Cockerels and Porcupines to Laos Disco Dancing!

It is 5.30am…and I am awake…courtesy of yet another cockerel!

It seems perfectly pointless going back to sleep since the air-con still hasn’t started and the room is heating up…we dress, pack our things and decide to wander the town as it rises.  In fact its pretty much risen already as daily life seems to begin at day break!

Morning in Pak Beng

We stagger out into the street and decide…uphill or downhill towards the river.  A gaggle of noise to our right drags us down the hill.  About two streets down there is a small crowd of kids seemingly fighting over something by the road.  As we get nearer, I realise what it is.  It is one of my most enduring memories and a huge regret at not being awake enough to take a photo.  Four or five school-children (judging by their immaculate uniforms) are fighting half-heartedly over the decapitated remains of what appears to be a recently killed porcupine.  Each child is fighting for access to the longest of the black and white quills still firmly attached into the corpse – tugging wildly to release the grip of the dead animal and transform it’s body into multiple writing tools for school. As each combatant is satisfied, a small flow of happy faces trots off up the hill – presumably towards their school.  The sight is so surreal that I can only stand and smile – but my room-mates are not impressed by the headless beast and we press on down the street; watching the same shopkeepers open the same shops with almost identical ranges for the waking slow-boaters to gather their provision for the long journey ahead.

Two headed dog?

As we near the river itself, the activity increases.  Dogs lie about watching their owners prepare peanut butter baguettes and egg rolls for small last-minute stalls before the boats.  Men gather on the boat roofs and piles of produce – sharing sticky rice balls from small plastic bags and talking as they watch the sun rise along the river. This place is so filled with peace and yet so alive and vibrant it is hard to believe that Laos has seen so much conflict and suffering. The people seem so friendly and relaxed.

We buy our baguettes and wander back uphill towards and then past our guest house.  Since it it still only 6am it seems worth seeing a little more of this place before we depart down the Mekong.

As we wander up the road, we see two of the school girls from the porcupine battle earlier on.  They are now walking with purpose up the road ahead of us.  We talk about what it must be like to go to school and grow up here and we wonder aloud where the school is.  Immediately they turn – “its just up here on the right – you can follow us if you like” they say! We are instantly embarrassed.  Having assumed that they would not understand us we are treated to a fast education on the speed with which Laos is developing.  Even in a small backwater such as Pak Beng, the english language is being learned voraciously in schools.  I pray that these bright youngsters take more from their future than the guy from the restaurant last night.

The street soon runs out of paving as wander further away from the river.  A beautiful old temple in yellows and blues hides behind rusting gates and overgrown gardens, chickens and dogs run everywhere in the road and the signs of building work and increasing tourism are everywhere.  I feel fortunate to have seen Pak Beng this early in its development.  I have already heard from friends that it has grown dramatically to this point but it is clear that Laos will not stay still for long and Pak Beng will soon be an important staging post in the inevitable trek of tourism across the country.

We head back to our guesthouse to collect bags and pay the owner before staggering back down to the river with our gear – taking a few more photos as we go. The flotilla awaitsThere is a growing group of travellers waiting for boats…but no sign of our boat from yesterday. Eventually we spot amidst the flotilla what looks like the same boat we arrived on and we head towards it. Fortunately, this sees a common mistake and we are soon correctly informed that this boat arrives in Pak Beng, turns about and heads back upriver to where we boarded.  Another boat takes us to Luang Prabang – and we are now pointed in the right direction! Due to our early rising we have actually secured comfortable seats facing one another towards the front of the boat and are just settling into our sunny position when we recall the warnings in the Rough Guide about sunburn.  Luckily, the boatmen have also noticed the fair skinned tourists and their suffering and the large sliding roof is soon applied before we pull away from the dock.

For much of the day, the mood continues as per yesterday: people read, chatter rises and falls, card games swell and ebb, photos are taken and stored, books are finished and exchanged, the beautiful scenery passes and the locals bring more supplies to the boat as we pull up against the shoreline.  Occasionally, we have new arrivals – a young boy who is being taught to cut open some form of fruit with a very large knife, a monk who sits staring out at the river…but generally our troop continues as it was for the 6 hour journey.

Emergency Lighting

At about 2pm, the heavens decide that our trip needs some excitement and they release a deluge open us so heavy that all the rich blue side panels of the boat are rolled down in seconds by the fast soaked passengers – each then securing the strings of each panel to anything they can – including in some cases their own arms! The noise is deafening and despite our desire to see the passing life outside, any small opening in our protective shell lets in such a howling and wet gale that we content ourselves to read in the blue light and resume our chatter until the sun reappears.

By late afternoon the scenery around us has changed dramatically.  Instead of lush green hillsides and small rocks in the path of the river, there are now huge cliff faces and huge rocks in the river.  Fortunately the river too is far wider and whilst still a rich coffee-brown, its eddies and swirls seem less aggressive than they were when we left Pak Beng. There are also more river goers alongside us and we frequently receive greetings and shouts from long boats with single drivers and cargos of anything from nets to fruit to large white sacks of rice.  We also see more and more fishing nets spread between long sticks wedged into the rocks by the river.  Occasionally we get to see the men and women who tend to these apparently deserted and delicate laceworks.  They stand in their narrow canoe-like craft and confidently drag their catch from the fast flowing river – often strangely motionless and across the fast running currents.  It is a mystery to me how they stay so steady whilst the fierce waters rush under their tiny boats – perhaps the sheer shallowness of its construction reduces the impact – it seems impossible to me and I stretch my head to try to understand as we pass these minute dramas of river life on our way in to Luang Prabang.

As the settlements become more frequent and the fishing nets more closely grouped, we realise that we are coming near to the end of our trip.  Bags start to be repacked, books stowed safely away, cushions abandonned and conversation turns to lodging arrangements in the old capital.  As advised by Noom, I have booked ahead at Spicy Laos – keen to see how the sister of Spicy Thai stacks up against her Chiang Mai neighbour.  As we pull towards the dock – again crowded with young boys read to whisk luggage away into waiting tuk-tuks, I am glad that I am able to wave them away with the knowledge that I have a pace to stay and I know (roughly) where it is. We make our goodbyes and the usual best wishes and vague plans to catch up over the next few days in Laos and the 2 day friendships forged on the journey from Thailand are released once more. I gather my things and trudge up the hill to find a less pushy driver to take me to Spicy Laos.

The French colonial house which constitutes Spicy Laos (the sister to Spicy Thai in Chiang Mai) was built in 1936 and served as a royal residence for a Laos’s prince until 1975. It is intricately decorated around the upper areas of each wall and shows delicate hints of its part grandeur in the main entrance to which I climb up a wide staircase from the courtyard below.  I am expected and shown to my room which is, to be honest, a disappointment.  It is a tiny space filled to the max with 3 bunk beds and the only spare bed is the top one in the corner.  I need to charge up my phone but the electrics in the corner are stuffed full with charging equipment and hanging from the wall exposing bare wires.  I decide to check the internet and upload my photos from the boat trip and clear my camera for whatever Luang Prabang has to offer.

Much like in Chiang Mai, the internet in Spicy premises is fast and efficient and before long all my boat trip photos are up on facebook and I am read to go.  Frustratingly, the cards that I brought to store photos do not seem to work at all in my camera.  This means that I can take about 180 photos before I need to download and delete those on the camera.  I recognise that uploading to facebook does not retain the full detail of the photo and I worry that I am losing memories as I go along.  I have taken to storing a high level overview of each day on my Blackberry so that I can write it up later but I am not convinced it will all stay with me.  I wish I had the strength to do like many around me are doing and write a paper diary of all my thoughts each day.  My mind is wandering so freely during long travel days and days wandering alone in silence that even with a book in my hand I’m not sure I could capture the sense of space.  Its like emptying out the crap and slowing down the processing speed and then inserting random, unrelated pieces of information with no expectations of an outcome and then watching.  Im really enjoying the slow-down.

I am interrupted from my reverie by the arrival of a large troupe of very loud and muddy people who demand that I will be joining them for a meal on the terrace, the disco in town this evening and the waterfall (where they have just come from) tomorrow. Before I get a chance to agree or not, Laura introduces herself and shows me her incredibly muddy legs and body and pretty much everything else and tells me she really needs a shower.  Louis is next in – a gloriously beautiful blond curly haired adonis with the confidence of a well heeled public school boy and the manners to match.  He says hello and asks about me and then the rest of the gang tramp in and the noise levels settle at a constant party level.

It takes me a moment to adjust from the swell of the boat mob to the chaos of this party but I join them for fish with your fingers on the terrace and we all start to share travel stories.  Laura laughs long and loud at my “fuck It Button” story. She too has pressed the button having been made redundant (I think) from a good job and deciding to sod off and do some travel.  She is working in a bar in Cambodia but has come up to Laos for some reason (visa/old friends/break) and will be about for a week.  She is clearly a real party animal…yet also the first person I have met who is not mid twenties and gap-yearing.

Once the fish is all gone and the beer cabinet s running dry, we all pile into a tuk-tuk to head to the disco.  When I say all…there are 12 of us so Laura hangs on the back and everyone else piles into and onto any surface they can. We are a mixed bag of Canadians, English, Laos and German/Dutch (wasn’t sure and never asked) and I wonder what on earth will happen in a Laos Disco when this mad crew arrives.  As it turns out, there is only one disco in Luang Prabang so everyone who is under 25 is there – mostly locals and the carpark outside is full of mopeds and teenagers.

I know it’s going to be a heavy night when the beers turn rapidly to shots and Laura and Pheung (who works at Spicy Laos) drag us onto the dancefloor to dance like no-one is looking – 80s style seems predominantly “in”!  I am struggling to keep up and feel part of the gang and for some reason find it hard to relax in such an established group and in such a weird location.  When they all head off to the bowling I head home and went to bed – disturbed only by the late arrival of Louis at about 4am who mumbled briefly and then passed out.  Noone else came home until the morning!

I pray that there are no cockerels in Luang Prabang!

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Jumping the Border – The Slow Boat to Pak Beng

I am sadly woken at about 5.30am by the most inexperienced, namby-pamby sounding rooster I have ever heard! He sounds like a desperate 5 year old screaming for biscuits – or someone standing on a pig – or both! However, the light coming through the window is a fresher shade of the green from last night and the breeze is refreshing.  I stretch and dress and head out to collect my passport and some breakfast.

