Shipping containers and fire-breathing dragons

Shipping containers and fire-breathing dragons

Onward transportation from Koh Samui, organised by opportunistic but efficient tour companies, was plentiful and easy.  They branded us with stickers and pointed us towards a catamaran filled with hangovers, which zipped to the mainland, where buses branched off to various destinations: the train station, the airport, a selection of hotels.  We bemoaned the lack of autonomy whilst happily leaving the organisation to somebody else, dodged the hobbling tourists with their moped injuries (of which there were an alarming number), and leapt on the first train to Chumphon.

Any train station which embraces fairy lights is fine by me
Any train station which embraces fairy lights is fine by me

Here we had planned to stay just a couple of days to get our bearings but were seduced by a hotel built out of shipping containers.

Ingenious, welcoming, and unexpectedly spacious

The town itself wasn’t overly exciting, gathered along one long road with no nearby sights of note, but the hotel was an oasis of sympathetic design, style, and air conditioning.

Every night a market set up along the town’s main road: endless stalls selling only three dishes.  Pad Thai, a fishy seafood omelette, and grilled meats.  It barely touched Trang’s unique throng of aromatic offerings, but seemed popular enough.

This mannequin was simultaneously the most interesting and scariest thing we saw in Chumphon
This mannequin was simultaneously the most interesting and scariest thing we saw in Chumphon

We have a tendency in the west to get caught up by the exoticism of the east, breathlessly praising it without acknowledging its diversity.  I do it myself.  We’re in Manchester, and we have a bland, watery green curry.  “Oh no”, we sigh, “It’s just appalling.  I mean in Thailand this sort of thing would never be allowed”.  Or a pho is served in a Dalston pop-up and they chuck the herbs on top of the broth instead of serving them alongside.  “A travesty!” we fume, “A crime against Vietnamese cuisine!”  We review new restaurants and old favourites and rail against the inauthenticity, citing our experiences of eating in the countries themselves and smugly announcing that “This isn’t a patch on what you’d get in Penang”.

The noodles in Chumphon were shit but this honey toast more than made up for it
The noodles in Chumphon were rubbish but this honey toast more than made up for it

But contrary to what you might believe if you follow any travelling Instagrammer (myself included), or read bandwagon-jumping bloggers waxing lyrical about the sheer existence of Hong Kong dumplings, or listen to the latest anti-west hippy spouting off about how *awesome* lemongrass is but only from Chiang Mai . . . sometimes food in Asia is just a bit shit.

It’s the law of averages, you know?

I don’t just mean the horrifying realisation that you’ve ordered chicken feet instead of legs, or that those mushrooms are actually silkworm larvae; I’m talking about recognisable dishes, just made really, really badly.  Because to assume that Asia is home to four billion top chefs is just a bit ridiculous; however fresh the ginger, however memorable the occasion.

And in Chumphon we ate soggy noodles, oily egg, rubbery prawns, and fatty meat, and we complained bitterly because it wasn’t anything like as good as what we’d eaten in Trang.  And we resolved never to moan again about mediocre Thai food in London because everything at Busaba Eathai is a bloody sight better than Chumphon’s night market.

Or at least, we decided, we’d refrain from generically and inaccurately reminiscing about how “all the food in Thailand is just sooooo good”.

Because that’s both inaccurate and very annoying.

No, instead we’ll reserve the far smugger and more irritating right to announce “well this tom kha gai is perfectly pleasant but really it isn’t even close to the balance of hot and sour I experienced on that beach in Koh Samui”.

Suck on that, authenticity police.

To be fair though, this pad Thai was, like, INSANE, and served on a deckchair at sunset...
To be fair though, this pad Thai was, like, INSANE, and served on a deckchair at sunset, sooo . . .

We left Chumphon on a night train to Bangkok, for our longest stay in one place for the entire trip.  

From one bonkers hotel to the next: we spent our first few nights in Bangkok at PlayHaus Thonglor, an unashamedly themed hotel, which felt like staying backstage on Broadway.

A much more interesting entrance lobby than the standard wilted fern
A much more interesting entrance lobby than the standard wilted fern

Our Aladdin room came complete with a gigantic mural on the wall, heavy teal curtains, fancy chair, and the brass room key shaped like a cinema ticket and delivered inside a DVD case.

Our actual room! Definitely a standout amidst the dozens of beige-walled hostels . . .
Our actual room! Definitely a stand-out amidst the dozens of beige-walled hostels

Sadly PlayHaus was only a temporary measure before we moved into our AirBNB apartment.

This was a small, simple one-bed flat in Rhythm Phahon-Ari: at 53 floors, one of the tallest apartment blocks in Bangkok, newly-built, with a swimming pool on the roof, and strict instructions in the lift against temporarily renting the apartments on a short-term basis.  “THIS IS NOT A HOTEL”, it screamed in three languages, causing us to tiptoe around like criminals or speak very loudly about how we were staying with old friends in case they’d bugged the walls.

