Friday 11 September 2009

Chiang Khan

Chiang Khan is in North Isaan, right up against the meaty girth of the Mekhong river, looking across at Laos. The terrain is hilly and the views are even more dramatic when the skies are overcast and there is mist over the water. Since we were there in the peak of the rainy season, we had plenty of drama and the river was full to the brim.

Fortunately, we also had some beautiful sunshine, which made for idyllic days exploring the beautiful countryside 60 km either side of town. I love the countryside, even more perhaps than beach settings - the green grass, farmland and flowers put me in a reverie and I feel euphoria with every seven league stride. We saw everything, from mountain forest to verdant pasture. We scrambled around on endless dirt tracks through gorgeous fields that at times looked a bit like England. We met and spoke to a group of sculptists working on beautiful stone Buddha images. We watched a village game of petanques. We found some really quite luxurious bungalows at 350 Baht a night, in a really quite beautiful setting in Pak Chom, 50km to the east of Chiang Khan.

We met an interesting english guy called Ian, living in Chiang Khan. He has retired from the French Foreign legion. Now he lives alone and hates the world. We think he's just lonely. Nice guy, hard as nails, bit of a handful after a few beers and interestingly, a keen phtographer with a stash of classic exquipment. We were glad to meet him.

Accomodation, food and scooter hire are cheap in Chiang Khan. There are Buddha image stupas placed at altitiude in incredibly serene and picturesque settings. There’s a blissful lack of tourists.

Things may change of course. We had one splurge on a dinner in a Thai-French restaurant overlooking the awe-inspiring chocolate river from a hill on the western edge of the town. The owner kindly furnished us with smoke after dinner and told us of his plans for the site. The luxury bungalows are nearly finished, as is the 400 seater convention space, with snooker tables et al. In dry December and January the river sinks to expose a sand beach. He plans to hire out jetskis to residents, which quite frankly blew my mind.

As the sun set in orange and red over the hills of Laos and we listened to the lonely cd of Beatles covers, we considered how large-scale tourism would affect the vibe of the place. However, the owner - whose demeanour (and laugh) closely resembled Danny Devito’s Penguin in one of the batman films – had already spent 17 million baht and 20 years on the development of the place, so we reckon there’s a little while yet before that happens.

Definitely my favourite place in Thailand, so far…

Photos - firedancer on Koh Tao

Koh Tao: All creatures great and small (but mainly cats and dogs)

My continuing obstinacy in refusing to take up scuba diving in some of the world’s best diving locations meant I was on the look out for alternative activities in Koh Tao and chanced upon an advert in the island’s information leaflet for the Animal Clinic asking for volunteers. I don’t have any veterinary experience - I have trouble just saying the word - my main incentive was Puppies! Kittens!

My romantic notion of volunteering at an animal clinic was shattered on my first visit to see if I could help. When I walked in, the vet was standing over an unconscious dog splayed out on an operating table. With a scalpel in one hand and an internal organ covered in blood in the other, she said cheerily, “Hello, how can I help?” She said I could come back the following morning and I let her get back to reorganising the dog’s insides.

When I arrived the next day, I was introduced properly to Jae, the clinic vet, and volunteers Sarah and Will from the UK. Sarah had another year of veterinary studies to complete before qualifying, and Will was newly qualified. With a tiny puppy recovering from mange sat in my lap chewing happily on my fingers, they told me about the clinic’s work. Their biggest undertaking is to try to control Koh Tao’s population of stray dogs and cats by neutering them. Even dogs and cats that have owners need neutering because the freedom that Thailand’s domestic pets enjoy means that they can pop out for a shag whenever they want. With new kittens and puppies able to reproduce in as soon as six and eight months respectively, populations can increase dramatically. Yet, many pet owners have to be persuaded to agree and requiring payment has proved counterproductive to an effective strategy of persuasion. At almost 1000 baht per procedure, with always another neutering to be done, and with no one to pay for the strays, the clinic relies on fundraising and donations.

