Tuesday 26 January 2016

Travel Writing / Koh Kood, A Poets Paradise

Travel Writing: Thailand, January 2016

This is a poets guide to Koh Kood. This is a personal blog for me to write, I am writing this so I don't forget how happy I was here. A handful of friends have contacted me about my holiday, enquiring after names of good places to go, and so here's some tips for you too.

To begin with I recall the night before we left and that I was anxious packing. Dickie was very strict, ensuring that we pack light: No gig stuff, no merchandise or books to sell, no high heels, no glitter, no performance dresses, haha, no Spanx. Most of the travelling I have done has been work related or for literary festivals but this time none of the booky things were needed - just a fresh new notebook and pen, swimming costume, favourite summer dress or two and my old faithful white Converse, and then away we went on the tube across town at stupid-early-morning-o'clock to Heathrow..


It was sunrise when we arrived in Bangkok. The Bangkok airport building was ablaze with rose and gold sunshine, it was a warm bath of heat and light and noise. We found a cab with meter - If you get into a taxi without a meter you will have to barter and you may get ripped off - and we drove into the city. In my half-dream state, my initial impression was that Bangkok was an old woman. I saw roads and rivers as long spindly bony fingers, the yellow haze of the sun, her black eyes, black smog, her black teeth. I pictured Bangkok as a person, an image of a wise old woman, perhaps as the great-great-grandmother to Amsterdam. Bangkok's character in my head remained this wryly grandmother, short-tempered in her busy, dirty kitchen, but whatever her city cooked up, it would surely be hot and sour and delicious and I was excited to meet her.

During that first cab ride through thick rush hour traffic to our hotel, I saw that this was a buzzing city of contradictions, an obvious and noticeable rich and poor divide, a conflict of aspiration and westernisation versus tradition, religion and culture. Huge glaring billboards advertised skin whitening Snail White everywhere, on every bus and train there were pictures of smooth glossy-haired, white-teethed, ivory-skinned Asian girls beaming down at me like cheesy American teen cheerleaders. Whilst on the distant horizon the glimmering gold of ancient temples. Three saffron-robed Buddhist Monks sharing one motorbike sped past us. I saw a homeless beggar with one stumped leg laying on his belly across the middle of a narrow pavement, the commuters stepping over him, occasionally he lifted his head and with great efforts banged his begging plate like a tambourine against the dirty broken pavement.

It is probably much quicker to get the Bangkok Skytrain anywhere than a taxi. Dickie said, again and again The sky train is simple to use. He repeated excitedly his nose pressed against the cab window. The Skytrain is so much easier, especially for us, it's a bit like the DLR. Dickie loved the Skytrain Look! Skytrain! Its high up so you get a good view of the city below, the river, the skyscrapers, the streets... Why don't you marry the Skytrain since you love it so much? I laughed.

Everywhere in Bangkok there are screens; on the Skytrain platforms, on the sides of buildings, screens, television screens, and more adverts and more screens, all snail white, snail white... It was 8am and I watched the city go to work, I saw beautiful and elegant Thai women, business women in suits, office girls, all with bleached faces, almost Geisha. I saw white gloves to hide brown hands and white tights to conceal brown legs. All of this, the complete opposite of European spray tan, the leathery orange faces of our pop stars and tacky reality television celebrities. Now I cannot make my mind up which is worse: Being born white-skinned and sun-bedding yourself cancer orange and walnut teak OR being born golden brown, olive-skinned, and bleaching yourself as acid white as arsenic, almond and powder cyanide. But the thick angry eyebrow thing was a big thing in Bangkok too. Fake aggressive crayoned-on eyebrows are bloody universal right now. Weird. Women's beauty is weird and poisonous. White skin aspiring to be golden-brown versus brown skin being bleached to be pale-white, the vanity of colour, that your skin tone is the key to your success and beauty is universally fucked up. Being born a mix of both white and black this continues to baffle me...I'll save all this for another blog.

