Ship Life

Here’s another landmark to add to the still relatively young 2013. As you will most likely already know from my previous posts, I’ve been waiting to be assigned a ship for my new job. Six weeks ago, whilst on Koh Tao, sitting in the office of a small production company, I got an email. This was the email I had been waiting for. It simply read; ‘Ship Assignment – ENCHANTMENT OTS – Baltimore, MD – April 13th’. Which is American for the 13th April. At the time, this was only three weeks away. Which was great, something was finally happening. But it also meant that I would be leaving Mos far sooner than we’d expected. But as we’ve discussed many times, this was going to be great for our future. My new job on the ship would allow me to take home plenty of tax-free cash, and, they’d be able to hire Mos too. We’d be able to build our savings account to the point where we could buy a house in the UK, or, retire in Thailand in the space of a few years. And of course, you need money before starting a family.
Shortly after I received the email Mos and I started running around the island doing last bits of shopping that I’d neglected. Socks for example. Living in Thailand socks quickly make their way from the wardrobe to the bin. We had parties, sometimes multiple parties each day. On an island like Koh Tao, the resident community is small, and as a result people want to say goodbye when someone leaves. But as most of them are small business owners finding a single date and time for a party is nearly impossible. So, and I’m not complaining about this, we have lots of leaving parties.
Royal Caribbean, my new employer, had booked my flights from Bangkok to Washington DC. But I still had shopping to do and more importantly a visa to get! So I headed off to Bangkok to start the process, which annoyingly, was at precisely the same time as Songkran, Thai new year. Songkran is effectively the worlds biggest water-fight. It’s brilliant. But it also means that the entire country, including foriegn embassies close down for the week. Luckily I managed to get my visa granted, hours before the shutdown.
A couple of days later Mos traveled up from Koh Tao to meet me in Bangkok. As this would be the last few days we’d spend together for possibly up to seven months we decided to treat ourselves. We went for nice dinners, shopping, sightseeing and even to Siam City theme park. Where Mos proved to me that roller-coasters really can make someone projectile vomit. Despite this, we had a great day.
Once Mos and I had exhausted our time, money and bodies it was time for me to leave. I picked up my new suit, tuxedo and shirts from my tailor. Packed my bags and headed off to the airport. Mos and I had one last milkshake together before I disappeared into customs. I hate leaving her, especially at airports.
I flew with Qatar, who I’ve flown with a few times in the past and they have always impressed. This trip was no different. And in case you’re wondering, Doha airport still has a huge amount of camel themed souvenirs along with countless diamonds, jewelery and watches for sale.
Once I arrived in Washington I was met by the US Immigration team. And like all crew, apparently, ushered into a waiting area where my visa and passport where double and triple checked against their various databases. After an hour I was let through. The first thing you see when you leave Washington Dulles airport is a huge American flag. Today it was back-lit by the sun with perfectly trimmed grass surrounding it. It was like I’d walked into a film. After a short wait my van arrived to pick me up and take me to my hotel.
Maybe it was the 32 hours of traveling. Maybe it was the feeling of elation after finally getting through customs. Maybe it was just me being acclimatised to rock-solid mattresses and hot, humid rooms in Thailand. But the Holiday Inn at Washing Dulles airport had the best bed. Ever.
During the day other new crew arrived at the hotel. Most of us had arrived by the time we had our complimentary dinner in the restaurant. I met a guy from Serbia who was going to be signing on as Stage Staff. His name is Srdan, but it’s pronounced the same as the English word ‘surgeon’. It turns out Serbia is one of the biggest denominations of crew on this ship, behind the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
The following morning we were all picked up by a coach and driven to Baltimore, which is just over an hours drive away. Once we arrived at the port, US Customs and Border Patrol met us and led us into a secure crew area where our belongings were x-rayed and we were searched. Finally we were moved to  secure holding room with tea, coffee, pastries and the usual tea trolley bits. We had to wait for the passengers to get off the ship, once they were, staff distributed our contracts and other paperwork and took or passports. Then, we were led to the gangway of the ship. On the ship we dumped our luggage in the middle of deck one, which, apart from a small area for guest embarkation, is completely for crew. We waited in line at the HR office to have our photos taken and information checked. Once we had completed that, each persons supervisor came to pick them up and begin to show them around their relevant work, living, leisure, eating and emergency areas.

