Technically Britain is part of Europe but most Brits feel less European than say, a Frenchman or a German does. Actually, Brits consider themselves to be English/Irish/Scottish/Welsh and then, if pushed, British. We feel as if we happen to live next door to Europe and that it is a handy place for holidays and the occasional war. Most of my readership is now American, so in case you guys haven’t been here, this is what it all looks like:
The great thing these days is that you can hop on a train in the centre of London and a couple of hours later be in Europe. My flat is four tube stops from King’s Cross and the Eurostar, which means I only have to change trains once to get to Paris or even nicer places like Belgium. (I’m not being sarcastic by the way, I massively prefer places like Brussels, Bruges and Ghent to Paris.) Recently Mrs Wordofward and I hopped on this train and, ignoring what I just said in the previos sentence, had dinner in Paris. The next morning, we caught the train to Milan where we had another dinner and saw the Last Supper. Then a train to Florence where we stayed for 5 days (and had lots of meals) and then a final train to Rome where we spent another fews days (including a trip to Pompeii) where I ate my own mass in pizza and drank gallons of Chianti. Italy is superb and lives up to all of its stereotypes. Great food, wine, coffee, art, ruins, women (aesthetically) and organisational chaos. Salute Italia!
My point in mentioning all this is not to boast but to er, um, you know… Alright fuck it, I am boasting. It was a cool trip and it is superb to live next to such a varied continent. Europeans have even gotten together and made their currency easier for us with the Euro. (At least until it all collapses.) In fact we have decided to live there it is so damned fantastic. Our prime candidates right now are Prague, Berlin, or Rome. But anywhere is pretty much an option.
I had originally intended to bore the internet with my holiday snaps but my laptop seems to have thrown a hissy fit and is temporarily out of order. Then, while writing this I thought that although 40% of my readership is American, the rest of you wonderful and attractive people come from all over the planet. Roughly 40% from Europe. This equates to 40,000 hits last month from the Continent alone. With this in mind I have just one question for my European chums. Can any of you give me a job? An average paid writing gig would be fine. Or better still, a high powered art-related job for my talented wife.
Answers on an email: email@example.com
Thank you Europe!
I probably won’t be writing much for the next few days as I am in Florence. That’s in Italy, in case you are a tad geographically challenged. If you have never been here before, you should. It’s bloody gorgeous. One of the Assassin’s Creed games was set here and bizarrely, it helped me find my way around. I have had to fight my urges to climb and stab people though.
On the plus side, (the negative being that I won’t be writing much) I will have lots of lovely pictures. I recently bought a new phone – a galaxy note 2 – and the camera is actually better than my camera. Which is a bit odd. If I can work out how to post pictures from it then you will be inundated with holiday snaps. If I can’t then I will gripe about it when I am back in London.
Pakbeng is a small and not particularly brilliant little town. It was clearly just a little village that was fortunate enough to be roughly half way between Houie Xai and Luang Prabang. It exists as it is now because of the boat. The hotels and guesthouses are fine for a night, but in comparison to most places are pretty shit. Our hotel was ok for £10 a night, but you could get a better deal pretty much anywhere in Thailand outside Bangkok. And we were in Laos, which is even cheaper. But it was perfectly adequate for 1 night, so I won’t grumble. The town has beer, ok food, and sold pillows and baguettes. I happily bought a pillow.
The next day we were up at dawn and the Mekong looked stunning below our balcony in the morning light. The evening before I had been dreading the second half of the trip but despite the solid bed and bizarrely huge and rock hard pillows in our room, I found myself eager for the trip. The boat was due to leave at 9am, so at 8am we loaded up on baguettes, and snagged some great cloth-covered seats at the front left hand side of the boat. My buttocks loved the added comfort of the pillow.
The morning was the aforementioned ‘bracing’ and when the boat left at the crack of 9:35, everyone was wrapped up in jackets. The day and the view then proceeded to be pretty identical to the one before. The difference this time was that the temperature remained superb until about 2pm. The scenery remained spectacularly beautiful. Our new improved seats were similarly awesome. We were so content and comfortable we celebrated with a Beerlao at 11am. Others on the boat were enjoying Sangsom Whisky and coffee which was pretty damned civilized of them.
