A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Michai is published in Tropical Magazine

Great news from Bangkok.

Our friend Michai - tour guide, hotel concierge, university student, guitarist and writer - has made it through to the third stage interviews for a travel writing position with Tropical Magazine.

Michai sought out and interviewed a senior adviser to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Paradeth Payakvichien, to stand out amongst the competition for the job.

Michai writes in his article:

"'My father was a government officer and used to be stationed in many places. We were always on the move. I learned to travel solo from a very early age,' Mr Payakvichien begins by telling me. This was spark that lit his burning desire to travel the world.

When asked to name his favorite destination, he pauses for a moment before mentioning a place named Vanuatu in the Pacific Ocean, just a little west from the Fijian islands.

'The main thing I like about this little island is that not many people live there or know of its existence. Secondly, the culture, as Vanuatu is a condominium state with English and French influences. Did you know until recently the island had two official languages and government buildings were hung with two flags? Fortunately local people did not take in all the western influences and it has developed its own unique culture. It's actually a great mix and match between local and western systems that battle continuously with the harsh Pacific maritime climate.'"

Michai's article is published in the February 2011 edition of Tropical Magazine.

Congratulations Michai - and good luck in the next stage.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Alistra - Koh Tao

At Koh Tao school in Mae Hat, 28 year old school teacher Alistra plays turtles with her school children.

She clasps one hand on top of the other and wiggles her fingers.

The kids copy her, their eyes moving from Alistra’s hands to their own. Then a sea of turtle-hands swim away and laughter fills the sandy schoolyard.

It’s Thursday afternoon and every week at this time there are Scout activities after school for the kids aged 7 to 13. The school uniform changes each day - and on Thursdays every child dresses as a Scout. Monday, the uniform is yellow because it’s the King’s favourite colour and it connects with the moon; Tuesday is pink, the Queen’s favourite colour.

'I love the kids,’ Alistra says, ‘they are more innocent than the kids in the city. Here on the island, we don’t have truancy because there are no malls or movies to hide in during the day.’

Alistra has a playfulness about her – she practises dance moves in the staff room and has a cheeky smile.

So when Alistra tells me she was left by her mother at 3 months and soon after her father couldn’t cope with her, it takes me a few moments to adjust gear. Alistra went to live with her aunt in Chumphon at 3 months old.

‘We were very poor but my aunt worked hard to save enough money to send me to university,’ Alistra says.

Alistra gained a teaching degree at Bangkok University after 4 years of study.

And now I can look after myself,’ she says, with a firm nod of her head.

Alistra also enjoys writing. She has written about occasions such as the King’s birthday. She likes to write short stories with a twist at the end. And at university she wrote love stories.

‘What I love about writing is to describe details and also to see what falls out of the pen without thinking about it,’ Alistra says. She shows me one poem with a line referring to a mysterious ‘man of the year, even just for me.’ Alistra smiles at this – clearly there’s a story behind this line that’s none of my business.

‘What do you most love about life on Koh Tao?’ I ask.
‘It’s an easy life on Koh Tao – there’s no hurry. There’s no traffic or pollution like in Bangkok. And only a few thousand permanent residents.’

Later that evening, Alistra comes out dancing with me and the other volunteer English teachers. She teaches me at least 3 new dance moves, which doubles my repertoire on the dancefloor. I love Alistra’s zest for life, it’s impossible not to catch it from her.

And the kids at Koh Tao school? Well, my attempts to teach them English were received with lots of giggles – but they seemed to like me nonetheless.

‘Teacher, teacher, teacher,’ the kids would call out to me when they had finished a task.

This made me smile until my cheeks ached.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Haute - Koh Tao

‘The first question I ask someone who wants to work here is this – what do you want from life as a showgirl?’

I am sitting with Haute, the creator and owner of The Queen’s Cabaret at Sairee Beach, Koh Tao.

Haute explains that life as a showgirl is hard at first - you have to learn many dance routines and lyrics and work late. And there isn’t much money in it.

Tina Turner, Gloria Gaynor, Beyonce, Diana Ross, Lady Gaga – just some of the acts you can see at The Queen’s Cabaret. And boy, can they move.

When Haute arrived 4 years ago on Koh Tao, there was a lot of resistance from locals to the cabaret.

‘The local people had their fears about ladyboys,’ Haute says, ‘but I do not accept prostitution or selling drugs to make extra money. It’s about the cabaret, that’s it.’

Haute speaks Thai, Italian and English fluently and uses all languages to run the business.

