Thursday 5 November 2009

Thailand, Up North

Going to Koh Tao was a mistake. Distinctly average and overpriced food and massive queues of hung-over and semi-naked tourists for the ham-and-cheese toasty machine at 7/11 made a poor impression of Thailand, and apparently the diving wasn’t all that (I guess after the whale sharks in Mozambique, most other things must seem quite … small). In the end, we couldn’t leave fast enough and decided to head straight up north. I was big enough to refrain from saying, “I told you so” (Ha! Of course I wasn’t).

We went to northeast Isaan, the other side of the Mekong from Laos, which Alex has already told you about. After Africa, it was a sight for thirsty eyes, where the heavy rains feed the forests and rice paddies with every type of green there is, from rich bottle shades to bright neon glowing in the sunlight. In fact, if the sun isn’t shining right, it’s tricky to take a picture of all the incessant green. The Mekong cuts through it; a great, sliding slick of rich brown striped at the edges by elegant, longtail boats. But at sunset, it transforms into a liquid mirror reflecting all the colours of the sky. People like me with cameras line the riverside path, adding our own percussion of shutter clicks to the soft beat of music floating over the Mekong from Laos.

Twice in Chiang Khan, we tried to find the golden Buddha visible from our guesthouse (a charming, wooden building with a balcony on the top floor called Fairytale Guesthouse) sitting atop a hill, admiring the view. But its position was so glaringly obvious, it seemed, that signposting had been considered entirely unnecessary. The first time, we completely missed the turning. The second time, we think we found it but a rainbow, brightly lit against the thundering sky behind it, signalled that we were in a race against time to beat the rain. We headed back with the glowering sky chasing us in the rear view mirror.

We got to a riverside restaurant just in time. A strong wind was shaking the window shutters and there was a buzz of activity as the restaurant owners quickly moved their flapping A-board sign indoors and secured the doors and windows. We saw the rain, an impenetrable grey, advancing along the Mekong with the preceding wind beating out the reflections of the river surface in front of it into a band of flat brown. My hair was whipping my face as I tried to capture the oddly two-dimensional effect. Finally, the rain was on us and we sat in the dark, waiting for our noodle soups, listening to the deafening clamour the rain was making above us on the corrugated iron roof. Out front, water cascaded from drains onto the street in front of the sheltering pedestrians and cyclists watching the storm. And then, as suddenly as it started, the noise softened, the grey lightened, journeys were resumed and through the now open door, we could see the storm continue its route along the river. “Wow,” we murmered, slurping our soups.

Leaving most of our stuff at Fairytale, we took a couple of days to explore the riverside, heading east from Chiang Khan, towards Pak Chom, something that has to be done independently as public buses aren’t interested in riverside views. So, we bumbled along on the fabulous, yellow scooter Foreign Legion Ian had lent us (he’d even bought an extra helmet for me, his only condition being that we return with it all), with me discretely flicking six-legged stowaways off the back of Alex’s shirt and speculating as to whether our heads have a gravitational pull as I watched flies buzzing round Alex’s helmet at 20mph as if we were stationary. I love being a passenger on a scooter. I did have a go myself for three minutes when I had a premonition that I would kill myself that way. Things feel much safer on the back of the seat behind my human shield called Alex.

Though very quiet, Chiang Khan is still farang-friendly, whereas Pak Chom seems to be where Thais go on holiday and apparently Thais expect a higher standard of accommodation than us backpackers, so, after a lovely afternoon exploring the tracks between fields of rice, maize and a meadow glowing with tiny blue flowers, we fell back on our bed complete with bed linen and flicked through the TV channels just because we could while our beers chilled in the fridge, marvelling at what you can get for 350 Baht. That night, we watched another downpour from a restaurant that had just finished serving food and chatted to the only English speaker, a local policeman who even offered to give us a tour of the area (sans handcuffs). For dinner, we had pancakes with egg and condensed milk and a sandwich filled with what turned out to be jam.

The next day we bumbled back along the river the way we’d come to return Foreign Legion Ian’s bike, who was delighted that we hadn’t nicked it. We sat outside with a few beers and watched the clouds gathering for some more action, and then he took us inside to show us his eye-popping collection of Pentax medium and large format photographic equipment, all neatly stowed away in a dry cabinet. They left me to play with his fish-eyes and tilt and shift lenses while the humidity reading on the dry cabinet slowly and steadily rose. I’m a big fan of digital photography, but this stuff, with its velvet-smooth focussing rings and deep and sure clunk-click noises is photography porn. When the humidity reading approached 70%, it was a race to get all the bodies, lenses, motor drives etc back in the cabinet before the moisture in the air ate it all alive. We drank tea while Foreign Legion Ian told us about his plans for a dramatic entrance to the digital world with a Pentax K7, 10-17, 18-55 and 50-200 while my mouth watered. I even spilt my tea.

After Chiang Khan, Chiang Rai felt like getting back on the tourist conveyor belt, but we weren’t too snobby to resist The Pizza Company, which left us feeling sick and a bit dirty. The night market was the most visually appealing of the many we’ve seen and it was great to have the excuse of buying presents to do a bit of shopping while sweet chilli sauce ran down my chin off weird and wonderful fried things on sticks.

By this point, somehow, we had spent some five weeks in Thailand and the horrible realisation dawned that we were running out of time to fit in all the things we wanted to our flight schedule before our year-long ticket expired, causing my hands to sweat. So, we headed for Laos in what felt like a bit of a rush.

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