What Lies Beneath.

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. Look!’

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
and mudlarks.

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 ……

 

 

 

Miss Loei.

Loei is a small town in Isaan the region that butts up against the serpentine Mekong in the northeast of Thailand. It is the poorest part of the country and the least visited. Less than one percent of overseas visitors make it here.

It is mostly flat and dry by nature, yet it’s people are most certainly not. It is probably our favourite place in Thailand. It remains untouched by the outside world.

It is real! At first sight some of the province can seem rather dull and ordinary. Were Isaan a beauty queen she may not be crowned Miss World, but she’d be a scream on a night out!

We arrived at our small guest house on the outskirts of the slightly scruffy city of Loei having taken four and a half hours on the bus learning to pronounce it properly. Far too many vowels strewn together for an ignorant westerner.  Eventually I worked it out. Think lurgie without the ‘g’ I told Andrew.  He still hasn’t got it! The place itself, however, has proven to be far less virulent. Yet very contagious. We were almost immediately charmed. In no small part due to Pat, the owner of  ‘Sugar Guesthouse’ our meagre lodgings, who welcomed us like old friends. She was appropriately incredibly sweet.

She showed us to our tiny, yet perfectly formed bedroom, with a smile as wide as Alice’s Cheshire Cat, yet unlike that most fickle of felines, she did not disappear. Instead she hung around to give us all the gen we required on the ‘village’, as she purred on about her home town. She was most obliging, and in contrast to the majority of the proprietors of the smaller establishments in Thailand, her English was exemplary.

She informed us we had arrived on a rather special night, as the inhabitants of Loei were to celebrate the opening of one of their biggest annual events the following day, The famous ‘Cotton Blossom Festival’.

I must have looked blank!

“Or Dok Fai Ban ? ” she added in vain, as if I might somehow cotton on. Sadly I didn’t. I wasn’t even aware Cotton even blossomed, let alone that there was a festival somewhere in the world to celebrate it doing so.

What I do know is that Andrew and I seem to possess  a marvellous ability to roll up to a strange and unknown city when there’s a party going on. It has happened to us on a many an occasion.

In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, we just happened to turn up when the annual food fair was cooking with gas.

In Saigon we once hit the city just in time for ‘Tet’,  the riotous Vietnamese New Year celebration.

And there was one time when we stayed in Vienna when there was a hell of a bash in a gay sauna already in full swing, or should I say full sling. But we shan’t go into that.

Suffice to say, we swung.

We know how to party!

So, of course, we were thrilled that we’d arrived in Loei just in time for the start of proceedings.

We thanked Pat for all her helpful information and headed off to buy a couple of beers from the local ‘Tesco Lotus’ we had spotted on the ‘main road’.

‘You want beer?’ Pat had read our minds. Or noticed our bellies. “Don’t go to ‘Tesco’.  Beer is cheaper in shop on the corner.’

So we strolled down the narrow lane, passing snarling yellow dogs with false confidence to fool them into submission, and came to a wooden shack stocked with essential supplies. We piled a few things we didn’t need, along with our booze onto the counter and, like ‘Mr Benn’ waited for the shopkeeper to appear. Suddenly she popped up from behind the counter to serve us – to our surprise it was Pat.

‘No wonder she told us it was cheaper than Tesco’ I said to Andrew, rather cynically,  on the short walk home.

‘They’re exactly the same price’ said Andrew, equally as ungenerous.

I wouldn’t have known, but Andrew has the unhelpful knack of remembering the price of absolutely everything. It’s a shame he never went on that dreadful show ‘Supermarket Sweep’. The lovely Dale Winton would have been amazed at his ability to price up the total bill for three tins of baked beans, a Stanley knife and a packet of liquorice condoms in under three seconds.

Supping our ale under a small pergola tangled with exotic blossom, we both laughed at the friendly Pat’s double life. Why not recommend your own shop when in hotelier guise ?  The Thais are nothing if not entrepreneurial. Lord Sugar would certainly approve of our Lady Sugar.

Oriental music plucked and twanged from the small compound adjacent to ours, and when we glanced over we saw a giggle of twenty or so middle-aged woman performing a traditional dance. Each one stopping now and then in a fit of laughter when she had become unsynchronised with the rest of the troupe.

Every now and then we could hear a sharp instruction from the teacher at the front, correcting each member for an errant toe or a misplaced finger. It was an unforgiving routine, and some of the girls were quite obviously not up to scratch.

Having had many an impatient choreographer ourselves in the past, we were both eager to see the strict dance mistress who was taking the class.

Moving over to peer across the lattice fence we were fascinated to get a glimpse of her. Lo and behold – it was none other than Pat!

Yet another string to her bow.

It seemed as though our landlady did everything in this town. No doubt were there a fire she’d whack her helmet on and whip her hose out. She was a remarkably adept woman.

