Operation Koh Samui

Chengdu, China

Thu, 4 Apr 2002 08:15:42 +0100 (BST)

The subject is of a course a reference to that fantastic movie "Meet the Parents". I saw it in the cinema with Gav Cassells, the day I had 5 stitches removed from my lip. We both thought the movie was hilarious but Gav had the added bonus of watching me try to stop my lip from bursting every time I laughed! Anyway, there are a few other movies mixed in here, The King and I, Bridge Over the River Kwai and finally Pretty Woman...

Just before I start, I have nobody's address for postcards, if you want a postcard from China, send me your address. You might think I have it already but unless you gave it to me in the last week, I don't.

Having just sent my last enormous email, I turned around from the compter to find Mary, Peter and Peter's girlfriend Becky sitting behind me. I travelled with M and P in Laos and I spent a few nights in M's house. Total coincidence, even stranger, we bumped in a guy called Jacques on the street nearby. We had all sat around a table in the North of Laos for dinner 2 months previous. Odd indeed. Poor Jacques had since been in a bus crash in Thailand where he tore ligaments in his back. Lots of people were injured and the driver was actually killed! Some of the private bus companies in Thailand are seriously dodgy and this was one of them. Apparently he had been driving like a maniac all the way. I stuck to public buses mainly.

The next morning, 4 of us went to see the Grand Palace of the King of Siam. My advice... don't bother. I'm a little biased though. It's pretty spectacular, but after many months of Thai temples and architecture it was a complete waste of 8 quid for me and I was regretting going in after about 2 minutes. Ah well.

Bangkok also had it's usual assortment of weirdos, including one guy staying at my guest house. He was dressed very much like an impoverished traveller. He sat down close to me one night with a menu and whipped out a tiny Sony video camera, so obviously not too impoverished. He spent a couple of minutes videoing the menu then announced, "I don't need a menu, I know exactly what I want". It seemed like he was trying to impress his video camera with his knowledge of the guest house's menu. What was even worse was that after switching it off, he had to continue flicking through the menu to find what he wanted. How sad is it when people feel they have to lie to a piece of electronics? Of course, when he got his food and his beer he had to film them for a bit too. My videos are gonna seem like Hollywood blockbusters compared to his!

A couple of days later I was off to Kanchanaburi, the home of the infamous bridge over the river Kwai. It's a 3 hour train ride and it's 50 pence for a ticket. How much is a one-way ticket to Belfast from Dublin? Was too lazy to go looking for the place I'd been recommended so I allowed myself to be herded into a truck by one of the touts for a guest house called C&C. It was possibly the best decision of my entire 3 months!

For 60 baht a night (1.58 euro) I got a bamboo hut built on a small platform floating on the Kwai. Whenever a boat went past, my room would rock and sway and creak. Apparently one of C&C's rafts sank last year!! Kanchanaburi is hot. It was around 36 degrees in the shade for most of the days I was there! So doing nothing and resting after Bangkok was on the cards. I took a day off, lounged about, fanned myself, read and got myself a slightly more successful haircut than the last one.

Next day I headed off on a tour to see the rather grim sights of the Hellfire Pass and Death railway. The Hellfire pass is a pass cut through the mountains nearby as part of the Japanese railway to Burmah. They were building this using POW slave labour during world war II. This pass was the most gruelling, they went through about 200m of rock with some dynamite, chisels, buckets and hammers. Tens of thousands of POWs died from malaria, cholera, dehydration, starvation, working 18 hour shifts or just plain having the shit beaten out of them for no good reason. There's a really good museum up there too. We also got to ride along the Death Railway itself to go back to Kanchanaburi. It's pretty much only ever used by tourists and the train was thronged with camera toting Germans and French. The tour also included a trip to a tackily decorated cave and a some pleasant but unspectacular waterfalls. I did manage to get myself a free friendship bracelet thingy from some people in a little shop. They were stunned and delighted when I tried out my Thai on them. Unfortunately I've just this second realised that I've lost it. Arse!

That evening, I had my first encounter with Bhaven and Dave, Essyllt and Novinka, Bas and Al. 2 pairs and 2 solo travellers. Along with Elaine, Steve and vast quantities of Thai whiskey we would form the Kanchanaburi massive. Bhaven is actually from Staines, Ali G's home town so he knows about things like "massives".