The boat was a nicer one on the second day for some reason. The lady selling snacks, coffee and beer at the back even had a little counter. The toilet was nicer as well although I was still pleased not to have to sit on it. This was fortunate as we were supposed to be on the boat for at least 8 hours. Or thereabouts. We were originally told we would get to Luang Prabang at 4pm. Someone near us said that they had heard 3pm and someone else said 5pm.
At about 4pm I saw something I recognised. The Pak Ou caves. I had been there before on a boat rented from Luang Prabang. The caves are at the foot of massive cliff and are filled with thousands of Buddha statues. It’s pretty cool and well worth a visit. I confidently predicted another 10 minutes or so which was a mighty relief as everyone was getting a bit fed up again. It is a long time to be sitting in boat, no matter how gorgeous your surroundings.
Over an hour later, there it was. Luang Prabang at last. A finger of raised land that sticks into the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. I could see temples and bars all along its side high above the river. It looked like the promised land. It looked lovely and relaxing. The only negative aspect was that, like around northern Thailand, the locals think it is an awesome idea to burn down half the forest. It makes farming easier and if that means a few people choking to death, what the hell. On the plus side, the smoky atmosphere made for some spectacular sunsets. The whole area is beautiful.
The looks didn’t deceive. Luang Prabang remains awesome. The trip was worth it.
In case you navigated to part 3 by accident, part 1 is here.
Our boat was due to leave Huay Xai at 11am and it was hot already. Easily over 30 celsius. Given that we were in Laos I was fairly surprised at the efficiency of the crew and the fact that we left just after 11:30. (I’m not being sarcastic, I have been to Laos before and timetables are like indecipherable hieroglyphs.) The first couple of hours you cruise down the Mekong with Laos on your left and Thailand on your right. The scenery is pretty with the occasional concrete or wooden village on each side of the low banks. Once the river turns off into Laos itself the banks rise a bit higher and eventually so do the hills behind. The riverbanks alternate between cool igneous looking rocks and white sandy beaches. Most of these beaches are deserted but occasionally you see wild buffalo lying in the sand chewing, flicking their tails and generally looking happy with their lot. At first everyone leapt up to take photos, but the novelty soon wore off.
In the hills among the jungle there are occasional villages perched on the slopes made out of wood, the houses raised up on stilts. Occasionally some of these villagers need a lift. The Mekhong river is their only way of getting around as the roads are pretty poor or non-existent. They will plant a white flag on a prominent part of beach or rock and the boat will pull in and the villagers clamber aboard and sit on plastic stools in the aisles. Usually the boat pulls into another village to let them off, but occasionally a smaller craft will pull up alongside and the passenger will transfer themselves and (usually) their tons of things into the moving boat. It’s pretty impressive.
There is a lot of talk about rivers being a ‘lifeline’ to somewhere, or that it is the ‘beating heart’ of a place. A lot of that talk is fairly valid but less so these days. In olden times the Thames for example, brought trade and wealth to London. While there is still some trade and money being made by the Thames, it is now mostly a place where Londoners can erect tourist attractions or, if you are bastard rich, even live next to. Most Londoners don’t really need it as such in their day to day lives and can go months with even seeing it.
The Mekong really feels essential to the communities that live by it. Their life exists because of it. All along the river you see villages that exist, and continue to exist, purely due to the Mekong. There are fishermen standing waist deep in tshirts and swimming trunks casting their nets by hand. There are bamboo fishing rods tied to rocks throughout its length (either the same fishermen with the nets or a really lazy guy having a nap). There are even a lot of people panning for gold, which caught me off guard and gave me a flash of avarice until I saw how clearly unsuccessful they must be given their obvious poverty. I guess they found enough gold to just about survive.
By about 3:30pm the heat was at its maximum. Even the buffalo were in the river at this point, their horned heads just visible along the water. I don’t know if the kids went to school (I doubt it), but on the beaches and rocks below each village there were scores of them playing in the Mekong. Some were starkers, some were in trunks, some in trunks and tshirts. They all seemed happy and waved, shouted and occasionally posed for photos as our boat carried on by. On one group of rocks a bunch of teenagers waved and started diving into the water. By this point, I was feeling a bit hot and cramped. I had a Lao girl on a plastic stool pressed against me on my left, Nim on my right, and a hot plastic seat welded beneath me. Even constant cans of Beerlao failed to make me feel better. I envied those kids.