By about 7.30 we are back on the bus and crossing town to reach the river.  It is threatening rain again and as we queue up to board the thin canoe-like boats that cross the Mekong into Laos, we buy plastic wrapped and brightly coloured cushions (as adviced by the Lonely Planet) to improve the comfort of the boat ride to Pak Beng. Once seated on the boat and clutching as much of our possessions as we can, our driver kicks the outboard into life and we head out…just as the heavens open! There is a wild scrambling for macs, bag covers, anything that will keep us even vaguely dry.  It is hopeless; by the time we reach the other side – a mere 250 yards or so, we are drenched.  Visa sheets hang limply in our hands, handled like ancient manuscripts for fear of the paper disintegrating.  Hair drips down wet shirts and everyone checks their bags to see quite how wet their passports, cameras, guidebooks and clothing has become.  For a cheap purchase, my rucksack seems to have held out reasonably well with only the top pocket (which in a week or so I will be able to list the contents of by heart) getting slightly damp.  We queue through the border crossing and get our stamp, and then head up the hill, buying snacks and drinks for the boat trip en route.  We have been told that you can’t buy a thing on the boat so we are filling up with salad sandwiches and drink cans and water before we set off. Having been provided with a picnic from the guesthouse which consisted of a small polystyrene container of warm rice and chicken (not sure how safe I feel with that) I buy what is available – largely maize-based snacks and head over to the port.  Our bags are taken from us and loaded into the back of an incredibly long and narrow boat and we begin to settle on the simple pew-seats arranged inside.  The seats are hardwood, roughly spaced, and move freely – including rocking worryingly. There are also not enough for the number of people on the boat leaving a large group of what sound like a mixture of dutch and australian, curled into the space behind the seats and up on the deck near the front.  For a short trip – this all sounds quite fun.  We will be on this boat for 6-7 hours….

Boat life is strange. At first, there is a constant buzz of excitement.  People meeting fellow travellers and comparing stories, the public school mob meeting a bunch of girls around the same age and starting a card game, songs and clapping games and repeated trips to the bar where, contrary to Lonely Planet info, you can in fact buy beer…but slowly, this liveliness drifts into the quiet turning of pages. The constantly snapping camera’s are stuffed back in to day-sacks and people slow to the pace of the churning brown-yellow waters of the Mekong.

The scenery is beautiful but also saddening.  Laos people exist largely from strip farming.  They burn a strip of rainforest and plant crops, and once the crops are over, they harvest and move to a new strip.  If northern Laos had been flat country we may not have been as aware of this practice, but the steep walls of forest alongside the river show the human impact as if on shop displays – angled beautifully to catch the eye of passers-by.  One minute we will be motoring through pristine rainforest, huge rocks stretching out into the river like arms to catch driftwood, and the next it is as if someone has taken a beard-trimmer to the trees – shaving them smoothly over deep valleys and equally sharp inclines so that the bare brown earth is visible.

On occasion we turn back on ourselves, positioning the boat against the stream  in order to drive our way to shore.  Here there are strange collections of people with sacks and what appear to be laundry bags (the checked blue and white ones loved by students in the UK) which they load onto our boat amongst the travellers yet never board themselves.  Sometimes we pass 3 or 4 men driving huge pinky-white cattle down narrow paths along the river bank.  More often we drift silently through deserted scenery, glimpsing ghost-villages of wooden shacks and huts on stilts through the trees.

I have no mobile signal at all and wonder idly whether I have received any messages from home…or from Brad.  Instead, I start to meet the people around me; a beautiful french girl called Magda (Magdelaine) with a huge camera who is snapping happily out of the glassless windows of the boat; a young english guy called Paul who is not like the public-school mob and chats easily with us as we amble downstream. We finish our books and start to exchange them for new ones. Time seems to become increasingly irrelevant and I am reminded of a 6 hr ferry crossing from Harwich to the Hook of Holland where we smartly decided to watch a feature film…only to find 4 hrs still remained to fill.  Impossible to sleep due to the discomfort of the seats, we begin to envy the Australian mob at the back – now sprawled across the floor on various tangles of bodies reading books and playing cards.  We turn, and turn again our now insignificant cushions – praying that our bums will find some softness left in their foamy centres.

There is of course an alternative to this endless river journey.  Many tourists ignore all the warnings in Lonely Planet and Rough Guide and choose to take their life in their hands with a speedboat down (or indeed up) the Mekong. We occasionally watch as these hardened maniacs pass in their high speed go-kart-sized boats.  They look neither safe nor comfortable and despite our envy of the 6hrs they will take to get to Luang Prabang (we take two days), I would not even trade my painful seating for the cramped, bouncing, wet and cold dash between the rocks that they seem to be enduring.  Every year several tourists are killed and seriously injured by the tendency of these boats to flip on hitting the copious numbers of floating logs on the river.  At 3 times the price of the slowboat, it is an expensive risk to take!

At about 6pm we finally arrive at Pak Beng.  There is a chaotic scene.  We have all been warned to avoid losing your bag to little boys who collect it and then try to coerce its owner into going with them to an overpriced lodging for the night.  Paul, Magda and I have teamed up to share a room in a pretty looking pink place but this doesn’t make us immune to the bartering on the quay.  I say quay – in fact it is a steep escarpment of rocks that sticks out from the town into the river and scrambling up it with several bags whilst fighting off ten year old boys who assure you they can carry your 40 ton rucksack is not easy.  Eventually we reach the main street (only street) and find our lodgings.  We are immediately asked if we want to buy some opium and, having politely refused, are shown to our room (which contains a large double bed and little else) and presented with our key.  We are warned that the power goes off at 10 and decide therefore to head out for a meal as soon as we can to avoid pitch black eating.  Since the shower is cold, this seems a wise choice indeed!

There are a few of us who decide to eat.  There are several choices and by the time we get people organised and together it is getting dark and all the lights of Pak Beng are coming on around us.  For an incredibly tiny town with one, partially paved street there seems a clear focus on cashing in on the continual supply of weary, hungry and in relative terms affluent clientele delivered by the slow boats each night and removed the following morning restocked with sandwiches, beer and potentially less legitimate purchases from their stay in Pak Beng.  There are perhaps 4 restaurants and a growing number of guesthouses and precious little else.  We learn during our evening at the restaurant that the unfortunate consequences of this trade position are that the locals tread a thin line between a healthy transition from remote indian village to thriving tourist site, and one dictated by drug addiction and money;  Whilst amusing at the time, the guy who danced and sang oddly throughout the entire meal was clearly a victim of the latter path – in stark contrast to the incredibly helpful waiter who continually filled our glasses with the local whisky (don’t…really…just don’t) and served us the most incredible buffalo laap – our first taste of Laos culinary delights.

Laos is a relative newcomer to the tourist and traveller machine of South East Asia. Described by the Rough Guide as “South East Asia’s most relaxing country to travel in”, the country only opened its doors to foreign investment in the late 1980’s and has since transformed into the land-locked silent-centre of Asia into a landlink between Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Thailand with a whole new set of problems from the governmental fear of immorality and corruption to the environmental fear that its rich resources become the latest victim of the insatiable asian tiger. As a nation with a desperate need for external support both financially and practically, Laos has constantly walked a tightrope between satisfying external and internal demands. An early battleground for Khmer warlords due to its strategic position between European and Chinese expansionists, Laos has been fought over by the Siamese, French, British, Japanese, American and Chinese and the cultural (and culinary) mix and relaxed character still reflects the lack of a strong national identity.

Buffalo Laap/Laab/Lap is made from barely cooked beef served with mint, coriander, chilli and spices on a bed of lettuce and it is juicy and delicious.  Laos Whisky (LaoLao) is not juicy or delicious – it is throat tearing and foul and seems to reduce most takers to either tears or incapacitation.  Fortunately, it smells like raw ethanol and thus I was able to avoid the temptation to sample the local traditional drink…for now!

We stroll back past the caged Mynah birds as it nears the 10pm lights-out…we watch the stall holders closing up shop and watching their TV’s huddled together inside open front rooms.  We marvel at the sheer selection of biscuits, crisps, junk food and drinks available to the hungry tourist in the immaculately ordered and immensely complicated shop fronts…and then the generators pop and we are plunged into darkness.

We just about make our way back to the guest house by moonlight and feel our way up the stairs into the room.  We semi-undress in pitch blackness and stumble into bed….and then we realise….having no lights is not too bad…sleeping in a room with 3 complete strangers where you cannot see your hand in front of your face…bearable…no air-conditioning in the heat of a northern Laos evening when you are uncomfortable stripping bare…now that is another matter entirely…

Get off the bus!!

Brad and Jez leave early for the airport and I am left to read quietly on the sofa by the pool.  I get chatting to some Canadians who have recently arrived and share our tales of Doi Suthep and the Night Safari.  Chiang Mai has been a longer stay than I planned – but then I didn’t really have a plan anymore since the kids left.  It is good to feel part of the travelling world once more and I am ready to head to pastures new and find new places to talk about and new friendships to enjoy. It seems almost impossible at this stage that I have been away for only 8 days and have another two and a half months and 5 countries to go!

At about 11am, my bus arrives and a teenage-looking lad takes my booking reference ( I have no tickets since the trip was booked by Noom over the phone) and my bags onto the bus.  I am tired and unsociable – having spent a highly sociable few days with Brad and Jez I seem uninterested in meeting any of the people on my bus – instead I rest my head on the window and watch the paddies and hills and barking dogs pass me my – drifting into a doze as the small, cramped and hot mini-bus heads north towards the Laos border. I am woken about an hour later by one of my fellow passengers tapping on my arm.  “the driver wants to talk to you”.

“Ticket!” he demands.  I explain sleepily that my ticket was taken by the man in the passenger seat because I had booked online and only had a reference number.  I look to the passenger seat for confirmation…only to find that the man is not there – another man is there. Slightly panicked by this I look to the other passengers who look equally alarmed.  They show me their tickets and I come further awake.  “No ticket no travel” the driver barks again. With clearly no options beyond dropping me off with my bag on the side of the road – having travelled for about 2 hours – I feel partially confident that this man will understand my situation and I explain once more.  “NO TICKET NO TRAVEL” is his response. There is little to say so I decide to ignore him.  He makes a phonecall and shouts at some unknown skivvy at the other end of the line….he then turns in his seat and hands the phone to me.  “You speak” he tells me.  Unsure who it is that I am talking to I explain the situation once more. “You no ticket? You no travel” comes the reply.  I am now starting to recall horror stories of people being turfed off such trips in inhospitable places and I start to explain the only thing I can – that my ticket was bought over the phone and I have no receipt . “Hmmmph….[silence]….you no ticket?…hmmmph…..” click….

