Thailanded

A generous month off to celebrate the anniversary of our Lord and Saviour’s womb emancipation, and an injection of cash from loved ones in celebration of this and my own womb emancipation, provided the perfect opportunity for a winter getaway. South-East Asia was my oyster, and after dismissing my “blindfolded dart in map” idea for fear of pulling left and ending up in Yemen I settled on Thailand. From what I’d heard, it would provide me with sun, scenery and debauchery in equal measures – without breaking the bank. I’m still paying the price of being nomadic, destitute and hedonistic for three weeks but between the typical stories of Chang and Hong Thong there were some truly memorable experiences.

All work and no play makes Harry lose his marbles, and after being cooped up for several weeks revising and writing papers I was ready to blow off some serious steam. What better place than the infamous Patong Beach in Phuket. Popular with backpackers, stag parties and the occasional regretful couple, Patong’s Bangla Road is a nocturnal hotbed of everything that’s wrong with the world – and just what I needed. Imagine Magaluf with pad thai and you get the idea.

I was lucky enough to spend my 22nd birthday in this epicurean nirvana, and a very pleasant day it was too. A tuk tuk ride to Phuket’s famous Big Buddha statue allowed me to get out of Patong and experience some of the natural beauty Phuket has to offer, including a few road-hogging elephants. The valleys surrounding the monument looked stunning in the afternoon Sun – a million miles away from the pink, bald heads, (s)peedos and misspelled tattoos of Patong. Dinner in an outdoor, jungle-esque restaurant overlooking the emerald valleys was the perfect calm before the storm. The great thing about living nocturnally is that you get to celebrate your birthday twice. The night of the 18th saw the clock pass 12 and turn into the morning of the 19th before my very eyes. My birthday had arrived and it was time to celebrate! Flash forward 20-odd hours and once again it was the night of my birthday and time to celebrate! We hopped from bar to bar enjoying Thailand’s liberal use of weights and measures, and almost non-existent dress code. Midway through the evening someone suggested the ping pong bar. Of course, being the athlete I am I leapt at the opportunity to exhibit my prowess at the table. How naive and arrogant I was. I’ve held my own with the paddle from the church halls of Bedfordshire to the street tables of Brooklyn, but these Thai ladies made me feel like a rank amateur, with a style that is unorthodox to say the least. I left with my tail between my legs, but richer for the experience. From here the night descended into a beautiful haze of flashing lights, Long Island Iced Teas and bangers from the early 2010s.

After a few days of lazing on the beach all day and frequenting libertine watering holes all night, I was ready to move on. Christmas was fast approaching and I needed a change of scenery. Phi Phi was calling!

A couple of hours by ferry transported me to the island of Phi Phi. As the boat approached its bay I experienced Thailand’s Thomas Cook brochure beauty for the first time. Pillars of volcanic island emerged from the crystal blue seas like termite mounds from the loam, clad in deep green fauna. And on the beach, blanketed in white, powdery sand, a young lady from Wigan came to in a pile of chips and vomit. As Phi Phi, despite it’s National Geographic landscape, cobbled streets and quiet lack of automobiles, was still mainly a haunt of the travelling party-goer – and I was on the hunt for good times and Christmas cheer.

I’ve always classed myself as a Christmas traditionalist and pooh-poohed the idea of spending the holiest of days in anything but the bitter frostiness of Dickensian tales. But, as always my curiosity and sense of adventure eventually overrode my stuffy, curmudgeonly ideas and I was ready to trade in my sherry for iced daiquiris and my carols for a tropical house Christmas remix playlist. Christmas Eve and Day were celebrated, like most days in Phi Phi, by huge pool parties. Luckily my hostel hosted the biggest and maddest, which allowed me to roll out of bed fall directly into the festivities. Like I mentioned, Phi Phi is no stranger to a pool party, but the seasonal vibes lifted the atmosphere and, to be frank, playing beer pong in a santa hat with the sun beating down on me and George Michael pumping from the speakers made me forget all about my fascistic Christmas prejudices. It wasn’t Christmas as it should be, but it was a bloody good time! As always, as day turns into night the temporary inhabitants of Phi Phi migrate to the beach and the scores of clubs and bars that line it. I must say, that to finally be able to wear flip flops on a night out without being judged was the best Christmas gift I have ever received – the birth of the Messiah in a distant second.

