As the new year starts, we left India for Thailand. After 5 days in Mumbai (which to be honest were far better than we feared they would be due to the fab people we met) we were so so ready to leave. The train we took daily into south Mumbai had lost its charm, we were ready for not being so crowded all the time, or being begged everywhere went. We were desperate for clean toilets!! My third time in Thailand, Patrick’s 2nd. We knew we we would love it. The contrast to India could not have been more stark, starting the minute we left the airport. And we knew we would love it here. And we were right!
Last time I visited Bangkok was about 10 years ago when its development into a modern city was just starting. Me and Pat leave the airport and catch a very clean, empty, air conditioned train. Everyone stood in queue behind lines on the platform as the train pulled in. We breath a massive sigh of relief; after all, we are British!! 10 years ago it was exciting but now it’s amazing – half the city modern sky scrapers with such an air of excitement. It’s trendy and buzzing, the shopping amazing. For a magpie like me the amount of bling on the street stalls was dazzling and so enticing. With a joint daily budget of less than £40 and just one rucksack I realised in Bangkok I was in trouble.
We spent 3 brilliant days just soaking up the clean and modern air, sightseeing and eating Pad Thai.
Some friends in London put us in contact with some friends of theirs, Sara and Allen and their two gorgeous kids and we met them for a meal and later stayed with them in their amazing Bangkok flat for 2 nights. It was wonderful. They love the city and have an amazing lifestyle there. A fabulous flat, even a full time nanny, far removed from what you can have in the UK. As well as really getting on great with Sara I bond straight away with their wonderful 3 year old daughter. When it’s time to go to bed she is told to say goodbye to me. She says she doesn’t want to. “But I like you” she says. My heart totally melts. I really hope we see them all again.
We head to the Khoa San Road, where all the backpackers go and which has the most fabulous atmosphere. We eat the amazing Pad Thai in the street and meet two of our fellow Asterix residents. We stay in a great hostel. Like many hostels there’s a sign saying ‘No Thais’. Imagine that in the UK. It’s their way of stopping sex workers either long term staying or as guests.
We looked into going north to ChiangMai but it was new year, all the trains were booked up. With only 3 and a bit weeks before we would fly out of Bangkok we decided to head to Pattaya – only 3 hours and £1.20 by bus. Everyone warned us – “No. Don’t go!” We didn’t listen!!!
Pattaya – they were right!!
So we get to Pattaya and it’s unlike anywhere else we ever been. Basically, it’s just all about the sex industry. We stay in a cheap hotel and it’s back to earth with a bump. The website says an English owner but we are shown in by a Thai girl who speaks little English. The room is filthy and has no lock on the door. Our ‘en-suite’ is actually the bathroom for the whole floor and it hasn’t been cleaned at all. There are muddy footprints on the floor and worst of all the toilet paper bin (you can’t flush paper in Thailand) still has the last occupants offerings. We stoically smile and say its ok. When Winston, the owner arrives back with his Thai wife from a visa run to Cambodia he ends up going upstairs and cleaning it himself. Lovely bloke but new to the hotel game……
Every bar has working girls and boys and ladyboys sitting out front waiting for trade. I don’t feel able to go in any. On our street there’s a bar. Loads of overweight middle aged British men are sitting in the bar when leave our room about 11am, arms around their ‘girlfriends’. They are still in the same positions when we return about 12 hours later. That’s Pattaya for you.
We jump in a shared taxi and head down the front. We meet some blokes from Glasgow. “Our wives think we’re in Spain” they joke. We don’t think they were joking. “It’s great here” they say “but beer is expensive. Well it is when you have to buy for the woman and also the madam.” Later that evening we see them outside a bar in Walking Street. They have obviously ‘pulled’.
The sex industry
You can’t go anywhere in Thailand without the sex industry being in your face. 2 million Thai women work in the sex industry but people have told us most see it as a stepping stone to finding a husband. One man told us you can get a girlfriend for a week for as little as £20, plus her living costs.
Sex can be very casual which is strange given Thais generally are very strict about courtship and public displays of affection not at all ok. Sometimes when you go for a massage you can be offered a ‘happy ending’ – men and women. Funny, when we went together for a massage no such offer was made!!
On Koh Chang we met Anapan, early 30s. Good looking, well educated and successfully building his own business. He was broken hearted, he told us at length because his girlfriend had just left him. She said if she was to stay with him he had to find about £10k to give her so she could have a house and car like a western man could. “I can only give her my day to day and my love” he told us sadly “but that’s not enough for her”. Instead she has bought coffee shop, not, she told him because she want a coffee shop, but because she thinks it will be the easiest way to meet a western husband.
Of course everywhere you go you see ladyboys, indeed one school in thailand has introduced transgender toilets as the head says between 10 and 20% of pupils are transgender. Ladyboys working in the sex industry look can look astonishingly feminine; many a western bloke finding more than he bargained for, or more likely, exactly what he wanted.
Koh Chang – it all worked out because I drink skimmed milk!
2 days in Pattaya is enough so we decide to head to Koh Chang, an island about 6 hours away. We now have a method – we book 2 nights in advance and see what happens from there. Our first stop is TukTuk, some very cheap bungalows in the main town White Sands.
TukTuk is very basic but it’s a bungalow which is what I had set my heart on after being in hostels for so long. White Sands is full of Russians so not much social to be had (generally very few Russians speak English and don’t like to make conversation with strangers). We wander along the beach which is lined by totally idyllic bungalows, the cost totally out of our reach – between £18 and £40 a night. We decide to get up early on day 2 and head to Lonely Beach, a smaller town on the island where the backpackers go to find a new home. I set the alarm.
