# Me Too Please !!!

Paul would like to say he had never been touched up by a female pensioner before but that wasn’t the case! It was, however, the first time it had been by a lady of Thai persuasion, and a Muslim to boot. It was also a novel experience to have it happen on public transport during the day’s first call to prayer. It was almost as painful as the flat imam who shrieked to his flock quite tunelessly and far to regularly.

He and Andrew had been squeezed onto the truck as if they were being transported to Smithfield meat market.

Twenty people had miraculously squashed onto the tiny Song-thaw and that was before Madame Weinstein had rolled up. Using Paul’s inner thigh as a hand rail she dragged herself up into the vehicle and collapsed heavily onto his lunchbox. By lunchtime itself she had already greedily partaken of his sausage roll and had had a bloody good go at his scotch eggs. Paul was shocked. He’d always thought pork was off limits to those of the Islamic faith. Madam Weinstein was obviously an exception.

When they arrived at an unpronounceable little town rather too near to southern Thailand’s Islamic insurgency, Paul clambered from the vehicle with the leg that stilled worked, happy to escape the Muslim fundamentalism that had been happening onboard. He bade the woman a smile as he left, he didn’t want to appear ungrateful. It was a characteristic he was ashamed of, but he could do nothing about it.

He was a natural tart.

He and Andrew then struggled across an unsafe road bridge with their lumpy rucksacks to get to the bus station on the opposite side of the highway. They were greeted with broad smiles by the locals and, as per usual, much hilarity. There seemed to them to be no hostility here towards unbelievers, not on the surface at least. Everyone from pancake pedlars to paternal pedallers, cycling their kids to school, were utterly charming. And, all seemed incredibly happy.

After an obligatory stop at the local ‘Seven Eleven’  in order to furnish Andrew with enough cigarettes to kill a laboratory Beagle, The Boys doggedly trudged towards the pick up point for their bus south.

The small building was not so much of a bus shelter, more a shelter for the homeless. A few elderly looking vagrants peopled the place with their roguish charm. One of the old boys was most insistent that Paul take his plastic chair. Paul was unable to refuse, even though he was very concerned the tiny piece of furniture might buckle accidentally beneath his occidental weight!

He sat for a while with the gentleman, smoking cigarillos and chewing the fat as Andrew looked on most amused. The main reason for Andrew’s delight was the fact that his husband was now being felt up once again. Only this time by one of the old geezers who was dressed as a 1970s pimp!

 

There was more than a whiff of ‘Huggie Bear’ about the cheeky chappie. Paul was well aware that if he didn’t move swiftly away his lunchbox could be on the menu again. He’d have to join the growing throng of performers using the hashtag ‘Me Too’ soon.

 

He posed for a quick photo, the retouching only occurring during the sitting! He assumed it must be down to the Penhaligons ‘Oud De Nil’ he’d sprayed on far too liberally that morning and absolutely nothing to do with his far too liberal appearance.

He did wonder sometimes if he’d had slut tattooed onto his forehead without his knowledge. He made a mental note to check when he next came before a looking-glass.

After a mercifully short while Andrew and Paul found themselves in a surprisingly comfortable air-conditioned mini-van heading towards the Malaysian border. Paul did a deal with Leh, their driver, to take them on to the actual border post and to wait for them as he and Andrew did a visa run in and out of the country.

After driving through mountainous jungle they reached the imaginary line between the two nations. Machine gun wielding soldiers smiled at them as they alighted, their fingers resting disarmingly on the triggers. Paul and Andrew smiled back wanting to stay on the good side of the seriously armed soldiers. There was obviously sometimes a touch of  trouble at this particular post thought Paul, hence the armies posting. He wasn’t sure whether the heavy armoury mad him feel safer, but he knew he would be most pleased when the whole diplomatic affair was over.

It actually went very smoothly.

The Boys stamped out of Thailand, walked across the strange no-mans land that always fascinated Paul when they crossed an international land border, and stamped into Malaysia. Whilst in that marvellous country Andrew had a fag and Paul visited a public lavatory, then they then they hit the duty free shop.

