Back to Koh Tao

Earlier this year, following my spinal surgery, Mos and I decided to leave Chiang Mai and move back down to the island of Koh Tao. Which, as you may remember is where we got married on the 14th March last year. Chiang Mai was amazing and we loved it there, the climate was great, much cooler than the rest of Thailand. We had a really nice house, an awesome dog, and some great neighbours. It had started to feel like our home. It was after all the first place we had lived as a married couple.

But, I wasn’t working. Any work I was doing was done remotely over the internet. Or the odd bit of film and television production work in Bangkok. So there was no need to be tied to a location. And Mos had been offered her old job back, at Scuba Junction on Koh Tao. These factors, and many more, made the decision a sensible and ultimately easy one.

We packed up our belongings into large boxes and divided them into two piles. The first pile was stuff that was to be sent to our farm and family in Bueng Kan. We had a few things that we wanted stored safely, there was aslo Em and Sak’s belongings. As at this point Em and Sak were both living with us with their daughter, our niece, Oon Ing. They would be moving to live in Bueng Kan with the rest of our family, Em and Sak would also take the reins on our farm. In addition to Oon Ing, they would be taking another very special cargo with them. Khao San, our dog.

Over the last few weeks Khao San had bonded with Em and Oon Ing. And she normally finds it very hard to build relationships thanks to her fairly horrible past. But with Em, Oon Ing and later Sak, Khao San had no issues. She could see that Mos and I trusted them and she gradually started to trust them too. She would come and sit on the sofa with them, play around them, and generally be far more relaxed than we had seen her in front of other guests to our house. Possibly the best sign was when she started to get protective of the then two-month old Oon Ing. If she could hear her crying upstairs she would immediately find Em and try to signal upstairs, mostly by repeatedly running from Em to the door of the room Oon Ing was in. If a stranger walked past our house she would immediately check where Oon Ing was and then sit within eyesight of her.

It was horrible for Mos and I to leave Khao San, but we knew that we had already improved her life dramatically by rescuing her from the Care For Dogs shelter and giving her the love and care she deserved. We also knew that she would grow to love life on the farm. We have two other dogs over there, both a similar size and look to Khao San, but considerably more robust. They are both sisters, so we hope Khao San will eventually fit in as a third.

The second pile of boxes would be sent down to Koh Tao. In Thailand postage is so cheap it’s easier to move house by post than to hire a van or truck. I think we posted the entire contents of our house for a little under $200. In these boxes we loaded extra bedding, all of our clothing and other bits and pieces like keyboards, cables, adaptors and speakers. Oh, and we also posted our scooter, which cost a further $100.

For the remaining bits of furniture and general household stuff we called a local second-hand shop who came in a pick-up truck and gave us a fair price for the lot.

Once we were all packed up, postage sent and remaining bits sold, it was time for us to leave. Em, Sak, Oon Ing and Khao San would be leaving later that night on a ‘VIP Extra’ bus to Udon Thani. A twelve-hour, overnight journey through very tight and winding mountain roads. Not a pleasant journey, which is why we sweetened it slightly by buying tickets for the ‘VIP Extra’ bus. This bus has very wide and fully reclining seats. Waitress service with free refreshments and also blankets and pillows to help you sleep.

Mos and I were leaving on the sleeper train to Bangkok. My back was still in recovery as this was still only one week since my surgery. So I decided that we couldn’t fly or take the bus as both of these would greatly exceed my sitting threshold. At this point I could only sit for about ten minutes before feeling pain. By fifteen minutes the pain would be unbearable and I’d have to take a painkiller and walk around. The sleeper train was the only option really as it enabled me to lay flat for the entire 14-hour journey.

Once we arrived in Bangkok we took a taxi to Khao San Road (no relation to our dog). We often stay in or around Khao San Road, it’s a very busy street famous for catering to backpackers. There are hostels and cheap hotels all over the place, along with cheap bars and a lot of street food. Because it is a hub for backpackers it’s travel links are very good. You can get buses, trains, planes, boats all from Khao San Road (or at least a $2 taxi ride away). Khao San Road is also my least favourite part of Bangkok, if not the whole of Thailand. Thanks to the constant waves of 18-20 year old gap year students and travellers flooding the street with their cheap booze and luminous clothing, other industries have emerged. In short, the area is now teaming with con men, criminals and prostitution. There are Indian palm readers who aggressively grab your wrist, Tuk Tuk drivers who follow you asking if you want to see a ping-pong show, or the pickpockets that follow drunk travellers waiting for them to reveal the location of their wallet. But, we still go there, and will do in the future.

Once we’d checked into our hotel, the Khao San Road Park, we had a quick shower and got in another taxi, back to Bumrungrad Hospital to see my surgeon. It was time for my first week check up. Thankfully, the surgeon agreed with my diagnosis. My back was healing well and I was well on the way to making a full recovery. He said I should stay on ‘light-duties’ for another three weeks and then gradually build up my activity after that.

