2. Bangkok and Koh Samui – August 1993

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 had given me a lift down from Newcastle, to leave for a holiday in Greece. Just waiting. And getting nervous. Patrick (Scott, old friend from Morpeth, and ex-army) came over from Clapham and proved to be a very calming influence, along with a few pints in the Barley Mow. He’s 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 West London. 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 at the flat of Doug (Bray, another lifelong friend from Morpeth who’d migrated south). Feel very nervous and apprehensive, but it subsides once myself and Terry are 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 looked particularly odd, but some wifie on the tube could not stop laughing every time she looked at us. We kept 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 could find nothing funny (nothing aside from our usual mugs of course). She kept us worried for a wee while until we figured out that she’s completely barking. Especially when we got off at the last stop at Heathrow and she didn’t. Which meant she’d 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 managed 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 had a very uneventful three-hour stopover before continuing on to Bangkok. Terry got some zzzs, while I stayed awake to watch a Robert de Niro film,  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 was overcast so although it was humid it didn’t feel too hot. Figure out which local bus will take us to the Khao San Road, and actually managed 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 was standing up, one hand on a strap and t’other on me backpack, when this little old dear in a seat took my backpack off me and put it on her lap. Very kind indeed. Then Terry came over and stood beside me and she did the same with his. So myself and Terry are standing there unburdened, happy as Larry, chatting away, and this little old dear was disappearing under thirty kilos of our luggage. And she seemed delighted to be doing do.

We found ourselves on Khao San Road and settled on the Chart Guest House – 100 baht per night (35 baht to £1) – where the accommodation is spartan but adequate. I was a bit apprehensive but Terry assured me that it wasn’t bad and that we’re bound to come across worse, so…in for a penny, in for a baht. Basically it consisted of an empty room, with a large double mattress on the floor, which we were to 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. We sat in the Hello Bar for a while having some food, then along came 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 still felt quite exciting to be meeting someone so familiar so far away from home, and very reassuring. At least there were now four of us to fuck it up together.

Which is exactly what we did. First night in Bangkok, first night away from home, and we’re off down to Patphong, the red light district. Will seemed to be well informed with regards to the do’s 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 ignored all that and allowed ourselves to be led down an alley, up some stairs, into the darkness, and have a door closed behind us.

So we sat there for a while, gingerly sipping our beers and watching strings of flowers materialising from places flowers don’t grow; cigarettes being smoked in a way the Marlboro Man never imagined; and ping-pong balls, well, you have to see it to believe it. Then we began to get a bit worried and decided to leave, at which time matey hit us with a seemingly enormous bill for the beers. Hang on, we’re backpackers – we can’t afford that! When we contested the bill, one of his scary looking goons stepped aside to reveal the house rules and a price list for the drinks and entertainment. Fortunately, we hadn’t brought much cash with us – we’d even taken off all our watches and jewellery before coming out almost expecting to be mugged – and after a bit of argy-bargy and some marvellous crocodile tears from Mel, we got out of the place having been relieved of about 30 quid. The geezer added insult to injury by giving us back enough cash to get a tuk-tuk home.

We got back to Khao San Road in anything but a good mood, so proceeded to get absolutely slaughtered on Singha beer, playing Drink-While-You-Think in the other (?) Hello Bar. I seemed 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 feller 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 asked me where I’m from, and when I said Newcastle, began to laugh. “Ah, you loose lass nigh. 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 necessitated 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 thought were 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 dismissed 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. (I’ve 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 had more bullshit or who was 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 street 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 tasted great and cost next to nothing. Have a few beers and a trawl around a few bars but it wasn’t a biggie.

20-8-1993 | Friday | Day 4

Take a river bus down the coffee-coloured Chao Phraya river to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, both of which were memorable. The river-bus stopped at what seemed like a rather rickety jetty on the murky river for a matter of seconds while lots of locals jumped 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 made 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 were 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 were 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 never have 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 then 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 seemed to be in pretty good condition until I noticed a large crack in the window against which I was leaning. It was 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 (a song about breaking away from the chain), in my ears, was 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 boat’s engines was deafening.

Get to Na Thon on Samui and take a pick-up truck (song thaew) that’s been converted into public transport, 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 sat in the sun, we gave up looking and checked in to Cheap Charlie’s anyway; 100 baht per night for a beach hut all to myself, which was 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 a bit of dancing indoors and a bit of chilling on the grass outdoors, Doors Bar for a nightcap, and finally to bed. Met some friends of Jo’s, Barney, Louise, Marios and Tim, and had 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 stayed in bed all day Sunday, and I hung around Charlie’s with Marios, Tim, Barney and Louise.

The two days seemed 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 departed, we played a few games of Scrabble, and Terry and I took a long walk along the beach in search of a western-style sit-down toilet which we duly found in one of the posher 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 began 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 somewhat sacrilegious to use a religious icon in such a utilitarian way. We took lots of photos then continued on our way only for the jeep to thwart our plans by breaking down. The day seemed to be heading for disaster and us for the safety of Charlie’s, before a geezer from the hire place came to find out what five tourists had done to his jeep. And what had they done? Nothing actually. He started it up, revved it until it seemed about to blow up, declared it fit for purpose and buggered off again. So on we went.

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 managed 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 never-ending cascade of water thundering into your face 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, I resolved 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 carried on up to Na Thon, and then set off to find a decent spot from which to watch the sunset. Found somewhere way off the beaten track, and the guidebooks, up near the Laem Ya lighthouse, and sat 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.