Location: Kho Pha Ngan & Kho Tao, Thailand
We made straight for the traveller haven of Haad Rin, in the far southwest of Kho Pha Ngan, clinging desperately to the pick up truck for the rollercoaster ride along the edge of the rainforest. The town is a mess of dusty streets running across a small peninsula, boarded by immaculate beaches to the west and east - appropriately named sunset and sunrise beaches respectively. We installed ourselves at the quiet end of sunset beach in a tiny and somewhat rickety wooden bungalow nestled among the beach mangroves, the water lapping gently at it's foundations at high tide. We lounged thoroughly, venturing up the hill into town only to feast on a variety of cuisine from authentic local stuff to falafels and full English breakfasts. Beautiful sunsets and night skies over the ocean riven with distant lightening were de rigeur for the duration of our stay. The peaceful hammock-use and sunbathing was interrupted only by the ingress of some local wildlife in the form of giant lizards and a brief plague of pink maggots in the bathroom. While drying myself off after a shower I felt a curious sensation on my back, and bringing the towel around I noticed several of the blighters wriggling along it, their greasy trails criss-crossing the fabric. A second shower soon followed.
After a few days of laziness we had accumulated some excess energy and decided to head to a party along with a few of our fellow beach denizens: Richie, Rebecca and Bethan. Kho Pha Ngan plays host to a full moon party... and a half moon party... and a black moon party... and even a blue moon party, though we never managed to establish exactly what that meant. Suffice to say opportunities to dance the night away abounded. We soon found ourselves in a remote clearing in the jungle crammed with people, strung with flourescent hangings, striated with staccato laser light, and positively throbbing with music. The local drink of choice involved taking a bucket, upending a bottle of Thai 'rum' into it, adding a few bottles of Red Bull, and topping it up to the brim with cola and ice. This was garnished with several staws, the implication being that it was to be shared by more than one person; that this implication constituted sage advice, alas, became clear only upon waking the following day.
Our eventual recovery from the frivolities was assisted by a not inconsiderable period spent in several of the cafes in Haad Rin, almost all of which show various recently released films around the clock, including The Simpsons film - marvellous!
Our still delicate constitutions almost rebelled when the day we chose to make the boat crossing to Kho Tau turned out to be the day the islands caught the tail of a passing tornado. Despite some serious swells that caused our destination to repeatedly appear and disappear among the waves, we made landfall with our breakfasts still within. We had been told that Kho Tau was a 'diving factory' and it did seem that everyone there was either a visiting diver or working in a dive centre. Nonetheless the island had a much more relaxed feel than Haad Rin, with it's multitude of image conscious travellers. The Kho Tau beaches stretched in immaculate arcs bracketed by ocean and jungle and between our dives we made the most of the sunshine the tornado brought in it's wake. The aquatic world treated us with many delights including heards of spiney urchins huddled together as they crossed the seabed and a tiny red flatworm that scintillated in the light. The shore-beasts were almost as entertaining; we found giant snails, loud geckos, gnarly toads and were adopted by a pack of dogs. On our way home one night they decided to follow us and spent the night sleeping on our doorstep before trotting along with us for breakfast. Our departure from the island that morning was marked by a mournful howl from the docks as the boat put to sea.
Location: Dahn Saaf, Thailand
A minibus ride followed by twenty eight hours on the train brought us through the central plain to Bangkok and on to Chumphon, a dubious transit town on the southern limb of Thailand. The first train was a sleeper, with surprisingly comfortable fold down bunks, although it did take a while to get to sleep. As we sedated ourselves with a late night game of scrabble we were somewhat distracted by the young Thai chap who crossed from his bunk opposite to that of the elderly French bloke beneath us. He nipped swiftly behind the curtain, and shrugging I continued to ponder my next word. After a couple of minutes I was inspired and placed the word S-L-U-R-P-E-D on a triple word score.
