The Poisoned Clementine – Journey to Laos

Last Sunday, I made pilgrimage to a supermarket carpark in Bangkok. My mission: to book myself onto a mini bus bound for Laos, so that I could re-enter Thailand on a new visa. We had been directed to meet under the big Tesco sign, just off the On Nut BTS station. There was a group of men sat around and several white vans parked up near by. I approached a fellow who looked friendly enough. Most people in Thailand, it must be said, look, and are, exceedingly friendly.

“Visa run to Laos?”

He took our passports and we dumped our bags on the back seats – once a back seat bad boy, always a back seat bad boy. It all seemed very casual, very non-official. Anyone with a van could park up there and collect passports and cash from foreigners and then drive off. That can be my backup career.

We handed over a little under six thousand baht. The bus started to fill up. A Russian woman took the seat between me and Chloe. Poor dear. In front, a bald-headed German man with no eyebrows, who had just finished a month-long stint as a monk. Then, a rather weasel-y looking, but ultimately friendly, British man, a student beside him, Middle Eastern, and then, right by the driver, two of the largest gentlemen I’ve ever seen in my life. They were also Russian, and wore tiny vests and shorts stretched tight over their ridiculously huge muscles.

We set off and I immediately downed a sleeping tablet that had been recommended to me by a more experienced runner. Soon enough, I was completely knocked out.

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If  he dies, he dies. But I must have my protein shake.

Around two hours later and the lights came on. We pulled into a service station and our friendly driver opened the door. “Twenty minutes”. I didn’t want to get off but he seemed quite insistent, and so I stood outside, feeling a little chilly for probably the first time ever in Thailand. The two Russian men popped open the back of the van and retrieved protein shakes, which they would proceed to knock back at every stop we made along the way. They also ate a prodigious number of bananas. It was a wonder they could hold them without smushing them to bits with their giant sausage fingers.

I didn’t really know anything about Laos before my trip. My main source of knowledge was King of the Hill and the Souphanousinphone family. I know next to nothing still, except that it’s Communist, the language is very similar to Thai, and they seemingly don’t have 7-Elevens there.

After the ten-hour journey, we arrived at the border to Vientiane. The crossing itself involved nothing more than remaining in a permanent state of semi-confusion, and being pushed around by bored and exasperated Thai people, who just wanted you to get your act together and sort yourself out. They did a great job I must say. Everything went smoothly, and I would recommend the service to anyone, because I can’t imagine where you’d even begin the process alone. There was a lot of waiting. A lot of boredom. Stamping of forms and general bureaucracy. In time, everything was done, and we were taken to a hotel.

(null).jpgI couldn’t tell you what it was called if I wanted to. I was so tired, confused, and done in. They featured this photo of Laotian Barry Chuckle a lot around the place. That could be a clue.

We had been promised a swimming pool, not that I’d brought my costume, but we found that to be empty. I was given a room key, 103, and I sloped off to go and collapse on my bed. I fell asleep and awoke an undetermined amount of time later.

“Great,” I thought, “It must be about five PM by now, I can go and have tea and then it’ll almost be bedtime.”

I checked my phone. It was 9 AM. I’ve never felt so lost in my life, time wise. Two days on an aeroplane didn’t do that to me.

The room itself was grim and smelled badly of damp. In the photo below, you can observe what I presume to be ancient Moorish architecture above the bathroom door. Surely not just some fancy cinder blocks. The TV played only loud Laotian static. A knock on the door. It was Chloe. The Wi-Fi didn’t reach her second story room. She took my spare bed.

I’m not sure what we did that day. I know how I looked though. It’s how I always look in such greasy, desperate situations. There is a requirement, not always enforced, to dress “respectfully” when dealing with border officers. I can appreciate the rule. I wouldn’t want to be dealing with Russian muscle men in tiny vests either. Personally, I wouldn’t have let them in. Anyway, knowing this, I tried to look a little smart on my trip. I wouldn’t want a stained T-shirt to stop me getting back to Chach. Knowing I was to travel, I had also worn my comfiest underwear. So the ingredients to the recipe – greasy hair, big underpants, failed attempt to look smart, happy, and incredibly compliant.

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Yeah.

I’d said to Chloe that I had no intentions of making any friends on this trip. I’ve been socialised out, and I have enough friends now (three, at least). I couldn’t be arsed with chitter-chatter. Unfortunately, it’s rife on these runs. Everybody is bored and alone and has nothing to do. Chloe said she felt the same, but she can’t help herself. She loves socialising. “Where are you from?” and all that. I disengaged. I could not be moithered. I am the unmoitherable man. Time progressed. Rice for tea. Rice for breakfast.

