Hitchhike to India leg 60: Trang to Phuket

Sunday 18 December

I sleep in.  This is because I’m still exhausted from yesterday’s hitch, and I know that if I surely can make the remaining 287 km to Phuket with relative ease.  But nothing ever comes that easy in the hitch world.  Or does it?

Last nights digs. I've stayed in worse.

Last nights digs. I’ve stayed in worse.

It’s 11 am and bright with sunshine as I hand my key over at the reception desk and bid them farewell.  It’s only a short walk to a road which will lead directly to my destination, and I have two signs made – both in English – one for Phuket and one for the closer town of Krabi.  I find a decent spot for cars to pull in and stick out my thumb.  This is going to be easy.

Waited here an age.

Waited here an age.

Except it isn’t.  There’s far too much local traffic, many vehicles are rammed with passengers and – worst of all – people keep stopping to offer to take me to the bus station.  Regular readers will understand this is one of my biggest pet peeves.  As much as I understand how kind and hospitable they’re trying to be, when you’re constantly politely declining ten to fifteen offers it gets grating – especially when it takes up time from actually getting a real ride.

Finally in the back of a truck.

Finally in the back of a truck.

And it isn’t only the road traffic that stops.  This is such a busy street and intersection, I’m getting a lot of unwanted attention from those bane-of-my-life scooters, who are all buzzing curiously around, barking suggestions and getting in the way of the vehicles I want.  With a forced perma-grin etched on my tiring face, I continually attempt to explain what I’m trying to do and that I don’t need a bus or a taxi – eventually struggling to maintain my courtesy and patience.  Nobody is doing anybody any favours.

This helped.

This helped.

About half an hour goes by (which is nothing in the grand hitch of things – but in places like Thailand it’s a lifetime), and so I opt to change my sign into Thai.  This is perhaps something I should have done already but I went for the benefit of the doubt.  Feeling like an artist at the Montmartre, several passers-by stop to peer over my shoulder at my handiwork.

This wasn't particularly nice to share the pickup with. No idea what it could have been.

This wasn’t particularly nice to share the pickup with. No idea what it could have been.

Thai roads are pretty damn decent.

Thai roads are pretty damn decent.

“Ahhhhh KRABI!” Someone exclaims when I’m nearly done copying the lettering from a signpost – as if they really had no idea that’s what my sign in English was alluding to.  This I find fascinating – but it works both ways – as I couldn’t even begin to guess what their beautiful (but squiggly) alphabet means just the same.  Gold and missing teeth are shown in a couple of grins around me and a clamour of chatter crescendos.  No sooner have I held up my new placard to a fresh torrent of traffic than one of those lovely pick-up trucks pulls over.

What I do when I overtake someone who should have picked me up. (They were far enough away to not cause offence...)

What I do when I overtake someone who should have picked me up. (They were far enough away to not cause offence…)

“KRABI! KRABI” WE GO KRABI!” exclaims the excited passenger as he exits the nearside and urges me into the truck bed.  It says a lot for making your hitch signs in the local language.

The main issue with riding in the back. And I'd put sunscreen on!

The main issue with riding in the back. And I’d put sunscreen on!

And so I’m finally off.  A little later than I thought or wanted to be – and didn’t imagine I’d run into that much (manageable) difficulty – but I’m off nonetheless.  I’ve originally envisioned a two ride trip – one to Krabi and then one to my destination of Phuket.  If you look at a map of that region of Thailand, you can see from my start point and home base of Trang, that Krabi is about half way to my goal.  So the sensible option would be a ride there and then a ride to Phuket.  Easy peasy once you’re on the road and ticking the boxes, inching closer to the final destination.  I was unprepared for quite how easy this would be.

Through the Thai countryside.

Through the Thai countryside.

Keeping track of my little blue dot on my now indispensable GPS smart phone, and I follow my progress all the way to Krabi, where the guys turn off the highway and start making for the town centre.  I tap on the cab roof to indicate I need to get off here, and as I jump out I explain to the passenger that I’m actually going to Phuket and I need to be back on the highway – thank you very much etc, etc.

“WE GO PHUKET!”  He beams, nodding enthusiastically.

“YOU GO PHUKET?!” I stammer, holding out and pointing to my Phuket sign.  This happens the obligatory average of seven times before we’re all in agreement that we’re all going to Phuket. I shriek for joy before frightening the life out of the laughing man by throwing my arms around him in a bear hug.  Elated, I heave myself back into the pickup and settle in for the remainder of the journey.

The only way to travel.

The only way to travel.

I honestly can’t believe my luck.  At first, I thought today was going to be tougher than anticipated, then the next thing I know I’m getting ONE RIDE all the way to my destination.  Those guys turned off the highway to drop me in Krabi town too – so they were obviously going out of their way to get me where they thought I needed to be.  This becomes more apparent when they stop just after crossing from the mainland into Phuket – ask where my hostel is – and then duly drop me right at the door of it.  Unbelievable.

Home for the week - door to door service.

Home for the week – door to door service.

This time the driver exits the cab too, and with the three of us grinning ear to ear, I warmly shake their hands before waving them off and briskly stride towards check in.  It’s taken me one ride and 5 hours to travel 287 KM – which on these winding roads is about the same time as estimated by google maps.  Probably the fastest and easiest hitchhike so far, and now to await the imminent arrival of partner in crime and the emperor herself – Alexandra Mentele.  I’d best cram a night of drinking in.

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Hitchhike to India legs 54 and 55: Surat Thani to somewhere in Malaysia

Tuesday 22 November

I could feel it happening; that slow, dilapidating decline into wasterdom. Sweating like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, spread eagled on my bed, naked the day I was born with a shitty fan failing to assist in healing my hangovers.  “Good luck getting out of there” was one friend’s recent throwaway comment about my current location.  I was to prove her wrong.  With a gargantuan effort I put a cork in the bottle and book passage off this rock.  It’s time to get the fuck out of Dodge.

3 quid a night shit-hole right next to the beach.  Shit fan out of shot. I've stayed in worse.

3 quid a night shit-hole right next to the beach. Rubbish fan out of shot. I’ve stayed in worse.

