A Railay Nice Place

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I jumped out of the longtail boat at the West Beach, where the luxury travellers stay, and walked through the jungle to other side of the island.

I had hoped to get accommodation here, in Railay, a small peninsula cut off from mainland Krabi by limestone cliffs; but there was nothing left at the cheaper end, so I had to settle for a bungalow in Nopparat Thara at the other side of Ao Nang. It was only a short boat ride away.

It was a peaceful walk through the jungle with the sound of the birds and red and black butterflies, as big as my hand, flashing by, and the occasional cave to nose around. Cicadas of some sort way up in the trees made an unworldly metallic sound, pa-poing, pa-poing, pa-poing.

It was trippy as hell, and that suited Railay East, where the trail emerged. There is still a hint, there, of the semi-mythical hippie retreat which grizzled old travellers reminisce about when they complain of how Thailand has been ruined in the last 20, or 30, or 40, or however many years have passed since the first time they went.

I felt overdressed, there, in a Beer Chang singlet and fake Havianas. The other travellers wore nothing but faded fisherman’s trousers and tattoos. Several had dreads and most had luxuriant beards – even the girls – and this was at least a year before everyone had a beard.

Hip hop and reggae wafted from the bars; ganja smoke wafted from everywhere. There is usually a subtle but strict segregation between travellers and Thais, unless they are working in the tourist trade or dating farangs; but in Railay East they all sat and smoked together.

It might have been a backpacker paradise, had the beach not been a disaster of mud, mangroves and pipes.

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walked through the jungle again to Phra Nang in the southwestern corner, where there is a lovely squiggle of beach framed by limestone karsts of bronze and grey overhung with trees.

It has supposedly been ranked among the top ten beaches in the world, but that is a bit meaningless because no one has been to them all. “The Ten Best…” is usually just the ten the writer knows about.  It was nice enough, though, to persuade me to stop, sit down on the sand and take it all in.

There were climbers on the karsts out in the bay, without ropes. It was a long way to fall if they slipped off a hold, but the sea below was deep enough to catch them. There were more climbers upside down on overhangs above the beach with instructors shouting encouragement from the ground. The more I watched them, the more I wanted a go.

But there was not much left of the afternoon by then. The sun slipped down and the light began to fade and I made my way back to the West Beach.  There was a long queue for the longtail boats, but a guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out into the surf to a boatman – presumably his mate – whom he said was going to Ao Nang and would give me a lift.

I jumped the queue and waded out until the water was up past my waist and grabbed the rail of the boat with both hands and vaulted in.

I planned to go back to Railay the next day but it was New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day I didn’t feel like doing very much at all, and the day after that I left for Bangkok. I eventually went climbing in Laos, three countries later, and – much more recently – took it up seriously. I am at the climbing gym twice a week, now, when I am not travelling, and all because of that afternoon in Railay.

© Richard Senior 2016

Khao San Road: a Flashback

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Everyone starts on Khao San Road. It is where Richard met Daffy in The Beach; “a decompression chamber,” Garland called it, “for those about to leave or enter Thailand, a halfway house between east and West”.

It bustled with travellers coming and going. They arrived, pale and bewildered, in clothes far too hot for Thailand in December. They left, nut brown and relaxed, in singlets and fishermen’s trousers, with friendship bands halfway to the elbow.

Growling tuk-tuks inched through the crowds and parked. The drivers shouted out to every traveller, and so did the tailors, the masseurs, the “masseurs,” and the endless procession of hawkers.

EDM oomphed from bars which boasted that they never asked for ID, and backpackers who looked as if they needed bars which never asked for ID flailed in approximate time to the music.

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Monster signs protruded from the buildings, glowing, flashing, pulsating. There were tailors and jewellers and clothes shops; there were tattooists and body-piercers. All of them seemed to stay open all night

There was McDonalds, there was Subway, there was KFC. There was a guy selling deep fried scorpions. You could buy knock-offs of just about anything you wanted, trainers, watches, sunglasses, DVD’s. You could get a degree certificate and driving licence forged to order.