Bangkok Accommodation: We chose a really good hotel in downtown Bangkok, off the Sukhumvit Road, to ease ourselves into holiday mode and get over any jet lag. I'd recommend it - The Legacy Suites - they have big clean rooms with air con. Friendly and approachable staff. Our room had a kitchenette and lush bath and power shower. There was a swimming pool and they served a fantastic pool-side breakfast. Plus we were not too far from the main thrum of bars and markets. We didn't sleep or take a nap, we were way too excited, and instead walked the length of Sukhumvit road in the midday sun like mad dogs, with a mission to get a local mobile telephone to contact our man in Bangkok. We learned that the good place to buy anything practical, like a phone and sim card, is the NBK shopping centre. It's so old school and surreal in there. They were piping out elevator christmas music, it was a maze of many levels, each floor a fluorescent glaring heaving 1970's shopping mall. On acid. The food hall was amazing, we tried the Thai style of cooking your own soup, adding ingredients to a broth and cooking it yourself there at your table ... we failed miserably ... jet lag kicking in ... and so needless to say, getting the Skytrain back to our hotel, jumping into the pool, then having an ice cold beer was pure heaven.

There are many beautiful temples and places to visit in Bangkok. We chose to take a sight-seeing boat trip down the winding Chao Prao river to see the Royal Palace and Wat Pho, the sacred temple with the gold reclining Buddha. It was crazy hot and itchy busy with hustlers, it was teeming with coach loads of tourists. We gave up at one point and started laughing and took photos of tourists taking photos of tourists taking photos of tourists. This photograph would be like an Escher painting of selfie sticks. It was overwhelming there; one man approached us and flashed a badge pretending to be policeman, he wanted money, he was a fake tour guide I think, but we managed to get rid of him. Then another man told us the Wat Pho temple was closed and he urgently wanted us to go with him to his temple or something or somewhere. God knows. Buddha knows. We were sweaty and pale, brand new holiday makers, fresh meat for vultures and hustlers. It was so exhausting saying to persistent hawkers no thank you no thank you no thank you but quite funny now, looking back. That afternoon was bizarre, it was a bit like going to Buckingham Palace at midday in a heat wave with one thousand Chinese tourists, why put yourself through that? If you do go to one of the Buddhist temples and you wear shorts or your dress is shorter than knee length you must cover up. Worth mentioning that you can get a cover up, a shawl, for FREE from the temple. There are dozens of people trying to sell them to tourists, a case of enter via the gift shop, never mind exit via the gift shop.

We sat down in a park for a bit, just opposite the Palace. I scratched at my first mosquito bite and then looked up to see a tree filled with butterflies, a cluster of giant yellowy gold butterflies. I didn't take a photo, I just watched them and loved them, and all that tourism mania melted away into the background for a moment or two. I think my soul left London at that point, my heart was in Thailand, but I couldn't wait to leave the city, to see the open road and the ocean.

We met our man in Bangkok, Ash, on the notorious Khao San Road. People tell me that Khao San Road has changed since blahblah but if you haven't even been there before it is a funny place to visit. It is a back-packers gathering place, it's a time machine back to the tie-dye and rainbow Rizlas of the early 1990's, it reminded me of Camden Market with echoes of the coffee shops of Amsterdam, vibrant and noisy, with colourful stalls, friendly bars and cafe's, dirty pretty young things, hippies and travellers, dreadlocks and bare feet, tattoos and turquoise and silver toe-rings. We had a few beers and watched the world go by and Ash helped us get our tickets and things sorted. You must go see our friends at Porky's Packers, you'll find them on Facebook CLICK HERE and those good people will help you with everything you need to get you going on the glorious adventure and holiday of your dreams.

"One night in Pat Pong..."