There was room for only two other guests in the tiny ‘hotel’. Bob, a rather taciturn elderly Glaswegian, who wore thick spectacles which made his blue eyes look like Wedgewood dinner plates. And Heinz, a more talkative German from Munich, who quite frankly didn’t let anyone else get a word in edgeways! Andrew went for a ‘quick shower’ and left me with the latter in the garden for far too long.

Before Andrew returned, cleaner than he’d ever bloody been, Heinz had managed to give me a dissertation on 57 varieties of motorbike he had ridden.

Including the top speed, cylinder capacity, colour make and model of each one.

‘On your bike Heinz’ sprang to mind, or ‘can it Heinz!’ but I was far to English too say it, and he was far too revved up to have heard.

His uncondensed  tales of engines and exhausts had me quite exhausted. I made it a point to keep out of his bike lane for the rest of our stay.

The next day Andrew and I headed down to join in the festivities amongst the cotton blossom. We had no idea what to expect. Pat had told us, now in tour guide mode, that there would be seven thousand dancers from all across the province dancing a traditional form. I had no idea what cotton workers danced, I knew the inimitable Tina Turner had once picked cotton as Annie Mae Bullock, but I had a good hunch the girls wouldn’t be bopping to ‘Proud Mary’!

We came to the banks of the Loei river, a tributary to the mighty Mekong, and were suddenly drowned in a sea of blue, or rather an ocean.

We had assumed Pat had confused her zeros, even with her admirable linguistic skills, and that the real number of performers would be nearer to seven hundred rather than the thousands she had promised. But we were wrong to doubt her, as the streets and sois, were awash with a turquoise stream of glammed up ladies as far as the eye could see.

And as far as my eyes could see not all of them were ladies!

In fact, a sizeable proportion of the cast of this carnival were, shall we say, rather sizeable.

And not what one would call conventionally feminine. In fact some of them looked like they’d just jumped out of the wrestling ring.

The more masculine they were the more slap they’d caked on. It was a dead giveaway. Heavy rouge on a heavy jaw is always a no no. I should know – I too am guilty of it occasionally.

Only for cash I might add.

This was a certainly a pageant like no other and it was no drag. It was brilliant.

Every shape, size, age and gender under the timid sun shone out with pride. All dressed in identical costumes. A fetching ensemble consisting of a white blouse, long dark skirt and a fetching sash sky blue. Each one dancing to the same beat, with an audience of excited spectators cheering them on.

Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, daughters, sons and lovers. Not an ounce of judgment, only pure joy and pride.

It was most moving.

Absolute acceptance without the need to accept, because it just came naturally to these people.

I know, or try not to,  some blinkered folk back home who wouldn’t have approved – but the crowd who celebrated in the streets that day wouldn’t have given those ignorami  a goddamn cottonpicin minute of their time. In fact, I’m sure they would have been bemused by such a Neanderthal attitude. It doesn’t seem to exist here.

Thailand certainly has it’s fare share of doctrine and regulation, but not in Loei; not when it comes to expressing one’s true self.

What a town! Friendly, unspoilt and with a sense of humour that would put Bette Midler to shame. Perhaps the distinct lack of foreigners is one of the reasons for this.

It appears that Andrew, Bob, Heinz and myself are the only westerners in town.

Although we have been welcomed everywhere with prayer shaped palms and authentic smiles.

Actually,  I haven’t spotted our fellow ‘Sugar House’ guests since the end of the opening ceremony. Although I did hear Heinz through the sugar paper walls of our guesthouse in the early hours of our final morning. He seemed to be watching a film involving a pig and a fraulein. I can only guess it was an instructional video on animal husbandry. But taking a leaf out of the book of the delightful residents of Loei, I make no judgment.

And the pig seemed to be enjoying it!

On our final morning I sit, sweater-clad and shivering in the almost frosty garden, in the coldest, yet surely one of the warmest towns in Thailand. Pat exits quietly from the front door of sweet home,

“It’s so cold” she says, “on days like these I wish I could go back to my warm bed for another hour”.

“Why don’t you” I suggest.

It is only 7am.

“No, no”, she laughs, “I must go now and do the banking for the village. I am the only one who can do it here. Not all of the people can use a real bank so we have a savings scheme which I run.”

We both laugh at her ability to wear so many hats. She tells me she has to go and direct a piece for the festival later in the day.

“Wow!” I exclaim, “You’re amazing Pat. They’re lucky to have you here. You’re so confident”.

“Or just crazy” she quips.

We guffaw again. And off she goes to be the banker. ‘Miss Loei’ herself.

Pat. Hotelier,grocer,guide,choreographer,director & banker

What a wonderful world.

We leave the city with a slightly sweetened nature but with heavy hearts, as the crowning of the real ‘Miss Loei’ is due to take place at the end of the festival in nine days time and we shall miss the ceremony.

Some may think it sexist, but with so many of the contestants being of the opposite sex, and some slightly in between, I don’t really think that’s a fair critique.

It seems as though ‘Miss Loei’ is open to all.

And why not?

Miss Loei?

We already do!