My Thailand friends will know this place well. It's a quiet beach retreat - a very special place where you can temporarily forget about the rest of the world. This little bit of writing was inspired by my first visit there and completed on my return to Thailand after spending Christmas in the UK.
After the bustle of the bus in the stifling heat, a lonely motorbike taxi escorts you along quieter, less trammelled paths. It winds and meanders, skilfully avoiding the numerous gashes in the asphalt until one last turn introduces the sea – enticing and rapturous – and the city is only a memory.
Joe, a man probably much older than he looks, acknowledges you with a nod. He is a man who respects economy in words and generosity in deed, and his eyes - his bright, keen eyes that could have seen centuries – now see you and silently bid you welcome.
The drinks flow with the effervescence of the tide and music plays, adding rhythmic asides to the dancing of the waves.
New people become old friends. Old friends with new conversations and old ideas – perhaps the oldest ideas – as happens when wandering souls convene across the world and find themselves part of a shared story.
An old man with skin that hangs from his sun-bent bones like snakes draped on a cane chair sits apart, emoting into his silent and uncomprehending beer. Vaguely aware of the counterpoint of conversation around him – a chattering of nations and ages – he adds his own kazoo crash interjections from his barside pulpit.
“SIR DONALD TRUMP – HE LIKES TO TAKE IT UP THE RUMP!”
It’s a new theme, but it fails to disrupt the ensemble to his satisfaction.
So, with the indiscriminate generosity of a drunk, he dispenses his own fetid brew of divisive dichotomy and compels us all to take a swig: Republican vs Democrat, young vs old, Thai vs farang. C’mon everyone! Let’s have an argument, ya bastards! Give me a fight!
He longs to feel the sting of a fist just to remind him he still exists.
But nobody rises, and, invalidated, he evaporates into the darkness with the ghost friends of his whisky fumes.
Jambay is not the everyday clamour of politics and polemic. Such things are washed away into the white noise of sea spray and what remains is an eternal present, a pocket of time beyond the tyranny of news cycles, Facebook feeds, and ticking clocks. It’s a temporal enclave, this cycle of sun and sea. The beat goes on, but, this night, the counterpoint gradually thins as the instruments retreat to bed in groups and pairs and single swaying footsteps to dream their thousand dreams, leaving you – breathing alone with nothing but the soft water beyond.
Heeding its siren call you venture to the edge and stand in awe because, silently, and concealed by the music and merriment, Nature was busy preparing the stage for her own show, and now the house-lights are dimmed she can pull back the curtain and reveal her grand finale: a sky peppered with billions of blinking lights and iridescent hues. Infinitely dense, it draws you onward along the shore, further into the blackness, further into the effortless fractalicious complexity. You pause only to notice the cool waves lapping at your naked toes and as you look down, you see more lights: a blanket of bio-luminescence reflecting the canopy above, shining like gems in the abyss.
And then you realise: you are the only one here and this show, on this particular night, is just for you – your own personal introduction to The Universe. She beckons you closer, as if wishing to impart a confidence, and, for the first time, you feel that eternal present. It compels you to abandon caution and resist thought - to accept, to succumb.
And you do.
Clothed only by the night you embrace the ocean and surrender yourself to the stars.
I have an aversion to the word:
but, to me,
it evokes motley masses of oleaginy
jostlewrithing in uglycontest
synonyms sluggling it out in my sentences
like an amorphousaquatic
It drags me down
down in a slow dull death
Death by Plethora
by inchoate babelpleas of erudition
I collapse like a flatflan in the cupboard
as the Plethora devours me
in ululating uncertainty
or a lather of indecision
Last week I bought a cafetiere (or a French Press for our American friends). “Woah, Mikey”, I hear you say, “stop right there. I can’t cope with any more tales of your wild and outrageous life”. Yes, I’m living on the bleeding edge.
No, I really am. You see, in Thailand, real coffee – coffee from Brazil or Kenya or Java, you know, COFFEE – is really hard to find without going to a restaurant, sitting down and drinking it. Tea is easy. and abundant; I can swan into Tesco (yes, Tesco) and pick up all the Twinings Earl Grey I can carry. The only coffee available, however, is a sickly, sugar- infused powder in a mug. So, after yet another enervating breakfast featuring my seven-hundredth cup of Nestle Instant Disappointment, I resolved to end this barbarism once and for all. This proved to be easier said than done. A cafetiere is a difficult object to find in these parts. It’s hard to explain what you mean to a non-English speaker – there’s the French name for a start. Nonetheless, undeterred and spurred on by a burning, reckless optimism, I began the search in my local 20 baht shop. These wonder emporia – microcosms of the sum total of one’s existence – profess to sell a universe under a roof. Batteries, cutlery, saucepans, hosiery, screwdrivers for everything – even Apple things – clothes hangers, DVD players, USB chargers, Bluetooth speakers, indoor heaters, windcheaters, nail files, box files, socks and tights, bicycle lights, cheap dresses….but no French Presses. No, it seems that whatever Creator devised this gallimaufry for the needs of all humankind wasn’t that much of a coffee drinker.
