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.

 

Misadventure

I hardly dare tell the story. I know how it sounds. But the thing is, I already went. I already did it. And by myself, too. Hitchlessly. Took myself there, got around, made it back again with only a minor foray into the hospital to show for my troubles. There were no major problems, no incidences to speak of. I was a female traveler, flying solo, getting myself around SE Asia, being competent and on-the-ball the entire way; having fun, of course, and remaining inappropriate, of course, but competent, functional, like a Packsafe handbag or colourful socks. Others looked to me for advice and direction – not existential but important nonetheless. I navigated new cities, negotiated bad deals on bargains I didn’t need and traveled in successful mediocrity from place to place without disaster. In short, dear reader, I knew where my shit was at.

Fastforward a few months. I’m flying back to Vietnam. I’m participating in a skate tournament: speed slalom, are you kidding me? It’s organized for me, everything is arranged on my behalf. All I have to do is show up.

3 days before I leave I can be found at immigration getting my re-entry permit. I feel smug. Look at me, remembering my administrative loose ends like a queen – on it, in control, the boss.

“Don’t you need a visa?” Wei asks me.

“No,” I say, “I asked”, I tell her, “Lion says I don’t”. Matter solved. Unarguable. Lion travels all over for skate competitions. He too knows where his shit is at.

“Oh,” says Wei in her considering and thankful manner. “Is he British?”

“No,” I say, “He’s Thai,”, I tell her, and then I say more things to justify the veracity of his knowledge. But even as I hear myself saying words, there’s the worried tightening of intestines, the stomach-clench of anxiety. I think back to trip 1. I got a visa in advance that time, but why? There was a reason, I know there was. What was it? How does this memory relate to my current situation? There’s something important here, I can feel it, but it’s just out of reach. My brain’s sounding a warning call into the fog, but it’s not clear whether this is the real deal or just a drill. A drill, surely. They would’ve told me. Someone would’ve mentioned it. I’m no longer sure. The ghost warning remains indistinct. There’s a thought in there somewhere, Jim, but not as we know it.

I go home. I get on Google. The first thing I see are the mighty and glorious words VISA ON ARRIVAL. The concertina relaxes. A sigh of relief. ON ARRIVAL, by air. Simple. And of course, last time, overland, buy in advance. I relax. I am safe.

Even when the flight attendant – the last checkpoint before the plane; mentally I’ve boarded, I’m flicking through the in-flight magazine, looking at the people on the safety brochures; we’re taking off! It’s happening! I’m on my way! – even when she says to me “Visa?”, there’s no glimmer of fear. I’ve looked this shit up, man, I know what I’m talking about.

She looks at me, taps my old, used Vietnamese visa…

Ah.

There’s a peculiar beauty in the absoluteness of being refused boarding on a flight. Your expectations for your day, your evening, your weekend, your fortnight judders. It’s physical, a crunching of gears that puts the world off-kilter. I was living in the 5-minutes-from-now, I was in the future; I was at the skate event, I was laughing off my slalom failure, I was open-mouthed at the skate cross, cheering the kids who’d come with us… and now this? Thwarted? Denied? Suddenly I’m facing a wall of quiet refusal so impervious that it’s almost impressive.

Being led the wrong way through immigration is fun. People look at you like you’re some kind of drug smuggler. I’m as clean as roses in real life so the perceived notoriety is briefly  pleasing – after all, nobody knows. I could be anyone, a baddie, a gangster, a Notorious Person. Or not.

Right now I’m in the business centre of the posh airport hotel tapping this into a Word document that will cost 250 baht. I’ve just paid 70USD to apply for a visa I could apply for for nothing at the embassy. The visa itself will cost 50USD, the flight changes well over THB1000. All because I’m too apt to trust what I’m told, to trust others to think for me so I don’t have to think for myself.

It’s 8.55am and I’ve been awake for 24.5 hours after a quick hour-and-a-half’s nap on the airport floor this morning. But even as I wait, I find myself doing the occasional little grin. An adventure is in progress, an anecdote in the making. We get so little time, we may as well enjoy what we can, right? Even if it isn’t quite what we expected or hoped it would be? Who knows.

