Songkran. [Photos pending]

It’s been one year, one month, and 29 days. I’m still in Bangkok and – inconceivably – I’m still not dead.

This time last year I was studying for my CELTA. Man alive, I remember that month of insanity as if it were only a year ago: the late nights, the hysteria, the stress, the constant stream of food, the pool that looked so inviting but that none of us ever had any time to use… and before that – SONGKRAN! Thai New Year, water festival, public holiday and city-wide water fight. The craziness of Chiang Mai, the 3-day long water battles, dance music throbbing in the streets, foam sprayed from stages in the square, buckets of ice water paralysingly cold in the midday heat. Wet and wild it certainly was.

Songkran this year couldn’t have been more different. We finished work on the Thursday and went straight from the school to the station, boarded the train and settled into our seats. The others hated the journey – I adored it. We got the cheapest tickets – 11 hours on hard seats, 4 of us squashed into a space that would be comfortable for 2, slightly awkward for 3 and laughable for any more than that. We drank beer and roared laughter playing Cards Against Humanity. Of the countries represented – England, the US, NZ – I can confirm that us Englanders have by far the best sense of humour, boasting a heady absurdism utterly unappreciated by our companions. The chumps. It got late and the train rattled on through the night. The others attempted fitful sleeping with limited success, but you know me and trains out here. I stayed awake, listening to the tracks, watching inky countryside sweeping past Having Moments and writing bad poetry. The trains out here. They’re special.

We reached Chumpon as the sun rose, and from our coach to the ferry port watched the morning colours wheel across the sky, turn to golden light, caught our first glimpse of the sea – the Gulf of Thailand – dream-blue and calm. By the time we boarded the ferry, the fizzy hysteria of sleep deprivation was setting in and we’d collected our 5th group member, well-rested and smug from his earlier, more luxurious train journey. An extended game of CAH and we arrived.

The first thing we learnt on our PADI Open Water Diver course was that the number one rule of scuba-diving is this: breathe consistently or YOUR LUNGS WILL EXPLODE. I immediately broke out into fear-sweats. Unconsciously holding my breath is a little weird habit of mine. I don’t know why. Sometimes I suppose all this Doing Life Things gets a bit complicated, so I decide to momentarily suspend one of my essential bodily functions in order to focus properly on whatever important thing is happening, such as having just stubbed my toe or dropped a glass or seen a DRAGON in the park (oh, it’s “only” a monitor lizard? Whatever.) You know, the big stuff.

So, after the first HELLISH day – the day of Songkran, in fact – when we were in the pool for 8 consecutive hours doing skills in the searing heat, skin burning and chafing from the BCDs, dehydrated, eyes and nose burning with chlorine from doing mask removals, I had absolutely no fear whatsoever about the normal concerns (running out of air, getting the bends, having an equipment failure, having to make an emergency ascent, panicking underwater, being eaten alive by sharks), I was simply afraid that I’d see a pretty fish, get distracted, forget rule #1 and do an innocent and accidental breath hold, thereby EXPLODING MY LUNGS.

As it happens, I didn’t EXPLODE MY LUNGS. Not on the first day when we did our first two dives in REAL OCEAN and saw a white-eyed Moray eel at The Twins and a lionfish and a porcupine fish and a giant pufferfish at The Junkyard. Not even on the second day when we dived at White Rock and saw prawn gobis and where I took the longest piss EVER in my wetsuit, and when we went back to The Twins and saw a Ribbontail ray and did our emergency ascent skills. I did explode a bit on the 5th dive – our first dive as qualified divers and where we didn’t have to do ANY skills at all – but it was my LPI hose and not my lungs, and it was after we’d surfaced and not on the bottom so there was no reason to worry whatsoever. The 6th dive, however, when we went back to The Junkyard and – being qualified divers now, thank you very much – did a free descent and swam through the tunnels and saw all the usual fishes. Ah, friends. It was a glorious time.

