Friday, 29 November 2002

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 4. PRACHUAP KHIRI KHAN AND CHUMPHON



27/11/02: Check out of All Nations and catch a bus to Prachuap Khiri Khan; find one of the few guesthouses available; ‘Women’s Own’ for drinks; eat bland seafood somewhere else; try a few bars and end up drunk at the Coconut.

General observations concerning Thailand:

1 - Everyone drives like madmen.
2 - There are so many palm trees that, the odd hill aside, the landscape can appear pretty dull after a while.
3 - All the dogs seem to be on Valium.


Prachuap Khiri Khan could not have differed more from Hua Hin. For one, the place looked like it had recently been evacuated, with only a few stubborn cynics holding out for company. Christ knows why we bothered to stop off there, but it might have had something to do with S’s hitherto hectic schedule and his need to recuperate some more before ploughing on toward our target destination of Surat Thani.
So we ended up taking in places like Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon along the way, and, despite not having much to offer the weary traveller, I suppose our adventure was better off for it, especially with regard to the former.

After our previous experience with the train, we decide to give the bus a go, which proves to be a most prudent idea. Apart from the efficacious speed of the trip, we benefit from air-conditioning and a distinct lack of people to contend with.
On our arrival we head coastward past an excitable playground full of school children, who don’t get to holler at foreigners very often (and obviously haven’t been told of the need to evacuate), to where our guidebook informs us a hostel resides. This takes us all of about 10 minutes, although establishing which building is in fact our potential flophouse probably takes as much again. The dour frontages that align the street make telling the buildings apart problematic, and without any apparent physical signage it takes a process of elimination to identify our contender. When we finally do so, we then have to negotiate with some listless gentleman, who has no understanding of English whatsoever, to establish precisely what our requirements are (you’d have thought it was obvious). After much gesticulation and nervous giggling we finally succeed in conveying our intent and are offered very reasonably priced accommodation.
Our now buoyant mood is curtailed somewhat by the state of the rooms. Dirty, sparse and slightly sinister – like something very bad might have happened in them – S finds himself blocking ominous holes in the skirting board with shaving foam. He also discovers a dead, petrified frog under his bed. Hanging around in these chambers does not appeal, so we make for the waterfront – for Prachuap Khiri Khan overlooks a rather picturesque bay – in search of somewhere to eat, stumbling upon an amiable café with the curious moniker of Plern Smud (later to be attributed the title ‘Woman’s Own’, such is the matriarchal nature of its operation). The fish isn't great but is served with a (bemused) smile.
Just up the road is a bar called the Coconut that caters for our drinking requirements very nicely. The three of us are the only customers and it remains that way for the rest of the night. The proprietor is more than happy to serve us Beer Chang for as long as we want it, and emerges from watching TV in his living room – such as it is – every now and then to check that we aren't dry.








He must have thought he’d made a killing that night (we not once saw anybody else dining there throughout the duration of our stay) and we returned the next day for (American) breakfast, and again that evening after we’d tried a few other equally low-key establishments in the area, finding them wanting. Besides, it was right by the sea. What could be nicer?


28/11/02: Went to climb up a hill but were intercepted by monkeys; walked back along the waterfront and had tea at Women’s Own; end up back at the Coconut for drinks, and get mobbed by various insects.

There is nothing to do in the town of Prachuap Khiri Khan except get drunk, but it has a certain charm. Looking out onto a bay flanked by two imperious rock formations, the place just sits there doing nothing. There is an abundance of gloriously healthy 50s functionalist architecture, though, a stark contrast to the scarred counterparts that make up most of Bangkok.
Platoons of monkeys hang out on the waterfront giving this sleepy town a decidedly renegade edge. And seeing Thai schoolgirls three to a scooter, sipping drinks through straws as they hurtle along the esplanade, is just the sweetest thing.


Drinking in the Coconut on that second evening, as keenly as we had done on the first, we were ‘attacked’ by all manner of insects, and to this day we recognise the 28th November as Bug Day. It could quite equally have been denominated Monkey Day. In our guidebook Mirror Mountain is the only feature of note – aside from the bay itself – attributed to this sleepy backwater, but our attempt to climb the thing was very quickly nipped in the bud by the sheer amount of primates that hang out around and presumably on this solitary hillock. A shame but we had not the sufficient experience of dealing with simians to know how to anticipate their behaviour. The bag of bananas that S was carrying around, of all things, probably didn't help.
Or maybe we should have settled on General Creature Day? Given the proximity of our hotel to the Coconut, rather than trouble the proprietor for the repeated use of his toilet, my companion in particular would elect to repair to the privacy of our room and use the facilities there. On one such occasion she very quickly returned to our booze-sodden company in quite some distress: something large had dashed behind the bathroom mirror – a lizard in all likelihood. Dispatched back to our domicile to sweep the room for intruders, none were apparent.
The following morning my companion found substantial bite marks embedded in her vulcanized wash-bag and the soap contained therein, suggesting a rat had been snooping around as we slept; they were too substantial and frenzied in nature for the alleged lizard to be the culprit.
Insects, monkeys, reptiles, amphibians and hungry mammals – all were present and correct in Prachuap Khiri Khan.


29/11/02: Breakfast at Woman’s Own and the eggs resemble screwed up tissues; get lifts on scooters to bus-stop on the highway; buy tickets off very cool man and get the bus to Chumphon. Arrive at Chumphon: get lifts on more scooters; find guesthouse; have improved seafood in open air restaurant; a few drinks at Gossips, wherein a Thai gentleman hits on me, before ending up at a cockroach infested bar for a nightcap.


