Weeks 1&2: August 16-31

16-8-1993 | Monday | Day 0

A rather nerve wracking day spent in London with sod all to do…just wait. Waiting for my travel partner, Terry Garry, to arrive from Bristol; waiting for friends Pete Foreman and Anne O’Neill, who have driven me down from Newcastle, to leave for a holiday in Greece. Just waiting. And getting nervous. Old friend and ex-army man, Patrick Scott comes over from Clapham and proves to be a very calming influence, along with a few pints in the Barley Mow. He is full of advice – no idea if it’s any good mind you – and very reassuring about how well everything will go and what a fantastic time we’ll have. Personally…I’m bricking it.

A few more beers in the evening, again in the Barley Mow, and quite a send off considering I thought there was none of the university crowd left in Ealing. I’d like to think people were seeing us off, but you know this lot…any excuse for a pint…

17-8-1993 | Tuesday | Day 1

Wake after a night on the floor of another ex-Morpeth boy, Doug Bray’s, flat. Feel very nervous and apprehensive, but it subsides once we’re on the move and in the hands of others, from tube drivers to airline pilots. It’s just a relief to be on the move at last.

I don’t know if myself and Terence look particularly odd, but some wifie on the tube cannot stop laughing every time she looks at us. We keep checking each other over for signs of wayward shaving foam or tooth paste, or marker-pen penises that Doug may have scrawled on our foreheads during the night, but can find nothing funny (apart from the usual mug of course). She keeps us worried for a wee while until we figure out that she’s completely barking. Especially when we get off at the last stop at Heathrow and she doesn’t. Which means she’s gone down to Heathrow, looped the loop, and headed back to Town; and then Lord knows how much more of the London Underground. She’s probably still there, riding the Piccadilly line for eternity.

We manage to get through a fair amount of wine on the flight to Helsinki (still not quite sure what we were doing in Helsinki), where we have a very uneventful three hour stopover before continuing on to Bangkok. Terry gets some zzzs, while I stay awake to watch Mad Dog & Glory, only to find it dubbed – not subtitled, but dubbed – into Finnish. Bastards.

18-8-1993 | Wednesday | Day 2

G-o-o-d M-o-r-n-i-n-g V-i-e-t-n-am!!

Or Bangkok as the case may be. Arrive in Bangkok quite early in the morning. Thankfully it’s overcast so although it’s humid it isn’t too hot. Figure out which local bus will take us to the Khao San Road, and actually manage to get there, thanks to the help of the Thai bus conductors, who must be used, yet still amused, by straight-off-the-boat travellers.

I’m standing up, one hand on a strap and t’other on me backpack, when this little old dear in a seat takes my backpack off me and puts it on her lap. Very kind indeed. Then Terry comes over and stands beside me and she does the same with his. So myself and Terry are standing there, happy as Larry, chatting away, and this little old dear is disappearing under thrity kilos of our luggage. And she seems delighted to be doing do.

We find ourselves on Khao San Road and settle on the Chart Guest House – 100 baht per night (35 baht to £1) – where the accommodation is spartan but adequate. I’m a bit apprehensive but Terry assures me that it isn’t bad and we’re bound to come across worse, so…in for a penny, in for a baht. Basically it consists of an empty room, with a large double mattress on the floor, which we will share, and sod all else. The netty is down the corridor and the telly is… Terry, where’s the telly? The minibar? Room service?

Sleep for most of the afternoon then wake to find torrential rain outside. All the way to Thailand and it’s like a bloody wet weekend in Newcastle. Sit in the Hello Bar for a while having some food, then along come Willy Orr and Mel Walker, two friends from Ealing. Although we were expecting them, and we saw them as recently as, oh, two weeks ago, it’s still exciting to meet someone so familiar so far away from home, and very reassuring. At least there are now four of us to fuck it up together.

Which is exactly what we do. First night in Bangkok – first night away from home – and we’re off down to Patpong, the red light district. Will seems to be well informed about the dos and don’ts of how to avoid being ripped off – don’t be led off the main drag, don’t be taken into an upstairs bar, don’t lose sight of the exit. So we promptly ignore all that and allow ourselves to be led down an alley, up some stairs, into the darkness, and have a door closed behind us.