Since nothing more is said and I am not asked to leave the bus, I can only assume that somewhere down the line, somebody managed to understand my explanation – or to forgive me my lack of ticket receipt.  I drift back to sleep just in case I am asked to explain further and eventually, amidst soft, warm rain and the most deliciously leafy-green light, we arrive at a small arrangement of wooden huts which constitute our sleep-over in Chiang Khong.  We all check in our passports for Visa’s to be arranged overnight and I am assigned a single room with mosquito nets (you need them!) in a long block which seems modelled on some kind of martial arts training school.  Next door I am blessed to have a group of what I can only describe as “hooray-henry” public school boys for whom Daddy has purchased an “enlightening travel experience before university! They are loudly proclaiming their conquests in Chiang Mai and discussing who the English girl they had chatted up fancied most.  Sadly, with walls made of thin slats, I am unable to ignore or endure this conversation…or read…or sleep…or anything.  I eventually went into boring-parental mode and told them to shut up….giggles and whispers ensue and I curse the realisation that I will now have to deal with 3 days on a boat with these lads…

After 6 hours just about keeping myself in the mini-bus and 3 hours listening to the tales of derring-do from the guys nextdoor, I am exhausted and ready for an early night.  The boat departure is early tomorrow and I am hoping for a good night of sleep beforehand….

Climbing the Crazy Horse!!

Its an early rise day…I am picked up at 8.30 by a small white van with two excitable climbers on board. Having decided inexplicably that in the small space I have in my rucksack a pair of climbing boots will be a priority, I am determined to make best use of the delay in my travel to Laos by exploring what the local rock has to offer.  I am not disappointed!

We drive into town, picking up a young Canadian novice climber and an older American novice climber en route.  I manage to offend both of them immediately by guessing their nationality the wrong way round…and by making excuses for my error that also probably don’t do me any favours.  I decide to “pipe down” – as my Dad would have told me!!

We pull up at the office of the climbing company to get kitted out.  “The Peak” climbing and adventure company was set up in 1999 to cater for all comers – from novice to advanced climbers. Our host; Veerayut Ngurnchom – also known as Nui….or Spiderman, is a speed climbing champion and regularly competes in climbing competitions around the area. Having worked previously in the climbing hotspots around Krabi in southern Thailand, his experience and English are impeccable – (click here for details of the tour) – it is clear we are going to have a fun day – and being the only one with any climbing experience I have already been singled out as the one who will be leading up the routes to set ropes for the others! Hmmm….

We drive out of Chiang Mai to the east and start our slow climb to the mountains.  There are the usual stops for picnic ingredients before we hit the dirt roads that wind upwards into the Sankampang area. Peppered with rural villages lost in time, mountain plateaus and fragile cave ecosystems, Muang On Mountain is an outstanding looking mess of limestone around 150m high. On one side of the mountain is a magnificent cave with beautiful animal like stalactites and on the other a sheer 70m limestone cliff known as Crazy Horse Buttress; the name celebrating its strange horse-head peak.

We park up and use the (very) basic facilities before hauling our gear up the steep path to the cliff base. It reminds me of the walk-in to Mont Serat, yet the foliage here is nothing like the scrub rosemary bushes from Spain – rich tropical forest grows right up the base of the mountain and the small winding path is slippery and often requires hands and knees scrambling.  Thankfully it is not far and we set up camp to the left of the main buttress in clear view of the huge cave/arch formation beneath the peak.

Crazy Horse Buttress - the Arch

There are a couple of other limbers around but it is clear that we have the rock largely to ourselves – which is comforting as I haven’t climbed in at least a month and am somewhat concerned at the degree of confidence in my (as yet unproven) capacity to lead up this monster!

Still….I tie in and get ready to begin.  I am reliably (or not as it turns out) assured that the climb is “only about a 5a” so should be well within my capability.  The American and Canadian guys are watching avidly to learn from my ascent.  I begin….

The rock is cool and smooth yet as a slowly climb above the shade from the surrounding forest I can feel the heat on my back and begin to rue my decision to wear all black.  I find my footing easily and despite feeling rusty in my technique, I reach the top safely and realise with some concern that is has been a long time since I have lead on rock and I have forgotten the intricacies of untying and tying back in to enable me to be lowered from the rings at the top.  I balance this with relief that the lower-off is in good condition (better than some I have seen in the UK) and I clip my one sling into the ring and begin to try and drag from my memory the safest way to secure the rope to avoid a) dropping it and being stranded and b) making a total arse of myself by doing a crappy job!

Ok – so I first secure the rope to myself….then I carefully untie the leading rope and feed it through the rings in front of me….and now tie it back to my harness securely and I check everything….and then I check everything once more…and then I untie the rope sling from my harness and check that the rope is now securely through both rings and back to my harness….”TAKE!” I shout – hoping that the same terminology is used in Thailand as in the UK….nothing happens……”OK!!” I shout again….the rope tightens and I stand up to ensure it takes in successfully.  I lower myself back onto the rope…it holds…I breathe a moment and do one last check before shifting my weight off the sling and unclipping it…I am lowered slowly back to earth with a grin and a good degree of relief!  I look confidently at Nui as he high fives me and says well done.  Now for the American – Marc.  He has just completed the 3 day course that The Peak runs for its novice climbers…he is not looking too confident but climbs well and reached the top safely.  Meantime I have been moved over to the next leadrope job to set up a rope for the Canadian climber – Nick.  Again, I am assured that this climb is “no more than a 5b….or maybe c…”.  I tie in and once again complete a successful climb – I am starting to feel my confidence rise and the constant high fives from the team on the ground are something I value greatly.

We climb the face of the rock for about an hour – culminating in the most ludicrous attempt at a 6b overhang I have ever attempted (had I been 4 inches taller I may have had more chance in actually starting the climb!) and then we pack kit and move round to the left and up higher into the forest.  Before long we come across a huge cave entrance and adjust our eyes as we enter the rockface. Inside is a vast cavern with a rough, bouldery floor and a large slabby rockface to our right.  The rock here is very different from that on the face of the cliff.  It seems almost like the familiar gritstone from home but I’m sure it can’t be. It rolls and folds like a Derbyshire Dale yet the surface is rough like pumice.  We tie in and yet again I set off leading up the slab.  Despite its angle, the climb is not so easy as I expected and I start to appreciate all those days where faith and a large sloper have kept me safe on Stanage Edge or Froggatt – despite my desire for a nice jug to grip onto.

After several dimly lit climbs up the slab, we move back towards the cave entrance and sit back whilst Nui ties in and makes a 6c climb up the underside overhang of the cave look ridiculously easy.  He then turns to the others with a grin as he dangles back down to earth…”your turn!”. I love this type of climbing – especially on the safety of a top rope…and quickly I volunteer to go first.  “No” says Nui – “you are going to be the one who does all the unclipping”!

Nick goes first.  The initial move is one of those ones where you have to hange out backwards from your handhold and then push your feet high in order to extend up and out to the next hold.  The climb is reasonably juggy but very sustained and we cheer him on as he swings up.  He manages to unclip two quickdraws before his lack of experience and technique becomes more important than his extra strength to weight ratio.  Marc is next.  He makes a very fast start and reaches Nick’s drop off point really confidently.  It is then clear that this is the crux of the climb: a nasty side pull which you need to leverage by getting your feet into a high crack and trusting the combination.  Marc makes several attempts.  He is strong and he has learnt from Nick’s failed attempts – but even so, he is unable to push to the next clip.

My turn. I have to admit that my confidence has waned somewhat through watching these guys.  I haven’t climbed in a while and I know that my strength is not at it’s best.  I tie in and set off.  The moves up to where the boys dropped off I seem to tackle very easily.  I think they are technique moves rather than strength moves and I conserve energy by keeping momentum.  The crux is a really hard pull but I manage to get my hand to the next hold – it isn’t great.  In fact not only is it not great but it actually hurts! It’s some form of half hand-jam layback type thing and the knuckle on my thumb is really feeling it.  I let go and swing out into the cave. “I’m done” I holler down – satisfied that I have beaten the boys.  “No you’re not” shouts Nui and swings me back towards the rock.  “You need to get the last two clips for us!”

I swing back onto the rock and jam my bleeding hand back into the crack it left. I recognise quickly that I cannot hold this position for long and get my foot high up onto the wall in front of me – hooking my heel over the contours and hauling.  I confess, there is no grace to my next grab.  Elbows, shoulders and anything else I can is thrown over a small ledge as I haul my way up to the next clip and release the rope. I am sure they will let me off now…but no…I am expected to reach the final clip about a metre above my head.  Fortunately, that last scrap of spirit which renews your arms on what you know is the last move of the last climb of a long day gets me to a small hold just below the clip and I manage to reach up and unclip.  I have not completed the climb to the drop off point – but I have reached my own drop off point and achieved far more than I expected.  I swing down through the cave and settle, exhausted on a rock to receive my high-fives.  I am totally spent and totally proud.

The drive back into Chiang Mai is quiet – I think we are all ready for a shower and a sleep. Email addresses are exchanged for photos to be shared and we are all dropped off at our respective apartments.  Another set of relationships have been opened, tested, date stamped and released. It is my first real experience of meeting people for a day and then moving on and I find it an interesting blend of emotions.  Neither Nick nor Marc were truly “my-kind-of-people” but at the same time, having spent a full day climbing with them – a pretty intense experience through which I have made many dear friends in the past – it seems odd that they now exist to me only as photos in my camera and an email address scribbled into my phone.  We will probably never meet again as we weave our way around this world on our individual expeditions.

I climb the stairs up the apartment to find Brad and Jez are not yet back.  They have been revisiting the elephant trek as Brad thought it was so good that Jez shouldn’t miss it. I clamber into the shower, cool off and then stretch out on the bed to read my book and doze until they return. My body feels stretched and in the wonderfully lithe-feeling post-climb relaxation I quickly drift off to be woken about half an hour later by the arrival of the boys.

