The recently released foreign office figures say that proportionately, Thailand is the place that Britons abroad are most likely to find themselves in trouble and in need of diplomatic assistance. Against that backdrop it should not surprise the reader that my all time worst travel experience involved the Kingdom with which I have something of a love/hate relationship.
The final leg of my round the world trip was a month in Thailand, it was my first visit to the Kingdom and I had fallen in love with Songkran in Bangkok, the islands of the Andaman and the gulf, and the seemingly insane Thai people.
Prior to my heading home to the UK I had ventured to the far north of Thailand to experience what many others had done before me, a Thai jungle trek. I spent a couple of days exploring the much cooler and more relaxed Chiang Mai, enjoying its markets, restaurants and many bars.
I had booked a trek through the guest house I was staying at, it was to be an early morning start. The night beforehand I ventured to bed early and dreamt of rolling Thai hills, elephant riding, pure mountain air, and dare I say a little opium, if there were any to be had.
I rose early, the kitchen at my guest house wasn't open and so before I met the trek guide, I headed out in search of food, soon I came across a market. Stallholders were busying themselves in setting up for the day: gas stoves were lit, meat and fish were being unloaded and prepared - the raw unwrapped produce being handled by the filthy and oil stained hands of the delivery drivers - huge bags of vegetables and spices were being unpacked for wholesale or being broken down and sliced ready for the wok.
The market buzzed with the sounds of Thais bartering, gossiping and indulging their love of sanuk above the roar of the diesel engines and the clanking of container doors. The air was a stifling mix of diesel fumes, rotting meat, spices, butane and cigarette smoke. I found a grill being manned manfully by a Woman, and ordered a few skewers of the meat she was hawking. She presented me with the stuff, which I took to be duck, and handed over the equivalent of about 15p for the privilege.
The duck was spicy and delicious, I wolfed the lot down as I am wont to do, and headed back to the guesthouse where the group had already assembled. I surveyed the people quickly, I knew from experience that the quality of the group was equally as important as the trip itself.
The market buzzed with the sounds of Thais bartering, gossiping and indulging their love of sanuk above the roar of the diesel engines and the clanking of container doors.
I looked at the group of ten and, as I guess most people do, immediately assessed them:
1. Three Canadian guys, I could tell this as Canadians have the habit of plastering their clothes and luggage with Canadian flags, presumably so that people don't mistake them for Americans and attack them. It could go either way with these two, I thought, and I held fire on my judgment until further notice.
2. A short, lean, pale, bespectacled man sporting a wispy beard, loose fitting khaki clothing and brown sandals. Western European definitely, not British, Irish or French and certainly not from the Med. Guaranteed vegetarian. He was accompanied by his equally pale, mousy haired, fat arsed wife - one of those Women who had relinquished what femininity she may once have possessed in favour of short hair, no make up, a "natural" aroma, hiking boots, and the exact same khaki gear her husband was wearing. In my assessment she would be the domineering and scolding matriarch, he was the browbeaten and put-upon husband. He the perpetual victim of her unerring zealousness. Fuck me, I thought, I'll be giving those two a wide berth. As an aside it turned out my assessment was totally correct. Despite viewing myself as open minded, stereotypes, it seems, are sometimes spot on.
3. A fat girl - I don't know why or how, every trip, every excursion, every God damned soiree I've ever undertaken alone, she has been my unwavering companion. A constant in an ever changing world. She is always alone, always unfailingly lovely, always jolly and generous. In this incarnation she had taken the form of an Australian backpacker. One of the good guys, I decided.
4. Whahey, three people from the UK, one lad and two lasses, all from the north by the look of them. No trouble here, we'd get on definitely. They'd be up for a drink round the camp fire, result. If the British and Irish have found their place and purpose in the world it is this: they will comfortably drink anyone from any other nationality under the table. Easy.