They were getting drunk with a Thai policeman in our guest house. I was knackered and had an early night. They ended up heading off to the local night club on their motorbikes, no need to worry about drunk driving when you're with the cops! They got well hammered, Bas lost his bike and woke up the next morning in the taxi rank. The others managed to drive their bikes into some bushes beside the guest house but everyone got home relatively safely. I however was kept awake by some Germans diving into the river and singing the German National anthem until about 3am and I was woken up at 7am by the people building yet another bridge over the river Kwai. I would have been better off getting smashed.

Next afternoon, we all headed off on the bikes for a spin. Along the way, we bumped into a bunch of pissed up Thai people celebrting the ordination of a monk. They were carrying him on their shoulders, playing music and dancing down the road, handing out glasses of some sort of booze to everyone they met. We joined in for a few minutes, dancing and messing but eventually headed off. Unfortunately my video camera was in Bangkok being repaired, so I only have some bad photos of it all. When we got back to the bikes, they'd very kindly left us a glass and a bottle of yellow stuff! What a country. After a quick trip to an ancient ruin it was back to the guest house and the fun began.

Basically I got completely trollied, thanks to Bhaven the evil barman, although I deserve plenty of credit myself. Kanchanburi is great, you can go to the pub for a while and then come back to C&C and sit on a raft drinking whiskey and coke. If you run out of either, someone just gets on their bike and heads to the 24hr 7-11 down the road and brings back some more and everyone's happy.

I was feeling a bit the worse for wear the next morning but I discovered a remarkable hangover cure - play with a child. There was an 8 year old girl living at the guesthouse, one of the cutest, happiest kids I've ever seen. I spent from 10am until about 11pm running around like a fool. I was allowed 1 hour's sleep in the afternoon, even that was difficult, I had to put up with her banging on the door of my room for the first 10 minutes and before anyone says anything, she was trying to get IN, not get out!

This kid was so easy to play with too. There was a lot of swinging around and falling over so inevitably I whacked her head off some furniture (only once in 12hrs, pretty good going I reckon) but all I had to do was apologise and give her a hug. No tears, no screaming, no running to grandma, no languishing in the child abusers' wing of a Thai prison!!

The other big thing in Kanchanaburi besides the railway is a national park with a waterfall called Erawan. This is a big tourist thing for Thai people and I can understand why. It's a spectular series of falls. They're split into 7 levels, each level being about a 20 minute walk from the last. Each level has mini waterfalls and pools big enough to swim in and one even has a big rock perfectly shaped for a waterslide! Some levels have little fish in them which try to nibble on you and it's probably best not to let them swim up your shorts! That is of course if you have any shorts, mine fell off the clothes line and floated off down the river Kwai the night before, so I was hanging out in my boxers (sometimes litterally!).

Next day it was time for me and some others to head to Koh Tao to go diving. Everyone else was planning on going there at some stage and in the end we all went together (except Bas who actually has a job). This was a nighmare 22 hour journey which involved sleepily drooling on myself on a mini-bus, followed by a big bus with no leg room and then a ferry, arriving on the island at about 11am. Koh Tao is a tropical island exactly as you would picture one, clear skies, cocounut trees, clear blue water, pleasant looking huts on the beach and relaxed bars and restaurants serving pretty tasty food, although it's a bit pricey there.

About the first thing I did was contact a diving centre and ask them if I could dive with asthma. They said I'd have to get myself checked out by a specialist diving doctor, the nearest one is at the hyperbaric chamber in Koh Samui, quite a way away. If I left first thing in the morning, it might just be possible for me to make it over and back in 1 day. If it took more than that, I wouldn't have time to finish my course and collect my video camera in Bangkok before meeting Norah in Hong Kong. Either way, I was going to have to pay about 30 or 40 quid on travel and fees to have some bloke try to give me an asthma attack. If he succeeded, it would mean I'd come all that way for nothing! I made my appointment and spent the day relaxing, exploring the island, swimming with the fishies and finally falling asleep into my dinner.

