guy who campaigned against the war but then was taken hostage and was only released after the British Forces rescued him and he had to make a grovelling statement of gratitude. I could have sworn he drove us around town several times, just so the public could get a good look at the two idiots in the back of his truck. His catch.

The ‘Shroom Shakes had taken hold now but it really kicked in as we crossed the little bridge back to Otherside. Halfway across the bridge split in two, one leading to our place, the other leading to another set of bungalows. It was this one we needed to head to as it had a launderette were we had left our clothes. It was hear the shakes really took hold, and all of I sudden I was propelled to the Brit Awards where me and Ben were going up to the stage to collect our award. I was taking long confident strides on the ramp (bridge) leading up towards the stage (launderette) while nodding in appreciation to all the smiling and cheering faces below (the rocks on the river bed) and saluting the guys who had won the Best International Group earlier in the evening (a group of Chinese lads coming the other way). I turned to Ben and hugged him. We had done it! Although shit, I hadn’t prepared a speech and there were far too many people to thank. Although, once up there was no silver statue, no James Corden or Chris Evans and no stage. Just a little Laotian with a plastic bag with my clothes in it. Just for effect, and irony, I attached it on a stick and hung it over my back like one of those tramps in cartoons. Had I had more time, I would have looked for a red pen to draw the red polka dots on it, just for maximum authenticity.

Looking back, I had all the time in the world, but for now we needed to go back to Otherside and start work on our ‘difficult second album’.

We got distracted by a little pill Ben found on his bed. What the hell was it? Were did it come from? It’s good that we were in such high spirits to find its mysterious presence hilarious. Had we not been as hyper, it could have set us off on a paranoid frenzy that we were being set up and nobody needs that. We quickly discarded it, had a shower and put a clean shirt on.

Really buzzing now, we crossed the bridge back over the river into town; I would love to remember some of our conversations as the only thing I can remember is us struggling to walk due to an infliction of rib aching laughter. Back on the main road, we heard a cheerful “Hey guys”. We spun round and saw Aussie Paul. Paul from the Mekong River trip. But than again we had met Kiwi Paul last night, so don’t get confused. Paul, from Australia, that will do. Better still, Aussie Paul. Anyways he’s called us over to his table for a drink. Why not? He was a sound guy and we had bonded with him over many subjects on the second day of the boat trip and so we gratefully headed over to him. We talked about a number of things, me and Ben really trying our best not to slip up and let on that we were comfortably on another planet in some galaxy far, far away.

At one stage, I was talking and half way through, totally forgot what I was talking about and then when I remembered, realized it was not relevant whatsoever to what he had asked of me. It was a shame really as he had liked us and now probably just saw us as a spin off to all the other head cases here which had often been the catalyst of his polemic on the boat. To be fair, he was probably in better position to judge our character now more than ever. It could have been a lot worse though, as I was only seconds away from asking him where he’d got his single dreadlocked ponytail from. But luckily came to my sense that this was the mushrooms vision of Aussie Paul and of course this bald guy did not have one dreadlock coming from the back of his head and over his left shoulder. But I tell you, I was close and that would certainly have been game over. On the boat trip he had wanted a photo with us and shook our hands and wished us all the best with great pleasure in his voice. Now as we departed, I wondered if he felt the same. To be honest, a meeting between a sober man and two lads on mushrooms could have gone a lot, lot worse.

After some food, we crossed another bridge to what appeared to be an island separated from the main river bank, connected only by a couple of bridges. We made friends with a few lads from Weymouth who were also on a mightily fine trip at Rock Bar were we listened to Red Hot Chili Peppers while also getting our first dose of fire throwing, something that would soon become as familiar, as well as tedious, as Pad Thai curry and Lady Boys. At one stage, Ben lost his flip flops and we spent ages searching for them (again, probably minutes, if not seconds) and after giving up, he looked down and they were exactly where he had left them, exactly where both of us had been looking. I know what your thinking, if this makes this bloke’s travel stories, he must have had one shit time. But the point of this little story is strange things turn up, as with the pill on Ben’s bed, when on such substances. We left the open air club and all headed to one of the many restaurants showing Friends, where we woke up on the comfy sofas, joint in hand, shortly after closing time.

On this day in 2011….Riding through the Laotian mountains to Vang Vieng

09/01/2011

9780099437338Up nice and early in time for our ride to Vang Vieng, the home of tubing and reckless river-based partying. Could easily have stayed and explored this mysterious little town but hedonism awaited. We had breakfast with a couple of Swiss girls, served by a waiter who looked vaguely familiar.

“That’s the guy who we spoke to yesterday” one us pointed out, in reference to the Waiter.

“They all look the fookin’ same to me” the other replied, again in our best Northern accent.

Picked up by the minibus driver at the Hotel, we were on our way to the infamous party river by mid morning. I finished The Damage Done while Ben began Dead Babies. He then got chatting to two cute Chilean girls who he sat next to at the back. They wanted to know what he was reading, so he told them in his best Spanish.

“Dead Babies? Right, what’s it about you sick fuck, get away from me!” I guessed were their thoughts.

They were good value, nice pair of sisters, and at one stage I was quite confident we may be able to crack on with them at some stage. With this thought my spirits were lifted as we drove through the lush mountains of Laos. Although it might just be the high altitude and lack of air to my head making me feel this giddy. Nobody’s ever miserable when they’re that high up. It’s not the view, it’s the oxygen deficit. I was really falling for this country and was getting the first signs that I was soon to be able to join the annoying boys and girls (girls especially) who you always find discussing travel experiences with vague phrases such as “Oh, I Love Laos” with particular emphasis on the o’s and h’s.

We arrived in Vang Vieng just after nightfall and the party was in full swing. Well, by party I mean a load of Aussies with their shirts off covered in body paint urging anybody in earshot to “get fucked up, cunt(s)” while traipsing from one backpackers hang-out to another. And that was just the girls. Along with the Chilean Girls (and their Mother) we went and found a hostel. We found one with a downstairs that housed one of the famous Family Guy bars, in which they played back to back episodes to the stoner faced masses.