So we sit there for a while, gingerly sipping our beers and watching strings of flowers materialising from places strings of flowers don’t grow; cigarettes being smoked in a way the Marlboro Man never imagined; ping-pong balls. Then we begin to get a bit worried and decide to leave, at which time matey hits us with a seemingly enormous bill for the beers. Hang on, we’re backpackers – we can’t afford that! When we contest the bill, one of his scary looking goons steps aside to reveal a price list for the drinks and entertainment and we know we are right in it. Fortunately, we haven’t brought much cash with us (we’d even taken off all our watches and jewellery before we came out almost expecting to be mugged), and after a bit of argy-bargy and some marvellous crocodile tears from Mel, we get out of the place having been relieved of about 30 quid. The geezer adds insult to injury by giving us back enough cash to get a tuk-tuk home.

Get back to Khao San Road in anything but a good mood, so proceed to get absolutely slaughtered on Singha beer, playing Drink-While-You-Think in the other Hello Bar. I seem to remember being told to get off the tables at some stage, although why we were on the tables in the first place I have no idea. Good start kids!

19-8-1993 | Thursday | Day 3

Wake late and stroll downstairs to be told by an extremely amused Thai how he had seen Terry sleeping outside the room last night – stark bollock naked. No offence Big Man, but that probably ain’t a pretty sight. Why Terry was out there remains a mystery. He must have gone to the khazi in the middle of the night and locked himself out. But how then, did he get back in again?

The guy asks me where I’m from, and when I say Newcastle, he starts laughing. “Ah, you loose last night. To Sheffeel. Ha ha ha.” I wasn’t quite so amused.

Spend the day being tourists and visiting the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Grand Palace, which necessitates the acquisition of some long pants as legs must be covered. This is obviously a regular occurrence which is neatly capitalised upon by a number of traders who have set up shop outside the Palace catering for the ill-prepared tourists. The trousers are your bog standard drawstring tie-dye things that every western man and his dog seems to find obligatory in Asia, and which, for a day or two at least, we think are quite hip.

Myself, Mel and Terry are suitably impressed by the Grand Palace and all the pagodas and bas-reliefs and intricate craftsmanship although Will dismisses it as being “a bit tacky”. I can see his point, although I think the word ‘gaudy’ may be more appropriate. The Buddhists seem to be well into bright colours and shiny images, in contrast to the conservative drabness of Christianity. (No idea what I’m talking about here by the way, not having ever given a second thought to religion of any kind.)

Back to Khao San Road to witness the experience of bartering with Willy Orr. I’m not sure who has more bullshit or who is more exhausted by the end of it, Will or the shopkeeper. After an hour of trying on, haggling, walking away, coming back, joking and testing the guy…he didn’t buy it. “Nah. It’s shite anyway.” I could have told him that in the first place given that the item in question was a leather waistcoat. Shame he didn’t buy it – it would have kept the rest of us amused for a while.

We meet up with Rachel (Kenney, Terry’s girlfriend) in the evening, who is a bit more au fait with the vagaries of travelling than the rest of us, and therefore perfectly comfortable to eat some food from a stall under a flyover that every guidebook, parent, medical expert, and person in their right mind would tell you to avoid. And of course it tastes great and costs next to nothing. Have a few beers and a trawl around a few bars but it is not a biggie.

20-8-1993 | Friday | Day 4

Take a river bus down the Chao Phraya river to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, both of which are memorable. The river bus stops at what seems like a rather rickety jetty on the murky river for a matter of seconds while lots of Thais jump on and off at frantic speed. The cautious westerner watches politely until realising that to stand on ceremony is to quite literally miss the boat. We only just make it.

Wat Po is an amazing 46 metre horizontal statue, looking very calm and relaxed with the benign smile the Buddha statues have. Very impressive indeed. Don’t want to use the word spiritual, but…

So there we are wandering around Bangkok, myself dressed in an old t-shirt, hiking boots, these tie-dye trousers, John Lennon specs, and a bandanna covering me napper. Terry and Will are dressed similarly. I’d like to think we looked at each other and said “By they way mate, you look like a right plonker” but I suspect the realisation was a little slower. What I do know is that the bandanna quickly became nothing more than a handkerchief and the trousers may have never seen the light of day again.