Enchantment at DockEnchantment at Dock.
Thankfully, my job comes with a rank. I’m a 2-stripe officer. To give you perspective, the captain is 4-stripe. And out of the 850+ crew, only 240 of us are ranked with stripes. Starting with half-stripe followed by 1-strip, 1.5-stripe, 2-stripe and so on. The crew is further divided into three groups; crew, staff and officers. Officers are the marine department, the people that stand in the bridge, along with the various heads of engineering and so on. The crew are the people that keep the ship running; engineers, cooks, cleaners, deck boys, painters, laundry and so on. The staff are the people that are neither required to operate or maintain the ship. The staff are the luxuries; executive housekeepers, concierges, cruise directors, managers and me. I work in the Broadcast team. I say ‘team’, really it’s just me and Frank. Between us we manage all of the broadcast related satellite equipment, the encoders, decoders, streaming systems, scheduling systems and just about anything on the ship that involves video of any description. Having said that, the collective term for all employees is ‘crew’.
My job and rank means that I have access to all of the guest areas, all day, I can use any of the crew, staff or officer facilities and most of the guest facilities. In-fact, tomorrow I will be going to the on-board spa & saloon to get a long-overdue haircut. One restriction on all crew, even the captain, is use of the casino. No employees, of any rank or role can gamble on board. Which is fine, because even if you did want to gamble your wage away, there are plenty of casinos in the ports we visit.
Another restriction that applies to all employees is alcohol. Royal Caribbean operate a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs. You’re allowed a blood alcohol content level of 0.04 whilst on-duty, and 0.05 when off-duty. Both of which are far lower than most drink/drive limits. If you’re found to be over these limits at any point you will leave the ship, and the company at the next port. As for drugs, any possession, use, or trace in your system of drugs will result in you leaving the ship at the next port, getting fired and being turned over to local authorities. Which could mean a 25-year prison sentence in a small jail in the Bahamas. Not good. None of which bothers me as I’ve never touched drugs and I very rarely drink alcohol.
During my first two weeks on the ship my predecessor, Homer, was on-board to show me the ropes and get me up to speed. Which on this ship meant showing me all of the equipment that is broken, or about to break and how he manages to do his job around them. Homer is now on a four-month holiday and will be rejoining the fleet in Australia on the Radiance of the Seas. It’s a hard life.
My first two weeks didn’t only involve Homer showing me computers that pre-date most modern civilisations, I also had ‘training’. Training, like most other things on the ship is divided into stuff you need to know to save your life (Marine), and stuff you need to know to make guests happy (delivering the ‘wow’). We had two or three sessions each day. I, unlike most, found the marine training interesting and looked forward to each session. After all, it could literally save your life. The training that they call ‘Delivering the WOW’ bored me to my core. There are hour long presentations on how to smile at guests, how to point at things in ways that don’t cause offense, how to converse with guests and various other life-lessons that anyone who wasn’t locked in a box from birth would have picked up by the time they were ten years old. I hated it. With a passion.

