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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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Actually I didn't really start to enjoy Thailand until we were into our second month in that country. After India's often fiercely uncompromising attitude towards foreigners, Thailand seemed to be incredibly user-friendly. From the start, it felt like the Thai people had dealt with tourism for generations and as long as we kept coming up the cash, would supply us with whatever we wanted. My instincts told me that the Thais only liked me for my dollars and that many of the smiles were hypocritical. I found myself having as little to do with them as possible, which put me in a somewhat, alienated state. Catherine reported that she felt the same. At one point we thought we'd cut short our travels in the country and would move on before our two-month visas expired. But we hung on and our experiences in the country improved later.

We flew into Bangkok and checked into a rather anonymous hotel around the corner from Khaosan Road, which was the center of the foreign tourist scene. It was a street about two hundred meters long full of travel agents, cafes and restaurants, clothes shops, silk shops and cassette tape stores. The Thais did a roaring trade in illegal bootleg tapes. There was a wide choice of music and they only cost a dollar each so that I was in music junkie heaven. Everybody seemed very relaxed and loose after the tensions of India. There were TVs everywhere and the first thing we plugged into was the CNN coverage of the Gulf War, which was now into its seventh day. Catherine and I took a boat upriver the following day to pick up a huge pile of mail at the Post Office. Getting some mail was exciting, though the news from Kate that Patty had died was very upsetting. I remember that we got caught in a heavy rainstorm that afternoon. We ran back to the hotel soaked to the skin before the skies suddenly cleared again and we went back out to cruise the strip.

The next day was my forty-seventh birthday. It was a better birthday for me than most. We made another boat trip upriver and mailed a box of assorted treasures back to the States. That same day we discovered the very wonderful P.B's Guesthouse, a hotel in the middle of the strip. We went through the little doorway past the marijuana salesman, past the dimly lit pool tables, past the Thai boxers' gym and even past the little Agency selling fake ID cards. At the back of the building we found the Guest house and the back stairs that took us up to a great open balcony around the back of Khaosan Road. Here there were less motorbike exhaust fumes, a slight, almost balmy, breeze and a space to hang out in peace in the midst of this Babylon. Somebody was related to someone in high places or else was paying someone a lot of money for us all to be able to hang out on that balcony that afternoon, I thought. Later I learned that the owner of P.B's, who also ran the Thai Boxing Gym, was the Chief of Police's brother. Shades of "Thanedaar", no? I resolved to stay at this hotel the next time we came through the City. We discovered a wonderful vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant in the back streets at the end of the strip and ate all the rest of our meals in Bangkok there. That same night we took the 7.30 bus to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand.

Of course we'd only been in the country for five days and were no doubt still a bit disorientated but in spite of my instinctive reservations about the country, I could see that Thailand had its good points. The food sold on the street stalls, for instance, was cheap and wonderful. There were some coconut creams that I loved and couldn't get enough of. We learned to order vegetarian Pad Thais for our main meals, a noodle and vegetable dish with chopped peanuts on top. After Bangkok, Chiang Mai definitely had a provincial feel to it and lay on either side of the Taeng River. There were a lot of tourists there and they looked to be catered to pretty well by the Thais. I remember coming across a big bar along the river where we heard a Thai cover band playing perfect note for note renditions of Dire Strait songs to a big audience. Every night there was an open air concert in the open square in the center of town where we watched traditional Thai dances and listened to all kinds of different music from classical to near heavy metal pop music.