Next morning, still knackered from the trip down and the previous weeks debauchery I left my beach hut to set off on an adventure! I was catching the 8:30 am super-high-powered speedboat to Koh Samui. I scoffed a few mint Oreo cookies for breakfast on my way to the pier and boarded the boat. It was quite a small boat, about 10m long and 3m or 4m wide but with a massive engine. It was full of injured holiday makers, everyone I could see had some sort of bandage, plaster or scar, especially on their legs and feet. Apparently the most common cause of injury is hiring a motor bike. The roads on the islands are fairly poor and I've met lots of people who've come off their bikes, mainly due to overconfidence on those roads. I seemed to be the only one without a wound.

It would take 45 mins to get to Kho Pha-gnan and then another 30 minutes... or so we all thought. What we didn't know was that there was a nasty storm blowing and a small boat with a huge engine is about the worst thing we could have been in!

As soon as we were away from the island, things got a bit rough. I was sitting on a step near the front, beside a Japanese guy, we'll call him Akira. Our first big wave lifted both of us about 6 inches off the step and smacked us back down again. A few minutes later, we both went flying higher and landed painfully, with a lot of banging arms and heads. Someone suggested we should sit on rucksacks, a good plan but Akira stayed on the step. Every now and again there'd be an enormous splash of water over the front of the boat, so witing about 10 minutes, everyone was thoroughly soaked and most of the bags and backpacks were glistening with water. The Akira's mates who were right up the front thought this was all great craic, although they were all holding onto one another and bits of furniture in an effort to stay onboard. An English guy beside me had already put on a life-jacket and was looking decidedly green. It was time for the hostess to hand out the barf bags.

Soon after, we hit probably the biggest wave of all, Akira when from sitting on one step to standing on the step above it. Gravity being what it is, everything had to go back to where it started and Akira landed back on the deck with a loud, wet bang, arms and legs flailing about. It looked a bit like someone throwing a large squid, full force onto the ground and he was he didn't break something, or connect with one of the nice sharp corners that were all over that boat. After that, he got a bit of sense and crawled onto the bags.

Not surprisingly, Akira was the first to say hello to his breakfast again and not surprisingly he managed to douse my sandals in the process. Luckily I'd taken them off already. It only takes one to start it and soon, people all around me were filling their little plastic bags. I was surprised at the amount of Japanese victims, they're an island nation and big into fishing, I thought they'd have stood up well. There was also a German couple having a really hard time. He seemed to be holding up OK but she was throwing up the bananas they'd had for breakfast and they absolutely stank! Within a few minutes they were both at it, fighting to get 2 heads over the 1 tiny bag, I thought they were going to rip it in two!

I've never been sea sick in my life but by now I was feeling decidely queasy, the diesel fumes, the banana fumes and of course the sea were all taking their toll but I thought I could hold on. Around me was a sea of misery, people were curled up in a ball, trying not to move. The German couple were holding tight to one-another, their faces and legs splattered with bits, scowling at me as I looked around with a slight smile on my face. They'd found another, bigger bag, in fact the bag they'd put the banana skins into, I thought there was something quite ironic about the bananas being reunited - the circle of life, although I doubt this scene will make it into a Lion King sequel! Especially as she was sitting there with one boob hanging out of her bikini, she either didn't know or didn't care.

Through it all, there was one guy, sitting in the chair directly opposite the captain (probably the best seat in the house) calmly reading his book. He had a large part in my downfall. We grinned at each other, then a bit more and a bit more until I ended up with a fullblown case of the giggles, which was only made worse by the fact that I was completely surrounded by people who would probably throw me overboard if I started laughing. So I sat there, convulsing quietly to myself and by the time I calmed down, my stomach was not a happy camper. The final straw was when the hostessy girl decided she needed to move the banana filled bag. Why she had to do this I don't know but just one waft of it was enough for me and I sat there swallowing and swallowing and swallowing. After about 20 seconds of fighting the inevitable, I gave in and tossed my cookies. I have to say, if you have a choice, go for mint Oreos. They're about the best thing I ever regurgitated!

I reckon I was pretty lucky that I got up too late for a proper breakfast. Very soon after I lost my Oreos, I was feeling fine and dandy again and the rest of the trip passed fairly uneventfully. That first leg should have taken 45 minutes. It took 2 hours! I was going to be late for my appointment, how late would depend on the second leg of the journey. As it turns out, the sea was pretty calm on the far side of Koh Pha-ngan and we made it to Koh Samui in 40 minutes instead of the usual 30. The people who were only on the 2nd leg, thought things were pretty bumpy. They had no idea...

