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Monday, December 27, 2004


Dodged a bullet

To think I almost went to Phuket again this time. And I dare say I'd have gone back to Patong as well, on the west of the island, just where the hammer fell.

People I know may have died. I guess the hotel I stayed at will not have been hit; it was at least ten minutes walk from the beach. But they say that a hundred scuba divers are missing. Let's hope none of the folks from DiveAsia were among them.

It feels a little like 9/11 again. (That could have been me, too. If my life had worked the way it was supposed to, if I hadn't been stabbed in the back in my first job at Whitehall Trust currency trading, I could well have been there at Ground Zero).

I was planning on blogging about jetbikes but under the circumstances it would fantastically tasteless. This evening I fly back to LHR (with a six hour stop-off in Bahrein: could be worse, could be Tegel or, god help us, Dublin) so there may be no posts for a while.

Update: Looks like they all made it.

Saturday, December 25, 2004


xj Gets Lei'd, And Other Festive Delights

So for Christmas Eve my dumb hotel organised a dumber Gala Dinner, attendance compulsory, price TWO THOUSAND BAAT. (Sorry for shouting but jeez louise! Two thousand baat! That buys a lot in this town: it bought me a nice pair of all-leather shoes the other day for instance).

Now, this "Gala" was held in the hotel restaurant, which is by the pool and is open air. (Uh-huh. Open air... tropical storm... what's wrong with this picture? To be fair, the storm had pretty much moved on by the time the "Gala" started).

For some reason the staff were handing out leis, a traditional floral necklace garment from the Thai island of Hawai'i. (Wait a minute....)

The food consisted mainly of big chunks of roast meat, which was fine with me, although it was not as good as the Brazilian rodizio place I ate in the night before, and unlike the Brazilian place the "Gala" did not have sambaing Brazilian hotties. It did have dancers, however.

Polynesian dancers.

I'm still trying to figure this one out. My best guess is that some moron confused "Samui" with "Samoa". Either that or a firm believer in the wacky anthropological theory that the Thais are Polynesian by original extraction. At any rate, this Polynesian show was conducted with the efficiency of a school play: the PA system would be blathering on about "our two dancers" when up on the stage would be one poor embarrassed girl. I sat at the table and thought: "Here I am, sitting at a table at a Christmas celebration in a Buddhist country, watching Thais pretend to be Maoris. It's the dark side of globalisation."

After this farce they had a raffle of some kind, where as far as I can work out the same person won three of the prize, at which point it was clear that the evening, having started badly, was getting worse. So I left.

Some other highlights of the evening:

At the stroke of the midnight hour I was in the reggae bar. The band was doing a set, and their first song for Christmas day was "Losing My Religion". Now that's what I call style. (OTOH they have played the Cheeky Girls song every time I have been there, so maybe they don't have style after all).

On the road to the reggae pub there was a traffic jam, and the girls from one bar were out trying to direct the traffic. One of them even had a whistle. Of course they were all wearing Santa hats.


Dive Bunny

I'm glad that I did that scuba tune-up. Yesterday I ran into one of those low-air situations that the exercises teach you how to deal with. I think there may have been a leak somewhere in my scuba suit: I blame giant clams, of course. It's really no big deal: just grab the nearest diver, stick his alternate air source in your mouth and swim back to the surface. Other than that, the two dives I did yesterday were great. Breathing thirty feet underwater is pretty neat. And the fish are nice. (Except for those tiny blue fish that take little bites out of you).

The voyage to and from the dive site was pretty good as well, and by that I mean the sea was in fine, stormy form, and the boat pitched and yawed like an acquatic bronco. I never get seasick, so I enjoyed the ride.

Sadly, the stormy sea was the precursor of a genuine tropical storm that brutally struck the island just as we came into port. I've never been in a tropical storm before and, frankly, once is too much. I can't stand rain and snow and all the shit that falls out of the sky. (This is another of the many, many reasons why LA is my dream city: it rains about once every thousand years and if you want water, just steal it from the next county....) Well, mae pen rai.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


Scuba Divers Do It Under Pressure

My proudest possession is my Open Water Diver's card; my scuba license. Most of the other things in my life that other people would be proud of are not that big a deal to me. Getting into business school, for instance, happened because I got a super-high GMAT score (it certainly wasn't on the strength of my joke of a "career"), and that super-high GMAT score happened because I spent my entire childhood being "encouraged" (in a way that occasionally verged on abusive) to develop the kind of personality that is good at passing silly written tests. OTOH to pass my Open Water certification I had to master and bypass my own fears and limitations, such as my limiting belief that I would never, ever, be able to float unassisted in water for longer than a couple minutes. (I was wrong about that, as I have almost always been wrong about things that I thought were impossible).