From 5pm onward the temperature thankfully began to drop. It now seemed to be adult time by the river and we passed small groups of villagers having their evening bath in the river. Men in swimming trunks and women wrapped in Lao embroidered skirts were soaping up and washing their parts all along the bank. I generally tried to avert my gaze when a group of ladies were washing but when they all waved at the boat I thought, bollocks to this, and took some photos and waved back. Everyone seemed very chilled and relaxed.
By half past five everyone was pretty eager to get off. Even the pillow gang were uncomfortable and those of us in the back, full of Beerlao and stuck to our seats, were doubly keen. The sun was surprisingly low on the horizon and was gorgeous and we knew we were nearly there. Shortly after 5:30pm, we thankfully pulled into Pakbeng.
The moment our boat touched ashore, the touts were on us. It was like being boarded by overly friendly pirates. Thankfully we had booked ahead and waved them off. We wearily headed up to town and I predictably headed for a Beerlao.
Here endeth part two… In part three – we make it!
Our journey began in the mountains an hour outside of Chiang Rai, Thailand. My group consisted of myself, my wife Nim, my mother-in-law (Nim’s mum), her friend, a guide (who happened to be a student of Nim’s mum and was a local Chiang Rai businessman), and another guide who was from Laos. A lot of guides I know but they also happened to be friends, so it was pretty relaxed.
We were staying in a resort owned by another student of my mother-in-law (he was also tourist police so we felt pretty safe) called the Maenam resort and a bloody nice place it was too. Our balcony overlooked undulating jungle covered hills and fields. It was downright peaceful and relaxing. The view was hindered somewhat by the fact that half the mountain was on fire due to the annual slash and burn but It was beautiful there despite the smoky haze and falling ash. We drove two hours from here to town of Chiang Kong and had a quick breakfast of crispy pork, rice and chilli (awesome) before hitting the local market. We bought a chicken (a dead and cooked one) and some sticky rice and we were good to go.
The first stop was Thai customs which consisted of a small building by a dusty track that led to the river. It took about a minute to be allowed out of the country. Then, there before us, was the mighty river Mekong! Stretching from Tibet to Vietnam via China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. We jumped on a tiny and unnecessarily low boat that took us across the sluggish, brown (but mighty!) river. A perilous minute later and we were in Laos. I love travelling overland, it seems a lot more civilised than all the shite you get at airports. The next step was to get a visa at the Laos border office. This took about 10 minutes and for no reason at all included two queues – one to get the visa and one to pay for it. You are supposed to have a passport photo but for the unprepared, like myself, they will scan your passport for $1, which is actually cheaper than if I had gotten a passport photo in the UK. Fortunately the windows are next to each other and I didn’t actually have to move. The visa took a couple of minutes, during which time the border guards chatted to my Thai wife. It was either because they were curious about her having married a farang, or because they were chatting her up. Either way, it made the process fast and friendly.
We were now Laos, in a small town called Houie Xai, although the spelling varies (Huay Xai being another). My mum actually came here in the 60s during the war. Officially the war never visited to Laos but that, excuse my Laotian, is well known to be bollocks. In fact war did visit and it overstayed its visa and behaved pretty badly throughout its stay. My mum hitched rides all over Laos with either aid workers or CIA agents (sometimes the same person). When she was there the town was called Ban Houie Sai. It is a tiny place that now seems to exist purely for the border crossing and as a place to buy tours and Beer Lao. From here we were driven through the brown and dusty streets to the pier where our ‘luxury boat’ awaited.
I may be a soft city type but it wasn’t that luxurious. But it wasn’t too bad either. A better term would be simply ‘boat’. It was about 80 feet long and there were probably about 100 of us. There were two seats on each side separated by a narrow walkway. This averagely luxurious vessel was to be our transport for the next two days. I could smoke and they sold large chilled bottles of Beer Lao, so I was confident I could survive the trip.
