Heading North again.

Before I begin to regale you with my latest exploits, allow me to explain my current position. I am sitting in baking heat outside a supermarket in Lampang enjoying a cold beer and waiting for a bus. Well, I say I am waiting for a bus but that might be stretching a point somewhat. The bus at 1530 that I wanted to get was full so by dint of lots of misunderstood conversations with about five different people, I have ascertained that there is a bus supposedly leaving at about 1800. I cannot, however, buy a ticket for this bus as the young lady in the ticket office is not sure if it will arrive at all. I have to return to the office aT 1700 to find out.

Imagine this scene transposed to London. Sitting outside a Tesco Metro opposite Vctoria Coach Station with a bottle of beer on the go, I would be arrested in about three minutes flat. No doubt the writing of this will take me from here (or maybe not!) several hundred miles through my beloved Isaan region and ever nearer to Lao, the next country on my travels. To be honest, I would have liked to stay longer but the visa waiver is running out and I do not know if they wil grant a further extension. Why can't Thailand be more like Britain and just allow anyone in to stay as long as they want?

I digress, as I so often do. Reading my ramblings must be like going through Hampton Court maze, you never quite know where it is going next. In truth, neither do I most of the time. The choice of the title fergysrambles for the blog was not entirely coincidental, I assure you.

I think I left you last time on the island of Koh Tao and had bored you sufficiently with my diving stories. Unfortunately, it came time to go and head back North. The journey began with a jeep ride from the hotel to the pier a couple of miles distant and was undertaken in yet another monsoonal storm. The only available space in the cab was occupied by a nice American lady I had met a short time before, a corporate functions organiser from San Fransisco, so myself, a young English lad and an American guy about mid 20's were standing up in the back. The theory was we did not want to sit on the wet seats, although that was a bit misplaced as we were soaked to the skin in about 30 seconds flat anyway. Nothing to be done about it, so why worry? We started a conversation I bored them with my exploits having learned to dive just after my 50th birthday and was astonished by the reaction. I was treated to lots of "Cool, man", "Neat, way to go" and other such expressions and even had to indulge, for the sake of politeness, in that ridiculous "high five" so beloved of Americans. Young travellers, who obviously represent the vast majority of people I meet on the road, seem to regard me as some sort of curiosity, as if the right to world travel stops at your 30th birthday.

I remmeber when I was in Nepal with friends some years ago, 1993 to be exact, we met an Australian guy on the trek round Annapurna, and got quite friendly with him as we stayed in the same villages every night. He was in his early 50's and had taken early retirement to backpack round the world. I was 33 at the time and older than all my compatriots but we all agreed he was a "cool guy" to be doing it at that age. In those days, 50 seemed like an eternity away. I think I have become that man and attract the same sort of interest from youngsters I am old enough to have fathered. Having seen the argument from both sides, I begin now to understand it and I am slightly flattered when 20 odd year olds find me "cool" enough to "hang out with." I really must resist the impulse to drop into this idiotic American slang that seems to be the lingua franca of backpackers the world over.

So, a handful of paragraphs later and I am still not on the boat! Well, the next bit will fly by. Onto the Lomprayah catamaran for the couple of hours journey to Chumpon which was lightened not by the usual gruesome Thai kung fu film but reruns of Mr. Bean of all things. I suppose it translates easily being effectively mime. I was put in mimd of a great comic that some of the older readers (if indeed such exist) called Eric Sykes. He did one series of A Mr. Bean type character, effectively mime and slapstick but was more famous for a two handed sitcom with Hattie Jacques whose name now escapes me. Another useless fact for you, did you know that Hattie Jacques was the mother of Mike Batt, who wrote the music for and created the group The Wombles. Remember "We wish you a Wmbling Merry Christmas" and "Underground, over ground, wombling free, the Wombles of imbledon Commom are we.........." (Jenny, if you are reading this, can you pop down to Wimbledon and see if they are still there?

Back to the plot, such as it is. A relatively short bus ride took me back to Prachuap Khirikhan and the Suksant Hotel where I had stayed before. I was warmly welcomed back at the Demer restaurant (my preferred eating house there) and at the Motorcycle Club. In Demer, I sampled the local butterfish, which I had missed out on on the way South and it was delicious. Deep-fried, although not at all greasy, it was served in this case with a chilli sauce and was quite incredible. I know I have mentioned it many times but the food here is consistently superb. Given the minimal facilities in most of the kitchens, Western chefs should hang their heads in shame Same old story, as Rory Gallagher once sang. Stick to good, fresh local ingredients, cook them the way they have been cooked for generations before, and you will not go wrong.