One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that before my back surgery I had just completed a pre-employment medical for my new job. Obviously this surgery had put my medical on hold until I was cleared to continue by my surgeon and the companies medical team. The job is for Royal Caribbean International. They require geeky people like me with a professional history of satellites up links, camera feeds, broadcast systems and various other technical bits to work on their ships. And by ships I mean cruise ships. Currently their fleet consists of 22 ships. Two of these, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, which are sister ships, are the worlds largest passengers ships. The fleet sail pretty much everywhere you can think of too. This, along with their offer to employ Mos once I had completed my probationary period onboard made this very attractive. All I had to do now was wait a month and revisit my surgeon to get signed off as fully functioning and fighting fit.

This was also another factor in moving down to Koh Tao. It’s a small island so I could walk just about everywhere and there are plenty of spots for me to lay down and read a book on my Kindle. It was the perfect recovery location for me to fully heal.

Once again Mos and I chose the sleeper train to make the journey from Bangkok to Chumphon. Chumphon is the nearest point of the Thai mainland to Koh Tao, about 60km. As a result it’s also where the Lomprayah catamaran boats ferry people to and from the island. The Lomprayah is the fastest of the various boat services taking around an hour and forty-five minutes. Other boats leave from the nearest big town on the mainland, Surat Thani. These vary from cargo ferries to overnight sleeper boats. Some of these can take over twelve hours to reach Koh Tao. But, are about half the price of the Lomprayah.

Although the Lomprayah is the fastest boat to Koh Tao, it still well exceed my 20-minute sitting barrier. So I stood outside on the back of the boat. Unfortunately this is also the area where the landlubber’s come to share their travel sickness. Often in a projectile fashion. Thankfully I managed to find a spot behind a door that kept me out of eyesight of the chunder fountains and gave me a good view out to sea. Although once you leave Chumphon peir there is very little to see for 60km other than water and sky, there are the occasional sights that make the journey more interesting. There are often fishing boats with children on board, madly waving at the boat full of tourist as it thunders past. There are shoals of flying fish that jump out and skip along the surface of the water to safety. And sometimes sea birds come and fly next to the boat as if they are escorting us on the journey. I think it’s much more fun standing outside than watching some commercials and out of date infomercials, despite the sound of people loosing their lunches.

Once we arrived on Koh Tao, it immediately hit us how much had changed since we were last here almost exactly a year ago. We got off the boat to be greeted by an army of pick-up trucks from various dive schools and resorts. On our first visit to Koh Tao there were probably a total of thirty cars/pick-up trucks on the island. Now there where twice that number, all on the pier  We eventually made our way to Scuba Junction, the shop where Mos would be working. The two managers and a few dive instructors were still there, but the rest of the staff were all new. The Thai boat boys were all still there; Pak, Tak and Sak. There is also the captain of the dive boat, who only seems to go by the name of ‘Captain’. He was still there.

As usual, finding accommodation on the island was a long and frustrating process. Because of the huge number of tourists that visit the island for short periods, costs are high. We stayed in a couple of different bungalows on the beach road for a week. And just to clarify, bungalows on Koh Tao are not single floor houses  as we might imagine in the UK. They are a very basic shack, which often consists only of a single room with a bed, some have en-suite toilets. We stayed in one, part of the SBC2 resort, that was pretty crappy. The room was small, the mattress was old and hard and they hadn’t given it a good clean in months. Sadly that is fairly standard for Koh Tao. There is a lot of accommodation  food and diving instruction that is well below par. But, on the other hand, if you know where to look there are also some really good places. I imagine it’s the same everywhere in the world with there is a high volume of short-staying tourists. If people can get away with running a resort with low standards and still manage to charge what others charge, they will. The other bungalows that we stayed in were part of Nat Resort. The bungalows are all concrete construction, so there are no rotting floor boards or termites. They are spotlessly clean. There is plenty of natural light and lots of fresh air. Exactly the same price as the SBC bungalow, but so different. Most also come with hot water showers and some with cable TV.

Thankfully, after a week in bungalows, we managed to find a nice en-suite hotel room for a months rental. Hot water, air conditioning, cleaning and bed changing every four days. That set us back $500. Which is about four times the price of an equivalent room in Chiang Mai. We just needed to get in somewhere, unpack our bags and relax. The hotel was the La Ville View Guesthouse, which is fairly new. For anyone that knows Koh Tao, it’s between Choppers and the 7eleven on the junction in Sairee. Other than the temperamental WiFi we had no complaints about our room.

Two weeks into our months rental at La Ville View we started to look for a more permanent option. We wanted a house. Something with a kitchen, living room, fridge etc. A place that we could make feel like a home, not a hotel. After a few days of searching, a friend of ours, P’Daeng, offered us on of his families houses. P’Daeng is one of a handful of locals that own and run the island. He’s a very good friend to have in this kind of community. The house was a little further from the beach and Scuba Junction as we would have liked. But once I’d walked the journey a few times it seemed much shorter. It takes 12 minutes to walk from our house to Scuba Junction. 15 on the reverse trip as half the route is uphill. If you know Koh Tao, we’re about fifty meters up the hill from Roctopus dive school.