I decided to take it easy, spending one full day getting back to the mainland – such was the enormity of the effort required.  I took a slow ferry to Surat Thani – which is little more than a transport hub, and booked in as what appeared to be the only guest in a cheap hotel.  The only highlight of the day was chatting to a couple of older full moon party refugees, who were clearly still on some kind of narcotic.  They were on a 4 year anniversary holiday, with a budget of “only” $250 dollars per day.  My daily budget is around a tenner.  How the other half live eh?

This was a little better for 8 quid.  Oh - and there's my new hat I nearly left there.

This was a little better for 8 quid. Oh – and there’s my new hat I nearly left there.

City back alley.  Cardboard hitch sign finding gold.  Indeed I found a stack on the right.

City back alley. Cardboard hitch sign finding gold. Indeed I found a stack on the right.

...and make this - which says Malaysia.  I think.  Or masterbater.

…and make this – which says Malaysia. I think. Or masturbater.

In the morning I rise early to test the Thai hitch water once more – but it starts slow.  It’s the cities – it’s always the damn cities – near impossible to get out of.  Most traffic is local, and many people don’t understand that you don’t necessarily want a ride all the way to the destination.  This is especially true considering my only sign for the day reads “Malaysia” in Thai.  After walking for an hour or so a young lady pulls in and informs me that I’m going to confuse people.  She takes me to a local store and obtains me some new cardboard – on which she suggests I write the road numbers.  This I duly do – and she’s got me a lift in seconds.  Even when they can’t give me a ride themselves – they’re abundantly helpful.  Still – nearly two hours in since I left base and no real progress made could potentially screw me over for the rest of the day.

Hastily made road signs.  For roads.

Hastily made road signs. For roads.

Prior to this stroke of fortune, a couple of incidents of note occurred.  I’m getting a lot of attention from gaggles of school kids on their way to class, waving and calling hellos from across the street.  I make a wrong turn and have to double back on myself, when I come across one of the strangest sights I’ve seen.  Passing by their school at what I can only conclude was the morning assembly, thousands of uniformed kids are standing in row upon perfect row, singing along to what I imagine is the Thai national anthem, belting out over a tannoy.  I’m desperate to sneak a picture, but Johnny Foreigner lurking outside a school gate taking snaps of kids probably isn’t a good idea.  The area is thick with security too, but I stand and admire the educational army for a moment, before desperate times force me to move on.  Once again the local cuisine comes calling.

Look it’s not my fault dear readers.  I can’t seem to find cheap, healthy food that doesn’t involve curry or a 7/11 toasted sandwich.  And this is a warts and all account so you’re gonna have to go through it with me.  Working my way out-of-town on a dusty carriageway, suddenly my recurring stomach problems stabs me in the gut and I double over in pain.  It’s excruciating, and with no ride in sight it’s beginning to look very bleak.  I give it more than a moment’s consideration to turn back to the safety and comfort of a hotel room and a flushing toilet to try again in the morning.

But I stumble on and into a roadside cafe to a lot of unwanted attention.  For the love of Christ not now.  They don’t serve tea (who doesn’t serve tea?!) so I buy a bottle of water in exchange for use of the restroom.  This is of course a filthy hole in the floor, but similar to Renton’s experience in Trainspotting – anything at this stage will do.  Of course it’s only after I free myself of the harrowing torment that I realise I’ve no loo paper.  This just couldn’t get any worse.  I anxiously root around in my pockets for anything that will serve – and pull out a bunch of paper money.

No! I didn’t! Honestly!  Under the circumstances, doing something like that with the king’s face would cause heinous offence – and wind me up in jail.  I opt instead to shuffle gingerly back to the cafe, subtly rob a wad of napkins, and shuffle back.  Of course in a land where you stick out like a sore thumb, anonymity is unlikely, and every pair of eyes in the place watches me do it.  Still – I like to think nobody had any clue what atrocities I had just committed.  They can discover it later when I’ve successfully fled the scene of the crime.  I hope they don’t do DNA testing.

Waited an age here before a very kind lady pointed out my glaring error.

Waited an age here before a very kind lady pointed out my glaring error.

Fast forward to the point after that nice young lady helped me out and with my new sign I’m instantly picked up by another nice young lady.  Before Thailand – I’d only ever been given a lift by one woman and that was all the way back in Slovenia. I must look really shady.  Probably pick me out for the sexual predator pest that I am.  But here in Thailand, I’ve had three already!  Things are looking up!  This one speaks wonderful English, and can take me to the first highway.  Once out of the city – it’s a piece of cake.

Right on highway 44 - she knew the score.

Right on highway 44 – she knew the score.

Rides come thick and fast.  The first is an excited, young truck driver who can’t speak a word of English – but is desperately trying to do so.  “I NOO INNNGLISH!  I NO SPEAK IIINNNGLISH!” He beams and jumps up and down in his seat.  I’m laughing all the way to the crossroads – and the main event – highway 41 direct to the border.

Facebook this.  No idea what it's about.

Facebook this. No idea what it’s about.

Ride three of the day comes courtesy of another pair of truckers.  After waiting for around 10 minutes (a lifetime in Thai hitch standards) these guys can take me to a place called Hat Yai – which is the turn off for the border road.  Unfortunately – and something I still can’t seem to learn – that although these long haul drivers can take you a fair way, you’re sacrificing speed for distance.  They make several stops too, and the guy behind the wheel speaks the kind of Thai that wouldn’t even be understood by Thais.  Still, hours into the journey and with daylight thinning, they drop me at an intersection, a grin showing missing teeth and jabbing a grubby finger in the direction of Malaysia.  The border is within touching distance at least.

One of many "Wats".  A roadside temple.

One of many “Wats”. A roadside temple.

Oh Thailand, how I love thee.  I cross the intersection, hold out my sign, and another lady driver pulls in.  This time it’s the comfort and air con luxury of a Toyota Hilux – vehicle of choice for ISIS.  What’s good enough for them is good enough for me, and I relax as she throttles it up and we make the border in no time.  Cheerio Thailand – for now.  Keep yourself warm for me.

Cheeky border snap.  Could get into trouble for this.

Cheeky border snap. Could get into trouble for this.

