Alarm Cocks!

Paul knew Andrew had always enjoyed cock in the early morning, but the noisy dawn chorus which now woke them for the fourth day in a row at 4.28 am was insufferable to them both.

Andrew had often crowed irritatingly about being a ‘morning person’ but even these avian alarm cocks where too much for him!

Some of the cocky birds began their wooing at just before midnight up on the Mekong, making it clear to Paul that their body clocks were completely out of cock.

This rabble of roosters, at times what sounded like thousands of them, had ironically made it impossible to lay. Paul knew he had over egged the location of their little shack, on the tiny island in the river. He had, what it seemed, booked them into a gigantic organic poultry farm!

The boys were more than ready to move on or a real cock fight was on the cards. And not one of the feathered variety! It would give a whole new meaning to the term ‘battery farm’!

Paul found it quite ironic to discover such a hatred of these fowl creatures. Especially as he was more than proud that his husband had achieved great theatrical success in the past when playing the part of ‘Rooster’ in the hit musical ‘Annie’.  Andrew had been nominated for a prestigious ‘Olivier Award’ that year for his free-ranging, cocky performance, and was amazingly still able to amuse Paul with his uncanny ‘Cockle-Doodle -Doo’!

Alarmingly, it was now a case of ‘Cockle-Doodle-Don’t’!  Or more than a few feathers were sure to fly!

The time was now 5.20am, way before the sun was even considering making her entrance, and Paul sat on the makeshift terrace of the guest house, in the deafening dark.

He attempted to concentrate, tablet in hand, and began to write a blog. The competition betwixt the horny birds was too much, the only tablet Paul realised he could handle was a strong paracetamol. He reverted to reading a Julia Child recipe he’d just found for ‘Coq Au Vin’ , in an attempt to bring some cruel solace. Luckily the ‘sol’ did just that. And as she climbed swiftly into the purple sky, silence reigned.

Finally dethroning the cock of the walk!

It was blissful.

Later that morning, just after the cocks had crowed their last, the boys climbed aboard a local banger and made for civilisation.

The ‘little green bus’ was just as charming and cheap as they had remembered. Paul was a firm believer that if one wanted to truly know a place then public transport was by far the best introduction.

Nong Khai, the Thai city for which they were heading, was a veritable metropolis compared to where they had recently been travelling. He hoped that some relative comfort would provide some much needed ‘shuteye’.

Andrew began to sketch a pencil drawing of the sleep deprived Paul along the way.

The artist chewing incessantly on nicotine gum, until he found a short stop along the way to partake of the real thing!

Paul nodded sleepily, much like a chicken liver on a stick, until the creaky bus pulled into the bus station at Nong Khai.

As he and Andrew donned their rucksacks and started the trek towards their new boarding house, he thought at least now we shall get some sleep – minus the flocking roosters!

After all, he was nothing, if not a cock-eyed optimist!

A Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The boys arrived in Sangkhom, a small town further along the Mekong, with just a little trepidation. They had visited the friendly workaday settlement four years previously, and had loved it for it’s exquisite ordinariness.

Paul rarely liked to journey backwards, much preferring the surprise and adventure of the soi less travelled. Quite often somewhere revisited had lost the very essence of why one returned, tarnishing both the return trip and the original stay. It was always a risk.

Fortunately very little had changed in Sangkhom.

On pulling in to the two-horse town they’d noticed a new ATM outside the local supermarket but that seemed about it. Fortune still seemed to smile down sunnily on this little stretch of the great river.

At first sight at least.

They were, however, to discover that was certainly not the case. The real riverine tale being a steady stream of sadness and survival.

As they entered the little ‘Buoy’s Guest House’ and crossed the precarious rickety bridge to the small island to which their dilapidated hut creakily clung, the familiarity of their surroundings were at once entrancing. Paul recognised the even tinier shack across from what was to be theirs on this occasion, and was immediately reminded of an evening they’d shared on it’s verandah with a gregarious Gallic couple. They’d inhaled some herbal tobacco together and laughed into the star-studded night as Paul hazily revisited his schoolboy French.

The fat yellow dog was also still padding around amicably, although her hips now appeared to have seen better days. Paul knew the feeling!

And Buoy, the smiling, ebullient proprietress, was still there to welcome them effusively into her home. No need to show passports on checking in. And beers and such were to be taken from the open fridge and written down into book number ten. The number of their shack.