Only I set it wrong and we sleep in. We get up late and head for breakfast to a little cafe near TukTuk. I have a small bottle of skimmed milk with me. At the next table is a couple. We order brekkie and think about accommodation options. “Excuse me” says a voice. “Is that your milk? Could my wife have some for her tea”. And that’s how we meet someone we will call Graham, to become our best mate on Koh Chang and our saviour!
So we start chatting to Graham and his lovely wife. He says don’t go to Lonely Beach, it’s full of “smellies and you are too old”. They suggest asking at their bungalows – only £10 per night and with aircon, hot water and TV. The rooms are small but functional with a double bed, fridge and room to put your bags. They show us theirs – looks amazing for the price. We ask the owners. If someome doesn’t turn up by 1pm tomorrow next door to Graham is yours for 3 weeks. I thank the universe.
We move in. On the other side are 3 people we can’t tell if they are Japanese or South Korean. They don’t look related. There’s a middle aged woman who wears a kind of uniform every day, a bloke in his 20s and a younger woman, late teens. They all 3 sleep in the one bungalow and never leave, except the older woman who hires a scooter and goes to get takeaway meals. They don’t talk to anyone and hardly to each other. The girl just spends her time petting the stray dogs and cats that live around. We spend hours trying to work them out. Finally I get it- they are clearly fugitives or on a witness protection scheme and she is their protector!
Family place but not much chat….
Koh Chang is interesting in that it’s a family resort. The number of mixed European/Thai small children around was amazing, most of them with dads old enough to be their granddads. We frequent a bar with football and the best wifi run by 2 English divorced, now re-married footy fans. “We were fed up with English women taking us for a ride” they tell us. One of them is about to become one of said dads.
Early in our courtship me and Pat went to have Sunday lunch in the Brown Cow in Bingley. At the next table was a couple a bit younger than us. They didn’t say a word to each other, something we thought hilarious in the early euphoria of a new relationship when we had so much to say as we got to know each other. Ever since we always notice ‘Brown Cow’ couples – on Koh Chang they are in bar after bar. One night we sit in the Irish bar, Paddys Palms, watching footy, Man City v Stoke. At the next table there’s a over weight man Dutch or German in his 60s with a young lass early 20s. He says “do you like football?” she shruggs uninterestedly. “Oh. Alright” he answers. End of conversation; they watch 90 minutes of football. Not another word is spoken.
One of the most interesting people we have ever met
Graham proves to be the best possible company. He has had the most interesting life of anyone we have met and the stories kept coming right up to the end. He’s lived all over the world, starting life as a leftie traveller, working in development projects and some less salubrious jobs around the world. Half English, half European he was a mad Arsenal fan. He lives in Europe and doesn’t think of himself as English anymore. He hates the French but not as much as the Germans. We made it our mission to find out what he does for a living now, but he wouldn’t tell us, just laughing it off. We decided its probably mundane and the mystery far more exciting. The first morning we met I asked him what he thought would make a better world. “Everyone should learn to speak English” he said.
Watching footy with Graham became a regular meet up. The funniest was his anger when a French player scored for Arsenal. He wanted them to lose so Wenger would be sacked. “Traitorous French bastard” he shouted at the TV. His stories kept flowing – how he got offered sex by a child in Phenmom Penh under the guise of flying a kite. The night in India when he was robbed of everything. He found a shop and asked the owner to help. The owner gave him food, a place to sleep and lent him 5000 rupees. Graham went back a week later to pay him back. Trekking in Nepal how he’d met his first wife. How when living on Koh Samui he had a good friend who was a prostitute and had 6 men who she agreed to ‘be with’ in exchange for a regular payment. This basically meant she would be available whenever they came to Thailand. Graham used to write her letters to them. How he wooed Jaidee, his wife, taking her auntie as chaperone on their first date. And many more tales we couldn’t possibly put in this blog.
One night he needed to watch an Arsenal game at 3am, go-go bars being the only place open. Next night he tells us. “Within minutes I’m being offered a smoke (services) by a woman. I tell her to f off, but nicely.” Only a few minutes later, he’s asked the same but by a man, not even a ladyboy in between! Same response. “It cost me a fortune” he says “I had to pay off the madam to allow me to watch the game in peace with no sex”!! Arsenal won.
Other Europeans too
We meet many other Brits too – and most seem to be from Manchester. We saw one foursome regularly in our local brekkie cafe. A bloke from Cheshire and his Thai wife “There’s an agreed amount I send back to her family every month. I love being married to her – it works out brilliantly as long as I pay.” Then a couple who run a burger van at Harewood House and big events in Leeds. “We took £30,000 at the Kirkstall Kaiser Chief gigs” they tell us. But their best story was when they were telling us to get a scooter and travel round the island. They were neither of them small, him larger than her. “The mountain is beautiful” they said. “Only thing is we’re too fat for the bike to get up, so I had to take a taxi and meet him at the top!” she says. That’ll be too many burgers then……
Books and days of nothing
There’s not much really to do on Koh Chang and so I start to get bored as I can’t lie on the beach. After a couple of days confined to my bed with a bad back I decide it’s time to get motivated. And I decide to finish the book I’m writing on weight. A week later it’s finished, ready to send to my mate in the UK to proof read. All I need to do now is lose some weight and then I’ll start the process of trying to get an agent. Patrick spends hours in the sea; his tan is really coming on.
We’ve had a wonderful time in Thailand but its time for us to leave to head to Vietnam before we return for another month in this wonderful country. Graham will leave too a day or so later. No exchange of contact details, mores the pity as we really liked him. Just hope he finds us through this blog and gets in touch. We can honestly say we’ll never forget Graham.
You can see all our Thailand pics so far at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pegalexander/sets/ .
Coming next – Vietnam; how the war is still all around, and Vietnam picture blog.