I cross with little trouble – save for some confusion of where to go on the other side.  Added to this, I’m more than a little nervous about them checking my stuff.  You hear all the horror stories of unwary travelers unwillingly being utilized as drug mules, so to be on the safe side I give my pack a going over.  I don’t want to end up on the end of a rope.

Malaysia.  Don't do drugs.

Malaysia. Don’t do drugs.

I sail across and park my butt some distance from the concourse.  Light is well and truly leaving me now, and time is not my friend.  Malaysia is also an unknown quantity regarding hitchhiking – but I needn’t have worried.  Barely a minute has gone by when Andy, another long distance trucker, pulls in.  Speaking perfect English, he’s not going to where I’ve originally chosen to spend the night – he’s going further.  I take the risk and stick with him, and after a wonderful natter to his daughter over the phone (they offer to put me up in their house – but he’s not finishing until late and I’m shattered), 130 km over the border and he’s dropped me at a cheap roadside motel.  With such good fortune, I make the decision to strike for Kuala Lumpur when the cockerel crows, and rest my weary bones in country number 59.

My new map - which for some reason people struggle to understand.  I've come to the conclusion people around the world are spatially challenged.

My new map – which for some reason people struggle to understand. I’ve come to the conclusion people around the world are spatially challenged.

I rise late, deciding that at a mere 400 odd kilometres away this is going to be a cinch – and indeed it is, but not without its tribulations. Breakfast consists of a runny egg on bread – which in light of recent events I hope doesn’t come back to haunt me.  Without even holding out my hastily cobbled together KL sign, a young Indian guy waves me over.  He can take me to the next toll station – easy pickings.

Toll booths = paradise.

Toll booths = paradise.

He speaks perfect English – this – I was to find – was to become the norm in Malaysia.  Everyone speaks English.  EVERYONE.  Cleaning ladies, truck, taxi and bus drivers, workmen, waiters and shop attendants.  Statistically the people I always look for when gauging the general grasp of English in a country.  To my shame, I still haven’t done my usual boning up of the basics of the local lingo – but there’s just no need at all.

Waited about two minutes here.  I like this country.

Waited about two minutes here. I like this country.

Moments later I’m in another ride, again having a full conversation – and my experience hitching here continues to get even better.  Pulling alongside an 18 wheeler, my current driver actually flags down the behemoth transport while doing 50mph in tandem.  To my utter astonishment, he slows to a stop and out jumps the driver for a (surely dangerous) highway hard shoulder photo shoot.  Of course my new driver speaks English as well, and can take me all the way to Kuala Lumpur.  I scarce can believe my luck.  I think Malaysia might just beat Thailand in the hitch stakes – and that’s saying something.

Standing in front of rides two and three, respectively.

Standing in front of rides two and three, respectively.

But it’s never THAT easy is it dear readers.  Course not.  Where would the story be?!  I’d bore you to tears if not for my bowel movements and drinking habits!  Once again I realise my error as my driver stays off the main highway.  This – he claims – is because he gets tired from the monotony of the motorway, and prefers the differing back roads.  Hauling an 18 wheeled, three-metre-wide trailer an alternative route is never going to break the sound barrier.  Leaving base camp at around 10 am, I’m informed we’ll make KL at 5 this afternoon.  It’s going to take about 6 hours to travel what should take 3.  All this in a cab with broken air con, and only one windscreen wiper that worked – on my side of the vehicle.  This was to become something of a problem a short time later.

20161123_150811

Mile after mile of Malaysian jungle.

I settle in for the long haul.  It’s all about the journey and not the destination anyway, right?  He’s a funny guy to chat to, and I enjoy my slow view of “real” Malaysia from a vantage point.  Getting to see something of the country and not just endless concrete is actually very beneficial.  He pulls into a road side cafe so I can eat – and I don’t even give it a second thought of leaving my stuff in the cab as I do so.  This I would never have done previously – but such is my confidence that people are good – it’s never an issue.

However – he’s brought back a six pack of beer and he hopes I don’t mind that he drinks it to keep himself awake.  Cracking one open, and rattling through the stubbies quick-fire, it isn’t long before he’s tipsy – but thankfully I can only tell from him becoming more talkative and not his driving ability.  Then a biblical monsoon strikes.  If you remember – only my windscreen wiper is operating.  I’m in a huge truck with a boozed up driver, ploughing through a field of water, and he can’t see out of his side.  But it’s all fun and games isn’t it?!  What could possibly go wrong?

We've gone on holiday by mistake...

We’ve gone on holiday by mistake…

I’m strangely nonplussed.  Since leaving the shit show road nightmare that is Kyrgyzstan, I’ve got supreme faith in even the naffest drivers anywhere else – which my current host is not.  Although it’s taken an age, He leaves me safely at an outskirt bus station, gives me advice on how to get to the city centre, and then is on his merry way. Now all I have to do is figure out the transport system.

Bus stop.  Sure enough - it worked.

Bus stop. Sure enough – it worked.

But I needn’t have worried a jot.  Number 772 comes round the corner as advised, and the (obviously) English speaking bus driver informs me that he does indeed go through Chinatown.  An hour later and I’m at my hostel door, slap bang in the centre of Kuala Lumpur.  Moments after a terrific and super cheap feed, I’ve purchased a new flag sticker for my guitar (the ease of which I base entire perceptions towards a country).  Malaysia – I think you and me are going to get along just fine.

Two days, 8 rides, 845 km.  I’ve spent about 20 quid in total, and enjoyed some of – if not THE best – hitchhiking I’ve ever done.  I book in for five nights in a cheap but comfortable hostel and crash out.  Tomorrow I’m going to get my crap computer fixed and explore the shit out of Kuala Lumpur.  After that –  I just might have a beer.  You deserve it Malaysia; you deserve it.

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Full moon party mess, Koh Phangan, Thailand

Wednesday 16 November

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking here he goes, out to get totally mortled, do a shit load of drugs and letch onto anything with breasts like a demented Jimmy Savile on speed.   A leopard can’t change his spots right?  Well boo to you because that’s exactly what I didn’t do.  Kinda.

