Category Archives: Uncategorized

Bangkok – The first night (Originally written in 2011)

This is just a wee extract from some of my earlier notes.  This article could be the very first bit of ‘travel writing’ I ever let anyone read.

To fill you in, I’ve just arrived in Bangkok and met up with Jack Prescott who had gotten there the day before me.

On leaving the hotel – very pleasant by the way, thanks for asking-  we are approached by ‘Nam’, He offers to take us to a bar, a nice bar.  A nice bar for 20 baht.  Astonishingly, we refuse.  We want to see the local area. He looks at us with sadness but also a certain amount of respect.  His middle aged body radiates admiration that we, we two amateur travellers, should refuse to go to a nice bar recommended by a local. He makes room for us to pass.

We stroll 50 yards down the road and sit down at a reasonable looking restaurant. We look at the menu and then look over the prices.  Never before have I struggled so much with a foreign currency.  Jack and I ate and had a beer or two and all the while we were in the restaurant we couldn’t decipher how much it was actually costing.  Guesses swaying wildly from less than 10p to about £4.  Finally, we worked out 500 baht is about a tenner.

 That was clearly too high a number for us to deal with – especially after a couple of beers – so next we had an argument about maths. After much discussion and flailing of arms, we begrudgingly compromise that 500 divided by 10 is 50.  50 baht to the pound.  Took long enough.  After paying for our (potentially) bargain meal we wandered around to see if there was anything else going on.  This mainly involved stepping over, around or on several stray cats.  they were literally everywhere and they’re regarded as a pest throughout the city.Understandably, they are all very jittery too. I can see why.  One of the bars we went to had a resident cat – it wasn’t even a stray.  The owner of said bar – a 60 year old woman – was ‘playing’ with her pet in a manner reminiscent of Sid from Toy Story.  I genuinely believe there was no cruelty intended but good lord, I felt for that cat.  She hugged it and it eyeballs actually bulged.  I didn’t know that actually could happen outside of cartoons.

 Oh and there was a gay waiter.  A seriously gay waiter. He flounced.  Actually flounced. 

Lightly pissed after a few more Changs, we head back to the hotel.  En route we are targeted by a friendly tuk-tuk driver.  He offers to take us to a very popular ‘ping pong’ show.  We decline. Later on, we met a Dutch guy who went to one of those shows expecting to see some kind of showy table tennis match; trick shots and the like. In many senses – except the ones that matter – he did. When a guy from Amsterdam is shocked though, you know he’s seen something pretty messed up. 

By the front door of the hotel we see Nam again, our first point of contact in Bangkok. Buoyed by alcohol, I rush over and greet him like a long lost friend.  He looks surprised but reciprocates. I’m lost in the moment.

That is until he introduces himself as Dam.

I’m several hours into this trip and I’ve already been accidentily racist.  I look past Dam straight into the eyes of Nam, standing a short distance behind him. There is an animal hurt in his eyes.  It had briefly crossed my mind that Nam had looked a little bit younger and healthier then when I saw him 2 or 3 hours ago but put that down to the several beers i’d enjoyed.  I look back at the man who is clearly not Nam but decide I’m in too deep. Shunning Nam (again), we get in in Dam’s taxi. He promised us a ‘drinky’ in a lovely bar too and we arrive in a few short, hair-rasing minutes.  It looks fairly swanky but also like it’s best days were behind it.  We say to Dam that ‘we’re not really dressed for this’.

Before Dam could reply, we are whisked inside by the bar’s staff who offer to ‘look after us’.  We are ushered in and offered a beer.  Jack, fairly inexplicably, orders a glass of tequila too.  It arrives in a tumbler. While he contemplates  why he’s just done that, I have a look around.  It’s busy. It’s also a little bit like a year 7 disco with all the men on one side and all the women on the other.

All the scantily clad women who are sitting in a row.

Shit.

“Jack, we’re in a Bangkok brothel!”

“I know! You idiot!”.

This would’ve never happened with Nam.

“What do we do Jack?!”, I gesture to the room around me.

“Drink up and leave I suppose” he replies wisely.

We sit for a minute or two in silence, Jack sipping on his tequila.

“Make sure you say ‘no’ Jack… Unless you want to of course”.

He does look the type.