A highlight of Phi Phi’s countless beached and non-beached nightlife was the infamous Reggae Bar – which I visited on several occasions. You’re probably imagining a charming establishment with rum-based cocktails, narcotic inspired posters, Bob Marley quotes and UB40. You couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, Reggae Bar’s central attraction is a full-size boxing ring in the centre of the bar, in which heavily intoxicated amateurs can knock seven shades of stuffing out of each other under the promise of a free cocktail bucket. In fact, to call it bar is to do it an injustice. It is a fight club which serves refreshments. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton missed a trick with that one. Imagine the sort of funds they could have raised for Project Mayhem if they had had a little Thai bloke in the corner knocking up gin slings for 8 quid a pop. I couldn’t help but feel that some contenders possessed far too much Thai boxing knowledge and experience to be lighting up some meathead from Warrington who’s 12 pints deep, plus the weight disparities seemed a bit excessive at times. But by Jove I dare you to try and stop watching! If it wasn’t for my mangled hand I would have been bang up for a round of fisticuffs. That being said, if they box anything like they play ping pong, I was in for a right good hiding. Still, I was happy enough to sit back, sip my overpriced sugary beverage and offer my Joe Rogan-esque insights into the combat. My conscience niggled me slightly due to my gaining entertainment from essentially watching people who haven’t got a clue what they’re doing get beaten up, before realising that this was absolutely no different from any Saturday night in Dunstable or Southampton, when two absolute primates decide to knock around their 3 brain cells over who was next in the kebab queue. The only difference in Reggae Bar was that they were wearing gear, had a ref, and no one’s mate was going to jump in and wrap a Stella bottle round some poor bloke’s canister.

In a well needed day of respite from the boozy, damp discotheque, we took an all-day boat trip hopping from island to island. After an early, groggy start due a heavy evening’s festivities, we packed a hearty lunch of Chang and Hong Thong and headed out to sea.

Among our various stops was Maya Bay, famous as the location for Danny Boyle’s The Beach. It truly was a tropical paradise worthy of the film’s depiction, however I don’t remember quite so many Japanese tourists in the motion picture. They crowded the place out a bit, but this was soon forgotten as the moment they laid eyes on us we were swarmed on. I can only imagine that they thought Leonardo DiCaprio and his entourage had returned to his previous workplace. Now, I’m no stranger to bikini-clad Japanese girls hassling me for photographs, but it never fails to give the old ego a nice little inflation. I should have charged 50 Baht a snap, I’d’ve made a killing.

Afterwards, it was time for us to be the pests as we landed on Monkey Beach. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Much like on my trip to the monkey mountain in Kyoto, I was utterly engulfed in fascination by the way these monkeys interact and how human-like their behaviour is. I felt like a pound-shop David Attenborough, and decided to narrate my observations in his voice in my head, which added a whole new dimension to the experience. The monkeys were calm and didn’t seem too bothered by having to share their turf with obnoxious tourists, but became increasingly riled as people encroached more and more on their space. It seems, for so many people, they can’t see anything interesting without immediately clawing for their phone. You’re in one of the most beautiful parts of the world and have the rare opportunity to experience nature in its most purest form, and you’re absorbing it through a 4″ x 2″ screen. I have nothing against photos, but the situation should dictate the desire for a photo, the desire for a photo should not dictate the situation. The moment you force a photograph, you’re capturing a moment that never actually existed. But then that is essentially the whole culture behind social media, exhibiting a lifestyle and personality that is fabricated. I’m guilty of this, anyone with a Facebook or Instagram account is guilty of this. But taking it to the point where social media is dictating the way you experience the world is a scary  rabbit-hole to be tumbling down. (I spent 5 minutes trying to re-word that sentence so I could use a pun on the word Tumblr but I couldn’t make it scan).

