Idiot Abroad: Phuk Ups

Standard

I couldn’t resist. Really, Phuket is pronounced without the ‘h’ sound, so it’s not even right, not strictly funny: even so, I couldn’t resist.

Anyway, the title says it all. I would only add that these incidents are listed in order of occurrence, not severity.

    1) Always read the packet.

Stifled by the heat, I thought to myself how nice it would be to buy some herbal tea to enjoy in my room. And furthermore, what lovely aromatic choices there would be on offer, being so close to source and all…

So, at the nearest ‘Family Mart’ I selected a tea in a jolly red packet. ‘Senna’ it said on the back, this sounded nice.

20130526-213422.jpg

Looks nice too.

So, back at the ranch I set the kettle to boil, pouring in bottled water just to be on the safe side. Settling into the dark lacquered chair beside the coffee table I picked up my pack of tea bags to have a read, all the while mildly smug that I was putting something good in my body and washing out something bad.

But what? What was I washing out? Poo, that’s what. I had purchased laxative tea. That is what Senna does, I learned, it acts as a laxative. And if anybody is interested, it’s long term use is not advised. Phew, what a relief (‘scuse the pun). Again, for anybody who is interested (numbers dwindling all the time, I’m sure), the packet has since remained untouched.

    2) Do experiment with exotic fruits. But don’t defy your natural instincts while doing so.

The small fruit shop was clean and white; this meant it was safe. From across the road I had already identified the item I wanted. What looked like strawberries in a polystyrene tray from 5 metres away was something different close up. Instead of the moist, pipped red flesh, this fruit wore a pink spiky jacket. Still, when I read the word ‘lychees’ I picked up the tray and took it into the cool shop. I had had lycées before, at the Chinese restaurant where I worked my first job. Except there, they had come in tins.

‘Sa wat dee krap,’ the man in the shop greeted me, friendly. So friendly in fact that I felt confident in asking about how to remove the jackets these lychees were wearing.

20130526-213456.jpg

The innocent, jacketed lychee

Helpfully, he drew a single fruit from the fridge and holding it out to show me, he began to peel it. Who would have thought? Once peeled, he held out the fruit for me to try.

The moist, fibrous flesh was sweet, and I nodded in response to the shop owners question, ‘sweet, yes?’

He watched me, smiling.

Now it did occur to me to wonder about a stone. But then there’s the language gap and the lychee already an obstruction in my mouth. And strawberries don’t have stones, nor do kiwi fruit, so why –

‘But bitter, also?’ The man surprised me. I did not remember lychees being particularly bitter, but sure enough, there was a bitter taste, yes, and the fruit had become particularly hard, chewy. In fact, it was sapping all the moisture from my mouth, there were morsels everywhere, bits in my teeth and I could not speak, because I knew if I opened my mouth, my mouth would reject all this stuff.

I smiled a closed-slightly-full-mouthed-smile before leaving. Inwardly hoping that my lychees weren’t all bad like the one I had just tasted.

It was hours later that it struck me. I had chewed right through the stone. The huge, bitter, hazelnut sized stone.

20130526-213525.jpg

‘Don’t eat me, I taste like shit!’

    3) Down the drain.

The day hadn’t gone well really. The jazz restaurant I had sought out was closed for ‘restoration’, it had rained persistently and I had run out of things to do that didn’t cost money. I was feeling a bit lonely too, so by the time I headed out to get street food for dinner, I had pretty much written the day off.

Climbing into soggy sandals I took to the street to get what I needed. I was probably distracted, feeling sorry for myself. Perhaps that is why I failed to pick my feet up, or perhaps I really did trip over something. All I know is that, at once, I was falling forwards, my other non-tripping foot coming out to save the day, hands flailing. And then where my non-tripping foot should have slapped the concrete, it hit air, just air. My hands did grab something, but not strongly enough to stop my whole body falling down, down, down.

So, when I hit the bottom, hands still gripping, both feet luckily planted, I was inside a drain, up to my shoulders, the road running on regardless in front of my stunned face.

20130526-212421.jpg

This drain.