They have had a great day – and the white water rafting which had been decidedly unwhite when I went with the kids, had proven to be far whiter and challenging today.  I am glad I’d missed that bit 😉

Everyone showers and changes clothes, Jez hands out yet another of his packs of cigarettes (did I mention that he arrived into Thailand with 200 cigarettes from Oz!?) and we all chill for a bit and compare stories. Jez, it seems, tried to get in England a few weeks (months?) previously and was refused entry due to not having sorted his visa in advance.  Having been assured by the authorities in Australia that it was fine – he could do it on arrival, he was not best pleased when the authorities on the UK side informed him politely that this service had been withdrawn 2 years ago! He had been forced to get onto any flight possible to get back out of the UK and had ended up on a Ryanair flight to Italy (or was it France).  Having packed for an extended stay in the UK, he was somewhat over the Ryanair baggage allowance so had creatively stuffed all his heavy books into a pillowcase; pleadingly informing the Ryanair checkin staff that he had a bad back and needed the pillow for lumbar support during the flight! I like Jez…there is something very relaxed and open about him that draws you in.  My only problem is that I find his Brisbane accent amazingly tough to navigate. Its not that I don’t understand him – I have watched more than enough Home and Away and Neighbours to cope with an Aussie accent – but that his voice has very little intonation to guide you.  Brisbane must be the Germany of Australia in terms of voice intonation as I find it almost impossible to know when to laugh, when to agree or when to keep listening for the punchline ;-). I am constantly caught; still smiling and waiting…only to find that the sentence is over and I’ve missed the right moment for a nod and a laugh!  It reminds me of when I worked in Poland with concurrent translation whilst running a leadership programme.  People would listen as I added an amusing anecdote…and then keep listening as I delivered the punchline…and just as I had given up and decided to move on, they would all laugh! Hopefully, Jez doesn’t notice my apparent lack of a sense of humour or failure to engage properly in conversation at the right moments…I suspect he’s so chilled out that it wouldn’t bother him if he had.

The plan for the evening is to take Jez up to the temple on the hills just outside Chiang Mai.  With both bikes now back in working order after the flat tyre last night, we are ready for a long run.  I am on navigation (although this means nothing as Brad has already decided that I am incapable and makes all his own decisions on direction anyway – somewhat unfair since navigating from a map whilst riding pillion in the dark isn’t the easiest task). Brad takes the lead and we head out towards the inevitable ring road once more.  Satisfied that Jez is keeping up this time, we start the steep and windy climb up to the temple.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of northern Thaliand’s most sacred temples – named after the hill upon which it is built. Said to be founded as far back as 1383, this beautiful Buddhist site sits on one of the highest points in the hills around Chiang Mai with an incredible view across the plain. Legend weaves a fantastical story of a white elephant climbing the mountain carrying part of Buddha’s shoulderbone before dying at the peak.  This was interpretted as a sign by the people and the king; King Nu Naone of the Laner people, ordered the construction of the temple.  Like most Thai temples, the site has expanded over the years and now houses an extravagant selection of shrines and chedi.

From the road, you can only access the bottom of the 309 steps that climb up to the temple and whilst we all felt that it would be right of us to climb these steps, we decided that the darkness which was falling suggested a good excuse for taking the tram!

At the top, the world suddenly shifts from greens and greys to golds and blues.  Everything seems either gold or copper plated and the sky is deepest blue.  The ornate carvings on every surface contribute deep reds and sharp pinks and purples and round many corners there is the familiar orange of the monks seated in prayer or walking from one holy shrine to the next.  Arriving at the temple in this evening light is sublime.  The site is largely deserted and the smell of incense fills the heavy pre-storm air.

Having noted the sign on entry which tells guests to refrain from showing affection and touching, Brad is struggling to avoid holding my hand as we wander around and instead has reverted to taking strange photos of Jez “interacting” with the statues.  We restrain our giggles at the sign under a dragon saying “Mom” and wander on.

After a long gaze at the twinkling lights of Chiang Mai from the viewing area and some rapidly taken, fuzzy faced souvenir photos, the rain starts to fall more steadily and we decide to head back to the bikes. The journey down…though we decide once again to take the tram…is pretty treacherous.  Jez’s bike tyre is again slightly flatter than it shoulld be and the road running in to town is like a river.  Having not long passed my bike test, I am discomforted by Brad’s seeming nonchalance to the dangers of riding on thw hite lines and I am tense and chilly by the time we get back to the lights of Chiang Mai.  Fortunately the rain down here is easing off and we manage to find a small restaurant to enjoy our last meal in Chiang Mai.  Tomorrow, Brad and Jez are booked on a flight down to Koh Samui and I am to be collected around lunchtime for the bus to the border and my trip into Laos.  There is a sadness in the air and Brad and I are feeling the imminent ending of our brief Thai involvement.  Nothing has been said about staying in touch or seeing one another again and the possibility hangs tangibly just beneath the surface. We all repack our bags, head to bed and say our goodnights and Brad and I breach the gap between our single beds to curl into one another one last evening.   Having left the UK to clear my world of failing relationships I am nervous about making any lasting commitments so early in my journey but even so, I am sad to lose this little oasis of warmth.

Flat tyres and Australian bikers!

With “the kids” gone is seems illogical to be out at SpicyThai, so on the basic of this logic (?!) Brad drops me back and I collect my things and catch a tuk tuk back to his place.  He has arranged a move to a bigger room ready for the arrival of his friend Jezza from Brisbane.  I also take this opportunity to delay my boat trip booking for the Mekong River trip to Laos which would have departed this afternoon and instead I book a day of climbing with a company called The Peak. Brad and Jez are booked on the one day Elephant Tour so it will be good to go off and do something independently. I feel free and excited about the huge vista of adventure ahead of me. I am alone, I have found someone interesting and similar in intent to be with and we have the run of the city.  The only blot on the landscape is Brads departure to Koh Tao with Jez the day after tomorrow – but I suppose thats when the real adventure begins.  I’ve noticed since the kids left that Brad and I have settled easily into living for the moment – I feel the most relaxed I have felt in many months.

We lounge about chatting for much of the morning and I watch as Brad unpacks all of his clothes from their neatly rolled up state in his rucksack.  I am intrigued.  I had not even contemplated unpacking my bag beyond the top 30cm – maybe this is the difference between 3wks travelling and 3mths! I can’t imagine taking everything out of my bag.  I can’t even recall whats in it and Its only been packed 2 weeks! Already it feels like my only real home; my familiar space; my safety net and my personal organiser.

We head off about midday (hot as hell!) to pick up Jez from the airport… we do not really have any idea where this is and I am navigating again so we leave early! Jez landed in Bangkok last night and is on the fight up to Chiang Mai as we speed through town. With a few wrong turns we make it just in time and Brad leaps off the front of the moped and tells me to take the controls whilst he goes it to find his mate. I have a full bike licence and a 250cc motorbike that I have not yet conquered.  You might think that I would be comfortable handling a moped…but in the thick of the traffic outside the airport, with controls that feel so light they are almost unmanageable, and with no idea how a moped actually works…I freeze.  Brad laughs at me and wanders off!  I edge forwards gently and see a roundish looking and obviously non-Thai guy with baggage walking next to Brad at the end of the airport entrance.  Brad helps Jez to arrange a cab and we all get back on the road – me having refused to take the driving position for the route home.

It seems that Brad met Jez in Paris when they were both doing some random travel.  They immediately hit it off ad despite one living in Brisbane, Australia and the other in London, they have kept in touch. Jez is a mountain bike enthusiast still reeling somewhat from the failure of authorities in Canberra to appropriately authorize his entrance into the UK.  Refused a visa he took a flight to Paris with all of his belongings (all his books packed into a pillowcase “for his bad back” to get around Ryanair’s luggage restrictions) and is now back in Oz.  Brad had called him to say “Hey lets meet up in Thailand” and he had agreed and flown out. It was clear that these two were not on the same kind of tight budget facing the kids and that we may therefore be able to stretch to a little more fun.  Jez seems easygoing and fun and as we pull up back at the guesthouse we all agree that the first thing on the agenda would be FOOD!

For some unknown reason, Jez has packed his luggage with 400 cigarettes brought in from Australia.  Given the price of cigarettes in Thailand this seems a little over-kill.  As he unpacks he throws me over a packet – thus guaranteeing that I will not be giving up smoking quite yet! He too unpacks everything in his bag but the level of pristine organisation is much lower and we get to know each other a bit as Brad takes a shower.  Before long we are ready to head out for some food and we wander in the extreme afternoon heat into town.

This is the first time I really seen any of the real Chiang Mai and I am struck by how similar the streets are here to those we found in the less touristy areas of Bangkok.  There are few real shop fronts – most are open to the street; their contents spilling out across the pavement and often merging with the bikes and mopeds propped up in the streets.  Aroma seems the wrong terminology for the pungent scents wafting out of small cafes and mechanics alike and the only recognisable brand beyond Honda and Suzuki are the copious 7Eleven shops which seem no more than 100m apart down every street.  We were told by our tuk tuk driver in Bangkok that there are more 7Eleven stores in Thailand than there are temples! According to Wikipedia thre are 4,800 in Thailand, 1,500 of which are in Bangkok, making Thailand the proud owner of the 4th largest number of stores after the US, Japan and Taiwan.  On entering into these stores you find that familiar brand does not mean familiar produce and the western demand for a sandwich to fill a brief snack-drive finds us exiting with a sweetcorn and green bean flavoured ice-lolly (WHY??) and a green sandwich with apparently no contents and no crusts!!

We are starving hungry but the heat seems to have eradicated any capacity to choose a suitable eating place.  Eventually we settle on a small open sided restaurant in the middle of the web of Chiang Mai backstreets.  It is empty apart from an old lady – who brings us over the standard plastic wrapped paper menus with photos of various dishes.  I choose Chicken and Cashew (my safe-food) Brad and Jez choose various forms of Chicken Pad Thai and Beef Curry.  We drink to Jez’s arrival and chat easily about his job (he is a butcher) and our travel so far.  Brad and Jez catch up on his biking activities – it appears he also competes in Australia with quite a bit of success…and before too long our food arrives.  It smells great and looks good too…but none of it is Chicken…or Beef…but possibly Pork.  The old lady who brought out the food says nothing…we look at each other wondering whether to take this further…we all agree that there is probably no point.  The food is good and the likelihood of us being able to explain our complaint; or the proprietor being able to explain that they didn’t have any meat but pork..pretty low!