Enchantment in ArubaEnchantment of the Seas in Aruba.
Our ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, is now one of the smallest in the fleet. She is rumored to be second in line to be sold off or given to one of our subsidiary companies. This rumor was as good as confirmed when she was scheduled to leave her 14-day cruises from Baltimore and move to a 3/4-day cruise schedule from Port Canaveral. 3/4-day cruises are like a hospital ward for the terminally ill. Ships are sent there to keep them running and operational until they die, are sold off or scrapped. I joined the Enchantment on the 13th April 2013, which was her last ever voyage from Baltimore, as she repositioned to her new home port of Port Canaveral.
We arrived in Phillipsburg on the island of St. Maarten after three full days of sailing from Port Canaveral. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from Phillipsburg. But I wasn’t surprised at what I found. Disappointed, but not surprised. Phillipsburg, much like all of the ports I have visited since, was full of brand name shops. Each of the ports has the same 8-10 brands. Each port has the same arts and crafts markets selling branded trinkets, most of which are made in China and printed with the name of the port you happen to be in. Phillipsburg represented everything I dislike about the classic package holiday. I’ve never understood why people travel half way around the world, get on a ship, and then get off and shop in the same shops they have in any mid-size city back home. I also dislike the time restrictions. When I go to a new place, I want the freedom to explore the local scenery, meet local people and eat local food. Cruise passengers pile off the ship, go to the generic beaches, eat in McDonald’s and shop in the brand shops. Maybe I’m the strange one…
On the evening of the ninth day of the voyage we had to divert into Nassau, Bahamas due to a medical emergency with a passenger. Probably a case of too much McDonalds. People on cruise ships eat like machines. It’s amazing to watch.
Before reaching Port Canaveral I had to familiarise myself with all of the equipment before Homer left. As I said before, this was less training and more showing me what was broken and how they work around it. For example, the edit suite is a 2006 vintage AVID with less processing power than pretty much any new $300 off-the-shelf laptop. I won’t spend this entire post complaining about the dated computers, miss-used equipment or broken machinery that we have in broadcast. Largely because I’m not sure I have enough time to make the list. I’m only here for seven months afterall.
After the various Caribbean and Bahamian island stops, which all fitted nicely into the crew shopping motto of ‘same shit, different port’, we arrived in Port Canaveral. Our new home. From this point on we will be only taking three and four day voyages. The three day itinerary is as follows; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – Nassau, Day 3 – CocoCay, then we arrive early in the morning back in Port Canaveral in order to disembark the guests and pick up the new ones. The four day itinerary is; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – CocoCay, Day 3 – Nassau, Day 4 – At Sea.  Port Canaveral is in the US state of Florida, the other two stops are both in the Bahamas.
CocoCay, which you may not have heard of, is our private island. It is owned by Royal Caribbean and is for the exclusive use of our guests. The island is a nice small island, there is snorkeling, hiking, jet ski hire, swimming, beaches and so on. There is also a very large, free, barbeque. Which I’m pretty sure is the reason most people really go. Cruises seem to be almost entirely centered on eating.
Nassau is a small town in the Bahamas, with western prices. We’ve also been warned by our chief security officer that the Bahamian police often set up drug selling operations to try and sell you drugs and then arrest you. The prison sentence in the Bahamas for drug possession can be as severe as 25 years in jail. Nassau, lives up to my earlier description of the ports we visit. One thing that is particularly depressing about Nassau is the large amount of puffer-fish and starfish that have been caught and dried out to be sold as souvenirs. Having seen many varieties of both these species in their natural habitats around the world, I can’t see the attraction of having a dead one sitting on your mantle piece.
As far as life on a ship goes, it’s great. I get free food, free gym time, free accommodation, I pay no tax, I have no bills and I get paid to effectively be on holiday. Much of my time is now spent trying to get Mos, my wife, onto the ship. Part of the deal when I signed up, was that they would provide Mos with a job on my ship. So far they are proving to be as useless at this as they were during my sign-on period. However, tomorrow our ship gets a new HR manager. Hopefully that will speed up the process!
We are currently sailing from Coco Cay to Port Canaveral, where we are due to arrive in nine hours. I hope to be getting off, I need to open a US bank account to keep my cash safe. It also makes it easier to buy online and send money back home to Thailand. Not sure if I’ll be going with someone or not. Most of the people I know are ‘management’ level, so they don’t have timetabled work hours. Like me, they just have to make sure they are there when something breaks.
Port Canaveral itself is fairly basic. There are taxis or a shuttle bus for the crew to head into town. There is a small shopping center (Mall), a Walmart, Cocoa Beach, Hooters, McDonald’s, a Post Office and various other eateries and shops. Most of the crew head to Walmart to stock up on luxury snacks, toiletries and drinks. The on board crew shop – ‘The Slop Chest’, is fairly limited in selection. It’s also our only American port. Which means that any crew that are signing on or off their contracts change over here. Which adds to the chaos.
Changeover day (Port Canaveral) is where we load on the new guests. Which means that at 15:45 each changeover day we have a full emergency drill for the passengers (PAX Drill). I am part of a seven person life boat team based at muster station 2. Which is good because it means I get a seat on a life boat rather than a life raft in a real emergency. But it’s bad because I will have to control 143 scared and panicking tourists.  I don’t mind it too much as I get to shout at them for 40-minutes detailing how they will all die if they don’t listen to me.

This is my life boat, lowered and ready for lowering in Nassau, Bahamas.

Enchantment Lifeboat

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.

Khao San, our new dog

At one of the supermarkets Mos and I regularly use, Little C, as we like to call it. It’s a BigC, but there is a bigger one further up the road. Anyway, unlike supermarkets in the UK the supermarkets here are normally all raised up, with a mixture of parking, stalls and shops under them. One of the shops at Little C is a pet shop, it’s always got a selection of puppies, hamsters, budgies and other furry friends in the window.