Today is our last full day in the hotel, and as Mos is at work I have been moving stuff from the hotel to the house. We’ve had the keys to the house for two weeks, and I’ve been gradually moving bits and pieces. All that is left in the hotel now is a change of clothes and a few toiletries for our stay tonight. I’m looking forward to moving completely to the new house, it will be nice to feel like we’ve got a home again.

Chief of Police

Today I completed one of those manly life goals that I like to call a man-bition. Today I became the owner of a pick-up truck. It’s big, it’s blue, it has four doors and a big diesel engine.

For those of you who are judging me and thinking ‘what do you need a big blue pick-up truck for?’. Well, I live in the mountains of Northern Thailand. And 1,000 kilometres East from my house (by mountain road and dirt track) is our latex plantation, along with our families home and their latex plantation. And from December this truck will be used to transport our combined latex harvest to market every other week. Currently our family use a single scooter, making multiple trips, with bags of latex balanced on the back. Each one weighing fifty kilograms.

I know, you can’t wait to see this truck that I am so chuffed with. I warned you, it’s big and blue. And here it is, under our porch, an hour ago being cleaned by Mos.

Yesterday we met up with the previous owner to have a test drive. And it drove well, the brakes were very soft, but usable. It was all round much better than trucks that were being sold for twice the price that we also test-drove.

Today the previous owner drove the car to our house where we completed the purchase. Shortly after we took the car to a local garage to get some small bits seen to, along with the brakes. This was the start of a fairly memorable day.

As we pulled into the garage, two guys ran out to help us. Then immediately started analysing and poking around. They said that we’d got ourselves a very solid and reliable car. Then I asked them to look at the braking system. They took it for a drive and agreed, it was too soft.

The garage itself was two bays wide. each filled with a car. The mechanics rolled one of them out to make room for our new truck. Within minutes it was lifted up and had three guys pulling bits off and showing us, as we sat there watching TV only metres from the action. Mos was very pleased, as the mechanics and their wifes/girlfriends were all from the south of Thailand. Southerners have a very different dialect to the rest of Thailand. And up here in the mountains Mos can sometimes feel as alienated as me by the language.

After a couple of hours of talking to the mechanics wife and watching our new truck gradually being dismantled we had a full diagnosis. They suggested new hoses and pads for the front brakes. We agreed, and along with a list of other less challenging tasks we left them too it and went for lunch in a street restaurant opposite.

Once we’d eaten our superb fried pork, noodle and sauce, we headed to a nearby ice cream shop on a scooter that the mechanic had lent to us for free.

As we left the ice cream shop we noticed a police man writing up a ticket on the scooter. Knowing from previous experience that if he knew a farang (white person) was driving the bike he would add a few zero’s to the fine we walked past and waited for him to leave.

Once we got back to the garage, we apologised and handed the mechanics wife the 400 baht (£8) fine in cash. The woman snatched the ticket and refused the money. She immediately picked up her phone and started talking in a calm but clearly angry tone. A few seconds later she hung up the phone. And was smiling. She explained to Mos that the Chief of Police for Chiang Mai is also a southerner. And, all of the high-powered southerners in Chiang Mai gather for after-work drinks and food at this garage, on this sofa. She said that we didn’t have to worry about the ticket.

When the mechanics left to pick up spare parts we also decided to head off. I needed a haircut. But with no car, and with my usual hairdressers being too far to risk a helmet-less journey on the borrowed scooter we jumped in a tuk-tuk. I love tuk-tuks. Mos hates them.

After a successful haircut, a quick drink and snack in our favourite bar and a return tuk-tuk journey we arrived back at the garage. By this time they had just finished putting the tyres back on and lowering the truck back to earth. As they did, people started to arrive. They where the south Thailanders that we’d been told about earlier. Among them, the chief of police, two senior officers, and a lawyer. All from the south. And all very friendly. They immediately started offering my whiskey and various meat based snacks. The police chief looked over our paperwork for the car and said he could rush through the new license plate. Another officer took our scooter ticket and said he would cancel it at the station tomorrow.

We sat and chatted for a while, exchanged phone numbers and asked for the bill. They had itemised everything they’d done throughout the day. This included changing the entire braking system; brake pads, drums, disks, hoses, fluid… the lot. They also tuned the engine. Cleaned the heads. Tweaked the suspension. Replaced the front light units, including new bulbs. Changed the oil. Fixed and interior light and cleaned the whole engine bay. This took three men eight hours. And the total came to just under £300. To put that in perspective, I’ve paid £155 for a single brake disc in the UK, and that’s without labour.

Along with the fantastic service and work completed on the car, we had also gained a handful of new contacts that will be great to have in the future. When isn’t it useful to be the drinking partner of the chief of police?

Cleaning a Tuk-Tuk

We’ve had another busy week. Both Mos and I have both had a birthday, we’ve been to the cinema, twice. And, we bought a latex plantation.

After a quite and relaxed day at home, apart from a trip to the cinema, for my birthday, we started to get our stuff together to head back to Bueng Kan. Previously we’ve driven from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan, this time we decided to avoid the 900 kilometre, 16 hour drive by flying. Unfortunately you cannot fly directly to Bueng Kan, the nearest commercial airport is Udon Thani. From here we would hire a car and drive the remaining 240 kilometres to our favourite hotel.