I got my OW cert the last time I was in Thailand, back in 2003 with the excellent Dive Asia. My instructor was a Thai called Aey who told me he was an architect and gave scuba classes between commissions. (This is horrifying, in a way, that the IMF and the local oligarchs between them should have so savaged the Thai economy that a highly-trained professional would end up moonlighting in the tourist sector to scrape together a few baat. OTOH, Aey was a truly magnificent instructor).

Since that time I have dived precisely once, off the Cape of Good Hope. This was an interesting example of Murphy's Law. First of all, the water was freezing cold. (That damn current that freezes Buzios stops off Cape Town first). Then, the dive was launched over a load of big, slippery rocks, with the result that I slipped. This is not a good thing to do when you have a 25kg scuba unit strapped to your back and you don't have all your breathing apparatus in place. I had to be rescued by the divemaster Yolanda. (Usually, when a cute blonde wraps her legs around me I'd enjoy the experience; in this case I was too busy gasping for breath to make the most of things). Then, on the way down, we got ran into some weeds and had to come back to the surface, and finally, on the way back, I got cramp from the cold and had to be towed. Not my finest hour, really.

In view of this fiasco, when I booked a dive trip for tomorrow I decided I had better have a scuba tune-up session today. This took place at the exclusive hill-top location of the dive company, a splendidly third-world facility complete with dirt roads and free-range chickens. The whole thing took about two hours and involved performing various underwater stunts, all designed to show you what you would do if, for instance, a giant clam severed your airhose. (Actually, that specific case was not dealt with; I think it falls under the general heading of low air situations). So tomorrow I'm off to a couple of rocks in the Gulf of Thailand where, I am assured, the fish are worth the trip. (The divers saw a shark yesterday. That's more than I did when I went out on a shark diving trip in South Africa).

The only problem with diving is that it is a depressingly clean-living activity. It generally involves getting up at some god-awful hour of the morning and you are not supposed to drink any kind of alcohol the night before (for fear of dehydration) or six hours after (decompression sickness). Still, mae pen rai as they say in these parts.


Chaweng nightlife revisited

The "Reggae Pub" turns out to be a vast open-air barn of a place, which is located at the end of a peninsula in the lagoon. (This lagoon is just west of the main (only) street in Chaweng, so if you want a quiet night in don't choose a hotel on this side. I'm not sure there are any hotels that side of the street anyway). The peninsula is lined with endless bars so to get to the Reggae pub I had to run a sort of gender-bent Tailhook gauntlet of shrieking and grabbing bar-girls. The venue itself has big pictures of Bob Marley and other traditional reggae accoutrements, (along with the Confederate flag: wonder what Jeff Davis, or indeed Bob Marley himself) would have thought of that?

The very best thing about the reggae pub is the music, provided by a live band fronted by one of the best singers I have ever heard. I didn't get her name, but she is a little Thai girl with dyed blonde dreadlocks and an entirely magnificent voice. She covered a song by Mary J Blige and it sounded like Queen Mary herself was singing it. I was amazed to see such a powerful voice coming from such a tiny body.

One interesting thing about Chaweng is the tourists who want to be bargirls. Two nights ago I saw some white girls dancing on a bar (this was one of those wooden, open-air bars usually danced on by the Thai bargirls) and last night there were a couple of Aussie girls pitching in on grabbing duty outside another bar. I'm told by my Romanian friend Slava that there is a new craze for "agrotourism", where people from the cities can stay on working farms and get up close and personal with the livestock: I guess this is just the same idea applied to a whole 'nother industry...

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Did They Know It Was Christmas - for dictators?

Via Instapundit, here's a depressing but only too predictable explanation of exactly what the money raised by Geldof's Live Aid got spent on. Read it and weep...

Monday, December 20, 2004


Samui nightlife

Somebody, I think it is Tyler, has a thing he says to men who complain about the bitchy attitudes of good-looking women:

You have to imagine yourself in the reality of a beautiful woman. She has all these strangers coming up to her and kissing up to her because they want something out of her. The only way she can fend them off is to put up the bitch shield

Or something to that effect. Anyway, I recommend that every dude who has ever wanted to try that exercise but lacks the empathy or imagination should come to a Thai beach town and walk about for a few hours. You'll quickly get the hang of how it feels to be forever being pestered by people who want to be really, really nice to you. There are, for instance, the tailors who want to give you the World's Best Deal on suits, and street vendors who are convinced their teak elephants are exactly what your home needs. (They are very, very well carved teak elephants, I will admit). And then there are the bar-girls.