The test for asthma was actually pretty straight forward. I had imagined tubes and breathing monitors and maybe even a trip to the pressure chamber, alas no. The doctor checked me out, listened to my chest and then got me to run 2km up and down a hill at 2:30pm on a scorching hot tropical island!! Basically, when I didn't collapse into a wheezing heap, he gave me the OK. Although, he told me not to dive in very cold water as, for obvious reasons, they had no way of testing my reaction to the cold. A bit of an anti-climax but I was going diving!

There was no boat back to Koh Tao at that late stage but I was able to make it to Koh Pha-ngan on the last ferry. This suited me quite well, Pha-ngan is cheaper than either Tao or Samui, full of travellers and it meant I actually got to go to all three of the big islands down there, however briefly.

Got myself a room at the Charm Beach resort. had some food and headed off on a little trip to Had Rin, the beach which hosts the infamous full moon parties. Each full moon 10-20 thousand scruffy travellers make their way to the beach at Had Rin to drink, dance, smoke and generally get off their faces on whatever random chemicals they can squeeze into their systems. I think there are 1 or 2 deaths every month, frequently due to drowning while out of it. There are also a few fights and lots of petty crime. The full moon had been about 2 weeks before which was fine by me as I don't have much interest in this sort of malarky.

Quick interlude for a puzzle. You're at the edge of a cliff, there's nothing on the other side. You have a supply of rectangular bricks, 4m long, 1m thick - as many as you want. You have no mortar or any other sticky stuff. Just by balancing bricks on oneanother, how far over the edge of the cliff can you build? This has been bugging me for 9 and a bit years.

I was heading to Had Rin because there would be lots of stuff there to buy, including hopefully some nice swimming shorts to replace my dearly departed pair and a souvenir or two. Little did I know I'd end up miles away from Had Rin having a "cultural experience"!

I was walking along the main road looking for a taxi. There were a few bars along the road, staffed by the "hey yous". These are girls who work in the bar and try to attract foreginers inside, usually by shouting "hey you" at anyone who passes. Up until then I had always ignored them as they are usually fairly seedy and I imagined them to be full of manky western sex-tourists but after a few bars I decided I may as well sit down and have a beer while waiting for the taxi. They were all completely empty except for the staff and I thought to myself, "what's the worst that could happen?"

I sat down, ordered a beer and started chatting to the owner and 1 of the girls. I don't know the owner's name but the girl's name was Gung. She was very pretty and from a quite poor area of Thailand. They tried to tell me that I didn't really want to go to Had Rin. There was a beach party later that night and I should go there. I was unconvinced. After a few minutes, Gung nipped off and got out Jenga and so we started playing. I'd never played before so she was fair kicking my ass, in fact I ended up playing for a beer and losing. Actually, I think in these places, you're supposed to buy the girl a drink almost straight away but my ignorance prevailed and she had to win one instead. So after several beers, many games of Jenga and quite a few missed taxis I was having a laugh with Gung and her friends and getting to practice a lot of Thai too, Had Rin was going to have to wait.

The conversation was a bit confusing at times and after a while, the owner seemed to start talking about the weather. Something about do I have a raincoat. It took a while to click and by that time she was spelling it out for me. "Do you have a condom?" "Yes..." "Do you want to sleep with Gung?" "Eh...."

Of course I wanted to. I'm a bloke and she had a pulse! In fact not only did she have a pulse, she was very good looking and a lots fun, stupid question!

"You pay me 200 baht" "Eh..." ... "Eh..." "You think too much"

The whole thing was a bit much, I'd had my suspicions but it was a bit weird to find out for sure. I kinda just pretended it didn't really happen and when Gung (Gung Ho?!) came back, we got back to playing Jenga and having a laugh. In the end, there's only so much Jenga you can play and Gung was trying to get me to go to the beach party. At this stage, there were 2 other customers, 2 very pissed guys from Norway and Liverpool and they were getting on my nerves so I was on for a trip to the beach.