When you’re on a boat, surrounded by crystal-clear ocean teeming with the most beautiful tropical fish and someone hands you a snorkel, what’s the first thing you do? That’s right, you strap that snorkel to your face and do a pint of Hong Thong and Coke through it. Shamefully, I only made it about half way before choking and spurting the cocktail out of the snorkel like a wino whale. Tomfoolery aside, having the chance to go snorkeling was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I’ve never had the opportunity to go scuba diving and I’ve always been pretty indifferent to the sea, but seeing it clearly, first hand opens up a whole new world that had me hooked immediately. I couldn’t have imagined that the sea I’d been wallowing around in for the past couple of weeks was full of such a cornucopia of exotic life…including sharks!

I felt pretty apprehensive as I paddle my kayak towards the known hub of shark activity, and even more apprehensive when I was told to just jump into these shark-infested waters like it was the Aqua Splash rapids. But I thought ‘screw it’, fighting a shark is just the sort of anecdote I need to spice up my dinner party repertoire. As I submerged myself I was met once again by hundreds of fish in all varieties of sizes, shapes, patterns and colours, including a moorish idol fish, otherwise known as Gill from Finding Nemo. But these fish did not arouse my interest the way they had a few hours before…I was on the hunt for shark.

Little did I know, shark was also on the hunt for me. I’d barely had to utilise my snorkel for breath before, in my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of something gliding in my direction. About 5 feet long, it fixed its piecing but spiritless eyes on me. It was obvious these waters weren’t big enough for two top predators. With only a split second to think, I thought I’d test his mettle with a swift left jab to the chin – if only to buy me some time. I quickly learned that sharks don’t have chins, and have since found out that sharks contain no bones at all, and only elephants share our pointless facial protrusions. My adversary, who was clearly better versed in human anatomy than I was in fish, whipped his tail round and caught me square across the face with his caudal fin, skewing my goggles and rendering me  partially-sighted and disorientated. This shark was obviously a seasoned Muay Thai fighter, and I was wasting my time and energy exchanging blows with him – I had to switch it up and grapple this slippery devil. With my uncovered eyes only able to make out the rough shape of the beast, I waiting patiently for him to make his next move. After what seemed like a lifetime of intense fin measuring he lunged for me. His jaws parted and I saw for the first time his rows of razor sharp teeth, primed and ready to slice through me like a hot knife through butter. With lightning quick reactions, I swerved to the right and as the hungry giant raced past me I grabbed his fin and swung onto his back, not dissimilarly from how Legolas swings onto his horse during the attack by the Wargs on the citizens of Rohan on their passage to Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Before the shark knew what hit him I’d sunk in an air-tight rear naked choke. He wriggled and bucked but he soon realised his attempts at escape were futile, and modestly tapped out. As he swam away with his tail between his fins he briefly turned, our eyes met and, despite his defeat, a feeling of mutual respect was exchanged. I am Neptune.

Phi Phi had been very good to me, but it was time to head North to the capital. My original plan was to catch a 12-hour night bus, but after seeing that a domestic flight from Phuket to Bangkok was less than 30 quid I would have been a fool not to take the aerial route. Once I arrived I had some time to kill before my friends landed, and after staying in pretty rudimentary hostel dormitories for the past couple of weeks I decided to treat myself with a night of luxury in a nice-ish hotel. It still only cost me around 30 quid for the night but just having clean sheets on a double bed, hot showers and a TV was like I dream. I felt like a Vietnam vet getting his first taste of home. I can proudly say that I laid on that bed, turned the air-con up to 11, turned the TV to the only English channel I could find and did absolutely NOTHING all night. A film called Colossal was on and honestly, from the bottom of my heart, it was the worst film I have ever seen – and I loved every second of it. Seriously though, google the film and read the synopsis. It is the biggest pile of bunkum that’s ever been shot with a camera. Ann Hathaway must have fallen on tough times because to go from Les Mis to this crock of crap is the biggest relegation since the Football Association screwed Luton Town over. Nevertheless, I hadn’t watched a TV in 4 months and I would have watched season 6 of Drying Paint if it had come down to it.