I have flown with many airlines over the past few years, some good, some bad. My favourite domestic airline in Thailand is Nok Air (‘nok’ is Thai for ‘bird’). They offer good prices and have always provided a matching service. Also, their planes have a smiling beak…

We headed for the airport after dropping of Khao San at Lucky Dogs (it’s like a dog hotel). It’s only a twenty-minute trip on the scooter from our house to the airport. It was nice to know that I’d only be driving for a total of 4-5 hours rather than 16 hour mission of previous trips. Anyone familiar with air travel will be used to the sign at check-in that shows all of the items that are prohibited in the cabin of the aircraft. Normally this contains; guns, knifes, aerosols, lighters, fireworks, handcuffs, flammable materials, hand grenades and nuclear weaponry. A pretty sensible list. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in a plane with a disturbed person in possession of these. The Nok Air check-in desk warns against only one item that you cannot, under any circumstances, take onto the aircraft. Surely, they must be refereeing to a pretty serious piece of kit? Well… not exactly.

Major security risk.

The people in charge at Nok Air are clearly more concerned with the Durian fruit than a slab of C4 explosive or a machete. Lets investigate this further. The Durian fruit is very popular in Thailand, you’ll find it being sold all offer the place. It’s only crime as far as I can tell is that is smells like vomit once it has been cut open. It is also quite large and hard, like a spiky coconut. If you Google the Durian fruit you stumble across something it’s Wikipedia page. Which will show you its scientific name, ‘Durio’. And it’s higher classification, ‘Bombacaceae’. Maybe the Durian fruit has an explosive secret. Maybe some of the airlines in the west should take note and add it to their prohibited list.

We completed the check-in and removed all of our concealed Durian fruits at security. After a short wait we got ready to board. Mos was very happy with the plane, she’d never flown on a small propellor plane before. The plane had eleven rows of three seats and was staffed by two pilots and just one air hostess. The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes so we only got a small snack and a drink.

As we made our approach to Udon Thani we flew through storm clouds and the rain got heavier and heavier. The rain lasted, without break, for our entire trip. We picked up our rental car, this time from Lek Rental. After destroying at least one hire cars suspension this time we opted for a huge Toyota Hilux Vios 4×4. This is a pick-up truck with a double cab. Meaning that it can sit five people inside, comfortably. And a mixture of more daring people and cargo on the back. I was even more pleased with the selection of the car as the rain increased as we pulled out of the airport. We would have about 100 kilometres of dirt tracks and potholes to cross before getting to our destination. And that’s on top of the hours of motorway driving. We will definitely be getting one of these next time.

We reached out hotel in Bueng Kan at lunchtime, checked in, sent a few emails, Mos updated Facebook and then we headed off to see the family. They live in a small village called Ban Na Kap, or as I call it, Ban Na Na town. Sometimes I feel like my humour is wasted on the Thai’s. We collected the family, picked up the head of the village and headed to the neighbouring village to meet their head and the local men of power (mafia). We had to meet with the two groups because technically the land we now own is in Ban Na Kap. But some of the locals think it is in the neighbouring village. So we thought it best to have the approval of the heads of both villages to avoid any dispute. We were also joined by the land owner who bought all of the relevant documents. I sat there trying out my basic Thai on the people not busy reading the contracts and overlooking the paperwork. Which turned out to be two toddlers and a dwarf, who was clearly intoxicated. Between us we managed a sentence or two. The dogs seemed to understand.

Shortly after the contracts were signed bags of ice and crates of beer were delivered to the house we had been sat outside. This was fairly awkward as most Thai’s are Buddhist, and they take this seriously. Buddhist lent had started a few days previously, which forbids consumption of alcohol for three months. The villagers from Ban Na Kap won’t touch a bottle until the three months have passed. The neighbouring villagers however didn’t seem to care. So as my family dodged the beer and said goodbye I had a quick glass for politeness and got in the car. We had arranged to meet the land owner at the bank the following day to bank transfer the money and for him to give us the documents. He and his wife are genuinely nice people, very trustworthy. Unlike the owner of the previous farm we had considered buying.

To celebrate we took the family for a meal in Bueng Kan in a nice little restaurant looking over the river at Laos. This whole area is bordered by the Thai/Laos border which is marked by the Mekong river. Between the five of us we ordered seven different dishes, it was great. Chicken, fish, rice, soups, vegetables and spices. The cashew nuts fried with chicken was amazing. Total cost, including drinks, was ฿750 (£15).

The next morning we headed off early to the local Kasikorn bank branch to make the transfer and swap the documents. It was still raining. There was some confusion as banks in Thailand seem to be fairly upset when you try to transfer money to a different bank. But after working out that it would be much easier for the land owner to open a new account with Kasikorn, and transfer from my account to his, everything went smoothly. We now had the handful of old documents we had been waiting for. Very exciting. We ordered a load of noodle soups to take away from the food stand outside and headed off to the Land Registry Office.