It was too much, then, on that first night three years ago tomorrow. It was just five days since I had handed back my corporate BlackBerry, and the first time in almost a decade that I had not been digitally connected to the office. It was the first time I had truly had a break.

I walked a block to Soi Rambuttri, which was a little less manic, in the way that Palermo is a little less manic than Naples. The bars had live singers instead of DJ’s and they murdered The Beatles, the Stones and Oasis, and one crooned “It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring” in the style of a Rat Pack tribute.

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I was not expecting much from the ramshackle bar where I stopped for dinner, but it was late, I was tired and I needed to eat. It was great, though; all of it: the soft-shelled crab smothered in yellow curry paste, the red snapper barbecued whole, the nam prik dipping sauce piquant with lime juice, garlic and chilli, the steamed jasmine rice, the cold Singha beer.

As I sat and ate and heard Hotel California for the third and far from the last time that night, hawkers trooped through the bar to offer me things I didn’t want. No friendship bands, thanks: I’ve got some already. No lighter: I don’t smoke. No postcards. No playing cards. No sculptures of motorbikes. No wooden frogs which croak when you rub them with sticks; and, no, I don’t want a bigger one either.

I said no, I said no, I said no again. She said, okay fifty Baht for two.

I had been, then, to something like twenty countries, but, apart from a month in Hong Kong on business, it had been a week here and a long weekend there; ten days was about the longest I had been away. I had always, as well, known what I would be doing from day to day. This time I just had a few scribbled ideas of countries and cities I might want to see and no idea, yet, how to get from one to the other. But I had months to work that out.

In the first few days, I tried to see everything at once, as if I were in Thailand on a hurried vacation, as if I would be cross-examined later by over-competitive colleagues trying to catch me out with a ‘must-see’ sight that I had missed. But it registered soon enough that I was free until the summer to see and do what I wanted, and that none of the old shit mattered any more.

That was three years, thirty countries and five continents ago. The impressions I formed at the time seem naïve and unworldly in retrospect. I am not sure I would even notice, now, some of the things which enchanted me then. Some of the excitement has worn off along the way, but there is too much fascinating diversity in the world for travelling ever to become a routine.

© Richard Senior 2015

Ko Phi-Phi: On Irony Island

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Phi-Phi was a quiet island of Muslim fishermen, until the travellers arrived.

There were only a few at first, but then their friends came and their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ younger brothers, who came with a bunch of people they had met on Samui, and a few crates of beer and a big bag of weed and some music. It could not be accused of being quiet now.

Loh Dalum Beach is still beautiful, so long as you keep looking out to sea. Behind you, there is a line of bars with big sound systems and bigger neon signs. There is EDM at Slinky, dubstep at Stones and reggae at the Chillout Bar.

Sometime around nine, the DJ’s jerk up the volume and bare-chested performers run onto the stage and juggle with burning batons. One swings two burning balls connected by a chain around his torso and between his legs. Then two of them douse a rope in petrol, light it and swing it with increasing speed and invite volunteers to skip with it. Plenty try. Buckets make you do things like that.

When the sun starts to set, every guesthouse and restaurant on the way to the beach brings out a tray of plastic buckets like children use for sandcastles. Each contains a packet of straws, a quarter bottle of Sang Som whisky, a Coke and an energy drink. The idea is to tip all the drinks in the bucket and suck them up through the straw until you are hammered enough to skip with a burning rope.

The Coke and the energy drink keep you alert when, by rights, you should be asleep in a corner and you think you are fine and get another bucket and then it is sometime in the afternoon the next day.

Slinky has a stage on the beach so you can look out to sea as you dance. There is a dead tree in front of it with its trunk stripped, its branches lopped off and two slats of wood nailed to the top to make a platform just big enough to stand on.