We crossed back to Thailand without a hitch, travelling across the beautifully named Friendship Bridge. I even managed to pick up a Mars Bar from the duty free at the border. It’s sat in my fridge now. I can’t bring myself to open it because once it’s gone, it’s gone. The Russian girl sitting next to me on the bus offered me a clementine. I don’t know for sure if it was a clementine, because I’m in the habit of calling all round orange fruits oranges, because I don’t know the fucking difference, but I’m going to say clementine, anyhow. I accepted the friendly gesture with smiles and gratitude, and I ate it. I then became incredibly paranoid that it had been drugged. I grew up watching Cold War media. In my adult life, I’ve met perfectly nice Russians, but for a large part of my existence, I’ve had the nagging feeling that all Russians are spies who are out to nuke me and will do anything to achieve that goal. I imagined that she’d injected it with something whilst hidden inside a squat toilet cubicle, and would wait for me to pass out back at the Tesco car park, before dragging me off to harvest my organs or sell me into slavery. Evidently, as you’re reading this, none of that happened. Yet more proof that the Russians might be OK.

I’d booked a hotel to stay in the night we returned in Thailand as I knew we’d arrive back at On Nut late. We tried to walk to this place, and were making a very good job of it, before we were chased away by wild dogs. I walked off, as steadily and calmly as possible, as they nipped and growled mere paces behind. Once we were back to the main road, I rang the hotel.

“Sa wat de ka. Do you speak English?”

“A little,”

“I have booked a room at your hotel but I cannot get to you because of the dogs,”

“… Is OK. Dogs OK,”

“No, they are barking, and they chase me. I cannot get to the hotel,”

“Dogs not scary,”

Now, at home, I would agree with him. I love dogs. I just don’t love the rabid kind that chase you up back alleys.

“Dogs are scary. Do you have a car you could send?”

“No. No scary,”

“Scary,”

“…OK… one moment,”

He put the phone down. He never called back. I tried to explain the predicament to a taxi driver, who only smiled and nodded, as they always do when they have no idea what you’re talking about. I could have been saying “I’m a big heroin monkey, take me to Narnia so I can cover Mr Tumnus in rich creamery butter,” and I’d have had the same response. To be fair, it’s what I do when I can’t tell what Thai people are saying to me.

We give up and get another taxi to take us to soi 11, because it’s a place we sort of know. Obviously, we don’t know it too well because we arrive to find it thick with prostitutes. You couldn’t move for them. We wandered between them, and their pimps, and the creepy men pushing them into cars. After failing to find a room, we returned to what we had previously dubbed Bates Motel, and passed out there.

I awake around three AM and jumped out of bed.

“CHLOE, WE NEED TO MOVE,”

Chloe bolted up and switched on the light.

“WHY?”

“WE NEED TO GET OUT OF THIS PUDDLE,”

I had awoken from a dream in which we two, and another teacher from our school, were sleeping rough in Bangkok. Chloe went along with the whole thing because she also does weird things in her sleep. Two people both fully believing the same delusion. I stopped and looked around.

“Wait. I think we’re OK. We’re in a hotel room.”

“Oh right,” said Chloe, “OK.”

“Sorry about that.”

“It’s OK.”

We both got back in bed and immediately fell back asleep. Perhaps there was something weird in that clementine.

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Touch Down in Asia

Well, I’m here.

It’s Sunday morning now in Bangkok. Half seven. My travelling companion, Chloe, is asleep in the bed next to me. I was woken up about forty minutes ago. It might have been the bird outside cawing. Or maybe I was startled awake by my nose dropping off because it’s minus twenty in here with the air con on.

The trip from Manchester was stressless enough. Aside from a few last minute jitters, I really haven’t felt worried about the whole thing. I think people have expected me to, and have projected that expectation onto me, but everything has been calm and has gone well. No fuck ups. No drama. No arguments between me and Chloe. All was harmonious. I don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch, but I think we might actually be rather well-suited to mutual friendship after all.

We had a brief layover in Abu Dhabi and then onwards we went.

We arrived in Thailand at about 7am. I’d had, at a generous estimate, approximately five hours sleep in about twenty four hours. On the first plane, Chloe had sat in the middle of the three-seat row and found herself next to a nice man who’d instructed us on how to do various basic tasks. I can’t remember exactly what now, how to put the TV remote back in the seat holder and so forth. We were very giddy at that stage. We switched half way, her taking the aisle seat, and I suddenly found myself next to a double-denimed Thai lady who was probably around our age, even though it was difficult to tell. What’s become immediately apparent is that Thai women, on the whole, are very glamorous and image-conscious. Fifty-year-olds look younger than me. Everyone wears make up, even in the thirty five degree heat. This lady next to me wore heels for her flight.

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Realised after quickly scanning this post before publishing that the only photos I have are of stupid things. So here’s a photo of Koh Samuii that I didn’t take to liven things up.

She started our exchange with a kind offer of some After Eight dinner mints. Apparently people in the UAE have a very sweet tooth.

“Are you sisters?” she asked us, in her thick accent.

We were both in super polite mode. No, no, no we said. We were not, and indeed, are still not, sisters.

“I think you sisters, you look very alike. Same!”

We look nothing alike. Oh do we, we laughed, knowing this to be bullshit of the highest order. Or maybe she really couldn’t see the difference between us. Who knows.