Thankfully, I was rescued, heaved out by two skinny men, to the sounds of their grunts and my new denim shirt and blue dress ripping.

Shortly after I had left, I returned to my hotel room, this time to lick my wounds (hard seeing how most of them are on the back of my right thigh…now, if only I’d attended that yoga class earlier in the week…) and see off a shitty day with Tiger Beer and meat on a stick! Because meat on a stick knows no bounds.

Now, if anyone who reads this can contribute their own idiot abroad stories, I’d be very grateful. For me, I suspect this is only the beginning…

Kata Beach Phuket: A Low Season Portrait

Standard

Billed as one of Phuket’s more dignified beaches – as opposed to hedonistic, anything-goes Patong – whatever it is, it’s my first introduction to Thailand that’s not Hat Yai.

Off the main 4028 from Phuket Town, a left turn onto Khoktanod Road (or Coconut Road, as I mis-heard my taxi-driver say) you are heading towards the beaches – Hat Kata Noi (small) and Hat Kata Yai (main). Down an alley of eateries, laundries, travel agents, guesthouses, tattooists and 7-11s this is a small but essential artery rushing with mopeds, minivans and taxis that keeps Kata Beach pumping. In the daytime (when the rain isn’t falling) the street is lined with (some) tourist-tired Thais and parked up ‘peds. At night the place belongs to the dogs that trot unfettered, sometimes in packs; down alleyways, in bins or pacing concrete, on guard.

20130528-223330.jpg

Do a right, hit the main drag and the main beach, Hat Kata Yai, is only a left hand turn away. The strip itself is what you would expect; shops selling beach-wear, knock-off sunglasses (Ray Bons anyone? It is only a matter if time before I succumb), eateries, coffee shops, travel agencies… And they all want you, like you or loath you; tourists are in short supply. This is low season.

The one thing it is good for, the low season, is surfing. I tell myself I would have tried it were it not for the ankle. In my absence there were a few guys (yep, mostly guys – disappointing in some ways) riding the frothy stuff. So other than tourists on the streets there is the odd surf dude too. If you do fancy a go, Phuket Surf and Phuket Surfing both pitch up on Hat Kata Yai. Otherwise, there’s the Surf Bar where you can watch people having a go on the fake waves – shameless voyeurism and indulgence in a worldwide love of watching people fall over. Shameless.

This is a novelty, but Phuket is an international holiday resort, it is to be expected. It has been tidied up, sanitised, polished and shrink wrapped for the international tourist.

But, this is low season. These places, shiny and turned out, sit ghostly-empty, the maitre d keen to drag you from the street and far from welcoming it is as though the restaurant wants to eat you up.

There are people at the beach; enough to stave off the desert island feeling, few enough that you can get a spot to yourself. And, while the sun shines wiry Thai men ride flopping tourists like Aladdin on the magic carpet, the silken canopy of a parachute floating above them, glutted on the gusty winds. Up Kata Hai Yai, down Kata Yai, the speed boat drags them, slapping against the surf. And when they come to land, the little men shin the ropes of the parachute, Sinbad-style – swinging from the rigging of a pirate galleon – tugging and waving, depositing the tourist on the beach.

From the beach, you can see the rains coming; a column of grey on the horizon. If you’re wondering if it will pass you don’t need to be a meteorologist; the cue comes from the men who work there, staffing the beach bars, renting out the sun loungers (100 baht). Once they begin folding or stowing the lounger mats, wedging the little tables to guard against the winds, you know the rain is coming. You can feel it, the warm wind now licks desperately at your beach mat, it whips your sarong as you try to fold it. The rain is coming, it teases.

You’re lucky if you get packed. You’re lucky if you can use your umbrella, because the storm is quick and it is vicious. Did you know that a rain drop can travel at a maximum speed of 18 mph? It is governed by its own density. Dense enough to try and travel faster, it splits and becomes two drops, never exceeding 18 mph. But fat fingers of rain drench you quickly. Then, the final insult, as the wind whips at it, stealing a fine mist that it drags sideways, drenching any part of you that you have managed to shelter.