You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve heard the stories.  Hell – I’m sure some of you have even been here.  When you’ve got 30,000 nutters descending on a beach for one night every month since 1985 – you’re bound to know a few of them.  It looks disgusting.  There I was, ready to verbally and literally tear the whole insalubrious mess a new one, strictly going in with a reporter’s hat on, ready to take a damning photograph of the aftermath that would go viral and land me a Nobel Prize.  For something.  I was about to experience Kavos (worst place in the world) Mark II.

And then something strange happened.  I began to have a good time.

Reunited again - and still roasting hot and dripping with sweat

Reunited again – still roasting hot and dripping with sweat – and not even having the wherewithal to look into the right hole in the camera phone

Now I attribute this more than a little to the company I was keeping.  My good friend Applebury has lived in Bangkok for the past two years, and when last we met, we were tearing shit up in a party hostel in Lima, Peru, circa 2012.  The man is a force of nature, but he –  like me – is more than a little slowing down.  We’re getting old.  A new breed of crazy is catching up and overtaking us.  Dare I say it – we’re ready to settle down.

It's all kicking off

It’s all kicking off

And as a result, I actually do spend much of the time on periphery of the licentious drug fest, wandering around with my friend, dodging locals offering pills in cupped hands, and slurry drunks claiming they’ve taken too much ketamine.  No you haven’t mate – you’re not even on it – someone’s sold you a bag of Persil.

Loads of this

Loads of this

Thusly – I manage to avoid many of the full moon party wankers I commented on in my last post, although there’s a fair few of them about, knocking back buckets (literally) of spirits, yobbing away in wife beaters and board shorts, yelling how “fucked up” they’re going to get and “wot birds” to bang.  The place is awash with neon, dayglo paint vendors and artists (some of which are really quite cool), and the street food is – for the most part – delicious.  The plan of attack was always to limit the time on the actual “club” beach, and set up shop in the bars of the town.  In keeping to ourselves – and to my utter astonishment – we have a decent night.

Applebury said the best thing to do is get your own and go around painting girls' boobs

Applebury said the best thing to do is get your own and go around painting girls’ boobs

The only real sour note was when a pair of Brazilian girls I met in Bangkok rob me of my new pack of smokes.  On a beach with thousands of people, it’s astonishing to run into some random you met a week previous – but it happens.  They tell me they’ve run out of money and beg me to wire them some – promising they’ll pay it back in the future.  This I refuse to do anymore (even to my own sister) as I’ve been burned so many times after being generous and helping “friends” out.  As it stands I’m still owed over a grand.

Where was I?  Oh yes – thieving scumbags.   But we still offer to buy them a drink at the next bar over, turn our backs for a second and they’ve vanished.  Applebury is particularly displeased as one of them was incredibly hot, while I instantly notice my smokes have gone, and put two and two together.  It’s not a big loss – a professional would have taken us round a few bars, used us for booze, and then robbed us blind.  Amateurs.  I wonder how they fared on their spree of crime?  It wouldn’t be hard to pull the wool over most of these muppets – and light fingers attend these things solely with the express intention of doing just that.  I learned the hard way back in Nicaragua.

Not going in there

Not going in there

As we arrived at the island very late, it’s no surprise that the sun is starting to peak its head up as the speed boat surges us back to Koh Samui and home base.  I originally wanted to stay to photograph the devastation at the end – and even help clean up a bit just to feel morally decent – but I’m shattered and just want my bed.  Another of my reasons for going was to try to do something helpful or useful – particularly in regard to the environment or stopping some young girl getting date raped.  I had delusions of grandeur I was there as some force for good; some wise, all-knowing, cocky bastard travel snob that would somehow save the day. In the end I felt I contributed to the whole shit show – although I never threw a bottle of beer on the beach or littered in any way.  I’ll donate a fiver to the WWF.

Get wankered, stagger in, order a picture of David Hasselhoff on your face.  So much for it being illegal to be drunk and get inked up

Get wankered, stagger in, order a picture of David Hasselhoff on your face. So much for it being illegal to be drunk and get inked up

Applebury and I are separated on return to our island, and I’m ordered out the mini-van nowhere near my digs.  The driver is convincing me this is my hotel and street, and although I don’t immediately recognise it I attribute that to being a little hazy.  He speeds off and I realise my glaring error after walking a couple of kilometres and not seeing a damn thing I’m familiar with.  Then yet again that Thai magic kicks in.

Wandered down here for miles...

Wandered down here for miles…

A young woman is setting up her shop for the day and she motions me over.  She speaks a little English, but – like the total plank I am – I’ve forgotten the name of my hotel.  This is probably why I’m in this predicament in the first place.  I’m clutching at straws and spouting locations I think are near to where I live, confusing the living hell out of her.  Eventually she gleans where I need to be, and – too tired to worry about fear – I hop on the back of her scooter.

Wearing a kilt on a scooter doing 50 mph is an interesting experience.  My knuckles are white as I grip the hand bar on the back of the machine – but she motions me to hold her round the waist.  Hardly daring to let go, I nonetheless believe she to be a better judge of how to be a passenger on these things, and swiftly switch my hands to her sides.

Now this is a little odd I ponder – made all the more strange by the fact I can feel she’s unclasped her bra.  I don’t know what the area on a woman’s body is called where the boob meets the tum, but that is where I found my hands.  Totally – and I stress – totally by accident dear readers – I just needed to grab something and quick.  Don’t think me some 7 am, serial bike-scooter rapist.

I adjust to a less suggestive position (although it strangely appears that she’s orchestrated it) and we speed on.  This island is much bigger than if first appears, and without the aid of my saucy saviour – I would not have a chance in making it home.  Eventually she stops at the beginning of my street, as she cannot take the vehicle any further.  She’s driven me for miles.  I kiss her on the helmet (the one you wear on your head you filthy animals), and march towards bed.

It’s still some distance to home, and I’m getting a lot of strange looks as the town comes to life.  Still they’re more than used to it and it’s fun to cheer and wave as people acknowledge me.  Eventually  I collapse into my bed with thanks.

So there we have it my friends – there I stood on the outside of the debauchery looking in – and lived to tell the tale.  Not today am I to wash up dead on a beach in Thailand, missing several vital organs.  I went in with the mindset that it was just another festival, and I came out clean on the other side.  I just wish I could say the same for the ocean.

I’ll never do it again.  Promise.

No really…I promise.