Anyway, one day we spotted a pair of Beagle puppies. I love Beagles they’re brilliant. These two females were for sale at 6,500 baht each (£130). I was expecting a fairly high price tag as we paid a fair amount for our Norwich terrier, Fudge, who is back in the UK. After some research I found out that the gene-pool of pedigree dogs in Thailand is very small, often only a handful of breeding pairs. As a result the dogs can often have health issues. And sadly, these are normally far more severe than the average vet is able to treat. As a result of this, and the price, we decided to stay clear of the pedigree dogs.

The next time we walked past the pet shop the Beagle puppies had gone. Mos and I were both a little bit disappointed. We’d already decided not to get them, but now we couldn’t even if we wanted to!

Later that day I started to search the internet for other options. I quickly came across Care for Dogs, a dog rescue centre about half an hours drive from our house. From looking at their website they had plenty of dogs available and also did some great work in rescuing vulnerable, injured and abused dogs from the streets and pet markets.

Rescue centres in the UK have to deal with dogs that are unwanted, homeless and sometimes dogs that have been abused. The rescue centres here frequently rescue dogs from meat markets, breading centres, pet markets, abusive homes and of course the soi (street) dogs. It’s a whole different issue over here. I know in the UK it is standard practice to have your dog neutered or spayed. Have regular vet checks and to care for them like a member of the family. Here in Thailand the pet dogs are often treated like their wild relatives, the African painted dog (which I spent a lot of time chasing around the bush and filming last year). These dogs that are left to roam are often not neutered or spayed. They form gangs, get into fights, get hit by traffic, catch diseases and generally become more and more feral until they eventually get killed, eaten or rescued by an organisation like Care for Dogs.

We visited Care for Dogs and met with Hanna, one of the workers there. She showed us around and introduced us to some of the dogs and their stories. I walked around the main holding pen area where most of the dogs are kept. There are dog houses, platforms to jump on and run under and of course, loads of dogs. Some had been bred for the illegal meat trade with Laos. They would have been kept in horrific conditions and I’m sure they would have seen other dogs die from the conditions or killed in front of them. Some of the dogs were bought as puppies and then dumped when they grew up. Others were simply ditched onto the street. Some had been abandoned at kennels. And some had been bred for the pet markets that churn out animals like a factory. The animals are born and put into a wire cage, given the water and food they need to survive each day, but apart from that left completely alone. They can’t interact with people or other dogs. They can’t exercise, play or socialise. These dogs grow up without any of the life skills you might expect. It’s one of these dogs that we rescued.

Hanna had shown us a few dogs and I’d had a walk around the enclosure. If we could we would have adopted ten or more. There are so many characters there. But, we sat back down and Hanna said she had one more dog. “She’s very shy and nervous” Hanna explained and then went to get her. She spent most of her time hiding under one of the desks in the office. She sat on Hanna’s lap for a few minutes whilst she told us her life story. Her name is ‘Khao San’, which means ‘rice’ in Thai. She had been rescued from a pet market where she had spent her whole life in a small cage. They estimated that she was between one to two years old and probably fully grown. It’s impossible to tell with these dogs as you don’t know the parents.

As Hanna talked to us with Khao San on her lap, it was clear she was very nervous and jumpy. Even when Mos when to stroke her she panicked and tried to run. Hanna put her back in the office and we looked at a few more dogs before leaving.

Over the next 24 hours Mos and I talked about all of the dogs and made a shortlist. But we both knew that we wanted Khao San. Mos had even started referring to her as Foxy, as she looks very much like a fox. We wanted to pick her up and get her home but we’d already planned a week visiting out family in Bueng Kan (North East Thailand). So we phoned Care for Dogs and told them that we really want to adopted Khao San into our family, and would pick her up the following weekend.

Our family in Bueng Kan have two dogs that are also fairly foxy in appearance. So the week we spent with them only got us more excited about picking up Khao San. And after destroying the suspension on our Honda Jazz hire car we were more than ready for the 18 hour drive home.

We phoned ahead and told Care for Dogs that we were on the way. Hanna said she’d get the paper work ready. We headed off  in our limping Honda Jazz, which thankfully I’d managed to spray and scrape most of the mud and dirt off. We arrived early and waited outside the gate for Hanna to come and get us. It’s crazy in the mornings, they organise the pick-ups of rescues dogs coordinate the rescue of others and all sorts of other things. So we waited patiently. After about ten minutes we spotted Khao San come out of the office to see what was happening. Clearly still nervous, but much better than she had been. We completed the paperwork, gave a generous donation and took her home. We very nearly also took a small dog call ‘Sweat Pea’ too, as Hanna told us they had become friends.