Our friend Mary's brother Ross worked at the University in Chiang Mai and we went out to visit him on the campus. He took us to one of his English language classes where we answered his students' questions about America. Ross took us out the next night and showed us the sights. We ended up at a rather depressing hooker's bar watching very young girls pick up clients. After a few days we began to feel claustrophobic in Chiang Mai and took another short bus ride up to Chiang Rai where we got a nice room at one of the few guesthouses in town. On the wall, a notice said, "Please do not smoke hashish in this hotel" and I didn't. I continued to feel rather tense in Thailand. I didn't feel like making one of the almost obligatory hill treks to visit villages in the infamous Golden Triangle where we would apparently get to stay in locals' houses and even "smoke opium with the village chief if we wanted". It all sounded like an experience designed for wealthy tourists. The guides on these treks had a sort of uniform we realized. They were all young men with ponytails, tight jeans and fancy walking boots. The guide at our hotel was called Sexy, which I could never bring myself to say. He was clearly out to make conquests of as many Western women as possible. Each guide carried a book full of comments and recommendations from past trekkers. Most seemed to be from adoring women writing stuff like "Sexy by name and sexy by nature or I can definitely recommend a few hot days in the field with this man..." There was nobody staying at our hotel that I really fancied spending a week trekking with either. So, a hardcore British individualist if nothing else, I took Catherine on a local bus ride up to Chiang Saen. From there we took a bimo taxi to Sop Ruak which was the little village at the apex of the Golden Triangle. This was the point where Thailand, Laos and Burma all met across the great Mekong River. It was the heart of what had previously been the chief opium poppy growing area in the world. It seemed like a decidedly exotic spot but all that we found by the Mekong River were a lot of Golden Triangle T-shirts and bad souvenirs. But Catherine took my photo under the official Golden Triangle sign. Then we caught another bimo and took a long dusty ride along back roads up to Mai Sae, the northernmost tip of the whole country, on the Burmese border. Burma was closed to travel but we walked as far across the bridge between the two countries as we could. Then we sat under the bridge on the Thai side and ate strawberries. We got back to Chiang Rai by local bus that night and felt that we had made the obligatory tourist trip around the north. Thailand seemed to be living up to our initial feelings about the place. Catherine and I spent our last day in the North alone together. We followed a little path out of town across a rickety bamboo bridge up a hill to find a wat -a temple- on top. The following day, immersed in my book, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" which I was enjoying a great deal, we caught the night coach back to Bangkok where we checked into noisy little room 17 at P.B's Guest house.

We spent the next week mostly hanging out on the back balcony at P.B's. We swiftly got involved with the motley crew of travelers, ex-patriots, artists and just plain desperadoes who congregated there. There was Steve, the ex-patriot Aussie, who had a Thai wife and kids and who was a black opal dealer by trade. There were several Japanese junkies who spent their days either sleeping in their rooms or working out like crazy with weights on the balcony. There was sleepy British Steve whom we'd first met on our flight to Delhi some months before and whom we were to run into from time to time for the rest of our trip East. One day we explored the maze-like streets of Chinatown and one night we all went out for a night on the town.

Bangkok was famous all over the world as a center for exotic sex and all the pleasures of the flesh. I suppose that we felt we ought to take a look at what attracted tourists in their millions to come to Thailand. There is an area in Bangkok called Patpong which consists of two short streets devoted exclusively to sex clubs, sex shops, discos and bars. We started out our night there in one of the sex clubs. The show turned out to be both boring and unsettling. There was a series of solo acts in which beautiful naked women pulled strings of razor blades from their vaginas or put pens inside themselves and then squatted to draw pictures for our benefit. And there were lots and lots of ravishingly lovely ladies in cages who danced and gyrated in front of us. But they all seemed bored and had blank, unseeing, lackluster eyes. I didn't find any of the show to be either exciting or arousing. We left early and went into a disco next door where we literally danced for six hours without stopping. The music was very good and we were also afraid that we'd have to buy expensive drinks if we stopped for a break. By now our little group of dedicated freaks had grown in size and several young ladies had joined our entourage. The Japanese junkies, who were all fantastic dancers, had brought face paints with them and pretty soon we all had brightly adorned faces. Then at four in the morning, we found ourselves at a Thai-only restaurant cum disco where I suddenly realized that all the beautiful women there were transvestites. Pretty soon, our energy had communicated itself to the other clients in the restaurant and we were all dancing wildly. Most of the people in the room had their faces painted by now I realized. Video cameras were set up all around the room and images were projected up onto vast monitor screens. Periodically, a still image of one of the dancers would be held, frozen in motion, up on the screens. For some reason I was continually singled out for that dubious honour. I would see some particularly asinine shot of myself, eyes rolling skyward, mouth perpetually hanging open in a foolish smile, frozen in one gyrating moment and hung out to dry for all the room to enjoy. It was a great night and we didn't get to sleep until daylight. Actually I don't think that we got sleep at all for they were tearing up the street outside our window at the hotel and the noise of pneumatic drills was horrendous.

We both liked Bangkok and would have liked to have spent more time there and to have seen more. The National Museum was full of incredible art and there were fantastically shaped temples all over town. But Bangkok was a modern city too, a massive business center with an environment that was obviously getting over-polluted. There was so much carbon monoxide being emitted by the bikes, scooters and bimos that my eyes seemed to be running permanently. As things stood there, the situation could only get worse. The Gulf war, the backdrop for so much of the early stages of this trip, dragged on without any resolution in sight. We read newspaper stories that Iraqi terrorists were hiding out in Bangkok. There was a general, slightly discomforting, state of semi-alert in the city, which left us tense and anxious to find a more peaceful spot. But I will come back to Bangkok for it is a fascinating capitol city.