We’d been on the island for 5 or 6 days and people were leaving to get back to Real Life. I moved from our accommodation – we’d stayed with the superb people who ran our course, Crystal Dive – and found a room in a 70s porn den. I liked it because the smell of the plywood walls brought back memories of the old caravan in Gma’s garden that was always filled with fly corpses and that we’d sometimes sleep in if we were lucky enough to be allowed the adventure. My island holiday was blissful. I’d get up early, walk along the beach to the north and get breakfast, then head south through the town, across beaches, through woods and over rocks to get to two small bays that were quiet and had excellent snorkelling and an incredibly relaxed restaurant overlooking the sea.

The first time I saw the sharks, it was with fear and fascination in near-equal amounts. It was immediately obvious that they were only juveniles but, even though they were small, they looked already like killers, gliding lazily through the water, looking all shark-like. Black tipped reef sharks. Those fins. I’ve never been so close to something in the wild that I felt was a threat to my life. And, wow, did I feel it, right the way through and into the marrow. My body tensed. ‘THREAT! THERE IS A THREAT!’ But they didn’t come close, didn’t want to. I popped my head up to look around – was it safe? did people know there were SHARKS here? There were a few people snorkelling in the bay, one or two kids. It was probably safe, right? I mean, there were adults, they knew what they were doing, right? I decided not to run screaming from the water.

The juvenile sharks became almost normal. I was still filled with apprehension every time I saw them – they just look so damn DANGEROUS! – but there was less fear. There was so much other life under the water and it made it easy to forget the sharks. And the sealife changed the deeper you went, and the deeper you went the more you realised that the different kinds of fish lived in different stratas. Yellowtail barracuda near the surface, parrotfish at the bottom. There were shoals of tiny fish, flashing silver in the light, and shoals of different types of coral-eating fish that would descent together on one place, chow down for a while, then move on.

I twice saw the muma shark. Huge. Distant. There was no fascination then, only fear. I would freeze in the water, keep it in-sight until it disappeared. Both times I swam back to shore, slightly shaky from the adrenaline.

And once, thanks to pure and perfect luck, I saw a sea turtle. Like a dream. She was on the bottom, chomping on coral. She didn’t seem to mind me watching from the surface. After a while I dived down to touch her, put my hand on her shell. She looked at me, black eyes glintingWhen she left the bottom, she swam more gracefully than you’d imagine. I thought of a spaceship – an unlikely shape, bulky but gliding effortlessly nonetheless. I swum with her until it got too deep, and I trod water, watched her surface to breathe, her leathery face wrinkled and lipless, and swim away. Magnificent.

The next day I bought an underwater camera, but the photos are terrible and I didn’t see her again anyway. I didn’t really expect to. Once in a lifetime is good enough for me.

But that was a week ago. I’ve worked a week since then. Right now, I’m on my balcony drinking a coffee and enjoying the breeze that occasionally wafts its way through the washing that’s hanging out to dry. This morning I awoke to distant sky rumblings. Though it’s still obnoxiously hot, it’s cooler today than it’s been in a while. Hot season – finally – might be coming to an end. The heat these past weeks has been intolerable. I am ready to be cool again. I am ready for rain.

 

Not Alan Anymore

I’m blogging from my mobile phone because I’m a busy, 21st century woman for whom time is most definitely money, but really because one of the cockroach teens broke the screen on my laptop so I can’t use it at the moment.

It (the cockroach teen) ran out at me as I was sitting on the floor with my laptop on my on my knees. I yelped, of course, simultaneously jumping half out of my skin, as any sane person would in that situation. The momentum of my out-of-skin jump sent my laptop soaring in a graceful arc from my lap to the floor. And now the screen is broken. Because of the cocks. The roaches. The croaches.

The croaches continue to taunt me in other ways. A few days ago I killed three of the fuckers. BOOM! Dead. Done.

Well. Almost. That’s leaving out the part where I got in the shower only to notice one staring at me from the ledge at the top of the tiles. Little pervert, I thought. Luckily there was a bottle of bleach nearby so I grabbed it and COATED the bastard. It froze, shuddered. A split-second passed in which I fully expected it to melt into non-existence like the Wicked Witch of the West, Oh what a world, what a worrrrrld!