After 3 fabulous pork dishes we head back to the guesthouse for a desperately needed swim and chill out.  Brad seems to have made friends with half the guesthouse population in the short time he has been there and we get talking to an Australian couple about the night safari last night.  Gushing with praise, before long they want to go join us on our return visit with Jez this evening. Brad and Jez head off to get another moped and return triumphantly a few minutes later and we spend the rest of the afternoon simply lounging about, smoking, swimming and chatting.

In the early evening we set off for the Night Safari with the aim of getting there for just after dark. In convoy with the Australians, Brad and I and Jez, we must look like some antipodean lightweight Hells Angel troupe barging our way down the canalsides and finally getting to grips with red-light jumping with the locals at the ring-road intersections.

We arrive just in time to re-visit the Jaguar Path before the safari itself.  Oddly we can’t even see our tiger and the route for the path seems to have been changed.  As a result however, we finally find the black panther enclosure that eluded us on the previous visit.  It is pretty hard to see a black panther in a dark enclosure but we finally spot him pacing at the back of his cage.  I find that its possible to walk off the main path, out of the spill of the overhead lights and round the back of the enclosure.  Her you can peer through the bushes and see the black outline moving sleekly back and forth, back and forth through the night…and hear him stop…and cough gently…and breathe you in.  The same chill runs up my spine as happened last night and I feel hunted.  This place is truly a gift.

The rest of the visit goes as before and we finally leave and get back on the bikes to ride back.  The australians leave us and we head into town to find a restaurant Brad has been recommended to.  Half way round the ring road we turn to find that Jez seems an awful long way behind us and not looking happy.  As we slow to let him catch up he also seems to be pretty wobbly on his bike all of a sudden.  Convinced that he is neither drunk nor incapacitated we glance at his rear wheel to find that it is semi-flat – and thus causing him to swerve constantly and find cornering somewhat hazardous!  Struck instantly by the humour rather than the danger in this situation we get the giggles watching him and decide to steer further into town where he is better able to keep up.  After at least 3 circles round the back roads we find the restaurant and settle outside on the cushioned floor round a low table. Brad seems to be one of those people who seems extraordinarily unaware that his best mate from Oz may find his friend’s constant desire to touch, compliment, kiss and stare at the other occupant at the table a little distracting and not so conducive to conversation.  Whilst still somewhat flattered and enthralled at this level of attention, I am also slightly embarrassed and try to distance myself somewhat and engage Jez in conversation.  Once the food arrives this gets little easier but once back on the bikes the pressure is off and Brad is back to holding my leg with his hand whilst he steers through the narrow streets.  Its a wonderful sense of togetherness and adventure riding bikes at night with no helmets.  Sadly, for Jez, the fact that his bike is substandard means tight cornering and slightly raised curbs at slow speeds take their toll.  30 seconds from leaving the restaurant he falls off on a particularly tight corner and we stop in fits of giggles to help him pick up the bike and remount.  Dodging various cats (why are all Thai cats either tailless or possessing of disastrously bent tails?) we weave our way tiredly back towards the hostel and, having parked, wander next door to the rooftop slightly western-feeling bar and order mojito night-caps.

As it turns out I can just about manage one of these before sensibly heading to bed to get a good night’s sleep before climbing tomorrow. I leave Jez and Brad in reminiscent conversation.  Another day is over, I have made a new acquaintance and had another adventure. No photos today at all – I have briefly taken a break from being a happy snapper tourist in favour of relaxing and taking in the best that my eye and memory can capture…there’ll be more tomorrow though 😉

Tigers, Monkeys and Mopeds

I am woken up at about ten by the Dutch girl – who I actually think may be Swiss.  I am face down on my top bunk wearing a bikini top and a pair of shorts and stumble to life with the words “your friend is here!”…Brad! I almost fall through the door into the lounge/entrance area grinning in the bright light.  Brad bursts out laughing…I am covered in sheet marks and look half dead.  “5 minutes…shower…dressed” I beg and he grins back at me as I fall back through the door to pull myself together.

Within 10 minutes we are outside Spicy Thai with a bright red moped.  Brad has never had a pillion before but despite our obvious hangovers he reckons we’ll be fine.  Conspicuous by their absence are helmets.  It appears that the law on helmet wearing on mopeds is pretty lax in Chiang Mai and we have decided to go without.  It is wonderfully refreshing as a wake up call and as I am handed a map and told to navigate I feel fully capable…despite having no idea where we are actually going!  Fortunately Brad seems to have a natural sense of direction and only asks me questions rhetorically and without much faith in my likelihood of knowing! Not accustomed to relinquishing control so easily, I continue clutching the map – feeling at least slightly useful.  We are heading to Tiger Kingdom in the Mae Rim area just north of Chiang Mai.  Being already on the north side, the traffic is light as we weave through the suburbs, along the wide canal-side streets and onto the ring road.  I am in charge of looking out for signs – a task I fail on repeatedly as I concentrate on hanging over Brad’s shoulders to chat to him as he rides.  Perhaps it’s the moped, or maybe the wind in my hair, or maybe the sunshine…or maybe it’s the hint of romance with this new stranger but whatever the reason it is the first time I feel truly free and travelling since I left home.  We are out on the highway on our own steam, finding our own way and it is FUN!

Having bumped our way up several wrong turnings and blind alleys (Tiger Kingdom is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet – most people head to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok)…and roads that got thinner and thinner until we knew they were wrong, we finally noticed the big sign on the other side of the canal saying “Tiger Kingdom”.  Brad has started to mock me quite heavily for my failed navigation skills.

We park up outside a rather swanky looking building and go in to buy our tickets – do we want lion cubs, medium sized tigers or large tigers – “sorry we have no small tigers today”.  I wonder how they categorise the tigers and what constitutes small rather than medium-size.  We buy tickets for lion cubs and large tigers and wait our turn.  Shortly we are ushered through into a maze of metal cages filled with lounging cats and the odd slightly edgy looking tourist.  Our first visit is to the lion cubs.  They are hot…and bothered…and beautiful despite the sores and mangy fur which Brad tells me is probably due to the intense heat.

I have no words....

I have no words....

They are not very old and it seems unfair that their life now consists of a constant stream of people like us wanting to touch them, disturb them, bring our nervous hands near their hot fur.

I don’t know how many hours they endure this attention and how many days they get to simply sleep and relax unbothered…but I am upset by their condition.

Beyond this upset, I am also slightly scared by them.  The size of a mid-sized dogs but armed with a full set of teeth and claws, these tetchy cubs could do quite a bit of damage should they have the will to try it – and judging by the low grumbling growls and flicking tail that will is still intact.  By the time they are lion-sized (if they survive that long) they will probably have been poked and prodded by so many tourists that their will to bite and growl will be gone so whilst scared, I am also strangely encouraged that these grumbles keep coming. The keeper encourages us to rest our heads on their sides…I only really want to stroke them…in fact I’d be happy to just sit near them and enjoy the privilege.  I am ready to go way before the guide thinks us ready. They just seem so fed up of being disturbed and I am embarrassed by the guide’s ambivalence to this obvious fact.

We exit the cage in silence.  In the cage next door are two adolescent tiger cubs in much better condition. They look like the rejects on the ticket sales and are mercifully free from visitors.  Instead they are lounging idly under tables and watching with some boredom as their brother cats endure the attentions of the guests.

Across the path from the lion cubs is the main tiger enclosure.  It is minimal but has w water pool and cool grassy areas and it is unclear how many tigers are in there.  We go through the gates and close them behind us.  We are told only “do not go near the head or paws please” and that seems to be all for our first lesson in big cat contact. The strapline on the Tiger Kingdom website confidently states: “We love Tigers. They are not aggressive as you think!” but when you are face to face with one they are a whole lot bigger than you expect and the level of aggression seems unimportant in the equation!

Brad takes my camera and pushes me forward – yes he does look nervous too!

Brad (the south african guy...not the tiger)

Brad (the south african guy...not the tiger)

The guide encourages me behind the big sleeping bundle of stripes and teeth.  This does not seem at all wise but he beckons me to sit down.  I am concerned at how many perfectly nice people I know who are aggressive when woken up and I am very conscious of the huge head as I squat down.  Not enough…I am told to sit…in fact to lay along the back of the tiger and to stroke his back as he wakes up.  He really is HUGE! His ears are back…which in my cats means go away and don’t touch me…so the man prods him with a stick and then rubs his head.  He lifts his head slowly…revealing that it is in fact EVEN BIGGER!! I gently stroke his back.  It feels oddly like a fur rug…which I suppose not too many decades ago it could have been…Brad is taking photos left right and centre with both his and my cameras.  This is fine and I am settling into my “girl with Tiger” role and slowly getting closer and closer…and then a fly lands on or bites the tiger’s back and he flicks his head…and his teeth irritably in my direction.  This is less fine and I decide it is time for Brad to have a go!

It is at this point (whilst further away from the tiger!) that I start to really appreciate and absorb this experience.  Brad’s face – as you can see from the picture – is a caricature of wonderment.  We both look like children touching our first kitten…except that this kitten is just a little more substantial! I know that this kind of tourist trip is in so many ways wrong, exploitative, depressing, cruel…any number of those emotional animal-rights adjectives…but at the same time I can’t help feeling that it is precisely this sense of awe that leads people who may never have considered it previously, to start charities, travel continents and work tirelessly to protect these animals.  There is much excitement at the moment that Thailand could spearhead the effort to increase tiger numbers across the Asian continent.  In early 2008 there were an estimated 720 tigers roaming the 6,900 square miles of the country’s Western Forest Complex.  With government support to reduce trafficking and poaching there are hopes that this area could support 3 times this number. Given that there were around 100,000 only 150 years ago across Asia, it is clear that whatever habitat remains requires significant protection from both deforestation and human threats. Thailand still hosts some of the biggest traffickers in tiger parts in the region and with the government still adopting a fine rather than jail approach it is clear that more needs to be done. Whether exciting westerners and tourists to the glory of the tiger justifies keeping such magnificent beasts behind wires is one for long debate.  All I can say is that I have always been drawn to the solitude and majesty of the tiger and this just makes me all the more hopefully that we can avoid losing this glorious animal to extinction.