Bangkok at night was a hot mess, a chaos of crazy energy, a hive of hustlers, hedonism, consumerism and sex. The Pat Pong night market, a colourful cacophony of street food vendors and heat and spice and chilli. Busy stallholders vying for your attention, trying to entice you with contraband Buddha's and knock off Ray-ban sunglasses, fake Rolex watches, Nike and Addidas trainers and Birkenstock, silk scarves and elephant print baggy pants, bikini's and sex toys and vibrators, anything and everything. I got some sunglasses and flip flops for less than a fiver. Dickie ate some street food prawns that were so super spicy he cried.

But the highlight of that one night in Pat Pong was hanging out in a bar playing doubles at pool with two beautiful ladyboys. Gorgeous they were, and bloody good at pool too. Gracious players, it was adorable, and sporting, how they cheered and clapped for every potted ball for either team. I loved our new ladyboy friends. But outside of that bubble of the friendly banter of playing pool and Singha beers, music and smoke and sex poured out of the neighbouring Ping Pong bars and strip clubs. Red, sun burnt, bald men, slathering, salivating, sweating and pouring, their cold piggy eyes goggling girls, the hustlers waving menus which read a list of things the girls would do for you for nice price: PUSSY SMOKE, PUSSY PING PONG, PUSSY DARTS, PUSSY CUT BANANA, PUSSY RAZOR, PUSSY, PUSSY, PUSSY...  

I was conflicted in Bangkok, I'm such an empath. I saw some real rotters, predators, the kind of men that make a girl change train carriage or cross the street. I couldn't help but feel everything, and whilst wandering around, exploring bars and drinking in the gay bars near Pat Pong and the sleazy red light district of Soi Cowboy, I'd catch myself writing back stories for the people I saw, the conversations I was overhearing, the body language I was observing. That fat gay German businessman salivating all over the Thai teenage boy. The group of blokey-blokes on a stag-do laughing and snorting like nervous piglets at the entrance to a ping pong club. All the true colours of all the characters there in these shiny cluttered alleyways, makeshift roadside bars with christmas lights and seedy fluorescent neon doorways. I didn't see a laugh and a lark, I didn't see a party, I felt like I was at a human pet shop. Rich men feeding seeds to vulnerable teenage birds in cages, ladyboys trapped under glass, like pinned butterflies, in neon airless heat. When we were in Bangkok I felt we were part of an itchy cluster, we were two ants in a nest of a billion tourist ants, clambering and photographing everything and anything sacred, the glorious gold temples, the ancient Buddhas, the monks. But most sacred of all, somebodies baby, I mean, somebodies teenage child, somebodies daughter or son, sticking a cigarette up their fanny and blowing smoke up your ass to entertain you, your husbands, your brothers, your boggle-eyed and cunt-drunk sons, sweaty fucking animals and fat pink paedophiles, sex tourists on an eternal stag-do what I want...

How to escape Bangkok?

Porky's Packers had booked our ticket and we got going at 3am to take a bus from the Khao San Road. You meet the bus at the police station end of the Khao San Road, not the Burger King end, the police station end, remember that, it is important. It costs roughly £17 each (850 Baht) to go all the way from Bangkok to Koh Kood Island, that's your bus and boat in one ticket. Delighted to discover that the bus was an air-conditioned and spacious coach. It's about five or six hours bus ride, daydreaming time to the port. Through your window you'll see the back of Bangkok, the sun rising hazy through the smog, industrial factories and buildings, and you'll wonder about the lives of the people there. And then you'll see a man working a paddy field and wonder what his life is like. You'll see dense forests and rivers and farms until eventually you reach the port just outside the town of Trat at lunch time. If you're lucky you'll spot an elephant en route too, I didn't but Dickie did! We boarded the catamaran and sailed away on clear turquoise blue ocean, flying fish appearing and disappearing, until we arrived on the island of Koh Kood. 

Welcome to Koh Kood

A gold Buddha welcomes all, glittering and towering at port, above the jungle. You will be collected from the pier in a pick up truck and taken across the island, passing bars and restaurants, home stays and breathtaking beaches, until eventually you are taken down a bumpy rocky track to Pa Hin Sai.