One reason we liked this land owner so much was that he was from the southern Thailand, like Mos. They both spoke the same dialect. Well so did the man in charge at the registry office. He rushed through our paperwork and wanted to talk to Mos all day. He missed the sound of southern Thai. We changed all of the documents to Mos’ name. Apart from one, the Land Tax document. This, much like a car in the UK, is a tax that is paid annually. The previous owner had already paid it in July 2012 so when we renew the tax in July 2013 that document would also be changed. The tax for our land is ฿28 (£0.56) per year. It would cost us more in fuel to drive the thirty kilometres from our farm, to the office and back every year than the actual tax.

After we had done all of the paperwork we headed off to our families house. As usual, we were greeted with hugs and smiles, which we exchanged for the bags full of noodle soup we had ordered earlier. Today was Mos’ birthday, so the greetings were even more excitable than usual. The family had planned a birthday trip to see relatives that none of them had seem for over a decade. Mos’ dad, who is obsessed with chickens, made it clear that he wanted to buy some chickens whilst there. Apparently the area we were going to is renowned for its prize chicken breeds. Mos’ dad, when not working on his own latex farm of maintaining his two huge fishing ponds, enjoys making chicken cages and fish traps. So we packed a few of these onto the pick-up as gifts for the people we would be visiting.

On the way out-of-town we took the whole family back to the farm. The first time we would have been as the owners. The grandmother was excited. She walked around talking to each tree, telling them to be on best behaviour. Foamy (12-year-old brother) ran around with my iPhone shooting video of everyone, and the floor. Mos, her mum and her dad walked around the perimeter talking about the plans for the next cut (cutting the trees for latex). To access the farm we have to drive on a track, which when it rains turns into a muddy waterside. I was very happy to have the 4×4 at this point! As it was still raining we didn’t stay long and made our way back to the main road.

We had been driving for just under an hour before the grandmother started asking the dad if he knew where we were heading. He insisted that he did, and we carried on. We headed due south from Ban Na Kap. Not that we had many options, east would take up to Vietnam, north would take us into Laos and west would take us back to Bueng Kan. This was a part of Thailand that I’d never been to before. Lots of new sights, customs and people. At one point we drove past a lake. I spotted a man with a tuk-tuk. Which was strange as we had to be about ten kilometres from the closest town. Then, he forced some rubber off-cuts into his exhaust pipe and pushed the tuk-tuk into the lake. The water was about half a meter deep, coming up to just under the passenger seats. He than whipped out a sponge and started wiping down the chrome supports and bright pink and green seats. Apparently this is standard procedure for washing a tuk-tuk in this part of the world.

After a few more oddities along the route we arrived at the village we had been looking for. And eventually found the right house. We all greeted each other and exchanged gifts. We gave them two chicken cages and four fish traps and a few buckets of preserved fish. They gave us sacks of coconuts and rice. Mos’ dad had been saying he was hungry from the time we left Ban Na Kap, and now we had arrived we were about to sit down for a meal in the tin-roofed shelter in front of the house. Just as food started to emerge from the house, Mos’ dad, Foamy and the dad of the family we were visiting started talking about chickens and headed off on a scooter to find some. The rest of us tucked into a meal of various soups, pork, chicken, rice, noodles, and a local favourite, chicken feet.

Just as we were finishing up, the dads and Foamy returned on the scooter with three chickens. One impressive looking male and two smaller females. Total cost was ฿500 (£10). These chickens are a fighting breed, hence the high price tag. For the next hour we fought to put the chickens into boxes, and chase the one that Foamy accidentally let go. And instead of helping load the pick-up or chase the escapee chicken Foamy decided to shoot some more video on my iPhone. Once I got it back, I had 62 videos of chickens, four of a dog and one of himself using the phone as a mirror. We finished loading up the pick-up and headed back to Ban Na Kap.

On the way home we spotted a night market in a field. So we stopped to stock up on snacks. Between us we had chicken skewers, corn on the cob, pork skewers, rice, drinks and some sweets. After these had been eaten, everyone, apart from me (the driver), fell asleep. We dropped the family off at their house and said our goodbyes. Mos even got a quick massage from her mum to help combat a headache. Then we headed back to Udon Thani. Our flight was at 09:15 the following morning so we thought it best that we stay in Udon Thani, close to the airport, than in Bueng Kan and face a three-hour drive before our flight.

I was tired and we had no internet connection so I turned to my sat-nav for advice on hotels near the airport. The first result was ‘Udon Thani Airport Hotel’. Exactly what we wanted, so we headed there.

Once we arrived we checked in for the night, ฿650 (£13), including breakfast. The rooms were clean, the bed was comfortable. But, it was a strange place. Imagine a hotel designed and built in 1985, that was then abandoned in 1986. Left sealed from the world until 2012 when staff appeared, made the beds, dusted and cleaned the toilets. That is how it felt. Everything was original, the bedside radio, the phone, the shower unit. Very weird. Also, something that you very rarely see in any hotel anymore, a big glass ashtray. Other than the feeling of being in a bad 1980’s soap opera the stay was nice, the room service was OK. And it was close to the airport.