Seriously…

 No…come on now…I’m serious.

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Full moon party wanker

Tuesday 15 November

Waiting to meet friends last night I had this experience.  This  is something of a unique post that I decided to pen while listening to what can only be described as a moron.  This was – with a little editing for timing reasons – pretty much the entire “conversation” I was subjected to.  This is what we’re up against.

For best results, read aloud in a heavy cockney (SAAAAFF LAAANDAAAAAN) accent.  I’ve assisted you where possible.  Also please note that although I swear like a trooper – I try and keep it to a minimum in my writing.  Here however, it is not possible.  Apologies for any offence, it was not intended, and the following content is not the opinion of the writer.  You have been warned.

Shirtless horror show staggers his way over to me and collapses on the bar:

“AWWIGHT MATE HOW’S IT GAAAAAN AWWWIGHT?!  JUST BEEN TRYING TO PICK UP THOSE FUCKIN’ BIRDS THERE! (still within earshot) SEE THOSE TWO FUCKING BIRDS THERE!  THOSE TWO FUCKING COONS INIT?  FUCKING COONS EH?  HAHAHAH!  TOTALLY FUCKED IT RIGHT UP DIDNNNNI?!  FUCKED IT RIGHT UP MATE!  HAHAHA FUCKED IT.  I FUCKING STACKED IT! HAHAHAHA! FUCKSSSAKE!  WHERE ARE YOU FROM MATE?!  AWWWW YER A NORTHERN MONKEY MATE! HAHAH FUCKING NORTHERN MONKEY!  HAHAHA FUCKIN DON’T MIND ME MATE I’M A SOUTHERN FAIRY INNIT! HAHAHAHA!  WHERE ARE YOU FROM MATE?  LUTON’S A FUCKIN SHITHOLE INNIT?  FULL OF PAKIS MATE!  FUCKIN FULL  OF PAKIS.  FUCKING CUNTS.  THAT TRUMP THOUGH HE’S A RIGHT CUNT AS WELL ISSSNNY?  TRUMP’S A CUNT MATE. FUCKIN YANK CUNTS MATE HAHAHAH!  WHERE ARE YOU FROM MATE?  HERE YOU’RE A LEGEND MATE!  YOU CAN COME WI ME AND WE’LL FUCKING TAKE LOADS OF GEAR! AWWWRIGHHT! (Slightly lowers voice) We’ve got fucking loads of it mate – loads of pills, charlie, fucking everything.  HAHAHAHAH!  GONNA SMASH THAT BACK WITH YOU MATE AND YOU’LL NOT BUY ANOTHER DRINK ALL NIGHT MATE I CAN FUCKING PROMISE YOU THAT!  FUCKIN LEGEND YOU ARE MATE FUCKIN LEGEND. WHERE ARE YOU FROM?” THIS IS MY MATE FROM FUCKIN ITALY MATE (the gentleman to his left was actually from Luxembourg)  FUCKIN ITALY MATE! HAHAHA! FUCKS SAKE I MUST APOLOGISE MATE FOR NOT HAVING MY SHIRT ON, FUCKIN LOST MY SHIRT HAVENNNIII? GONE AND LOST MY FUCKIN SHIRT!  (Asks bar girl for his shirt – mocks her accent back to her when she replies). FUCKSSSSAKE I’M A FUCKING STATE ARENNNNI?! HAHAHAHA! WHERE ARE YOU FROM MATE? (notices I’m wearing a Star Wars T-shirt ) STAR WARSSS?! HAHAHHAHA YOU FUCKIN GERMAN! (?!) FUCKIN HELL I’M A STATE.  I MUST APOLOGISE FOR NOT HAVIN A SHIRT ON MATE!  FAAAACKIN HELL!  HAHAHAHA I’M A STATE MATE.  FUCKING STATE.  HAHAHA!  NOT EATEN FOR FUCKIN THREE DAYS MATE! HAHAHAH FUCKS SAKE!  WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”

A short time later I spotted him falling about with similar catastrophes in another part of town.  He’d no idea who I was.

These people need our love too, right…?

Right…?!

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Hitchhike to India leg 54: Bangkok to Chumphon

Sunday 13 November

It’s been a while dear readers.  It’s been almost a year in fact since I last made a hitch sign, forced (not against my wishes) to temporarily settle down, and – for the time being at least – hang up my thumb.    But time waits for no man, and so once again I step intrepidly into the world, and stick that aforementioned digit out on the side of a road.  I have to make a slight adjustment – Thai’s drive on the left – but what an experience it was.  I’m going to like it here.

But it wasn’t without issues.  I begin lazily in bustling Bangkok and drag myself reluctantly out of the hostel around 9 am.  I set my alarm for 7,  but staring at my pink-eyed face in the mirror with my skin melting off – I realised I needed a full English breakfast and a last one of their killer smoothies.  Refreshed, I take a metro one stop, and attempt to locate the beginnings of the toll road that winds its way through the sprawling preponderance.  Toll booths are bread and butter to the hitchhiker – all cars slow to a stop, everyone can see you, and you can even ask for lifts.  I’ve had experiences where police or other such officials actually flag cars down for me.  I was looking forward to an easy ride out of the city.

I was down here, I needed to be up there.  For miles...and miles...

I was down here, I needed to be up there. For miles…and miles…

Ahhh but it wasn’t to be.  Walking for an eon in 35 degree heat, I realise with disdain that the toll road is the flyover above me.  Somewhere along the line I’ve wandered off course – and in my attempt to rectify it – hoping against hope that the two roads merge – I’ve become completely stranded.  I can only manage to walk at ten minute or less intervals, such is the soaring heat.  After collapsing at a roadside cafe and downing two bottles of water, I make an executive decision.  With my head swimming and skin burning, I choose to take a cab to the city limits – y’know – for safety.  It’s allowed.

Desperately needed refreshment - and yes I did feel like a chump

Desperately needed refreshment – and yes I did feel like a chump

Stepping in from the torridity, I’m greeted by an icy blast of air con.  Thank the maker.  The driver speaks no English, but via the medium of my new (and first ever) smart phone – I manage to request a drop off somewhere at the edge of Bangkok.  The conversation went something like this:

ME:  (Pointing at place on map) Here?!  (Pointing at myself) I go here! (Pointing at place on map).