After a week of Bangkok, life on the Balcony and its nightly pleasures, we packed up again and took a night bus down the Peninsula to the town of Surat Thani. From there a three-hour trip in a crowded ferryboat across the Gulf of Thailand took us to Koh Samui. Another hour on the boat took us to the next island there, Koh Phangan, where we were to spend the next six weeks. Here we would learn to come to terms with Thailand and its ways.

Koh Phangan was a tropical island with central mountains and a golden beach ringed with dense palm trees running all around it. We landed at the little port town of Thongsala and then took a "long tail" boat, a long, low, open boat powered by a powerful outboard motor, round the island to Haad Rin Beach. The boat's motor made an incredible amount of noise. One might almost have thought that the owner had deliberately cut a hole in the motor's muffler to give a greater impression of power. Lugging our heavy backpacks with us, we took another little boat around to the Lighthouse Hotel where we moved into a tiny wooden cabin built on stilts, resting on rocks right by the sea. Far across the water, we could see Koh Samui, a very much larger and more developed resort island.

The Lighthouse scene seemed pretty cool. There were perhaps fifteen cabins there, some a lot more elaborate than ours were but we had always enjoyed the simple life and felt happy with our space. We had a bed, a little balcony and access to showers and the Lighthouse restaurant. For the time being that would satisfy our needs. The sound of the sea lapping ceaselessly against the rocks off our balcony was very soothing. We needed to settle down somewhere quiet for awhile and to enjoy the peace.

We found that we could swim and snorkel right off the rocks in front of us and then set out to explore our new world. Our cabin was around the corner of the island from the main village of Haad Rin. We had to take a short walk along a wooden boardwalk built along the rocks to get down to the nearest beach. From there, we walked past a RajNeeshi center and cut inland on a path that took us past a small shack made of palm leaves with a sign saying "The Coconut Theater". The path continued up over a little hill and then down to Haad Rin village which was built on a very narrow promontory at the tip of the island. The village had a beach on either side of it. I vividly remember passing a mountain of empty plastic water bottles as we walked down to the beach at the east side of the island. Trash was a global problem. There were many cafes, restaurants and 'video bars' and lots of cheap cabins for rent. It wasn't so very different from Kovalum Beach in Southern India. So we lived the timeless life for a week, spent long days by the sea, watched movies at night and danced to house music on the beach on Saint Valentine's Day.

Without meaning to, Catherine and I managed to be on the spot for all the hot "rave" scenes all the time that we spent traveling. Two years before, we had been in Ibiza for the summer of the birth of the Balearic Beat and had been in London when raves took off there. We were in Goa for the Christmas Raves of 1989 and now were in Koh Phangan just in time to read that the island had been named the "Rave Capital of the World", a dubious honour perhaps. Actually the police moved in shortly after we left and stopped the nightly dances at the bars. And I didn't even like the music that everyone was going crazy over!

We enjoyed our little cabin at the Lighthouse but didn't feel very comfortable with the hotel's owners. It seemed to be an unspoken rule that one should eat all one's meals there or at least spend lots of money there. We did neither for there wasn't much vegetarian food there. We hadn't made any great friends there and Haad Rin was much more interesting. Consequently we grew to feel somewhat like pariahs around the place which wasn't very comfortable. At the beginning of our stay in Haad Rin we didn't manage to meet any especially interesting people which was a pity. Catherine and I both thrived on making new friends and hurtling into those instantly intimate relationships that can happen so easily out on the trail. There was a Scotsman called Lockie at the Lighthouse who lived in a fantastic hollowed out cave under the Boardwalk and who was pretty intriguing. He had fantastic tales of international scams involving the smuggling of antique statues across borders. He talked about the ease in which fortunes could currently be made in Japan. But I think that he was in Haad Rin either to hide out for awhile or to kick a heavy drug habit and he wasn't always easy to hang out with.

We got a little commission to design a poster for Swami Nito of the RajNeeshi Center in return for some breakfasts there. Mikelo, a Thai masseuse about my age, gave me an incredibly powerful-and painful-traditional massage on the beach one day which I enjoyed even though it hurt. At times, he literally stood on my back and twisted my arm and shoulder up into the air in order to loosen up the muscles. I was still stiff and sore from the car accident almost a year before and we decided to take the yoga classes that we saw advertised all over Haad Rin Beach.

Yoga classes turned out to be a godsend for us. Practicing yoga six days a week at seven in the morning gave a much-needed structure to the Timeless Life on Koh Phangan. Our teacher was an American from California called Troy who had left the States years before to study yoga and had been giving classes in Haad Rin ever since. He was a quiet, rather private person, very ascetic, who taught two classes a day, a total of five hours of yoga each day. He vanished to his little cabin by the sea as soon as he was finished. I liked him but never managed to get any closer to him. I was probably not one of his star pupils (though Catherine was) due to my age, my arthritic spine and accident-damaged body and he never seemed to pay much attention to me in our classes. But although I found a lot of the exercises quite painful, I really enjoyed the sessions and loved the framework that the classes gave to our life. For the first time since the accident, I began to feel as if I was getting my body back.