“Of course i’m gonna say ‘no’, you muppet. I’m not going to pay for a prostitute in a Bangkok brothel”

“Oh” I say. ‘Liar’ I think.

We both sit and stare at our bottles of Tiger beer.  We sip from them occasionally.

The waiter sidles up to us, “You want more beer? There are girls here…”, he pitches, arching an arm to show off the ranks of women across from us.

“No prostitutes!” I splutter, slightly too quickly and in a higher pitch than usual. “Thank you but we’re OK”.

But that’s a lie.  I’m not OK.  I really, really need a pee.  But the toilets so far away! Behind the scantily clad women! Literally ANYTHING could happen in a Bangkok brothel toilet!

I consider my options, sweating nervously.

Jack stands up and drains his beer, “I’m off for a slash”.

I watch him go. Awestruck by his pioneering spirit. I see him stroll nonchalantly past the row of women.

I realise now that as far as they’re concerned, I’ve been staring at the scantily clad women. One waves.  I panic. I don’t want her to come over because that would be awkward.  I’d have to reject her.  I’d be suggesting she didn’t meet my prostitute needs. I’ve never even considered my prostitute needs! I hate myself for being British because I have to acknowledge the wave. It’s polite.  

I have no time to consider my actions.

These were the thoughts that were running through my head for the minute or so after she waved.  I notice that I’m still staring at her. As soon as I realise that, I instinctively raise my bottle and then cower behind it.  Then Jack strolls back from the toilet and I’m saved. I pretend I’m raising it at him. He looks perplexed that i’m saluting him after a brief visit to a toilet but nods back anyway. I see the woman say something to her friend. Oh god, I’ve been misconstrued! ‘That bottle salute wasn’t for you’, I desperately transmit mentally, ‘it was for my good friend Jack! Please don’t come over!’. 

 Jack sits down and gestures for us to leave. It becomes apparent just how much I need to pee.

‘Just popping to the loo mate”. I stand up and stoically make my way to the toilet, avoiding any eye contact. The girl who waved runs her hand down my chest as I walk by.  I drop my shoulder and push past her to the relative safety of the brothel toilet.

‘Jesus’, I think. She ran her hand down my chest! She may have even touched my money belt!’.  She now thinks I’m the kinda guy who holds up bottles at people and is careful with money.  No wonder she wants me. 

I pace back and fore for a while but then do what I need to do in the toilet and hesitantly stroll back out, bracing myself for the barrage of propositions I’m bound to encounter.

The lady blanks me.

Probably playing hard to get. 

We leave after paying an extortionate amount for 2 beers and a tumbler of tequila. Dam is waiting outside. I worry that we were only in there for 10-15 mins and what he might infer from that.

“You disco?” he asks.

“Not really” I say, thinking about the chest stroke.

That answer seems to disappoint him.  He vents his frustrations on the road, invariably jumping red lights and swinging round lanes wildly.  We arrive back near the hotel. Nam is still there.

 He asks, ‘we go nice bar now?’ and my heart breaks a little.

“No, sorry. we must sleep now Nam. Sorry”. We stride pitifully past and make our way up the street leaving him dejected in our wake.  Then we stop.  I have literally no idea where we are.

We stumble around a bit and then recognise a shop we passed by earlier.  We assess our situation.  We’re on the right street but going the wrong way.  We have to turn around to get to hotel.

Back down the street.  Back past Nam.

Over one final pint in the hotel lobby, I consider just how many times i’m going to dash Nam’s dreams of taking us to a nice bar during our short stay.

I drink up.

Advertisements

Why I might be arrested on Friday – A letter home to my parents (Originally written in June 2012)

Howdy, how’s tricks?

Just to let you know i’m here, safe and well, but after what can only be described as an arduous day of travel.

Firstly, I awoke at 4am after being serenading by a street performer for the two hours previous, a particularly soothing wake up call.  However, catching the taxi and everything was fine, happy I got that instead or arsing about with public transport.  I get to the airport and join a random bustle of people since absolutely no-one knew what the hell was going on.  I eventually find what looks to be the right queue only to get to the automatic check-in – ‘for my convenience’ of course – and get told that it’ll cost 25 bucks to check in my checked luggage.  I query this since i’ve never had this charged separately before and, more importantly, I only have $11 on me.  The lady nearby doesn’t do anything to help after I explain my concerns so I get hold of the supervisor.  She sarcastically tells me ‘Well I’ve not got $25 to give you’ and swans off in a flouty fashion. I chase her and ask if she’s sure I have to pay if i’m flying to Canada? She closes a door in my face without saying a word.