There was a splendid array of cheap branded alcohol which surprised them both, especially as they had found it difficult to even get a beer on their visit to the country a few years back. They then stamped out of Malaysia and back into Thailand and were given a further thirty days on their visa.

Completely gratis.

There were a few times when being a UK citizen had it’s benefits. This being one of them.

They then found Leh and motored on to the small town of Satun, which nestled steamily in a jungle valley deep in south-west Thailand. They had not expected the place to be so charming. Yet it was like travelling back in time. As the boys headed into one of the rural suburbs they were transported to a riverine oasis of laughing children and their equally contented parents.

Hens clucked as mother hens mucked out. Dads  mended fishing nets. One man was washing his cock! One of the feathered varieties of course. All going about their daily life in a timeless and effortless fashion. It was as if time did not exist in the pretty dwelling. Other than the odd mobile phone, which now seemed to Paul, disappointingly ubiquitous across the entire globe.

As the heat of the day peaked at an astronomical high and the fecund grey clouds threatened to discharge their abundant moisture, the boys headed back to their guesthouse to avoid a good soaking. They partook of a brilliant yellow curry,  which was as good as the one made by their great friend Stella. She was always the benchmark when it came to Thai cuisine, having once managed an extraordinarily successful Thai restaurant in London. Her ears must have burned as hotly as the dishes they sampled on their travels,as each time they would gauge a curry’s  appeal.

‘Not as good as Stella’s’ one of them would often remark. On this, their latest excursion, their friend’s ears had probably not burned quite as often, as the food had come up trumps. Paul had even learnt to replicate a couple of the stranger dishes in order to cook them for her on the their return. If he could get hold of the inordinate variety of aubergine that existed in Thailand. He thought he may have to sneak some into his rucksack on the flight home. Surely BA couldn’t be sniffy about a touch of excess eggplant! Then again…

But it was not quite home time yet. Andrew and Paul were to make their merry way from the roasting town of Satun the next morning, and head out to another lesser known Island the latter had discovered.

The next morning the call to prayer blasted zealously into their furnace of a room at a rude 5am. There was really no need to set an alarm in Thailand’s Deep South. The mosque very thoughtfully did it for you.

Thankfully, thought Paul, this fella was in tune. He really didn’t mind the exotic alarm call at all, but wholly disapproved if the holy man was religiously missing his top ‘B’ flats!

After an intensely bitter coffee (Apparently! A local brew!) they waited for the bus which was to take them to meet their Song-thaw, which would then head off for the small port of Pakbara. Paul took his cologne from his bag and went to spray himself. He stopped suddenly, changing his mind. Perhaps he’d give the Penhaligon’s a miss today. After all, one never knew who their travelling companions would be, and Madame Weinstein and her equally fruity brother, Harvey, who he’d met at the bus-top the previous day, were fresh in his mind. Too fresh!

When the bus arrived the boys climbed awkwardly between the pots and packages looking for a free seat. Paul spotted two towards the rear, he also locked eyes with a hulking German Adonis with eyes like cerulean pools. He flashed a blindingly flirtatious smile towards Paul, who did a little giggle worthy of that of an embarrassed schoolgirl. ‘Shit’ he thought mischievously, ‘Why didn’t I apply my ‘Oud De Nil ?’ But his ego had been well and truly touched up by the naughty moment.

He collapsed into his seat next to his soporific partner and then caught sight of a stunning young fraulein who was boarding the bus just behind him. She smiled longingly at the godlike creature to his rear. He realised immediately it had surely been her who had elicited the smile from the handsome Teutonic passenger, and not him. He knew he’d smelt a rat. He was losing his touch!

‘Now’, he thought, ‘where’s that bloody perfume?’

He turned and gave a cheeky smile to the young lovers behind him.

She was certainly a very lucky girl.

‘# Me Too Please’ he thought, sinfully, to himself.

The imam would most certainly not have approved!