Our fellow (genuine) residents were too busy and important to walk 300m from the lobby to the main road.  It was a five minute stroll down the manicured pavement lining the condo’s perfectly-paved driveway, but instead they opted to wait for a lift in the golf buggy which did a constant back-and-forth, all day, every day.

Walking's for plebs
Walking’s for plebs

Meanwhile our 34th floor windows looked down on the tatty single-storey buildings just across the road.  Soon, inevitably, they too will be knocked down and yet another skyscraping condo built in their place.  How will these street-food sellers afford the expensive apartments when their dwellings are razed?  Sure, there’ll be accommodation for everyone, so long as everyone can afford the European prices and is happy to overlook the cheaply-installed fittings and surprisingly cramped living conditions, despite the vertical space.  For better or worse, Asian capital cities are transforming at the speed of light and Bangkok is arguably leading the pack.

There was something hugely reassuring and necessary about ten days spent somewhere we could, at least temporarily, call home.  For all the decadence of not having to clean up after ourselves, nor worry about doing the dishes, all this moving around gets a bit wearying after a while.  We were happy to wake up in the morning when we wished, pad into the next room, and eat the breakfast of our choosing.  Having our own kitchen was luxurious.

At least it was until we opened a cupboard to put the muesli away and discovered a small coven of baby cockroaches.

After exchanging a few panicked Whatsapps, our host came over with bug spray and a face mask and we were dispatched to the lobby to wait it out.  Twenty minutes later we returned to find her vaguely waving the can around with a cheerful announcement that she had killed five of the buggers (I paraphrase).  After she left, pressing the can of Raid into our hands for safekeeping, it took us about 30 seconds to find another one, and ten minutes to kill a further eight.

She turned up the next day to check on us, by which point the kill count had hit 13 and Peter was nearing the end of his tether.  The only reason I hadn’t completely lost it was because I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to pack up and move again.  Plus, I reassured myself, they were so small – perhaps a centimetre long – nowhere near as hideous as the two-inch nuclear-resistant shiny-shelled bastards roaming the filthy streets immediately outside.  “It’s very normal in Bangkok apartments”, our host shrugged.  “In hotels, I think, no.  But in every apartment in Bangkok, you will find these insects”.

At Rhythm Phahon Ari, you can gaze down upon your poor fellow ground-level city-dwellers and think "look at those tiny cockroaches! Oh no, wait, those are actual cockroaches"
Buy an apartment at Rhythm Phahon Ari, where you can gaze down upon your poor fellow ground-level city-dwellers and think “look at those tiny cockroaches! Oh no, wait, those are actual cockroaches”

Still, perhaps due to our horrified faces, she brought in the exterminators.  We watched mutely as they poured substances down various drains and plugholes which they claimed to be organic and cruelty-free but which bore a strong odour of death that resolutely persisted throughout the flat for the duration of our stay.

The numbers dropped, and we slept easily once more, revising our vague plans of relocating permanently to Thailand or a neighbouring south-east Asian country.  Peter recalled with misty-eyed reverence the bug-free beauty of chillier climes and I wasted no time in disillusioning him with all the cockroach horror stories I knew from New York, China, even London’s very own Earl’s Court.  At least you can’t accuse them of discrimination.

We had booked a two-week stay to allow us time for the much-maligned process of getting our Burmese visas.  Allow two weeks, everyone warned – bloggers, other travellers, even the FCO – it can take even longer, be prepared, it’s a toughie.  But in the event, that wasn’t remotely true.  With the disappointing aside that we were forced to pre-book exit flights (no overlanding out of the country), it was otherwise incredibly simple.  Come in, fill out, drop off, pick up.  Four days later, for a fraction of the price we’d have paid in the UK, we were sorted.  But since we’d prepaid our accommodation, we continued enjoying our temporary and possibly illegal stint as Bangkok residents.

Luckily there was another good reason to hang around in Bangkok: the start of Chinese New Year.

That's pure anticipation, that is
That’s pure anticipation, that is. And smugness at being twice as tall as everyone else

My friends and I had cocked up in 2004, the February I was in China.  Celebrations there, we later discovered, are at their most authentic and poignant in villages and hometowns.  Instead we took ourselves to Shanghai, where there was an enormous and spectacular fireworks display over the Bund, but little else besides expensive set meals and familiarly grotty nightclubs looking for an excuse to up their entry charges.  This year I’d been determined not to make the same mistake so I’d scoured blogs and local websites.  It was official.  Thanks to its central location, the huge numbers of Chinese expats, and the current trend for Thai people to claim Chinese ancestry,  Bangkok was the place to be.

So on the day itself, clad in as much red as I could possibly manage (the colour of luck in China), I dragged Peter to Chinatown’s central street, where it would all kick off, the location of assured merriment and continuous celebrations.