I proceeded, my burning optimism now a bit soggy, to the only other place I could think of, Robinsons, the out-of-down department store. Robinsons has everything you need to make a house into a stylish home at just slightly more than you’d expect everything in a stylish home to cost. A sociologist might call its pricing “aspirational”; I call it “pant-wettingly exorbitant”. I recovered my composure in the household appliance section, surrounded by a selection of reassuringly expensive coffee makers, grinders, steamers and seducers – too rich for my modest means. So, I find the assistant who is hiding behind the kettles, desperately hoping I don’t ask him anything.
“I’m looking for a French Press?", I venture in an embarrassing absence of any Thai words whatsoever. His impression of a startled gazelle is impressive but not encouraging. Perhaps if I mimed a plunging action it would help? No – the gazelle remains dumbfounded. This is going to require a complete performance. So, I point to the grinder and pour my imaginary beans into my imaginary pot. I make percolation noises as the imaginary water begins to brew the imaginary beans. I plunge on the imaginary plunger and pour the imaginary coffee into my imaginary mug, sniffing the imaginary aroma and adding a declamatory “mmm aroi mak!” which seems appropriate for the development of my imaginary character. This unswerving commitment to the Method works a treat and the assistant directs me - rather too quickly for my liking - to a shelf replete with glassware, teapots, teacups, measuring cups – and about a dozen cafetieres.
Ah, the agony of choice! I examine the treasures before me – an embarrassment of riches in every shape and style. Broadly speaking, though, they fall into two distinct categories; posh looking and expensive, and the one I’m going to buy. I select the dusty, neglected, slightly battered box on the bottom shelf which has been shunned by its wealthier, more sophisticated brethren. This cafetiere is small, and encased in a fetching blue plastic. It costs 150 baht and it’s coming home with me – The Little Cafetiere That Could.
The fires of my caffeine addiction now stoked by the excitement of my new purchase, I set off again in search of coffee coffee coffee. As any expat living in Thailand will tell you, there is only one place you go to find the culinary comforts of home in a strange land. Be it French’s Mustard, Schweppes Tonic Water, Tim Tams, Jacobs Creek Chardonnay or Campbells Soup, you will find them all in this Valhalla of expat cuisine; I refer, of course, to Tops Market. Tops Market has all the tasty treats you know from home at about four times what you’d expect those treats from home to cost. Well, you are paying for the Emirates flight as well, I suppose. You can always spot the British tourists in places like this: short, pink, and standing by the biscuits trilling -
“Ooh look, John, they’ve got Chocolate Hob Nobs!”
This is invariably followed by –
“Bloody ‘ell, Mary, that’s about four quid! Put them back, love.”
Yes, citizens of the world, these are my people.
I politely nudged my way past the now bickering biscuit enthusiasts and we acknowledged one another with a cursory nod, complicit in this shared and exclusive ritual. Beyond them, I discovered the coffee, but I’m afraid it was the usual slim pickings. All the brands I recognised - Nestle, Kenco, Douwe Egberts, even Waitrose - were Instant only. This left me to contend with the Thai products which, being Thai products, with descriptions of their contents written in Thai, made their identification as decent coffee somewhat problematic. Therefore, I spontaneously devised my own bespoke method for ascertaining their contents, of which I am now rather proud - something I shall refer to from now on as Coffee Fondling. This is how it works: you put your ear to the coffee whilst gently squeezing each packet with your fingertips, feeling for the size and sound of the granules inside. Large, loud and crunchy = Instant. Small, quiet and powdery = the good stuff. I set to work at the far end of the aisle, systematically working my way back up towards the biscuits. Fondle fondle – instant. Fondle fondle – instant again. Fondle fondle – Oh, for God’s sake! “Does no one in Thailand drink proper coffee?!” I’d reached the end of the aisle and the end of my tether. Exasperated, I looked up hoping to find a kindred spirit in John and Mary, my British compatriots, but they had long taken their search for biscuits elsewhere and in their place stood a petite, slender and immaculately dressed Thai lady some decades my senior. From the look on her face, she had been observing my actions for some time and with not without some mild alarm. She was wearing the sort of facial expression one might adopt if unexpectedly encountering a new and as yet undocumented sexual fetish. I was wearing whatever expression it is that the face keeps in reserve for when there is no known social protocol for the situation.
A small eternity wafted between us.
“Um,…filter coffee?”, I blurted, making the little plunging gesture again. I thought it best to eschew the percolation noises. Slowly, silently, she pointed a perfectly manicured index finger with all the portent of divine judgement to a small bag just above my head. I hadn’t noticed it before. Espresso Blend, it said, in perfect English, and beneath that, Italian Filter Coffee. “Ah”, I said, confident that this one syllable would convey to the poor woman that this was exactly what I had been looking for all this time and that now I had found it, she could rest assured that my previous incongruous and perhaps rather disturbing behaviour would not reoccur. I smiled, reached for my prize, and turned back to offer a polite “kob khun khrap”, but she had fled. I sensed that my farang eccentricity had probably also outstayed its welcome in the supermarket of smiles and so, my possessions acquired and my mission accomplished, I made good my escape.