Me and Ben went out to explore the town and after finding the only bar which was not a breeding ground for mindless Australians, we opted for one that was showing Manchester Utd Vs Liverpool and watched it with a Kiwi called Paul. Kiwi Paul. He was staying in some riverside huts across on the other side. He was paying half the price we were at our place and had a whole bungalow to himself! After the game he would take us to have a look.

During the game I noticed the group in front thrashing their hands needlessly at the screen. I didn’t think the ref was having that bad a game.

“What’s their problem?” I asked Kiwi Paul.

Turns out the four travellers were using sign language to communicate. Paul would often take his eyes off the game to communicate with them. He had been working at a deaf school in Singapore for the last year and knew the language well. Impressive stuff. But what was even more impressive was the fact that these deaf guys had all come travelling by themselves and through blogs and forums had all arranged to meet at various stages of the Banana Pancake Trail. Me and Ben had only managed to get here from Bangkok by talking English very loudly and slowly in the ears of a confused and often scared South-East Asian. I had to take my hat off to them. It was far more impressive than Steven Gerrard’s long ball or Wayne Rooney’s shot from just inside the box. You’ll hardly see pages and pages dedicated to these guys and their achievements in the daily newspapers. Not to sound patronizing but I really believe this is what people should be looking up to, not some bloke on silly wages kicking a ball about for 90 minutes a week. Although after a while it did get on my nerves and they were now having a full-blown conversation in front of the screen and I almost missed Ryan Giggs take on two players.

After the match, we headed across the river via a bridge consisting of just a few planks of wood to the conveniently named Otherside Bungalows. It was perfect.

 

On this day in 2011….Boat trip to Luang Prabang #Otdi2011

08/01/2011 – Boat Trip to Luang Prabang

We got up, took a few photos with the cute little baby from the hostel we were staying at, ate breakfast and then headed off down the hill to the boat pier on the river. Feeling rather tender from yesterday’s all day session we opted for the quieter looking boat, although the Brutish Aussies (all now donned in their teams football strip) looked just as bad as they pulled out on one of the other boats just as we were leaving.

Boat 2

“Look, its Dave Rowntree” Ben said nodding to some guy who’d just got on our boat.

I missed his face but could see he had short ginger hair, which was perhaps the only reasonable requirement for a lookalike, especially a ginger one. I didn’t have to wait long to see his face, as he stopped, took a deep breath, turned around and looked down at the two beaming faces turned up towards him, now trying very hard to conceal their laughter.

“The Drummer from Blur, right? Yeah, I hear it all the time” he said, taking it with good humour despite not really having a choice.

I had to explain to Ben that you always have to be discreet with lookalikes as that person has probably heard it a million times. This advice sailed out of the boat window and into the Mekong River as Ben then queried if one of the Laotian deckhands was in fact a Peruvian. Just as Dave Rowntree did, the guy stopped what he was doing and glared at us, although surely he didn’t understand that, surely? We sat with Aussie Paul for a while, before landing in Luang Prabang. A lovely gem of a town, we were escorted to a hotel near the river, everybody going separate ways again.

The Hotel we found, again via riverbank escort, was very nice and had I come with a missus, as opposed to Ben, I’m sure I’d have been more grateful for the swan shaped towels on our beds. Out in the kitchen I saw an old fridge magnet that read, “Nestle sponsors the SEA GAMES 2009 – VIENTIANE”. How the fuck does the capital city of a landlocked country host the sea games?

We went out after a few beers in search of some good food, and what we found exceeded our expectations tenfold. The town was very pretty with pastel coloured town houses and cream coloured holiday villas it “could’ve easily been Southern France or somewhere” we both agreed. This lead us to make the observation that the very nice parts of South East Asia are bound by how much they resemble the West and so why do we bother?

After walking along a tributary of the Mekong River we found an old wooden bridge that crossed over to a much darker wood. We crossed it, not knowing what to expect on the other side with the wood creaking below us and the water gushing below. The series of colourful lights in the trees on the approaching hillside were our guide, our northern star if you like. In the dark we found the hillside path and began to climb, flanked by hanging lanterns dangling from the trees. Our curiosity was rewarded with an amazing restaurant, constructed out of several little huts. Shower fresh and gagging for some peace and good food, we easily settled for this. We sat in our hut with its Turkish pillows and hot coals and ordered the Laos Fondue which comprised thinly cut strips of fine beef alongside chicken rice and vegetables. This place was perfect; there were even proper holidaymakers here. Sons with their Mums and Dads, that kind of thing. It was a really peaceful evening, and after a few beers we crossed back to backpacking world and hit another Hives Bar, a franchise of the place we went to in Pakbang.

On this day in 2011….Riding on the Mekong River to Huay Xai #Otdi2011

07/01/2011 – Riding on the Mekong River to Huay Xai

Today we caught another bus to the river at Chiang Khong, catching a boat over the short river crossing to Huay Xai in Laos. Once in Laos we went to find some alcohol for the 2-day boat trip in the little riverside town. Ernie came with us but got lost, the middle aged Aussie bought some fruit and the Israeli-Russian vanished into the bustling crowds never to be seen again. We had also made some new friends, Jack and Will from Australia. They were young lads who had been travelling the world for the last 10 months and were finishing up here. We bought some Samsung whiskey and coke alongside some Beer Lao (I was also awarded a Beer Lao polo shirt by the shopkeeper for my efforts in securing enough booze for the trip). We were set; Rob, Ben, Jack and Will. Good old Commonwealth names. Almost like a school math’s exam question; “If Jack has four apples, and Ben takes two, how many apples are left for Will?” Of course, nowadays it would be “Sandra has four apples, and Henry takes two, how many are left for Ishmal?” I hated maths at school, so did not care, Will and Ishmal could solve their own food shortage problems out. I remember in A-level law we’d be presented with similar questions but with the names of characters from The Simpsons. For example, “Ned, after years of physical abuse from Homer, shoots Homer and his son, Bart, six times after their both start using verbal threatening behaviour towards him and his family……” and at the end of the scenario we would have to analyze it to devise a defence plan for Ned, based on what we know from the case study. If I had not revised the particular topic I would just continue the story. Story telling was more my thing.