At about 10am, the phone rang and I was given my first task: to hop on the back of a motorbike and help bring a dog back to the clinic for spaying. Although she was a stray, she was friendly with the owners of a local restaurant who fed her regularly. Having found homes for her most recent litter of puppies, they’d contacted the clinic to have her neutered. So, one minute, she’d been having a lazy day basking in the sun and the next, Emily, another newly qualified vet from the UK, had injected her with a pre-med and she was about to be whisked away to have her womb removed. She would probably be using a new patch of ground to kip on from now on.
She wasn’t unconscious by the time we arrived, but she was drowsy so it was easy to get her into the trailer, wrapped up in a sheet, where she slumped against my leg. It sounds quite easy to hold on to a sedated dog in a motorbike trailer. It isn’t. I didn’t want to hurt her by pushing down too hard, which was going to be the least of her concerns that day, and not even a minute after setting off, the bike hit a bump. The energy of the jolt seemed to flow directly to the dog’s muscles and she sprang to life, leaped out of the trailer and my pathetic grasp and bolted off down the road with me running after her as usefully as a shadow. The more adrenalin an animal has, the more sedation they need and it was another half an hour and two injections before we could try to get her back in the trailer again. So, I wasn’t much good at helping with the dog, but I could at least ride Emily’s bike back to the clinic.

By the time I got back, our poor dog was out for the count, laid on her back, legs akimbo. Will was getting ready to operate while Emily explained the procedure. When a dog is spayed in the UK, a large hole is made so the vet can see exactly what’s going on and where stuff is. In Thailand, where even the domestic dogs tend to run around free all day, chasing cars and tourist buses, a big hole is far from practical. Without constant supervision, the stitches tend to come undone causing their insides to spill out. So, Jae teaches her vet volunteers to make a small hole and feel around for things instead. It’s similar to using a dark bag to remove film that’s got stuck in a camera, only instead of a dark bag, it’s a female animal, and instead of a film, it’s a uterus and a couple of ovaries.

The procedure itself sounds pretty straightforward; first you use a ligature to make a tie and stop the blood from gushing everywhere, then you make the cut. Tie and cut, tie and cut. Emily drew a diagram on a Post-It for me. But Will also explained that being a qualified vet is very different to being an experienced vet, and he was now required to perform the procedure blind. A further challenge was that he was a left-hander having to use right-handed tools. We all get stressed from time to time at work, but when you’re knuckle deep in intestines trying to tell a bladder apart from a stomach, the stakes are higher than usual. Emily, Sarah and I left him to it and went for lunch.

Doctors are known for a somewhat dark sense of humour. With what they have to do on the average day, I don’t blame them. A story that Sarah told me showed that vets are no different. A friend of hers was training as an agricultural vet and was down on a farm helping a sheep to give birth. With her tutor, she’d managed to get one of the lamb’s hoofs out and it was a question of using lambing ropes to pull the rest of it out. With the ropes tied round, she had to pull hard. After a good deal of pulling, there was still no movement and she was instructed to pull harder. She’d already been pulling as hard as seemed reasonable, but mustered the strength to pull with everything she had. With a final, massive heave, the movement they’d been looking for suddenly happened and she fell back, finding herself on the floor with a leg of lamb in her hands. The lamb had been dead for some time and had started to decompose and so the leg had been pulled free from the rest of the body. I knew it was wrong to laugh, but I absolutely cracked up, but with my hand over my mouth and my eyes screwed shut, much like I do when watching scenes with the accident-prone vet from The League of Gentleman (which I could not stop thinking about for the whole time I was in the clinic).

After lunch, our stray had been sewn back up and lay passed out on the floor, and there were another two spayings and a castration to be done. All vets and operating tables were occupied while a strange buzzer kept going off somewhere in the room making the whole scene feel like a real life game of Operation. Sarah couldn’t find her kitten’s ovaries and began to wonder if it was, in fact, a girl and Emily pulled something out of her kitten and wondered ‘What’s that?” All the frustrations, unpleasant surprises and worries I’ve felt during the average day at work were all crammed into every operation. The most use I could be was to keep little-mange-puppy, and another one who’d been castrated that morning while I was out losing dogs, from getting under the vets feet (literally) and fishing ovaries and testicles out of the bin.