Off to bed then reasonably early as I had my first encounter with Thai officialdom to come. I knew it was going to be damn nigh impossible to get to the Lao border before my visa waiver ran out, so I required an extension. Now, the Thais change their visa regulations about as often as I change my underwear so anything you read in a guidebook six months old is undoubtedly out of date. To help matters I went to the Tourist Office in PKK, who are lovely people and so helpful. I knew from my previous bike rides that the Immigration Office was situated out near Ban Singkhon, near the Burmese border. This makes sense, an immigration post near the border, although it did require a scooter taxi to get me there. The lady in the office made all the enquiries on the 'phone and then let me speak to the guy in the office to make sure he knew what I wanted. He assured me he would be waiting for me, and in the event, so he was.

You would think trekking out of town on the back of a rickety old 100cc scooter in scorching heat to do some tedious paperwork would be a chore but it wasn't. Previously, whilst riding mysel, I had been watching the road like a hawk, as you have to do here, but now I could relax and ake in the countryside. It was rather like a guided tour of the hinterland of Prachuap Khirikhan and most pleasant. There was an amusing little interlude on the way. As we were wending our way, not too fast as the roads and the machinery did not permit, I spooted an elderly Thai man taking his ease under a tree against the heat of the afternoon. As I have mentioned, most Thais do not affect facial hair but this gent had a wonderful long pure white beard in the Fu Manchu style. As we approached, he was sitting stroking the aforesaid beard, so I smiled at him and mimicked his action. He smiled broadly and waved and I reckon we had the two best white beards in PKK province that day. A simple thing but it made me smile broadly, a thing I seem to do a lot here.

Arriving at the office, I went in and was greeted by a smiling, friendly staff who all responded to my "sabadee krap (a standard greeting)". One young man approached me and bade me sit. He had obviously been expecting me after our call, and could not have been more polite nor friendly. I produced the required photo, passport and a quite hefty 1900 baht (£38) and, after signing about a hundred forms, I was the proud possessor of a 7 day extension, the most that is currently allowed under the regs. A tip for travellers. Although the 90 day multiple re-entry visa is a bit of a pain to get in your home country, it is probably worth it if you are going to be in the country for any length of time.

Back to town, another pleasant meal in the Demer and off to bed against the longish travel to come. I got a taxibike to the bus station next morning. I say bus station but it is nothing of the sort. Undistinguished by either sign nor other appurtenance of a station it merits the name by virtue of the fact that that is where the buses stop on the main Phetkasem highway, of which I had seen so much on my travels. First bus up, in about 5 minutes was a "local" bus, comfortable enough but it does tend to stop at every hole in the wall, and eventually and unspectacularly to Bangkok. Here is where the travel system starts to break down. The new Southern bus station is in the middle of nowhere right on the ouskirts of town. BKK has made great strides with an integrated system lately, certainly since I first came here 18 years ago, and now boasts the Skytrain and the Underground, which link up with the river ferries. The Southern bus station, it appears, is out of the loop. No matter. I hailed a taxi, got him to put the meter on (which he was obviously not going to do, sensing farang baht) and a 30 minute ride cost me about £2:50 to Hualamphong Station,

I was now on familiar ground, having been this way before. I got my ticket for the night sleeper to Chiang Mai, although I had decided to get off early at Lampang (where I write this). Cost? 734 baht to be exact which equates to about £15 give or take. In UK, I would be lucky to get a sleeper from London to Edinburgh (a much shorter journey) for less than about £200. I mooched about Hualamphong for a while, had an OK meal in a very flash looking restaurant that was a bloody disaster. The only meat they had, for some reason, was chicken despite pork, beef and seafood all being on the menu. I made the sleeper in good time which oulled out a mere five minutes late, good by Thai standards, although it managed to arrive 50 minutes late eventually.

On the train, I knew the drill. Got my bunk sorted and headed straight for the buffet car which, oddly, is the only place on the train you are supposed to smoke. The buffet car on the Backpacker Express, as I call it, is something to behold. Most are going to Chiang Mai, a journey of about 14 hours and there is nothing else to do but drink beer and have a party, so that is what we did. I ended up seated with two young physiotherapy students from Zurich and another Swiss guy about my age. We had a great old time as they crank up the sound system with (pretty rubbish) Western pop. I remember the last time there were people dancing and the place resembles a nightclub more than a train carriage. It was slightly more muted this time and they have also taken to closing the bar at 11 which didn't used to be the case.