20130528-223616.jpg

Drenched tourists draped in towels run for cover, warm rain hammers down and bounces up. Palm trees shake. Cat’s cradles of electricity wires smoke and fuse, exploding into orange and green balls, cracking in the roar of the rain, adding sparks to silver the downpour. Waitresses and bystanders,sheltering in the ghostly cafes, gasp.

But it will pass. It always does; unlike the meek but persistent English rain. Several hours later (after the electricity has been reinstated), dry, but feet pressed into still-wet-shoes, you kick through warm puddles on the hunt for food. Street vendors offer meat on sticks or there’s the main strip where you will be looked after like every other tourist and made to listen to bad English music. Instead, you might take a chance, stay on Coconut Road, chose a corrugated iron canopy, under which the staff and the customers are smiling and let the bull frogs serenade you as you eat good, cheap Thai food.

20130528-223854.jpg

Thai Season, where animal sounds are the perfect accompaniment to your evening meal

Note: stay cost £14/night (650 THB) at Elcidium Boutique Guesthouse
Evening meal cost 200 – 400 THB.

Tune Hotel, Hat Yai

Standard

20130525-155327.jpg

Concerned about my stay in Hat Yai City (where it seems travellers come to leave rather than stay) and how I was going to make the transition to my ultimate destination, I booked a room at the Tune Hotel in Hat Yai to give me a respite from a 14 hour train journey and some fully WiFi’d space to do some onward planning and lip gnawing.

To give it its due, the Tune Hotel did just that. Featureless, functional and clean with the type of service provided by a faceless corporate hotel, I faced none of the uncertainties and eccentricities of an independent guesthouse (although I’ll confess, I did feel I was cheating somewhat).

The staff were polite, the rooms spacious and clean. They all have WiFi, AC and a flat screen television and the entire environment is anonymised in Tune’s trademark white and red.

The hotel is within walking distance of the train station and a 50 THB motorcycle taxi ride of the bus station. At a cost of £18/night (50% the normal price) I was a satisfied customer.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Standard

20130524-002846.jpg

Trouble Will Find Me
The National
****
This week sees the release of Trouble Will Find Me, the sixth album from Brooklyn-based indie rock band, The National.

While the band have been releasing albums since 2001, the momentum they have built has been steady rather than overwhelming, leading up to the release of critically acclaimed album High Violet in 2010.

Those familiar with the band won’t be surprised to find Trouble holds more of their trademark darkness. Lead singer Matt Berninger’s lyrics have always haunted the nether regions of the soul, so in this respect Trouble is consistent. Berninger uses is lazy baritone to sing about tortures – failed relationships, self-doubt, the desire for escape-that dog us all (although we might not talk about them, let alone sing). This vibe pervades the entire album from the self-flagellation of ‘I Should Live in Salt’ to the lingering regret of ‘Hard to Find’; it captures the instability and impermanence of life and if anything is comforting more than disturbing.

So be brave; enter. Trouble has been hailed as confident and self-assured despite the permeating self-doubt to which Berninger lends poetry and consequent beauty. Despair has never sounded so appealing or energetic; tracks ‘Graceless’ , ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ and ‘This is the Last Time’ literally pulse with life. Each track is built on that strong drum backbone featured on Boxer’s ‘Squalor Victoria’ and High Violet’s ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’.

Of course, they do mournful too, but it is rarely downbeat. ‘Pink Rabbits’ and single release ‘Demons’ both feature the arrangements of piano, wind and strings as found on ‘Fake Empire’, ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ and earlier ‘Cardinal Song’ that have always set The National apart.

Like the mindset, some of this album sounds fractured and deconstructed. However, Trouble appears to demonstrate a point of maturation. Instead of yet another new departure, as has been evident on each previous albums, the band seem to have settled into their skin, combining their standout styles from previous work and making no apology for the depths of their lyrics, to captivating effect.

The Classic Inn, Kuala Lumpur

Standard

20130523-145415.jpg

The Classic Inn stands on a raised pavement on a back street, just off Jalan Chankat Thambi Dollah. Easy to find, it is just at the southern edge of KLCC, the business district, and within walking distance if at least two malls (one is across the road) and many budget eateries.