As Emily tattooed her kitten’s ear so the clinic would know in the future that she’d already been spayed, she asked me if my day had inspired me to be a vet. Apart from the practicalities of being too old to start with all the studying, I have to say there is no way, frankly. I love animals, but you need a lot more than that to be a vet (it struck me that vets seem to like animals a lot more than most of the doctors I’ve met seem to like people). “I don’t know about being a vet,” I replied, “but I should find it easier to watch an 18 rated film”.

Thanks to everyone at Noistar Thai Animal Rescue Foundation, Koh Tao, for welcoming me to the clinic and letting me see all the hard work that you do. As I’ve mentioned, the foundation relies on donations. You can find out more about it and make a donation at

Thailand, down south: Bang Saphan

We hadn’t been on a beach since Mozambique – nearly 2 whole months!! - and were craving some beach action, which is what the south of Thailand does best. A friendly Canadian guy in Bangkok had recommended Bang Saphan as quietly and lovely so we decided to check it out. We’d mainly avoided the rain in Africa, but when we arrived at Bang Saphan’s deserted train station, the only tourists to alight, it was chucking it down. There’s something fascinating about beaches in Thailand’s windless rain. It hammers out the reflections on the water, creating a weirdly flat and matt surface, and transfers them to the saturated sand in a strange negative of its usual appearance. Actually, being in the sea at Bang Saphan is terrifying. It’s a thick, brown colour and disconcertingly warm, providing favourable living conditions for who knows what. Anything dipped below the surface disappears in the murk. I got in as far as my knees and freaked out when a shark (for all I know) brushed against my legs. Alex diligently had a dip every morning, the madman.   

We did find the farangs; they were all next door to our hut in Montri Libre’s Coco Bar– “the best bar in Thailand, sometimes” – all regular visitors to Bang Saphan over many years. Ray was an ex-Hell’s Angel from Newcastle whose fighting days, he assured us repeatedly, were over. He had stopped drinking, but had just started again for two weeks to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Alan, Pete, Steve and Gareth were from Australia and had decided to drink even more than usual to celebrate Alan and Gareth’s fiftieth birthday. Derek and Sarah were from the UK and were still some way from fifty but determined to be last under the table. No one was remotely bothered about the colour of the sea or the rain lashing onto it. Montri, the barman, had seen it all a million times before and listened quietly with an expression of bemused amusement, pouring out more salted, freshly roasted peanuts whenever a plate approached empty. He invited us over for coffee one morning and showed us the photos of the Bang Saphan Olympics he’d arranged (and won by a clear margin) as we tried to find an artist he didn’t have in his CD collection. He wouldn’t let us pay for coffee.   

Without even realising it, we stayed a week. On our last night, we were invited to yet another fiftieth birthday party, Pete, another farang long-termer. Arriving at the bar, we saw a Thai cliché lining the bar: large, white, ageing men with hairpieces punching above their considerable weight with the Thai ladies accompanying them. But far from being the seedy arrangement one might have originally imagined, they were husbands and wives of twenty of thirty years with beautiful children that switched between Thai and English as easily as tunes on their iPod, with the beauty and culture of Thailand and the economic advantages of the UK to call their own.   

Perhaps, when the rain has stopped in Bang Spahan, the sea turns from impenetrable brown to something bluer. Perhaps it is possible to see the bottom. Otherwise, it’s more of a travelling destination than a holiday one, when you have just two or three weeks to cram in a year’s worth of blue sea and white sand. But if you are travelling and have the luxury of time, go to Bang Saphan, tell us what colour the sea is and, most importantly, say hello to Montri from us.

Arrival in Bangkok

I feel sorry for Thailand. People complain that it’s too touristy (Europeans have invented the word ‘touristic’) and with hordes of tourists marching past like they’re off to work on a Monday morning and street after street of businesses catering especially for them, I suppose it is. But it’s a beautiful country, has a world-renowned cuisine, an exchange rate that flatters western currencies and it’s been on the traveller circuit for so long that they’d be mad not to make the most of the pounds, euros and dollars that fly over. Actually, I find the tourists more of a problem than the tourism. In Africa, the foreigners we met had just finished volunteering for three months as a midwife, or were in the middle of a post-graduate placement investigating the prevention of water-borne diseases, or in the Peace Corps, or otherwise trying to help a little piece of the world. In Thailand, they’re mainly getting wasted and living empty drink cups everywhere. Some of the ‘land of smiles’ seem a little wan, but they usually make the effort.   

