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27.12.2019

As the mini bus headed south on the twisty turny road from Pai to Chiang Mai a subtle smile creeped into the corners of my mouth. I was listening to Ride by Mako Road which reminds me of Max, so maybe that’s why. It had been 2 weeks since we’d in Myanmar and within a few days I’d be in Bangkok with him as my foreigner with local knowledge. After having a couple of the most rememberable moments (ever) with him there was genuine excitement brewing inside of me to see him again. 

I remember sitting in the teachers office back in Beijing relentlessly researching the upcoming trip around South East Asia. I had everything from bus times to cafés to hostels all planned and booked to a tee. I’m a Leo, yes, but I’m also a Libra moon and an enneagram 6 (if you haven’t done an enneagram test I suggest you do it and then tell me what you are) therefore I can get incredibly worried and indecisive, especially with huge life choices like travelling solo. I now realise what an absolutely ridiculous idea that was. I strived to do so much during my first 3 weeks of travelling but definitely burnt myself out for the long term in doing so. Travellers often feel conflicted between wanting to do and see so much because that’s the point and just taking time off to reset and relax. Or at least that’s how I’ve been feeling.

I could’ve happily stayed in Pai right up until I was meeting Max, in fact Margot, as an external voice, was in sync with my thoughts in trying to persuade me as such. I struggled but resisted because there is some fantastic history in Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi that I really wanted and ought to check out. 

Ayutthaya is renowned for being the old capital of Thailand until the Burmese took over in 1767 and burnt the relics and temples to the ground. There are a handful that still stand today and is the top attraction for those who visit. Not me though, I saw enough temples in Bagan to hold me over until Angkor Wat with Spencer. I was here to visit Bang Pa-In palace – a complex formerly used by Thai kings, the most recent being Rama (king) V who restored it to the internationally influenced architectural haven it is today. I arrived in at 3am in the morning following the coldest commute of my travels yet. Within 5 minutes of boarding the train everyone in my carriage had their coats on. You might be wondering why they had their coats in Thailand…. they were all from China and if there are things Chinese people are good at it is sheltering themselves from different climates. I ended up wearing 2 pairs of trousers, my dress, 1 t-shirt, 2 jackets and then cocooning myself in the blanket to try and keep warm, it didn’t make much of a difference. Bang Pa-In isn’t quite in Ayutthaya town and when I saw bicycles parked outside my hostel I decided I wanted to ride down there. I expressed this desire to the owner and he looked concerned, he said it was 14km (about 8 miles) thus pretty far. Nevertheless, I was enthusiastic about listening to a podcast and getting my legs moving. The sun was beating down brutally on my back producing a glistening layer of sweat that coated my entire body. I’d been cycling for a good 20 minutes before I came to a road sign that read “Bang Pa-In Palace 14km” and it was then that I’d realised I done did a fuck up and that perhaps it going to be further than 8 miles. 4 more to be exact. My only thought when I stopped Strava was “I’ve gotta get back and when I do I would’ve cycled 24 miles.” I’d never ridden that far but I’m alive so there we go.

When you utter the word Kanachanaburi there isn’t anything that triggers your brain but you may have heard of the Bridge Over the River Kwai. In WW2 the Japanese army sought to deliver cargo to India (to back up their attack) in a more convenient way than overseas therefore they began building the 250 mile railway from Thailand to Myanmar. To speed up the construction process of, what is now known as, The Death Railway the Japanese army forced Prisoners of War and Asian salve labourers into unfathomable working conditions. Many of the POW were British. I visited both the WW2 museum, which gave the chronological run down of the entire war with Japan’s invasion of China too, and The Death Railway museum. The Railway museum was tough. It exhibited photographs of men that had withered away to skeletons with the only indicator of life being that their eyes and skin were still in tact. Men that looked anorexic were signed as “fit for work” in 30-40 degree heat with food that was barely enough to satisfy their nutrition. Upstairs were relics of men that had served as POW in the town – one of them was a musty yellow handwritten letter from an Australian soldier’s 4 year old daughter (I assume the mother wrote it) and it ended with “when will you be home?”. A lump in my throat grew to the size of a tennis ball and my eyes drowned in a tsunami of tears. Humanity’s relationship with war thrives off of nothing but the power hungry patriarchy and it’s fucking horrific. Opposite the Death Railway museum is the memorial grounds where hundreds of rectangular dark grey plaques lie in neatly formed rows, almost in the exact same way they would have had to march for miles. It’s kind of haunting. I put one foot in front of the other and slowly moved along the rows taking in each name, each age, each emblem of British military base.

