29 September 2006

Chapter 4 - The Arrival

The plane touches down gently at Bangkok airport at 7 a.m. Back home in England, it is Midnight which means we have been travelling, all told, for 18 hours. Six thousand miles. I didn't realise it was that far. In fact, another few thousand miles and I'd be in Australia which appears to be a hop, skip and jump on the map. Obviously, I won't be going to Australia. Mostly because I don't like Australians, but that's another story.

We get out at the airport and I retrieve my cigarettes. Almost 20 hours without smoking and I suddenly realise that my craving for tobacco has completely disappeared. For a moment I consider quitting. Just throw them away, you don't need them. No more coughing, no more random, terrifying chest pains, no more drunken missions to the 24-hour garage at 3 in the morning. Be free! Kill the beast! Toss the monkey from your back!

I suddenly remember that cigarettes here are a fifth of the price of those in the UK and decide it would be a terrible waste not to avail myself of such a bargain. Chuckling and shaking my head as the cigarette monkey wheezily clambers back up onto my shoulders once more, I light up. Bliss.

An hour and a half taxi-ride later, during which I sleep fitfully, we arrive in Pattaya.

My brother suggested we spend a week here for rest and relaxation before doing a little travelling. He warned me that there was an element of prostitution here in some of the bars, so I was prepared for it.

I think it's fair to say that he slightly undersold the position.

Pattaya is, pretty much, prosititute central. The place is heaving with them. I thought perhaps it was confined to a few seedy bars but, as ever, I was badly wrong. Very badly wrong. So badly wrong that I doubt whether I could have been any more wrong. Badly.

In actual fact, it's something of the opposite of my initial belief. There are a few bars that aren't prostitute watering holes, and these are generally filled with men that have picked up a lady somewhere else and decided to take her to somewhere a little more refined.

It's a culture shock.

But, more importantly, the drink is cheap, the food is good - although I'm eating on average 1 small meal a day because it's too hot here - and I could be at work. But I'm not. I'm 6,000 miles away from work and bills and everything that usually makes my life a misery. So, what is there to be miserable about?

Oh, one more thing. Every time I walk past a bar, there is a chorus of young women, all leaning towards me and shouting "Hello, sexy man! Hello!".

The women here have excellent taste and I applaud them for it.

24 September 2006

Chapter 3 - The Journey Still Continues

Friday 22nd September.

Having given the matter much consideration, I decide that even if I sell my flat, the cost of actually living on this plane would be prohibitively expensive. If the stewardess was to warm to me a little, I might reconsider, but I suspect our love affair is doomed as she appears to hold me with the same regard as a fresh dog turd on her living room carpet.

I console myself by drinking a vodka and watching Mission Impossible 3 on the TV. I've been waiting four hours to watch it as I didn't want to be interrupted by offers of food and beverages.

The strange thing about air travel is the way that they take care of the passengers. You're seated, shown a safety video, served drinks, given a meal, and then the cabin crew disappear never to be seen again, leaving you to fend for yourself for the rest of the flight. After two hours, some of the passengers had formed into packs and were foraging for food like feral cats. At one point, a gang war broke out near the rear of the plane when two rival factions each laid claim to an abandoned packet of cheese cocktail biscuits that had been discovered on the floor.

But I digress.

We're told to fasten our safety belts and stow our TV screens as the plane is about to land in Doha, thus ensuring that I miss the last 15 minutes of Mission Impossible 3.

Unfortunately, our flight is late so we have to run to make our transfer. This means that we don't have time for a much needed cigarette. We scurry dolefully past the smoking room, cursing under our breath.

The flight from Doha to Bangkok is essentially the same as the previous one in content, with the exception of the wonderful leg room. On this plane, my knees are jammed against the back of the seat in front, and I sit pondering on the likelihood of deep vein thrombosis occurring.

On the plus side, they give us each a small bag containing an eye mask, ear plugs, travel toothbrush and socks. The zip on mine breaks immediately and I'm forced to tear a hole in the material with my teeth in order to get to the goodies inside. Once liberated from their fabric prison, much of their mysterious magic dissipates and I'm left feeling unsatisfied and vaguely curious as to why I was so filled with anticipation mere moments earlier.

Give a man a mystery and he will be entralled. Once the mystery is gone, so is the desire. Thus, was it ever so...

Curiously, we're flying against the rotation of the Earth, so despite having only travelled for severn hours, it is now the middle of the night.

As we fly over India, I look out of the window and witness the most incredible thunderstorm occurring beneath us and far into the distance. I tap away at the control panel and the sound of Beethoven fills my ears as I watch the lightning.