Far From The Madding Flock!

The sultry Thai breeze lifted Paul’s curls as he gazed out at the tropical islands to the west bringing with it a cool clarity. He had been reading Virginia Woolf on the beach and it had put him in pensive mood, some would say a pretentious bent, but Paul had stopped listening to life’s small minded critics, whose mission,it seemed, was to chip away steadily at the confidence of others in order to prove their own small self-worth. They seemed meaningless to him now as the burgeoning sun began her swift descent towards her crimson pillow. If he wanted to be pretentious that was up to him.

He gazed at the four erratically shaped islands which lay on the dreamy horizon and imagined the comings and goings on their peculiar shores. He knew three of them to be ‘Bird’s Nest Concession’ Islands. A phrase he had not come across until a few days earlier when he and Andrew had met a charming Swedish couple on their arrival at their ever so laid back resort. In fact, for days, it had just been the four of them sharing the windswept beige sands which looked across to the national marine park of Koh Phetra and her rocky companions, so he had learnt a fair deal from them concerning what went on amid the mysterious limestone outcrops.

Although the islands were part of a conservation project and therefore had no population, there were a few temporary residents. Some fisherman who made use of a paradisiacal bay, which far outstripped the beauty of Leo Dicaprio’s beach in the well-known film, along with a band of intrepid climbers, whose job it was to scale the shard like cliffs in order to reach the sky caves of the island’s only permanent inhabitants, the multitude of Sea Swiftlets. These oceanic mountaineers were not keen ornithologists hoping to catch sight of a rare bird, but rather keen businessmen with a sharp eye for the nests the darting creatures created.

‘Bird’s Nest Soup’ was apparently a thriving business in southern Thailand. The homes of the tiny birds were collected and sold to make the famous oriental delicacy.

The market in China alone brought in over a hundred million pounds a year, Paul understood why the lithe sun-burnished athletes risked life and limb hauling themselves up ropes hundreds of feet in the air.

The rewards were sky- high.

The nests themselves were formed from the dried saliva of the Swiftlets and he couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for the poor avian creatures who must have flown back to their roosts too often to discover themselves homeless. Made destitute, just so some fat businessman in Shanghai could salivate over a dish of hideous soup.

Paul, who had swallowed many an odd concoction in his time, could not think of anything worse than eating a bowl of bird spit. But it seemed he was in a minority in the east. The fashion was so profitable that he and Andrew had been warned not to visit the Islands for fear of being shot at. Heavily armed guards were another of the islands itinerant residents.

Paul looked again towards the western seascape, the islands now silkily silhouetted against a pink backdrop. Their beauty seemed to him less romantic now, with the plight of a million vagrant birds hatching in his mind. He had initially wanted to row the five kilometres to the nearer Koh Laoliang, but he knew that after the drama of he and Andrew’s previous nautical escapade, he would have trouble convincing his husband to take up oars. The thought of being picked off with a long-range rifle, like a clay pigeon, also held limited appeal. Therefore the enigmatic islands would for now, have to remain just that.

An enigma.

Besides the island on which the boys were now residing was quite gorgeous enough. Home to a small Muslim population, who made their way growing rice, rubber and luscious watermelon. The place was incredibly friendly. The few tourists who endeavoured to find the beautiful isle were treated more as close friends than ‘farang’.

Paul had discovered the island on an esoteric website specialising in the lesser known nesting sites Thailand still had to offer. He and Andrew had made their way south from the stunning Koh Mook on a local form of transport known as a ‘songthaw’. This was basically an open truck with two rows, (the literal meaning of songthaw), made up of a duo of uncomfortable wooden benches. They reminded Paul of the forms on which pupils had been made to sit at junior school. Of course with senior buttocks, they were far less accommodating.

