Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, April 5th

All change

A lot of people come to south-east Asia to change their lives. Here, in beautiful surroundings and amongst welcoming people, it is possible to get away from one's former world - to alter oneself, either for just a little while, or in some cases, forever. Khao San road seems to have taken the desire for alteration literally. All down the overcrowded streets are services for change: get any bit of you pierced, get hair waxed off parts of your body, get hair added to your head, get your hair braided or stretched, get your skin inked: the queues at the tattoo parlours are out the door, and the plate glass windows offer glimpses of the clientelle receiving their alteration - one woman was having her boob done, which looked rather painful. Get your teeth or your skin whitened. There's at least one person walking around the street following a nose-job, and indeed the accomplished Thai plastic surgeons can even change your gender. Or you can turn yourself from an obnoxious sweaty German man wearing PVC trousers into an obnoxious sweaty German man wearing PVC trousers with a Thai prostitute on his arm. Thus in the spirit of alteration, in a moment of weakness, I found myself drawn into the aethos of change, and have succumbed to something I never thought I'd do. More on this radical alteration later.

Over the road from each other

So we've been in the ghetto a while and the place is getting to me. It's soulless and charmless and half of the westerners walking around just need a good smack, in my opinion. In contrast to the drunken arrogance all around, however, amidst the frenetic bustle of Khao San Road, is a very sad but dignified looking man. He's carrying a bag full of those little toy puppies and kittens that meow or bark, then walk forwards a few steps. Every time I see this guy, my heart breaks for him. The thronging crowds don't want what he's selling, and the likelihood of him making a sale appear to be zero. Nonetheless, he's there every night and most of the day, walking around with a piece of polystyrene on which two of his little toys walk and make noise. I don't know what it is about him, but the pathos of his situation is palpable. Perhaps it's the dignity in his face, contrasted with the cutesy gaudiness of what he's selling, and the stoicism and persistence of his endeavour; or because he's not begging, he's actually trying to do something positive. The inappropriate and low-quality merchandise could have just been a bad business purchase, made in a moment of weakness; I imagine that he comes home every night to his family, puts the bag down, and shakes his head sadly - "no, I didn't sell one today, kids". Of course, I'm projecting outrageously here - maybe he gets a wage and sells these things for someone else - but I don't think so. Anyway, I felt so sorry for him that I decided I'd buy one, then give it away to the next kid I saw. I approached him and asked the price. When I asked him, his face lit up like a thousand-watt bulb. He wanted 250 baht (€5) - which is pretty outrageous, but just to salve my pity, I was prepared to pay it without bargaining. Alas I only had a thousand baht on me, and I knew he wouldn't have change, so I went into a shop and bought some water, but when I came out, he'd gone, and I haven't seen him since. I hope I see him again before we leave.

A massive and persistent overnight rainstorm on our second day (and night) mercifully dropped the temperature into the low 30s, making it easier for us to perform the two or three tasks we had to achieve, but the rest of the time has been spent watching crappy movies (Psycho Beach Party, anyone?) in a dingy bar, or playing pool. And M sunning herself by a different sort of pool, on the roof of our hostel - we moved to somewhere about a quarter of the price of the first one, in a much quieter soi (lane) away from Khao San, alongside a placid monastery. The first task, posting back souvenirs from Tibet was done with no trouble at all at the fantastically efficient Banglamphu post office that even boxes stuff up for a very small fee. I also posted our cold-weather clothing on to the Poste Restante at Sydney to await pickup for us to head to New Zealand.

I had to buy a fourth rucksack. The second Extreme 80 North Fake started to decay as well, and the charming street cobbler's repairs in Chengdu were no match for extreme activities such as picking it up and putting it in the hold of an aeroplane. Bangkok being the backpacker's haven that it is, I got a lovely Lowe Alpine which, apparently, has an AIR COOLED BACK SYSTEM. That even beats extremeness, I think. Actually, it's a Vietnamese fake, but this bodes much better for its survival than Chinese manufacture would, and so far it does seem to be standing up at least to day-to-day use. The straps also zip up to make it into a little suitcase, which is much more appropriate for flights.

The major thing we had to do was to get out of Bangkok. Due to various timing issues to do with hooking up with friends in Vietnam in July, we have had to reverse our initial plan and start in the south, making our way north. The plan was to take the very comfortable train down to Malaysia, but it seems that every single berth on every single train is booked up for the next two weeks. We then looked into 'VIP' buses, which are actually very comfortable coaches with toilets, reclining seats, air conditioning etc. The journey to Butterworth, in northern Malaysia, the gateway to the island of Penang, would take 24 hours, which does seem rather excessive. Further enquiry revealed that it would involve being shunted around from coach to several minibuses. Then we considered taking a government VIP coach (by all accounts even more luxurious) to the southern town of Hat Yai, a mere 12 hours away, and then grab a minibus over the border. Then we saw the news on CNN (which, at this point, deserves to be called the Catholic News Network, having neglected for at least four days anything at all that wasn't to do with the Pope dying) that bombs had exploded in the very place we were heading to, and westerners had been killed. I'm sure that we would be in no danger, but it's a bit scary, especially given M's prediction.

Just to price things out anyway, we looked into the price of a flight. The travel agent we asked at made the mistake of telling us which airline she was quoting - Air Asia - and I remembered that this is the new low-cost airline - the Ryanair of Asia. So we high tailed it to an internet café, and discovered that the cost of a flight from Bangkok to Penang direct, at 1,200 baht (€24) is actually cheaper than the cost of the coach/bomb/minibus/ferry option, at 1,300 baht (€26). And in fact only half the price quoted by the agent. And they do online bookings. So we booked, and we leave for Penang by plane tomorrow.

So now to the outrageous thing I did. I never thought I'd do it, but it was late, and I had had a couple of beers, and was in high spirits. Lots of other people have them here, and nobody looks twice, so I thought I'd fit in if I had one too. Maybe I'll regret it when I'm not in such a hippy-dippy place, and it's not really 'me', but I thought, what the hell. Yup, I went and got myself a tank-top. And I'm wearing it now, without any shame at all.

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