Terrific.

So, more in hope than expectation, I wander off to find the world’s shyest cash machine – I had to squeeze between two pillars to get to it, stomach sucked in and all – and, much to my surprise, find that I have no money.  Starting to get somewhat agitated as my boarding time was budging ever nearer, I look for an information point assuming that someone was once as stupid and destitute as me and there’s procedures for such things.  There isn’t one.  At an international airport.  How shit is that?  I attempt to get my bag through as carry on.  Not surprisingly, they notice my 50l rucksack is a touch over-sized.

I sit and ponder my situation and genuinely consider using my 11 dollars to buy a pack of cards and ‘magic’ my way out of this little situation.  Held back by an obvious lack of talent, I decide to sell my (your) camera instead for the bargain price of $20 because, well, I couldn’t just leave my bag behind could I?

I wander about without much success for a while approaching naturally cautious people.  One very kind lady donated a dollar to my cause, meaning I needed only 13 more… Then my faith in humanity is bolstered; I meander over to a fairly youngish couple and launch into my spiel – ‘There’s no memory card but the batteries are brand new and your welcome to try it’ etc..  In all fairness to the bloke, for whatever reason, he just hands me a 20 dollar note and says  I don’t want your camera mate’.  I’m genuinely quite touched, I’m not sure i’d hand over 15 quid to a slightly smelly stranger (although I certainly would now).  I palm him off with Bill Bryson book saying it’s the very least i could do (It was, it was Erin’s book anyway).

Very pleased with myself and the world I wander back to the automatic check in and go through the whole palaver again.  I get to the ‘pay for your luggage’ bit and, since i have no functioning credit card, I print off a receipt and find someone who I can pay cash to.  In the end, it’s the very same lady who first answered my plea for help.  She takes me to a register thingy and then says ‘Oh, you’re flying internationally?  You don’t have to pay then in that case’.

I’m aghast.

‘Excuse me?’

‘I didn’t realise you were flying internationally, you’ve already paid for your bag’

‘So when i told you I was flying to Saskatoon in Canada, it didn’t strike you that may involve leaving the United States?  You realise I’ve basically just stolen 20 dollars off a well meaning stranger because you and your supervisor didn’t actually listen to a word i was saying?’

‘Sorry sir, that’s just the way it is.  Would you like to upgrade your seat for $50?’

I stare at her blankly for a few moments before I shake my head and walk off.

A curious amalgamation of relieved and frustrated I proceed through security and board my plane without much drama.  The flight’s uneventful if not quite boring since my headphone socket didn’t work.  It didn’t even exist, there was just a hole where it should’ve been. I’m not particularly enamoured with United Airlines thus far. But I read my book and soon enough I’m in Denver.  The only thing i knew about Denver is that it’s a mile high city.  I can also proudly add to that little bon mot with the additional information that it’s bloody hot there and that there’s tornado shelters within the airport.  It’s also a very big transport hub in the middle of the US.

I pass the time in the terminal trying to spend my pathetic collection of pocket shrapnel and find a very satisfactory plate of chips and salsa for $1.60.  I meet a Political Risk Analyst from London who stops talking to me once I mention I have some journalistic ambitions and, appetite sated, make my way to gate B80 to fly to sunny Saskatoon.

I’m in seat A1 and so secretly harbouring an ambition to be upgraded to 1st class.  Alas, it wasn’t to be since it was a very small plane, I guess I was allocated my privileged seat since I had checked in at 5am in SF.

I get on the plane and i hear the staff muttering nervously, never an emboldening experience whilst boarding an aircraft.  Anyway, turns out the plane is too hot so the fuel is expanding in the tank or some equally worrying issue.  To accommodate the lack of fuel, 6 people have to ‘volunteer’ to get off the plane in return for a later flight and $150 travel voucher.  No-one leaps at the opportunity.  So, as protocol apparently demands, they pull off the last 6 passengers to check in.  One bloke is obviously very stricken by this and, understandably, causes a bit of a fuss.  From my A1 seat I have a splendid view of all this.  Now, I consider to myself, I don’t really need to be in Saskatoon all that urgently.  Of course i’m meeting Erin and her brother there but i could let them know I’ll be late and that I’ll make my own way the 140 km to PA, not a big problem if I were to have, say, $150 nestled in my wallet.