The days leading up to New Years Eve were mainly spent visiting the various tourist attractions Bangkok has to offer, sampling the local street food, drinking, trying not to get run over and generally exploring the city. I seem to have quite a knack for getting lost and accidentally stumbling across interesting sites. The highlight was almost certainly the Exhibition on the Royal Cremation Ceremony of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Royal Crematorium. One of the most stunningly striking structures I’ve ever seen, and so complex that I struggle to describe it. This is very unlike me, mainly because of my poor photography skills, but I divert your attention to the photograph below. It doesn’t do the fine detail, religious and cultural symbolism or three-dimensionality justice in any way, shape or form.
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Beyond the superficial, it was fascinating to learn about the life and times of the longest-reigning, and probably most universally loved and revered monarch of modern times, and the extent of the loss felt by the nation upon his departure. Over a year on and air of mourning still occupies Thailand.

My recent introduction to art history came in handy upon stumbling across the National Gallery on one of my wanders. It says a lot about the tourist demographic of Bangkok that I was literally the only visitor. It’s a shame because I really wanted to show off how deeply and pretentiously I can stare at paintings since completing my course. I’d squint and nod and mutter Italian words like chiaroscuro to myself and ‘Christ!’ people would think. ‘This man really knows what he’s looking at!.’ Alas, the best I could do was casually drop into my conversation with the curator that I was an art historian. The gallery contained an exhibition of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s artwork. I expected it to be average, built up as something special because of his royal status. But damn, this guy really knew his way around a paintbrush. And all our royal family are good for is waving, making culturally insensitive remarks and incest.

Opposite the National Gallery was the National Museum, featuring some beautiful buildings and a whole host of artifacts, artwork and cultural exhibits. But as much as I love history and art, there’s only so long one can walk around looking at old plates before one needs a beer and a sandwich.

Before long, New Years Eve was upon us. And where better else to spend it than the infamous Khaosan Road. Known as the backpacking centre of the universe, this street is made up of nothing but hostels, bars, street stands, tattoo shops and more bars. During the day it is packed with stalls mainly selling food and clothes, but as the sun sets it becomes a strip of pure carnage – much like Bangla Road in Patong. I had been a few days before and witnessed the hedonism, but NYE was a different kettle of fish. Thousands of people crammed the street as the dividing lines between bars and road became blurred beyond recognition. It was one straight kilometer of pure bucket and balloon-fueled party. Aside from my copious physical assets, Jehovah graced me with a bladder the size of a walnut. This can put me in some compromising situations, especially when on the sauce. The saturated nature of Khaosan Road meant a clandestine widdle was out of the question. Fortunately, a enterprising lady was whoring out the toilet in her shack, whilst her dying mother looked on in disgust. Unfortunately there was a hefty queue, so I had to make a decision between spending the stroke of New Years partying in the Thai streets with my friends, or rupturing some internal organs. Pissing to the sound of fireworks is depressing.

After the chaos of Phuket, Phi Phi and Bangkok, a vacation from my holiday was needed. We headed for Koh Samet Island, around a 2 hour drive and one difficult boat journey South of Bangkok. It was exactly what I’d hoped for, pristine, deserted beaches, beautiful views, and not a Justin Bieber or Ed Sheeran song to be heard. We spent our days sunbathing, sipping cocktails and caning through the mountains on our mopeds. 15 year old me was sick with jealousy. It was the perfect way to finish off what had been an immensely fun but utterly insane trip.

2018 brings with it a whole host of exciting activities: a new semester with new exchange students, family visits, rugby, parties, HK 7s and a host of more trips.

First up…Vietnam!

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