The way things work in this type of bar is that the girls get their food and somewhere to sleep and if someone wants to take one of the girls out of the bar they have to pay the "bar fine", that's the 200 baht (4 quid) mentioned above. This gets you out the door, nothing else and I think the bar doesn't get a cut of anything that happens after that, not too sure. I wasn't planning on paying for anything special anyway, so that was fine by me.

Off we went to the beach party, a fairly non-happening event as it turned out but we had a laugh anyway. She said she'd like to go to Koh Tao with me. Interesting! Apart from anything, what would my friends on Koh Tao make of me going for an asthma test and coming back with a Thai girl?! But in my merry state it sounded like a laugh.

We arrived back at my hut at 4am, tired and starving and just went straight to sleep. I was catching a boat at 8:45 so I was up at 8. We were chatting over breakfast. I was eating, she wouldn't eat anything despite being ravenous last night. She seemed to be upset about something but wouldn't say what. The subject of going to Koh Tao came up. She was still on for going, if I said it was OK. No problem, except I'll be on diving course for most of it.

"You must pay the bar 200 Baht for each night" "Hmm... do I have to pay you?" "1000 Baht each night" "Ahh...", feck that, Koh Tao's off! "Do I have to pay you for last night?" "1000 Baht" "That's lot of money just to fall asleep!"

20 quid!! I'm pretty sure that's the going rate for doing lots more than just sleeping! I could start bargaining but I really felt sorry for her. She seemed like a genuinely nice girl and like most of the girls in these jobs, she was from a very poor region and didn't have any other way of earning decent money (although she was dab hand at chewing gum wrapper origami!) She also went quite easy on my wallet the night before, only having 2 beers in the bar and nothing at all at the party. So after a bit more chit chat, I handed over the money and said a hurried goodbye. My lift was ready to take me to the pier. Whether she walked off feeling victorious for having suckered another one I don't know, she certainly didn't look in high spirits when we passed her on the way. Once again, you decide. I know I had a pretty good night (probably not as good as I paid for) and found a cheap and fun way of learning Thai but next time I'll just be buying the beers and going home!

I also got the solution to that blocks puzzle and after 9 years of bugging me, I probably would have paid 20 quid just for that! In the midst of the drinking, talking and Jengaing, Gung built a shape out of the blocks that solves the puzzle and proves that you can get as far as you like if you have enough bricks. There's a free postcard in it for anyone who can figure out the solution!

So, I arrived on Koh Tao about 2 hours before my diving course started. Still without any shorts by the way, so the next few days featured me wandering round in my boxers! There were only a couple of complaints...

The class was 4 of the people from Kanchanaburi and a pro baseball player from the states called Ryan who later dropped out. This made things pretty cool but the videos you have to watch are painfully boring and full of awful jokes.

The first real dive was a bit freaky and I was quite glad when it finished but after that I was quite happy with the final 3. The only problem was the visibility, the sand was all churned up and you could only see a few metres ahead, so I reckon we missed lots. I'd love to have stayed on and done more diving but about 3 hours after I finished my course. I had to say goodbye to the best bunch of people I'd met in 3 months. I just barely had time to lose some more stuff (a t-shirt, boxers and the water carrier I bought in Laos) before I was on the boat back to the mainland and then on a train to Bangkok.

I was hoping to meet up with Keith Shanahan of Esat infamy but as I was chugging towards BK, he was chugging away. Ah well. I spent the next day running around collecting my camera (20 quid to fix it, bargain, in Ireland, they'd charge you 50 quid just to tell you it couldn't be repaired) and buying supplies. My final hurrah was supposed to involve me getting rat-arsed and just barely making it to the airport in time but I was just too knackered to give it some really welly and ended up just having a few quiet drinks with Dave Scott and Bhav the evil barman. Towards the end I was snoozing in my cocktails and went to bed. They stayed behind to talk business. You may soon see their names at a cinema near you...

The next morning I took off from Bangkok without incident and was safely on my way to Hong Kong, thus ending my trip around a little bit of South-East Asia. I'll definitely be back.

I'm in the north of China at the moment in Chengdu, Sichuan (as in sichuan/sechwan chicken). Norah left this morning to catch her flight back to Dublin. The last 3 weeks have been interesting enough but as usual I've written too much already, hope everyone is keeping well. Bye for now,