First off, here is my advice if you are going to do this trip:
Arrive a bit early. Although it is supposed to be allocated seats, it isn’t. This is Laos and nothing is that organised. The boats vary, but on ours the first half of the boat had quite comfortable seats with a cloth covering and the second half had plastic.
Try and sit on the left hand side as you are facing the front. Or the ‘port’ side if you are a nautical type, you salty sea dog. This way you will avoid most of the sun. We were in plastic covered seats in the sun and it became a tad uncomfortable in the sweaty buttock region after a few hours. Sadly there are no photos of that.
Bring a pillow. A huge group of Scandinavians got on all carrying pillows. At first we mocked them (in a friendly way) and dubbed them the ‘pillow gang’ because we are so damned witty. Four hours later as my arse fused to the seat, I realised they were pretty wise. Bastards.
Bring a jacket or something warm. This may seem laughable at first when you are sitting in 35 Celsius sunshine but by the end of the first day, it can get downright chilly. The early hours of the following day are definitely brisk and bracing and other alliterative cold words like brrr (both alliterative AND onomatopoeic – woohoo). Then it gets bloody hot again.
Bring some food. You can buy pot noodles, crisps and biscuits on board but you will envy those with the foresight to bring baguettes. Or a chicken.
Wear thick sandals, shoes or preferably Wellington boots as the toilet can be a bit iffy and there are lots of bad shots on a swaying boat. The toilet on the second day was much better, so the unpleasantness seems a bit random. Good luck.
Owing to lots of photos and general waffling I have decided to split this up. Excitingly in the next installment – the actual trip…
If you live in London and have to be travel by tube at the weekend ‘Planned Engineering Work’ is a phrase you will have heard about a billion times. Probably more. I’m only writing about it now because I heard it all evening on my way in to work and the words have become an angry mantra in my brain that I can’t seem to dislodge.
The Underground, when it’s not on strike, seems to think it is ok to shut half the transport system every weekend if they just tack these words on the end. You will hear announcements like: ‘London Underground is currently operating a good service across the entire network. The following lines are shut due to planned engineering work…’ There then follows a list that takes about 5 minutes to read out. Apparently this is because they are ‘transforming your tube’. This is being done in ways that are sadly invisible to users, so we just have to take their word for it.
Am I being cynical in remembering that the increase in weekend closures happened around the same time as the tube staff protests over no longer being paid overtime for working weekends? Boohoo. It is currently 4am on Saturday night and I’m at work being paid the same as if it was a Monday day. All I have to look forward to is a lengthy series of bus journeys in the morning because the District, Overland, and Piccadilly lines are all shut. So is the circle line, but that is closed so often it has almost attained mythical status. Are the closures occurring to do a tiny amount of work while cutting back on costs?
Sorry if this sounds like a huge whinge but I work in West London and every weekend it is like a Krypton Factor test just working out how I can cross the city. I assumed that it was all a rush to be ready for the Olympics. It makes sense that they are panicking as the system can barely cope now, let alone with lots of extra tourists. If you look at their website though, it says this is going to continue for the next ten years.
All right I’ll stop bitching. It just feels very cathartic. By the way, apologies for not having written for a while. My brain was down for planned engineering work.
Well, I’m back. I apologize for not writing recently but I have been on a minor European tour. First off, I’ve been to Bruges. In Belgium. Like the feckin’ movie. It was a lovely place and is one of the most perfectly preserved medieval cities in Belgium. It’s full of cobbled streets, cafes, statues, old buildings, horse-drawn carriages, chocolates and tourists. Plus bars and beer.
We then went to Ghent, which is pretty similar except much larger and more exciting and less twee. I love Ghent.
Then we are the first people I have ever met to go to Luxembourg. It was about as exciting as you’d imagine. Which leaves it up to you.
Then finally, Brussels. The heart of the EU. The place where the smoking ban originated and rankings placing Britain as the most binge-drinker filled place in Europe. It is fall of bars where you can smoke and drink beer that is 10% alcohol. Why are they able to get it right?
I shall write about the trip in more detail very soon on this very site. I might even start a new tab. While on this minor excursion I also read the 6th book in the very inaccurately named ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ trilogy. It is called ‘And Another Thing’ by Eoin Colfer and is damned enjoyable. Different from Douglas Adams’ style but I liked it.
