The Kindness of Strangers

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I jumped out of the back of the songthaew (shared taxi) and wandered off to find a guest house. By the time I was a hundred yards down the road, and the songthaew was the other side of the island, it hit me that my daybag was still under the seat. In it were my camera, laptop, emergency funds, spare credit card and enough documents to clone me.

I flagged down another songthaew and got him to take me to the depot, where they asked me a few questions and I was out at the end of the first round:

“What was the number of the songthaew?”

“Pass.”

“Was it an Izuzu or a Hyundai?”

“Pass.”

 “What was the driver’s name?”

“Pass.”

I looked in the back of the parked songthaews, the controller phoned round the drivers, and I wrote out my contact details, but none of us expected my bag to turn up.

I felt numb as I headed back to Chaweng, checked into a guest house and dropped off what was left of my stuff. But my spirits rose a bit when I went to the beach and felt the powdery white sand underfoot, and a bit more when I sat with a Singha beer and watched the jetskiers carving up the sea and listened to the waves collapsing on the shore. Gradually, as the sun slipped down, everything twisted into focus. It’s only stuff isn’t it? I told myself.

I had an email in the morning from a girl in Moscow, who told me that her mother was on holiday on Samui and had found my bag and in it a print-out with my email address at the top. The lady spoke no English so had asked her daughter back home, who did, to get in touch with me.  I went in a taxi to a smart hotel up in the hills and retrieved my bag with everything still in it.

I had got back what I had given up as lost for good; but – more than that – I had seen human nature at its best. People might get themselves wrapped up with greed and envy, prejudice and spite; but they are capable, too, of spontaneous acts of kindness towards a perfect stranger.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Phang Nga Bay with the Worst Tourists Ever

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The driver pulled up outside a smart hotel – far removed from my guesthouse in town – and waited.

After waiting a while, he went to ask at reception and, a while after that, the Important people strolled out. They were plainly used to being waited on. I wondered why they had joined a public tour with a bunch of backpackers. Maybe they did too.

The Important man snapped at his wife, the Important woman snapped at their children; and all the Important people treated the driver as if he were their servant. They ignored the rest of us.

Stop the car!” the man ordered five minutes up the road. The woman felt car sick. Then again five minutes later, and again five minutes after that. Then we were on a fast road at the edge of a cliff with nowhere to stop.

“Stop the car!”

“Can’t stop here”.

So the woman slid the door and tried to be sick as we drove. We stopped.

Later than planned, we transferred to a longtail boat and powered through mangrove swamps. Limestone karsts, hundreds of feet tall, slid past either side. The Important people put their umbrellas up against the spray and blocked everyone else’s view. We arrived at Panyee, a Muslim fishing village built on stilts in the shade of a karst, where they served us lunch.  I liked the barbecued mackerel, the breaded shrimps and the saffron rice well enough; but the Important people shouted at the waiters and sent it back.

We stopped briefly at Ko Khao Phing Kan, Scaramanga’s base in The Man With the Golden Gun, then got into two-man canoes and the boatmen rowed us round and inside the karsts, squeezing through fissures and emerging in chimneys of rock with the squawks of the seabirds echoing between the walls and a circle of sky high above.

Some time after we were supposed to be back at the minibus, with the rest of us dutifully sitting inside, the Important woman strode over, grabbed the door mirror and turned it round to check her make up.

I can’t believe she just did that,” I said. The driver shook his head, got out and pushed and pulled and twisted and tapped the mirror until it was roughly where it had been.

Let me use your phone,” the Important man said, making a grab for the driver’s mobile. “I need to make a local call”.

The driver was nonplussed for a moment then thrust his phone without a word towards the man, who made a long chatty call about nothing. I dare say the driver had to pay for it himself, but Important people never trouble themselves with details like that.

We probably didn’t stop more than fifteen times on the way back to Phuket for the Important woman to try to be sick.

I gave the driver a hundred Baht tip because I thought he had earned it. I am not sure the Important people gave him anything.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Escaping Patong

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I was tired of the babel of English, Russian, German and French, never Thai; of the fat farangs; of the burgers and Heineken; of the parasols laid out in uniform rows.  

So I walked away from the resort and over the hill, about as far as I could get in flip-flops, and stopped at a beach which was smaller and tattier than Ao Patong. It was dotted with stones and bits of dropped litter and things which had washed from the sea. There were no deck chairs or jet skis, and no hawkers came round with sunglasses, watches, ice cream or beer.  I was the only farang there.