NO. It (the cockroach) – and I swear this is almost entirely without embellishment – LAUNCHED itself at me! It (the cockroach) had bleach bubbling through its skin, and instead of just having a bit of dignity and DYING, it SPRUNG TOWARDS me in what I can only presume was a final attempt to take me down with it. I almost laid an egg in my pants. For realz. I was so taken aback, so revolted, so bloody SCARED that I’d have croachy legs scuttling all over my shoulders, that I let out a WHINNY OF FEAR. A WHINNY! I didn’t even know humans could make that kind of a noise. Who knows what the guy next door thinks – as soon as I processed the noise I’d just made, I errupted into hysterical-yet-horrified laughter. The croach was on the floor at this point, prone. I nudged it with the end of my broom (*shudder*). It was dead. Thank hell.

Later that night I used Michael Swan’s irreplacable ELT tome, Practical English Usage, to kill the shit out of two croaches hanging out on my walls. I wonder if the great man knew when he was writing it that he was in the process of creating one of the most efficient weapons in the perpetual war against roaches? Probably did, right?

Aside from Nature, loads has been happening in the old Kok. Attendance at roller derby sessions has fallen to an all-time low but we’ve got a visit from a BKK-based magazine next week which I HOPE will boost numbers. As a favour, and because I’m a fookin’ idiot, I’ve allowed myself to be entered into a speed slalom tournament in a couple of weeks. I am dreading it – TOTAL humiliation awaits. I genuinely cannot do slalom, let alone do it quickly. I die inside every time I think about it. However, I DO get to go to Vietnam. This will balance out the shame. PROBABLY

Finally, here’s a dull image of the anti Amnesty Bill protests outside where I work. It fails magnificantly to capture the energy and power of the moment, but this is only a 5mpx camera, yeah, and I’m totes using that as my excuse.

image

Well, that’s all from me. I’ve been some dullard who continually goes on about insects instead of all the NORMAL stuff you’re supposed to write when you’ve moved to a new continent to start a new life as an ELT teacher and set up the first roller derby team in your new country of residence and there’s a backdrop of absorbing political unrest, and you’ve been my very tenacious, patient, probably brain-dead by now audience.

Thank you and goodnight ♥

The Alan Chronicles

Clouds and close-up of Wat Arun temple, Thailand

Wat Arun

I’ve had three pay cheques from my job. I’ve got a work permit and a category B immigration visa. I’ve been to an island, used every mode of public transport available in Bangkok, and even learnt a few more Thai words (tao rai, ka? / mai ow na ka). I’ve eaten a truly absurd amount of ice cream, bought clothes I’ll never wear from market stalls just because they’re cheap, and danced in the street near little old Khao San road. I’ve skated and picnicked and taught kids and adults and climbed temples and boated up the Chao Phraya river in early afternoon as the sun gets low and golden and the shadows get long.

But let’s talk about more important things: there’s been an escalating Nature situation in my flat. The death toll is in the hundreds. It all started with Alan. I must’ve told you about Alan?

Alan had been in the bathroom for four days before I finally got up the courage to eliminate him. I’d trapped him there, underneath a washed and perfectly hospitable empty sweetcorn tin. It had taken great courage on my part. I was too nervous to destroy him immediately so I left him there. For four days I had to step over him to use the toilet or shower or sink. I made sure not to knock the tin in case I disturbed him and thought frequently about feeding him a bit of sandwich just to make his imprisonment  more bearable. He was so big a cockroach that it was almost like having a lodger, or maybe more like the dead man in Yossarian’s tent only less human and inconveniently less dead. Are you even still human if you’re dead? Not if you’re a cockroach. The point is, he was too big to just kill as you might ‘just kill’ a wasp or an ant – hardly without noticing, certainly without caring. I left him whilst I tried to not have to deal with the situation. Maybe I could just step over him until the time came to move out of my apartment? What’s a year of stepping int he avoidance of conflict, eh?

