Perhaps it’s that phantom Catholic guilt, dragging me over the coals for such careless spending, or some internalised Freudian wet blanket telling me I shouldn’t enjoy myself this much. But over the last few weeks I have had a suspicion, well founded I might add, that I am being incredibly indulgent. Indulgent in choosing to come on an exchange to the far side of the world, indulgent for the travel I am fitting around (read, over) a relaxed uni schedule, indulgent for indulging in thoughts of an eternity of being this free from obligation.
So I want to build on the theme of an earlier post, and try to unpack in greater detail the logic behind taking time off.
It is easy to feel trapped in a particular schedule, with historical expectations shaping our lives. Is it perhaps time to reconsider these expectations?
The bus slowly winds up the hill, breaking, as the driver prepares for yet another hairpin turn. The road from Chang Mai to Pai is known for its huge number of corners, and we are not disappointed. Our ride climbs higher and higher, and the verdant jungle of Chiang Mai gives way to sparser mountain vistas.
Pai is the very definition of laid-back, a small hippy town where life meanders by for the relaxed locals and backpackers that stroll the main drag. At night the street turns into a food and clothes market that offers a wealth of tasty snacks and tie-die, the samosas and banana pancakes winning particular favour amongst our number.
Our hostel hosts, the eccentric German, Peter, and his Thai wife, Darling, are hilarious and almost certainly on opium. Their response to our query for board is extraordinarily laconic and at odds with the tourist trail’s usual hard sell. We are eventually provided for: VIP accommodation no less, one room complete with four thin swabs spaced out on the floor. We are given a “special price” by a manically grinning Darling, who explains that it is because “you are tall, like my son, veery tall.”
Spirits were considerably lower in the days that followed the events at Vang Vieng. We struggle our way from the bus station into town in a dusty red songthaew, and I remember just enough to get us to a former hostel, which of course we can’t check-in to until lunchtime.
We wander while we wait for the promised respite of a room, and play some frisbee in the park. An old Thai man enthusiastically joins Fox and I, but he isn’t much chop and soon gives up. He heads on his merry way, unfazed by the complete language barrier that prevented us from explaining how to play.
Our serotonin slowly recuperates and we venture an excursion to the night markets. There is nothing unexpected: just more fake Rolexes, ray bans and vans; Thai-themed t-shirts and hippie pants – accoutrements for the travelling glitterati.
The following morning we decide to hire scooters and set off to explore Chang Mai from the road. The scooters are 110cc and fully automatic, and in no time we are blasting along, zipping in and out of traffic, speeding towards Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We have no trouble pulling ahead of the locals as red lights turn green, their burdened 50cc steeds no match for our enthusiastic acceleration.
If you’ve done any travelling in South East Asia then you almost certainly have heard of, if not actually experienced for yourself, the mayhem of Laos’ hedonistic capital, Vang Vieng.
Once a quiet riverside village, as the story goes, Vang Vieng is now big business: big, underdressed, intoxicated Western business. While easily the most touristy place I have been in Asia, the village still attracts thousands of visitors every year; backpackers coming for the joys of getting loose in a rubber tube along the banks of the Nam Song river. A ramshackle collection of bars line the edges of the brown river, and the same blaring electronic pop that plagued us over New Year’s reverberates in the shade of the vast karst mountains looming in the background.
The town itself is small and almost completely full of Westerners. There are a plethora of restaurants serving banana pancake trail staples, with the main difference whether Friends or Family Guy is playing above the raised platforms and low tables. Many restaurants offer the addition of a “Happy Menu,” covering everything from mushroom shakes and weed pizza to speed. Despite the ubiquity of such contraband, Brother Barefoot and Phantom are caught smoking a joint in their room, and told to find replacement accommodation; a strange paradox in a town of arbitrary lines.
Having survived the island jungle our entourage headed north, bound for Laos. Returning to Vientiane was largely uneventful. The Laotian capital is a sleepy riverside town in comparison to the bustle of touristed Thailand and not much had changed since I was there last. We feasted on the excellent Indian cuisine, sipping Beer Laos in the afternoon sun, and wandered along the river’s edge trying in vain to get a game of Frisbee going, with the wind strongly in opposition.
