Absence

So, this is my first update in what feels like years. The lack of writing has been caused to a number of factors. I’ll try to cover as many of them as I can, and can remember now. One of the main reasons for me to start writing this blog was to have a detailed journal of what I’ve done, the adventures I’ve had and the trouble I’ve caused. Hopefully this update will fill the gaps that are missing.

MacBook Pro

There’s only one logical place to start in this update, at the beginning. It happened a couple of days after my last update. My MacBook Pro laptop melted. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not. I’ve had this MacBook since starting my last job in London. It was a company laptop, which was already four years old when I was given it. Whilst at the company it had been used for high demand editing, audio work, rendering and all sorts of other recording and mixing tasks. When I left the company, they gave me the laptop. By this point, in terms of video and audio work this laptop was very out of date and underpowered. This was highlighted by the battery failing shortly before I left. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, it was a great gift, but at that point the laptop was well past its prime.

Almost immediately after leaving the company, in March 2012 I packed my bags and headed back to, what at that point was my second home, the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. It was a few weeks before my wedding. At this point I hadn’t even started this blog. As you can imagine my mind was elsewhere. I had a whole new family to get to know. I had a paradise island to live on, and my friends around me.

Since entering the heat and humidity of South East Asia with me, the MacBook Pro hasn’t been under an average temperature of 30⁰C. Well apart from a few nights in air-conditioned hotel rooms in Malaysia during business/visa trips. As with all technology, the cooler you can keep it the better it performs. And as you probably already know, laptops have internal cooling fans to pull air through the machine and keep it cool. Which is great if your laptop it heating up to 60⁰C+. A steady stream of cool British air would pull that temperature back down to a more stable 30⁰C. However, when the laptop is in the humid heat of Thailand, rather than the cool British countryside, the air it pulls in is already warm.

One night, I left the laptop on overnight, it was downloading some television shows from the UK. By the time I woke up, the MacBook had failed. I rushed it to the local repair shop, then to a registered Apple repair shop. The diagnosis was grim. The logic board had overheated, with a last recorded temperature of 97⁰C. The logic board is the brain of a MacBook. So I was now left with a choice. I could replace the logic board at a cost of nearly £400, or I could let my brain-dead machine die in peace (in a cupboard under the stairs). I chose the latter.

Luckily, I had another laptop, a tiny Samsung NC10 netbook. I’d given it to Mos when I was using the MacBook. Although the NC10 is great for putting in a backpack and walking around town, or some quick web browsing, it’s a less than ideal machine for writing. The keyboard requires microscopic precision to hit the right keys. That, or the fingers of a five-year-old. I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d need to buy a new computer.

Damian

Shortly after I lost my MacBook to the heat of Thailand I got an email. It was from a friend of mine from university, Damian. We lived together in halls of residence then again later in a private rented house in our middle year. But more notably, we started a company together. The company was set up to produce corporate videos, with the aim of moving into television production once we built up enough cash to fund the transition. Damian and I started the company with two other friends of ours. The company was very successful and started to make profit after just two months of trading. We invested in cameras, new offices, staff and all of the other expenses you would expect of a growing media business.

Damian and I had taken a year off from our studies to run the company, and decided to take a temporary step back from the company the following year to complete our final projects and assessments. Whilst completing my final projects I decided to make my ‘step back’ a more permanent move and left the company entirely. I left for a variety of reasons, I wasn’t happy with making corporate videos, but I was more concerned about the lack of ambition and professionalism from the other two, that we had started the company with. So I left, and Damian and I gradually lost contact as I moved to London and he stayed with the company in Staffordshire.

Damian’s email said that he was coming to Thailand. No reason, no explanation. I put him in contact with my travel agent friend ‘Bangkok Dave’. Damian has a reputation for jumping on the first mode of transport that he sees. So I knew Dave would get him to Chiang Mai, where I live, safely.

Damian’s arrival in Chiang Mai would provide the second obstacle to my writing. We had a huge amount of catching up to do, and beers to drink. And I still hadn’t got a new computer.

We visited all of the tourist spots, drank in all of my favourite places and ate in all of my favourite restaurants, cafe’s and eateries. I also managed to get him addicted to the ham & cheese toasties that they sell in 7 Eleven. Sorry.

One morning we decided to ride our scooters up Doi Suthep (a mountain) and shoot a time-lapse video of the sunrise. We made plenty of sandwiches and headed off. The video was great, but the real memory of the trip was just relaxing on the side of a mountain, watching the sunrise, with a good friend and my wife.