As they made their way through rural lanes and stopped briefly at remote farms to collect passengers on route, the vehicle became somewhat crowded. A young girl on wooden crutches; an old girl with wooden teeth; an entire family with what appeared to be their entire worldly belongings filled the truck making Paul and Andrew decry their long greedy western limbs. They shamelessly fought for space alongside greedy toddlers and smiling pensioners, eventually succumbing to the cramped conditions and moulding into one like hot sardines in a can. They were practically family by the time they arrived at the tiny pier to take the small boat across the Andaman Sea. The passengers had shared everything. Their lunch, their conversation, their scent. The sheer humanity onboard the wagon had been tangible and it touched Paul. He thought how different it had been to the starchy underground journeys one takes in London. The passengers had become one, not like the separate sullenness exhibited on the miserable tube. It is true it had been rather cramped, but the human spirit had not. That had soared way overground.

On their first full day on the island Paul and Andrew hired decrepit bicycles and pushed on towards a village near it’s centre. They made a sweaty pit stop and hoped for a beer at a bijoux local establishment. The old lady, who had a look of a toothless Mother Theresa welcomed them warmly. She brought her snivelling grandson from the back room to meet them – he was not at all amused. The boys had to settle for water, it being a Muslim enclave, but they were sated. The liquid bringing life back to their liquidated limbs. The amiable old lady even made them some banana fritters, on the house, she wouldn’t hear of taking payment. It was more than refreshing. Both Andrew and Paul thought it might have been the friendliest part of Thailand they had yet visited. And they’d certainly been around.

Later on in the sweltering day they looked towards the island of Koh Libong as they climbed an unmarked hill on route back to their lodgings. This was where the mystical Dugong made their home. Strange aquatic creatures related to the sea cow. They nested in the rare sea grass that covered the ocean floor nearby. Paul thought he spotted a large shape gliding slowly beneath the sapphire surface, but Andrew informed him it was nothing, just a shadow. He was quite obviously delirious from the stifling heat and the outmoded set of wheels with which he was struggling. As they hit the crest of the hill relief flooded them both and they careered  downwards towards the rubber plantation below. It was not the most opportune of moments for Paul to discover that the stopping mechanism on his bike was non-existent.

‘Ding, ding!!! ‘ He screamed at Andrew as he flew past his lover as swift as the swiftest Swiflet, taking the bend faster than Lewis Hamilton and just managing to avoid a stray water buffalo meandering gently through the trees at the bottom. Both the buffalo and Andrew made their displeasure known. In no uncertain terms! Neither seemed to approve of the drama which had just unfolded as Paul had almost taken flight.

‘Why is everything a bloody performance with you?’ Andrew chastised.

‘It’s not my fault if I’ve got no buggery brakes!’ Paul shouted back.

He considered it most unfair for Andrew to fly off the handle when he had almost gone headfirst over his.

They cycled on through the shimmering green and eventually came to another idyllic spot. A charming  resort of wooden cabins directly on a perfectly deserted stretch of beach. They were joined only by two ice cold beers. It was pure perfection.

As Paul gazed across the Emerald Andaman Sea towards the other islands in the Trang Archipelago, and the geography beyond which imperceptibly became Malaysia, he felt very lucky that he and Andrew had decided to make their temporary nest where they had. It was an unspoilt heavenly place.

Even if the bikes were crap.

Arriving back at their own nesting ground he sat on the tawny beach alone. His thighs smarting from the unintended work out which they had been given. Andrew was already unconscious inside their roost.

A warm wind unlocked Paul’s locks and he once again picked up ‘Mrs Dalloway’ to continue his literary discovery. He certainly wasn’t afraid of Virginia Woolf. But he was a little fearful of revealing the dazzling island he and Andrew had discovered. Thinking, egotistically, that doing so in his leanly read musings would lead to it’s discovery. The package cuckoos would arrive and fling them from their secret hideaway.

Would he let his small flock of readers in on the destination? And Pigs might fly, he thought. He had, after all, already given them more than enough clues!

He lay back, solitary on the deserted beach, just him, a lone eagle swooping the sky, and the high flying literature of Woolf to keep him company. Pretentious he knew. But who cared? There was no one to judge him. Not until the other snow birds came flocking.