We got home, locked the gate and let her go. She had a nervous look around the front garden and eventually settled in a well sheltered and protected spot under one of our trees. She sat there for the rest of the day.

Over the next few days she began to relax, became more confident and generally got to know Mos and I. She walked on grass, which would have been a first for her. She also played with me for a few minutes. She was clearly not used to playing with me or with dog toys.

Now, a week after we adopted her she spends most of her time on the sofa or in her newly delivered custom made dog house, with designer pillow (made by Modern Pets). She is eating properly and will happily sit on our laps whilst we groom her. She is still far from fully recovered though, she is still very nervous around strangers, she won’t let us walk her on a lead, she is still very jumpy when there is a loud noise. But, every day is a big step in the right direction. And we couldn’t be happier with our decision to adopt her into the family.

LCCT – Low Cost Carrier Terminal

Once you find out what LCCT stands for (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) it makes you consider paying that £50 more to fly into a different terminal. The LCCT is a terminal of Kuala Lumpur (KUL) airport. It is the international home of AirAsia. Much like Heathrow Terminal 5 is home to British Airways. And like Heathrow T5 everything is branded accordingly. All of the planes I spotted parked up were AirAsia. Everything is red with white text.

This is both the first time I’ve flown with AirAsia and the first time I’ve flown into the LCCT. I have previously flown into the standard terminals at Kuala Lumpur with Eygpt Air. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the LCCT, or from AirAsia. I’d had mixed reviews when I asked people. But the comments seemed to favour the negative.

My first annoyance with AirAsia was that they offered a self-checkin at Chiang Mai airport. So I used the machine to scan my barcode and it printed my boarding card. Simple and very easy to use. I was then told that I needed to line up to get the boarding card stamped. In the same line that I would have used to ‘manually’ checkin. So that wasted ten minutes of my life. The airport staff were great. No issues there and the cabin crew were fine. I had to pay for my meal and a drink, which I expected as it’s well publicised on the website and the fare is lower. Also, the entire AirAsia fleet is brand new. So that was nice.

The flight was delayed by 51 minutes, but delays happen, especially at small airports like Chiang Mai.

Once we arrives in KL at the LCCT we got off the plane using the portable stairs, and walked around the airfield, unguarded, for about ten minutes before reaching the arrivals gate. Aside from it being a serious security risk, there is also the matter of health and safety. Passengers are walking through a ‘walkway’ but could easily wander in a different direction into oncoming vehicles. A problem that could have been solved with a handful of well placed safety stewards.

The terminal building is very basic, but clean and perfectly functional. It is the definition of no thrills. The LCCT relies on bus services to reach KL Sentral, these take about 70-80 minutes. As opposed to the superb KLIA Ekspres train that leaves directly from the other terminal building. The LCCTs busses are no match for the 28 minute KLIA service, with free WiFi. But the KLIA costs 70 MYR return (£14) where as the buses from LCCT cost 14 MYR return (£2.80).

My journey to the same hotel as before and leaving from Chiang Mai was actually faster and cheaper than previously. AirAsia fly direct from CNX to KUL, where as the higher price carriers don’t (not as frequently anyway), most stop in Bangkok. And the flight & bus combo has saved me around £80. So it’s not to be sniffed at. And I would certainly rather have £80 in my pocket than an airport with polished marble floors and an inflight meal that I didn’t want! I think the LCCT is a great idea. Every major airport should have one!

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.

Sleeping on a Helipad

Mos’ friend, Macky, who is a nurse in Bangkok, told us that she was planning on visiting Chiang Mai for a short break. She had just left her job, and had a gap before her new job started. I’d never met Macky before, aside from a few short messages on Facebook. Mos had met her a few years previously on Koh Tao. She was a customer at Mos’ dive shop, Scuba Junction.

Macky was going to be getting the bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. By far my least favourite mode of transport. There are plenty of regular and reasonable priced flights and a good reliable train link with sleeper carriages for an overnight trip. The buses, beside being horrible uncomfortable, are dangerous. Although the Thai media doesn’t like to cover them, bus crashes are frequent. And due to the lax health and safety policies and slow emergency response time. Often fatal. Every week I see reports, largely from twitter, of fatal bus crashes. The causes are varied, but a huge percent are due to driver error. Whether that be through drink, drugs, lack of sleep, lack of training or simply showing off. I’ve experienced examples of all of these. I really don’t like buses in Thailand.