Our most memorable trip with Damian was our drive from Chiang Mai to Pai. Which has one of the most winding and stomach churning roads I’ve ever driven on. We took the truck. Halfway through the drive we discovered that the tyres where backwards. As you may or may not know, car tyres are designed to turn in one direction only. It’s designed like this to push water from under the tyre to the side. Driving on backwards tyres pulls water under the tyre resulting in a very unstable drive in wet conditions. And we found this out on a mountain road, a few hundred meters above the canyon floor on a patch of road with only a few rocks to mark the edge. We span nearly 180 degrees.  But thankfully the road was fairly empty and I managed to keep the truck on the good side of the marker rocks. Don’t worry mum, we only drove another hundred kilometres or so on these tyres…

Once we got to Pai we met up with our friend who owned a bungalow resort on the mountain. We feasted on barbecued… well… everything. We drank whiskey, beers, shots, the lot. We then headed off into Pai to a karaoke rock bar. That was fun. And the next morning we all headed home. And yes we got the tyres swapped over before driving back!

The BBQ in Pai

On the drive back, on the very top of the mountain, the truck ran out of brake fluid. It was a spectacular place to break down. Luckily the local army base was able to top us up before we headed down the mountain. Something I’d always rather do with brakes.

Damian’s next stop was Australia, where he would meet his girlfriend Georgia and go travelling around outback in a campervan. So we said our goodbyes and we sent Damian back to Bangkok on the train. Bangkok has him now.

Bangkok has him now.

Bueng Kan

Almost as soon as he’d left, Mos and I packed up the truck and headed off on the 20 hour drive to our farm in Bueng Kan. So that accounts for yet another day of no blogging. And once there, I am put to work by the family. Chasing chickens, fixing trucks, feeding dogs, rescuing motorbikes from rice fields and other general Thai farm work. And as you may have guessed, there is no WiFi connection on the farm.

Our farm is also only a few hundred meters from the Thai-Laos border. It’s a geographical border in the form of the Mekong River, which runs from central China, all the way through south-east Asia and finally into the sea in Vietnam. It is home to many legends and religious tales. And as a result is very important to the locals that live along it. Here is Mos, my brother-in-law (Foamy) and Mos’ Mum (my mother-in-law) enjoying a some lunch overlooking the Mekong.

Lunch on the Mekong

The purpose f this trip to the farm was to hand over the new truck. So after showing them the ropes and handing over the paperwork we made our way back to Chiang Mai via public transport. Which means a five-hour aircon bus from Bueng Kan to Udon Thani, followed by an overnight bus to Chiang Mai. We opted for the more expensive ‘VIP Extra’ bus. Which includes wide seats that nearly fully recline, waitress served snacks and drinks, aircon, and you also gets blankets and pillows. The one thing you can’t upgrade is the endless and tight-turning mountain roads that will ensure you can’t sleep. Good fun though.

 Harry & Charlene

Once back in Chiang Mai, just as we’d managed to grab five minutes to relax, Harry and Charlene arrived. Harry is my younger sister, she works in PR, but we mustn’t judge her on that alone. The last time I’d seen her was at my wedding which she had flown over from London for. And we all know how hard it is to get PR folk to travel without the promise of pens, mugs, lanyards and other soon-to-be-binned freebies. Charlene is Harry’s housemate in Clapham. Charlene also works in PR, but in a different field.

Mos and I decided to make a sign to welcome them to Chiang Mai when we picked them up from the airport.

Harry & Charlene

Once they had touched down, collected their bags and laughed at our sign we gave them another surprise. We took them home on the backs of our scooters. Thai Style. They looked horrified.

We got home safely, and for the next week they kept me suitably busy and as a result, offline. We had a great time, I’m fairly sure they did too. One of my favourite memories was eating on Huay Ting Tao lake, literally. We love it there.

Huay Ting Tao

Mum & John

Soon after Harry and Charlene left, less than 48 hours after, Mum and John arrived. We repeated most of the activities that we’d done with Damian, Harry and Charlene. But we also did some new ones that even Mos and I hadn’t done. We went to the Elephant Nature Park (Mos’ first time), we flew to Mae Hong Song in a tiny twelve-seat plane, took a longtail boat to visit the Karen hilltribe (longnecks). Mum and John also accompanied us on another trip to our farm in Bueng Kan, that was awesome! We had a great month. It went far too quickly. And I hope to write about it, and all of the other events in far greater detail at some point. But the purpose of this post is to detail the reasons that I’ve not blogged in so long.