The majesty of Beethoven's music coupled with the awe-inspiring beauty of watching the clouds light up from inside like huge, glowing piles of fluffy mashed potatoes, is absolutely stunning. For some time, I'm speechless at the sight before me.

Everyone else on the plane is asleep so, for a short while, this incredible show, this display of nature's raw, unbridled power, this utterly breathtaking spectacle is for me and me alone. I sit, alone in the universe save for my thoughts and the flashing sky around me, and I realise that the price of the flight had been worth it for this simple, wonderful, indescribable moment alone.

Then I watch 'Poseidon' on the flat screen TV and start to wonder if I can ask for some money back...

Chapter 2 - The Journey Continues

Friday 22nd September.

At 9 a.m. I find myself sitting in the bar at Gatwick Airport, washing down two painkillers with a glass of vodka and coke, and smoking what will be my last cigarette in 20 hours. At this stage, I don't know it will be my last cigarette. If I did, I might have torn off the filter, hidden it my pocket and sucked it during the flight.

My brother is drinking a pint of lager and chain-smoking my cigarettes because he's "got to get some later". This will become a regular theme throughout the holiday.

His eyes are red and swollen due, mostly, to a long term eye infection but certainly not helped by three enormous joints and sizeable lump of cannabis-laced chocolate that he consumed in the van on the way here. Fortunately, Mark the driver was not in the same state. He only smoked two.

I stared the devil in the eyes on that journey, let me tell you.

Two hours later, we're on the plane. It is, without doubt, the best journey I've ever had. We're seated by the emergency door so have enough room that we could lay on the floor and make snow-angels if we so desired. We also have flat screen TV's that swivel out from the side of the seat, with a small control pad that offers you a choice of over 100 movies, countless TV programmes, music on demand, games and in-flight information including a satellite-type picture showing the position of the plane in relation to the rest of the world. This is everything I have ever wanted in life. The cabin crew bring you food and alcohol; blankets and pillows. If I could smoke here, I'd move in.

The air stewardess who tends to our every whim is, quite simply, beautiful. She has something of a middle eastern look about her. Dark - almost black - eyes, a strong yet cute nose, that fine, fluffy baby-hair at the top of her forehead. I must have her.

She walks past and I smile. She returns my gormless grin with a look that is a curious mixture of barely-concealed loathing and cheerful professionalism. Her forced smile seems to say "the muscles of my face have moved into this position which vaguely approximates happiness as that is what I'm trained to do. However, smile at me again and my composure may well falter to the point that I find myself blankly stabbing you in the eyes with a plastic tea stirrer. Think it over, tubby."

I look back at my TV screen.

Chapter 1 - The Journey Begins

Friday 22nd September.

The seasoned traveller knows that when embarking on a long journey to a far-flung country, it's important to follow several basic rules to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible:

1. Check your documentation and currency.
2. Check you've packed everything you need.
3. Recheck your documentation and currency.
4. Recheck you've packed everything you need.
5. Repeat steps 1 to 4. Twice.
6. Get an early night.

Thus it was that I awoke at 3 a.m. on the day of my flight in three inches of ice-cold bathwater, the distinct taste of Bacardi still present in my mouth. Vague memories swept in and out of my consciousness of drinking in the pub with my ex, drinking at her sister's house, drinking at home then, finally, feeling ill and deciding that sleeping in a bath of cold water would ease my mounting nausea. I'm happy to report that it worked. I then went to bed.

At 4.30 a.m. I woke again, drank some water and did my packing. Shorts - check. Underwear - check. T-shirts - check. Everything else I needed I would be wearing or have stuffed in my pockets. Sadly, and the actual details of the event remain shrouded in mystery, my t-shirts never actually made it from the bed to the rucksack. I discovered this after 20 hours of travelling. I almost wept. Drunkeness will do that to you.

Which leads me onto my hangover, or rather, lack of one. After consuming as much as I did the previous evening, you have to pay the piper - and he will accept nothing less than pitiful whimpering, the kind of hand tremors that a cocktail waiter would be envious of, and a skin pallour which suggests that if you're not already dead, it really is only a matter of time.

I had none of these symptoms. Which, of course, meant only one thing. I was still drunk and the hangover was yet to come. Little did I know that I was to experience its full might whilst bouncing around in the back of a rusty, barely-roadworthy van, sitting on a crudely constructed wooden bench draped with an evil-smelling carpet, wreathed in cigarette smoke and wondering at what point the inevitable crash would occur and my short, relatively dull life.

What I also did not know is that the aforementioned would not occur in Thailand, but in the back of my brother's van, speeding down the motorway at 7 in the morning. The less said about that journey the better...