Probably far too frequently!

Paul and Andrew adored an honesty bar. It was so refreshing in every way.

But something at ‘The Buoy Guest House’ was not the same!

The Boys had arrived on a rather special day. It happened to be the very day on which they’d fallen for each others dubious charms, twenty-six long years ago.

Paul thought of it as a milestone, though he was well aware his partner sometimes considered it more of a millstone!

They celebrated in the afternoon with bottles of honest beer and some honest downtime.

The earth didn’t move, but their shaky accommodation certainly did!

 

Later that day, as the boys bravely crossed the bridge of sticks back to the main house, they twigged! It was a different bridge. It was longer and lower than before.

It also leant a little to the left, much like Paul!

 

They then spotted the crooked concrete pylons which had once held up the restaurant. Unevenly sprouting from the river bank like a contemporary Stonehenge.

And the main house, they now realised, was half the size it had been on their previous visit. They knew at once, the earth had certainly moved for Buoy.

They discovered this joyous and spirited lady was also marking an anniversary, yet not the kind most people were eager  to reach. She explained that three years before she had lost her husband to a massive stroke, and shortly afterwards, half of her home to the mighty river in a single stroke.

The wet season had brought with it tragedy,  her husband and livelihood went violently downstream to join that great spiritual estruary.

It was heartbreaking, as the boys learnt how the Mekong had changed it’s mood during the last few years, growing angrier and more ferocious than ever before. Buoy, having lived on the river all her life, had never witnessed the ‘Mae Nam Khong’, as it is known in Thai, behave in such a torrid way. She was certain the current situation was due to global warming. But there were darker forces at work too.

As the Mekong snaked it’s way down from the Tibetan plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, before escaping into the sea via the majestic delta in Vietnam, it’s ancient course was being irrevocably altered.

There was now a veritable deluge of huge hydro-electric damns. Great ‘green’ projects that did very little to help the farmers on the verdant plains downstream.

As the Chinese government intermittently flushed these monstrous constructions in their own national interest, little interest was being shown to the thousands of villages who saw their once fertile fields inundated with mud and thereby rendered useless.

Masses of farmers had flooded to join the urban mass in the growing cities of Bangkok and Phnom Pen to work as building labourers.

Growing condos instead of cabbages!

It seemed the vegetables making the big decisions upstream didn’t give a damn.

They could only build them!

Paul also discovered that there was an ambitious plan afoot, headed by none other than China, to blast a vast channel through the Mekong all the way from Yunnan, a province in it’s south west, right down to Luang Prabang in Laos. Thus creating an artificial,  all season waterway capable of carrying 500 ton cargo vessels.

He thought of the incongruity of these giant ships which were to set a course and dwarf the beautiful Buddhist temples, he and Andrew had previously delighted in, situated along the shoreline.  Gigantic steel river monsters washing away thousands of years of antediluvian  beauty in an instant with their giant wake.

A tsunami of slime and greed!

He wished the world would awaken to the disaster that was already taking place. Mankind was getting itself into very deep water.  He’d read of the growing consensus which predicted that in just ten years time the natural habitat of the mighty Mekong would be entirely washed away. Completely destroyed. And there would be no way to turn back the tide once this precious waterway had been dynamited to damnation!

A turbulent point that has got much of the Thai population,who will be affected by this blasted idea, close to boiling point.

Things had certainly changed beneath the surface in Sangkhom, and right along the Mekong’s exotic serpentine journey. And now it was beginning to bite back.

Paul knew one only had to listen to Buoy to realise the evidence didn’t need any buoying up. The rising waters and their now frequent tempestuousness were proof in themselves that the plimsol line had been crossed.

He was, for once, very glad he had trekked backwards, as it had enabled him look forwards. But the future was not bright. It was not orange. It was sludge grey and stultifying.

He silently cursed the Chinese and the equally ignorant President ‘Chump’ for their reckless and shortsighted view on the level of the disaster. They were ignorantly allowing this watershed moment to drift on by  He was sure they would rue the day when they had tampered with the globe’s natural plumbing. They, after all, would also be submerged when the waters rose.

And Paul knew for certain that he would not be drowning in pity on their behalf.

Neither would the beautiful buoyant Buoy.

Damn fools.

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?

Really!

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.

 

 

 

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!