Avoiding the Elephant

The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand, and as such it is virtually unavoidable. I have no idea what the UK’s national symbol is, although post-Brexit I would like to propose something along the lines of an ostrich. But Thailand seems to take its symbolism seriously, so you find elephants everywhere. Elephant lamps, statues, elephants on lighters, fridge magnets and almost every piece of clothing I saw, including the ubiquitous “elephant trousers”. These are colourful, billowy, patterned trousers sold in their thousands in the area around Khao San Road, and they’re the official uniform of backpackers of all genders. 

My suspicion is that, like those other crimes against fashion, Crocs, elephant trousers have flourished because they fill a comfortable niche. The loose, crotch-down-to-the-knees design makes them good for hot weather. The elephant-spattered patterns disguise travel stains and the cheap price and ubiquity means that it’s not a big deal if they vanish into the arbitrary abyss of hostel laundries.

But they just look horrible. Nothing short of a safari shirt and a pith helmet could mark a person out more as a tourist. I dislike them so much it has made it hard for me to take anyone seriously if they’re clad thus, which is ridiculous, because I’ve met and liked a dozen people on this trip who have turned out to possess a pair. My aversion to these trousers has now coloured my view of anything else decorated with elephants. I ended up going to great lengths to find an elephant-free sarong in the Night Market in Chiang Mai.

Hemingway said writers need a shock-proof shit detector. For better or worse, I was born with a hypersensitive cliché detector instead. I have such an overblown aversion to clichés that my detector tends to give me a lot of false positives. 

It’s not a good thing to have. For example, it put me off travelling to Southeast Asia for years. Rightly or wrongly, it puts me off Apple products, bicycles, tattoos, Moleskine notebooks, anything ‘artisan’, Jeremy Corbyn and music festivals. It’s made me a very late, reluctant adopter of some things I actually later enjoy. 

What is a cliché to me? Something which has become overburdened with stale meaning. Something that has become a box to tick, a personality accessory. Something so encrusted with common connotations it becomes impossible to know your own authentic response to it. Although, on the plus side, my dislike of cliché makes me immune to received opinions, I still know it’s unhelpful to have my behaviour dictated by avoiding rather than embracing certain things.

Even though I’ve been proved wrong on a number of occasions I still tend to make snap judgements about elephant-trouser-wearers. There’s a certain kind of traveller in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, who make me shudder just to look at them. They talk about ‘doing’ a place, a horrid construction which has unintended yet appropriate connotations of violation. They wear elephants on their trousers then go for rides on elephants’ backs, without educating themselves about what these poor creatures are subjected to for the sake of tourism. The hostels they patronise overflow with the sort of adolescent hedonism of freshers’ week at university. They seem to be travelling only in order to get drunk and ‘do’ one another. 

Luckily these sorts of people tend to cluster together, and can easily be avoided. The one advantage to elephant trousers is that you can see these people coming (and I’m sure the local con artists feel the same way). But my mistake lies in thinking all elephant-trouser-wearers are like that. All the arses I’ve met here have worn them, but that doesn’t mean that everyone who wears those trousers is an arse.

Nevertheless it has put me off decorative elephants completely. I spent ages that night back in Chiang Mai, roaming around the huge, kaleidoscopic night market looking for elephant-free sarongs. 

The night market is a fantastic place, though it’s virtually impossible to come away empty-handed. I bought far more than I intended, though as someone later pointed out I hardly spent any money in the process. 

On my way out I was scolding myself for my lack of restraint when I spotted yet another interesting shop. It was like a museum, heaving with handmade, fair trade things made by different hill tribes. Each item had a hefty description of the makers’ tribe and the symbolism of the patterns and objects they produced. It was fascinating. I could have spent an absolute fortune in there. In the end I succumbed to the temptation of a gold and bubblegum pink Ganesha amulet. On my last big trip I bought a tiny brass Ganesha and made it home safely, so I was hoping to renew my contract with this wonderfully lurid piece, which is about half the size of a pack of cards:

I absolutely love it. 

It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I realised I had, after all, bought myself an elephant. 