Today in Surat the temperature was around 34 degrees centigrade – with a “real feel” of forty. After long day in a heat whose behaviour borders on the impertinent there is only one thing to do – DRINK! (and I don’t mean water). I’ve had my fill of iced coffees, smoothies, Peter Vella box wine, spurious “GinTonic” and “Magarita” (sic). The only thing to do when you want something a bit different in this town is improvise with what you have, so, in the interests of culinary experimentation and discovery, may I present what I believe might be the first Surat Snippets Recipe (naturally it’s for booze): The Surat Thani Iced Tea (or a DirThai Rascal for my British friends ;) )
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Gin: I like Tanqueray for this because of the juniper but something lighter like Bombay Sapphire might also do. You could also try vodka or whisky. I haven’t yet but, hey, go for it.
Ginger Ale: Known here as “Nam Khing”. It’s basically Canada Dry in a red can.
Earl Grey teabags (the above three can be found in Tesco Lotus or Tops market in Central)
Mango slices (available sliced and ready to eat from just about everywhere for around 20 baht)
1 or 2 limes
1 or 2 tsp of chilli sugar (it’ll probably come with your mango slices)
First make an iced tea in a big chilled jug lined, funnily enough, with ice. Brew as many teabags as you think you’ll need based on quantity vs. strength. I recommend Earl Grey because it’s not too overpowering and the bergamot oils infuse brilliantly with the gin. Brew them properly in a cup or a pot before allowing to cool and adding to the jug. Pop in a few mango slices and the juice from your limes and top up with water if it looks too strong. Add the chilli sugar to taste (I find a teaspoonful gives a nice “bite” to the fruity tea) and chill until ready. Ta Daaah…Oh. This will probably take a while. Now’s a good time to go out and buy the gin! It is after five, yes?........time passes………we get thirstier……….
Return with your gin…and the milk…and the washing powder and the numerous other small items you put in the basket just so the cashier wouldn’t think you’re a raging alcoholic. Put the gin in the freezer along with a wine glass ; it should be ice cold when ready to serve and you also need to chill the ginger ale. Best put a can of that in the freezer too. At this point, you’re probably wondering where you can buy a cocktail shaker. Never mind. After a short while return to the freezer so the fun can start. Mix up your gin and ginger ale in your chilled glass. I like to go 50/50 but each to their own. Add plenty of ice before topping up with your delicious fruit infused spicy tea and don’t forget to leave a bit of space in the glass so the aromas can do their magic. Hey presto! The best of British tea and booze fused with the vibrant fruits and spices of Thailand. Of course, you could enjoy the iced tea by itself but now you have a ready to go cocktail that will last – well - as long as the gin does. Chock dee!
A Little Indulgence
A light burden
Underneath I toil:
Feet on the ground
Head in the clouds
Bumping into the walls.
A smile on my face from corporeal pleasures
Of the senses and joys of the flesh
While the mind struggles
With two choices
Carried on the breeze
Of whim and circumstance
A loose kite between them
Vacillating on the current
Both a kind of lovely escape
I’m stuck between a soufflé and a nice place
And still stuck
In blissful Purgatory
Sitting in the darkness
Chasing benevolent ghosts, faintly resonant,
I grow weary.
Sod this gloomy introspection;
Time for tea and toast.
I've edited this a bit and taken out some words that were just crowbarred in to comply with the prompt. It was inspired by my frequent visits to Loggerheads country park back home in Wales and the feelings of timelessness that evoked. I wanted to experiment with enjambment and overlapping sentences. You'll find you can read the poem in a loop and, just like the river, you can jump in at any point.
Random words: wall, fly, sit, river, span, green, bloom, forget, enchant, explode. Prompt: poem.
Enveloped in the tumult of the river
A wall of silence amid enchanted chaos
Watching a parade of images explode and bloom
In my brain - like a wild flower
Lost in a span of green - a blanket
That smothers me in solitude
While the flies chatter over my head.
In Writers Group last week we were asked to come up with ten random words and incorporate them into a prompt.
My words: write, snow, falter, sing, solid, tree, picture, fan, cola, coda
My prompt was "Postcard"
Hi. Sorry it's taken so long to write. There's been such a maelstrom in my head and every time I put pen to paper I would falter. Such an assault on the senses - nothing seemed solid. It's dreamlike being back and I have to keep reminding myself that I'm a real person in a physical world with a job to do.
I want to sing every day. I do, actually, though usually out of earshot of the neighbours! My head is still full of home, of cold and snow and pictures of mountains in their austere beauty - surreal images when you're sitting under a fan and it's 32 degrees indoors. I've resolved to make myself healthier and try and eat more fresh food. It's surprisingly difficult here where I only have a microwave and if you eat out it's usually something fried. I already lapsed and bought Coca-Cola - well, Pepsi. I've not yet touched the whisky, though we'll see how long that lasts.
I'm writing this in Surat Writers. I didn't intend to, so it's rather weird that this is all tumbling out from ten random words, but I think it makes a fitting coda to a wonderful Christmas trip.
Miss you all.
PS: I need to include the word "tree".