Our stay in Chumphon was brief, being merely a base for our 'visa-run' to the Burmese border. The standard free tourist visa recieved upon entry into Thailand is thirty days. However this is easily and regularly circumvented by travellers by the simple device of leaving and reentering the country, and numerous touts offer packages facilitating this. We opted for a visit to the Andaman Club, a swish hotel and casino that just happens to be on a tiny island off the Thai cost yet within Burmese waters - very James Bond. The process was farcical - get a Thai exit stamp at the pier on the Thai coast, get on the boat for ten minutes, get off the boat at the island, walk into a shed containing a Burmese immigration offcial, get an entry stamp for Burma, walk out the door, walk back in again, get an exit stamp for Burma, get back on the boat for ten minutes, get off back in Thailand and get a new Thai entry stamp with a further thirty days validity.
Having dispensed with this necessary absurdity we continued to Khao Soc national park, a dense patch of rainforest supposedly athrong with Tapiers and other exotic fauna. Despite staying in an oversized en-suite treehouse we did not spot any Tapiers, instead making do with a somewhat disturbing snake, it's arrow shaped head being, we were later told, indicative of it's identity - a venomous viper. We also received a visit from an overfriendly rat that we caught in the act of scoffing our biscuits. Such an act was understandable (the biscuits being peanut flavoured and rather nice), although eating chunks out of the foam rubber pillows seemed less so. Nonetheless I tempted it out of the treehouse with the remaining biscuits and was thankful it didn't sit on my face.
Location: Pai, Thailand
The road from Chaing Mai to Pai winds through the mountains like a snake on it's way home from the pub. Speeding along it in the bus inflicted three hours of havoc in the inner ear and left everyone on the bus at least slightly green. More than one lost their lunch. Our eventual arrival as the road broke over the final pass to descend gently into a fertile green valley came not a moment too soon for our tender internal organs.
Despite the initial few days of rain we managed to explore the tiny town of Pai, with it's sprawling grid comprising in excess of three streets. Bona fide hippies abounded, dreadlocks dangled from many a head, and noticeboards fluttered with invitations to join in hatha yoga, reike, meditation, crystal healing, chakra balancing, and many other more esoteric activities that probably necessitate the eating of lentils. Despite the conspicuous and probably affected "but what about the planet, man?" mode of dress of many of the denizens, the most popular form of transport was nonetheless fossil-fuelled: the scooter. They were everywhere: to the extent that at least half of the remarkably numerous canine population had mislaid a limb, and some of the poor buggers two.
Eventually the weather broke and we set off, making our way into the surrounding country by means of some leg-fuelled bicycles, feeling virtuous although more than slightly sweaty as we were repeatedly overtaken. Soon our pedalling was brought to an abrupt halt by the sight of an elephant casually munching by the side of the road. On closer inspection, it turned out to be the sole pachyderm resident of Joy Elephant Camp and was named Pan-Wan. Formal introductions over, we settled down to a good feed of cucumber, melon and star fruit, all of which she consumed rapidly and whole before adopting a contemplative expression and promptly disgorging an earlier meal from the other end. Soon we were climbing atop her great bulk (on her back that is) and regretting not limbering up with a few splits first. After a leisurely stroll through the jungle we eventually became accustomed to her gait - infinitely more comfortable than a camel, though there are a great many things which fall into that category. She descended on towards the river and we rapidly disrobed atop her back as she plodded inexorably into the water. Our bags and garments were flung onto the bank in the nick of time as she sprayed water over us with a trumpet of amusement, before throwing us off into the swift current with glee. We wallowed and splashed together with a cheeky but gentle mass of hairy, leathery beast until eventually the sun became low and it was elephant bed time.