CAB DRIVER:  (Long pause) Yu go ware?  Ware go yu?

ME:  (Pointing at place on map) Here?!  (Pointing at myself) I go here! (Pointing at place on map).

CAB DRIVER:  (Long pause) Yu go ware?  Ware go yu?

ME:  (Pointing at place on map) Here?!  (Pointing at myself) I go here! (Pointing at place on map – this continues for several minutes)  Out Bangkok!  Out Bangkok! No Bangkok!

CAB DRIVER: NO BANGKOK?!

ME: NO BANGKOK!

CAB DRIVER: NO BANGKOK?!

ME: NO BANGKOK!

CAB DRIVER: NO BANGKOK?!

ME: NO BANGKOK!

CAB DRIVER: NO BANGKOK!  AHhhhhh NO BANGKOK!

You get the idea.  It costs me a little more than I wanted to pay – but needs must – otherwise I’ve got no chance of making base tonight and potentially collapsing on the tarmac. He’s astonished when I request he drop me by the side of the busy highway, essentially in the middle of nowhere.  But unbeknownst to him I’ve spotted another of my favourite hitching spots – the forecourt of a petrol station.  Like taking candy from a baby.

Highway on the left, petrol station out of shot to right.  What true beauty looks like

Highway on the left, petrol station out of shot to right. What true beauty looks like

Although just as I’m confidently approaching, last night’s Thai green curry says hello.  I’m lucky that Thailand’s roadside amenities are – for the most part – a significant step beyond Kyrgyzstan’s hole-in-the-floor; and I dart to a decent wash room and clear everyone out of it with the results.  But boy does it feel good.  There is really nothing better in the world than depositing a cracking curry shit.

In the spirit of true journalism and in keeping with my “warts and all” philosophy of this blog, I nonetheless decided against including a photo of what I left in that washroom. 

I digress.  Ten pounds lighter and in high spirits, I stand on the busy road with my sign out.  It takes me a little while to work myself up to do it – it’s a completely new country, an unknown quantity to me, and I’ve not done this in a year.  At first it looks a little bleak – cars flying by too fast, but then a driver slows from picking up gas at the pumps behind me, and in broken English we barter a 20 km ride.  I’m back in the game.

Now a few minutes previous I hit on a brain wave.  Outside Liverpool, Thailand has one of the biggest Liverpool FC supporters contingents in the world.  There are loads of ‘em.  Added to this, with their beloved king just passing, they’re all in mourning and wearing black.  My Liverpool FC shirt is black.  Perhaps wearing this instead of my lucky (and very bright) Superman T-shirt is the way forward.  But as I climb into the back of the SUV with glorious air-con again, I notice this:

I nearly asked to get out...

I nearly asked to get out…

The dude is a Manchester United supporter.  Of all the chances.  It begs the question – would I have still been picked up wearing my Liverpool shirt?  I’m definitely trying it the next time.

He was also carrying this - some kind of temple tradition

He was also carrying this – some kind of temple tradition

His wife beside him is taking selfie pictures of me as they chuckle away to themselves.  It’s a pleasant first ride of the day and I’m disappointed when it comes to an end.  Wishing me well, the couple speed off leaving me in a decent spot – but still not yet out of the city limits.  I did tell you that Bangkok is huge.

As I’m staggering up the road to find some shade, I’ve not even put my sign out when a pickup truck slows ahead of me, and the reverse lights flick on.  There’s one thing I’ve noticed here so far – is that many vehicles have blacked out windows.  This makes it especially challenging to make eye-contact with the drivers (a vital hitch tool) and you never know who you’re going to get when the window rolls down.  It’s a total lottery, and on this occasion amusingly funny.

It’s a little old lady with her daughter driving, and (from what I can make out) around 6 kids in the back.  However this is a pickup after all, and I’m more than a little timorous as I chuck my stuff and myself into the back. Holding on for dear life and flying down the road, I nonetheless realise my error when they very kindly deposit me at a bus stop.  When I attempt to explain that I don’t want a bus (but thank you so much for the ride) she orders me into the back again and we drive back the way we came.  I’m expecting her to drop me in a better spot – but bless her heart – she drops me at a taxi rank.  I thank her very much, wait until she’s on the horizon, and then march back to stand on the highway.

Ever so slightly pooing myself...again

Ever so slightly pooing myself…again

For all of her kindness, this becomes more than a little dangerous.  I’ve heard – like a lot of countries – that Thai people are really willing to help – but they’ll believe that to do so they need to drop you at public transport.  The concept of hitchhiking is relatively alien to them – but with some convincing they will understand what you need.  But with the sun at its highest and no sign of shelter, my head throbs and my skin burns.  Another two drivers swing in, but they aren’t going my way, and nor can I make them understand I don’t want a bus and I need to be anywhere but here.  I have to stop and crouch down a few times, coming very close to blacking out as my head is reeling.  As I’m approaching the bus station once again, it takes all my will power not to give in and buy a ticket.  Then – and once again without asking – a young guy, his girlfriend and his mum reverse back up to meet me.  He can take me to a place called Phetchaburi.  At last I’m going to be out of the city and well on the road.

My map

My map

They speak little English – but they know how to use their smartphones.  She’s on google translate asking questions, while at a stop he shows me the video that’s playing all over the country – I recognise the black and white images as footage of their late king.

“My king” he exclaims to me – and this startles me a little.  I put my hand on my heart and motion my commiseration, but what has struck me is that people here really believe him to be “their” king.  You’d never say “my queen” about old Liz – and nor would you get in trouble for it – something that can happen here.  I muse at how much of this outpouring of grief is genuine.

Regardless, the generosity and hospitality of the Thai people is shining.  The mother offers me her ice coffee but I politely decline, whereupon they stop at a roadside caff and pick me up a sandwich and bottle of water.  A little while later, they drop me in a great spot – still on the highway – and we have a little photo shoot.  Once again I’m sorry to see them go – but confident in their compatriots like-mindedness.  And they don’t disappoint.

This is what people who pick up hitchhikers look like...