Dilemma time. What, already? Will and Mel are heading up to Chiang Mai to go trekking, Terry and Rachel are heading south to Koh Samui to catch up with Rachel’s friend Jo, and I don’t know what to do. I wouldn’t mind staying in Bangkok for another day or so – Khao San Road alone can keep me entertained for hours – but I don’t really fancy doing anything on me own yet. We’ve only been away five days.

So I sign up for Samui, board the bus for the twelve hour journey to Surat Thani, and on to Koh Samui, all for the bargain price of 200 baht.

21-8-1993 | Saturday | Day 5

Spend an uneventful night travelling on a coach that initially seems to be in pretty good condition until I notice a large crack in the window against which I’m leaning. It’s air-conditioned to the point of being bloody freezing, especially with us ignoramuses sitting in our shorts and t-shirts. Well, it was boiling hot when we left Bangkok.

Arrive at Surat Thani at some time in the early morning and board a boat for Koh Samui. Sitting on the roof of this near-empty boat, in glorious sunshine, watching the Thai coastline drift past over a clear green sea, with The Jam belting out Away From the Numbers in my ears, is absolutely heavenly…a great sense of achievement simply for having made it this far. Lord knows how elated I’ll feel when or if something truly tremendous happens. And before anyone questions travelling through paradise with a Walkman on, the noise of the engines is deafening.

Get to Na Thon on Samui and take a song thaew (a pick-up truck) to Chaweng Beach, along with the first fellow travellers with which we have become acquainted, Tim and Abby, whom we met on the boat, and head for Charlie’s Huts to begin the search for Rachel’s mate, Jo. After several hours of Rachel schlepping up and down the beach looking for her while Terry and I sit in the sun, we give up looking and check in to Cheap Charlie’s anyway; 100 baht per night for a beach hut all to myself, which is rather pleasant having been snuggled up with Terry for the last few nights (not literally of course).

Eventually find Jo in time to go out for the evening and begin what soon becomes a ritual Samui night out; video and food in Charlie’s, on to the Green Mango for Mekong and drinking games, then the Reggae Pub for dancing indoors and chilling on the grass outdoors, Doors Bar for a nightcap, and finally to bed. Meet some friends of Jo’s, Barney, Louise, Marios and Tim, and have a great night out, finally collapsing around 4am – which is an almost unheard of time where I come from.

22-8-1993 | Sunday | Day 6

23-8-1993 | Monday | Day 7

A couple of such lazy days that I can’t remember if anything of significance happened at all. Terry stays in bed all day Sunday, and I hang around Charlie’s with Marios, Tim, Barney and Louise.

The two days seem to blend together in a lazy haze of doing bugger all by day, and the usual routine by night. Somewhere along the way Tim and Louise depart, we play a few games of Scrabble, and Terry and I take a long walk along the beach in search of a western-style sit-down toilet which we duly find in one of the posh resorts. Less than a week in Asia and the novelty of squat toilets has long since worn off.

Life in the fast lane – Samui style.

24-8-1993 | Tuesday | Day 8

All that changes with the hiring of a jeep – a proper, chunky, basic, and bright orange, jeep. For 24 hours hire and all the petrol we use it cost 175 baht each – about £5. So we set off full of optimism and a map of the island to discover what lies beyond Chaweng Beach. And the answer is…

Quite a lot, actually. We begin with a bit of culture at Wat Phra Yai, or the Big Buddha Temple to thee and me; an impressive 12-metre sitting Buddha replete with a radio mast attached to its heed. It seems sacrilegious somehow to use a religious icon in a such a utilitarian way. Take lots of photos then continue on our way only for the jeep to thwart our plans by breaking down. The day seems to be heading for disaster and us for the safety of Charlie’s, before a geezer from the hire place comes to find out what five tourists have done to his jeep. And what have they done? Nothing actually. He starts it up, revs it until it’s about to blow up, declares it fit for purpose and buggers off again. So on we go.