She went on to tell us many little titbits about her country, which she wasn’t looking forward to returning to, as “everything take two hours” to do, and she had a six hour bus ride up north to make after landing. Her English was excellent. I know only two Thai phrases and really can’t criticise many people on the language-learning front. It was just her accent that was a trifle difficult. I don’t know if she was telling me about “sheep shearing”, it seems somewhat unlikely, but something that sounded incredibly like that kept coming up, over and over again.

“Haha, yes,” I said. Yes, so true, always with those bloody sheep, I know them well, always shearing them, haha. 

I made loud and obvious verbal plans with Chloe about how I was going to try and sleep. I put my mask on and readied my “Make it Rain” rain-sounds playlist.

“You need help in Thailand, you call me, any time.”

“Thank you,” we said, eternally grateful, “That is so kind.” We never exchanged numbers.

In the interest of fairness, I should note that Chloe did have a difficult encounter too. We suspected during the first flight that an Indian Dracula might be sat in front of her. She told me that when she was little, her cousin told her that vampires hid in aeroplane toilets, actually in the toilet itself, waiting to bite people and suck them down (oo er) the pipes. After I returned from a visit to the cubicle, she asked if I’d seen any in there. Lucky for me, no. Perhaps they had already taken their fill of blood, or I was entirely too sweaty and unappealing for them to even bother with. The man in front reached his arms behind his seat and began to drum his long fingers on Chloe’s entertainment screen. This is a screenshot of what I wrote to her.

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He definitely was goading us. He’ll probably be at my window tonight. This is just like Fright Night. 

We landed in at Suva… Suvarna… I’ll check the spelling later (Edit: Suvarnabhumi) airport and caught a shuttle to our hotel, The Floral Shire. I picked it because it’s easily commutable. It’s clean enough and not bad at all. The sheets smell a bit farty and are quite grey, but otherwise, good. £8 each for the night so you can’t really complain. I am lying here in the semi-darkness now, typing this on my iPad, listening to the sweet and melodious sounds of an angry Thai man shouting, and a bored woman saying something that sounds like “now” repeatedly back to him. We checked in, watched some TV, slept for three hours, got up, and went for a wander. Thai TV, as a side note, is as I imagined it, except scarier. Within half an hour, I saw a suicide, a murder, and three, yes, three, ghosts. I don’t know if that’s standard. I managed to get this snapshot of our fatback TV.

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Horrifying

Floral Shire is down a higgledy-piggledy street lined with houses, hostels, and strange little shops that all seem to predominantly sell huge boxes of eggs. There are stray dogs everywhere and that makes me sad, but I try to put it out of my mind, because there’s nothing to be done about it. They weave dangerously in and out of traffic. There’s a strange, narrow sort of fish tank right outside our room on the street that’s filled with huge koi. I think they’re changing the water now because there’s a lot of splashing going on.

We make our way to a Seven-Eleven to buy snacks. Chloe finds a Kinder Bueno, causing much rejoicing and happiness, and it doesn’t even have that ingredient to stop it melting that makes chocolate taste like vomit. I buy a Coke, a packet of crisps, and a water bottle. I spend about 60 baht. That’s £1.30\€1.50\$1.70. We can’t quite believe it when we hand over our money and feel we have committed some daring daylight robbery.

(Chloe’s just got up. The shouting man disturbed her).

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Brown hotel towel – suspicious?

We then go on to a cafe and order some chicken and fried rice and a cocktail each. Then the cocktail comes, loaded with ice, and we remember that the water might have an ill-effect on us. Chloe hasn’t had her Hepatitis shots yet. An awkward and long conversation ensues with the waiter which results in him misunderstanding and bringing us a glass of ice. We feel awful about the whole thing and eventually just sip from water bottles and ignore the cocktails altogether.

(Chloe is going to play some Pokemon now and has reminded me to mention that our hands, legs, and feet all swelled horrendously whilst flying. I have a photo but I genuinely don’t know if it’s too upsetting to share here).

After that, we moved on to the hotel bar and ordered beer so we knew we’d be safe – no ice. We’re probably being overly cautious but we don’t want to get diarrhoea on our first day and become completely incapacitated.

I think that’s it for the first twenty four hours. In about five hours, we’ll be flying again, to Koh Samuii. I’ll post this later on when I have more time.

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Sweet Bandannas brah!

PS. A few months ago, I received a mysterious shipment of bandannas in the post. I have no idea who sent them or why. It’ll probably always be a mystery. I received several, and in many colours. Well, I thought it was about time to put them to good use. Chloe is pink and I am yellow. We are now the Bandanna Boys. Don’t fuck with us.

Update: 22.43, Sunday 21st 2016, Koh Samuii

I’m in my hotel room at T Phak Phink. I no longer need my ambient “Make it Rain” playlist as it’s absolutely pissing it down. It’s incredible. I’m sat on my bed with the door to the balcony closed and it’s still roaring. I think it really means something for a British person  to say they never really knew rain before. This is something else.

Anyway, starting teacher training at 9am tomorrow. Met a couple taking the same class and had a few drinks tonight. Nothing more exciting to report for now.  Apologies if this is a jumbled mess. I’m still a bit zombified.

Here’s a photo of Chloe before and after
a “Happy Moment” toilet at Bangkok airport. I dread to think what goes on in there.