 Stay tuned for the next installment of Enid’s Misadventures.

Day 112ish: All the way through

Day 112ish. It’s probably time to stop counting in days.

I am back in Bangkok. I am slightly hungover, damp from rainstorms, aching from having walked a million miles through the city in a single day, and happy all the way through.

From Vientaine we – the CELTA 5 – travelled north through mountainous Laos to breathtaking Vang Vieng, then still further north to Luang Prabang. In Vang Vieng we went tubing on the Nam Song the day after a rainstorm, the sky washed clean and the river golden brown and flowing despite the season; the following day we cycled to a shady lagoon, swam, explored a temple-cave, saw butterflies. In Luang Prabang we got up at dawn to watch the people of the town giving alms to the monks and visited pristine blue waterfalls. We also ate ALL the baguettes and were eaten by ALL the mosquitoes.

ImageTham Phu Kham Cave (Vang Vieng, Laos)

Rosa and I took a 2-day slow boat up the Mekong river to the Thai-Laos boarder. We crossed headed to Chiang Rai by public bus, ate Thai hot pot in an outdoor food court while ladyboys mimed the words to power ballads on a stage built for the purpose. Here Rosa and I parted company – I headed south to Lampang, a bustling little town chock full of Lanna-style buildings and a tourist attraction called “Numerous wooden poles”. Highly recommend. From there I headed further south to Sukhothai, almost slept through my stop but realised just in time, then on a songtaw to the old city met a girl who started my secondary school the same year I left. Finally, I headed back to sticky Bangkok to drink beer on a street corner with Tom of Cat Ba Quintet fame, and then 19 floors up in the Sky Hotel looking out over the city during a thunderstorm, and then the next day we got stranded in a zoo because of another downpour. I like Thailand in the rainy season – it’s unpredictable and exciting.

And suddenly, just like that, the travelling portion of this trip is over. Back to Real Life, where I have to be responsible and sensible and not be on the move and probably not have any adventures and have a job that will be busy and hard and keep me in one place for an entire year if it works out. Travelling makes me happy. I’ll miss it. I don’t really want to stop, in fact. By the time I get to pick up my bag and head out into the world again, I’ll be 30 years old.

I can’t bloody wait.

Day 45: Songkran in Chiang Mai

I am in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, and somehow I’m still not dead even though in Bangkok I ate at a rat-infested streetfood place at the train station.

I’m flying solo again. Callie and Hartley left Cat Ba to be swindled in Laos (but also to have many funz). My dear son Keegan left for a 40-hour bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City. Tom and I left for a couple of days in BRILLIANT Hanoi before my flight back to Bangkok and his trip north to Sapa.

I’d planned to stay in BKK for a few days before coming north to Chiang Mai – I was going to chill, upload photos, catch up on life admin and studying. I went to the train station on Tuesday afternoon to pre-book my ticket and discovered that all the trains were full because of Songkran, except for one leaving that night. Booked it. Done. An emergency 14-hour journey in a 4-berth sleeper coach. Utter joy (YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE TRAIN TRAVEL OUT HERE!). The beds were comfortably firm. I woke a few times in the night only to be rocked back to sleep by the movement of the train, the clacking of the tracks. In the morning I had breakfast of glutinous rice soup – like rice pudding only different, salty, peppery, and with “pork” balls floating around, and watched the sun rise over mountains.

Right now I’m staying in a dorm room with 5 others for 100 baht (£2.50) a night, no towels, no hot water, no in-room wifi, no toilet paper, no air-con. It’s everything you need. The hostel has a huge covered balcony area on the second floor with bamboo mats, benches, cushions. I’m there right now, at almost 11am, trying to memorise English verb tenses and thinking about getting some breakfast, and about heading out into the streets to cool down. It’s too hot for life here. People are melting in the streets, leaving nothing behind but fanny packs and globules of person-melt. Like candle wax or glutinous rice soup. Bit gross. People who haven’t melted yet are in the process: features sliding down their faces, dripping off their chins. Everything is sticky. Luckily it’s Songkran, Thai New Year, and the city is engaged in a gigantic water fight that takes over the daylight hours. Everyone has water guns or buckets – often both – and nobody is shy about using them. Families are on the streets outside their houses or shops with water butts and hoses, soaking anyone that comes within range; they travel around the city in trucks sloshing water over everyone they drive past; tourists form gangs outside their favourite bars and wage war  in the sun with the music up loud and the beer flowing. It’s all friendly. Everyone’s grinning, thrilled to bits to have a stranger run up behind them and dump buckets of ice water over their heads. It’s nearing 40 degrees so it’s exactly what you want to cool down. The whole thing’ s crazy-fun, frantic, phallic and an excuse to make masses of goodbad puns and act like a kid for extended periods of time.