It was difficult to walk around Bangkok without “la la la wait till I get my money right” from the rooftop scene of The Hangover playing over and over in my head. My Sunday morning was spent squeezing between the gaps of swarming Chinese and Korean tourists at the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace spans across 218,000 square metres in the heart of Bangkok and was built in 1792 when King Rama I ascended to the throne. The royal halls situated here stood so tall above my head that I had to crane my neck to grasp its entirety. The walls were decorated with mosaic patterned tiles of purples, blues, greens and yellows and the pillars were carved carefully in gold with the tiny mirrors twinkling elegantly in the eyes of those who took a closer look. I probably couldn’t tell you which buildings were which because the crowd of people and the unbearable sun made me feel a little delirious. After 45 minutes I surrendered under a tree and read my book. 

Weekends in Bangkok are designated to crazy parties on Khao San road (where the dance clubs and Kathoey/“ladyboy” shows are), which I definitely wasn’t going to fucking explore, and visiting the Chatuchak market, to spend your money on absolutely anything including exotic pets in cages, apparently. This was my first expertly guided tour with the curly headed foreign local I otherwise like to call Max. I would love to be able to pronounce his French name, Maixent, but I sound like a right dickhead. The market is fucking huge. 15,000 stalls and 11,000 vendors mark the tiny alleyways south of Chatuchak park and is divided up into 27 sections. With this knowledge I can completely understand why people disappear in the morning and don’t emerge for hours later dragging themselves on all fours with twice their body weight in shopping bags trailing behind them. Before we entered Max put both hands on my shoulders, squeezed them and said “are you sure you’re ready?” I took a deep breath in and started for the first entrance, determined to go in and out with just a new backpack in hand. Max felt like a driving instructor advising I “turn left here” and “go right at the end of this alley.” He had me pull over at a stall selling second hand t-shirts. Not just any old t-shirts. T-shirts very clearly donated by conservative Christian Americans that parade slogans like “Jesus; he’s my soulmate, he’s my home” on the front. We scanned through so many between us both and were in hysterics at how tragic each and every one was. Not quite as tragic as how Max decided to dress himself that day though; he wore a dark green cap, a forest green rugby top and light green shorts. Terrible. 

I’ve believed in happy accidents ever since I read how Frantic Assembly discover them in devising. I believe that little things can go wrong or just happen that result in a fantastic moment without meaning to. Sunday evening was one of those. I met Max again at MBK after sundown – MBK is mall that used to, very obviously, be where illegal goods are sold, no it’s a bit glammed up with CCTV cameras, fancy decor and “authentic” shops on the first floor. The stalking guys with eyes preying on the belongings of oblivious tourists still remain, as does cheap and stolen good stores on the higher floors. I wanted to figure out why my camera has got itself stuck with the lens fully zoomed out and as we strode across the 4th floor Max in a serious murmur said “turn the corner now”. He had clocked someone following us closely, I’ve no idea how. He kept pointing people out and identifying them as being dodgy. I’m not sure whether it’s a superpower or just wise knowledge. 

The neighbouring mall Siam Discovery, owned by the Crown Bureau, was also on the list of things that Max wanted to show me due to its frequent street performers and buskers. It sounded a lot like Seoul in that respect with singers, musicians and dance groups scattered around the central shopping area contributing to a buzz of youthful city life. He was right, the area outside the fuck off huge mall was packed with sweaty smiling people lingering in the streets and drinking small cans of coke offered out by little stalls covered in Coca Cola advertising. I assumed that perhaps this is what Max was on about but was a little confused as to why it was THIS busy, I looked at his face and it seemed that he was too. We mustered our way through a huge crowd with Thai rock music blaring from the stage to our left and saw a map. It turned out we had stumbled upon a music festival and it wasn’t until the entire sea of onlookers began screaming the words in unison did we realise that this was a lot bigger than we first thought. There were 6 stages on the map and our eyes feasted on “silent disco stage” in hope for a sick rave. Thinking back now, I’m not sure why we thought there would be some wobbly bass, we are in Asia after all. Rows of head bobbing people sat in the amphitheatre-esc space tuned in to one of the 3 DJs on stage via the flashing headphones. Max and I felt the vibe of the crowd and noticed how electric everyone was, a small group of women were up at the front dancing in perfect harmony. I switched my headphone frequency over. K-Pop, obviously. 

