Back To School!
It was just the day before Paul and Andrew were due to bid their farewells to the bijou town of Chiang Khan and it’s enchanting Mekong setting that Paul realised he had slightly buggered up the loose itinerary he had planned. It now seemed there was no way of getting to their next port of call without a hugely complicated journey, involving three tuk-tuks, two cattle trucks and a marathon hike carrying rucksacks!
Not to mention the possibility of something going wrong and them missing one of the connections.
Or worse, one of the bus drivers not liking the look of the incongruous pair lounging on the roadside and stepping his flip flop down hard on the gas.
It had happened before!
Travel in rural Thailand was always a challenge.
Paul thought he’d keep the journey details secret from his partner until he had done some more research. Surely there was an easier route, he thought.
Or rather, hoped.
Or dinner that night could be chicken foot for one!
It was invariably Paul that got the boys into the odd predicament whence on their adventures, but then again, it was usually him that extricated them from such difficulties too. Especially as Andrew normally didn’t have a clue where they were. Paul assumed his usually very intelligent husband had smoked heavily through nearly every geography class of his youth, puffing hazily behind the proverbial bike sheds.
His partner still insisted that Switzerland was in Scandinavia, this despite Paul explaining that he would upset a lot of Swedes with that attitude. Actually, there had been one particular Swedish lesbian whom Andrew had seriously pissed off, on a very remote island in the Indian Ocean, with this geographical misplacement. Not to mention the odd misplaced pussy gag!
To be fair, they had both been paralytic, unfortunately the mashed Swede was more tasteful! With a lack of humour that was deeply rooted.
But it was a Paul who once got them stranded on the summit of a jungle clad mountain in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, mid-thunder storm. The boys were entirely ill prepared for the precarious descent, wearing the wrong footwear, carrying only half a bottle of vodka, a carton of cigarettes, a lighter, and an out of date copy of ‘The Lonely Planet’.
At least we can make a fire if we get lost, Paul had maintained. His partner had not been impressed.
Paul had also known deep down that he was clutching at damp twigs!
It was also Paul who had persuaded a reticent Andrew to go on a snorkelling trip off of the Gili Islands in darkest Indonesia. It was only when they were mid-ocean, sans life jackets, they both realised their guide was none other than the man from bloody Atlantis!
They had front-crawled after him blindly, their faces scouring the deep ocean floor for turtles, surfacing only to discover their small craft was now an even tinier speck in the distance. The current had taken them what seemed like miles away from their safety vessel and Paul could feel himself start to panic. He scoured the horizon for Andrew, who was hardly Esther Williams in the water, and saw him flippering away in the distance after the little merman.
Paul turned back towards the boat, he knew he could make it if he quickly learnt how to breathe again.
This fishy tale obviously ended happily, (for some), yet not without further drama.
When Andrew spotted his partner floundering, like a dying haddock half a mile back, he too got into a flap. He came about, and using his best doggie paddle set out to rescue his partner in brine.
Suffice to say that as Andrew eventually came alongside, dangerously exhausted, it was Paul who had to swim out to do the lifesaving. Andrew’s flippers, mask and dignity sinking to a watery grave.
And it was Paul who, this time, had got them stranded in the middle of nowhere!
So it was really up to him to save the day – or rather, find the way.
He was most relieved when their wonderfully eccentric landlady, Lem, said she could recommend an alternate route. Alternative it proved to be, though in an altogether different sense.
They had been booked onto the local school bus.
The following day the boys made their way to the Chiang Khan High School to join the pupils on their way home from class. As they arrived at the gates, Paul noticed a couple of scruffy buses parked up on the kerb, he assumed one of these was to be their mode of transportation along the Mekong road to the village of Pak Chom. But in the east, he had learnt to expect the unexpected, and then, expect something a little more unexpected after that.
The boys did their deal with the driver standing next to the big bus. They then attempted to climb aboard with their luggage but were stopped immediately with some indeterminate Thai from their driver. He made a gesture towards the front of his vehicle and bade them follow, which they did. It was then they met their ride for the day. A small lorry, open-sided, and full of chattering teenage ladies. Some of them taking up quite a bit more room than one would expect from a pupil in year nine on an oriental diet.
Paul knew at once this was not to be the most comfortable of journeys.
He climbed onto the truck and as he did so the schoolgirls scattered in every direction, fleeing the ‘bus’ like brats from a sinking ship.