There will be more on all the above in lots more detail very soon. I just thought I’d update the site in case anyone thought the website, or myself, had come to a halt. We are both in fine fettle - apart from the fact that it is now 6am and I’m back at work trying to aid my ailing bank balance after a European trip. Other than that, fine bloody fettle!
Although over 95% of the Thai population are Buddhists, there is also a strong belief in Animism or spirit worship. Ghosts and spirits (known as Pii) abound and are found everywhere from offices and homes to haunted trees and fruit groves. While some spirits are more general presences, there are a lot of specific ones, and some are so well known they have been filmed on numerous occasions.
Probably the most famous ghost is that of Mae Naak (also known as Nang Naak). It is a story of a young woman who falls in love with a man called Maak who lives in her village. Shortly after their marriage, he is conscripted and has to leave his now-pregnant wife. Sadly, she dies during childbirth before he can return. Her spirit, however, is too strong to rest and when her husband returns both Nang Naak and the ghost of her child pretend to be human. The deception was an understandably difficult one to maintain and Maak soon discovers the truth and flees in terror. She then proceeds to terrify the village in her pursuit of Maak, often killing those who get in her way. Maak eventually seeks refuge in the Mahabute temple. Even there, the monks cannot quell her spirit until a gifted young monk from a distant province manages to defeat her. Her spirit is imprisoned in a ceramic pot which is then cast into the river.
Like the ghost of Pii Phum Phuang, Mae Naak is now one of the numerous spirits that give out lottery numbers. Pii Phum Phuang was a popular country and western singer who died in 1992. A shrine has been dedicated to her in Supanburi where hopefuls can visit in order to get winning lottery numbers.
An exceptionally gory looking ghost that, like Nang Naak, has been the subject of numerous movies, is called Pii Krasue. This is another female ghost that consists of a floating head with entrails dangling below. It is a particularly nasty entity that is fond of fresh meat and has even been credited with sucking out the unborn foetuses from pregnant women.
The town of Puthamonton is famous for a haunted bamboo grove that is actually located in the Buddha park. There are, therefore, a lot of monks praying and meditating in its grounds and there have been stories of novice monks getting possessed and requiring exorcism.
Even the new airport Suvarnabhumi was reputedly haunted by an old blue-faced man known as Poo Ming. Before its opening, the airport was plagued with tales of not just the old ghost but also the sounds of footsteps and traditional music – all without a readily explainable source. Poo Ming reputedly possessed a young luggage operator and had to be exorcised by a monk. The airport was finally cleared of ghosts and blessed by 99 monks after a nine week period of rites.
If you are bad you may end up as a ghost known as a Pii Praet. This usually happens to you if you are disrespectful to your parents or are involved in corruption of some kind (especially in relation to a temple). A Pii Praet ghost is taller than a palm tree with hands as large as the paddles of a rowing boat. It has such a tiny mouth that it is permanently hungry and it wanders, wailing, hoping for food. It can only receive sustenance when someone gives food to a monk and asks for it to be sent to the permanently ravenous ghost. The Pii Praet is in a kind of perjury, waiting to be reincarnated.
In addition to the numerous ghosts wandering the land there are spirits and demons to be found everywhere. To describe them all would require a novel and in fact, some such works exist. Some are debated and some are just taken as a part of everyday life. For example, the Naga fireballs of Nong Khai – a phenomenon where a series of fireballs rise from the Mekhong river on the evening of the full moon in October, soundless and silent, and then disappear after seven or eight seconds. The fireballs have split the beliefs of those who believe that they were created by mythical serpents and those who trust a more scientific explanation.
In more rural areas it is believed that a spirit known as the Pii Gong Goy can suck a man’s feet dry, and that Hopea trees and certain types of banana plants are haunted by beautiful female ghosts that often appear on a full moon.
There are, of course, ways to combat some of the ghosts and spirits that seem to pervade Thailand. ‘Yan’ is the drawing of religious and mystical symbols on houses, cars, and public transport. Some amulets are understood to have tremendous protective powers, as are certain tattoos. Most places are blessed by monks and offers of food and drink are to be seen everywhere outside places of business and also residences.