It only took ten hours to fly to Bangkok from Johannesburg, but it could have been the other end of the world. It was cold when we left South Africa –socks in bed - so arriving in Bangkok airport was like walking into the tropical house at Kew Gardens in the middle of January. Standing outside Arrivals adjusting to the heat, we realised that English had become practically useless. In Africa, we’d enjoyed trying to learn the various local languages for fun, but we’d rarely had to actually use them. Even road signs appear either European or, most personally incongruous, British, announcing Kisumu as casually as Kettering. In Thailand, the first country we’ve visited that has never been colonised (Thailand gave Laos and Cambodia, originally Thai territory, to France to prevent it), the Thais are as relaxed as the English about the need to speak international languages and also tend not to bother. I’d remembered travelling around Asia as easy, but we were going to have to make considerably more effort here than we’d had to in Africa.   

Actually, our taxi driver from Bangkok airport (taxi charges to Khao San Road vary between 400 and 1,800 Baht) spoke good enough English to give us a lecture about tuk-tuk drivers that lasted all the way to our guesthouse with a passion that went beyond the average road user’s hatred for all other road users. By now, we were so used to warnings, the telling and hearing of horror stories being in the top three of traveller pastimes (with eating and internet), we just rolled our eyes. But it was one of those usually unusual warnings that manifest themselves immediately. Tuk-tuk drivers will promise to take you wherever you want to go as long as you let them take you where they want you to go first. A gem shop, a tailor, a Thai cushion maker and definitely where you want to go next. Honest. I’m sure a proportion of farangs think of it as a convenient and, compared to back home, cheap way to spend the day touring the city and doing some shopping, otherwise it’s maddening. A pair of Dutch girls we met at the entrance to Dusit zoo at closing time had been trying to get there since the morning but their tuk-tuk driver had taken them on an unwanted all-day tour of the shops that would give him commission. And when you have finally managed to agree to ‘NO STOPS!’, you have to get the pronunciation exactly right: Koh San Road is a completely different thing to Khao (cow) San Road and no one will know what you’re on about.   

As is traditional for backpackers, Cow San Road was the first place we headed. The area had spread since my last visit, but it hadn’t changed. It’s lined with bars with big open fronts with whiteboards advertising prices for buckets of Sangsom (the local whisky that is actually a rum) and coke, pancakes and fruit shakes and the time at which they’ll be showing The Beach and filled with tourists slowly dissolving in the heat. They’re separated from the street by stalls selling clothes, gadgets with flashing LEDs, fabrics and trinkets, usually selling the same items at starting prices that never vary. The sound of croaking frogs has you checking your step until female traders wearing elaborate tribal hats, Burmese refugees we were told, pop up behind you selling wooden frogs with a ridged back that, when stroked with the accompanying wooden stick, emit the convincing croak, as well as silver bracelets, necklaces and, of course, tribal hats. After that comes the cigarette accessory trader selling lighters with built in torches, or cigarette cases with built in lighters that glow with a windproof, green flame (which we got for 150 baht, down from 700). Minding your own business having a beer and suddenly you find that another hat-wearing trader waiting in the wings has plonked another hat on your head and won’t take ‘sorry’ for an answer (“'sorry’ no buy me food!”). It will drive you mad soon enough, but it’s quite good fun before that and the area offers all the services a budget traveller looks for.   