Tired from my flight, anxious to be in a foreign city, at first I was disappointed with my room. Windowless; an old television and a single bed. However, as I was told never to judge my guests on their arrival in the French Alps, I think the same can be applied to accommodation on my arrival.

The Classic Inn was in fact a friendly, professional and comfortable place to stay. A breakfast of bread spread with sweet jam, noodles or pancakes, chopped fruit and either delicious coffee or tea was served every morning on the porch, covered over with a dark wooden canopy and beset with greenery. Furthermore, breakfast stretched from 07:30 to 11:30.

20130523-145344.jpg

While my room did not have a window it did come complete A/C (arguably more important) and was kept exceptionally clean. It was also replenished with bottled water daily. For £20 (approximately) it was a sanctuary after a day of walking the busy streets of Kuala Lumpur.

The staff were happy for me to leave my heavy backpack at the guesthouse after checkout and I didn’t feel uncomfortable when forced to repack on their porch before heading off. For a lone traveler, these things count.

Finally, place has a guest book for comments but they must have got so many, they have just taken to using the walls…

20130523-150841.jpg

Testament to the great service

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Standard

20130525-180107.jpg

I picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist at the airport, afraid that I hadn’t enough reading matter now that my activity based travels had (at least for now) turned into a beach sitting/restaurant sitting/coffee shop sitting sojourn. When I picked it up, I had in mind that I wanted an ‘American Book’; an irony I was to understand later.

Perhaps it was apt that I read it beneath the shadow of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, because it is the destruction if The World Trade Centre in New York that provides the pivot for the story and the depth and strength of Nations’ response, it’s drama. And, sadly, it may be relevant that I sit to consider it under another shadow; that cast by the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and the response of nations having only just begun.

The book has been labelled ‘a thriller’, emphasised by the protagonists of the recent film adaptation depicted on the front cover; their expressions urgent, dramatic. The threat of violence is set as the as the tone in the very first paragraph, as protagonist, Changez, addressing an unknown man, in a market in Lahore proclaims, ‘Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America.’

Identity is the theme and the space from where threat emerges, in this spare novella. Changez’s identity, once Princeton scholar and trainee business analyst, what has it become? And who is the man across the table from him, with whom he shares his story? The burly waiter, is he more than just that? Then the bereft Erica, Changez’s love – all American girl and aspiring novelist – unable to maintain am identity beyond sorrow. And finally, what of ‘the fundamentals’ he is asked to believe in, the laws of business or those of his own culture?

The afternoon grows old and turns black. During this time Changez shares his story with us and the stranger in his dangerously civilised prose.

Precise and shocking in its delivery, the book presents some persuasive questions, about the nature of threat and identity in the aftermath of 9/11. Because it is not entirely of his own volition that Changez turns his back on American society. In many ways, the epitome of American aspiration, in the wake of 9/11 he is treated with suspicion and diminished respect.

While the thinly veiled threat throughout the novel is, what has Changez become? by the final chapter threat lingers still more menacingly. Does the threat come from Changez at all? Or, is it elsewhere, the unknown American? The jury is still out.

Goodbye Hat Yai! – on awkward transitions

Standard

‘Hat Yai! Hat Yai!’ A Thai woman called repeatedly, walking up and down the carriage. I started; dozing every 20 or so minutes had become a habit on the 15 hour journey.

Other people were in the carriage too; men. And they called out, ‘Hat Yai, Hat Yai!’ until it rang a rhythm to my panic. I gathered my things in a fever, afraid that I would miss the stop, forgetting that the train terminated here, in Hat Yai City; Big City living in southern Thailand.

My head was ringing as I stumbled, shoe laces still untied, from the train carriage, balking at the canyon between the train and the platform, wincing in advance of the pain I would feel in my ankle.

Old sofas, stuffing-guts spilling out, made for benches. Women stood at stands offering food as the flies crashed above through an overwhelming smell of fish.

And then it began, ‘where’re you going?’ Local men surrounded me; persistent. I was money. I was sweaty money. I began to walk. Again and again and again they asked me. I to them I knew where I was going (first time I have ever said that with much conviction).