Throughout the night, when I was there, travellers tried to climb to the top of the tree to dance on the platform in front of the crowd. A Scandinavian guy powered himself up in three fluid movements, an Irish guy got partway up then slithered to a giggling heap on the sand, and an English girl squeezed herself half onto the platform but could neither stand up nor climb down and stayed where she was, with her arms and legs waving uselessly.

It is all good fun and an essential stop on the Banana Pancake Trail; but when the effects of the buckets have finally worn off, you might start to imagine it from a local’s perspective. “It puts money in their economy,” some travellers shrug.

Yet there is disquiet back home if a Polish shop opens on the high street, and outrage if planning consent is given for a mosque. Professionally intolerant columnists write another 2,000 inflammatory words, and badly-spelled bigotry is circulated on Facebook. Meanwhile, in Thailand, the children and grandchildren of the angry people have taken a sleepy island and made it into a version of Ibiza.

It is partly Leonardo DiCaprio’s fault. The Beach was filmed on Ko Phi-Phi Le, even though it was set in the Lower Gulf Islands on the opposite coast. It is a fifth of the size of the main island, Phi-Phi Don, which itself is only five miles by two, and as stunningly beautiful as the book says it should be.

It is a bit less busy than Times Square, and slightly more relaxing than the running of the bulls. Boats crowd into the tiny bay, dripping oil into the lovely cyan water. The roar of the motors echoes around the cliffs. Thousands of feet kick the pristine sand into a lunar landscape disaster. Tourists excited to be standing where DiCaprio stood let crisp packets drop and blow about the beach until they get stuck into crevices. They pose for their Facebook profile shots and a wave snatches up their Sprite bottles and bobs them out to sea.

In all the noise and confusion, irony slips by unnoticed.

© Richard Senior 2015

Night Bus to Bangkok   

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They told me that the trains were all fully-booked, but I had heard that before in Thailand.

It usually just means that you have to go out the station and down a side street to an agent who will – for a price – get a ticket biked over from goodness knows where. But the crowds who had flocked south to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach were now going home and, this time, the trains really were fully-booked. All that the fast-talking agents could offer was a seat on the VIP Bus.

A minibus collected me from Nopparat Thara in the middle of the afternoon and dropped me at the interchange in Krabi Town, where a confusion of travellers sat hugging their backpacks with fluorescent dots on their singlets.

Buses came and buses went. The staff shouted, flung their arms in the air and darted about. Travellers got up, looked around uncertainly, and hurried to the bus, but most were turned back because their fluorescent dots were not the right colour.

Orange was the wrong colour several times, until, eventually, a bus came to take me as far as Surat Thani on the opposite coast, where I arrived in a tropical storm. The rain drummed on the tin-sheet roof as I waited; water advanced across the floor. Travellers lifted their feet and hoisted their backpacks onto spare seats.

The VIP bus was a big six-wheeled, double-decker coach with luridly airbrushed flanks, similar to the one below. There were no frills beyond reclining seats and curtains to pull across the windows.

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I could no more sleep on a bus than compose a piano concerto, but that was okay because I had a pile of books for the journey. Then the driver turned off the roof lights and I flicked the switch for the reading lamp and nothing happened. Twelve hours, then, of lampposts, signs and crash barriers.

It was sometime around midnight, I think, when we pulled into the services with dozens of similar buses, all heading north to Bangkok and beyond. I threaded between them and went inside, then realised I had no idea which bus was mine. I had a feeling it was red, but it might have been blue, unless that was the one I had taken to Surat Thani, and I thought it was somewhere around halfway down the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth, line of buses, but several had come and several had gone in the meantime. I blundered from bus to bus, looking for clues, and found mine largely by chance. It was yellow.

Hours later, when I was about the only passenger still awake, we pulled into a lay-by behind a van, and I could see people milling about and hear conversation and lockers being opened and shut but could not work out what was happening. I thought it was the police, then I thought it was hijackers, then we set off again and I thought no more about it.