The other education Prachuap Khiri Khan provided us with was that of the scooter. Assuming, quite rationally I think, that the bus to Chumphon would depart from where we’d been put down on our arrival, we shunned a tuk-tuk driver’s offer to take us to the station. Had we checked our guidebook properly his bemused insistence would have made total sense, because the pick-up point lay, in fact, a good two miles out of town along the main highway, which in the midday sun would have been quite intense an excursion to make on foot.
We discover this on arriving at the point we had disembarked two days earlier. A group of Thai lads are kicking back, and they laugh openly at our predicament – a common re-action to any misunderstanding in the Orient.

“No problem,” they say. “We can give you a lift.”
“Great.  Where’s the taxi?”
“No taxi – jump on these scooters – 80 baht each.”

Once we get going it’s actually quite pleasant, the wind blowing through our hair, the open road, hanging on to the handlebar on the back of the seat for dear life. But then… what’s this? We’re doing a U-turn? And now… he’s pulling off onto some dirt-track side road! I recall the live burial scene from the film Casino and glance back to catch S’s face sporting a rather nervous grin. Passports, money, plane tickets, bank cards… it would have to be worth it, surely: a shallow grave just outside of some dead-beat town where farang (‘farang’ being a generic Thai word for anyone of European ancestry) never normally think to venture. We would probably have to dig them ourselves, too.



Looking back now, it was the most practical solution to our problem. At the time, the thought of two grown adults and a large rucksack perched upon some tiny 125cc scooter seemed the definition of insanity. But we had no choice and so nervously complied.
Then we turn the corner and we’re back on the highway. I guess it was just a shortcut. We pay our drivers their generously paltry fee and are left in the hands of some Thai dude who seems to have modelled himself, entirely successfully I think, on James Dean – or perhaps John Travolta circa Grease. He attempts communication but I cannot understand a word that he is saying. Eventually:

“Sit Down!”

I do, very quickly, and squash my sunglasses, which are hanging out of my back pocket, in the process. The bus arrives about half an hour later and the journey to Chumphon hardly seems worth the momentary terror. It takes just over three hours to get there.
Except we’re not, really. As before, but in reverse, we've been dumped at the side of the highway and we’ll have to find our own way into town from here. This time they’re waiting for us – in force. A group of scooter drivers have clocked our stupid, white faces as we've stood up out of seats, and now they've got baht coruscating in their eyes. As soon as we step off the bus we find ourselves surrounded. With a mixture of nonchalance and plain dalliance we try to convey that we would rather find our own way into town, actually, and we’re a bit too hot and bothered to make a move right now anyway. In fact, before we do anything else, we’re going to look for somewhere to buy a drink. (As in a soft-drink. This shouldn't need pointing out, but the regularity with which alcohol has featured begs this clarification.)
It unfolds right before our eyes. This boisterous rabble have headed us off at the pass and the ringleader is now stood there with a selection of pop he’s procured from the vendor located there. It’s the perfect retort to our protests and we are powerless to resist their advances any further. I show them the map and ask how far it is to town. I am being given a figure of about eight kilometres. You see, my companion is a little nervous about riding on the back of these scooters, and although S and I aren't too bothered in theory, he and I have furnished ourselves with the most rudimentary of travel insurance. But we really have no choice, so once again we’re forced to comply.
Halfway through our journey S’s cap frees itself from his head. His scooter is in the lead so my driver stops so we can pick it up, which is very considerate of us. The journey is comfortably eight kilometres, just as they said it would be, and my colleague has given herself a ‘Bangkok Tattoo’ in the process, a common injury sustained amongst people of our kidney. It takes the form of a circular burn received when dismounting the scooter on the wrong side, thus depressing the inside of one’s lower leg on the exposed, super-heated exhaust pipe. It hurts for sure, but so would’ve a six mile walk.
The best thing to come out of all this is the fact that we've been dropped outside of what looks like a professionally run tourist information centre. We require a place to stay for the night and we need to know how to get to Surat Thani – our final destination before we head to the islands – and this place has all the answers. Within half an hour we’re sat in the back of a pick-up truck on our way to our chosen guesthouse.
What a guesthouse it is. Made out of wood, it’s certainly the hottest building I've set foot in since my arrival, with the quaintest interior décor to boot. (We decide to name the place ‘Barbara Cartland’ in tribute to the then recently deceased novelist.) In next to no time, we’re out on the landing drinking a beer in a vain effort to cool down. It doesn't work.
Dinner is had in a very pleasant outdoor restaurant, our order taken by a very nice lady who we imagine may well have once plied her trade back at Women’s Own but had both the drive and temerity to leave Prachuap Khiri Khan and make a go of it in Chumphon. S and I have the fish, whilst my companion reverts to type and has some sort of curry – ‘green’ probably. It’s good food – spicy food – and sets me up nicely for the evening ahead.
We hadn't planned on drinking tonight – in fact, we’d envisaged staying in – but Barbara Cartland is no place to be on a sultry night like this. So instead, once we've eaten, we hit a bar called Gossips where a young Thai gentleman of approximately 19 years of age (I am 27 years at the time) tries to crack onto me in rather more forthright a manner than I have been led to believe is good and proper behaviour amongst the people here, regardless of the genders involved. It is a good excuse to move onto another bar and carry on drinking.
We find an establishment around the corner from our guesthouse and it is a real strange one. A bit like the Hendrix, it’s basically a collection of seats gathered under some tarpaulin, although the bar itself looks a little more solid than that rickety shack back in Bangkok. Cockroaches appear to infest the surrounding pot-plants, their vulgar forms silhouetted against the street light.

The next morning we are awoke by a combination of intense heat, bright light (the curtains are mere doilies) and a whole host of unbidden noises emanating from the neighbouring courtyards: birds, dogs, monkeys (tethered on chains) and Christ knows what else. It’s just a good job we need to be up early for our minibus, and I’m happy to be on the move again.



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