‘Hiya mate,’ I pipe up, ‘if it’s for cash I’ll jump off if this guy’s desperate but a travel voucher is no good to me, I’d really need the money’.

The stewardess relays what I just said to the guy who’s looking for volunteers.

The staff look at me with what can only be described as reverence and he jokingly says ‘I’ve got 25 dollars right here for you sir!’

I smile and reply ‘That’s excellent but we’d be looking at substantially more than that…’.  I wonder quite how much I might push them up.  Maybe I should start off demanding $300?

The guy laughs and says ‘yeah ok, we’ll sort you out man, come with me’, gesturing towards the door.

‘For cash?’

‘Yeah man cash, yeah’

I get up to a couple of laughs and the obvious delight of the guy who needed to be on this flight and make my way back to the check in desk where I sit amidst some very pissed off passengers and do my damnedest not to look smug.  After a few minutes my name is called and a piece of paper is thrust at me.

‘What’s this?’, i ask.

‘Just sign it sir’

‘But what is it?’, I leaf through a ream of slips that are appearing in front of me.

‘It just states that you voluntarily got off the plane and this entitles you to a $150 travel voucher’, the lady mutters.

‘Ah no,’ I smile again, ‘the guy – Geoffrey I think his name was? – agreed that I was to be paid cash?’

‘That’s not company policy’

‘That as may be, that’s what i was promised’

‘We can’t do that sir, we can only offer the voucher, sign here’

I take a moment, attempt to clam down, but then go bloody mental anyway.  So much so, that some kind of head honcho is brought down to see me swiftly.

I continue my rebuke in an excitable fashion.  The honcho lady is apologetic and offers to raise the voucher to 200.  She says, however, that it was ‘unlikely’ that Geoffrey offered me the cash equivalent.  Although it is his first week.

I simmer gently when in a timely fashion – rare for United Airlines it seems- the man in question – Geoffrey – appears from the gate.  I call him over, satisfied that at least this element of the saga can be cleared up.

He looks terrified, normally i’d be sympathetic and I almost was until he clears his throat, looks at his boss and then at his bosses boss, and states, ‘I only offered you a voucher sir, there was no mention of money’.

I match the honcho’s apologetic tone with an apoplectic one.  I’m more annoyed, somehow, by the suggestion that I’m a liar than by being lied to.  I rage about the witnesses in the plane, I rage about the stewardess who repeated what I had said to the guy in the first place and, lowering my voice, I quote word for word the conversation we had, backed up by the guy who I had swapped places with whom, incidentally, had since been removed from the plane anyway.  I’m slightly abated when I see Geoffrey cower and have the good grace to look like he might have decorated his pants.

Honcho offers to put me back on the plane as ‘it appears you might have been taken off under false pretences’ but that I had to understand ‘it’s at someone else’s expense’.

‘Actually madam, it would be at yours and your company but yes, I would like to return to the plane’, I murmur through clenched, but bared, teeth.

Once on the plane, I apologise to the guy who’s getting off in my place – ‘Not your fault buddy’ – and take my seat.  I realise I’ve left my book at the gate desk.  Marvellous.  One hour after the supposed departure time we finally take to the runway.  I spend the flight having an enjoyable, enlightening and occasionally heated discussion about nuclear power with the lady sitting next to me.  For the record, I’m all for nuclear power – as was she since she works for one of the biggest Uranium mines in the world – but i’m not sure we can write off Fukushima and Chernobyl as ‘not all that bad when you think about it’.  A pleasant flight nonetheless.

I land in Saskatoon after flying over the plains of central Canada.  The terminal is small but the sun is shining and I’m in a happy state of mind.  When I walk up to arrivals desk and hand over my landing card and passport.  The official scans over everything and smiles and hands back  both.

‘Could you just wait over here sir and an Immigrations Officer will see you shortly?’

