Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Thai Whiskey and Fish

Koh Lanta and the islands in general are regarded as malaria free. This is just as well because whether I am taking my tablets or not, I have been bitten unmercifully. This despite the fact that I smother myself to the point of vomiting with insect repellent, that I use mosquito coils continually (and why do mosquito coils always break in the middle, right at the point that rests on the little stand), and that, up until I had to change room yesterday, I was using a mosquito net. They take it out of you, I tell you.

Apart from the insects, and the incredible heat and the hangover I have been nursing all day, Koh Lanta is by far my favourite place in Thailand so far.

Sometimes I don't give myself enough credit with regard to meeting people. Yesterday I visited a remote beach called Kantiang. Soon before I had to leave (it was a half hour journey back and the afternoon was over), I met and had a lovely conversation with a nice Swiss French girl called Camille. Working in one of the resorts as part of her tourism studies, she told of dodgy food, bad transport, low wages (though she gets paid more than her Thai compatriots), an initial lack opf friends and ultimately a pretty good time in Koh Lanta.

I had gotten a local taxi to the beach for 200 baht, but getting back was not to be so easy. The only taxis at Kantiang were of the car variety and would cost 500 baht. Thumbing my nose at the travel agent who suggested this, I nearly had to eat my words and return to him. There really was no way of getting back. Luckily I spotted a courtesy minibus leaving one of the resorts and hitched a lift.

Something should be said on the matter of transport. Local taxis are motorbikes with sidecars. No, not like you're imagining, not like that at all. They are more like the tuktuks of Bangkok with the cabin attached to the side. If you don't feel like using these, you can instead hire a motorbike, and indeed it sometimes seems like the whole island is on two wheels. The one main road that circles the island is buzzing with motorbikes, a lot ridden by tourists, but most by indigenous people. Everytime someone is about to overtake someone else (all the time), they beep to let them know. The constant sound of the road is the beep.

I headed out along the beach to dinner, spurning the Rough Guide recommendations for my own instinct. Some of those Rough Guide recommendations have proved mediocre. 'Sayong', for instance, had excellent food marred by dismal service. I ate there twice on account of the food, but the second time, when after half an hour or more my squid eventually arrived, it was cold. There are a lot of waiting staff, but they are all taxi drivers getting some extra work, and end up standing around more than serving. Another recommendation, 'Second Home', had better service, but the food, though lovely, didn't compare. My choice last night was exceptional though. A local fish called the tama, something like a snapper, was served with lime and garlic. It was wonderful, though in my fervour to devour it I bit what I fear was part of its digestive tract. Apparently gutting a fish is not done as thoroughly here as elsewhere.

The restaurants and bars are all strung along and sometimes on the beach. Each one is lit up with lots of coloured lights and you can still find Christmas decorations hanging, such as an occasional dangling Santa. Look closer and you may even see a gecko walking around the inside shade of one of the many lanterns. At the far end of the beach, and requiring a taxi, stands the Reggae House.

The Reggae House is something of an institution here. A ramshackle collection of wood and straw, it hosts festivals and Bob Marley tributes all the time. Last night a Thai reggae band were performing, strangely. It wasn't like any reggae I ever heard. A Swedish woman got up to do a little karaoke, performing an impromptu Bob Marley medly. The fact that she hadn't a note in her head didn't detract from her performance which was drink-fuelled and gutsy. The band, strumming the same note for the majority of her performance, eventually stopped giving her as unfair a hint as they could. At one point she asked the (small) audience where they were from. A sinister group of three girls and a guy confessed to being Czech, but most of the others were Swedish. When I shouted out my nationality I was waved over to join a big group beating drums. On one side I had a Swedish nuclear specialist, on the other two very young, very sexy English girls who had just been accepted to Goldsmith's in London.

I think it is a little scary to report that a nuclear scientist was trying to convince me that Hitler got a raw deal in comparison with Stalin. That was what my Swedish friend ended up proclaiming. All politeness aside, I just couldn't agree, so we settled on banging drums to the music instead. This, I might add, after segueing seamlessly from discussing property prices in Thailand to describing the merits of Brazilian prostitutes (I don't know what his wife, a beautiful blonde, thought of all this).

The Swedish have made Koh Lanta, and some of the other islands, their own private playground. Many bring their families and stay for six months at a time. To cater for this trend then, there are apparently three Swedish schools on the island. The nuclear engineer was obviously well off and could afford five months off a year, while his father-in-law, evidently richer, wanted to buy property on the island. That was what led his discussion on to Brazilian hookers. (I don't know either.)

Tamsin and Phoebe, for those were their monikers, took up most of my attention when I disentangled myself from the Nazi. Phoebe had a very becoming scar on one cheek and a Devon accent like ambrosia. Tamsin, a little bit drunker and more nervous, had studied philosophy and was going to study English literature. She liked D.H. Lawrence, but then we all have our idiosyncrasies. Later when the Nazi had left, a former cameleer from Australia, now a youth worker with aborigines, joined the fray. He felt we should all stop having kids in order to clean up the environment. This time Thai whiskey, a flask of which he had, soothed everyone's feathers and we went to the beach. Unfortunately for my English aspirations, two young German guys also joined the group and were probably more to the girls' tastes. By 6 o'clock I decided to call it a night and walk the beach home. As I have said before the beach was long and without a majority of its lights finding my turn off to the resort was not easy. Nevertheless I made it back in one piece and with only a little backtracking.

This morning, or afternoon given that I got up at 12, I had a banana pancake for breakfast. Not quite like the pancakes I am used to, this thing was an inch and a half thick and tasty.

A nice swim was the next order of the day and again I got talking to the local blonde. Her accent sounded strange. Swedish? German? Try Kerry. Anne Brosnan was from near Castleisland and doesn't seem to have been back to Ireland in 12 years. She worked as a bartender in New York and a rock climbing instructor in China and was staying in Thailand for another two months having been here four already. She was also childhood friends with a good friend of mine from DCU, namely Kay Fitzgerald. It is, as I have seen again and again, a small world.

Anyhow I must now pack. Tomorrow I am being picked up at 7.30 and fly back to Bangkok.


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