5. My gaze fell on the final two people, two tall young girls, Teutonic in appearance, both of a similar height, around five feet ten. The first had blonde hair, dark green eyes and a striking smile from which behind came perfect white teeth. The second had darker, treacle coloured hair, the same smile, the same white teeth, again, big, dark, green eyes. Both were dressed in the very shortest tight khaki shorts - the contrast with the vegetarian couple from the Infernal Regions did not elude me - that showed off their long, tanned, slim and perfect legs. Needless to say they were both gorgeous.
The voice inside my head, that is to say, my internal monologue, which for many years now has spoken with a heavy cockney accent, chimed in rudely; "you've got no facking chance with them two birds, sunshine".
My gaze fell on the final two people, two tall young girls, Teutonic in appearance, both of a similar height...Needless to say they were both gorgeous.
In the minibus out of town I took the safe option - I made friends with the British, it turned out I was right again, they were from the north, from Lancashire. As expected, the trek for them was as much about the stunning scenery as it was about consuming hefty amounts of Thai whiskey, of which they had brought plenty. The Fat Girl, as expected, was sweetness personified. The Canadians were relaxed and easy going, but I could tell they were going to keep themselves to themselves. The vegetarians from Perdition were holding a silent vigil at the back of the bus.
My attentions turned to the Teutonic visions of loveliness, both of whom were sat in the same row as me and had yet to speak.
"Hi" I said, "my name is Andy".
"Hi" they said in unison.
They then turned away and began a conversation in German.
"You muggy twat" said my cockney friend.
A few hours later our bus driver and guide stopped in a small car park and announced the trek was about to begin, before we headed off I decided to rearrange my bag, part of this involved moving some pirated CD's into another compartment.
The trek began, not more than a few hundred metres into what was to be a full day's slog, the lovelies walked alongside me.
"Hi Andy, sorry we didn't talk much earlier, I'm Katia and this is my friend Sabine".
"You jammy fucker!" came my internal reply.
The story unfolded, they were from Switzerland and on holiday for two weeks in Thailand, they were 18 years old and best friends. They were working in menial jobs and saving up to fund their University education. They had decided to treat themselves to a short holiday in Thailand before heading back to a few more months of drudgery and both were looking forward to going off to University life. Sabine had a boyfriend and Katia was single. Bonus.
Their reason for blanking me initially? It turned out they didn't know whether I was "cool" or not, but as I was rearranging my bag they had noticed that one of the CD's I was carrying was Kruder and Dorfmeister's "DJ Kicks". They thought Kruder and Dorfmeister were cool, therefore they thought I was cool too. Even at the tender age of 21 it was obvious to me that these girls had highly questionable and shallow reasons for deciding to like me.
However I was 21, I was horny and Katia was gorgeous and single.
As Groucho Marx said: "those are my principles, and if you don't like them...... well, I have others".
Onwards we trekked, our conversation rarely venturing beyond the realms of small talk - bands we liked, cities we had or would like to visit, I told them some words in Welsh - they didn't know there was a Welsh language - we were kids flirting. I say we, what I mean is, Katia and I. It was clear that Katia was interested, I knew that much. What I really needed was to seal the deal. Sabine did the job for me, she announced matter of factly that Katia hadn't met a nice guy on the holiday and that their trip was nearing it's end - "perhaps Andy, you are the right guy yes?". I looked at Katia, she nodded and smiled broadly. I smiled back in what I thought was a cool manner, inside my heart was pounding.
It was clear that Katia was interested, I knew that much. What I really needed was to seal the deal.
A cockney voice rang out inside, "you're in like Flynn me old son!"
The soil seemed to be made of marshmallow, the tough Thai terrain bounced beneath my feet. A Goddess awaited, she was mine, she was beautiful: Young, virginal, her treacle hair flowing down her perfect alpine back.
She was mine, I was hers, that was certain.
I was the Welshman that would fulfil the dreams that her honeyed, syrupy, treacle-gorgeousness demanded.