And that could take a while.

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!

Masticating In The Shower!

After having spent seven hours in a dust storm known as third class on Thai Railways we arrived in the northern city of Phitsanalouk. My body felt as if I’d done ‘Cats’ without a warm up. The show, not the animal, and believe me I know what it’s like to do that show without a warm up.

Andrew was also struggling – which is a euphemism for he could hardly put one foot in front of the other.  But it had been an incredibly amiable journey. I often find one meets a better class of person on lower class travel.

I had several conversations with the tiny man sat across from me, although neither of us could understand what the other was saying. But there is a universal language one can adopt when amongst foreigners, and there was lots of it spoken in carriage ten. A little openness can go a long way. If only President Trump would learn the technique the world might be a friendlier place. But let’s take a lesson out of his book and not get too political.

We fell out of the train with our rucksacks, (which have doubled in weight since we stupidly filled them with fake Ralph Lauren in Bangkok), into a coal-black night. As scorching as that fossil fuel too.

On first impressions the place seemed fairly uninspiring.

On second – quite the same.

Although the inhabitants are friendly enough and apparently there’s an important Buddha somewhere. We nearly made it to the temple today to visit the old boy, however, after having imbibed a tad too much Thai ‘rum’ in coach ten to ameliorate the journey, these old boys didn’t quite reach the Buddhahood! Plus I was on a slight come down having chewed remorselessly on one of Andrew’s powerful nicotine chewing gums for an hour, thinking it was a stale breath freshener. I did wonder when I got into the shower why I felt so energetic and ready to party. I’m not usually a morning person so I should have been suspicious of my new found vitality, instead I masticated even harder to try and get some flavour. It was only when my throat felt like old sandpaper and I was doing ‘The Hustle’ that I twigged.

I only have myself to blame, after all, I do realise one should never masticate in the shower.

Quite unsavoury.

I don’t know how Andrew manages to do it, no wonder he’s always searched at airport security. He always looks like an edgy coke dealer. Now I know why.

Along with the heady dose of nicotine I was also recovering from our supper of chicken feet the previous evening. Clucking ‘orrible! And there was a rather mean orange dog blocking our path so it was an easy decision. We knew The Buddha would understand – and there is always tomorrow, when I should feel a little karma.

Instead we opted for another dodgy bowl of something to do with pig and a soda water, then retired to our room for some more mastication, only minus the gum!

We are currently staying on the ninth floor of a hotel which is straight out of ‘The Shining’.

To make things even spookier we are in room 911.

As my husband said, Thank God we’re not flying tomorrow! And I shan’t go into detail about the carpet, oh, and the ceiling! But at under a tenner a night one really can’t complain.

And we do have a refrigerator in which to store our Chang lager. Highly useful, as I’m still struggling with the residual taste of the poultry’s ‘plates of meat’ plus the fag replacement is also lingering stubbornly on the palate.

When night-time arrived all at once, as it often does here in the tropics, we headed to the other side of the tracks. Literally.

Crossing a precarious railway bridge, ducking to avoid power lines, we came to the somewhat less salubrious part of town. A Street that wouldn’t even feature on the Monopoly board, even though some optimistic entrepreneur had stuck a couple of hotels on it.

We ate a mediocre, yet this time, recognisable meal and then made our way to a bar I’d read of in ‘The Lonely Planet’. A publication I am slowly losing faith in. Too often we have headed for somewhere the travel tome described as  gay only to find a Klu Klux Klan rally in progress. I do exaggerate – but really! Tonight  we ended up in a place that was meant to be full of ‘hipsters’  but was actually an alcoholic kindergarten. A bevy of underage smokers with their bevvies making us feel quite superannuated.

Not good for the confidence.

Luckily as we made our way back to room 911 a plump prostitute on the street corner beckoned me to join her.

‘Here, here’ she called out.

‘Here,here’ I thought.

Ego restored I smiled and politely declined. She wasn’t my type.

I’d rather have another bowl of chicken ankles.

Or masticate in the shower!