As it turned out, Malaysia proved to be a fabulous experience after the downer of reacting so badly to the antibiotics. The Cameron Highlands lifted my spirits, it was such a quiet place, there was nothing to do bar take off on three to seven hour jungle walks ... and some days I was glad to get back to the very sociable guest house, the Cameronian Inn, in one piece.
Some of the trails were dangerously slippy and, apart from the seven hour trek with the guide, I did most of them on my own. I had visions of falling down a ravine, Jim Thompson style, as the Thai-silk entrepreneur came to a mysterious end there back in 1967.
How ironic I was staying in the Cameron Highlands when that twat called Cameron became the new British PM, but I met so many solo travellers with tales to swap that the place really reaffirmed my faith in my decision to take a year off and travel.
There was David, the lefty US academic who left his native soil during the Vietnam protests and hasn't returned; the two French nurses, enjoying a break from trying to make money in Australia; Eethan, the enthusiastic young American graduate, heading to East Timor to do voluntary work; and Thomas, who has retired to a tiny village outside Chiang Mai where his rent is a paltry 1,000 baht a month.
But, with a flight home from Bangkok looming on May 19, it was time to take to the road again, even if I felt I could have stayed on for another few days. I had a four hour bus trip down through the highlands to Butterworth, and then another four hour trip to the Thai city of Hat Yai. Crossing the Thai border, I was the only non-Asian on the bus or heading through customs .... a taste of things to come.
Understandably, given all the trouble with the Red Shirts and the various Government warnings, tourists have deserted Thailand at this stage. Not many Europeans come here in May at any rate, but the Thai tourism industry really is suffering right now.
After an uneventful night in Hat Yai, where the amount of security locks on my hotel door made me just a tad nervous, I faced another seven hour (smelly) road trip north to Chumphon. Again, I was the only 'farang' on the bus. After covering 15 hours by bus in two days, I was looking forward to some rest and I decided to hit for the beach at Hat Thung Wua Laen, where Reg had raved about the diving a few years ago, when he visited with his young family. A taxi out there, for what was about a 15k journey, set me back 300 baht.
I got a very nice bungalow right on the seafront for 700 baht, about 15 euros, but I was shocked at how deserted the place was. Over the next four days, I counted seven foreigners, including a pair of retired British codgers, who told me that a former SAS man, who wrote a sensational book about his military past, was running one of the area's two dive centres. Would I like to meet him? No thanks!
Actually, my ear still hadn't fully healed up, so I didn't fancy diving there at any rate, but I did manage a daily swim in the sea, with the aid of silicone ear plugs. But, God, there was nothing to do at what was literally a deserted beach. Supposedly, this is their peak season at the place which is known as a stop-off point for people on the way to Koh Tao.
After two days of reading, walking, and eating, I was bored out of my mind. I did meet a French guy, Thomas, who was a neighbour at Koh Lanta. He had worked for the kickboxing gym down the road from my bungalow. But he was really ill with a stomach complaint, had to go to hospital in Chumphon, and any plans I had for a few beers with him were abandoned.
I watched the Chelski scum win the FA Cup final, no surprise there, with the old British codgers (who left when the shorts kicked in) and about seven Thai young lads who were all cheering for Chelski. I couldn't really explain to them why it was better to root for Portsmouth, the relegated underdogs, with no money, and I was at home in bed by 11 p.m.
My bungalow did have a TV, and the news from Bangkok was grim. Basically, the on-going fued between the Government and the 'Red Shirts' has escalated out of control over the past three days and parts of the capital are now a war zone. The images on the TV news seemed a world away from the peace and harmony of Koh Lanta, which of course they are!
A friend of a friend from Galway, Tony O'Connell, has kindly offered to put me up on the night before my flight back to Geneva. But right now, I don't really want to spend any time in Bangkok. A couple of nights in the resort town and Hua Hin, followed by a bus and a taxi straight to the airport, is my plan for a low-key farewell to the so-called Land of Smiles.
The Government has declared a two day national holiday, which should make it easier for them to clear the streets, and Bangkok must be eerie at the moment. Two French nurses I met in Malaysia said they were shocked by how few foreigners there were on the Khaosan Road, the traditional backpacker hangout, two weeks ago.
Nobody knows how this thing will pan out, and there has even been talk of a full-scale civil war. There are faults on both sides, but one thing is clear ... the Thai tourism industry, so important to this country, is going to suffer because of all this trouble for the next few years.
I spoke to a Thai girl who opened up a cafe by the beach just three months ago. She's attracting maybe ten customers a day. The beach is deserted, there is nobody around, and the only people enjoying swims in the sea were local Thai families enjoying a few hours away from Chumphon.
Who wants to visit a city which is engulfed in smoke from tyres? Where protesters have sealed off a huge section of the commercial zone and hotels and businesses have been unable to open for more than a month? It's all a mess. Promoting Thai tourism right now must be like trying to pretend that Ireland has a decent climate. Impossible!
Given how deep rooted the conflict has become, how entrenched the two sides are, it seems to be a complete misnomer to called Thailand the 'Land of Smiles' right now. I never thought I'd say it a couple of weeks ago, but I'm quite looking forward to getting on that 'plane on Wednesday.
Boredom seems infinately preferable to life in the troubled city right now and, suddenly, I'm looking forward to the second part of my adventures during what has been, already, an eventful gap year!
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2 months ago