We loved this spot, a few trusted friends recommended this place, and we stayed on Koh Kood island at Pa Hin Sai for our entire holiday. You can get day trips to the other islands but somehow we just couldn't leave. At the time of publishing this Pa Hin Sai is not in any of the Rough Guides or Lonely Traveller books, I don't even think it is in Trip Advisor... yet. This is a poets paradise, a place to dream, a good place to write, a good place for musicians and artists, a good place for good people. I found the whole island very inspiring, my new notebook is now full, encrusted with sand and smeared with coconut oil.

Pa Hin Sai is off the beaten track. It is small, there are only eleven huts, and they were not all occupied when we were there, and so there was plenty of space to dream, sometimes you'd have a whole stretch of beach to yourself. The other guests that were staying there were all so brilliant, we met some good people there. Dickie and I wanted a holiday that was the best of all worlds, a big chill and a little drinky, a laugh and a big sky, some adventures and activities with lots of timeless reading and writing, and that is what we found.

We lived on the beach in a treehouse, a pretty beach hut where we played Tarzan and Jane for a few weeks. Castaway, Tom Hanks, and his coconut Wilson comes to mind too, for it is a stone cold fact I could speak fluent coconut by the time I left that island. Our treehouse was bamboo, a beach hut on stilts with a roof of thatched palm frond. We had a fan, a big comfortable bed with a blue mosquito net and a bathroom with hot shower and toilet. In front of us the ocean sang and behind us, above us, creatures buzzed, geckos and birds, and the trees rustled in the softest sea breeze. A family of monkeys visited us some mornings and sat on the roof. And all over the island tropical flowers, birds of paradise, flourished in glorious orange.

I'll never forget how stunning it was to wake up on the first morning there, the lilac dawn light, the serenity, the nothing and the everything. I recall walking alone at dawn, with nothing but the sound of the ocean and the thrum of jungle, the cool sand beneath my bare feet. Often I'd get up for first light and watch the sun rise. I'd walk so far up the coast I'd feel like I was utterly lost on a deserted island. I'd collect treasure and shells. Watch the crabs scurry across the smooth new sand. Once I saw a huge shape in the water, something dark, I waded out a bit to watch it and realised it was a giant shoal of tiny silver fish moving as one, swimming in formation, moving in unison, looking after each other, a million fish, all moving as one...

Koh Kood is inhabited by Thai and Khmer, Cambodian people and the fabulous variety of food on offer reflects this. It is an island covered mostly in jungle, with giant butterflies, elusive monkeys and three waterfalls. The sky is a wonder, I spent hours gazing at the soft pink and gold sunrises and the magnificent, majestic, magenta sunsets. 

But just like in the book The Beach, the problem with paradise is that no matter where you go someone will tell you that there is better beach, a better spot, a more special paradise and that is as annoying as hell. However, I think the magic of Koh Kood, is that Pa Hin Sai is that place, that paradise, that unspoiled corner tucked away from everything else. At sunset drinks, over cocktails and ice cold beers, I'd overhear guests enquiring of each other So, how did you find this place? as though it was a Chinese whisper of a secret Soho bar and I loved that. People said that this place was like old Thailand, old school, and I liked that too.

The first rule of the art of being idle is to have no routine and no plan, however you will benefit from having a scooter to explore and you can rent one from the hotel for about a £5 a day. No helmet is required, but go easy there are pot holes, there are also lazy dogs asleep in the roads. We were warned about snakes that can slither out from the undergrowth, but we never saw any snakes. We did see this giant spider though, a terrifying spider as big as your face, I am yet to find out what it was...

What is this spider called?

So apart from being very busy every day being idle: chasing butterflies, daydreaming, star-gazing, reading books, writing poems in the sand with my finger, swimming and sunbathing, having excellent Thai and coconut oil massages and drinking in each sunrise and sunset...There are other activities a person can do on Koh Kood: I did snorkelling and yoga with Micheline, which nearly killed me, but I enjoyed it and she's a fantastic teacher. Micheline was at Pa Hin Sai every day at 10am. You'll also be able to do scuba-diving, kayaking, fishing trips and cookery lessons.