Off to Lamai for lunch and a taste of shark steak (very good) and then on to the Na Muang waterfalls. There are actually two falls, the first of which requires a short trek through a hot and humid coconut grove, and would be worth walking twice as far to see. Although not quite up there with the Niagara’s and Victoria’s, it is certainly the most impressive waterfall I have ever seen. Mind you, after Lynhope Spout in lovely Northumberland it’s probably only the second waterfall I’ve ever seen, but who’s counting? We manage to clamber up to the highest point assailable and take a shower in the refreshingly cool water. And it’s a damn sight easier climbing up than it is climbing down. Reversing down slippery rocks with a cascade of water blinding you can be rather tricky.

The views from the top are a bit special, looking out over the coconut groves, the hills and the sea in the distance. Cursing the inadequacies of the camera I have, resolve to buy a better one whenever possible. It’s rather annoying to have these beautiful views and not be able to take decent pictures of them. (Bad workmen and all that…)

After pausing briefly to look at the other falls which are not half as spectacular, we carry on up to Na Thon, and then set off to find a decent spot from which to watch the sunset. Find somewhere way off the beaten track, and the guidebooks, up near the Laem Ya lighthouse, and sit out on the rocks to watch a disappointing sunset. It had promised to be spectacular until a big cloud came along and buggered it up completely.

Continue the drive round the island and stop at one of those roadside cafes that you are constantly advised not to, and subsequently enjoy one of the best, and cheapest, Thai meals so far, served at various stages by what would appear to be the entire family as they all came out to have a look at the farang. Mum and Dad, a few kids, even Granny popped up to serve us something.

Back to Charlies for a game of Scrabble (lost again – I think I’m good, but Rachel’s better), then the usual Samui night out, before going to bed quite early in preparation for the morning.

25-8-1993 | Wednesday | Day 9

Rise disgustingly early to catch the ferry, i.e. a fishing boat, over to Koh Pha Ngan for 50 baht, and check in to some huts at Hat Rin Nai (Sunset Beach), the quieter side of Hat Rin. The Full Moon Party is on Hat Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach). Terry, Marios and myself opt to save the pennies by sharing one hut for the princely sum of 50 baht a night.

Instantly settle into a routine of doing very little – but then there ain’t all that much to Hat Rin, or at least not where we are. It’s just a small village with no roads or cars; just sand tracks and Shanks’s Pony. Laze around on the beach for a while, but swimming is a bit limited due to all the jellyfish. Watch Cape Fear and Thelma and Louise in the evening, then sit on the beach for a while but it’s a Mekong-whisky-less day and fairly quiet. Go to bed around 1am but with three of us in the fan-less and air-con-less hut it is stiflingly hot. Terry saves the day by kipping outside.

Actually get round to writing home today, and manage to squeeze all I have to say into one aerogram, although it barely seems sufficient. Also start reading Julian Evans’ Transit of Venus which is a bit easier going than the Dickens epic I had been attempting to read.

28-3-1993 | Thursday | Day 10

A lazy day – even by my own exceptionally high standards. So lazy in fact, that there is nothing whatsoever to report.

We’ve been away now for ten days and it still feels like we’re on a two week holiday. I don’t know how long, or what, it will take for things to seem different – maybe more time or more travelling – but it still feels a bit weird. I don’t think I’ve really begun to appreciate just how long we’re going to be away. Sometimes I think of the amount of time I told people that I’d be away for, and then wonder if I’ll even make it to Christmas. I’m not miserable in any way at the moment, but I am definitely a bit homesick.

Watch Midnight Express, then embark upon a Mekong frenzy and end up watching the sun rise with some Dutch girl called Ceci, who is a good laugh but it’s still a relief when the sun finally pokes it’s snout over the horizon, heralding the achievement of watching the damn thing rise, and we can go and get some kip.

27-8-1993 | Friday | Day 11

Largely written off. Sleep late, beach, food, films, beach. Take some hash cakes on the beach in the evening; but they had little effect. I just say there wondering what all the fuss is about. Felt nothing and went to bed. What a hectic day.