In the morning we dropped our pick-up off at the departures gate. Overall I was impressed with the rental company, will be using them again on future trips. We checked in and headed up to the departures lounge. Mos managed to sneak a bag of chicken skewers past three security check points and tucked into the in the lounge. Just before checking in we got a message from a friend in the UK, his wife, and our friend Jaew was in the airport too. So we sat with her as she waited for her flight to Bangkok.

Mos was equally pleased to be travelling on another small propellor plane, this time a different colour that the last. She even took a video of the walk from the terminal across the airfield to the plane.

I like Nok Air, I think they are great value for money. But the ratio of nuts to space in the inflight snacks was shocking. This picture shows the entire contents of one bag.

The flight back to Chiang Mai was nice, and now we are both back home and planning the future for our first farm. Possibly even considering a second!

Latex Plantation

This week we’ve been over in north-east Thailand. Bueng Kan to be specific. As you may have noted previously, this is where my wires family live. Mother, step-father and step-brother. But as she has grown up with her step-father from such a young age, we call him dad.

On our previous visit to Bueng Kan we talked about the possibility of investing in a latex farm. Our family are in the latex farming business, and the surrounding area is full of latex trees. We talked with the village elders, police, governors, and even some local loan sharks and mafia figures to get our head around the situation. We found one farm that was a perfect size and ticked most of our boxes. We were told it had 960 trees and was 12 Rai in size. One Rai is equivalent to 1,600 meters squared.

The farm was rectangular in shape and had a small concrete house in the corner, which the workers would live in. A farm this size would only require two workers. We had already planned this, Mos’ sister (Em) and her long-term boyfriend currently farm latex in the south of the country. Em is due to give birth in October and is planning to move closer to her family (in Bueng Kan) after she has. So it would be perfect for the three of them to live in this house with no commute and some peace and quite to bring up the baby.

We inspected the farm with our family and Mos’ dad did some digging to see if there are any issues with the land ownership, debts on the land and so on. We already knew that this land was still waiting for its title deed to be issued, so a sale was going to be largely done on trust rather than updating the official title-deed as you might expect. In addition to this we found out that the owner of the land had gambling issues and was being chased by his debtors, largely the local mafia. This is why he needed to sell. He had also borrowed money from a loan shark which he had secured on the land. All of this information was found by Mos’ dads contacts.

On this visit we spoke with the loan shark, who was surprisingly a very nice man. And a close friend of our family. He came to meet us and showed us all of the original land documents. The next day we spoke to the owner who said there are no debts on the land and that he had the original documents. We asked to see them, he showed us photocopies. We had our suspicions previously, but now we knew he was lying. We decided to walk away. Regardless of the legality of the sale, we did not want to do business with someone who we can’t trust, and is clearly dishonest.

This was fairly disappointing as we’d driven the 950 kilometres from Chiang Mai to Bueng Kan just to seal the deal. But, as I said, you can’t do business with liars. We had a nice meal with the family and got ready to head back to our hotel. As we were about to get in the car we got a phone call from a friend of Mos’ dad asking us if we were still looking for land. His friend was selling and it matched what we wanted.

We all jumped in the car and headed out to pick up this guy from the neighbouring village. Thankfully we’d hired a big 4×4 car this time, not a weedy little Honda Jazz. The roads in and around Bueng Kan are terrible, and that’s if they even exist. Sometimes you just have to drive through streams, farms, or gardens. It’s madness. And last time we very nearly crippled the Honda Jazz. I managed to get it to limp the journey back to Chiang Mai but I imagine it’s on the scrapheap by now. This time we had a Honda CVR G3. Much better.

The new farm was much closer to our families home than the previous one, only about ten minutes on a dirt bike or twenty in the 4×4. This farm does not have a house, but the close proximity to our families house would enable them all to share. We are all currently in the process of planning a new house to build as a replacement of the current very basic house. So planning for the addition of the sister, boyfriend and baby is not too difficult. Mos’ parents are also insisting on having a guest bedroom, with air-con and western style en-suite to enable my family to visit and stay with them.

The actual farm was perfect. Great location, good trees, which have already been cut, and cut well. And, it’s cheaper. It has no debts, issues or dishonest owners. In fact the owner is from southern Thailand so he spoke the same variant of Thai as Mos.

We will be heading back next week to buy the farm. We’re very excited.

Kuala Lumpur MKII

The time has come. My 90-day Non-Immigrant ‘B’ visa is about to expire. A visa that could be renewed for a further nine months with the addition of a work permit. Sadly, in my role, I technically work on a project by project basis. The work permits that I get issued from the Film Authority only cover the project period. And at the moment, it’s the beginning of the rainy season with few valid projects. So… time to get a new visa.