I wandered on a few steps, still I believe chatting away nonchalantly, moments later I realised the familiar sound of the group marching in unison had stopped, only my footsteps were audible. I turned and observed the scene, everyone in the group had stopped and were gaping at me open mouthed, I looked back at them, unaware of what they were staring at. I looked around for a while, curious as to the source of their interest. Upon looking down I saw what it was they were staring at.
For a few seconds time seemed to slow down as I took in the enormity of what had happened: The world seemed a hazy, incoherent blur, I was outside of my body looking in. As if in a dream I was stupefied and incredulous at the sight before me. The adrenaline began to subside and the piercing, unavoidable truth of my predicament was finally presented in the sharpest clarity.
I had shit myself in the most shocking and indescribable manner. I didn't even know it had happened.
The brown stuff was smeared all over my shorts and was running down my leg, the smell was revolting and already insects had started gorging themselves on the nutritious feast that had unexpectedly been presented to them. Seconds later I bore witness to a deeply distressing sight, more faeces started to run down my leg like a river, washing the feasting insects from my leg and sweeping them away in a torrent of putrid effluence. The fantastic material was clearly discharging from my Rusty Sheriff's Badge - and I couldn't even feel it.
The real low point however, the nadir, the moment of utter, total degradation and humiliation came when I looked up and saw Katia's eyes.
Just a few short seconds earlier I had been the object of her desire. I fancied myself as the handsome, tanned and lone traveller making his way in the world. I was a man that day, a 21 year old love machine that every other would envy. Swiss Goddesses were my bread and butter, a mere stepping stone to be negotiated on my way to being crowned as the untouchable love God that men wanted to be, and Women wanted to be with. That was then. This was now.
How much difference a shit makes.
The more perceptive among you will by now have realised that the duck I had eaten had given me a very serious case of food poisoning, and it was about to get much, much worse.
I had shit myself in the most shocking and indescribable manner. I didn't even know it had happened.
As the day wore on, as well as openly shitting myself on a regular basis I started to vomit as well, quickly this escalated to serious dehydration and eventually I was losing consciousness and falling over every few paces. The situation was desperate, the only way out of the jungle was to walk - for two days, I couldn't keep any water down, I was running a fever and I could feel my strength waning with every step. I discovered something about humanity over those few days and sleepless nights spent vomiting and shitting onto cold dirt floors in the jungle: shame and humiliation quickly subside once serious illness sets in, there is something in our nature that propels us onwards, willing us to survive. There is something fundamental that grasps at every last living sinew in one's body and pushes it forward step by awkward step. Personal pride does not feature at such times.
At one point the fainting became so regular that I started to question whether I would make it out of the jungle alive - this was probably gross exaggeration but the combination of weakness, an alien environment, a long walk and dehydration were beginning to play tricks on the mind. Or maybe not. The fact is I don't know how ill I actually was or how close I was to becoming a statistic - in the jungle there is nobody to tell you. The Thai guide was doing everything he could, which essentially wasn't much given where we were, it didn't help at all. By day three it was taking all my focus and concentration just to manage one step, I repeated this over and over, step after painstaking step, I made it to a roadside where transport was available.
I was driven to Chiang Mai where antibiotics were bought and fed to me, though by that point I was delirious and can't really remember taking them. They did their job a day or so later and so it was that after five days I was well again. I had lost two stone in weight.
Over those days as we were walking as a group, me shitting myself regularly, many of the other trekkers, even the couple from hell, consoled and comforted me - from a safe distance of course.
Katia never did, she didn't speak a word to me and as far as I know, could not bring herself to look. The last glimpse I had of her was when I walked through the jungle clearing towards the roadside, her eyes briefly caught mine and once again, that look of pity and contempt struck me right at the heart.
My parents named me Andy, had they possessed the gift of foresight or perhaps held a strong belief in nominative determinism, they might have called me Icarus.
I know how it feels to have flown too close to the Sun.
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