Theft at a Temple 

I left London with my usual feet at the end of my legs, but by the time I arrived in Thailand these had been mysteriously replaced by puffy great imposters that were significantly larger than my old ones, if not any longer, and they wouldn’t go away. This meant that my sandals, which fitted comfortably at home, now became a blistering exercise in Chinese foot binding. 

After hobbling around for a day and a half I gave up and bought a pair of ‘very genuine’ Havaianas for a couple of quid. My new feet spread out happily and I’ve been slopping around in them ever since, to the extent that when I moved on I didn’t bother packing the other sandals.

When I first arrived in Chiang Mai I went off for my usual walk to orientate myself, arbitrarily selecting Wat Phra Singh as a destination. The mountain air felt fresher than Bangkok, but I was still so hot by the time I reached the temple – distracted on the way first by a mango smoothie, then lunch – that all I could do was find a shady vantage point and slump into it.

The mango smoothie was fantastic, by the way. It came from a café called Fruiturday. They called it a smoothie but it was actually a slushie, made with finely ground ice and fresh ripe mango juice and pulp. I have been craving them ever since I left Chiang Mai.

Once I’d recovered a bit I explored the wat, then went off to inspect its facilities. The toilets were sparklingly clean and covered in intimidating signage. Before you entered there was a rack where you had to deposit your shoes and another rack where you slipped on spongey plastic pool sliders instead. Inside were signs in ordering you not to squat on the seats of the western-style loos, not to wash your feet in the toilet, and not to brush your teeth (it didn’t specify where). It took me a while inside the toilet block because I was fascinated by the signs and the diagrams that went with them. 

When I came out my flip flops had gone.

For a few heart-stopping moments I stared in disbelief at the space on the rack where they had been, and then I started hunting round for them with mounting anger. Though I’d heard of these things happening, I couldn’t believe someone had stolen my shoes from within a temple. I’d just got them nicely moulded to the shape of my feet. I looked round for likely culprits, but there was only a middle aged Chinese man sitting on a wall, watching me sympathetically. 

Just as I was beginning to wonder how far I’d have to walk barefoot to the nearest flip flop shop, a middle aged Chinese lady sauntered out of the toilets. She was wearing my shoes.

I pointed at her feet. ‘Those are mine!’

She looked down, realised what she’d done and an expression of horrified mortification appeared on her face. The man who was waiting for her began to hoot with laughter. She shucked the shoes off and gave them to me, apologising abjectly. Then we both started laughing too. 

I slipped the flip flops back on and left, feeling lightheaded with relief but also rather affronted that my ‘very genuine’ Havaianas had been mistaken for public toilet shoes. As I walked away I could still hear the man barking with helpless laughter behind me.

A Falang Attempts Street Food

It took a while to get the hang of the street food stalls in Bangkok. Jet lag meant I wasn’t hungry when I was supposed to be, and carts appeared and disappeared depending on the time of day. I would pass a string of bustling stands full of mouthwatering dishes when I didn’t want to eat, then see nothing but stall holders dozing by empty stands when I did. 

Everything I ate I liked. I stuck to simple meals like fried rice and pad thai, the backpacker staples; noodle soup and little chicken skewers. It was all incredibly cheap, around 60p-£1 per meal. Because of the language barrier I often had to rely on pointing at things as a method of ordering.

One night I was walking down a road near my hotel when I saw an interesting-looking noodle place. I stopped and someone asked if I wanted to eat, naming a dish I hadn’t heard of and gesturing towards the stand. I said yes, pointed at what looked like a bowl of noodles, then marched off and accidentally chose a seat that belonged to the next stall along. I realised my mistake when everyone started laughing, but when I got up to move they waved me back down with a smile. 

The cook came up and repeated the name of the dish, which sounded vaguely familiar, like something I’d had in a Thai restaurant at home, though I still wasn’t sure what it was. He made what looked like an obscene gesture to illustrate his words. I nodded uncertainly and he went away. 

My order provoked a bit of discussion. At one point the cook held up a chilli and several people voiced their disagreement. I heard the word falang (foreigner) a few times, and then the cook sorted through his chillis and found another one, which was approved. Then he started work with his pestle and mortar, which threw new light on his mime. 