When it was almost time to depart, the gaggle of girls returned to join the braver boys who had now also boarded. There was much laughter and hilarity as the rickety vehicle rolled out of town along a dusty track, smothering it’s occupants in a cloudful of rusty clay.
The word ‘ farang, farang’ was repeatedly shouted, followed by shrieking amusement, which made it quite clear to Andrew and Paul just what the subject of conversation was.
‘Farang’ was a word ubiquitous in Thailand.
On first visiting the country many Eastern moons ago, Paul had considered it to be vaguely offensive. It’s standard definition was ‘foreigner’ he’d learnt, although it specifically meant a Caucasian. Someone hailing from Japan or China would never be labeled in the same way. Yet Paul had discovered over time that it wasn’t really a racial slur. It was the manner in which the term was used that counted most.
‘It ain’t what you say it’s the way that you say it as it and that’s what makes insults’,
as Bananarama may have sung in the 80s – could they have sung!
These chirpy kids on their ride home were almost certainly not being insulting. They were having fun – the kind of fun only children can have before the responsible malaise that is adulthood has set in.
It was great fun bumping along with this gang of energetic youth as the wheels of the bus went round and round. Andrew and Paul could almost taste their own salad days, even though they were cooler than the coolest of cucumbers as the open sides of the truck allowed the winds from the Mongolian plains aboard to plane their faces.
Andrew managed to get the entire bus load of kids over excited by sharing out a tube of ‘Skittles’. It wasn’t an altogether fair roll of the bowling ball though, as inevitably the chubbier of the group managed to score a complete strike by downing twelve of the sweets all at once. Much to the sweet-toothed chagrin of those who went without!
A bright young chap named ‘Boom’, obviously one of the top stream, sat adjacent to Paul for their journey downstream. His English was better than any Paul had heard from a Thai lad his age and Boom was most eager to practice his linguistic skills, proudly engaging the slightly queer ‘farang’ in conversation.
Boom was seventeen years old and had been taught English by an American Cambodian. He wanted to train to be a teacher and was desperate to visit London and one day to work in that great city. Paul listened intently to the intelligent boy’s dreams. He considered such aspiration a great quality and only hoped his native country would be forward thinking enough to open up such opportunities for such gifted ‘Farang.’ Surely talent and skill should be the prerequisite for a geographical work placement – not just arbitrary lines drawn on a map of mankind’s making.
But should that be ‘Peoplekind’ as recently espoused by the handsome Canadian Premier, Justin Trudeau?
What a great butt though!
Boom introduced Paul and Andrew to his sister, who was equally as charming but with a name that was totally unpronounceable. Although Andrew was still having trouble with her older brother’s nomenclature, frequently getting his boom mixed up with his bang.
At one point Paul thought his partner was shouting the lyrics to Lulu’s only other hit, and could quite happily have given him a ‘Boom-Bang-A-Bang’ right in the gob.
But young Boom didn’t seem to notice – or care.
In fact he and his little sis stayed on the bus with them, way past their home village, in order to explain to the driver exactly where to find the boys ‘out of the way’ resort.
The journey was beautiful. The river snaked mesmerisingly alongside, dotted with grassy islets as she accompanied them on their wending way.
When they arrived the friendly siblings also accompanied Paul and Andrew along the driveway, giggling all the way, to make sure they had brought them to the right place. When they knew their task was complete they coyly asked if the boys would pose for a photo with them both. Andrew and Paul were more than happy to oblige, and a short photo session ensued, with the usual ‘v’ signs, the Thais seem to love, being the pose of the day.
Paul thought perhaps the teenagers, who had taken a good couple of hours out of their free time to help these two Johnny foreigners, might like a tip for their trouble. But the youngsters would not hear of it, it was enough that they had got a couple of pictures and been able to practice their English.
It was a heartwarming reminder, to his cynical self, that not all the youth of today were tarnished with the same Instagram filter.
These fresh-faced folk, he noticed, could interact with something other than a keypad. And with something from another generation!
Although he had to admit, Boom had used an app on his mobile to get the boys to their digs.
So he was reminded that not everything in the modern world was entirely black and white.
Just like ‘farang’ Paul thought, as he watched the sun set blissfully over the Mekong.
The colours of the world were miraculously complex.
And all the better for it, he mused.
He was so pleased he’d managed to bugger up their itinerary.
The road less planned was so much more interesting.