At something to five, I spotted tuk-tuks and temples and then the roof lights came on and the woman doled out hot towels and we stopped and the doors hissed open.

The bus was supposed to run to Khao San Road, the main street of the backpacker ghetto, but the place we stopped looked alien to me in the pre-dawn gloom through the fog of a sleepless night. I was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for business when I tried to get my bearings, so I ducked down an alley between rows of closed shops and came out into another road and tried again to work out where I was.

What street’s this?” I asked another traveller.

Khao San Road, man.”

I had walked down it dozens of times, but from early in the morning to late at night, it had always been crowded with travellers and hawkers and tuk-tuks and taxis and big neon signs and bustling bars; and now in the silent early hours, with everything shut and the lights all off and the travellers sleeping and tuk-tuk drivers busy with buses arriving a block away, it was an altogether different street.

I checked into a guesthouse and opened my backpack and saw that the string I never bother to fasten had been neatly tied in a bow, and I worked out, then, why we had stopped in the lay-by.

© Richard Senior 2015

Bus image: By Flying Pharmacist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A Typical Ko Tao Day

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The beach is empty in the early morning, although the sun is hot enough to enjoy. Coconut palms stretch over the sand to the sea. Longtail boats are anchored in a line a little way out from the shore and, beyond them, more randomly, are the bigger dive boats. Fish writhe in the shallows. An eagle circles overhead. You claim your spot and open your book.

Sometime around ten, a guy wanders out from the dive school, barefoot and shirtless, cracks up a Marlboro and starts to set up for the day. He is a farang but he has been there long enough to synchronise to the local pace. He does everything casually, as if it is not really work. But then why should he rush? Why should anyone rush? He wades out to the boat, grabs the anchor chain and drags it ashore, then loads it with oxygen bottles.

The instructor arrives with a class of laughing students. They try on their masks and startle themselves when they experiment with the oxygen tap. They assemble in the boat and motor out of sight.

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You go back to your book and stay on the beach and colour evenly on each side. The divers come back around six in the evening, still laughing, and repair to loungers in front of the beach bars and balance bottles of Singha on the sand and fuss with Rizlas. The bars play muted dubstep or reggae until the sun has gone and they crank up the volume and the BPM’s and start the fire show.

You stay on the sideline with a bottle of Singha and watch as they set up a limbo pole, douse it in petrol and set it alight. The Thais from the bar, shirts off to show off their tattoos and six-packs, duck under it easily and invite the farangs to have a go. They start a raggedy, giggling line and lurch towards the burning pole and stagger and stumble under it, except one guy in Ray Bans at midnight who slides a cigarette into his mouth and pauses to light it on the pole as he slips underneath.

You’re crazy doing that,” you tell him. But he insists that he only smokes five a day.

© Richard Senior 2015

Thank You for Flying with the Bangkok Helicopter

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It was evening rush hour in Bangkok. The offices emptied of workers and they swarmed on the transport hubs. Motorcycle taxi drivers sat in a line on their bikes at the ends of the sois. Meter cabs worked the main streets. The queues for the buses at the Victory Monument were as long and unruly as they are in London when the Tube drivers strike and there are dozens of applicants for every place on each bus.

I didn’t know which bus to catch to get back to Banglamphu, so I shuttled between stops, and forced my way to the front of each queue in the hope of finding a route map or someone who could tell me where to go; but there was never a route map and no one told me where to go, or at least not in a good way.

I waited to see if the crowds would thin out, but they swelled instead and I gave up on the idea of catching a bus and walked to the main road and flagged down a taxi. “Khao San Road?” I said, and he abruptly drove off by way of reply. The next two ignored me and drove past, and several after that already had fares, so I gave up on the idea of taking a taxi, as well.