I never grew tired of going out on the bike and exploring the island by road, in the coppery light of the late afternoon sun, the cool wind in my hair, my arms around the waist of my love, kissing him at every turn and twist. I enjoyed it when we took the bike off road and on adventures down tiny red clay mud paths, into the humid steamy jungle, to the 500 year old trees decorated with shiny gifts and glittery evening dresses for the ancient tree spirits. Magnificent giant butterflies lived here, fluttering above us in the humidity and steam of those magic trees.

Swimming in the lush cool green waterfalls and having a delicious lunch in the tiny and timeless fishing villages built on stilts. 

Children playing in the sunshine and fishing 


There are some great bars and restaurants dotted all over the island, all with lots of wonderful dishes to offer, my favourites, I'd highly recommend: The Fisherman's Hut for excellent Thai style BBQ and fish. Max Khammuangmool's Bar is a uber-cool hang out for drinks and live music every night. You must also check out the excellent Baan Makok. I'd also recommend Eve House and the tiny Cambodian kitchen next door to Eve House, which are fabulous and run by lovely people too, shout out to Noi and Harry!

Most evenings at Pa Hin Sai there were sunset gatherings. We began to call it Milan Beach, after the magnetic manager Milan Miletic. As the sun sank and sizzled into the ocean, we had cocktails and beach BBQ's. Milan is brilliant and so great at his job, making sure people were having the best holiday. All the Pa Hin Sai staff were so lovely, and the boss, Miss G had the best smile for me every morning. Benson was so beautiful! And Mango's cocktails rocked! So great meeting all of you you beauties, writing this, I miss you all loads...

Next door to Pa Hin Sai there is an expensive and sterile beach resort called Cham's House. Cham's have beach apartments, each with air con and swimming pools and each morning the deck chairs are laid out in an anal and tidy row. It was never a dull evening, watching guests from Cham's breaking in through the fence to slum it and hang out at our beach. Every night all manner of people would appear, climbing through the fence to eat excellent Thai curries or seafood BBQ in Pa Hin Sai restaurant and then stay to hang out at the beach bar. The cocktail king was Mango, how he'd shake his snakey hips to make the best mojitos on the island, his delicious cocktails were in high demand. We watched people come and go, that is the beauty of staying in one place. We'd watch people come down the rocky track to watch the sunset, or for dinner and drinks, and then the next morning they'd be back enquiring after a beach hut. I remember nights of dancing with strangers in the sand, DJ'ing by playing song-tag with our phones until the small hours. I remember when we heard that Bowie died I drank electric blue cocktails and danced to Love Is Lost under the bright stars.

Micheline sings 'Summertime'

 Dickie playing a song

Some nights we were treated to live music from the brilliant local musician Max Khammuangmool. One magic night it was one of the guests, Patricia's birthday. The atmosphere was so lovely, Micheline the yoga teacher sang Summertime. We coerced Dickie into playing a few songs on the guitar and I did a poem too, I Want Love, with Max jamming on guitar. I've shared the film of this on my youtube. It was filmed by Morgan Plot, who had us all playing wicked drinking games ... Coconut! I think this youtube clip captures the atmosphere and all that I cannot put into words. 

That night we jumped into the night ocean and swam in starlight. It was such a beautiful time and place to be, I made some lovely friendly friends, this was the best of holidays and before London drags me back in and I start working again, I don't want to forget it and so I  blog these memories here from my sandy notebook and share them with you, with love... 

Thank you for reading this - If you go to Koh Kood look out for the phosphorous plankton, my one regret is I never saw any and I'm wishing I had... maybe I'll find some when I return. See you all again my friends xxsg

Jamming with Max

last photo: that one time it rained and we talked about playing charades...

January 28: Bang Said The Gun, Bloomsbury Theatre, London

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