At the insistence of Tijo, Redbeard and I were cajoled into heading out for a few beers. It was a quiet evening and the curfews in Laos make for some fairly tepid nightlife. Vientiane is not a party town but none the less we persisted, Tijo obviously gravitating towards the one ex-pat girl in the quiet bar. A few brews later and we were reluctantly accompanying an increasingly drunk Tijo to go get a sandwich on the other side of town, the new girl fallaciously assuring us that it was just around the corner. And then around another corner. And another.
The streets are deserted so it is with some surprise that we round one final corner and are finally presented with the promised vision. Tijo munches on the first of what will be many late night baguettes, and we hop in a tuk-tuk to head home. The tuk-tuk driver, however, has another suggestion.
Our Thai New Year’s Eve itself is typically anti-climatic. Fortified on ephedrine we down enough Chang to make an elephant tipsy, and lurch around on the sand with the rest of the singleted, shifting to the pulsing music. It is hectic, and we are soon divided.
Brother Fox and I dig a hole just back off the beach and bury our jandels with a small bottle of rum before heading into the mêlée in search of our brethren. We tell some Australian girls that the fireworks above are just a warm-up, and that the countdown will be soon. Obviously we are wrong.
We continue on, the sharp smell of gunpowder signalling the arbitrary switchover that we have gathered to celebrate. Finally, we find Brother Tijo. He is unapologetically hammered, caught up on a nihilistic bender. His stamina betters that of Fox, and we return to our sand cairn to reclaim our treasure.
Towards the end of Haadrin a number of bars straddle the rock face that rises out of the sea. The psychedelic art that covers the rock is bleached of much of its colour by the sun and sea, but hints at the magic of this modern temple. We begin our climb up Mushroom Mountain, and stop at the first bar. A gloriously fat Thai lady sits behind a basic wooden bar with a blender. She smiles toothlessly and for 500 baht doles out plastic cups of mushroom shake, strangely blatant in a country known for its intolerance towards the illicit.
We sit on the low cushions with the other backpackers, and look down the beach at the drunken crowds. The shake is a strange mix of sweet and sour, the psilocybin laced mushrooms producing a tart earthy flavour that washes your tastebuds from front to back. Naturally, Redbeard has two.
The New Year’s holiday is usually a fairly loose time, and the days we spent on Koh Pha-ngan were no exception.
The island itself fulfils any expectation you might have had of the verdant beauty said to reside on the outcrops scattered amongst the gulf of Thailand, but sustained tourist trade has stripped it of much of its charm. The winding roads that hug the coast are lined with resort after resort, and the main beaches are crowded with a miscellany of revellers and ravers. You’re more likely to find Singapore slings and g-strings than you are a quiet place from which to appreciate the beauty; but therein lies the attraction. For the backpackers that come to experience the hedonism of the legendary full moon parties the island is paradise, and they are not often disappointed.
I’m going to take a brief break from the Asian adventures for a bit of a Dutch update. Last night I was lucky enough to head up to Amsterdam to catch Shigeto perform at the mecca for live music that is Paradiso.
Paradiso is an old church that has been converted into a concert venue, and on any one night a number of different artists will play in the different rooms spread throughout the building. The main hall is cavernous, with the high ceiling and tiered balconies creating an impressive sense of grandeur. When coupled with heaving bass and an enthusiastic Dutch crowd it makes for parties like no other and I have already enjoyed a few evenings of worship within its confines.
Smaller artists play in the kleine zaal (small hall), and so with coat check successfully navigated (not quite as straight forward as you might when in the early throes of a truffle trip –it’s the small victories, right?) we pressed through the throngs of people flooding the foyer and headed up the stairs.
The days in Bangkok blur into a stream of memories. The final assembly of the gang was completed late on Christmas Day, and was followed by a swift yet prolonged dose of beer and banter, the heat and infamous strength of Chang nearly my undoing as we roamed the late night wasteland of Khao San.
For the uninitiated, Khao San road is a short strip of concrete pavement in Central Bangkok that bustles with the trade of a thousand backpackers and the hawkers who cater to them. It is a monument to the success of the banana pancake trail, and a temple to the potent buckets of red bull and vodka that fuel its worshipers. Crowded with stalls of fake Ray Bans and tourist t-shirts in the day, it later transforms into a motley collection of bars and clubs that continue on to the wee small hours. The street hums with the raking noise of the frog toys pushed by a tireless coven of Thai women and a roadside wok sizzles as another order of pad thai is fried up for the masses.