I sat and I watched as the tide crept further up the beach and the sun began to fall and it drew a line across the sea and lit the wet sand at the margin. I watched the fishermen set off in their long-tail boats with old car engines spinning long propeller shafts dipped in the sea. The vendors up the hill were grilling fish and the smell drifted down towards me.

A pick-up arrived with a group of Thais in the back, students I think. They jumped out and scampered across the beach and jumped in the sea fully clothed. They were as happy as children, squealing and shouting in the waves, and splashing each other, until the driver beeped his horn and they scampered back and left.

The sun had slipped further by then, backlighting the clouds and silhouetting the fishing boats and the mountains behind them. I could see across to Ao Patong, where the deckchairs were still laid out in neat rows, and the jetskis still chased across the water, and a parasailer floated a few hundred feet above a powerboat tearing round the bay. It was too far away, though, for the English and Russian and German and French voices to reach me, too far away to pick out the hawkers selling sunglasses, watches, ice cream and beer.

I stayed until the last of the sun leaked from the sky and I could barely make out the mountains and boats in the distance. Then I made my way up to the street food stalls and bought fish and rice and a Singha beer and ate at a table with locals.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet: Eating in Bangkok

All along the street, there are pushcarts piled up with food; with fried chicken, grilled octopus, satays, spring rolls, meatballs, noodle soup, and pad thai, which the vendor will make to order in seconds. She throws diced chicken into a hot wok, adds beansprouts and rice noodles, an egg if you want one, then soy sauce and tamarind, tosses it together and tips it onto a paper plate. You add a handful of chopped peanuts, a few dried shrimps, a sprinkle of sugar, a glug of fish sauce, chilli flakes, chilli sauce and pickled chilli slices.

My guidebook grumbled that the pad thai from carts around Khao San Road is not authentic, and doubtless it is not, but it was at least as good as I would get in my local Thai restaurant, and I was not complaining for the price of a packet of crisps back home.

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The first few times I ate out in Thailand, I tried to order a starter, a main and a side; but it either all came at once or in whatever order it happened to be ready. Thai meals are not structured like that. Rice – a side dish to us, a change from potatoes – is the heart of the meal for Thais. Khao means rice, but it also means meal. Everything else, the soups, the salads, the curries, the grilled fish, is a garnish for the rice. The idea is to have a balance of flavours: Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet, the cornerstones of Thai cuisine (and perhaps also the members of a Nineties girl band).

The fish was laid out on ice at the door of the restaurant and the eyes were black, the gills bright red. I had fish every night for a week. Always on the bone, grilled or deep-fried whole, served with a dipping sauce of fish sauce, chilli, lime juice and sugar. Salty, Spicy, Sour and Sweet.

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There is a lot more to Thai curries than the soupy green and red clichés the whole world knows. Fiery jungle curry, for instance; and the subtler turmeric, lemongrass and coconut flavours of Massaman curry. Yellow curry paste is smeared over seafood before grilling; red curry paste is stir-fried with pork and green beans in pad prik moo.

I like chilli well enough, but it took me a while to build up the tolerance for incendiary dishes like som tam, made with shredded papaya and enough birdseye chillies to win a bet. I asked a Thai girl how many chillies she would use in a papaya salad. “Hmm, four, six,” she said, as if that were not many.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Classic travel scams #1: the 20 Baht Temple Tour

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“I take you many temple. Twenny Baht,” the tuk-tuk driver says, and you’re new in Bangkok and the humidity is enervating and it seems like a bargain and you don’t stop to think how it can be worth his while for less than 40p (60c). He might take you to a few temples, but you will end up at a fake gem shop or a bogus travel agent.

I knew about this one before I went to Thailand because a mate of mine fell for it (the same guy once inadvertently paid €900 for a hat to wear to a party). There are a few variants, though. One guy approached me, claimed he was a policeman and flashed what might have been his library card. He warned me that some tuk-tuk drivers were dishonest and that I should only take the “official” tuk-tuks with the Thai flag on one corner and the royal flag on the other. They, he said, would take me round all the temples and then to a special shop where I could arrange cheap travel all over Thailand.

Just then, a tuk-tuk came round the corner with the Thai flag on one corner and the royal flag on the other.

 (c) Richard Senior 2014