28-8-1993 | Saturday | Day 12

The day begins well with the news that Newcastle beat Everton 1-0 to record their first Premiership victory. Even in Ko Pha Ngan it’s possible to keep up with the scores, albeit a little late, although somehow it doesn’t seem quite so important (sacrilege), especially when no one else in the vicinity gives a monkey’s. I haven’t yet found anyone who’s prepared to talk football for hours on end. But we wait and hope.

Another lazy day caught between the bakery, the beach and the hammock. I’ve caught quite a bit of sun for a Northerner although still look like the pale and peaky Englishman that I am compared to most of the folk around here. Then again, most of the folk around here look like they were born tanned.

Buy some grass in the evening but after one spliff I’m completely bombed. Everything seems to be in slow motion but I still can’t keep up with it. Whenever I have a contribution to make to the conversation, I weigh up what I’m going to say, and by the time I’ve worked it out, I’m convinced that the conversation has moved on to something else, and anything I say will sound ridiculous. So I end up saying nothing for ages. Bump into Ceci again but speech is beyond me…just stand there looking gormless. (The following day I’m assured that I said nothing untoward and merely came across as bored. At least I must have done a good job of disguising how mashed I was.)

29-8-1993 | Sunday | Day 13

Usual daily routine of doing bugger all, either in the bakery, the beach, or the hammock.

While we were on Samui we saw several posters advertising a concert by “Thailand’s best rock guitarist” Lam Morrison. Fortunately we managed to avoid him on Samui only to find that he has followed us over to Pha Ngan and is playing live tonight, and if he is playing on the beach, which he is, you can’t really avoid him.

So, after the usual movie fest, we hit the beach to find out what can be said about out Lam Morrison. And what can be said? Not a lot. He’s atrocious. A wee Thai feller with a pathetic voice, who wants to be American, dressed in plastic Marquee gear, and fronting an appalling band. It gets to the stage that when people are invited on to the stage to jam with Lam the Spam he ends up being hustled off stage himself, despite his attempts to ruin everyone else’s efforts. Not that things get much better once he has left. What had started out as quite a large and enthusiastic crowd, has by now dwindled to virtually nothing – such is the awesome power of the great Lam Morrison.

Solace is sought in a large bottle of Sang Thip whisky with Jo and Rob the Dutchman, which renders me rather bevvied by the time I get to bed at four in the morning.

30-8-1993 | Monday | Day 14

Wake feeling rather worse for wear and embark upon a day of doing even less than usual. Feel rather knackered and retire for a kip, only to develop a splitting headache and start sweating buckets. Attribute it to some kind of adverse reaction to the whisky and spend the rest of the day and evening in bed.

31-8-1993 | Tuesday | Day 15

No change. Stay in bed until 5pm, then finally accept that a trip to the doctor may be in order. The walk through the village that should take a few minutes takes nearly half an hour and I’m absolutely shattered by the time I get there. After a fairly thorough examination, he declares that I have a temperature of 104f (40c) and some kind of exotic fever, for which he gives me an injection and several tablets and charges me 700 baht for the privilege – although the receipt says 1200 which I’m sure is more for his benefit than mine.

Then he says he needs to give me an injection. Do what?! Bearing in mind that Patrick’s missus is a nurse and she gave me my own medical kit with instructions to use it, I explain that I have my own medical kit and I will go and get it, only to find that I can’t even lift myself off the bed. All I can do is watch to make sure he gets a clean needle from a sealed packet and say a little prayer.

While I’m lying there on the couch thinking I’m at death’s door, the Doc excuses himself to attend to another patient…three backpackers asking for some diet pills, which the Doc duly dispenses with minimum fuss and no questions. Hardly confidence inspiring when the guy who holds your life in his hands, is dealing out the whizz to all and sundry. I should’ve asked for some myself.

Lie there for a while, then force myself upright, totter through the village like a 90 year old man with arthritis and ill-fitting shoes, back to the hut, and collapse into bed again. This is no fun.