If there is ever pessimism in the Lonely Planet, then I would say there were undertones in the section on Hat Yai. In its brevity and it’s ‘stay if you want’ attitude. I didn’t want, but having changed my plans to suit my wretched foot, I had no choice.

Hat Yai City, population 157,000 approx is a transition town; a place which travellers pass through and historically where Malaysian men make weekend pilgrimage to find their hookers. Along with this you might find good shopping and good food.

Between the Internet and The Lonely Planet, I was confused. The Lonely Planet advised that mist interprovincial buses and south-bound minivans left from the bus terminal south of the city centre. The Internet (I generalise here) advised not to travel direct to the bus terminal but that tickets must be booked from one of the many travel agencies scattered all over the city.

My instinct was that I wanted to buy the tickets direct from the station, if I could. Call me tight but I didn’t fancy paying commission to an agent for something that a degree of hobbling could achieve; I think it’s my duty as a traveller to adopt this attitude.

My first life line turned out to be the TAT, the Thai tourist authority. Located 100 yards from Sripoovanart Road on Niphat Uthit 3 Soi 2, they furnished me with a full timetable. So I set off to the bus station to try to book my way out of Hat Yai.

I passed by the international Golden Arches of McDonalds, an amazing feat considering my hunger, before I tailed onto the backstreets where people on mopeds shout ‘hey lady!’, greasy dogs watch their patch of concrete and men piss into the canal. There are also many many food stalls and I berated myself for being too meek to try at least one. Instead I fixed my face and just kept walking. And walking.

But I couldn’t buy a ticket to Ranong, when I got there, as I had planned. No, the ticket booth was shut until six. I slumped down on a bench to gather my thoughts.

‘Where’re you goin’?’ This time it was a New Zealander, pre-occupied with his onward journey to Padang Besar (border town and dead ringer for The Phantom Zone of Superman literature) and a seemingly insatiable itch in his scrotal area.

I’You wanna’ go to Phuket, Ranong bus is gonna’ go there anyway.’ I nodded, made the right noises and tried not to notice the itching.

‘Loads of buses go to Phuket.’

I assured him I would keep it as a back-up plan, then continued to give him my interested face as he told me of his frustrations.

The next time I saw the bus station I rode there, on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my 15kg rucksack wedged in front of the driver. The 50 baht ride might have been the first time I have genuinely smiled since arriving. Whether that was because of the feeling of the warm wind through my clothes or the anticipation of leaving, I don’t know; probably both.

In the end I got a ticket to Phuket – international beach resort – looking for some certainty. Although a little voice resounded, is that what travelling is? Certainty?

On my return to the hotel, through those back streets, I’d asked myself what travelling was all about. Because right then I felt scared, alien and impotent. And of course I got no answer but my instincts told me I might find both my feet and some temporary peace in Phuket.

Now the useful stuff:

The bus terminal is just off Sripoovanart Road on Chotwittayakul 1 Road…

20130523-133848.jpg
Bottom right, not Google Maps, I know.

Hat Yai Bus Terminal can be contacted on 0 7423 2404

Buses offers are VIP, two levels of air-con and non-air-con.

Here are a few of the locations the terminal services:

Bangkok
Chumpon
Koh Samui
Koh Yai
Krabi
Padang Besar
Phang-Nga
Phuket
Ranong
Surat Thani
Trang

This list is not exhaustive and for all locations there are multiple departures daily.

Travelling Feet

Standard

20130518-080813.jpg

Or not….

Three weeks post-ski season I do a light, four mile jog. The risks are much smaller than those faced on the slopes and its not the first since my return either, its possibly the fifth. The result is as shown above…

Tubi grip was not in my travel wardrobe. Sadly, yes, the sandals always were. Quite gross but also quite practical!

So, if ever it was crucial not to carry too much stuff, it’s now…

…slowly, I unpack everything. Then slowly I re-pack. Everything. Curse my penchant for hoarding! Clearly, I have not learned the lesson of letting go yet. Buddha would be unimpressed.