The stage opposite sounded like it had an indie/alternative boppy energy that we wanted to get on board with after a couple of bevs. Something to note about drinking with Max, and myself for that matter, is that he drinks kinda slow where as I’m a gulper and can finish pretty quickly. We were trying to sink them fast so we could get back to the indie band and in the process of drinking Max grabbed my can, tested to see how much I drank and looked threatened or disgusted or both. He necked his beer within seconds, stared at me and said “finished”. He told me “I’m just always the last one drinking” but I’m pretty sure he just didn’t want me to finish before him. Eventually, feeling a little tipsy, we made our way through the crowd towards the front of the stage not knowing what to expect from the young looking Thai guy with a lovely voice and his 4 piece band behind him. Within moments his voice, the lyrics and the rhythm were igniting our bodies and lifting our faces into an unexpected yet radiant smile. We both agreed that he could be compared to the likes of Sticky Fingers or Mako Road and fell into a trance of appreciation and dancing. We were the only foreigners in the crowd and the only ones moving. Everyone around us was still and filming from their phones, it was bizarre, we couldn’t understand why there was zero liveliness in any one. Phum Viphurit is the name of the artist and is now frequently played through my headphones. A woman in a Coco-Cola x Siam Festival t-shirt stood on the other side of the barrier from us smiling and recording us dancing with her phone (I later found out that this was Phum Viphurit’s mum). That whole evening will stick with me for a long time – being immersed in this accidental evening alongside someone I really vibe with was a perfect blend for unwavering happiness. 

Max and I were buzzing for Monday because I’d found a DnB event happening in the evening. Our plan was to climb the ghost tower to watch sunset before grabbing dinner and scooting on over for round 2 of moving and grooving. The ghost tower is a building that lacked funding halfway through its construction and now looks like a tall neglected skeleton amidst the other skyscrapers that overlook the city. With Max knowing how to speak Thai, which had been working wonderfully, we thought that we could persuade the shirtless, tattoo covered Thai guy guarding the metal fences to let us in. The guy was really shifty and wanted 500THB (£12) for entry which was mental considering he was just a squatter. Max became uneasy after noticing the huge slash scars across his chest and looked devastated when he said we should probably move on. I trusted him and complied. 

We arrived outside the venue for the DnB event a little while after it’s starting time but there was no wub dub skank to be heard despite the maps telling us we were right there. For some time we marched along the road trying to find anything that looked like an entrance before we gave up and diverted our direction to a 7-eleven for some beer. I went for a classic bottle of Chang and Max, for some unknown reason, chose a can of beer called Korn. He wanted to “try different beers” and “mix things up” which is great but I expressed my concern and asked him what he would do if he didn’t like it. A curb around the corner from the bar looked perfect to plonk our asses on and “sink some piss” before we went in. I soon realised the mistake I made – I bought a glass bottle of Chang and had no fucking way of opening it… yet another classic Jodie error. Max looked at me in disappointment with my failure and tried getting the cap off under the guidance of the many ways I’d seen before. When it finally came off he grabbed his Korn in triumph and clinked it against my Chang. I took an absolutely delightful swig and then watched his face in anticipation of how he’d take to the Korn. The can was yellow with a corn on it for fuck sake, why the fuck did he think this would be nice? He took a gulp and all parts of his face contorted into disgust. He brought the can to his lips a few more (painful) times before deciding it was absolutely not for him. “Have you seen a tornado?” he blurted out as he smothered his beastly hand all over my beer. Before I had time to understand what he said he was spinning the bottle around upside down and chugging my whole fucking beer. I sat there and stared at him blankly. “Did you see it?” he chirped eagerly. Did I see it? Did I fucking see it? No but do you know what I did see? Him drinking my fucking beer without asking. The absolute cheek of it. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” I let out in humorous horror.

“Did you see the tornado?” he said.

“No, I was too focused on the fact that you just stole my bloody beer!” 

The moral of this story is to not drink Korn beer or steal mine.