Beer-belly-rub...ppprrrrrr

Beer-belly-rub...ppprrrrrr

Before long we are shuffled over to another tiger lounging in the shade in the far corner of the cage.  He really is relaxed and his relaxation leads to greater boldness on my part.  I reach down and stroke his belly.  Immediately I am reminded bizarrely of the feel of a man’s hairy beer belly!! The “give” of the flesh is identical – well…to the bellies I have felt anyway! It appears that cats like belly rubs whether small or large and within a few seconds he rolls his body…head first and then the rest of his bulk slowly twisting over…until I am squatting in silence with a full grown tiger laying belly up as I tickle his stomach…and what’s more…he’s purring! As he leisurely falls back onto his side I lower my head to his flank.  Inside, behind the belly squelches and squeaks of digestion, there is a beat and rumble like far off music.  His heart beats at almost the same rhythm as my own…but his purr rumbles eternally.  I relax my head so his body is taking its weight.  I could stay here all afternoon.  I am finally disturbed by the recognition that a man with a pointed stick and a man I have just met are watching me in my reverie and one of them in particular would like to be relieved of his wrist-full of cameras for a moment. Unwillingly I relinquish my purring friend to Brad and start snapping photos…

When we leave the tiger cages we are silent.  It reminds me vaguely of the silence I experienced after 20 minutes of watching a jaguar fish for turtles on the Madre de Dios river in Peru.  There had been 3 of there and not one could find words to express what we were watching.  It is broken briefly by the tiger in the cage next to the exit who seems to be off the tour agenda.  The guide informs us that this tiger is “in disgrace” for eating shoes.  I struggle to picture this scenario – does the tiger steal the shoes from the tourists??? Having never mete a tiger with a shoe fetish, I remove my flip flop and squat down next to the dormant beast lying chin up against the side of his cage.  Nothing moves….except his eyes.  Huge golden rings enlarge to wedding rings around a pool and of liquid black as he fixates on the flip flop.  I slowly raise my arm…his eyes turn blacker and follow.  Nothing else moves…just the eyes…and then a paw flicks lazily with knives sticking from the innocent looking white fluff. I decide to move along and leave this patient to his confinement. We wander towards the exit and Brad turns to me nonchalantly with the most peculiar question: “would you like an ice-lolly?”. Now normally I recognize that this question would not seem so bizarre.  Even after the last hour of tiger and lion stroking at would still not really merit conversation.  But it was the way it hit me…I could’t remember the last time that someone had offered to buy me something like an ice lolly. A pint maybe…but something as easy and simple as an ice lolly…a gesture and association so unnecessary and childlike…not for a long time.  It isn’t easy to explain but having moved up from London to Derbyshire and slowly adjusted to the extent of what can at times only be described as poverty around me, I had got into the habit particularly with one group of friends of being the one who said “don’t worry about it – it’s on me”. Often I would be forced to recognize that my offer was in fact uncomfortable and should not be tendered for fear of making the other person feel obliged or patronized in some way.  It was a language I had never learned to speak in London where so much is frivolously spent on so little. What I had not noticed however was that on the simplest of gestures – the offer of an ice lolly – I had immediately and without thinking reached into my pocket to pass over my half of the expense. Brad had then looked at me as if I was certifiably insane and refused this pocket change. I am not sure what to say.  I feel spoilt in a way that is mildly obsurd and I feel the need to explain…”Its only an ice lolly” he smiles…”chill out” and wanders off towards the lake and a bench.

We get back on the bike having watched the huge fish in the lake consume most of a small child’s picnic and we head back towards town.  On passing a sign on the roadside for “Monkey Centre” however, we decide to check it out.

Wos in 'ere then luv?

Wos in 'ere then luv?

The Chiang Mai Monkey Centre is a strange affair – low fenced areas with monkeys of various kinds chained by foot or neck to tree stumps, dusty areas with cages filled with reaching arms and legs and thirsty mouths.  I am uncomfortable right up to the point when a young baboon takes it open himself to hurl a banana-missile at me from his tree-stump, hitting me squarely on the chest with a warm, sticky sound. A squirrel monkey behind me then extends his reach from the chain around his neck by gripping with his tiny hands around the neck of my t-shirt and pulling as if  peeking down my front.  The balance of power is clearly not shifted as far as the chains and cages suggest.  Even so I find it hard to adjust to keeping conditions in Thailand that would be considered cruelty in the UK or Europe.  I am sure that the animals are well loved and entertained but their chains look uncomfortable and excessive.

We take our seats in the small open sided arena for the show.  Thailand seems to specialise in audience participation for its shows (in more ways than this!).  Bizarrely, across from us is an entire row of around 20 asian businessmen – noticeable largely due to the fact that they are all in identical pink pastel shirts (the King again).  They are fits of childish and even girly giggles as the monkeys demonstrate how they learn to twist and drop coconuts from a frame constructed in the ring.  It is not the first time I have seen groups of professional businessmen on day trips to strange locations looking like pastel pink boyscouts – Thai’s allegiance to their Kings choice of shirt colour seems to have rendered pink for boys as de rigeur and it is not uncommon to see pink scooters and pink helmets on the toughest looking teenagers. Apparently a few years ago in 2007 the monarch was seen stepping out of hospital in a pale pink shirt.  Within days demand for pink shirts, clothing in general and other items such as scooters and even taxis in pink went through the roof.  In a fiercely loyal show of affection, the background of political see-sawing that has brought the colour yellow to the fore in the past, is wiped away in a pastel coup of giggling office workers.  This country truly is amazing at times!

After Monkey Centre we climb back onto the by now searingly hot seat of the moped and realise quite how thirsty and hungry we are.  There must and shall be food!!!

I have no idea how we find it – I think we are searching for some antique shop that Brad has heard about where he wants to find things for his house – but somehow we end up in a small village-like street with an art gallery and a bar/restaurant.  After a quick wander around some really rather odd photography and artwork we head for the bar, leaving the bike in the shade this time! The ringing tones of confident and loud american voices from inside suggests that a table at the far reaches of the balcony might be nice and we settle down underneath a tree that drops ants at regular intervals into our drinks, food and hair. Brad orders a Singapore Sling and sits back to listen to the frogs. We chat easily for a while and I try Brad’s drink – surprised that whatever in it has absorbed the acrid taste of Gin that I so dislike.  The heat steals any lively discussion from us and we languish in comfort sharing stories and histories and gently exploring each others backgrounds like cats circling each other to assess the outcome of engagement.

On our way back into town we pass a brown sign with an elephant on it.  “Chiang Mai Night Safari” it says on the next sign further down the road with the same elephant marching off the board. We decide to check it out.  The entrance off a huge roundabout is dominated by a huge elephant sculpture at least twice lifesize. Sponsored by the ex-prime minister, Chiang Mai Night Safari is a trail blazer in the world of zoo exhibitions.  Opened as a 3rd and largest night safari in the world in November 2005, instead of showing visitors hot, grouchy and often invisible animals, the site is in fact closed during the hottest hours of the day but open late into the evening offering visitors the chance to see the stirring natural behaviours that occur once the heat subsides and hunting instincts kick in through the cooler evening.

With a choice of hot lions vs cool darkness we decide to come back later in the evening and instead to spend our afternoon chilling out by the pool at the place Brad is staying. By the time we get back, we are pink and hot and the need to swim and cool off is intense.  The kids are lolling about in armchairs but as I arrive they announce that they are heading off back to Bangkok this evening for the journey to Vietnam. They have cancelled their boat trip to Laos and are packed and ready to go. I give them all big hugs – especially Megs – and we promise to catch up in peninsula Thailand in a couple of weeks.  I grab my bikini and we are back on the road.

Brad is staying not far down the road towards town in a very different sort of place.  Clean single room with a private bathroom and a pool with waterfall next to a large communal relaxing area.  I jump in the pool as Brad nips upstairs to change. Only four days into my trip and I am shocked to find that my reasons for leaving the UK are already slipping behind me as oddly irrelevant memories too far behind to matter here.

We spend the afternoon by the pool before grabbing some food and heading out to the ringroad and the safari.  By now it is dark and noticeable that the Thai’s do not take traffic control very seriously – if it looks OK then the red light doesn’t really apply to mopeds.  Most bikes have a full set of lights but few drivers are wearing helmets and we see a wide array of loads from full families to dogs and scaffolding poles.  Nothing seems impossible to transport by bike! We arrive to find that we have missed the last show…but thats OK..we can go on the 9.30 show (?!).  This gives us about 20 minutes to explore the “Jaguar Trail”.  Across the expansive central area with its beautifully lit statues, there is a small sign pointing down a footpath into the gloom.  There is no map and precious little lighting – mainly provided by ground level yellow beams from the kinds of solar-lights people use to pick out their driveways in Europe.  The cages and pits beside the trail are also dark and it is not always clear what is in them….we strain to see through the night for a while before we realise that tortoises don’t make exciting nighttime subjects and move on.  Miniature ponies…black bears (tough to spot those!) and small cats….and it is the cats that bring to the fore the benefits of a night safari.  Used to seeing bored flicking tails huddled into dark corners in zoos all over the world, this cage is by contrast filled with agitated and active spotted felines in clear preparations for hunting.  They are prowling around their habitat, up and down trees and jumping from platform to platform in the half light.  It is clear that the lighting is dim for their benefit rather than the visitor ad the privilege of watching servals behaving so naturally like this is totally enthralling.  Now I am not a fool – I know that these animals would be happier in the wild and that this behaviour is about as far from “natural” as a Yorkshireman delicately picking quails eggs from a jar in the Ritz…but bear with me a moment (pun excusable please).

