Still on my mini-holiday with mum, we headed over from Railay to Phi Phi island. My parents had visited Phi Phi when they back-packed South East Asia in the 80s. We were both curious to visit the place: my mum wanted to see how the new ‘poster child’ for Thai island tourism had changed and I wanted to visit a place that in all honestly I’d probably avoid I wasn’t in ‘holiday’ mode.
We got off the boat and were met by hotel touts, swish resorts and a sprawling village of tourist-friendly restaurants, bars, massage parlors, tour information stalls etc. It was crazy on such a tiny island.
I think our initial reaction was… yuck. This is not Thailand. This is some strange backpacker Disneyland. It may have a Thai backdrop, but in reality it could be anywhere in the world. But actually, that was what made it fun. Phi Phi was mega touristy even in low season, but it had something to cater for every breed of visitor. We found a cheap room away from the hullabaloo, but there was plenty of spots to bucket party should you want to. There were young Ibzia-ready English backpackers, family holiday-makers and romantic getaways all together in one little place.
If you were prepared to work a little you could escape the crowded beaches pretty easily. We put on our walking boots and hiked around the island across the various viewpoints. The rains had cleared but the seasonal shift’s mosquito plague hadn’t relented and we were hiking through clouds of mozzys. When we reached the more secluded beaches we were the only ones there.
Life was easy with mum around. I ate far better than usual (unsurprisingly) and finally replaced some of my tattered clothes. She’d taken one look at my ripped up garms and forced me shopping for something a little less haggard looking. My t-shirt had rips so large at the seams I’d often stick my hand out through the armpit rather than the sleeve. The new one cost £3 and I felt a little embarrassed about being too tight and too lazy to have bought myself a new one.
I found myself staying up late once again for England vs Iceland. At 1am I wandered down to the beach, where I sat on on my own and had a ‘warm-up’ beer accompanied only by the lapping waves. I then walked over to the main tourist drag and found myself in party central, surrounded by loud music and bucket swinging visitors. I made myself comfortable in the Irish pub surrounded by over 50 drunk English people. I haven’t watched a football match (of a team I support) in like-minded company since I left. It was brilliant.
A huge storm passed over shortly before kick off which wiped out the TV signal. The poor Thai staff had to deal with a mob of drunk Brits chanting away until the screens finally picked something up as the game kicked off.
The singing became less boisterous as the match became more and more desperate until the final whistle. Everyone left with their heads down.
The next morning I was already over it. I’d have felt sad if we’d been robbed, but after such a lackluster campaign I just felt a little embarrassed about having had any optimism at all. I’d planned my days around the football and woken up in the middle of the night four times only to watch England disappoint.
It was a bad week to be English. The football was a disaster, but in two years we’ll be talking about winning the World Cup. In two years we’ll probably have realised how badly we fucked up over ‘Brexit’.
Since I left home, I’ve developed a flair of patriotism I never knew I had. Perhaps I’ve just romanticised my home having been away so long. The referendum reminded me of Britain’s darker sides. Have I painted a totally different picture in my head? Or have I grown up in a London bubble?
The conservatives won the general election when I was in Greece last year. I was shocked – I can’t imagine more than a couple people having voted Tory out of everyone I know. It was the same now with ‘Brexit’. I honestly doubt a single one of my friends or peers would have voted to leave…
I was very happy to be away from all the madness on the other side of the world. The worst part is that all this nonsense makes me want to stay away.
It was time for mum to head back to reality and for me to get back on to the bicycle. When I last goodbye to her I had no idea if I’d be away for just a few months or more than a year. This time was no different. She was going back to start looking for a job and I was going to continue running away from one.
The evening before she left I opened up my sleeping bag to air it out. As I pulled it out of its stuff sack I saw that it was covered in mold. Disaster. I knew that my rack bag wasn’t quite waterproof anymore, but I didn’t realise the sleeping bag had been damp enough to host a plague of mold. I then panicked and went through my panniers. Like my sleeping bag, my down jacket hasn’t been out of its bag for months. And just like my rack bag, my rear panniers aren’t completely waterproof either anymore. The coat was in exactly the same state – covered in mold.
Luckily mum offered to take them back on the plane to try and rescue. They’re good bits of gear but washing down (especially mold covered down) needs time, a bathtub, and special cleaning solution – none of which I have. I hate cycling in the humid tropics, but at least I don’t need any warm gear these days.