The four of us had found our spot on the boat. Four seats at the back of the sheltered seating area. Good times, good enough I thought to warrant asking somebody to take a photo of the four of us. “Sure” said an enthusiastic girl “Say cheese”. I hadn’t heard that expressions since 1998. She followed up with “I’ll take one for luck”. I hadn’t heard that one since 2003. But that was explainable as with the introduction of digital cameras you could now see the photo seconds after it had been taken and make an informed decision whether another one is needed “for luck”. This is one phrase that has probably gone forever along with “would you like a table with non-smoking or smoking, Sir”.

Boat Tour

After a while, we received a call up to the front of the boat by a team of Aussie Rules players, who were travelling around in a 15 man pack. We would be honorary members of the team. Jack and Will were clearly moved by this, although me and Ben maybe less so. Nonetheless it was fun, being at the top of boat, with the sun shining down, the loud music playing and the drink flowing. We arrived at Pakbang in the evening, our second stopover, and were greeted on the bank by the hotel workers vying for our business. In the drunken haze of daytime drinking we lost all the other guys and ended up being led up the grassy verges by a small girl who promised us “good cheap room for you”. It was quite a sketchy memory but I remember seeing everybody else doing and hearing the same thing, like zombies being taken by the hand and guided to where they would rest for the night. We were taken to a two storey wooden building that sat up on the only main road the riverside settlement and received a warm welcome from the elderly Thai owner and her young attractive daughter, along with a few backpackers we had met on the boat earlier who too had been caught in their web. Although the woman and daughter were the same height, they seemed to be of different scale; like an Action Man doll propped up next to a Garden Gnome. Nonetheless she had a twin for us (a room that is, not a daughter).

Once settled down in our wooden room, we heard a knock on the creaking door. It was the little girl who worked downstairs, but now pressing us to buy some weed. She had opium too, which I was quite keen to give a go, even though she seemed less keen about me trying it. “Good weed, good weed for you” was the party line. We declined as we had been warned by our captain that locals will sell the drugs to tourists just before alerting the police, splitting the huge bribe that the tourist would happily pay up to avoid spending the rest of their days in a Laotian prison. The perfectly square cube of “good weed” was also suspiciously packed in an air sealed plastic bag, like a free toy in a box of cereal. Reading the story of Warren Fellows on the boat earlier, I knew it was not worth the risk in any shape or form.

Another knock on the door came, but this time it was the friendly faces that we had met on the boat and seen downstairs. They wanted to see if we fancied going for a joint.

We went for dinner with the middle aged Aussie guy we first met on the truck from Chiang Mai. He was Paul. Aussie Paul. After a day of drunken rowdiness it was nice to have a proper and worthwhile conversation. On the next table was Ernie and a load of other like minded souls. They looked like the cast of the reality TV show Survivor. After a few more beers we joined the cast of Survivor and headed to a club called Hives Bar for more mayhem with our Brutish Aussie friends from the boat, all there in top gear. There was probably more restaurants and bars in this riverside town then actual local people – a scene that relies totally on the passing stopover brigade.

Although the highlight of the night was undoubtedly a jealous boyfriend decking a guy who was cracking on with his girlfriend, it’s always a bad sign of a night out when the highlight is a punch up. It’s a bit like the highlight being the kebab afterwards or the cab journey there. But to be honest, it was quite a good night. I think it’s just that I haven’t seen a pub fight this side of 2008.

On this day in 2011….Head to Chiang Rai for Laos #Otdi2011

06/01/2011 – Heading to Chiang Rai for boat to Laos

scooterWoke up and decided on a good stiff English breakfast at a small Irish bar. I missed a good night by the sounds of things. Ben had got up, and with a load of others from Little Bird went to some lively part of town for some Reggae. Trust me to accidentally end up in the red light district. We sat and watched England claim the Ashes over the Aussies with our breakfast and fresh orange juice. Most of the menus in the restaurants here have little stickers covering the original price, with the new price written over it. Evidence of the recent inflation over the years due to recent transformation to a prime backpackers destination. I used to wonder how Chomp bars and Space Invaders could maintain their cover price of 10p for so long, defying the annual rate of inflation. I never did a dissertation at University as part of my economics degree, but had I done, this would be my topic of interest. I’m sure I could stretch my investigation to 10,000 words. My conclusion: By mass-producing the wrappers with the 10p value on it, the confectionary company is able to significantly cut its costs through economies of scale. Considering all factors remain the same (i.e. demand), this saving per wrapper, only needs to exceed the additional annual costs incurred through inflation. Hence, if they face a 2% increase in costs (electricity, rent of factory etc), they only need to ensure the savings from mass productions outweigh this. Also, everybody knows them as being the 10p snack and so any price rise will cut their USP, affecting demand. I believe they’re now 15p. That’s a 50% increase.

This area has clearly experienced a classic case of demand-pull inflation, as more holidaymakers have entered the region, demand has been greater for local produce and in turn this has forced the price upwards. Holidaymakers. I don’t think I’ve ever been a “Holidaymaker”. I’ve been on holidays with Holiday-Makers (my Mum and Dad) on all-inclusive holiday packages to the Canaries and the Mediterranean, but I can’t really say any of my Ryanair flights to Eastern Europe, joining the hordes of teenagers to the Greek party islands, bumming around the United States or my annual jaunts to some Europe’s music festivals justifies my existence as a holiday maker in the conventional sense. I don’t really get the term if I’m to be honest, but I guess honeymooners and families’ spring to mind. The ones unlike money savvy backpackers so common here, don’t care for challenging the first price listed by your average Thai market vender. This insensitivity towards price has no doubt had a bearing the rapid increase of prices here.