The atmosphere at the DnB sucked despite the music being pretty banging. There were two other couples there, one of which looked as though they were on a first date, and so it felt a bit awkward to get up and dance. I did anyway and Max looked at me in bewilderment. When I settled back onto the couch with him we ended up on the topic of what I’ll do when I’m back home. We seem to always be engaged in deep, academic or insightful conversations and this is something I adore about him. He’s an amazing listener and is really level-headed in his responses, it makes me feel pretty worthy. At this moment though I froze, I felt like I was wading through shallow water and suddenly couldn’t reach the bottom anymore. The thing is, I genuinely don’t know what I want to do. He reeled out questions about my studies and passions – “what are you good at?” “what do you love doing?” “you’re great at writing” – and I replied with “I don’t feel clever enough” “I’m not sure” or “I don’t have a future plan in my head”. I slipped into a glum bubble of thought. Why can’t I envision anything? Why don’t I have an immediate passion? How do I focus my energy and find my flow in life?

The next day I visited the Arts & Culture gallery of Bangkok. Just as I strolled through the entrance on the 2nd floor there were people peering over the central balcony clapping in delight. Intrigued, I buried my body in an unoccupied space and glanced over. On the ground floor was an orchestra of cellos and a conductor preparing himself, then the low sound of the strings filled my ears. A lighter yet harmonious hum of strings joined in. I looked to my left and saw another small orchestra this one of just violins. I began scanning each balcony level of the gallery and before I knew it the air around me was alive with music from all kinds of different instruments. Then the people on the floor above me sent their voices out to waltz with the sound of the instruments, these voices came from foreign faces so I don’t think they had anything to do with this pre-arrangement. I closed my eyes and felt myself get carried away with each note, my hairs stood on end and I began to well up. Another happy accident. 

A few days before I’d been researching “unique tings to do in Bangkok” and found an exhibition called “Dialogue in the Dark” where you learn what it’s like to navigate as a blind person. It was really enlightening. Right as we were about to start Max was contemplating whether he should go to the toilet, he had this 2 minute conversation with himself before shooting off downstairs. The staff and 2 other guests found his bumbling apologies hysterical. We were given a white cane to help us around the pitch black room and made to stood in line with Max at the front. Jackie, a partially sighted Thai guy, was our guide for the hour. He was a huge practical joker and found pure excitement in trying to mess with us the entire way around. At one point he invited Max to sit down with him on a “park” bench and then questioned why the rest of us weren’t sitting with them. The two other women and I were scrambling around without a clue where we were going or touching, banging our white sticks on everything for Jackie to just say “oh this is a two person bench, sorry!”. I had my eyes closed the entire way because I didn’t want my eyes to adjust in the dark. At times I felt a little claustrophobic because it seemed as though the ceiling was a few inches above my head, and, I could’ve sworn we were walking around in circles. Max steadied my nerves with an extended hand or a little squeeze on my arm but I’m certain he was just apprehensive as me. Navigating without sight is difficult. It’s hard to know exactly what packaged item you’re buying, which direction you’re going and where other people are in relation to you.

For our final day together I went and visited the neighbourhood where his dad has lived for 12 years. The neighbourhood is home to a community of Myanmar people who sell their imported goods and cook their local cuisine at the small market each morning. I cannot express enough how captivating Max is, he always speaks with incredible eloquence and enthusiasm that each word, sentence and conversations grips me until he’s done talking. As we were mooching around he’d point out buildings or streets that reminded him of his times growing up here. He told me about how he would sail down the street to 7-eleven when the city would flood during rainy season. Max had previously begged me to try the fried chicken from this one specific guy in his neighbourhood. He claimed it was the best fried chicken he had ever had in his life. I put my the veggie on hold and psyched myself up for my mind to be blown. I won’t lie it was pretty good and it left my fingers in a deliciously greasy mess, rice covered too. Again, we dove into a deep conversation about growing up, our families and mental health. I could tell by the look in his eyes how much adoration he has for the strong women in his family and the love he has for them just radiates off of him. The boy sure does talk but I didn’t mind at all because every bit of knowledge and everything he wants to say is so interesting. 

I’ve no idea about him but parting ways definitely sucked on my end, it would mean that I’d once again be completely solo and that I’d be unclear if or when we’ll see each other again. There were, and still are, a lot of thoughts whirling around in my head that I’m hesitant to express through these keys on my laptop for the fear of one-sided oblivion. People told me, even warned me, about those you meet when travelling and how they can emotionally affect you but I shrugged them off. I seriously wasn’t seeking out anything and so I suppose Max, the guy who didn’t check his e-bike battery, is another happy accident.

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