Hospital
Two days ago, I took Mos to the hospital, she’d suddenly come down with something and it quickly became clear that she needed medical help. I’ve been by her side since she was admitted and I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

Thankfully the issue is not too serious. Something to do with a virus and low blood pressure. But solved by a few days rest in the hospital on a variety of drips. And during this time I’ve managed to catch up on my blog. I nipped out and bought a new laptop just after Damian had left. But I had hardly used it. Mos is now fully recovered and at home. And I am back on schedule with my blog.

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!

Bueng Kan

Shortly after confirming my role in the new company we had started to look for places to live. We started off by looking online. Most of the property in Chiang Mai is managed by a handful of big estate agencies. I was amazed at what we could get for our money. The price I was paying in London for our two-bedroom flat could have got us a six-bedroom house, with swimming pool, aircon, tennis court and an apartment in the back of the house for a live-in maid. Slightly different to our lifestyle in the UK.

We headed out to look at a house that we found online, just east of the city, and much more modest than the one mentioned above. We pulled up to the three-bedroom house, with a huge gate, perfect garden and pristine neighbouring houses. Sadly, it was already taken. As we got back on the scooter we spotted a small sign on the railing of the house next door. We phoned the number and the owner raced to meet us. The current tenants, three TEFL teachers from South Africa needed to move out. One had split with his girlfriend, the other had lost his job and the only one remaining just wanted to go home. Within two hours we’d signed the contracts and the house was ours.

To celebrate we planned a short break away to stay with our family in Bueng Kan. Although it’s possible to fly from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani and then either bus or hire a car. We decided to take the overnight bus. It was as uncomfortable as any of the other night busses in Thailand. The aircon is always either blowing our stale, warm air or ice-cold air, so cold you need to ask for blankets. This bus was the latter. We arrived in Udon Thani nice and early, so early this small town had not woken yet. We jumped into a tuk tuk to take us to a hotel we could get some rest in until lunchtime.

Once we’d woken up we got in another tuk tuk to try and find a car rental place. And after sitting in an office (living room) with two cats, three dogs and an elderly Thai woman for nearly an hour the owner arrived with a little Mazda hatchback. Which was surprisingly new and clean considering the office (living room) we’d been waiting in. We gave her the paperwork and with a hand-drawn map headed north to Bueng Kan. From there the route would rely entirely on my wife’s memory. The last time she made this journey she was six years old. I didn’t hold much hope…

We hit Bueng Kan, and as this was the closest town to our families house, we booked into a hotel. The, got back on the road for the short drive to the village. Once in the village we asked some locals to point us in the right direction and a few hours after leaving Udon Thani we had arrived.

It was great to see them again, and to visit there small and humble home for the first time. This was also the first time I would meet my new brother-in-law, Foamy (12). He was unable to make the long trip south to Koh Tao for our wedding due to a busy schedule of exams at school. The first time he saw me he was shy. He hadn’t seen many farang (foreigners) before, let alone a 6’1″ guy that’s now married to his sister. But, by the end of the day we were playing badminton on a patch of dirt with a ripped up net and DIY rackets. He won. Convincingly.

One thing I quickly learnt about my new family was that they love to eat. Or at least loved to offer me food, all the time. Language was a barrier, food was a bridge. We sat and ate food that they’d made all day. With friends and villagers coming and going to meet me and see my wife who they’d not seen for many years. It was a great day!

The next day we drove the short distance to our latex farm. A huge expanse of latex trees, each with a small cup hanging from a peg that is hammered into the tree to collect you seeping liquid latex. Our family have 750 trees which my are cut very early every morning by my mother-in-law and father-in-law. It’s a huge amount of work for a fairly small reward. To add and extra income they’ve also got two huge fishponds, each slightly bigger than a tennis court, which provides fish to sell at the local market.

That night we drove everyone to Bueng Kan for a music festival. It was much like any festival in the UK. But this one cost ฿40 each (about £0.80) to enter. Inside they had market stalls selling everything, televisions, socks, beds, furniture, gadgets, knifes, ballons, food, drink… everything. We worked our way to the main stage and laid down a mat to sit on before the crowd got too big. We sat and drank whiskey with our family and various friends and villagers who had joined us while the children went to play on the fairground rides. It was the perfect end to a great trip.