One skill that I was going to have to hone over the next 4 months was the art of haggling and bartering. It’s not something I like doing, haggling with people in borderline poverty over a couple of pence on a pair of sandals or a jungle trek just doesn’t sit comfortably with me. If I don’t do it with the ticket controller at Kingsbury tube station over the extortionate price of my Oyster card, why would I do it here in Asia? My feelings about this probably stem from Human Punk by John King whereby the protagonist recounts the first wave of backpackers to Asia in the late 1980’s that he comes across during his time working in a bar in Hong Kong.

Not only is it in my interest to learn this art, but in the interests of future travellers to these parts, as well as the locals. For it is vital in maintaining sustainable pricing and costs of living for both visitors and citizens. It’s all well and good being prepared to purchase goods at a higher price than the market value due to your higher purchasing power, but the knock on effects can be severely detrimental – and I’m not just talking about stickers on menu prices either.

As soon as too many people show they are willing and able to buy a product above the floor price that the seller is willing and able to sell at, over time this new price becomes the minimum a seller will sell at, hence setting a new floor price. The increase in prices, and increased profit as a result, now makes the plot of his market space that bit more lucrative as more streets sellers now want to enter the market to take advantage of the abnormal profits. So now, with demand for market spaces vastly outweighing supply, the land owner will now increase the rent of the space. Sooner rather than later, the extra cost reduces the abnormal profits that were being made. In order to make normal profit, the streets seller must increase his prices furthermore to compensate for the increase in land costs. Whereas the extra demand from an increase of tourists results in demand pull inflation, this here is an example of cost push. This pattern is replicated in the market as a whole, as cost of living for all continues to increase.

As a result, not only is it more expensive for travellers, but also, for the locals. Many of which would not have seen their incomes increase in line with increase in cost of living, unless of course they worked in the tourism industry. One solution, is for ethical businesses in these poorer countries to operate a two-tier pricing strategy, whereby the higher costs are passed onto “foreigners” through affordable, yet slightly higher prices, allowing “locals” to benefit from lower prices. However with profit potential, the opportunity cost of serving a “local” can become high, as businesses realise they could sell the same produce to a “foreigner” and benefit a greater profit margin. Again, the locals with lower purchasing power are priced out of the market.

Haggling on price is a way to maintain sustainable wages and costs. But haggle down to what you see as fair, as in doing so you will artificially enforce a reasonable two-tier pricing strategy. Also, tipping for good service helps too.

Although of course nobody wants to go on holiday with moneysavingexpert.com Martin Lewis. But in fact, I’ve noticed in post-credit crunch Britain, it appears quite trendy to have budget constraints. Most of the senior guys I know from working in the City, make quite a show of their new austerity measures from downsizing from Parsons Green to Shepherds Bush to Pret tuna and sweet corn baguettes to home made sandwiches. Believe it or not, this still a show of vanity, as by indicating how bad they are in the bad times, they are also subtly insinuating how good they were doing in the good times. The fact they were doing so well then, when their wages were aligned to the boom, indicates how pivotal they were as wealth creators. And how well they’ll do once again when the economy returns to strength. I bet these guys get a kick out of thinking people compare them to large investment banks – “just like Lehman’s, that guy thought he was too big to fail”. I’m pretty sure they’re no less well-off now then they were 5 years ago. It’s these same people who tell you over coffee on a Monday morning “man, I had a great weekend, although my bank manager won’t be too happy”. As if the manager of the Natwest branch in Epping is really going to notice the extravagant cash withdrawals made by a bloke who probably doesn’t earn a great deal more than the national average.

Right, enough of the lecturing, back to my self absorbed travel stories.

damage doneAfter brekkie, we headed to a book shop where I bought Damage Done which has long been part of the staple diet of backpackers to Asia. It tells the story of “12 years of hell in a Bangkok Prison” that Warren Fellows experienced after being caught trying to smuggle heroin out of Thailand in 1978. I had been eager to get my hands on it ever since being told about it at a family BBQ last summer by my cousin Jonathan who travelled out here about 10 years ago. Ben went for Dead Babies by Martin Amis, despite my efforts to try and persuade him to go for Amis’ other classic London Fields. The books here were extremely costly in relation to other daily expenses. One book costs the same as two nights in our hostel and a full English breakfast. At first I put it down to the high costs of importing them, but to be honest most are photocopied and manufactured here. Perhaps it’s because the locals can see how much we’re used to paying back home from looking at the cover price and adjust their prices accordingly. What’s also funny is that although the front and back covers are photocopied from the originals, there are often spelling mistakes within them. Maybe this is done intentionally in an effort to show that they are not photocopies and that they have just made one futile spelling mistake in publishing the book. But then surely that would lead to one questioning the likelihood of spelling mistakes in the book itself. I remember when I bought Scary Movie 2 off a street seller in Harrow town centre, the cover was the exact same as the original but on the back it had reviews from The Sun and Empire saying “The film feels musty and bogged down” and “Just the same old bad jokes from the first one recycled”. So whoever makes these front covers surely isn’t just photocopying from an original, as distributors would make sure these negative reviews aren’t present. They obviously aren’t worried about copyright infringement, so why not just photocopy an original?

templeWe dossed around on a moped inspecting the fine array of temples Chiang Mai has to offer during the day, while waiting for our pickup at 7pm to take us to Chiang Rai, where we would be spending a night before heading to the border of Laos in the morning. After each and every temple, careful to stay just long enough in each one to avoid insulting the monks by leaving too early, we would normally exchange some sort of intentional philistine remark in our best Lancashire accents such “load of old shite if you ask me” or “they all look the fookin’ same to me”. Of course such statements need to be carried out in a Northern dialect, as I think generally that’s the most appropriate one to convey a narrow minded approach to foreign culture. Of course in real life this is an unfair stereotype, but it just works better. It may also work with a cockney accent. Again, an unfair stereotype, but that’s life. That’s the TV age of The Royal Family and the legacy of Bernard Manning for you. I must say car parks for temples make for excellent places to hone your moped driving skills.