‘No problem at all, thanks’, I say as i take back my passport etc.  I’ve been expecting this since, after all, i’ve not actually got a visa for Canada.  Their website says that Commonwealth members only need to convince a customs officer that i’m not going to rape their land, citizens or economy and I’ll be escorted through with a cheery wave.

I sit and start a new book, wondering how long this one is going to last today.  After about 15 minutes, a beach-ball in a customs shirt leads me to the ominous ‘Interrogation Room’. My ears listen intensely for the telltale ‘snap’ of a rubber glove.  To my great relief, i hear no such thing.  However, my summery disposition was soon to be wilted.

I won’t write out the full conversation as it would take too long.  Luckily, the gist of the interview can be ascertained from her concluding statements:

‘So you have no money, no health insurance and no forward ticket?’

‘Er, pretty much’

‘How much money do you actually have?’

‘Oh about 600 dollars’ (I have 11).

‘For nearly three months?’

‘Uhm, yep’

‘Right.  And you have no contact phone number or address while you’re here? Just a description of a mysterious girl you met in New Zealand?’. The fact I met someone from Prince Albert outside of Canada seems to be the biggest sticking point throughout the whole process.

‘I can tell you the names of the people i’m staying with?’, I say in my most charming affected British accent.

‘Does that seem enough to you?’

‘No, probably not’, I admit.

‘Don’t you think you could have organised this more efficiently?’

‘Er, from this side of the desk, it certainly looks that way’

The Customs lady softens as she realises I’m useless as opposed to dangerous.  I mention it’s my birthday next week (It got me into Israel once, why not give it a shot?)

For the next few minutes we discuss my previous travels and life in general as she tries to get a grip on what kind of person I am.  Fortuitously, first impressions can be misleading and she decides that I’m actually not all that bad.

‘We shall adjure this meeting until the 29th of June’, she concludes, ‘You will be back here at the airport with all the relevant materials.  These include proof of funds, health insurance and ideally, a ticket onward’.

‘Perfect’, I say, relieved I wouldn’t have to fly back to the US with United Airlines more than anything.

‘If you do not show up, we will attain a warrant for your arrest’

‘Perfect!’, I say but in a slightly higher pitch.

‘We’ll keep your passport as collateral’, she sighs.

The tension in the room diminishes as i fill in the relevant forms and some friendly chat ensues.  I’m allowed back out into the big, bright world.

I meet with Erin’s brother Justin – a top man whose privacy I shall be imposing on for the next few weeks – and Erin when her flight gets in.  Later that night there was an almost tearful reunion of Radfords which I was very pleased to be a part of.

All of which brings me round to perhaps a small favour or two…

If I could perhaps bother you fine folk for some health insurance, only for a single trip, that would be much obliged and would perhaps ensure my freedom from large men and slippery soap.  It might be a bit of a hassle since I’m out of the country but i only want the most basic, basic insurance possible.  Worldwide Insure seems like a good prospect.

Additionally, could someone transfer, say, 1000 quid into my account for next Friday?  As soon as I’m of ‘legal status’, I can transfer it straight back.  That will act as proof of funds and shows I can buy a ticket as and when.  Just to be clear, I’m NOT asking for 1000 quid, just looking to lend it for a day or two and then send it all back with my love and affection attached.  It looks like there might be a wee bit of work cleaning the bottoms of tables whilst I’m here so i should be good to look after myself.

Sorry to be an arseache as always but at least we have the added incentive of my liberty this time.  Naturally, any costs accrued will be returned in the fullness of time.

Mother, I hope your flight home was uneventful in comparison.  Timmy, hope all’s hunky dorey.

Shall give you a ring in the very near future (I’m allowed one call apparently).

All the best,

Alex x

(PS; did I mention it’s my birthday next week?)

New Blog

As threatened, I’ve only gone and decided to set up a new blog.  After long and careful consideration, I took the decision to ignore everyone who took their time to help me think of a title and went for something slightly worse.  Thank you anyway.

Since this account is linked in with my FB account there’s a strong chance I’m going to spend the next few hours polluting your wall with a backlog of my ramblings.  My apologies.

Do us a favour though?  Have a glance through and see if there’s any posts you haven’t read or you’ve been deliberately avoiding.  I do like reading feedback (positive or negative) and I can use it to sculpt whatever it is I dribble out next.  

Who knows, I might even make a career out of it. That’d be nice.

All the best,

AJ