This is what people who pick up hitchhikers look like…

Staring and having a good old laugh behind me are a group of scooter taxi drivers, one of whom has bartered me a ride.  ALL THE WAY TO MY DESTINATION.  A truck is unloading wares, and the scooter man has been chatting away to the drivers.  He motions me over and the two rugged faced locals in the cab confirm they’re going to Chumphon.  Usually this would be unbelievable luck – but maybe that’s just Thailand.  After just one day it is without doubt the best hitchhiking country I’ve ever been to.

King of the road

King of the road

It turns out to be a great ride too.  I’m still over four hours away from destination, and sometimes I don’t want to chat to drivers or be given the third degree about where I’m from.  It gets a little tedious – especially if the English isn’t good and they insist on talking at you for hours inspite of your protestations that you don’t understand a word.  However here – with the two drivers gassing to each other in Thai – not word from me was spoken.  Beautiful silence the whole ride down, lost in my thoughts and a bag of monkey nuts.

Thai language is funny to listen to – but it can be very off putting. There are so many sounds that are the same in English, but obviously completely different meanings.  Listening to them chatter away – or the wailing coming from the radio – one might think they were speaking English at certain points.  Read the following sentence very fast to be able to speak Thai in an instant:

CAP CAM PETE TONG BAN DIE SEE MY DIE MAN DEE POO CAP

Hahaha…it’s total nonsense of course – means nothing – but you get the idea.

All joking aside, it was back to the task at hand, but once again reaching home base wasn’t without misfortune.  It’s dark by the time I’m dropped at an intersection on the outskirts of the town.  I had delusions of grandeur to make the ferry tonight, but there’s not a cat in hell’s chance that’s going to happen.  Instead I opt to get as close to water as possible, and I can strike for the islands tomorrow.  Then the heavens opened.

Now I’m not talking about a little dribble here.  This is SE Asia after all.  Someone just dropped a bucket of water onto my head.  Sweat is mixing with rain and burning my eyes as I try to march in what I hope is the right direction, but I can’t see a thing (curse you spectacles) and can’t go on much longer so seek refuge in the doorway of a nearby store.  As soon as it’s come it’s gone – but the damage is done.  With soaking wet socks chewing chunks out of my feet, blisters forming, I squelch in the direction of the sea, and stab my hand on a bamboo shoot.

Cursing in pain I think nothing of it until a passer-by motions to my hand.  For some reason it’s opened up a river of blood flowing on my knuckles and fingers – but I’ve left my first aid kit in Bangkok!  I’ve no choice but to push on – and decide that the first guesthouse or hotel will do.  I’ve been walking for miles and miles, mosquitos having a field day, blood drying on my hand, and with no end in sight, when Thailand works it’s magic again.

A sort of taxi-pickup-truck type thing spots my weary, wet form shuffling up the road and screeches to a halt, motioning me in.  I’m surrounded by beaming and curious locals.  One very attractive girl asks where I’m from and what I’m doing when she spies my hitch and INDIA signs.  This receives a chorus of “oooohs” and “ahhhhs” and a rumble of commotion, while the two young Thai boys opposite me stare in wonder.  Within a few moments, the smell of sea air wafts into my nostrils, and they drop me off at a guesthouse right on the water.

Home for the night!

Home for the night!

I cannot thank them enough, and a short time later I’m fed and watered and being shown a seafront bungalow – very popular (and cheap) accommodation in this country.  I collapse in a lovely little room with my own en suite and that all important air-con, and pass out.  It’s been an incredible day full of highs and lows (but mostly highs) and well deserved sleep rushes over me.  I’m in Chumphon.  Tomorrow I make for the islands – and the horror begins.  Make no mistake dear readers – I’m going to write the shit out of it.

My little bungalow room - complete with widescreen TV, air-con and en suite - 10 quid

My little bungalow room – complete with widescreen TV, air-con and en suite – 10 quid

 But not to finish on a downer – today has truly been outstanding.  The kindness and the hospitality of the Thai people is simply wonderful, and that – I feel – is something we can all be doing with right now.  Come and join me.

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Elephants, the Death Railway, and an emotional family story

Sunday 06 November

Within moments of booking our flight to Thailand, we were researching something we’ve both separately wanted to do for years: spending a day with elephants.  Now we’re both very conscientious about this kind of thing, and we did plenty of investigating to find a legitimate, ethical, reputable sanctuary where the care of the animals comes first – AKA – none of that riding or circus shit.  It sickens me to see tourists on the backs of elephants, or having photo’s cuddling a sedated killing machine.  You know who you are.  Travel conscientious – don’t start forest fires, take your litter home with you, and don’t lie on a tiger.

Lots of this was about to happen

Lots of this was about to happen

So we found a wonderful place about an hour outside of Bangkok called The Elephant Nature Park, close to a town called Kanchanaburi.  We paid about $70 for the full day, including transport, feeding and swimming with the elephants, and an astounding traditional Thai lunch.  Also included was a trip to the infamous Death Railway and the River Kwai – but more of that anon – and you’re not going to believe it.

So after rising super early to leave the bustling Bangkok metropolis for the jungle, I was still a little shaky from the Singha beers the night previous.  However I believe I have stumbled  on the greatest hangover cure known to man.  Elephants.  Why has nobody told me this before?!  They’ve been around for centuries!  Just roll me out of bed after my 48 hour bender and show me a trunk!  Hilarious!  All joking aside, these peaceful, serene, outstandingly beautiful creatures will cure you of any ills.  It was mesmerising and unforgettable.

Ladies who lunch

Ladies who lunch

We began the day shoving handfuls of “appetizer” leaves into greedy trunks, before preparing their main morning meal.  This involved slicing and dicing pumpkins and watermelon, as well as rolling hot rice balls with added nutrients for their health.  Then it was a free for all to “make the elephants happy” before they escorted us to the water to drink and cool off.  We were giddy with joy as we packed trunks with food, and watched with glee as they slurped and squelched the fruit into hungry mouths.  Woe betide you if you happened to turn your back for a second with food in your hand – you’d get the shock of your life as several trunks battled for pumpkin supremacy.  I can safely say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

Alex prepares the feed

Alex prepares the feed

Oh but it got better.  We wandered with the beasts to their drinking hole, slowly plodding through the jungle, scratching themselves on trees, dropping large piles of poop, and rubbing their feet on roots.  You had to always keep yourself in their sight line – and never get caught between two of them.  They did have a tendency to stick together, lurching randomly around, and if you’re caught in the middle you’re a human smoothie.