Come 7pm, we board the Chiang Rai-bound bus alongside a middle aged Aussie Man and an Israeli-Russian lad who had lived in Hendon Central selling toy planes and knew of the Claddagh Ring, another popular drinking hole in North-West London. He was now living in Bangkok running his own “business” and was making a trip to Laos to make a “special pick up” and laughed at the idea of tubing with his claims to be “too old and mature for that”. I fervently disagreed as he certainly wasn’t too old (probably not too much older than me), but more so as the comment surely must’ve conflicted with the ambitions of the middle aged Aussie Man , who was obviously hungry for some tubing. We drove around Chiang Mai for what seemed like ages and passed the same bridge over the city moat several times before we found our last passenger at a private house outside the city. Really nice posh area, looked like it could have been taken straight from Radlett in Hertfordshire, England. Here we picked up Ernie.

Ernie, from San Francisco, was a typical west coast modern guy, slightly camp but had a girlfriend back home, with ripped jeans and ring on his thumb which people only buy when they’ve been waiting in the queue in Topman. The ultimate pulse purchase alongside miniature badges and wristbands, the retail equivalent of Cadbury crème eggs. He was very friendly and made no delay in cracking open his bottle of wine with his pen knife, spraying the Aussie Man with the red stuff, who was now made even more uncomfortable following the ageist comment of the Israeli-Russian bloke earlier. We drove back to Chiang Mai as the driver needed some papers. It was only a short drive back, but Ernie had extracted enough information from all of us; He knew where and what I had studied and where I was from. He knew the destination the Israeli-Russian guy was taking. He was particularly interested in him and dates of his trip. I thought he was just being really friendly. We stopped at a travel agent where our truck driver said he would collect our details for tomorrow’s border control and while Ernie was inside giving his, the Israeli-Russian took us aside and warned us that Ernie was in fact undercover DEA. His suspicion had arisen from the fact he could not understand why somebody could have so many questions. At this moment, Ernie popped his head around the corner and asked the Israeli-Russian guy “your passport please….for security of course, they need it”. It couldn’t have been timed any better. The Israeli-Russian guy was getting very paranoid. We continued our drive and finally made it out of Chiang Mai and to a little service station out of town. Here we swapped over into mini buses and headed to our stopover in Chiang Rai.

hemanWe arrived in Chiang Rai around midnight and were allocated our rooms in this motel that most probably survived purely on the custom of those making this bordercross. Me and Ben obviously shared, but you should have seen the look on the Israeli-Russian guys face when Ernie suggested they share. The room was very bare except for he flamboyant bed sheets. Ever wondered what happened to your bed sheets with your favourite 1980’s cartoon characters on them? Well, I’ll tell you. They’re here, in a little crumbling budget motel in the middle of rural Northern Thailand. Before having a good laugh at what must be going through the Israeli-Russian guy’s head, we hit the hay and passed out instantly.

On this day in 2011….Jungle Trek day 2

05/01/2011 – Jungle Trek Day 2
DSCF1701After breakfast and the obligatory group photo with the locals, we started off on our hike to the Elephant reserve some 4-5 miles away on the other side of the mountain. It was a long old hike up through the hills, and the intensity was different from the last day. Hardly anybody spoke, we were far too concentrated on getting to the top and over to our destination, the Elephant Reserve. After a while we had all unwittingly synchronized our walking steps. We were all now walking as one. I used to have a theory as to why older couples begin to look like each other. When they’ve been together that long, they have laughed together, they have cried together and felt the strain together on so many occasions throughout life that their faces go through the same strains of emotion and begin to age in the same way as a direct result. The parents of Milhouse from The Simpsons are living proof of this.

walking

The dogs from the village had been following us for a good couple of miles, flanking us on each side making us feel like Roman soldiers on the look out for the enemy, using Man’s best friend to detect their presence. At least everybody in the group had to stop once on the way up. Me and Ben who were at the back to begin with, were at the front by the time we reached the elephants.

“I suppose its like Mario Kart. When you’re last in the race you get all the luck such as lightening, triple red shells and consequently you normally end up winning” Ben reasoned. And it was exactly like that.

Mario On KartIt’s this understanding of each other’s observations which served as the first sign of the level of fun we’re going to have travelling together for the next 6 weeks. This kind of mutual understanding and perception of the world has taken many years to tune. Now, I didn’t know Ben prior to University, we grew up in parallel worlds, me in North-West of London, him the North-East, but nonetheless we had developed a remarkably similar outlook on life. Well apart from the possibility that we perhaps met at a Merlin Premier League sticker swapshop and traded observations and social commentary, I don’t think we had any interaction in youth. Although, in the first semester of University, Ben revealed a copy of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace that he bought off the eBay the summer before. It was roundabout the time that my school friend Tom was building his piracy empire, with Darkplace being his biggest export, to fund our post A-level holiday and keep him in a summer of BBQ’s and beer gardens. There was a very good chance that Ben had been one of his customers. I do take great pride in reminding the pair of them, two big fans of the show, that it was this black market that they both created, the buyer and the seller, which perhaps denied a second series from being commissioned, as their love of the show was not accounted for, either in sales of box sets or the viewing of the original public airing.

We both went to school with the boy who boasted of having 10 computers and can remember being born. The old lady who waltzes with the 5-year old girl at a wedding. The bloke in the pub who starts a sentence with “I’m not being racist, but….” The soft touch Scout Leader with “I know boys will be boys”. The boy who wore Astroturf trainers to the disco and the girl who danced the Tutti Frutti. I think these people, I’m sure you’ve all met them at some stage in your life, have given me and Ben free reign to accurately stereotype who and whenever we like.