While I waited a girl of about twelve came over and, after encouragement from her mother, asked to sit with me. It was evident that she had been sent to practise her English. We chatted for a few minutes while she quite literally squirmed with embarrassment and her mother beamed at us from a distance. Then she fled.

Soon my dinner was served. I took a bite and nearly choked with surprise. 

In my own defence, it was quite dark on the street. The things I thought were noodles were actually strips of shredded unripe papaya, a completely different taste, texture and temperature to that which I was expecting. It was a bowl of som tam, spicy papaya salad. 

When I got over the shock I enjoyed it. The papaya was incredibly fresh and crunchy, and the dressing was sharp, sweet and garlicky, though it was still fiery enough to make my lips sting despite the specially chosen falang-strength chilli. I must have had a rather startled expression at my first bite because the cook kept hovering to see if I was enjoying it, looking doubtful; but I left a clean plate, so in the end I think we were both satisfied.

Soon after this my menu ordering problems were solved. I met a Thai graphic designer who was at a bit of a loose end. He had been evicted from his girlfriend’s house because her parents were staying, and he wasn’t supposed to exist. He wrote out a short selection of menu items for me in Thai and English, so I could just point at a phrase to order. It’s effective, although it does rather take the mystery out of things.

The Boat Trip

When I manage to give this rather ramshackle, ten-week holiday of mine a name, I tend to think of it as the Boat Trip. I’m travelling around some of the mainland countries of Southeast Asia without intending to cross the sea to those island-bedecked nations such as Indonesia or Malaysia, yet I still don’t seem to travel far without encountering a boat.

I have just come from one of the greatest of all possible boat trips, a two-day voyage down the Mekong from the Thailand-Laos border to Luang Prabang. That was a boat trip on a grand, symphonic scale, which I’ll attempt to describe later. My first boat was much more ordinary: the express ferry service in Bangkok.

It took me a while to latch on to this. Bangkok was my first stop, and I spent much of it in a state of confusion. How had I managed to take two six-hour flights, starting on Tuesday morning and separated by a two-hour wait in Muscat Airport in Oman, only to arrive at 6 am on Wednesday morning? Where was the sense in that? How was I meant to get around in this wet heat? And what were those things on kebab sticks in the night market?

Then as I began to adjust – leaving the curtains open to let the sunrise reset my body clock – I started to think that beneath the surface difference, the heat, the tangerine-cloaked monks, the sizzling street food, Bangkok was a big city like any other, with its own clockwork running to its own rhythm. As soon as I realised this I began to get an idea of how things worked, which led me to the express boat. 

The first time I thought of using it I walked down from my lovely, homely hotel, past the flower market to the pier, where a dozen or so people were waiting. After looking in vain for any information in English I joined them. Every so often someone would buy a bag of crusts and chuck them into the river, and the surface would boil with large fish the size and colouring of pigeons. After a short while a boat arrived and I ventured towards it to enquire, only to be shooed off by a dozen hands before I’d even said where I wanted to go. 

Then another boat came from the other direction, whistling frantically as it approached, as though it was the last boat out of town before an invading force arrived. The same dozen hands now beckoned me towards it. The boat seemed barely to stop at all, but more to slow down just enough to allow passengers to leap on and off. I jumped on, paid a negligible sum for a ticket and we zoomed off, zigzagging from one bank to the other. 

After that trip I used the boat whenever I could. Once the skipper was in such a rush he managed to shoot past almost every stop, so that the crowded ferry jolted into reverse before anyone could get off; another time we roared away before the man whose job it was to blow the whistle was back on board, leaving him whistling with peevish force on the pier before we lurched back to pick him up.

Between trips I saw a massive reclining Buddha and a massive standing Buddha, hip cafés, rickety street food carts and shady, quiet back alleys, the sois. I got about in disco-lit tuk-tuks, sky trains and freezing air-conditioned taxis, but it was the express boat that helped me stitch it all together, and to leap in to the hectic, crowded, colourful flow of the city.