You have never, ever, seen anything like a Thai bar-girl. They are typically about four foot six, speak two dozen words of English and have just arrived from a small town in deepest Isaan (the north-eastern region of Thailand). They generally claim to be in their mid-twenties. Crowds of them lurk outside at least half the bars in town (there are not actually very many gogo bars in Chaweng, but quite a lot of what it's polite to call "hostess" bars). And they will do anything, almost literally anything, to get you into their bar.

The last time I was in Thailand, in Phuket, I got used to being grabbed by tiny women cooing "Hey, sexyman, you come with me", although I admit it was a surprise the time I had this done to me by a T-shirt vendor. The bar-girls in Samui, however, make the ones in Phuket look positively demure. Last night in addition to being grabbed, I was goosed, several times, and spanked more than once for daring to walk past their bars. The idea of being sexually molested by cuties is initially attractive, but it gets very old very quickly.

Aside from bar-girls, Chaweng seems to be a fairly target-poor environment. Last night I saw I think three sets of Aussie girls and that was about it. Most bars in town fall into either the "bar-girl" or the "sports variety". There is also a widely promoted "reggae bar" on the other side of the lagoon, which I plan on checking out this evening.

Last night I spent several hours in Chaweng, then on a whim I went to Lamai. I'd been warned that Lamai was wall-to-wall sleaze, which is true enough; it is, however, Thai sleaze, which means a whole load of girls in not especially revealing clothes sitting around more-or-less open-air bars cooing "Hey, sexyman, you come with me" and playing a variety of simple boardgames with the punters. (The reason they play the boardgames rather than, say, talking is because they don't speak much English, so presumably this is their way of connecting with potential tricks. From the point of view of meeting regular girls, Lamai seems entirely useless.

I am glad I went however, for two reasons.

One was the drive there. In addition to regular car taxis, and motorbike taxis, Samui also has a lot of songtheow. This I'm told is Thai for "two benches", and that is just what a songtheow is: a pickup truck with a couple of benches bolted onto the long sides of the back. The market for songtheow is profoundly inefficient: in the course of two minutes four songtheow came along, which charged between one hundred and two hundred baat for the same journey. Of course I picked the one that charged one hundred baat for the ride. And boy, was it a ride. Let me tell you, I have never seen such contempt for human life in a driver. (Not even in Italy. Not even in Brazil). You have to wonder what kind of fucking lunatic drives at one hundred and sixty klicks an hour round a curve above a 200 ft drop. It's one thing to do this in a tuk-tuk at street level, but up in the mountains it's something else. This was by far the most fun I have ever had on a bus.

And when I got to Lamai I met another of the colorful characters that seem to inhabit this part of the world. There was a Thai guy twirling what I can only descrive as a rope made out of fire-crackers. Literally. He was twirling a rope above his head, and fire-crackers were going off. Loud fire-crackers with a lot of smoke. In London all they do is toss the odd fire-cracker around in Leicester Square: the Thais have sooo much more style....


Koh Samui Described

Possibly the coolest thing about Samui is the airport. It is open air. The terminals are a collection of wall-less huts. I flew down with Bangkok Airways, still the best airline in the world: premium service with economy prices. (What other airline offers free coffee, muffins and internet access to economy passengers? Plus, they do online booking with as little as one hour's notice). In a fairer world the WTO would force the contemptible bureaucrats that operate Varig, Gulf and all the other pitiful archaeopteryxes that infest our skies to sell out to Bangkok Airways.

Samui itself is your basic tropical island, perhaps not quite as magnificent as Phuket, but it is pretty damn good. Most of the action is on the east of the island, concentrated in two beach towns called Chaweng and Lamai. ("Diluted" might be a better word, on second thought. These towns, more or less, consist of a single very long street with hotels and shops fronting the main drag or skulking down alleyways).

I made the mistake of booking an hotel up a hill on the rocky point that divides the two towns, which was so inconvenient that I have paid extra and switched to a very nice mini-resort in northern Chaweng. The site consists mostly of teak cabins (with power showers and air-con I might add: this isn't rural Laos), and it backs onto the beach. It has a bar and a beach chair/towel service. BTW on Samui you cannot get any of these things from public vendors (as in Rio) so it's a good thing I ended up where I did.