‘My father worked for the American army in the Vietnam war as a secretary – mainly translating documents. So it’s thanks to my father I can speak English.’

Haute lived in Italy for 10 years, studying fashion design in Padua. Rumour has it she rubbed shoulders with Valentino.

‘When I lived in Italy, I wrote a column for a newspaper called Sawatdee Thailand about being a Thai person in Europe. Writing this column helped me to overcome the loneliness I sometimes felt living abroad.

‘I also write about my cabaret – writing helps me with my feelings of sadness when someone leaves – it’s like losing a member of the family. And writing helps me to cool down when I’m angry.’

Haute loves Koh Tao – a small island (21 km square) located north of big sister and brother, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui.

‘I love the small mountains and the beautiful sea and sunsets,’ Haute says. ‘We can have a very good life here.’

Koh Tao has a laid back feel – yes, there are beach parties and vodka buckets, but you can still have a good conversation at 2am with most of the party crowd.

Haute suggests a trip to John Suwan Point for something more serene, the best view on the island across two coves.

I stay with Haute at The Queen’s Cabaret for the show, which has the audience on their feet. Singing, clapping, laughing, cheering.

After the show, I play Connect 4 and Jenga at the bar with two ladyboys who share their beauty secrets and their eye make up tips with me.

‘You should do make up lessons here Haute,’ I say. ‘And dance lessons. I would pay a lot of baht to move like Tina Turner.’

But as Haute says, ‘it’s about the cabaret, that’s it.’

To watch a video about Haute and The Queen's Cabaret Koh Tao visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibLDi0Y_1uY

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Michai (M) - Bangkok

This is Michai.

‘You can call me M,’ he says, ‘it will be easier for you.’ His English is fluent, spoken in a soft voice.

Three days after landing in Thailand, my vocabulary is sawatdee kha (hello) and khop khun kha (thank you). So M it is.

M sold lottery tickets on Sam San Road in Bangkok, aged 8. He sold fortune telling and cookery books to Bangkok office workers aged 12. He washed cars after school aged 15 – ‘I didn’t like that job,’ he laughs. I tell M my worst job was also at 15, scraping chewing gum off floors at the Cambridge Corn Exchange after the all night raves. ‘You really did that?’ M says. A question I have often asked myself, M.

Now aged 30, M works at a boutique hotel in Bangkok by day, as a tour guide at the weekend and in the evenings - he has created his own ‘Illuminated Tour of Bangkok’ which takes in where the locals meet after work at the markets near their homes, where they like to eat and party.

M’s tour doesn’t include Patpong. M says, ‘it’s a mean business down there, all about the dollars and the bar owners don’t welcome Thais because they don’t spend the money on girls.’ I tell M I won’t be going to Patpong – ‘it’s none of my business what goes on there,’ I say, ‘but if I’m honest, it makes me feel sad for the women.’

M also finds time to study English and Chinese at Bangkok University and he plays guitar in a rock band.

And M writes. He has just sent off a couple of articles to Tropical Magazine, applying for a position as a writer. He is the only Thai national through to the second stage – achieved with an article about JJ weekend market in Bangkok – M has promised to share this article with me if it gets published by Tropical Magazine.

M takes me today by boat to the weekend floating market where he buys panang curry
and rice for lunch. ‘Panang curry means queen curry,’ says M, ‘it’s a green curry with chilli and coconut milk and I believe they put some magic in it at the market because every time I taste it, it gets better.’ And he buys coconut pudding for dessert, slippery and sweet.

We eat lunch in a park beside Chao Praya River – ‘the King’s River’ – and M tells me about doing military service at 26 instead of monk training – M practises a mixture of Buddhism and Christianity, which he has ‘learnt outside the temple’.

In the afternoon, M takes me to the oldest temple in Bangkok, Wat Pho, to see the largest reclining Buddha in Bangkok (46 metres long and 15 metres high).

In the courtyard at Wat Pho, we come across a school of monks taking an examination. M laughs at me taking pictures of the monks with all the other tourists. ‘Perhaps there is a question in the exam about patience that I’ve just helped them to answer?’ I say.

The last stop of my tour with M for the day is the flower market, selling flowers, fruit and vegetables. Not forgetting the large plastic sunglasses from a man on a bicycle. M says he only needs to look at the baskets of red chillis and his mouth warms up.

He buys us some iced tea sweetened with condensed milk and we watch some Burmese boys play football with a whicker ball.

‘The whole world loves football,’ I say.
‘Not me,’ M says. ‘I prefer basketball.'

But then M is not your average kind of guy.