Paul woke at 5am and clattered clumsily across the blindingly black room in the ‘See View’ guest house. He fell heavily over a ruck-sack and into something incredibly noisy before accidentally hitting the light switch. A harsh fluorescence flooded the cell like space and for a moment he thought he was in prison. He tried to remember what crime he’d perpetrated, but then saw his life sentence laying unstirred on the concrete based thing the hotel called a bed. Oh yes, that was it, he and Andrew had checked in the previous night.
The name of their lodgings was a puzzlement to them both. It was quite usual for the Thais to misspell relatively ordinary English words with an unabashed oriental enthusiasm, but surely even they were aware that Chiang Khan, on the banks of the yogic Mekong, was nowhere near the sea.
It was a complete mystery.
Until Paul, at that most unnatural of hours, clattered up the three iron staircases to the rooftop and realised there was certainly a view to see.
The boarding house had been most aptly named.
Marching majestically into the distance were the Luang Prabang mountains of Laos. Highly imposing on a precious metal dawn. Jagged with eastern mysticism.
At their forest-slippered feet rolled the mighty Mekong, appearing deep and murky, unwilling to reveal her inner depths. Who knew what lay lurking beneath her somnolent surface?
As he shivered amongst this mysterious beauty, Paul remembered the tales he’d heard of the giant Naga who reputedly called these waters home. As the haunting geography enveloped him he believed every one of those shaggy serpent stories.
He found the moment beautifully chilling.
And a more than a little chilly!
He and his husband had not expected this part of the world to be so bloody cold. This was probably the reason Andrew, who was normally and early riser in every way, was still nestled beneath his two quilts in block ‘H’! This, despite Paul having woken the rest of the institution with his pre-dawn fumbling.
He was not a natural morning person. A yawner rather than a dawner!
Andrew was the lark, in voice as well as habit. Paul was more of your wise old owl, with a little less of the old and lacking most of the wisdom. Although, this particular daybreak, he had been clever enough to get up to witness the sun doing the same. And when that eastern star eventually peeped glaringly over the searing summit in the distance, Paul understood, for one wondrous moment, just why those stupid people who rose with the sun did it.
He sat on the roof for sometime, joined only by birdsong and the harmony of Laotian Buddhist monks, whose chants wafted piously across the enchanted serpent’s waterway.
A deep gong was struck three times somewhere in the depths of the dark woods, creating a cloud of sound that was quite simply divine, in every meaning of that overused word.
Moments like this were incredibly rare, especially for Paul, whose usual life was a heady concoction of an altogether different type of music along with some very high heels. The only queen standing tall this morning was Mother Nature herself, and she was resplendent.
A tear of pure joy made it’s lacrimose journey onto Paul’s cheek. He was most moved. And he’d not even been drinking!
Morning had broken him.
Cat Stevens would have been thrilled!
Later that day, after a mystifying meal of three-way pork noodle soup and a bottle of ‘Chang’ lager, Paul and Andrew foolishly hit the motorway on bicycles and hit reality at the same time.
Andrew’s bike quite clearly had a not so slow puncture and Paul seemed to be using a set of wheels which had once belonged to a toddler. Each time he tried to make a rotation he bashed his knee painfully on the inoperative gear lever, forcing him to cycle with just one leg. A feat he’d never tried with one foot before!
In time the boys fortunately found a small lane which took them away from the highway and onto a quiet path running alongside the Mekong. They rode for sometime in silence apart from the appalling mechanical noises emanating from their ill-chosen transport. Rabbits, birds and even people fled into the distance as they heard the clanking metallic machinations of the ‘falang’ heading their way. It made for a clear bicycle lane if nothing else.
As Paul was nearly decapitated by two electrical wires, strung at a diminutive eastern level, Andrew shouted over to him.
Paul found it difficult as he was still mid-duck, negotiating the garrotting chords, and his wheels were now skidding across the dry red dust most precariously. He came to an unglamorous and painful shudder to where Andrew had stopped.
Before either of them could speak a booming voice came out of nowhere.
‘Welcome, welcome’, screeched the highly amplified vocal, ‘you want make a donation? Thank you for coming.’
The boys realised independently they had stumbled, or rather, skidded into the grounds of a wat; a Thai temple. The voice which was calling them on was not that of The Buddha, but belonged to a tiny woman who was sat behind a tacky knick-knack stacked counter under a corrugated plastic roof.
Paul was going to cycle cynically onward, bypassing the small woman and her kitsch religious ware. He’d been stung on many an occasion during one of their eastern odysseys, and often returned to the west with a backpack stuffed with neon Buddha pencil sharpeners and the like, much to Andrew’s dislike.
To Paul’s surprise his partner immediately made his way over to the stall of naffness, which he now saw was adjacent to a small shrine containing a large seated golden icon. He was confused, perhaps Andrew, normally the darker of the two of them, had actually seen the light.
Paul wheeled his machine over to watch this most unexpected moment of enlightenment.
Andrew placed a note into the donation box and was presented with three incense sticks and a small piece of gold leaf by the small woman with the big mic.
‘Put on Buddha’ she instructed.
She then turned to Paul tapping the box for offerings,
‘And you?’ She asked.