The next day, with our elephant-gripping muscles still aching, we set off with our guide Sid into the surrounding jungle-clad hills. A strange old man stopped us as we left the surfaced road for the forest, and bending down gave my calf a brief fondle - whether assessing my fitness for trekking, fitness for the cooking pot, or fitness for something else was unclear. We were led up hill and down dale over many a wild black mountain, and after seeing what I thought was the same tree twice I eventually abandoned any attempt to note landmarks. We emerged into an eerily deserted villiage at the edge of a river, the sum population being five small black pigs and an angry dog. After resting a while amid the huts on stilts we removed our shoes and socks to wade the river, trying not to picture the freaky waterbourne parasites that at that moment could be burrowing into our tender flesh. Along the way Sid educated us on the local flora, seeming to have a particular interest in mushrooms. After a few hours of walking and gathering a sizable bag of fungi we came accross another village, this time with the advanced technologies of corrugated iron and solar panels. Joining a family for lunch we nodded and smiled, the few fragments of Thai we knew being as alien to them as to us. We tucked into a proffered dish of slick red stuff among chillies and herbs, following the locals' lead and wrapping some kind of nettle leaf around a wad of the stuff and munching it down. VERY spicey and a somewhat wierd texture... hmmm... the hesitant question of what this delicacy might be was passed through our guide for translation and brought the matter-of-fact answer: raw pork offal. Nice.
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand
The Thai railway system is perhaps the best in the world - efficient accurate information on the website, no queues at the ticket office in Bangkok, air conditioned station and carriages, punctual trains and free food. Suffice to say the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was smooth and comfortable, albeit somewhat lengthy. We sped across a level plain abounding in paddi fields and curiously shaped water towers, criss crossed with overflowing drainage channels, and dotted with houses on stilts. Abruptly the landscape changed as we plunged into the northern mountains, the train slowing to wind among jagged hills clad in verdant forest - green everywhere. One twee little station after another emerged from the jungle, each with a tiny, immaculately coiffed garden and wooden stationmaster's hut, and with each we passed the bustle and authority of the city faded a lttle more.
Upon arrival in Chiang Mai we engaged a Tuk Tuk driver with a brief and amicable barter, and were whisked directly to our chosen dwelling: the aptly named 'Nice Apartment' where the equivalent of four pounds sterling secured an ensuite room with air con, a fridge, TV and fresh towels.
The city had a very relaxed vibe with nods and smiles abounding. Tasty food and drink was plentiful and cheap. We wondered around and eventually settled in a bar where something caught my eye - a pump sat atop the bar gleaming in splendour and bearing the familiar trademark of Guinness. After our experience in Egypt we were cautiously sceptical - surely not, how far away is Dublin anyway? However our fears were unfounded and our scepticism unjust - soon we were sat supping the black stuff with thankful incredulity.
After enjoying so much of the local fare we decided to take advantage of the chance to learn it's secrets and enrolled on a cookery course. Five courses were learned, cooked and consumed in the space of as many hours. Foolishly we had eaten breakfast before arriving and by four in the afternoon not only were our brains turgid with recipes but our guts distended with their implementation as we sat replete, our lips stinging with chilli.
An evening of Muay Thai was next on the agenda, purely for reasons of cultural curiosity of course. We were led through a stadium redolent of Tiger Balm and Deep Heat to the front row, well within range of stray flecks of sweat and blood. The fights themselves at first appeared strangely stylised, the boxers moving in formulaic progressions and each round being accompanied by arhythmic music that inexorably increased in tempo. However as the evening wore on the atmosphere got increasingly tense and energetic, the fights became more serious and vicious, the crowd became more frenzied, and of course larger sums of money changed hands. The climax was an international match between a Canadian and a Thai, which to our surprise ended with the Thai being knocked out and the bookmaker leaving with a broad grin. The highlight of the evening was when four boys of eight or nine years old were led into the ring blindfolded and wearing oversized boxing gloves. Despite our initial ethical qualms we were soon laughing along with the rest of the crowd as they flailed aimlessly at the air, managing to hit the referee more often than one another.
Before moving on we visited the night market where breathtakingly skilled artisans produced sublime works in oil on canvas and in carved wood. We marvelled at the intricately rendered woodland scenes complete with every crease on every leaf and a clever depiction of depth - vastly expensive but doubtlessly worth every baht. Other stalls sold everything from silk boxer shorts to 'genuine' rolexes, from buddhist mandala to lychee wine. On our way back we were drawn to a bar where a band of aging Thai rockers crooned out surprisingly good covers of well known stompers such as Knocking on Heavens Door, Hotel California and Jumping Jack Flash. Although at times it wasn't very clear whether they understood the lyrics.