That left what is known locally as the Bangkok helicopter: the fastest, most dangerous way to get across town. I approached a knot of drivers and interrupted their sniggering conversation and asked the one who had a spare helmet clipped to his bike if he could take me to Khao San Road. He quoted an inflated price and I tried to haggle but it was a waste of time so I agreed and got on the bike.

I asked for the helmet but he waved a dismissive arm and roared off while I tried to insist. It is illegal in Bangkok to ride without a helmet and I would have been the one to be fined if we were stopped; farangs are easy targets and assumed to be good for the money. I had more immediate anxieties, though, than the risk of being handed a fixed penalty.

I held onto my hat and bag with one hand and gripped the handle with the other. I have no idea what speed we were doing on the expressway, and nor had the driver because the speedo was broken; but it was comfortably above the speed limit. Everyone busts the speed limit in Bangkok if their cars or bikes or trucks will go fast enough. It is so widely ignored the police barely try to enforce it.

The driver kept up the speed as the streets became narrower and busier, ducking through traffic, overtaking a bus, undertaking a truck, carving up a taxi, mounting pavements, weaving to the front of queues at the lights and setting off shortly before they changed, ignoring the horn concerto which the other drivers performed. It seemed to me to be more of an adrenalin sport than a mode of transport. All it would take is a car to swap lanes without warning, a passenger to fling open a door at the lights, a pedestrian to step out between buses.

But locals, as ever, seem relaxed. It is, for them, just a convenient way to get to the office, or school. You see kids of ten or eleven on the back of motorbike taxis, and office girls side-saddle, using the time to finish their make-up. Only the cost would deter them from using the Bangkok helicopter: not the danger.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rapids Response

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We were rafting a 10km stretch of the Mae Tang River in Northern Thailand.

They told us at the briefing that the rapids were Grades III and IV, but that meant nothing to me at the time. To give it some context, though, a kid in half a barrel could traverse Grade I, while a very lucky maniac in a kayak might survive Grade VI. I got a better sense of what to expect when they said that the river fell sixty metres in a kilometre and a half, sometimes over a metre in one drop.

We were four to a raft – the others were strangers to me – with a professional skipper to shout out instructions, “paddle forwards,” “paddle backwards,” “get inside,” “over to the left,” “over to the right” and “jump,” when we snagged on rocks and had to bounce ourselves off.

It was as leisurely at first as a punt on the Cam as we drifted down a calm stretch of the river, and the sun was hot and the landscape was lovely with mountains and fig trees and thatched huts along the bank.

Then we entered the rapids and the skipper’s instructions became urgent, and we tumbled and twisted through rocks, over ledges, like a spider being washed down the plughole. I turned away from the guy next to me and when I turned back he was gone: he was over the side of the raft. The skipper grabbed his life jacket and held him fast, but his head bobbed repeatedly underwater and the raft ran right over him.  I had a sudden horror that I might be watching him drown. But when we were out of the rapids and we hauled him in with a bust lip and grazes, he was laughing like a kid who had come off his bike and wanted to pretend it did not hurt.

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Then another fast stretch, crashing against rocks; spinning one way, then the other. “Jump! Jump!” Plunging forward. “Get inside!” Gripping the safety rope tight, paddle tucked against hip, foot locked under the tube inside the raft. The roar of the rapids overwhelming. Two inches of water in the raft. My trainers soaked. A cut on my knee. But I stayed in.

Spinning anti-clockwise. “Paddle forward! Paddle forward!” Slamming into another rock, peeling off, and over the edge, spinning in the other direction. Flashback to the time I lost control of a car and pirouetted across the road and bounced off the barrier. Still in, though.

Toppling over another drop backwards, just hanging on. Rocks palpable underneath as the raft scrapes over them. Then another drop, a bigger drop; the raft bending in the middle. And just as it seems that it will tip end over end and catapult us out, we are through.

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And then we were floating peacefully again, past a group of elephants whose mahouts had led them down to the river to drink. Some looked up; most ignored us.