As we wander on we feel an odd shiver up the spine.  Below us in the deepest corner of his large enclosure is a Siberian Tiger.  He is pacing in what appears at first to be the way you see the Polar bears pace in London zoo.  Our hearts sink and we consider moving on quickly but something in the way he is moving stops us.  He looks up with his huge yellow eyes…and he sniffs…deep and chestily…he coughs gently and looks up again and turns once more…pacing faster and sniffing frequently as he stares up at us.  I feel like I am being hunted as we realise with some discomfort that the reason for his pacing is that he is awake and hungry and he smells meat..us! This realisation crystallises in an instant as I take in several incredibly important things – the first is the sudden movement beneath me as the tiger jumps to his full 10ft height with teeth bared and eyes glaring – his claws ready to swipe the space at my knee level; his head rapidly increasing in size as he stretches upwards. The second is far more concerning considering the first – the bars to his enclosure are just that….bars. Not mesh or glass or even Perspex…but bars about 2 inches apart and inbetween these bars are now claws and teeth and eyes….and I step backwards rather quickly in the dark.  I am silenced by this moment and stunned out of words.  Brad – a 6ft 4″ South African (yes…my picture of Out of Africa meaning I presume he has probably wrestled lions in his youth) has stepped back almost as far and is staring past me in amazement.  Completely unfazed and bored by this whole event, our tiger has dropped back on all fours and paced back into the darkness away from the bars.  We peer after him unable in some strange way to move onto the next cage.

Siberian Tiger in the dark......look harder...

Siberian Tiger in the dark......look harder...

 

I have included a photo taken on my phone but it does no justice whatsoever to the experience – you need to go there and feel that primeval sense of being hunted by a wild animal…

We wander on in silence…only to meet the same glorious experience at the Jaguar enclosure.  Here we are initially less fazed – there are two jaguars noisily cantering back and forth around their cage like kittens playing.  One hides and rolls on his back as the other “spongs” out of the darkness and cuffs his partner.  Its like eavesdropping on a private game and we tip toe close to the cage (proper mesh this time) to get a better look.  Suddenly we are part of the game…and welcome in only one role.  One jaguar charges at the fence and rears up full height – above my head.  The other stares angrily from behind as if we have been caught peeping.  Again I step back heavily and something in the bush at my feet moves suddenly and I feel a quick sting. It is so dark there is no way to see what it was and we move along – noting the time and the need to speed up to get round before our tour starts. This place is truly something special and I feel I could stay just on this path all evening – but regretfully we turn back and head over to the main building for what is billed as the main event.

Chiang Mai Night Safari is effectively split into 3 areas: the Jaguar Path which is the closest to a zoo with enclosures and little labels telling you what you can see, the Predator area and the Savannah area.  The latter are open areas with enclosures which consist of either islands surrounded by 10ft deep trenches or totally open (obviously only in the case of the Savannah exhibits which you drive straight through.  The transport through these zones is provided by a large, 2 carriage open sided tram with a glass roof and a narrator with a flash light who literally scours the areas to the left and right with her torch and tells you what you are looking at.  We climb aboard one of these trams – which is empty bar the narrator.  There are at least 10 members of staff who have helped in getting us from the main area behind reception onto the tram and it is hard to understand how this place makes any money at all unless these people are loving volunteers!

Eventually a couple climb aboard the carriage behind us and this loading seems to prompt us to move.  We enter through jurassic park sized gates into the dark of the Savannah area and within two minutes we start to see various deer and herd animals around our tram.  When I say around – we are forced to slow as a young miniature deer scurries under the tram to rejoin its mother who is staring from about 3ft away into the tram.  The lights underneath the vehicle appear to blind the animals to its contents and Brad is by now going into African Tourguide mode and explaining the difference between springbok and something like springbok but with different stripes. I have clearing failed to write sufficient notes to recall this specific difference!

I expect had the trams been full with camera happy people we may not have been so lucky with the proximity of the animals but as it is I am amazed at how totally disinterested and unfazed they are by our presence. We are both soon speechless – staring out of the sides into the torchlight as zebra, large horned cattle, wildebeest and eventually hyena, lions and wolves drift past.  The combination of wonder, residual fear from the tiger encounter and the cool night air start to foster the beginnings of romance; knees touch, arms settle behind shoulders and the need to lean across one another to peer into the darkness seem more frequent.  The eternal dance begins…

By the time we leave the safari it is late and the heat of the day has cooled to a wonderful lingering breeze.  Dodging the herd of deer free-roaming around the entrance, the moped picks up speed as we splash through the disinfectant pool and back onto the main road. We are quiet as we head back towards town.  I have left things at Brad’s.  There are no agreed plans…we drive in silence…I don’t want to go home.  “Beer?” shouts Brad over his shoulder.  It is agreed that we get a couple of bottles and sit by the pool = a plan that neither of us acknowledge as making a lift home far less viable.

We talk…we swim..we talk some more…we listen to all the songs on my Blackberry and share favourites…the dance continues…



Elephant Riding and new friends

Early in the morning we are collected by a man who calls himself Mr Number One…no idea why – maybe it’s easier to pronounce than his real name…anyway, we all pile into a van and are driven to the booking office to pick up a French girl who is joining us for our elephant trip. We then drive to the market and buy various odd goods which we are slightly concerned may be our lunch – but since this includes lychees fresh from the trees, everyone seems happy.

Our first stop is for the butterfly and orchid farm just outside Chiang Mai.  I have been to various butterfly farms – mainly in England in the south downs.  This is nothing like those.  The butterflies are feeble and much of their wing dust has been removed from either overhandling or bashing around in the heavily netted and pretty compact space.  I find the whole thing quite distressing and pass through quickly trying to see the few intact butterflies as I do so.

The Orchid Farm

The Orchid Farm

Beyond the butterfly area and through a chain link screen I find row upon row of orchids.  I have inherited my mother’s strange dislike of orchids but I do find it fascinating to see them in this form – hanging with their roots stretching down into thin air like fingers or spiders legs.  I get the impression that Mr Number One thinks we will be here a while – so when we all begin to congregate around the entrance ready to leave, watching idly the guppies (yet again) in the small pools around the exit he looks a little disappointed.

We drive on an on up into the hills away from Chiang Mai…until finally we stop next to a small shack.  There are no signs of elephants…and we are not asked to get out of the van.  It appears that we are doing a grocery run.  We reverse back away from the shack over the horrendous terrain (bashing the base of the van as we do so) and continue up hill until we reach a small parking area.  Here we are invited to get out.  I point out to Mr Number One that the van appears to be leaking water from underneath.  He shrugs and appears disinterested by this piece of information so we walk on.  Within a few strides we enter what appears to be the beginning of a small settlement belonging to the Indians that still live in these hills.

Should you take photos or not...

Should you take photos or not...


The tribe is apparently untouched by modern man…which is clearly untrue as we are here. However we are told to be respectful with our cameras and our curiosity as we wander slowly through the tiny village.  Old ladies peer out of doorways and small boys play with two cars in the dusty shade behind one of the shacks.  No-one looks unhappy, but you sense that life here has consisted of immense poverty…or is it  simplicity for a long long time.  It is hard to know what to say or do since no one takes a blind bit of notice as we pass.


As we wind our way upwards, we come across more lychees and Mr Number One encourages us to pick and eat as we go.  I am not a great fan of lychees in the UK.  They remind me way too much of disembodied eyeballs to consider putting them in my mouth – and the odd one I have tasted was bitter and chewy.  These are like a whole different fruit.  Soft, sweet and melt in the mouth they are Moorish and soon we are gorged on them. Sally and Chris are in constant conversation and are falling behind with Megan – who I think may be struggling slightly acclimatising to the heat, the hill and the pace (Mr Number One is a fast walker and shows little regard for the speed and capability of his guests at this point).  Soon we begin to enter more leafy terrain.  Banana trees and palms stretch out overhead and the ground is frequently sticky with fallen fruits. The grass is longer and at times fierce and cutting.  I develop the most appalling desire to shout lines from old Vietnam films “They’re inside the perimeter!!!” and crawl on my belly through the undergrowth….I resist.

As the world becomes darker as the palms gather in, the ground falls away from us down a steep incline.  Megan has proudly brought some walking sandals…which her feet seem to spend their entire time slipping into the toe of.  This leads to countless slips and falls and her beige cotton skirt becomes wetter and dirtier every time.  She is the most intrepid character I have met in a long time.  Not naturally built for jungle walking she falls, gets up, laughs and carries on as if she does this every weekend – something I know is not the case! I am really enjoying her company…even though I am impatient to get through the walk to the elephants.

Eventually however, one fall takes its toll and Megan bends back her toenail on her big toe.  It is not a bad injury and the nail settles back in place but it is clearly uncomfortable and I can tell she is glad as the slope flattens out as we reach the bottom of the valley…and find two fierce looking dogs barking loudly as we arrive.  Mr Number One takes precisely no interest whatsoever in the dogs and instead greets warmly the man with a gun who steps out from behind a banana palm a little further down.  They stand and exchange news for a few minutes as we recover, and then we stride out up the other side of the slope.

THEY'RE INSIDE THE PERIMETER!!!....sorry

THEY'RE INSIDE THE PERIMETER!!!....sorry

Here the foliage changes subtly – there are more bushy-like and scratchy trees and the ground is drier.

Before long we bump into what we are told is the small group who will join us for the White Water Rafting part of our day later on – another guide plus a tall South African and an Indian looking man.  They look good friends but we find later that they have only just met and have made friends during done a trek over the course of the morning.  We exchange slightly out of breath “hellos” with them and pass on up the hill.

Around the bend and down a small slope…we see them.  Four reddish brown and leathery looking backs in a creek and gathered around some battered looking trees. We are exhausted despite the brief trek – and glad we didn’t pick the full day trek. Whilst the elephants are “saddled” we sit and eat – a thin soup and a thicker soup with what I think is cabbage and possibly chicken.  Impatient to get on the elephants we wander down to see them.  There is a tall structure set up at the perfect height to step directly onto the neck of the elephant and on each animal is a metal frame with two marginally padded seats.  Across the front of this framework is a small metal bar clipped from one side to the other to prevent people from falling off the front. Chris and Sally clamber aboard the first elephant giggling intensely…and Megan and I follow on the second with the French girl having an animal to herself on the final beast.  The mahouts walk in front with each animal on a rope. They are in high spirits and play games on each other and the animals – frequently offering them large sticks of sugar cane from the fields and encouraging them away from stealing their own.  Our elephants seems particularly intent on rampaging down the bank into the river for more sugar cane and its not long before our mahout is riding on the neck in front of us to maintain control using a painful looking hook and to pick biting flies out of the elephants skin as we wander along.