The only complaint I will make about this hotel is that they have forced me to buy a ticket for some dumb Christmas Eve dinner. It must be said that my plan of going out to Asia to escape festive schmaltz has developed not necessarily to advantage...

Sunday, December 19, 2004


Reminds me of the Cereal Expert scene from Cryptonomicon

One of Samizdata's finest explains the connection between instant coffee and DIY.



So I was grabbing a bite to eat in a place on Thanon Khao San and the radio was on. The announcer said: "Here is the news, from the Thai government public relations agency". Which I thought was kind of funny, in a 1980s-satire-of-South-African-reporting-restrictions sort of way, except that as far as I can work out what followed was a genuine news broadcast, apparently written by the Thai government for broadcasting on radio. It was interesting to see how blatant they were. Kind of like if the BBC were to open their broadcasts with "The Six O'Clock News, from Michael Moore and the op-ed page of the Independent".

(Okay, it was probably a translation error, like the one that led the airport bookstore to shelf the prison diaries of Jeffrey Archer under Non-Fiction. I'm sure the radio meant to say that the news was provided by the Ministry of Truth, or something totally innocuous like that).

Saturday, December 18, 2004



For some reason I couldn't find a reasonably-priced direct flight at the time I booked, so I ended up flying by Gulf Air, which is not an experience I want to dwell on, although they are not quite as bad as Varig. This involved a three-hour stopover in their home port of Bahrain. Here's my impressions of Bahrein, to the extent that you can form impressions from an airport.

Bahrein, frankly, was a pleasant surprise. Consider: this is an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia (and if you don't know just what a repulsive medieval hellhole Saudi Arabia is, take a look at the Religious Policeman link on my blogroll, if you have a strong enough stomach). Bahrain is not not Saudi Arabia. For instance:

-In Saudi Arabia, any kind of public reference to religions other than Islam is illegal. In Bahrain, however, they do Christmas. And they do it very thoroughly I might add. There was a huge tree in the departure lounge and illuminated Santas all over the place (trust the Arabs to favor anything big and shiny) and some of the Filipinas in the duty free stores were wearing Santa hats. Mawkish carols were being played everywhere: I even heard the quintessentially American White Christmas.
-SA is famously dry. Bahrain isn't. They have alcohol on sale and unlike in some other moslem countries (Malaysia for example) they don't card you to prove you are not a moslem before they let you buy alcohol. (This is an extremely good thing: believe me, you don't want to fly by Gulf Air sober). Bahrain is also the only place I can remember seeing Tuborg: that the Danes are prepared to export it here suggests there is some kind of market for it.
-Saudi women are known as BMOs (Black Moving Objects) because of the ugly tentlike chadors that they are forced to wear by the Saudi religious police. I saw fewer chadors in Bahrain airport than in Heathrow. (The Gulf Air stewardesses wear pants suits and silly stewardess hats, with a sort of bizarre silk scarf hanging down behind, which makes them look as though they have just come from awarding the prizes at a medieval tournament).

All in all, the tiny amount that I have seen of Bahrain I find intriguing and quite encouraging: here is a place where Islamic rule hasn't produced the usual hell on earth, but rather something like Utah with headscarves. Maybe there's hope for Afghanistan and Iraq after all.

Update: No sooner have I posted this than Bahrain gets a mention over at The Diplomad. (One of the commentators mentions that they recently had elections to the legislature: recently, that is to say after the invasion of Afghanistan, which may have concentrated a few minds in the MidEast.


Worst. Quarter. Ever.

There have been no postings to Chasing Waterfalls for the last three months, and this is because,

like my momma always told me
ranaranaranaranandcodeineandgoddamit you little mother fucker
if you ain't got nothing nice to say then don't say nothing

The past three months for me were slow death by karoshi: tough courses and Orgulous Projects from business school joined forces with more than usually frenzied drudgery in my day job until I felt like Neo fighting the Agent Smiths in The Matrix: Crap Sequel #1. Thank god it's all over. I am now sitting on Thanon Khao San in Bangkok, where I have gone for ten days' desperately-needed R&R.

(Yes, it means I will miss Christmas. Actually, I will not miss Christmas in an emotional sense. Christmas is all about cold weather, shopping, family life and mawkish music. Christmas is a long list of shit I can't stand. In any case the Thais have at least as much "christmassy" muzak and tchotchkes as the Brits. The Thais are such a bunch of Anglosphere wannabes).

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