I relaxed then, elated that I had managed not to end up in the water; and the skipper capsized the raft.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Fresh Look at Bangkok

The fruit vendor woke me up as she drove her van down Soi Rambuttri, calling out through a megaphone attached to the roof. The brush seller came after her on a motor tricycle with a putt-putt engine and hee-hawing horn. He had bottle brushes, paint brushes, wire brushes, flue brushes, and every size and every colour of sweeping brush. But no one was buying brushes that morning.

The shopkeepers had rattled up the shutters a few hours before; the barmen had dragged the chairs and tables back onto the street. Travellers sat at a few of them with coffees, cigarettes and Lonely Planet guides; the rest were empty as yet. Tuk-tuk drivers were massing outside the guest houses, like reporters at the home of a shamed politician.

An early ice cream man pedalled past my window on a tricycle with an icebox slung from the handlebars and a tinny chime which suggested a theme from children’s TV. Dee-de-dee; dee-de-dee; dee-de-diddly-dee-de-dee. Behind him was a man with a hundred year-old pushcart piled up with watermelons, who dinged a bicycle bell on the handle as he shoved it down the street. No one was buying watermelons either.

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The street food vendors had claimed their pitches along Rambuttri, around the corner and down the next street. The pad thai, the spring rolls and satays are familiar enough to the travellers passing through, but the rest is new and not all of it welcome, least of all deep-fried crickets and bamboo worms. Thais like them well enough, but if you tell them we eat snails in Europe, they are disgusted.

By the middle of the morning, the roads were an anarchy of honking buses and beeping cars and crazy, fearless motorcycle taxis darting around them; and the pavements were crowded with people and everybody was constantly in somebody’s way. But there were none of the hundred explosions of temper which punctuate every British day, and too readily end in a whirl of fists and knocked over tables. No one seemed to mind very much if someone bumped into them or stood in their way for a moment. And it is easy to say something glib about Buddhist serenity, but it is as much about keeping face.

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The soaring eaves and gilded stupas of Wat Phrakaew and the Royal Palace shimmered in the haze at the other side of the Sanam Luang public gardens.  There are something like 500 temples in the city and monks are as much an everyday sight as nuns in Rome and estate agents in London.

There is a long stretch of pavement near the most important temples filled with dozens of stalls selling amulets. The devout believe that they keep them safe or bring them luck. There are effigies and statuettes, medals and coins, bracelets and pendants, stones and used false teeth. Collectors peer at them through magnifying glasses. Groups of monks browse the stalls. Travellers stop and finger the amulets and pretend that they know what they are looking at.

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A few blocks away, there is a street on which the shops sells nothing but Buddhas. There are tiny Buddhas and enormous Buddhas and all sizes of Buddha in between; there are sitting Buddhas and lying Buddhas, fat Buddhas, thin Buddhas; Buddhas made of plastic and Buddhas made of steel. Then, next to that is a street on which every shop sells policemen’s caps. Elsewhere, there are workshops crammed with boxes and drums, bicycle frames, engine parts, pieces of wood and old bathroom fittings, and right in the back there will be an old man engrossed in repairing a pocket watch or stripping an alternator down. Who knows what his business is? There is never a sign (even assuming you know a ช่าง from a ช้าง) and it is often hard to see any connection between the things inside; much of it looks like junk.

I know that, a couple of miles downtown, there are forests of office blocks which could be in Manhattan, and malls which might be anywhere in Europe, and all your favourite multinationals; and I know that the younger Thais might speak idiomatic, American-accented English, and eat at McDonalds, and stream the same movies and listen to the same music as us. Yet travellers are way too quick to write off Bangkok as ‘Westernised’. So many people said it to me, so automatically, that it was obvious it was no more a view they had come to themselves than when the man in the pub recites something he read in a tabloid about the economy.

For all that is familiar, there is a great deal that is not; and plenty is all but unfathomable for the average farang traveller.