I’ve done a bit of research and Thailand offer a Non-Immigrant ‘O’ visa. This is for people retiring in Thailand, for those who have Thai children or for those, like me, with a Thai spouse. I would have been able to apply for this in Thailand providing I met the criteria, which I do, apart from one point. Due to this one point I’m having to apply from a Thai embassy (outside of Thailand). My most recent trip to get a visa was to Kuala Lumpur. It’s not the cheapest option (Laos and Burma are the cheapest), but it’s easy. I can fly directly from Chiang Mai with AirAsia, it’s a well-developed city with plenty of distractions and places to eat and stay. And, most people speak good English. Which is a huge bonus if you’re on a fairly stressful hurried trip to apply for a visa in a strange and foreign land.

I leave on the 16:55 flight from CNX to KUL with AirAsia. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve flown with Asia’s answer to EasyJet so hopefully there good. Once again I’ll be staying at the all green PODs hostel in Brickfields. And I’m sure I’ll be walking the five-minute walk to Little India a few times to stock up on curry, rice and naan bread. Or maybe jump on the bus to China Town and eat some chickens feet and cow tripe. In the interest of saving a bus ticket, I think I’ll stick to Little India.

I’m also going to make more of an effort to make use of the brilliant public transport in KL. Last time I used a combination of taxi’s and the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus. Which was great for getting and idea of the geography of the city. But not so good for the wallet. Will also be trying out the AirAsia SkyBus service from the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) to KL Sentral station. AirAsia, along with other budget airlines, fly into the LCCT rather than the main international terminal. It’s effectively a different airport. If I was to use the superb KLIA Ekspres train again I’d need to first catch a bus from the LCCT to the main terminal. The SkyBus however equates to £3.50 return whereas the KLIA alone costs £7 each way + the connecting bus.

In total, I’m expecting this trip to cost around £300. Which includes the £110 visa fee. I’ll be gone for four days. Although it could have been two if the flights had been slightly better timed. To give a comparison, the visa companies in Bangkok, quoted me 25,000 baht (£500) to complete this. And they would do it all by post. So not only would I be £200 down, I’d also have to trust my passport and wedding certificate to an unknown man and the Thai postal system. No thanks.

After planning this new visa-adventure I also decided to apply for a new job. Pro-Consul at the British Embassy in Bangkok. Not entirely sure what this involves. But, sounded good at the time. And, I wouldn’t have to make any more visa runs.

I’m going to try to write some blog posts while in KL, but I’m only taking my iPad, not my beloved MacBook Pro. So forgive and mistakes if I do.

Huay Tung Tao Lake

We’ve now met all of our neighbours, bar one, but they never seem to come outside. Our immediate neighbours are a mother (Inn) and daughter (Daisy, 1) decided to head out to Chiang Mai ‘beach’. Those of you that have been to Chiang Mai, or know that it’s located in Northern Thailand right up in the mountains might be thinking… ‘beach, what?’.

The place is actually called Huay Tung Tao Lake. It lies at the base of Doi Suthep (‘Doi’ means mountain in Thai). It takes about half an hour to drive there from our house, we headed off in a convoy of Inn’s car and a pick-up truck. Mos and I were in the back of the pick-up truck. The lake is part of a private park. So it’s in the middle of a large forested area.

As we pulled into the entrance gates and paid our ฿40 entry we started to see a couple of small stalls selling inflatables for the children to play with. Then we got a glimpse of the lake. It’s huge. And the beaches that run around the perimeter are lined with little open bamboo huts. Each served by one main, but pretty small restaurant. We parked the car and walked over to an empty hut, we’d packed some whiskey, coke and a few Thai dishes to bring with us. But one the girls (I was the only man of the eight people there) spotted the menu we had fish dishes, rice dishes and a variety of other very tasty looking offerings arriving at our hut.

I went off for a paddle with Daisy. She is one, and completely obsessed with me.  She calls for me through the metal fence that separates our gardens, she cries when I go out to get groceries and she constantly tries to bring me food. Anyway, we went for a paddle. She found it hilarious.

On the other side of the lake I could just about make out a paddle boat rental company. But to get there would have taken about an hours walk. And they were shaped like swans. So decided to head back to help tackle some of this mountain of food that was amassing in our hut.

As we came to the end of our food, and more importantly, our whiskey. The sky suddenly got noticeably darker and we got pelted with wind and light rain. The temporary looking shelter on the beach that we’d considered sitting under was now sheltering three scooters from the light rain. But not for long. After the wind and rain increased dramatically the shelter collapsed knocking over the scooters and burying them in the beach. Again, Daisy found this hysterical. She laughed for the whole time the owners of the bikes tried to remove the shelter and dig out the bikes to wheel them to safety whilst still being pelted by the wind flying off the surface of the lake.

We quite rightly decided that it was time to go home.  The girls loaded up the car whilst I walked the grandmother (who speaks no English) to the toilets. Most of the path had washed away but the weather was starting to calm down. Whilst waiting for the grandmother, Mos, my wife, decided to dig up some of the plants from the flower beds surrounding the toilet… she said they would look great at our house in some nice pots. I agreed, so she took more.

Once we got home, we all scattered off to warm up and have showers. Overall, I think it was a successful day. I enjoyed it anyway.

Baltica7

I’d been back from Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days when I got the call to head back to Bangkok to oversee a TVC shoot (Television Commercial). It was for Baltica7 a Ukrainian beer brand. Mos gave me a lift to the airport on the scooter and I checked in and boarded within and hour. Chiang Mai airport is brilliant. Flew with Thai airways. Very good service, as you’d expect from the national airline.