Food stalls, check; lanterns, check; now show me the sodding dragons
Food stalls, check; lanterns, check; now show me the sodding dragons

Or the street filled with thousands of bewildered Thais and a healthy dose of perplexed western tourists, wandering up and down, harangued by vendors selling paper dragons and food hawkers touting Chinese dumplings at extortionate prices.

And not a whole lot else.

Two children dressed as multicoloured Chinese lions danced past and I got excited until I realised that they weren’t part of a parade but merely collecting money for charity (or not).  They disappeared into the crowd, and the tempo dropped once more.

Spot the Chinese lion and enjoy it while it lasts
Spot the Chinese lion and enjoy it while it lasts

I demanded that we traverse the entire strip during which time I was certain the festivities would begin.  Half an hour later and the only thing of note was a noticeable increase in hopeful partygoers, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

I bought a dragon and waved it hopefully above my head.

Dragon selfie!
Dragon selfie!

Still the party didn’t come to us.

Peter started to get restless and I was running out of excuses not to call it a day and slope off home.  Then we all got corralled onto the pavements, bunched against stalls whilst the road was cleared.  In our wake came a host of security with earpieces, lining the building opposite, and open-air electric buses which deftly manoeuvred themselves, Austin Powers-style, through the narrow gap, for no apparent reason.  The excitement grew . . . and then dropped again when nobody emerged.

What's Chinese New Year without a drum-toting dragon on a stick?
What’s Chinese New Year without a drum-toting dragon on a stick?

It was almost an hour before we saw the source of this commotion: one of the Thai princesses, who had a habit of popping along to these celebrations each year.  In Thailand, the royal family have no real power but are nonetheless are A Very Big Deal.  Nobody criticises them.  It’s a major faux pas to even hand over money upside-down – i.e. with the king facing the floor – or drop a royal-visaged coin on the ground.  I still don’t know whether it’s illegal to do any of these things or purely a cultural abomination.  The royal family’s very existence is sacrosanct, and such adoration is strongly encouraged by the military junta currently ruling the country.  I guess it’s worth the army’s while to promote a sense of loyalty and unity amongst the relatively diverse Thai people, and head off questions about who’s really in charge.

I spent my time trying to get the perfect dragon selfie and Peter spent his ensuring that I couldn't
I spent my time trying to get the perfect twilight dragon selfie and Peter spent his ensuring that I couldn’t

We’d read warnings before we arrived not to criticise or comment on the Royal Family but had presumed, as is so often the case, that these reports were exaggerated for comic or exotic effect.  But we discovered first-hand that such reverence truly is incontrovertible.  In Koh Samui, a tipsy Italian man with a Thai wife and many years spent living in the country under his belt was expansive and critical on every other subject, but dropped his voice to a whisper and looked around shiftily before dismissing the town housing the Royal Family’s summer residence.  Something of a pilgrimage spot for Thais, he warned us against visiting due it being quite dull and polluted, but only when his wife, whom he otherwise cheerfully and routinely castigated, was safely out of earshot.

Paper dragons, however, are excused from royal censorship
Paper dragons, however, are excused from royal censorship

Back in Bangkok, there we were waiting for something – anything – to happen, but realising we’d have to wait until the princess had done her rounds.  Everyone was forced to remove hats and sunglasses, out of respect.  A small local man next to us explained the situation in excellent English, and I complained bitterly about the Royal Family being so unheeding of those of us stuck in the crowd, heads and eyes unprotected.  He looked shocked and politely tried to warn us in as delicate a fashion as he could.  “You know, you shouldn’t complain about . . . this.  Really . . . it’s not . . . it isn’t appropriate.  It’s inadvisable.”

Don't hold your breath but I think this is the main event
Don’t hold your breath but I think this is the main event

Eventually she popped off back to the palace and the festivities, which we’d been promised from 11am, kicked into action at around 7 o’clock in the evening, limited to a small stage at one end of the street.  Chinese opera, local folk dances, kids no older then ten dressed as monkeys and backflipping all over the place.

I think we can all agree that this was worth the eight-hour delay
I think we can all agree that this was worth the eight-hour delay

Finally, finally, a huge dragon made up of maybe 15 people and spitting firecrackers from its mouth wound its way sinuously through the crowd.

Fire-breathing dragons make everything ok
Fire pretty

The Chinese opera droned on in the background, but there was no sign of the huge LED-lit dragon one blogger had enthusiastically praised the previous year, the event which Peter and I had been waiting for.

We asked an attendant: is there another dragon?  One with lights?  Yes, she replied.  Tomorrow.

Stop fidgeting, I'm trying to take a bloody photo
Stop fidgeting, I’m trying to take a bloody photo

Crestfallen, we headed for home.

Overall, it’s safe to say that the celebrations in Trafalgar Square are considerably more enthusiastic than those in Bangkok, not to mention more raucous and better-planned.  Shanghai puts on a bloody good fireworks show but frankly if you’re in London, that’s the place to be for Chinese New Year.  The pork buns are probably cheaper, too.  Ah well, at least I know for next time!

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