Ben’s Admission;

“Also, an example of reading from the same hymn sheet could be how we both independently incorporated ‘Jonathan’ into our parlance as a humorous name to supplant other words, and as a haphazard colloquialism to drop in various situations i.e “I am the Jonathan of the night”. We both came to University separately with this in our lexicon.

It’s convergent evolution: like how the octopus and humans, two animals with very different ancestral lineages, conditioned by similar stimuli, have independently developed a remarkably similar eye.”

As well as the Mario Kart reference, and his joint prediction that Nick Bennet came from a town centralised around a large retail park, we were both on song when discussing the whereabouts of all the Slush Puppy machines that used to occupy the canteen area of Leisure Centres across Britain. We both had sneaky feeling they’d probably ended up around here in this pocket of the world.

Ben and ElephantAfter more hiking, we finally came to a road and crossed it to get to the elephants. The Aristocratic Couple were the first to get on their elephant. I’d decided the boyfriend, the baddie from a Hugh Grant film, was pretty sound after chatting to him last night around the campfire. After all, how could he be a Hugh Grant baddie? If he had been, the elephant would have surely detected this and threw him off into the mud or at least hosed him down with dirty water. They always do to the bad guys.

Me and Ben boarded ours, who took us through his well beaten path into more jungle. Their clear lack of enthusiasm prompted Ben to remark “The elephants remind me more of a 16-year old working at Cineworld on a Saturday morning than an exotic animal in his natural habitat”. We got bored of the whole experience unsurprisingly quickly and began our usual discussions. We had been a bit miffed at the absence of Bainos on this trip so far. Bainos? You’re confused, so let me explain.Elephant

A Baino is the name me and Ben give to a type of character, aged 18-28, normally from the Home Counties though probably moved to one of London’s trendier areas post graduation, talks of the latest internet funny clips (at time of writing it was the chain smoking Indonesian toddler on Youtube), banal drinking achievements (“I downed 7 Jagerbombs, and about 6 pints of Snakebite”), the latest techno sensations (Deadmau5 or Kissy Sell Out were “AAAAMMMMAAAAZZZIIING last night”) yet still loves the classic (“Radiohead’s OK Computer is a flawless album”), overuses the word ‘legend’ and ‘literally’, has minor high-brow connections (“my mates Mum writes for The Observer”), gets tingles down his spine when walking across a crowded park with a crate of beers under one arm and a rugby ball under the other, probably played for his school team. They don’t possess the same vulgarity as the obvious pub lout and are slightly more sophisticated and cultured than the average spokesman for Booze Britain (“would love to go to Sri Lanka”) but nonetheless is still partial to the odd traffic cone theft on the way home from a night out. As usual, Ben’s sums it up in one condensed sentence; “somebody who systematically and mercilessly fulfils all of the target consumer stereotypes identified by the Nuts and Zoo magazine’s marketing team”. But than again, as Ricky Gervais said about David Brent; everybody knows one, and if you don’t, it’s probably you.

bamboo boatAfter lunch, we took a bamboo boat downstream. Nothing massively happened, we just did. Ben got on the first raft, I on the second with Benedict. It’s amazing to think how far the German’s have come in my list of favourite countrymen, even swapping places with Australia who were once my favourite but have now dropped to the bottom of my Top 10 list. Something I would have thought impossible back at the height of the anti-German days of Euro ’96 right through to Germany 1 -5 England. It’s even mildly surprising how far the Spaniards have come over the years, although I think it has a lot to do with the sportsmanship of Rafa Nadal and the strong unity of the national football team who were victorious at the last European Championships and World Cup. I’m sorry to say, but as for Australians, I’m not so sure. So far, in this small amount of time I’ve been in Asia, the only ones I’ve come across have been the mindless morons (known in Oz as ‘Bogans’) in their Chang Beer vests (known in Oz as ‘singlets’) forcing their loud anti-social drinking games on everybody else. Of course, the trip is still young and they have plenty of time for a comeback. And of course, I’m quite partial to a loud antisocial drinking game….

Then onto the white water rafting and me and Ben reunited to join two girls from Warrington to form a four-man boat (5 if you include the guide). They were the typical brace of girls you’d get on that reality Chanel 4 show Coach Trip, with their ‘game plans’ and Northern accents, but they were quite a good laugh to be honest. There was also a group of English school kids (school trip to Thailand = minted parents) who thought it was funny to splash us with their paddles, but soon realised this was not the case after Ben’s polite order to “fuck off you little dickheads”. To be fair to him, he didn’t know they spoke English as they were wearing big chunky safety helmets and also the water was unbelievably cold and not something you want splashed in your face when trying to guide your way through an assault course of sharp rocks at life threatening speeds.

We got back in the truck, which I’m sure has heard its fair share of over exaggerated rafting stories over the years, just like a coach driver who takes parties to and from a paintball centre. Before heading back, we dropped the moaning Czech guy off at a roadside so he could engage in a tougher trek. For an additional fee, he could travel with some of the village people back to Chiang Mai on foot. Basically they just charged him to help bring some documents they needed dropping off at the local Land Commission.

“So everybody, during the past couple of days, what moments would you say brought out your Karl Pilkington and which moments brought out your David Attenborough?” Ben asked the rest of the truck.

For me, my Pilkington moment came at the orchid farm – what was the bloody point! As for Attenborough, I would say playing the game ‘Black Face’. That was really getting into the native spirit, even if the punishment of having your face covered in charcoal was substituted to downing a shot of whiskey once Sunny had gone off to bed.