I loved travelling Thailand, but I don’t really like cycling here. Few of the roads are very beautiful and everywhere I’ve been is just palm oil and rubber plantations. So I was happy when I found a stretch along the coastline, and even happier when I found a spot to camp right next to the beach.
Unfortunately rainy season had no plans to end just yet, so my morning was spent huddling under a shelter with a coffee rather than swimming in the early sun.
The next evening I pitched my tent in a monastery. I have slept in so many now…
In the morning one of the monks gave me a huge picnic lunch of all sorts of goodies: pad thai, sticky rice wraps, coconut sweets and other snacks.
I was almost at the Malay border. I made one last stop at Ansari’s place – a Couchsurfing host near Satun. It was Eid al-Fitr the next day and I was invited to join his family’s celebrations. That was an offer I couldn’t possibly refuse!
It rained all day so I was extra happy not to be cycling. I was given a fancy gown to wear and we started the day’s eating after they’d done their morning prayer. Everyone was dressed up for the occasion – the men were dressed smartly and the women had beautiful matching dresses and headscarves. We spent the day visiting relatives. It seemed they were related to every single person in a 10 mile radius and I felt very lucky to be able to tag along from village to village.
Eid is a good time of year to be a non-Muslim. You don’t have to fast during Ramadan and yet you still get invited to the feast at the end! This time last year I was in Tabriz, Iran. They guys I was with wanted to eat sheep tongue for their first breakfast in a month. Yuck! In Thailand we ate delicious noodle salads which was far more appealing.
Ansari’s village was beautiful. Every tree was bearing some kind of fruit: bananas, durian, jackfruit, rambutan, papayas, mangoes etc. The neighbours had a trained monkey to climb up to collect the coconuts.
I’d just said goodbye to my mum who I hadn’t seen for over a year. When I do eventually go home I won’t even be in the same country as her. Even in London I don’t have much family, but here in Ansari’s village all their neighbours were close family. We have very different values when it comes to keeping families close.
I sat looking through some of Ansari’s religious books. One of the ones I skimmed through was by Zakir Naik – the famous Indian preacher. Naik’s quite a controversial bloke, but he’s clearly a book smart one. I’ve seen videos of him on YouTube where he recites huge relevant chunks of the Quran and Bible to answer audience questions. The book I now had in my hand was ‘Most Common Questions about Islam’ aimed at non-Muslims with a basic understanding of Islam. Most of the book was pretty fact-based and logical, until I got to the section on pork. Mr Naik writes:
The pig is the most shameless animal on the face of earth. It is the only animal that invites its friends to have sex with its mate. In America, most people consume pork. Many times after dance parties, they have swapping of wives; i.e. many say “you sleep with my wife and I will sleep with your wife”. Could it be that pig eating promotes pig culture.
It seems I’ll have to wait another day until I’m persuaded to convert, but I was still interested in learning about the family’s practises. They were pretty conservative, I thought, compared to the many religious people I’ve spent time with on this trip. Ansari’s sister wore the niqob across her face in public (I don’t think I saw more than a few women wearing them in the south of Thailand). Her husband had never seen her face before they’d agreed to marry. They were both lovely, she was studying Arabic and he was teaching it at an Islamic university further east.
Many of the schools around here are Islamic ones too and Ansari had also studied in an Islamic university in Kuala Lumpur. A Thai guy he’d been to school with had four wives (and someone in his extended family had multiple wives too).
I spoke to another girl who studied in the same town as Ansari’s sister and brother-in-law (Pattani, I believe it was). When I asked her if it was a nice place to live she replied ‘boom’ and the others laughed. I knew there was problems with (Muslim Malay) insurgency in the country’s south-east, but I had no idea it was a big enough problem that someone would describe their town with the ‘boom’ of a bomb explosion. I was glad to be over here on the safe side of things. Ansari told me he wouldn’t even go over there.
It had been a really wonderful day. Once again I felt humbled to have been treated like family at such an important and intimate event.
As we drove back the girls asked me if I was married. I laughed – the longer I’ve been away for, the worse a husband I would have been! I promised to look for one when I get back, a promise I’ve made many times on this trip.
Then once I’m married I’ll finally have a wife to take to all these bacon eating swingers parties.
I didn’t say that bit out loud.
Next stop Malaysia!