At nights people gather on the balcony to dry off and drink, chat, chill. Sometimes people play guitar, uke, sing. And they’re not all the shit, pretentious types either. Makes me want to buy a uke and learn how to play it – if there’s one thing that travelling has taught me it’s that I don’t have enough life skills to bring to the table. You go for food en mass. My favourite places are these ace little street food areas by the main road, a collection of stalls run by different people and each serving different dishes, plastic chairs and tables all set up, mystery water ready to drink if you dare. It’s where the Thais go to eat, and though sometimes you get food different to what you thought you’d ordered, and the hygiene standards are lax as fuck, it’s the best kind of experience. And the food is DELICIOUS and cheap. Last night I had crispy noodle soup – really thick, glutinous broth with huge slices of pork and the crispy noodles that exist in all your best food-related dreams. It cost 30 baht, less than a pound.

I’m bloody loving it out here. Different places and cultures and FOODS and people all the bloody time. The more you travel the more you discover that you want to do. I HAVE to go to Myanmar. I have to see Laos, especially the underground city. I’d love to go back to Vietnam and check out the off-the-beaten-track places and the stuff I missed first time around. I want to go to the Cambodian island that Hartley and Callie worked on because it looks like paradise, and I guess I could cope with seeing some pristine Thai islands as well. And that’s just the places right next door. China is a must now – it sounds like a fucking hard slog but hard is GOOD, right? It pushes your boundaries, tests you. Also Japan, South Korea, Nepal. Indonesia. I want to see (my old school chum) Penny in Malaysia. But I want to go to stranger places, too; places not everybody would go to: what’s in Turkmenistan? Can you go through Central Asia then the middle East and down through the African continent overland? Without facing death, rape or torture? That’d be pretty fuckin’ ace, right?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about travelling and studying and not as much tourism as you’d hope in Chiang Mai. Gotta prioritise, though. Can’t fuck up this course. I did go to a Wat having a celebration, and played out during Songkran, and had some damn good nights out with some good human beings. Tonight we’ll go see some Muy Thai fights and I’ll do a cookery course in the next few days, and me and a girl in my dorm are going to trek it up to a hill temple just outside of town even though I haven’t exercised in a month and a half and I’ll probably die. I met someone who went out with a girl who played roller derby and was thrilled to be able to chat derby for a while to someone who already had an interest. I mostly want to meet another roller girl and see if I can set up a team, or at the very least get some kind of roller skating back in my life. I can’t cope with all this non-skating that’s going on. Never thought I’d miss being forced to do more push-ups than my body can take, but apparently I do. Maybe I’ll take up Muy Thai instead and learn how to become aggressive – grrrrrrrrr! – and add that to my roller derby repertoire when I eventually find some people to play with/for.

I’m rambling. Excuse me. Blame the OBNOXIOUS heat, and the fact that I’m procrastinating. OK. Back to it. A couple of hours of study and then back out into Songkranland for the final day of the celebration. Get in.

Day 34: The Cat Ba Quintet

Time flies when you’re having fun. When I started writing this I was in Hanoi and still not dead, maimed, injured or mentally scarred and now I’m on Cat Ba island and am all of the above.

I have continued to remain classy. You can tell I’ve remained classy because aan old Vietnamese man walked in on me on the toilet at a local street bar and then later I had to wee in Piss Alley, a stinking dead-end that served as a street toilet for the local bars. Fuckin’ A.