NO. Four days is all it took for my appalling murdery instincts to take hold. I needed to take control of the situation. I needed to toughen the fuck up and stop thinking of Alan as the kind of cockroach who might wear a smoking jacket and use a pipe and read leatherbound books through thin-rimmed half-moon glasses. SentiMENTAL. So I killed the bastard.

Ok, that’s not true, I’m just saying it to seem wellard. Actually I threw him gently off the balcony. He’s a cockroach – he didn’t even feel it.

The thing about Alan is that he left me with the gift of CHILDREN OF ALAN. Little Alanites and Alanettes. Like CHILDREN OF THE CORN, only worse. I’ve murdered about three. I’ve learnt my lesson: cockroaches are not pets, they are EVIL DICTATORS IN THE MAKING. Thank goodness they’re too tiny to be involved in gang warfare or government or banking. Instead they just hang out underneath my fridge (underneath, but never inside my fridge). They scuttle out every now and then – not so often as before; I’m not sure there’re many left – and I hear them giggling to themselves at night. Telling jokes. Poking fun.

I’m not sure what the relationship between the cockroaches and the ants actually is, but I’m sure one exists. The ants, though, are a different story. With me and the cockroaches, it’s a war of attrition. With the ants it’s straight-up antocide. I’ve killed the bastards in their hundreds. I’ve stomped on them, drowned on them, poured bleach on them. The bleach was a bit of a desperate act, I’ll admit, but the bastards are tenacious. One day they’re marching through my bathroom and are suddenly being killed in the tens, TENS of tens, by the Great Bleach Siege of 19th October, and the next they’re back on another track, just chillin’ their boots and taking the scenic route across the tiles and up the door frame like nothing ever happened.

Actually, I’ve gained respect for the ants. They don’t resent me for the murders and I don’t resent them for their tenacity. Actually, I admire it. We share a  mutual respect, I imagine. Sometimes they even come snuggle with me in my bed. They bite me, sure, but on the other hand I smack them to death whenever I realise that they’re biting me, so we’re about even.

I won’t even go into the little jumpy spiders, the weird mosquito larvae that live in-between the tiles in my bathroom, and the missing geckos, presumed dead, probably murdered by the fucking cockroaches (the bastards).

One day I’ll write something about what it’s ACTUALLY LIKE living in Bangkok, or being a teacher, or trying to build up a roller derby team from scratch, but until that day you’ll just have to make do with weird, tangential, pointless posts about Nature.

Days 9-10: The temples of Angkor

You’ll have to excuse me: this entry is a shambles. The temples of Angkor. I’m sure others have said it better. Makes a girl feel all whimsical, writery; brings all my bestworst cliches bubbling to the surface.

They don’t even look real at first. They materialise out of the haze like a desert mirage: unreal, a Hollywood film set. A vague sense of disbelief stays with you the whole time. Surely this can’t be real. Surely.

You get up close, real close, closer than you’d be allowed at home. You stand on their stones, wander their walkways. Run your fingers over their walls and you’re touching history. Everywhere you look you see something incredible. You feel the importance of every glimpse: it’s the first and last time you’ll ever be here, your first and only chance to see. Fix it in your memory. Hold it tight.

You try to imagine what it would have been like – how grand! how mystical! You read stories in the reliefs, the carvings, the statues. Naga the snake king held back by giants. Buddha carvings, removed. The faces of the Bodhisattva watch you at every turn. You imagine a pilgrim from the past walking up through a row of walkways, first impressive, then intimidating, the last magnificent and humbling; you imagine them ascending to tall towers on stairs so steep they are force to climb bent over, prostrated, face skimming stone in a deep bow.

What was it like back then? What happened here? The imagination runs wild. Worlds build themselves before you.

And it’s not just the tumbledown oldness, or the creeping moss, or the painstaking effort now sandblasted and fallen; it is the sudden welcome coolness as you cross thresholds into stone corridors – the temperature drops and everything draws in: voices, space, light; the glare from the sun blocked by deep shadow; the walls a dense separation. The world out there is not the world in here.