When Macky arrived at Chiang Mai bus station I went to pick her and her suitcase up on the scooter. On our ten minute ride home monsoon style rain hit and thoroughly drenched us. As we arrived home and began to dry off Mos started to cook our dinner, pork ribs, on the barbecue. And before you ask, we have a very large porch, which we can barbecue under, even in torrential rain.

A couple of days into her stay at our house Macky announced that she was going to take Mos and I on a mini holiday. Right on the Thai border with Burma. Directly north of Chiang Mai. She knew a friend with a car rental business and would pay for the trip. So, of course, we agreed. Macky said that we’d drive up there, head into the mountains, and stay at a campsite she had found online. We would be able to hire a tent and bedding there, and as it was low season they’d have loads of space. No need to book.

I dropped her in town and a few hours later she returned to our house in a small Honda saloon car. As we headed north from Chiang Mai and into a much more rural, mountainous area it was clear that Mos and Macky were both feeling withdrawal symptoms from Facebook. Macky quickly spotted a coffee shop on the highway with a WiFi sign. Coffees ordered and iPads ready they searched for the WiFi network. It turns out that the owner of the coffee shop hadn’t paid his bills and was cut off by the provider a few months earlier. Shame. So we sat in this seating area overlooking the beatific mountain range the we were about to try to conquer. It was at this point that Macky got out her teddy bear and started posing it for photos. Mos and I did the same, but with each other. Not a teddy.

About an hour later, and another hour from our campsite, we stopped in a roadside restaurant for lunch. Both the girls pointed out that we are now clearly out in the middle of nowhere as they served buffalo. A meat that is rarely served in or around towns.

We continued into the mountains, the road got steeper and sharper and our car it’s an automatic gearbox was struggling. At a few points we only managed a couple of miles an hour. I’m still surprised the gearbox didn’t blow up.

Eventually we made it to the end of the road. There was a fork. The right turn turned quickly into a dirt track and through dense jungle. The other was guarded by a soldier in a green hut and a barrier. He said that the dirt track led to Burma. And his entrance was an army base. He said that we could come in to turn around and have a look if we wanted. They don’t see many farang (foreigners) in this part of Thailand. We parked in the base and started to look around. The first thing I saw was a military car the looked like an American military Humvee, but not quite the same. Almost like a cheap copy. The roof mounted machine gun however looked like it could do some serious damage.

The bad was basically a clearing on top of a mountain. In the middle was a helicopter landing pad. At the entrance tear the road were a few wooden buildings that appeared to be empty. Maybe used for meetings and cooking. Behind that an ammunition bunker. There were maybe ten small huts around the edge of the helipad each had two beds in for soldiers. There was also a toilet and shower block. All of the huts had their opening for the doors pointing the same way. The soldiers told us that was because the doors point towards Burma. The soldiers keep a constant watch on Burma. All I could see however was dense jungle until they pointed out a small speck of brown on the side of the adjacent mountain. That was the Burmese equivalent to the base we were in.

Just past the sleeping huts were bunkers dug into the ground. These had mortars set up and ready to go. It looked like they were all targeted at the Burmese army camp. Machine guns loaded and ready for action and platforms for artillery guns. Just past these was a dense fence of razor-sharp bamboo spears sticking out of the ground wrapped with barbed wire. Immediately after that was a steep drop into the dense jungle. Certainly looked like a pretty good deterrent.

Finding ourselves this far down the road meant that we had clearly missed our campsite. So we thanked the soldiers and headed back down the road we had come from. A few miles later we found a sign for a flower garden. Mos and Macky had clearly heard of this place as they seemed very excited. We decided to visit.

As we entered the gate to the gardens and paid our 40 baht (£0.80) per person entrance fee it became clear that this was not the type of garden that I was expecting. I had imagine a place like Kew Gardens in London. Arranged gardens with themes that you could walk through and take pictures. This was very different. All we saw were rows and rows of greenhouses stuffed with colour and workers carefully pruning and watering the plants. Some of the green houses grew plants for selling but some were cordoned off with fences, clearly separate from each other. Each of these was a research department. Some of them belonged to universities, some to government and organisations. My favourite one was ‘the Royal Centre for the Research and Development of Strawberries’. I’m fairly sure it is the only establishment in the world with that title.

Further into the gardens/farm we found an open garden, much more like the Kew type garden I was expecting. They had grass, trees, flowers, all sorts. Mos, who is a huge fan of flowers and gardening in general was in her element. Walking around smelling the flowers and taking pictures. It looked great, so many colours. I can’t comment on the aroma as I’m anosmic. Meaning I no longer have a sense of smell, see the link for more information. I lost it a few years ago after an accident involving my head meeting a Tarmac road at speed.