It was the day of Food Tourism. Dinner had included snail, frogs, pig heart and pig liver stir fried with crispy noodles, all washed down with medicinal tree wine. The medicinal tree wine came in a reused plastic water bottle, was the colour of poisoned rivers and tasted and smelt like bad ideas and whisky sweats. Later that night I experienced mu first tropical storm as we sat outside under the awning of a little kerbside bar opposite our hostel fat rain hoofing it down, thunder cracking open the sky and neon-bright lightening bleaching it white. Big Weather. Makes UK storms look like sneezes.

Hanoi is my favourite of all the cities so far. I love it for no single reason I can immediately think of. Maybe because it’s cool here, not so sticky, or maybe because our hostel’s so sociable, or because I got a pair of prescription glasses and sunglasses made up for $30, and a hat for 50p. All that and more, maybe. The streets are smaller and less hectic, winding, more varied. The shopping streets are themed. Here’s metalwork street, every shopfront crammed with pans, hangers, buckets, drums, cans, wire racks and all other metal things. Next is bamboo street for all your bamboo ladder needs. There’s woodwork street, clothes street, party craft street, mannequin street, Things To Sell To Tourists street and Stuff That Goes In The Garage street. The fruit and veg are together, live seafood close by. The markets sell coffee beans, herbs, spices, unrecognisable fruits. It’s weird being surrounded by so much stuff you can’t name.

On Easter Sunday we travelled to Cat Ba Island, discovered that there is no Cat Bar on Cat Ba, and are staying in a guesthouse that has MOUNTAIN in the kitchen – or just a rock wall, depending on which way you look at it. We are a quintet. Hartley, Callie and I have been hanging out since Phong Nha, we met Keegan in our Hanoi dorm room, and the fifth is Tazmanian Tom who I’d met back in Mui Ne – happened to spy him on the street in Hanoi, chased him down, appropriated him.

Cat Ba island is breathtaking, a prehistoric wonderland chock full of enormous jagged karst (limestone) slabs jutting out of the ground, blanketed with jungle. It’s stunning, otherworldly, more Jurassic Park than Jurassic Park. You half expect to look into the distance and see a heard of Stegasaurus lumbering around the rice paddies, or see a pteradactyl swooping overhead.

We rented motorbikes and rode to the other side of the island, eyes full of scenery. Keegan climbed a mini lighthouse and got stuck because he couldn’t jump backwards and I rode my bike into a bollard, but only a bit, and only the wing mirror and only at about .5 of an mph. I was distracted by THE GROUND. I’m a dunce but no harm done.

Yesterday we went out on a junk boat to explore the rock formations and kayak. Stunning. Hard to believe that such scenery really exists. We kayaked through caves, into huge, sheer-walled grottos, saw – just by chance – a Cat Ba langur, and kayak-raced the boys and won, obviously, as if it could end another way. I found some green slime on a rock that tensed and moved when you poked it, jumped off the boat into the sea over and over again and almost kayaked into a dismally large jellyfish sitting around in the water. It was hungry work, all that Fun. When we ate lunch our table was the only one silent, intent on stuffing our faces. We won that race as well, finished about 10 minutes before everyone else and left no scraps behind, cleared up next door’s fish rolls as well. Our guide was surprised but he had admiration in his eyes, I could tell.

At nights we drink beer and eat delicious food, bully Keegan, laugh. On our first night there was a beer/hallucination tent and dancing Chinese dragons on a stage. Last night I ate shrimp, the whole thing, even the brains, even the shells. We lost to the boys at pool, drew some vagina dentatas on people. Standard.

Today is Wednesday. I’m out front of our guesthouse, hungover from Vietnamese whiskey, Tiger beer amd too-little sleep, tapping this out on my phone whilst listening to the harmonious sound of building works a few doors down and looking out through the trees into the bay. Hartley and Callie leave for the mainland in a few hours, Keegan and Tom to follow tomorrow and then me on Friday. Over so soon! Can’t believe it. This has been frikkin’ awesome. Can’t wait for the next adventure.

PS/ If you want to see a photo of me crossing a river with a bike and riding a tandem, you should check out Callie’s blog post, here: http://www.wildsofwherever.com/country-gal/