Got back to the Little Bird to find it over run with pissed up 19 year old Australians doing some drinking game that involves lots of shouting and swearing. This scene is the basis for the above reasons why they slipped down to the bottom of my Top 10. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good drinking game and know that it’s this sort of behaviour that gives a place the legendary status that I certainly will be looking for over the next four months. It’s probably just me being a bit grouchy having completed a trip to the other side of the world and a mountainous jungle trek within only a few days. I contemplate joining them, but they are too far gone and besides, as social as I am, when I haven’t had a drink, I feel like I’m one notch more sober than the average sober person. But for now, best ways be bed ways. Ben manages to knock off but I have trouble sleeping. It’s about 6.30pm and we were going to meet Nick and Benedict in town later for a few beers. I get up to head into town, as I’m aware the West Ham v Newcastle game should be on.

I find myself in some hideout run by some friendly English guys and my name is quickly added to the pool table. I’m accosted by a girl who can’t be any older than I was when I first smuggled my first alcoholic beverage up to my room for a cheeky drink. She’s working and it appears she’s my host for the night. A couple of games of pool later, I’m sure they’re letting me win, I down my whiskey and head out. I just fancy a few quiet drinks and head to another bar, hoping to bump into Nick or Benedict. It’s the same in every one; walk in, warm welcome, shown where to sit, girl comes over and sits with you. A group of English lads from Wolverhampton are getting quite the treatment so I give it a go myself, trying to persist with all the small talk coming from my little cute Thai Lady. I don’t like to reveal to much about what goes on here due to fear of breaking some sort of code or lifting the lid on what your husband really gets up to when he comes here, but I do consider myself somewhere between the Honeymooners and Sex Tourists and so like to think of myself as the middle man. Problem is, I can’t even maintain a conversation with a prostitute and how fucking bad is that for one man’s self esteem. I tell myself it’s just dislike for small talk and make an escape to the toilet where I find a spider the size of my hand. There is no way, I’ll ever enjoy this sort of thing and right there and then my curiosity goes out the window (along with my used toilet roll that your not allowed to flush down the loo) and shamelessly sneak outside just in time to see some bloke pick up one of the obvious Lady Boys on his scooter, who had offered me a blowjob earlier on in night.

Better go and find Ben. The hostel is near empty and Ben is nowhere to be seen.

On this day in 2011…Jungle Trek day 1

04/01/2011 – Jungle Trek Day 1
In the truckAfter a light breakfast, we were picked up for our Jungle trek outside the hostel by jeep around 9am. Being the first ones, we spent the next 10 minutes being driven around town to the other local hostels in search of the rest of the party. At a set of traffic lights, I noticed a building opposite midway through construction, with Bamboo used for scaffolding. I was going to take a picture as it reminded me of something from the Um Bongo fruit drink adverts but then I was instantly shamed by my ignorance. Why take a picture? Did I find it funny that poor people in the development world still had to use natural resources for construction? Although this gave way to a good discussion about what constitutes a developing country. Ben thinks the use of Microsoft WordArt on advertising literature is a good indicator of where a country sits. You see it everywhere, from adverts for mini cabs to adverts for various excursions throughout Chiang Mai. It’s almost like when you learn Word Art half way through a Design and Technology coursework project and you’re determined to use as many fonts, colours, shadow, bold and italics as possible. Hence, as soon as a country welcomes Word Art into their economy, they can begin to call themselves developing. Once the novelty wears off, they are developed.

DSCF1656After picking up the last few guys, we’re off. Well, we have to make a detour to a butterfly and flower orchid on the way to the jungle. Few flowers, even fewer butterflies and a whole lot of bored and anxious faces. After this, we headed to the outskirts of town and into the Jungle with the rest of our fellow travellers.

Firstly, we met Benedict, a financial consultant from Dusseldorf. A real nice guy who seemed to understand British sarcasm and wit, confirming the Germans as my new favourite race of foreigner. Especially after my trip to Berlin and Melt Festival in 2009, I find it hard to dislike Germans. I admire their way of thought, and their pragmatic approach to potentially awkward situations. Me and Benedict talked about the recent student riots, but he was even more amazed to hear about the legendary David Beckham degree that has been offered at some Universities. His sympathy for those affected by the education cuts was significantly reduced after I confirmed this. Next we had up was an Irish teacher who was perhaps in her mid/late 30’s, a seasoned traveller yet confessed her “rave days were over” when recalling a recent trip to Barcelona. She was really quite cool, kind of like one of the cast of the popular Chanel 4 show Teachers. I was quite surprised she had not seen the show. She was with Ryan, a Canadian English teacher who had drifted around the world after leaving Canada in October 1992. Then there was the 20-something English couple, who felt like they were running a modern day Pride and Prejudice type relationship; an aristocratic arranged marriage, in which the Duke of Windsor had paired his son up with the pretty daughter of a wealthy yet common land owner. The boy looked like he could have easily fitted into a Hugh Grant film playing the snobbish antagonist. Maybe he was just really good looking and rather smug about the whole thing. Unlike the rest of us, they had come from the east and were heading west and then south back to Bangkok.

DSCF1661

Then there was Nick Bennet. I knew I had seen him or his type somewhere before. He looked like he came from a town with a DFS or Carpetright. Turns out he did, hailing all the way from West Thurrock. But there was something else. That’s it; He was the sort of bloke who would be interviewed by Sky Sports after England’s dismal performance at a World Cup or European Championship. Turned out I had it down to a tee. He had been interviewed at Table Top Mountain at last year’s World Cup after England’s humiliating performance in the group stages. I had never seen the interview nor had I ever met somebody from West Thurrock, but I just used the power of instant judgment. People who say you can’t judge a book by a cover, really need stop being so pig ignorant.