I headed for the more visually stunning parts of this garden. My favourite was the bamboo garden. It looked just like those you might find in martial arts movies. Or one of the default nature desktop pictures in a Mac (OS X 10.5 Leopard onwards). Yes, I’m a geek.

Macky wandered around sitting her bear on anything that was strong enough to hold its weight and snapped a load more photos of this clearly well-traveled bear. Is not quite as globetrotting as Paddington, but it must be close. In comparison, Mackys bear is far too underprepared for serious travel. Unlike Paddington, her bear is lacking a sensible coat, Wellington boots and a hat. Let alone the obvious schoolboy error of not having a suitcase. Now I can understand why he relies so heavily on the support of Macky. He’s simply not equipped to travel solo.

On the way out of the garden/farm I spotted a shop. It was fairly similar to what us Brits would call a farmers market. Local produce sold to local people. Handicrafts, fruit, vegetables, food, artwork and locally distilled strawberry brandy. We left with three bottles of it, and another of locally brewed ‘Zebra Vodka’. I’m fairly sure this is not fermented and distilled zebra juice. But… It looked interesting.

Somewhere between leaving the shop and getting back into the car I lost my glasses. I’m not blind, I don’t need these glasses to live, I use them for driving, cinema and looking at the amazing scenery around I see on a regular basis. Still, I was annoyed. I couldn’t find them. I blamed a dog, then I blamed school children who used the estate as a short cut back up to their homes. In the end, I accepted my loss and we left. With me moaning all the way.

My mood was not helped by our arrival at the campsite that Macky had planned for us to stay in. The campsite where we would hire a tent and bedding and didn’t need to book because it was low season. Well, it was low season, and they had been closed for two months. Great. I think Mos and I both considered putting Macky and her unprepared bear in the boot and making the long drive back to Chiang Mai and dumping the car in a temple. But, we didn’t. We kept driving hoping to find another site. We found two, both closed.

At this point, the dark of night was closing in and it was clear that we’d have to drive down the mountain in the pitch black. A road that has sheer drops, 180 degree turns and no safety barriers. Not to mentioned the frequent landslides that block the road or simply throw cars off it. Not some pitching I was looking forward to. But this is Thailand and the self-preservation part of your brain seems to go further into hibernation the longer you’re here. So we set off.

Before we reached the point of no return we spotted a green hut. It was another army camp. This one was positioned to look over the road that leads onto the mountain. It’s the only access road to the mountain and therefor this camp was in an ideal position to monitor the illegal logging vehicles.

We stopped at the gate and explains our situation. We asked if there are any other camp sites that they knew about. The soldier on the gate invited us in to talk to his superiors. We parked up and a man with a camouflaged jacket and t-shirt cam over to us. I quickly noticed that below the waist his attire was slightly less ‘military’. He was wearing Chelsea FC shorts and red flip-flops. Although he was the base commander and was surrounded by men with rifles, I thought it only right to express my dislike of his shorts. Mos and Macky looked at me in horror. Thankfully, instead of ordering us to kneel in front of shallow graves ready for execution he laughed and continued to talk to Macky and Mos in Thai about our predicament.

Although I don’t speak Thai, well nid noy (little bit), I was able to understand that he was pretty against the idea of us driving down the mountain on the road the his base overlooked, in the dark. He’d seen far too many accidents and had to recover too many bodies from the valley below. He disappeared for a few minutes to speak to some other soldiers. He came back followed by a couple of the base dogs, they could sense the bag of biscuits he’d just been passed. He told us that we could say at the base. Behind him, two junior soldiers walked over to the helipad and started to set up two tents. It was clear that this is where we would be sleeping. This base was similar to the previous one but this was all arranged in parallel lines. The huts and sleeping quarters in one line. then a small parking area a few meters lower, then the three helipads, then the bunkers and bamboo spear fences. The view from this camp was amazing. Infact the picture at the top of this page is of Mos standing next to our tents on the helipad overlooking the mountain range at 07:00 the next day.

We threw out stuff in the tents and decided to head back to a small village we’d seen to get some dinner. On our return to the base the soldiers had prepared a clay stove for us. It’s a traditional Thai way of cooking. It’s like a clay bucket that you light a fire in. A saucepan or work sits on top. The soldiers also explained that fires are illegal on the entire mountain range. But because we were under their supervision we could have one. As we sat cooking some eggs and noodles over the open fire a few soldiers came over and we sat talking for a couple of hours. They were all very friendly and hospitable. Far more than I’d expected.