On the second day we cycled through empty roads in the dark to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. We cycled for hours down red dirt roads in thick forest being hailed at every turn, the voices of tuktuk drivers, stall-holders and hawker kids merging with the heavy drone of cricket calls. We saw elephants, monkeys, wandered under the grinning faces of the Bayon, the original adventure temple, Indianna Jones eat your heart out. Ta Prohm filled me up with stories of my own. I touched the tree roots I’d seen in pictures as a child, a tick off a list I’d never written down. In the grounds of each temple there were little piles of stones, one atop the other, forming tiny temples of their own.

The heat was often unbearable and the shade, life-renewing. There were monks and backpackers and hundreds of tour groups all over. We tried to move to where the crowds wouldn’t be. We frequently failed, but it didn’t matter. We watched a young guy painting in the grounds of Ta Prohm, abstract brush strokes building temples in seconds. We ate crisps. Drank liters of water. Tried not to notice the restoration work, the stones now clean and placed neatly atop one another like lego, like new. It’s stupid but the stonework loses something in the cleaning, the reassembling. It no longer looks ancient, inspires less wonder. It’s harder to connect with the great age of the place, and the incredible effort it must have been.

We cycled back at dusk, darting through tuktuks, motos, cars, vans, coaches. An exhilarating way to experience Siem Reap at rush hour. Almost collided with a slow-moving motorbike.

I can’t give a proper description. Apols. It was otherworldly, exciting, dreamy. I could’ve stayed there for weeks just looking. But we needed to move on: we’re on a schedule, there are other places to see and not nearly enough time.

Next stop: Phnom Phen for some atrocity tourism.

Be there or be elsewhere.

Day 2: Bats, rats, dragons, and a well-deserved piss

Today I wandered for hours. I discovered a stationary shop so overwhelming that the experience bordered on the religious.

Nature I have seen:

Rats. 1. Almost ran over my foot as I was negotiating a pavement by Lumpini park.

Bats. 1. Swooping suggestively over the night market by my cousin’s apartment. We shared a beer here even though it’s a governmentally-enforced ‘dry’ weekend because of the elections tomorrow (I’m well up on Thai politics, obvs…)

Dragons. 2. Meandering lazily around the lake’s edge at Lumpini park. They may have just been Monitor lizards, but they were definitely more like ACTUAL REAL LIFE dragons.

Birds. Multiple. Some with powder-blue eyeshadow and lipstick; some with black backs, white faces and bright yellow beaks; some a cross between crows and kookaburras. Some just disembodied feet/heads. YUMZA.

Other:

In addition to my exciting nature-related experiences, I have also eaten my first Thai meal proper. Chicken and glutinous rice for lunch (om) and Masaman and Thai green curries for dinner (NOM). Went to Patpong market. Saw a stall selling toy aeroplanes and dildos. The stall next door sold light weaponry. Fun for all the family. Saw a woman offer a man an ACTUAL binder full of women, but in a horrible sex-trade way rather than a Mitt-Romney-Is-A-Douche way. Much less mileage to be had from that, alas. Pissed in my first squat toilet looked after by old ladies with no teeth. Saw a tshirt that says “Same same”. I need it in my life. Discovered English-language bookshop for travel guides (don’t need no other books – got a KINDLE, innit!). Two doors down there is a LOMOGRAPHY shop(!). These are both near the godlike stationary shop.

Falling asleep again. It’s only about midnight here but my cousin’s kids get up early, about 6am, and it’s killer. PLUS, I walked about a million miles today. My mum’s going to love the shopping here. It’s wild. The heat, too.

Ok, I keep nodding off. There’s loads I haven’t said. Mostly that this is like the romance phase in the first few months of a relationship: everything BKK does right now – even stuff I’m sure I’ll come  to hate – gets spun in a positive light. I love the way it rains. I love the crazy-mad pavement driving. I love the incomprehensible signs, the gritty markets, the glorious dinge of tumbledown streets. I love the smells, even when they’re bad. Everything is bright and new and exciting. I am experiencing a BKK love story.

OK, DEFFO falling asleep now. Have all the fun xxxx

[Edited 03/03/2012 as I’d gone delirious by the end and nothing made sense]