Park Life – Acclimatisation in Kuala Lumpur

Standard

…The title? Think dirty pigeons…

After 24 hours in Malaysia my brain was struggling (with the noise, sticky heat, roads – their treachery and lack of pavements – stares, dilemmas, the great bulk of my backpack) and searched constantly for patterns, something it could identify with.

Eventually, it found animals.

My first fear, if it is that easy to separate those slippery, weaving eels, was that once in the guesthouse, my bedroom door shut, in a sanctuary where there were no eyes or voices, it would become my cage. I would not dare to leave, like an animal that desperately seeks safety. Like my cat, in fact, who disappeared behind the washing machine for two weeks when she first became ‘my cat’.

And strangely, it happened just that way – funny, huh? I had more in common with my cat than I thought. But for me it took only 13 hours to emerge and like ‘Little Miss Tib Tabs’, it was food that drew me.

However, I think our similarities end there. Before I could face breakfast (a good job it ran from 07:30-11:30) I had to revise Malaysian culture and food etiquette – always use the right hand (never the left, the poo hand), don’t put the fork in your mouth, use it to push food onto the spoon, wash your hands, before and after…I had images of horrified gasps, the Malay equivalent of crossing themselves (whatever that is) as I unwittingly did all of these things.

But, eventually I clunked my way to the ground floor and within minutes was sat on the covered porch, in a chair the shape of a huge hand, a steaming mug of coffee in front of me. Ahhhhh – I had not been cast out as a heathen.

Shortly after I sat down a grey cat streaked in, only half a tail and little spare flesh. Trotting low it came to rest under a large bench. It was something in its urgency that caused me to look outside, beyond the canopy; it was a dense mucousy grey. Rain, lots of rain.

The cat comforted me. I watched it beneath the bench, tearing at its clumped coat with its tongue, intermittently staring at the monsoon. Like the cat I looked with baleful saucer eyes, but set out later anyway, turning towards the monorail station, umbrella aloft. I fixed on the entrance as I passed the first of many malls. ‘You want taxi?’ An old man looked at me. I shook my head. He would be the first of many. ‘What wrong with your foot?’ Again, the first of many, always men.

Kuala Lumpur is not like the cities I know; European cities. Much of the centre, although close together, is huge dual carriageway. Like any city it is thronged with vehicles, one after another, after another. But there so many motorbikes, armies of (mainly men) on board old puttering machines, their jackets worn back to front across their bodies –

– and then the more I think, perhaps it’s not the construction. It maybe no different from many European cities in build. It was the customs; the noise and the customs. Many of the crossings do not work, so to cross four lanes of traffic people learn split second timing. I found myself walking long pavements, beside these beasts and when I needed to cross, honed the hobble-run. Nowhere else have I walked a dual carriageway into the path of the oncoming traffic. In China Town the roads became narrower, wedged with every kind of vehicle, pipping and chuntering, straddling junctions and, in the case of the mopeds, simply mounting the pavements and using them as a short cut.

Tides of men passed me in varieties of costume while I limped my way up that dual carriageway and I began to think of lame pigeons. Those you see on the street, close to the walls or edges of side walks, a little broken and lost; a sight that evokes pity and revulsion in equal measure. I wondered then about the eyes that ran over me; always male.

Through China Town, then beyond the market dragons and into the city to the magnificent Petronas Towers; one huge monument to capitalism built on foundations of Chanel and Bvlgari. KLCC, the business district; where the corporate animals live.

20130518-094403.jpg

Business time…

At the guesthouse, safe, I congratulated myself; able to smile, rather than scream, at the lizard scuttling about the light fitting. Aware that I had not eaten, I dared myself to head out again to the street vendors.

Only I didn’t go. Disturbed on the porch by a man who claimed to be in Real Estate, to do ‘oh, maybe one or two deal a year; that’s all I need.’ He had a BMW, he said. He was a good friend of the guesthouse owner, he said. He had time to kill he said, before going clubbing. The club – The Butter Factory – opened late, he was meeting a lady there, an architect. I didn’t tell him he was killing my time, I only wondered that there was this type of man all over the world. Making my excuses, ducking the inevitable invite by pointing at my bandaged foot, I limped to my room. After that, I stayed there, hiding; always the animal.

20130521-230424.jpg