Paul knew he was ‘Bahtless’ having let Andrew play the role of cashier for that day. He always knew having a wad of something gave his partner pleasure, and he was more than happy to be unsullied with dirty cash.
‘I have no money’ Paul replied pathetically, tapping his empty pockets to demonstrate his temporary poverty, ‘I’m with him.’
The little woman smiled a large smile. But only with her mouth! Her eyes said ‘fuck you!’
Paul watched as Andrew removed his shoes and entered the makeshift shrine. He attempted to light the joss sticks, but then paused,
‘Video me’ he said, passing the mobile phone over to his partner.
Paul realised that Andrew was not actually on the path to enlightenment, more ‘The Road To Rio’, and did as he was told.
It was camera, lights, inaction, as Andrew bumbled around with the paraphernalia he’d been given. Once his sticks were alight Andrew tore a fragment from his golden sheet and pressed it against the Buddha.
‘Don’t push too hard’ shrieked their guide.
‘That’s what I always tell him’ Paul cheekily responded.
‘Yes. Yes’ she said. Not quite reading from the same chant sheet!
As they bade their ‘Kon Khun Kraps’ and took their leave, Paul asked Andrew why he’d decided to participate in the mini ritual. It was most unusual he thought, it was difficult enough to get his partner to Christmas midnight mass, and that was half-cut!
‘I found it on the floor’ Andrew explained, ‘the twenty note. That’s why I shouted to you, but as soon as I picked it up she called me over.’
‘She probably saw you’.
‘No she didn’t it was much too far away. She’d never have seen. It was synchronicity. It was meant to be’.
‘Wow’ said Paul, ‘maybe.’
Both of them believed sometimes things were meant to be. They had no idea why!
He was reminded of that we’ll known Thai adage,
‘Find some Baht and pick it up,
All day long you have good luck,
Give the Baht to sour old bitch,
Buddha make you very rich!’
Or something along those lines.
They cycled onwards, and upwards, onto the road and headed back towards the motorway.
‘Did you keep the rest of the gold?’ Asked Paul. Superstitiously hoping his partner would give him a slither for good fortune.
‘Yeah’ said Andrew, ‘it’s in my wall….’ He suddenly stopped short. ‘Shit! I’ve left my wallet back there.’
It seemed Andrew had made a much larger donation than intended.
He whizzed around, as nifty as a teenage BMX champion,and peddled furiously back to the little lady with the big Buddha and even bigger attitude. Of course, his belongings were still where he’d left them.
That was usually the case, in northern Thailand at least.
The Boys continued on along the main road until they hit the pretty town centre of Chiang Khan. Old style Thai wooden houses were cobbled together along a planked promenade adjacent to the river. It seemed as if each and every one had been turned into a guest house and each was as full as a travellers’ flop house on Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road.
The night market was similarly crowded. It’s stalls awash with riverine creatures pulled from the Mekong, some entirely unknown to Andrew and Paul. Monsters which they’d only seen before on ‘Dr Who’.
There were crabs as small as pennies and rats as big as ponies.
It seemed as though anything that moved was ripe for the barbie. And amongst this exotic epicurean crematorium there were people.
Hundreds of them.
Milling, meandering and munching their way through the millipedes
It was a colourful site – almost too much so.
For alongside the stalls of inscrutable insects and tenebrous tendons stood row after row of gift shop each selling cuddly versions of the very things that had been cremated alongside.
One could cuddle a cute chicken and chomp on a coddled cock simultaneously. Not something even Andrew was guilty of thought Paul. He paused for thought. Then reconsidered!
The following day the entire town had emptied. The shops were shuttered and the sellers had wheeled away their carts. It was practically a ghost town. A studio set which was waiting for the cast to return from an extended lunch. Only they wouldn’t – not until the following week-end.
It was most eerie.
The Boys found themselves in the dark on a silent rooftop at 9pm. There was absolutely nothing to do. The distant rippling of the Mekong was the only soundtrack, pierced occasionally by the insolent barking of a stray hound.
Once or twice Paul thought he heard the enigmatic splash of something unfathomable surfacing and then diving beneath the ink-black water. It was slightly unnerving, perhaps that was why everyone had disappeared so quickly. Maybe they knew something he didn’t. But then how could they? This serpentine river flowed with such deep impenetrability that no-one could know for sure what secrets really slithered beneath her slumberous surface.
Paul hoped that it stayed that way. The world, after all, was now so much less surprising than it once was. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if some things remained inexplicable?
He joined Andrew in their uncomfortable room, comforted by the fact that sometimes the unknown is just as pleasing as the known. It brings with it magic and mystery and pure imagination.
He planned to wake early the next day to once again watch the sun rise from her mountainous mattress. That was a certainty, but he drifted off content in the knowledge that not everything was. Some hidden depths remained just that.
But maybe, if he looked hard enough he may catch just a glimpse of the Naga serpent as she disappeared elegantly into the unfathomable deep, just as the sun’s golden noise woke the shallow world.
The mysteries of life were so appealing here in the east. For once, he didn’t need to know everything. That, he knew.
It was all very deep.
Just like the mighty, mysterious Mekong.
As Paul lay in that dreamy state between wakefulness and sleep, he thought he heard a great splash in the soporific water outside.
He was far too languorous to investigate.
Instead he simply believed.
Splash! Splash ……