Based on the advice from the soldiers we decided to get showered before it got too cold. It drops to around six degrees celsius in the mountains. The shower/toilet block was a concrete platform divided into three boxes with corrugated steel sheets and wooden posts. In each of these was a western style toilet seat, a large bucket with a tap above it and a small pan. The pan was for both flushing the toilet and throwing water on yourself to shower. It was very cold, but refreshing.

We lite a few candles and stuck them in the ground around our fire and decided it was time to crack open a bottle of whiskey we had brought with us. Macky the found a way to access the Internet on her iPad and disappeared into her tent to update Facebook. This left Mos and I cuddled up, sitting next to an open fire, on the mountain-top helipad of an army base in northern Thailand watching the campfires of the hill tribes light up as tiny specs on this huge mountain range in front of us. It was perfect.

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.

Elephant Nature Park

As soon as I arrived back in Chiang Mai, from Bangkok, I got a phone call saying that I was going to be picked up at 07:00 in the morning. We were providing production services for Leopard Films in America to film their House Hunters International series. It’s an ongoing project that the company has worked on various times in the past.

This episode was following a guy from America who was looking for property in  Thailand. Chiang Mai to be exact. If you’re not familiar with the show, they follow a person or family as they look to move abroad. They normally view 3-4 properties and then at the end of the show they pick one. During the course of the show they talk about their new lifestyle in the country and participate in various activities, normally ones that highlight the area they are in. It’s a widely used format, I know that in the UK we have at least three shows that are almost identical.

It was nice to be on a small crew again. We had a crew of six. Pretty standard for a documentary style TV shoot. Once again I had the chance to meet some new crew. And again, they were great.

I joined the crew after they had completed the filming of the properties. As I joined, we had two days of ‘activity’ filming. On the first day we visited some temples, which was nice, because Mos and I had only managed to visit a handful so far. We also went to a few spots around town for eating and drinking.

Day two was the real highlight. We went filming at the Elephant Nature Park. There are many places up here in the mountains of Northern Thailand to see elephants. If you want to ride one or see them working (Thai’s use elephants much like we use work horses in the west), you can go to a handful of places. Some of these places are great and care for the elephants like members of their family. Some, beat the elephants unconscious as part of their training, chain the elephants to trees for days on end and generally abuse them. Sadly, for tourists, you won’t be able to know for sure until you get there. If you ask to see where the elephants sleep or how they are trained etc and the staff get defensive, you have almost certainly stumbled across a place that tortures elephants in the name of tourism. If they are open and happy for you to look around and the elephants seem happy, hopefully you’ve found a good one.

The Elephant Nature Park, is different. They rescue elephants from work camps, tourism facilities and zoos. Any elephant that is being used for financial gain is rescued. They bring the elephants to their park, give them medical assistance, get them healthy, then let them roam free around the expansive park. Visitors to the park are educated about the use (and abuse) of elephants and taught the story of each elephant at the park.

Each elephant at the park has a member of staff that looks after them. They feed them, walk them down to the river and bath them and generally build a friendship between them and the elephant.

We arrived to film the visitors feeding the elephants, or course we all had a go. My favourite was a blind elephant (I can’t remember the cause). She could hear you and would feel around with her trunk until she found you and then find your hand and then take the fruit.

After a few hours of feeding and filming interviews we walked around the park with the elephants occasionally coming over to see what we were up to then wandering off again. Some of the elephants were clearly still a bit nervous around people showing their previous lives of fear. Others just wanted to play or take the camera.

In the afternoon we walked with a few of the elephants down to the river, where volunteers can help bath the elephants. For most elephants this is a fun exercise. For some, this assistance from the volunteers is the only way that they can bathe. One elephant, called Medo, carried an extremely visible limp and disfigured hip from a life of abuse. Please read more about Medo by clicking her name (it’s a link). Here is a picture of Medo that I’ve pinched from the Elephant Nature Park website –

As you can see. She is severely disabled. But thanks to the park she is living freely, without abuse and in the company of other elephants. Medo is just one of the many stories at the park. If you want to help you can look at the Elephant Nature Park website here.  You can volunteer there, they will provide accommodation, food etc. Or you can just visit for the day. I would highly recommend a visit. Although you can’t ride an elephant as so many people seem to want to do. You are able to see happy and ‘free’ elephants playing, socialising and generally being elephants.