Koh Chang: Thailand’s miniature Bali

Koh Chang is getting me down and I’m turning into a more cynical bastard every day. Cynical towards tourists just like myself. But I dunno, it just seems like this island is the exact opposite of what I was hoping for: a party-ground for drunken westerners. Doesn’t anyone appreciate some fucking peace and quiet any more? That’s how the place is advertised (‘escape to a quiet island paradise blah blah blah’), but it’s more like a miniature Bali, just with a higher proportion of Europeans compared to Australians. Sure, people do come here to ‘escape’. But what are they all escaping to? Just another place where absolutely everything seems to revolve around money, felling the forest to pack more of us in, building cheap bungalows that are disguised to look more natural than they actually are – fake fake fake, everything’s covered in a fascade to make us feel like we are actually somewhere untouched and free from western influence, but that’s far from the case.

Having, like, the time of my life with not a glass but a BUCKET of alcohol. Isn't Koh Chang just awesome?

Yes, I realise how stupidly hypocritical this is. Who’s to blame except people just like me? I dunno, maybe the government? Apparently – and this is of course according to that holy bible of travel, the Lonely Planet – there is a government plan to expand and develop the tourism infrastructure on the island. All about money money money. Why can’t they limit the amount of destruction to the native vegetation? How long is the message of environmentalism going to take to reach countries like Thailand? But I guess this sort of destruction still happens in Australia and every other developed country. Jesus, I should stop writing, I’m just in a shitty mood with no actual coherent message to get across. Sitting in a hot sweaty internet cafe surrounded by other tourists doesn’t inspire the creativity in me. Would’ve been a good idea to get a netbook, so I can write in peace back at the backpackers. Not that even our room is peaceful, with the FUCKING DRUM AND BASS BLARING UNTIL 2AM!

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Mobile accommodation in Vietnam: sleeper buses

I’m half-sitting, half-lying in the back of a ‘sleeper bus’. I hadn’t heard of them until a few days ago, and hadn’t seen the inside of one until about twenty minutes ago. This one in particular is travelling from the megalopolis of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Nha Trang, a large beachside town 10 hours drive north.

Sleeping tight.

What can I tell you about sleeper buses based on my limited experience? They’re regular buses that have been fitted out with ‘beds’ that are actually more like seats with excessive leg room, and that can recline to almost horizontal (depending on the leg length of the person sitting behind). Their major appeal to tourists seems to be that, if you’re taking a long enough trip, you can sleep through the entire night and hence save on accommodation. Plus you don’t waste a day of your holiday jiggling around on a bus only to rock up at guesthouse late at night and have to immediately flop into bed anyway.

The whole premise relies on the fact that you actually will be able to get sleep, obviously. This is very much a matter of luck; different seats have slightly more room than others, and that makes a hell of a lot of difference to comfort. I’m quite confident that my girlfriend and I were given the worst two seats on the bus. Since they’ve managed to cram about forty beds in here by laying them out in two tiers, there’s only half a foot between the top of my head and the underside of the bed above me. So it’s a little claustrophobic.

View from the back.

Our seats are especially uncomfortable because we’re at the very back of the bus, meaning there are five tiny beds aligned parallel to one another. There is a gap of about 3mm between the edge of my shoulders and the seats on either side. And for some unknown reason, there are reading lights above every one of the beds except those at the very back. Same goes for air con. In an attempt to provide some sort of air flow, makeshift fans have been drilled into the ceiling above. They don’t actually work, of course. Despite all of this, I’m still sort of comfortable. If I stop writing this I may actually manage to get some sleep.

(And for anyone wondering the cost of a ten hour night bus ride from Saigon to Nha Trang – the chances of that are astronomical, I know – it was 180,000 Vietnamese dong each. That’s about US $9, thanks to the delicious current exchange rate.)

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The ‘War is Over’ Festival in Thailand

 
The Bridge Over the River Kwai in itself isn’t captivating; the story behind it is.

In the second world war, the Japanese army ordered allied prisoners to build the Thai-Burma Railway. It was intended to supply their soldiers fighting in Burma with ammunition, and would be thousands of kilometres shorter than the alternative sea route. Over 20,000 POWs were worked to death, not to mention over 100,000 Malay, Indonesian and other Asian slaves. Today, the most notable remnant of the railway is the Bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by a movie of the same name. Towards the end of the war, British RAF fighters bombed a large section of it, but the destroyed spans were later rebuilt and it has subsequently become a major tourist attraction, flooding the nearby town of Kanchanaburi with business.

Morbid depictions of slavery on the Thai-Burma railway.

Once a year, the Thai government celebrates the end of the war with a festival: ‘The War is Over’. Amy and I were lucky to catch the first night of this week-long celebration:

I’m back in ‘Noble Night Guesthouse’ after an eventful night that ended abruptly at the Bridge on the River Kwai. Amy and I caught one of those popular side-cart motocycles northward to the bridge and, struggling to find a decent menu close to all the fanfare, we veered into the quieter side of town and found a restaurant with about forty tables and ourselves as the only customers. The serenity was a welcome contrast to the crowds just a few minutes walk back toward the bridge.

Dinner it itself was pleasant enough, but uneventful – the most interesting part of the evening happened when we had made our way back into the crowds and, quickly scoffing ice-creams like the overindulgent westerners that we are, found ourselves at the very front of a growing audience that had surrounded a DJ. Ten mic-checks later and the performance was underway.

Beat-boxer extraordinaire. Didn't quite capture the atmosphere with this shot...