While some of the local beliefs and superstitions might be hard for a Westerner to swallow, it should always be remembered that the belief in ghosts and spirits is a pervasive one in Thailand. To a greater or lesser extent, nearly all Thais believe that there are ghosts out there, so beware and pay respect.
I wrote this for a magazine in Bangkok. Might as well chuck it in here!
Welcome To Hell – One man’s fight for life inside the Bangkok Hilton
By Colin Martin
Review by J Ward
Go into any western bookshop or airport in Thailand and you will come across a plethora of books penned by expats. These books generally fall into three categories. The first is the gritty detective novel featuring a world weary Western detective and his Thai girlfriend/wife who may or may not play an active role in the usually predictable tale. The second is a personal description of someone’s experiences in Thailand as a teacher, bar owner, punter or barfly. Colin Martin’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ falls firmly into the third and smallest category – Westerner ends up in a Thai prison and has a thoroughly unpleasant time.
Unlike some others in this latter group, Mr Martin claims that he was innocent. This alters the angle of his woeful story from a simple recounting of how horrendous prison life is and becomes a tale of injustice and frustration. A surprisingly enjoyable one.
Colin Martin worked in construction, had his own small business, and was married with kids. An almost clichéd idyll that makes the subsequent fall all the more compelling. In a nutshell – he sees an ad in a newspaper for a Thai-based company that needs some men to work on a nearby oil rig. After several meetings he ends up agreeing to supply the men and pays the company a large sum of money as a guarantee of good faith. Here begins the downfall. The company is fake and he loses all his money, his company, and his wife leaves him. Martin’s series of catastrophically bad decisions doesn’t end there though.
Rather than return to Europe with a lesson learned and his tail between his legs, he decides to stay in Thailand to try and find the men who conned him. He can certainly hold a grudge, as he ends up staying for three years. He even marries a local lady and has a kid. Eventually he finds one of the men involved and gets the address of another. After tricking the main con man into a meeting he ends up scuffling with the man’s bodyguard and kills him. He is then arrested and the police torture him into confessing to murder. The second half of the book describes the aforementioned ‘awful time’ as he languishes in prison for the next eight years.
As I said, this is an extremely readable book that I read in one sitting. It is certainly one of the better novels written about Thailand, even if it is not particularly flattering. While the prose is hardly up there with Greene or Orwell it is simply and entertainingly told. If you felt like a bit of morbid entertainment while lying on beach, then this book would fit the bill. The actual tale itself is, in fact, best read in this frame of mind.
There was the odd thing that gave me pause for thought, however. First off, I did feel sorry for Mr Martin. He is either far too trusting or far too naive. People seem to take advantage of his nature throughout the book. For example, he asks all the men he hires to bring a £10,000 bond with them and they all agree. None of the thirty men do. Not one. He is forced to then foot the bill. When the money is not forthcoming from the company he still goes ahead with everything. He never seems to truly question the fact that he is spending vast amounts of money for the privilege of being hired. Well, to be fair, he does a bit. Just not enough. Later, after his arrest, his brother sends him money to post bail. Despite three years of experience in Thailand, he gives the money to his Thai wife who comes from a poor provincial village, is much younger than he is, and who has a family to support. Not surprisingly, she runs away with the money.
I occasionally found him hard to empathise with as a person. Amidst constant claims that he is just an innocent, family loving, businessman, there were details that niggled. On the first page he talks about an incident where someone is humiliated and if it had been him, he would have ‘smashed the guys face in’. When he finally meets one of the con men he head-butts him. He then beats a bodyguard to death, which is pretty extreme for a mild mannered businessman. Maybe I am being too harsh and he is simply an innocent guy that has been pushed too far.
I was mildly confused by some of the details of his crime. I won’t ruin anything for future readers but there are also some strange goings-on with a supposedly unconscious man disappearing and then turning up dead. Again maybe I am being too harsh.
I feel I should reiterate at this point: this is a highly enjoyable, easy to read, perfect beach book. The writing style is straightforward and compulsive. It will confirm anyone’s suspicions that life in a Thai prison is horrendous but there are some touching points in the story. There are also examples of some true acts of human kindness that help our protagonist survive his ordeal and help counterbalance his tale of woe. Some people are genuinely nice after all. Recommended.