The Mahouts really love the elephants here

The Mahouts really love the elephants here

Elephants do not move like any other animal I am sure.  Their shoulders rise high above their rounded backs and their legs seems to all bend in the wrong places and the wrong directions.  The gait is confusing for a while – particularly downhill when we find ourselves leaning full strength on the bar in front of us and leaning back as far as the seat allows to stop ourselves toppling forward over the head. Much like riding a horse, it takes while to trust the occasional stumbling motion of an animal picking its own path through tight, soggy and steep paths and we are a constant stream of yelps, screams and giggles.  In a fitting tribute, the mahouts are perhaps the happiest group of young men I think I have ever come across.  It is clear that they love their elephants and their job with them very much and it is a joy to be able to share this time with them.  They leap from animal to animal, climbing up the tails, sliding off the neck onto the trunks and giggling as they splash water from the stream.  It is truly a wonderful day and a blessing to be out of the city and into Thai countryside.

There are a number of elephant rescue centres around Chiang Mai and despite the concerns from tourists that the elephant rides are abusive to the animals, many of these animals have been rescued from far harsher conditions elsewhere in Thailand where elephants are still used as working “machinery: for logging and other heavy lifting. There is a strong mission to educate the community and also to provide conservation for the land in the areas used for the treks. It seems unfair for westerners with their eco-values based on very little information to make uninformed judgements about a park which has received awards from the likes of National Geographic, the BBC, RAI and the Smithsonian.

When our ride is over we are invited to wander up the hill behind the sanctuary to provide the elephants with some food and shelter from the sun.  Whilst Megan and I stride off, Sally’s enviable capacity to engage anyone with her bubbly personality, has managed to get herself a ride on the neck of her elephant to see it up the hill.  She sits with her legs tucked behind his ears as he strides purposefully up the steep slope through the grass.

By the time we get to the top we are all exhausted and glad to see the van which has come to pick us up.  We drive a short distance back down the hillside to wait for the others in a strange garage area which seems to be occupied only by two very small and slightly mangy puppies intent on biting the straps off any rucksack that meets the floor – or indeed any shoelace or finger which ventures near.

Eventually the South African guy – who it turns out is called Bradley (a name which instantly makes me think of “Dammit Janet” from The Rocky Horror Show) and the Indian guy – whose name I don’t catch (or can’t pronounce enough to recall….I later find it is Vincent so not too tough!) arrive in another truck and after a quick “get to know each other” we all load up in the back of this new pick up. We stand in the back leaning over the cab and I admit…I may be showing off a little to this new audience…as is Sally and to a lesser extent Megan!

We surf over bumps in the road tipping from side to side and sitting sheepishly over the really rough bits until we reach the river and boats. After strapping on ludicrously small life jackets and brightly coloured helmets we are ready to ride and scramble into the inflatables and push out onto the river…which looks smooth as a lake!!  I am somewhat relieved given that my brother-in-law has always forbidden me to do white water rafting having lost his cousin in an accident in Peru several years ago. My sense of betrayal passes and we settle into our paddling routine.

Our first taste of rapids, though slight, is still exciting enough for me at this stage.  We are told to pull upwards on the front of the raft to lift it through the white water, and before long are expected to heave left and right to manhandle the boat between the rocks.  I am amazed at quite how difficult it sometimes is to shift it over rocks and rapids and when we drift out onto smooth water I am happy to leap overboard and drift easily in the muddy brown water with my feet up on the raft. By this time the inevitable splashing games are kicking in and despite the fact that the water definitely looks as though it should not be swallowed we all cough some down at some point.  We also spread this privilege to another set of boats…much to the disgust of a rather hoity-toity hispanic girl who is clearly designed NOT to get wet!

It appears that rivers in Thailand attract picnickers just as they do in Europe.  All along one side of the river are small jetties with covered areas filled with families and children.  In the shallows at the edge of the river these children are playing in the water and splashing each other – seemingly unconcerned at the fast current and their obvious inability to swim.  Suddenly I turn to a larger than usual splash to find Chris pulling himself out of the water back onto the raft.  Not having noticed him leave so suddenly and seeing his somewhat shocked expression we ask what went on.  It appears that a particularly small boy had drifted too far out into the river and was getting pulled under next to the raft.  It was clear he was in trouble and Chris had thrown himself overboard to rescue this boy.  Having missed all of the action, none of us quite knew what to say but Chris was clearly a splendid mixture of slight shock and extreme pride s we drifted on past the snacking familes.

After about 20 minutes we reach another set of rafts…bamboo ones much like those we dived off in the lakes around Yang Shuo in China.  They do not look at all sturdy and as we all climb aboard they instantly sink to just under the water surface – but by now we are drenched and happy and we stretch out to enjoy the ride.  It’s not long before Megan and I are back in the river and drifting away from the boats…unfortunately just as the current picks up!  We drift past the exit ramp from the river and are shouted to drive ourselves upstream.  This is easier said than done and we are forced to lean at full tilt against the stream and dig our feet into the river bed.  By the time we reach the shore and I haul myself up to the van, Megan is in obvious pain.  She has caught her toe – earlier damaged by the fall in the jungle – on the shingle under water and her nail is now jutting up at an unnaturally vertical angle from her toe.  She is both shocked and crying and a gathering crowd is trying to comfort her and suggest actions.  For some unknown reason (which you may guess at), both Brad and I hold back from this crowd in some paralysis of indecision.  It seems to me that there are more than enough people to tackle the problem and, unsure of how I can help further, I loiter by the truck. As the crowd fails to disperse I head over and do the only thing that seems to make any sense – I beg a whiskey from the locals for Megan – which she downs in one despite its size!

We load Megan gingerly into the seats in the van and decide that the only option is to take her to the hospital to have the toe treated professionally.  Whilst Megan calls her mum to find out her insurance details we all try to offer some support.  Again, I am amazed at this girl’s resilience.  Her toe must be incredibly painful – but beyond that, she is on day 5 of a 5 month travelling trip and can have no idea at this stage whether this injury will make the rest of her trip simply too unfeasible.

We drop Megan, Sally and Brad (who wants to ask about some dentistry) at the hospital and head back to Spicy Thai.  It appears that a Mexican meal has been arranged for all the hostel guests in town and we eagerly sign everyone up. Now to wait for Megan’s return.

When Megan and Sally finally arrive from the hospital Megan shows us her wrapped toe.  The hospital it seems suffered no nonsense about leaving the toenail on and without a word they whipped it off!! They then bandaged it to excess so that Megan’s toe now resembled a small white marrow on the end of her foot!! She did however seem in good spirits and up for our meal so when we all headed out in one heavily loaded tuk tuk, she balanced her foot gingerly out of the back with a big grin on her face.

There were about 14 of us as we sat down in the restaurant to order our food – a mixed bunch of nationalities and largely 20-somethings all chattering about where they had been, where they were going and what they had seen. It was our first evening out with the travelling fraternity and I was really enjoying finding out about the river boat to Laos, the speedboats that head in the opposite direction and various other tales of adventures to come across the continent.  The food was fabulous and the beer was flowing.

At about 9pm, Brad turned up and joined in the conversation.  I admit it…I was then flirting for attention.  I don’t know what triggers me in these situations but my first thought was that it was nice to meet someone just a little closer to my own age who seemed to have a free spirit and an easy dialogue. He agreed to join us all at a bar around the corner as we headed off for drinks.

In gratitude for his extended invitation, Brad decided to buy a round for everyone…giving the impression to me that here was someone who may also operate on the same kind of budget as me.  He had told me he worked for a bank in London and was the first person I had met who was not travelling on a shoestring. Sadly, his grand gesture soon backfired as everyone with us bought him a drink in return and his level of drunkenness increased dramatically!!

Rock Paper Stone...you lose you buy!

Rock Paper Stone...you lose you buy!

We sat outside and were quickly identified as a target for the local sales force of young (very young) boys selling strings of flowers. Their selling technique far outdid that of the Bankgkok jade sellers – they relied upon 3 rounds (or more if needed) of Scissors/Paper/Stone in order to press a purchase.  Brad was hooked instantly and fast discovered that should you win all 3 rounds…there was a fourth…and maybe a fifth in order to balance the books.  The boys giggled and played despite their obvious desire for returns and I was amazed at how tactile they were with a bunch of foreign tourists.

Before long, Brad had been bartered into buying all the ladies flower strings and the boys were ready for repeat sales!  Fortunately at this point it began to rain and they wandered off in search of more sheltered prey.  We had a small problem…Megan’s toe was not waterproof and was slowly getting wet.  A quick dash to bar and I returned with the Thai equivalent of gaffer tape and a small plastic bag.  It may not have looked pretty – but it worked and Megan was immune to the rapidly increasing weight of rain.

I have experienced tropical rain before – in both southern China and Peru – but never after a few beers and never in quite such a warm (climatically and socially) environment.  I step outside to stand and enjoy it…Sally follows me….and asks for a quick word.  She looks serious and my panic radar kicks in.  What had I done, what sin had I spoken.  All the weeks of watching my words and my bag flooded back over me.  “we’ve been talking…” is the ominous beginning.  “We are concerned that we won’t be able to do Vietnam if we go to Laos on the riverboat…” I breathe out again…”We’ve decided we’d like to cancel and head to Vietnam instead…but we don’t want to put you out or abandon you or anything…”  I can’t resist a smile.  “That’s absolutely FINE Sally” I say – thanking her for talking to me.  I tell her I had been thinking that we would probably go our separate ways and was absolutely fine with it.  I would cramp their style and I have no real interest in Vietnam.  In our slightly drunken condition we hug…and the heavens open…so we dance!!

It seems insane to be so excited and so relaxed in the middle of a foreign and mysterious city with 3 people I know who are leaving me, and several people I’ve never met who are heading their own ways.  The only person it seems is sticking around is Brad – and he wants to go see the tiger sanctuary I have heard of in Chiang Mai tomorrow – and the kids don’t…so we arrange to go together…by moped in the morning.  All is set and the night is young…well in actual fact its not but there are no signs of the Thai crowd going home – they are all piling into a shed made of corrugated iron to watch the most amazing covers band and play pool.  We squeeze in with them and steal the pool table from the locals.

By the time we scramble into a tuk tuk, Brad is very very drunk, I am similarly drunk and Megan has forgotten her toe.  Fortunately the tuk tuk driver has also forgotten that you can’t fit 4 in one tuk tuk and Chris travels home giggling whilst sitting on the really rather non-existant wheel arch next to the driver – clutching anything he can.  I can hardly sleep I am so excited…I am finally going to do what I planned to do…to go solo….bring it on!!!