Welcome to the jungle

Welcome to the jungle

I was being a smartass and firing out a couple of facts I’d learned from doing a pub quiz.  They’re the only animal in the world that can’t jump, and they’ve got around 40,000 muscles in their trunk.  Nobody was that impressed – and rightly so.  This was their show, and we were given so much time to just walk with them, observe them and touch them that it was at times – emotional.  They’re so gentle and slow, that to imagine anyone who would want to harm them is beyond comprehension.  They, like most animals on this planet, need our love and care – perhaps now more than ever.  It was a pleasure in some small way to contributed to their comfort and happiness.

Eye eye...

Eye eye…

But the highlight was still to come.  After a delicious Thai lunch, we returned with the elephants to a mud pool, where they proceeded to get themselves covered in muck.  This was hilarious to watch, especially if one of our party got too close and got a dousing.  But they are very clean creatures, so off they marched to a cleaner part of the river Kwai to wash themselves off – and we were the ones that were going to assist.  Swimming with and washing elephants is up there with the greatest of my great travel experiences.  As several of us blasted the creatures with bucket after bucket of water, soaking wet and laughing like we were five years old – you could actually see that they were smiling.  That is a moment I will never forget.

Swimming with flumps

Swimming with flumps

And yet it wasn’t the only such moment today.  Here’s an incredible story you will scarce believe, and one that gave me more than a glassy eye.

Lest we forget

Lest we forget

Many years ago dad told my sister and I of his desire to visit Thailand – for the sole purpose of visiting the memorial gravestone of his favourite uncle – Allan Jameson.  Growing up (and as a WW2 aficionado and film buff) I knew of the infamous “Death Railway” – and in particular – “The Bridge over the River Kwai”.  This was a 415 km track also known as the Burma Railway, which was vital link to the Japanese during conflict. Thousands upon thousands of POWs died in the construction of the track and its bridges, many because of the appalling conditions they were subjected to.  One of those people who perished was my great-uncle.

The Death Railway along the banks of the river Kwai

The Death Railway along the banks of the river Kwai

Of course dad never got to achieve his wish to pay his respects – although his son and our half-brother Mick visited many moons ago and brought back a picture – which dad got to see.  That picture lay gathering dust down the years, until a short time ago while sorting through dad’s belongings in a storage unit in London – my sister found some medals.  They belonged to Allan Jameson. The War Medal 1939-45, the 1939-45 Star, and the Pacific Star, were sent to his mother, Mary, in honour of his service.  My sister did some digging, and found some interesting information.

The Buddha in the cave - it used to serve as a makeshift infirmary

The Buddha in the cave – it used to serve as a makeshift infirmary

Alan served as a Gunner in the 125th Anti-tank Regiment, Sunderland. In October 1941 the soldiers were shipped off to battle; not to the Middle East as expected, but to Singapore. On the 4th and 5th of February 1942 the ship, the Empress of Asia, was attacked by Japanese bombers just miles from port, and the men were forced to abandon ship and swim for survival. Every single member of the Regiment was captured by the Japanese, with most sent to the work camps of the Burma Railway.  Allan died of dysentery on the 9th July, 1943.

The river Kwai - I will return to the bridge another time

The river Kwai – I will return to the bridge another time

Now obviously being in Thailand I was going to attempt to track down the last resting place of my great-uncle, but I had no idea that when we booked the elephant sanctuary it was in the same place as the memorial grave site.  As we speed out of Kanchanburi in the morning, I turn to gaze out the window to my left, and nearly blow a fuse when I spot what must surely be the war cemetery.

My great uncle Allans war medals

My great-uncle Allan’s war medals

“THAT’S IT!  ALEX!  THAT’S IT!  HE’S IN THERE!”  I exclaim like demented madman.  Upon returning from the amazing elephant experience, our guide very kindly drops us at the records room.  I fill out a form with all the information I know (only his name) and I’m shaking when I hand it to the researcher.

“Is he alive?”  The young lady asks, prompting something of a shock, to which I exclaim that I’m sure he isn’t.  She apologies profusely when she realises her error in looking up JAMES and not JAMESON.  It’s not for the first time.  After scrolling down a little further, sure enough – there he is.  Gunner Allan Jameson: plot 2, row F, number 71.

The war records print out

The war records print out

I get a printout of all the details and directions to where he lies, and we make our way into the beautifully kept cemetery.  There’s a handful of tourists scattered about, shuffling between the stones, taking a few snaps.  Locating the correct row, we begin the walk to stone 71 – and pass by so many that I start to believe there’s some mistake.  But just as we’re coming to the end, our family name comes into view, and the tears begin.

Cleaning Allan's memorial

Cleaning Allan’s memorial

Dad wanted to stand here.  I’m doing it in his stead.  I never knew my great-uncle – I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a picture of him – but here I am, cleaning his memorial with a bit of wet tissue and some drinking water.  There are flowers aplenty, and I scrape off the mud and flick away the ants.  For what it’s worth, Allan, for what it’s worth.  Thank you.

Allan Jameson - rest in peace great uncle

Allan Jameson – rest in peace great-uncle

It’s getting dark by the time we’re ready to head back to Bangkok.  I will return in the next couple of weeks to visit the Burma Railway Museum here – and really learn what it was like for these men.  I will take the train over the river Kwai, and I will spend a few more moments in the cemetery alone. Allan’s medals are entrusted to our half-brother Chris, and what I find the most emotional, the most remarkable thing about this incredible story – is that there are hundreds of thousands more like it.  “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning we will remember them.”

It’s been a rollercoaster of a day.  To cap it all, Alex is leaving to return to Bishkek tomorrow, and these are our last hours together – for the time being at least.  I’m going to miss her – but it’s a so long and not a goodbye.  As a special treat, we finish the day having a Thai massage together before passing out exhausted back at the hostel.  It has been an incredible weekend, full of emotions, full of experiences but most certainly one that will be hard to top.  Today the bar was raised really high.

Please enjoy the photo’s from the day dearest readers – no captions required.   It was a special one.

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