Exploding into an impressive beat-box routine, he moved cockily around the stage, wooing the crowd with vocals that sounded remarkably like artificial drum and keyboard tracks. Everyone had smiles on their faces and clapped when he prompted us with a small gesture of his hand. Three hundred or so onlookers under the spell of a skinny Asian dressed entirely in white, with stupid white sunglasses to match – a trade-off between practicality and style that reflects one of the popstars he started to impersonate: Lady Gaga.

Now would be a good time to note that, in this audience of three hundred or so, Amy and I were, quite conspicuously, the only white people. The DJ capitalised on this early in his performance, drawing the crowd’s attention to us by shaking our hands and welcoming us to Thailand in mid-performance. He made jokes in Thai that were clearly at our expense. The embarassment culminated when he plucked Amy from the safety of the masses and dragged her on stage. Just picture it: a tiny, hesitant, 19 year old white girl – the focus of the attention of three hundred Thais. I felt her nervousness and my heart raced. He asked a couple of questions – easy ones to answer with little opportunity for embarrassment.

“Where are you from?”

“Australia.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Amy.”

Simple enough. The crowd laughed as he asked Amy to free herself of the excess bodily baggage that hallmarks a white tourist in Thailand: water bottle, camera, small handbag. Now the DJ made a slightly more challenging request, involving Amy in an improvised tune.

“Say with me, like, 1, 2, 3, 4,” he shouts the numbers to a beat, then:

Kan!”

Amy shouts “Kan!

Then, in unexpected rapid succession, he says “Chanaburi!”

Amy falters. Of course, he had simply connected parts of the town’s name together to form the whole Kanchanaburi. Amy struggles with the unfamiliar, disconnected syllables and stutters a nervous, “Kan… Kan… a buri?” The DJ, acting quickly, resorts to something easier for Amy to shout into the mic: Thailand. The shout echoes rhythmically as he fiddles with the buttoms on his machine and turns a single word into a catchy electronic tune. Meanwhile, he switches sunglasses and hands a pair to Amy, both of which suddenly light up around the edges in tacky Thai style. The lights signal the start of improvised dancing. I think to myself, “Thank fuck he didn’t choose me.”

Amy follows his gestures, which gradually become more wild with the building intensity of the beat. Amy does well to follow, letting herself go and dancing freely in front of a mass of foreign strangers. I’m impressed. The crowd, too, show their appreciation at the end of the performance with loud clapping and smiles.

And this leads me to where I began: the abrupt end to the night. After the performance we escaped from the stage and the crowd as quickly as possible to save ourselves from further public humiliation. We retreated to a quiet bar, downed some incredibly alcoholic cocktails and made our way back to the floating raft where we sleep. I began writing this as tipsy and foggy-minded; I conclude equally as foggy-minded but slightly more sober. Amy just turned over so now I better read this to her.

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The Beat of Bangkok

It’s the end of a busy and explorative day. Bangkok is busy, obviously, but more than that – more like a hive of 6 million people hurriedly going about their daily lives, swarming in every direction. Space is at a premium and inadequate to the extreme. Painted white lines on the road are more a casual, unrealistic suggestion than a law most drivers adhere to. Tuk tuk drivers are particularly insane, weaving at high speed in and out of the tiniest spaces as though in a video game.

Scamming tuk tuk driver who tried to take us to a dodgy travel agency where he gets commission. Four out of four tried to do this.

 I don’t really know how traffic manages to flow, but somehow it does. Although I’m sure crashes must be much more common than in Perth – just today we saw a Hilux that had, seconds before, moulded a small car’s door into the shape of its grill. The tuk tuk and taxi drivers are equally as aggressive in their sales tactics as their driving style. Many will doggedly follow you down the sidewalk for a block or two until they’re dead sure they have no chance of making money.

On the other hand, some smile politely at a declination and let you stroll on past without much hassle. This range of attitudes applies to the shop and stall keepers as well – some pressing so desperately for a sale and others completely unphased by a hurried “No, sorry, no thank you.” Indeed, many people are polite and cheery and happy to help, which really does make a difference to how comfortable you feel in a country other than your own.

Happy propaganda.

The rhythm and the beat of Bangkok streets is on my mind because we spent all day wandering though them. I really did enjoy myself. It’s great simply having an entirely different setting to feast your eyes on, even if it’s that of somewhere you couldn’t imagine living, or even somewhere you actually like. It’s just different. That in itself has so much appeal.

Amy’s a wonderful travelling partner (I’m here with my girlfriend by the way, forgot to mention that). We’re both flexible and easy-going about what we do and where we go. That eliminates a potentially massive source of argument. And she makes me laugh. Perhaps most of all, though, I like that she cares about things – about the destitute blind or limbless beggars on the sidewalk, about acting in a way that won’t offend, about learning the culture. All things that make me appreciate having her as my girlfriend and having her here with me in Bangkok.

Leafy refuge.

 

And one last mention before I’m too exhausted. We dined at a lovely little authentic Thai restaurant this evening – a leafy refuge from the scuttles of the street, with a dim, contemplative atmosphere seemingly suited to some heavily-smoking ex-patriot scribbling insights in the corner. We ate an absurdly flavour-filled Thai beef salad – leagues too spicy for Amy, though she fought through the chilli with the aid of my milky iced tea. Freakin’ delicious.

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Hi and welcome and other things

Greetings and welcome. Or are you the ones to be welcoming me? I haven’t been around blogs much before, except to spy and leave behind an extra digit on the authors’ site stats.

But I’m bored of silence and once in a blue moon I actually feel like I have a thought worth writing down for other people to see. This probably isn’t one of them. Some others will come soon enough, though.

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