When I was younger, I thought I knew all the answers. Issues were in black and white and before the Internet, the only way to get information about people and places was to go to a library or have your opinion fed to you by a newspaper.
It was genuinely a different world and my trip to Ibiza with a mate was the first time apart from school trips to Calais that I’d ever seen anywhere outside England – yes England, I’d never been further north than Peterborough or further west than Heathrow.
A typical working class boy from an overspill council estate in Romford in other words. All bluster, swagger and bullshit, what I didn’t know could have filled countless volumes, but I was too young and uninformed to know or care.
I started working in IT when I was eighteen and after a year or two, was making enough money to have a couple of holidays a year in the glamour spots of Ibiza and Magaluf.
But my fixed views of other countries really didn’t change in that time, Germans stole sunbeds, the Spanish were OK but you needed to watch your back.
And so on.
Over time, my views changed, sometimes overnight, sometimes imperceptibly.
And travel helped.
I’ve been lucky with work, it’s taken me to India (5 cities and twenty visits), France, Holland, Germany, Portugal, Norway, Malaysia and Australia.
And exotic locations like Norwich, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Bridgend. And hundreds of towns in the UK for trips of one day or less.
I’d never been to Thailand before a few weeks ago, all of my holidays had either been in Europe, Canada, Australia or the Caribbean.
And I wrote about how fantastic I found Bangkok as a city in a previous post.
So; I’m still in Chennai and we had another bank-holiday weekend – only this time I would be alone.
I did a bit of looking for places to go on the Internet and settled on Thailand again, this time I would stay in Phuket in a quietish resort called Karon Beach.
It was a longer flight, with stopovers, but it all went fairly quickly and I arrived at my hotel around 10 hours after leaving the office in Chennai, hours before official check-in time and with a sense of resignation that I may have to wait a while.
I received a beaming smile from the clerk, a sheaf of money off leaflets and was immediately shown to a room that was considerably nicer than my £30 a night should have paid for.
In the background, you’ll see rooms that had entrance into the pool. An extra £20 a night was the extravagant cost, so I moved to the largest and most private of the bunch, the whole transaction was worked out in five minutes, again with big smiles.
Another pleasant surprise came when two separate groups of tourists started chatting to me, making any lingering worries about finding company disappear.
One older couple lived in Bangkok and had been there for 16 years, he used to work in an office opposite my Bangkok hotel….
Towards evening, I went for a wander into town for a beer or two and to get my bearings.
It’s a beautiful place.
And I had a couple of beers with a Filipino guitarist named Victor who was auditioning for a spot in a new bar that had just opened.
And time passed very nicely.
I didn’t bother with dinner that night, I went to a few more bars and then took a TukTuk to Patong to see what the nightlife looked like.
And stayed for an hour.
It was busy, but felt somehow like they’d tried to recreate Soi Cowboy, but just got it somehow wrong and off kilter. Maybe I was just tired from 40 hours of no sleep.
But I had a couple more drinks in a place called Rock City, watched some live music and was back in Karon Beach less than two hours after leaving.
I went back to my room at some point or other; had a swim and slept the sleep of the innocent and very pissed.
Saturday was a deliberately quiet day during the day, a long walk along the beach, a swim in ferocious riptides, lunch and a crash by the pool in the afternoon. Oh. I also adopted a dog for a few hours, he followed me everywhere and I had to take him back to the bar where I found him..
Food was definitely needed and I found a great little restaurant that had a superb (if slightly ballad heavy) live band. Gin was on special offer and I sat and watched the world pass while eating excellent food, sipping gin and listening to music.
I found that I’d been remembered in two bars in particular, one a quiet little place that only had space for 6 people to sit. The other was a huge place with a live band, bar girls, ladyboys, a flamboyantly gay barman and a mama-san who was larger than life in all ways possible.
Then a surprising thing happened; it was one of the bar staff’s 40th birthday the next day and I was invited to share their meal.
I blurrily accepted and went off to sleep as I’d decided to get up early and take a trip up into the hills.
The next day, I negotiated an all-inclusive fare and set off for the Big Buddha. There were Elephant camps along the way, the photo below shows how far phones have come – filmed at burst at roughly 30 MPH.
I was moved by the practice of setting bells to wish people luck or to remember them, they looked stunning and sounded beautiful when the wind caught them.
After that, it was a trip to the JungCeylon mall in Patong for a bit of lunch and wandering around. The clouds were gathering and cover seemed a good move.
The monsoon hit around 4pm, the rain was cold and actually stung when it hit the skin.
How do I know this?
It’s because I decided to walk to the beach.
People looked at me strangely when I went out, but they all wanted to talk to me when I came back.
On a length of beach that stretches for over two miles, there was just me and some mad Russian guy.
We nodded at each other and walked into the roaring sea under cover of the torrential rain roughly two hundred metres apart. Lightning was flashing every ten seconds or so and I remember thinking that we were far apart enough not to be killed by the same bolt of lightning.
The sea was like a warm bath after the rain and I let myself get battered around by the riptide until I was physically tired from the waves and my laughter.
It was glorious; stupid, borderline suicidal and utterly fantastic.
Then I went to the birthday meal. It was a very quiet affair with no booze and a lot of brilliantly prepared food. The red sauce by the fish is the spiciest thing that I’ve ever tasted that doesn’t have the word ‘psycho’ on the label.
I stayed for a while until the bar picked up with some other customers and wandered up to the music bar where the mama-san gave me a bearhug and the first free drink of the night.
I ended up in a mixed group comprising of some Russians, a couple of the girls from the bar, the outrageously camp barman and a ladyboy who stole my phone to take a series of selfies.
Occasionally I was harassed by one of the tough, funny and streetwise kids who have to earn their living selling flowers. He was 12, had a patter like an old style barrow boy and was fond of showing how he could do magic tricks.
As did the ladyboy, who promptly jumped up and put their legs round my waist while dancing. I think I could be heard laughing six bars away.
More of the same occurred, at one point the Russian lady’s boyfriend produced a small knife and ran it across his throat while I was dancing with her. I had no idea what the gesture meant and I laughed even louder.
Eventually it was time to crash and I said my final goodbyes to the mama-san, who insisted on one last drink – and I received the biggest surprise of the night.
Two of the girls had bought me two tiny souvenir picture frames as a souvenir. They probably cost next to nothing, but I was a bit choked up to receive them. I don’t really know why they did it, but I am very grateful.
The next day I did a final beach walk, checked out, had lunch on the beach in a very strangely named place and took the taxi back to the airport.
It’s hard to remember what they were now to be honest, but I would probably have frowned on dancing with ladyboys.
I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to find out otherwise .
Phuket was astonishing, the friendliness and openness of everybody I met turned me from a fairly insular ‘not sure what to expect tourist’ into a participant.
They’ll never see this, but I thank them all.