The crew had all been booked into the Mayfair hotel, we’d also booked half a floor as a production office space including wardrobe department. As I was a late addition to the crew I decided to book myself into a hostel that I’d been wanting to visit for a long time (Lub d, Siam Square), and it was only a short commute via the BTS sky train to the Mayfair. Again, I opted for a private double room to accommodate my laptop and paperwork. It was a great hostel and a great room, I’d highly recommend it!

I had arrived in the middle of the prep work for the shoot. We had two days left until the recce then we were to shoot on the following day. I spent most of my time getting to know the crews and trying to pick out the differences in the techniques and structure of this production team in comparison to the UK crews that I was much more familiar with. The first thing I noticed was the quantity of crew. There was easily three to four times the amount of people there for the size of the shoot than would have been in the UK. We’ve shot big-budget beer commercials in the UK with crews of 15-25 people. This one was bordering on 80-85. I am of course referring to the entire crew list on both projects not just the staff in the Mayfair production office.

Each day I would jump on the BTS and go the two stops to the Mayfair hotel which cost ฿20 each way (less than 50p). And then head home the same way. Normally stopping in the huge food market in MBK on the way to get my dinner. But, on the recce day I had to meet the production vans at 05:30, well before the BTS opens. So I treated myself to a tuk tuk ride. After a bit of haggling, I got him down to ฿80.

The first stop on the recce was the street location, we had an awesome sunrise and managed to get some great photos and got all of the camera positions mapped out. Second location was Bangkoks Suvarnabhumi airport. We had booked a corner of the departures floor with floor to ceiling glass. as a backdrop. Really nice location. And the airport staff and security were very helpful. Final stop was the Bangkok Column apartment building. Here we had three locations, first, the 25th floor Long Table Restaurant, and second the 37th floor apartment and third, the huge 37th floor balcony.

We were up nice and early again the following day to start filming, shooting in the same order we had previously recce’d. I met a lot more of the crew, and was very impressed by the quality of the work. I have to be honest and say that when I moved to Thailand, I did not expect the production services to be up to UK standard. These guys were brilliant, all of them.

After the final shot, on the 37th floor balcony, we dished out some iced beers, sushi and cake. My first shoot in Bangkok was over.

Visa Run

When I arrived in Thailand to get married, I was issued a 30-day tourist visa on entry. I was on day 27 when I went to the Chiang Mai immigration office to get a 7-day extension. Enough time to prepare documents for a visa run to Kuala Lumpur. As I was now going to be working in Thailand I needed a visa that allowed the addition of a work permit. The most sensible and achievable was the Non-Immigrant B visa, the ‘B’ standing for business. In Thailand to obtain such a visa requires you to apply from outside the country at a Thai embassy. I’d done some research and found a few prime locations, but decided to head to Kuala Lumpur, which would also be my first visit to Malaysia.

My wife (Mos) and I both headed down to Bangkok on the overnight train from Chiang Mai. She was planning to visit some friends in Bangkok whilst I sorted out my visa in Kuala Lumpur. The next morning I booked my flights online, paid for them over the counter in 7 Eleven (yes, you can do that), and jumped on a minibus for the airport. Strangely the cheapest flights I could find were with Egypt Air, both the flight to and from KL were at most thirty percent full.

Once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur got on the KLIA Ekspres train and headed to my hostel where I had booked a private double room to enable me to complete my paperwork. I stayed at PODs in the Brickfields area of KL. Which is heavily populated by Indians as it is only a short walk from the famous Little India district. Brickfields is also home to a large population of blind people. Most have been trained to work in massage shops to enable them to earn a living. The area was great, loads of restaurants (mainly Indian), really good transport links as it is right next to KL Sentral station. PODs was brilliant too, highly recommended.

The next morning I was up and ready to head off and find the Thai Embassy, I’d heard it was a pain to find, and in the interest of saving time and hassle I got in a taxi. It took about forty minutes and cost about £5 ($8). Well worth it to not be drenched in sweat when arriving in my shirts and ‘smart’ jeans at the Thai Embassy. Once my number was called I went to the window, gave in my paperwork and the cash. Simple. Such a relief. I’d heard horror stories about other embassy offices. But it wasn’t over, I would have to return tomorrow afternoon to collect my passport, hopefully with a Non-Imm B visa in it!

I decided to spend that 28 hour window productively and got myself a two-day hop-on hop-off bus ticket and explored the city. Petronas Towers, museums, shopping centres and the old Colonial centre of the city with the mock-tudor club houses for the then British government. It’s a great city and I hope to go back with Mos one day.

When the time came I used my hop-on hop-off ticket to reach the Thai Embassy, this time via a much more scenic route (with commentary in a variety of languages). Lined up outside the embassy and waiting for the gates to open. Two hours later, I had my passport and with it, my Non-Imm B visa. I treated myself to a pizza and a cold coke and headed back to the hostel, ready for my evening flight back to Bangkok.