After our classes, we would go to the nearby "Coconut Theater" cafe for breakfast with Troy and a South African guy called Britt. The latter had had his passport and money stolen in Chiang Mai and was more or less stranded in Thailand while he studied Tai Chi on the island. The cafe was owned and run by a couple so young that I always thought of them as children. They already had kids of their own and would play with them all day long. The food was poor and the owners were supremely unambitious. The whole place, which was in a beautiful spot under palm, trees near the beach, looked like a children's playground. But the people there were always friendly and they soon asked us to design them a new menu in exchange for food, our second commission, which we felt very good about.

Living nearby, in a shack right on the beach, we met Erique and Minouche from France who lived in Koh Phangan part of each year. They had a house near Bordeaux the rest of the time and supported themselves working for two months a year cleaning toilets in a hotel complex in Switzerland. I suppose that they were archetypal hippies, both of them with long gray hair, clear smiling faces and fantastically healthy bodies. Our social life was looking up. We were running around with a beautiful young German woman called Barbara who was traveling around the world in the same direction that we were. She soon met an American gambler and went off to Hawaii with him. Later she turned up at Acting School in New York and we would spend time with her again.

With three weeks left on our Thai visas, we moved out of the cabin at the Lighthouse and moved into a much larger and more beautiful cabin high on the hill above Haad Rin Beach at a complex called Sun Cliff. It was a more relaxed scene, the restaurant there had a spectacular view along the island and out to sea and there was absolutely no pressure to eat any meals there although we generally took breakfast. Actually we had finally found a little restaurant that we really liked, the oddly named "Juicy Cafe" which was run by a sweet woman from Bangkok called Choosri. She had come down from the city a few years before with an American boyfriend and for years had earned her livelihood on the beach selling exotic fruits as many islanders did. Choosri was my age, an incredibly hard worker, a great cook and a woman with some ambition. With no money and her bed down behind the bar, she had somehow got her restaurant going and word of mouth was beginning to bring in regular customers. Soon she was forced to hire help in the kitchen which, like all these Thai restaurants, consisted of two small gas burners and a couple of pots and pans. We hit it off with her immediately and soon were taking most of our meals there. In return, we designed and executed a menu for her as well as large painted signs saying "Juicy Cafe". Catherine's design for the logo was very pop and cleverly resembled a popular Thai soda drink. The signs were decorated with bunches of brilliantly coloured fruit. Choosri's became our regular hangout in Haad Rin and she became a dear friend. I still write to her regularly and she still replies asking me to bring her blenders and juicers and barbecue grills. I don't know when we'll ever get back to Koh Phangan. If ever we do, I'll expect to find "Choosri’s Guesthouse and American Grill" complete with Fax Communication Center and Disco though more likely, the "Juicy Cafe" will be just as we left it, such being the vagaries of this life.

We ran into Selvin and Katherine about this time, an attractive couple from the English Midlands who had shown up at the Lighthouse one day and then followed us over to Sun Cliff. Selvin was a young actor with the National Youth Theater and the son of a fairly well known English rock musician from the Sixties. He traveled with a saxophone that he was learning to play and Katherine was an archetypal English rose who wouldn't have looked at all out of place in Chaucer's England.

In our last week on the island, we rented a "long tail" boat for the day and a group of us made a trip right around the island, stopping to snorkel in an especially good spot and to have a drink at Bottle Beach on the far side of the island. It was at this point that our ship's skipper refused to take us any further unless we paid him more money, which was mildly criminal to say the least. But we eventually paid up, just to be able to go on with our journey, privately swearing rough revenge at a later date. Coming around the tip of the island as we neared the Lighthouse, we ran into some treacherous currents and it took all our captain's skill to keep us on course. I suppose that he earned his money in the end. And it was only money after all and we'll remember that island all our lives.

On the day before we left Koh Phangan, we hung Choosri's Cafe signs, took our last yoga class and had a final breakfast with the kids at the Coconut Theater Cafe. Earlier in the week, we had had several days of oppressive heat culminating in thunderstorms. But as we packed up to leave, the skies had cleared, the sky was a deep turquoise blue and the sun was dazzling as its reflection disintegrated in the waves and sent shimmering slivers of light into our eyes. Never had the island seemed more archetypically tropical or so exotic and I was suddenly sorry to be leaving.

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