Often, Bangkok is just a place to catch a bus, train or flight straight back out. Last time, we only left Khao San Road on our sixth and final visit to kill time while we waited for our flight home. We were sick of the crowds, the Sangsom buckets and circular conversations with tuk-tuk drivers and wandered off, accidentally discovering a whole new world. With Alex, I went to the Royal Palace for the first time. Wandering through the enormous temples and gardens, he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe you never came here before”. “After Vietnam, we were all templed out,” I answered, which was true, but I couldn’t believe it either. Many of the famous sites are visible from the Chao Phraya River and, at 13 baht per trip, cheaper than a biro back home, it’s a more economical and pleasant way to cross the city than using the pollution and traffic choked Bangkok streets. Our favourite stop is just after River City going south; a little alley on the left takes you to the food stalls where the locals go for lunch and, perhaps, the best pad kra pow in Southeast Asia. All the shops in Bangkok are grouped together. There’s the gold Buddha section, the metal pipe section, the coffin section, the miscellaneous engine parts section, the Chinese herb section, the digital still and video camera section. In Chinatown, a labyrinth of alleys sell everything you can think of and a bunch else besides, with flagrant disregard for the well guarded barrier at home between wholesale and retail; plastic feet for modelling flip-flops for sale were on sale next to flip-flops. We put our map back in the bag; it was no use in Chinatown.   

Bangkok (and Thailand as a whole, according to other travellers we’ve met) has a bad reputation for scamming and even TAT agents act more like touts than you might expect of representatives of the Thailand government’s Tourism Authority. A simple thing like visiting the Royal Grand Palace became something of a mission with people on the way telling us a variety of different things about opening hours and dress codes. A Thai guy outside the Grand Palace told us that 3.30pm was a bad time to visit when an incensed tourist stormed up and told us not to listen to him – the Palace was open and they were selling tickets. But when we’d been wandering around for an hour and a half, rushing around before closing time with so much more still to see, the Thai man’s advice started to make sense. A similar thing happened as we tried to find our way to the Farang Quarter: a couple of tuk-tuk drivers we asked for directions kept saying, “Embassy? You want embassy?” “No, no,” we replied pointing in exasperation at our English-written map, “Farang Quarter!” It was only later, on closer inspection of our guide-book, that we realised that the Farang Quarter is home to many of Bangkok’s embassies, (and maybe how it got its name). Overall, 95% of apparently spurious advice turned out to be well intentioned. (The other 5% will suck you dry, of course :) )   

Ten years seems a long time but, although individual places have changed or spread out, overall I was struck not by what had changed but what hadn’t. Even the dodgy guesthouse we stayed in ten years ago is still there, and the rooms cost about the same (we didn’t realise how dodgy it was last time, Alex took one look at the sign asking guests bringing back Thai ladies to pay for their sheets, shook his head at me and walked straight out). Bangkok is still crowded, smelly and hectic and I still love it.   

Ten years ago Now 
Ex rate to £1 60 Bt 54 Bt 
Big bottle of beer (in a bar)  60 Bt 60-90 Bt 
Starting price for double room 200+ Bt 300+ Bt 
Breakfast 20-40 Bt (bacon and eggs) 20-40 Bt (fruit)

Southeast Asia – The Sequel

I first went travelling (by which I mean that we would only book the return flight when we’d run out of money) nearly eleven years ago when the follower with the complicated user name on the right hand side (aka Ni) and I spent four months exploring Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. It was the best four months ever and destroyed my enthusiasm for holidays (by which I mean that you book your outbound and return flights at the same time) for several years. After six months, we had begun to feel at home in Africa and I was sad to leave, but one of the great things about travelling is that departures are only the end of the chapter, not the whole book and I was cheered up by the prospect of returning to Asia.   

There were plenty of good reasons for not returning to the countries I’d been to before: ten years is a long time for places I'd loved to become unrecognisable, I’d avoid boring Alex with endless observations of how things used to be and there were so many unvisited countries to see. But, actually, I was itching to return - and anyway, our flight schedule had already committed us to Thailand (which you’d have to be bloody-minded to avoid on a trip round Southeast Asia) and Vietnam (which made more sense at the time of booking than it did several months later when we came to working out the logistics).   

Thailand was Tourist Central even then, but we’d heard there were still opportunities to get away from the crowds, so it would be ‘same same but different’, I figured. I couldn’t imagine Laos having the ambition or inclination to change much. But Vietnam, my favourite, was only just starting to make the most of the tourists beginning to flood over the borders. Ni went back five years ago and had already warned me not to expect the same. So, my expectations were suitably managed and our flight schedule showed that persuading Alex to go had already been taken care of.