© Richard Senior 2015

New Year’s East

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I had been bouncing around the Andaman Islands and landed up in Krabi.

A party crowd washed down to the coast for the long weekend, bought fireworks by the armful and let them off on the beach. Street food stalls appeared all the way down the road through Nopparat Thara. Chicken skewers and air-dried squid were piled up on trestle tables; gallons of chilli sauce, hundreds of quartered limes. Smoke from the grills drifted towards Ao Nang. A vendor made som tam in an earthenware mortar, bashing the garlic and chilli, the shredded papaya, the snake beans and tomatoes.

I expected a party on New Year’s Eve on the ponderous curve of peachy sand. But the only poster I saw was for a buffet and live band at a hotel in Ao Nang, and that was hardly worth staying up for.

But, with half a day left to run of the year, I spotted a flyer for Luna Bar (presumably the model for Moon Bar in Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun) which promised deep house and EDM, fireworks and whisky buckets. More fun than a live band and buffet, for sure.

Luna was ominously quiet at 10pm, when I wandered in and scooped up a bucket of the sort which I took to the beach as a child. It came with a quarter of Sang Som whisky, a bottle of Coke and an energy drink and I tipped them in and walked through to the beach, where the holiday crowd was still exploding ordnance. (The firework sellers did well that night.) The bar began to fill up as the year faded out and the crowd spilled onto the beach. They crammed together in raggedy rows, like rush hour commuters, holding up paper lanterns half their own size, lighting them and letting them go. The flickering lights stretched the length of the beach. There were forty, or fifty, or more in the air at a time. A few, swayed by gusts, caught fire and dropped to the water: the rest floated out over spectral karsts, way out into the Andaman Sea.

Then, at midnight, the music stopped and giant Roman candles sputtered into flame on posts along the waterfront. Explosions reverberated like howitzer shells and the glorious colours spilled across the sky. Lines of racing yellow tadpoles mutated into pin cushions of pink, blue and green, distorted, collapsed and came back to earth as a glittering, sparkling downpour.

All the stresses and disappointments I had run away from back home seemed a lifetime ago right then.

Happy New Year!

© Richard Senior 2014

Santa in Sunnies: Christmas Day on the Beach

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It was the middle of the morning on Christmas Day and the sun was hot enough to burn.

The beach was crowded but the only Thais were the boat taxi men, calling out “boat-boat” from under their awning when anyone went near. The rest were Western backpackers in boardies, bikinis and Santa hats. They sprawled on the sand and frolicked in the waves and lined up the empty Singha beer bottles. One prattled about finding a turkey to roast, saying much the same thing a few dozen times, as if polishing a phrase for a piece he was writing. “Hey mate,” another shouted to every guy on the beach, “What’s your best ladyboy story?” As if everybody had several, and would happily share.

I crossed the isthmus to the quieter, second best beach and sat on the sand near an empty bar where Errol Dunkley sang Ok Fred and Bob Marley was jamming. Longtail boats, moored in a line, nodded at the edge of the beach. A small yacht dropped its sails and slid into the harbour. The owner of a sports cruiser started its engines and revved them a few times, filling the air with a sound like a supercar underwater.

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I found a restaurant by chance when I cut through an alley where an old lady sat mending socks in a doorway and a skeletal man pumped air into the tyre of a rusty bike. The walls were jerry-built from reclaimed wood and the tables and chairs were cheap plastic things intended for a garden. But the eyes of the fish on ice in the doorway were inky black and their gills were cardinal red. There were none of the tacky Christmas songs I had heard from the restaurants I had passed in the middle of the village. It was, after all, just a regular Tuesday in Thailand.

A little silver tabby sat down beside me and let out a spare any change meow. I gave her a piece of grilled snapper, and then heard a different meow. It was a poor old red Persian with a sneeze and battle scars and one ear folded down. We agreed to share the fish three ways. They let me eat all the rice.

Merry Christmas all.

(c) Richard Senior 2014