DSCF1670After lunch on the mountainside, we left the truck and began our trek with our friendly guide Sunny, who lived in the village we would be travelling to and spending the night. After walking through the hills and forest for about an hour we came to a quiet dirt-beaten road where me and Ben, having fallen behind, got chased by these stick wielding children. Once at a safe distance and nearer the rest of the group, I got a photo of them. There are probably more photos of them on Facebook then you or I. While taking these photos, I had to stop and think “who in the world is really going to be interested in these photos?” I wouldn’t be, if they weren’t mine. I’m much more of an action photo man to be honest, and think there are few better indicators of a man’s plastic existence when all his Facebook photos are of him with a pre-planned pose. If you’re going to get a picture of nice scenery, at least get somebody in it, preferably yourself. Otherwise, it might as well be a postcard. Keep it on the automatic setting, no good photo will ever come about from deviating way from this setting as it is designed to be the best one to suit the current shooting conditions. Also, make sure you get somebody to take it, taking it yourself with your outstretched arm is just going to end up with half your fore arm in the photo with your head in the top corner of the photo with the background out of focus. Plus it looks like you’ve got no mates. Finally, if you are getting action photos, ensure that there are no other camera’s in shot as it will look like all you did was go out to get pictures of each other. I knew you’d learn something from this tour diary.

DSCF1667But to be honest, it did still feel like we were the only ones trekking this mountain region. We had got left behind from our group whilst putting sun tan lotion on. Sun lotion must be the most archaic and impractical necessity still in production not to have been graced by the technological boom. It’s hard to put on (especially the shoulders), its nasty to put on (gets on your clothes and makes you feel clammy) and it’s so expensive for what it is (nearly as much as luxury aftershave). Surely, after they first landed on the moon, the next thing to do was design a pill that you swallow which protects you for a sound length of time from the burning sun. Surely, what with all this global warming, that should be on somebody’s list of things to do. I would look into inventing this myself, but I just can’t be bothered. As more little kids with sticks appeared on the horizon, we rapidly caught up with the rest of the group.

P1040924We passed a village where the locals were all playing native games. A couple looked quite fun actually. One in fact looked a lot like bowls while another involved spinning a piece of sharpened wood with a string like the ones our ancestors would have played with, while your opponents try to knock it over by throwing rocks at it. The longest running one wins. I wanted to bring some of these back with me, but know the only way to get my mates interested in this sport would be to incorporate it into some sort of drinking game. After activities, such as football or sailing, we were all quite accustomed to suggesting “yeah good laugh today, but next time we should bring a load of beers down with us”. The Anglo-Irish disease.

I noticed some of the kids had Chelsea shirts on. I didn’t want to see that. Not only as they’re Chelsea, but because of the impact it had on the sincerity of the village. I had even brought a pair of floral trousers that I picked up in Chiang Mai to fit in. Although is it supposed to be an exchange of culture? Like, I wear their clothing and they wear mine? Or should I wear my national dress so he can see the world without leaving this playing field? Should he feel obliged to wear his national dress to justify me coming here? People bang on about the best cities in the world for their “multiculturalism”, but if I travel all the way to one I want to see local lifestyle’s, not a global one.

We continued on. A Czech guy who we had been travelling with us, had constantly moaned about the lack of challenge in the trek. At every stop he would take off another piece of clothing and announce that “this is just sun bathing for me”. He was a bit of a cock and everybody knew it. By the time we got to the top of the mountain we’d began to ascent after the village visit, he was in nothing but a pair of tight fitting Speedo’s. It brought to mind the old age question: Is Britain the only country where wearing Speedos carries a stigma? But Benedict also had a smile on his face at the sight, as did the Irish teacher.

DSCF1675Atop the summit, flanked by endless hilltops and woodland below, we walked a bit further before descending back into the jungle, where our destination was only a few hours away. Half way through, the group got separated in two parts. As Sunny’s group kept marching on, I stayed back with some of the others who were looking after Ryan, who had a bad leg. After it was clear we might get lost, there were few paths leading in different directions now, I decided to run ahead and tell the others to wait up. I was running for quite a bit when it dawned on me that there was no way we were this far apart, and so I headed back to find another path. I took another one which looked a lot less beaten. In the dirt I could see the trainer print of a Reebok Classic. Shit! Nobody in our group was wearing Reebok Classics. In fact nobody except Geography teachers on own-clothes-day wear Reebok Classics. I wasn’t even too sure I’d even gone this way and already I was starting to panic a bit as the thought of being stranded here overnight began to set in. I had gone round in circles and had no idea which way to go. Maybe if I had listened in Geography more, and not ridiculed the teacher for his fashion choices, I might have learnt how to find my way out of this mess. I couldn’t even remember which way I had come down. Which way to go? Everything looked the same. I headed down one path and came to a stream. I began to recall shortly after setting off on my own, that I’d had crossed a bridge over a river which due to a natural dam, had a large volume of water built up on one side. Reebok ClassicsSo, knowing I had only crossed the stream once I headed towards where the stream was widening. Hence, where the water had built up. Somebody in the know may say my theory based on the river flow was geographically incorrect. Well the jokes on them, I’m no longer stuck in a forest!

DSCF1683That night at the village, we ate and got merry with a big bonfire. We helped Sunny construct it while the Irish Teacher and Ryan had a cigarette break. Looking at them, Ben noticed how much they looked liked (or how he imagined) a cameraman and producer from “that show with Charlie Boorman and the other bloke”. He of course was dead right, spot on; they really did look like Production Crew from the Long Way Down or the Long Way Round. It was as good a made up lookalike as you can get. Also, I’m sure that’s the first time I’ve heard somebody use the name of Charlie Boorman over Ewan McGregor though in reference to the show.

DSCF1686We were introduced to Sunny’s children who no doubt wondered why every night Dad brought home a load of his pissed up mates. Sunny then introduced us to his favourite group game called ‘Black Face’. Bit hard to explain, but basically, everybody gets a number. Everybody claps and beats their knees while somebody calls out their own number followed by another person’s number. The person whose number is called out repeats the process. This goes on until somebody forgets their number or is too late to respond, in which they lose. As a punishment they must let the last successful person smear them with black soot from the fire. They are completely out when their face can be blackened no more. So, the loser ends up with a black face? Oh the stigma of it all. They must have ruled this game out in British Primary schools sometime ago.

Wooden Cabin

After putting out the fire and finishing the last of the whiskey, we all headed back to the communal wooden cabin to sleep.