Got to Lampang in the early morning and walked to the guestohuse I was looking for, the Riverside, a nice place run by an Italian / Belgian woman. It is a pleasant place near the river, as you may have guessed and I had a nice, if basic, room. My room was not immediately available due to the early hour, and so I sat with a coffee looking at the river. I have to say the coffee here is of a very high standard as the Northeast of Thailand produces some very fine stuff. It was at this point another of the many surreal moments. From across the river came the sound of the Christmas carol, "Joy to the world" played with rather more enthusiasm than skill by a brass band. I thought the lack of sleep had me hallucinating but the reason soon became apparent. From what transpired to be a school on the far bank, the entire student body processed along the road led by what was obviously the school band who were interspersing carols with obviously local music. A very odd sight.

I scored myself another scooter, which really is the best way to travel here. I think when I return, if I am staying for some time, I willl actually buy one and sell it when I leave. It would probably be cost effective over six months or a year, and it really is quite comfortable, despite my size. I had a quick spin orund town to orientate myself and take a few pics. Lampang is quite a sizeable place, noted for it's pottery which tends to feature a rooster design.

Lampang does not really have a huge amount to do, although there are some temples and a wonderful old teak house in the Lanna (Northern Thai) style which now serves as a museum. It was at night that the best fun was to be had in this sleepy little town. Many of the bars feature live music of one sort or another so you can probably guess what is coming next. I ended up sitting in with the house band of the Relax bar and had a great time despite not having much experience playing electrics. Again, some great food in some great restaurants for mere pennies completed the experience. It is such a joy to eat here.

What there is to do not in Lampang itself but about 35 kilometres away is something that I love, elephants. I have had a deep affection for them probably since I was in close contact in Nepal some years ago. For their huge size, and the fact that they are probably an evolutionary mistake, they are so intelligent and generally so gentle. Another thing I learned recently (I seem to learn new things every day here) is to do with astrology, which I normally do not have a lot of time for. I do, however, know that I was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig / Boar. In Lanna culture this symbol is translated to the noble elephant and I think I would rather be an elephant than a pig really. Yet another Chang connection (Chang is the Thai word for elephant) goes back to 1991 when I visited India. Due to the huge pantheon of deities there my guidebook suggested you should pick one for yourself (Siva, Kali whatever) and I picked Lord Ganesh, the elephant headed God, principally because I liked the story of his birth (look it up). In the strange amalgam of religions that is Thailand, I was somewhat surprised to see obvious Ganesh figures in various Buddhist temples. It appears he is revered as the God of Wisdom, although it is not a trait I would associate myself with. Finally, as I think I mentioned, Chang is my favourite of the Thai beers, so the case would appear to be proven. Back, however, to the real thing.

A very interesting day out is the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC) which I scootered to. I was slightly confused to see sogns pointing one way for the TECC and other signs pointing the other way on the same track to the Elephant Hospital which all very clearly stated they were nothing to do with the TECC. More of this later. I bought my entrance ticket and was then transported in a bus to the area where the elephant bathing and show were to take place. The bus was packed, predominantly with Thai primary school kids and their teachers. I was sitting beside a middle aged man, a teacher it transpired, who insisted on fondling my knee in that Thai way I still find a little disconcerting even after all these trips here. First, at his insistence, I was treated to a song and then had to conduct an impromptu English lesson along the "Hello, how are you, my name is Fergy" variety, great fun.

We arrived at the large pool, small lake really, and were treated to the display of elephant bathing. It took me back to when I had done the same thing in Nepal all those years ago. After that, a short walk to the "arena" for the show. I am always a little uneasy about performing animals. I certainly do not like dolphin shows as I do not think they should be in captivity at all. However, there are very few wild elephants in Asia and much of the show involved the skills they employ when working, mostly in the lumber industry. The TECC, a Government run organisation, also runs conservation programmes and even an artificial insemination operation. In fact, the smalest elephant, a lovely little thing of just under three years, is somewhat frankly named A.I. Boy. Work it out yourself.

The show itself lasts about 45 minutes and is really great fun. Apart from all the mounting, dismounting, picking up the mahouts stick and the pushing, pulling and piling of logs I spoke about there is a really fascinating display which involves elephants painting, I kid you not. The mahout gives them a brush in the trunk and these huge lumbering beasts are so intelligent they manage to draw pictures. There were three elephants involved in this and two of them produced creditable depictions of elephants under trees with rainbows etc. It was the third beast, a seven year old male named SriSiam that really got my attention. He does abstracts and they really are, to my untutored eye, very good. My artist friend Dino dragged me to the Tate Modern in London a few months ago and I am tellng you that the things produced by this elephant are vastly superior aesthetically to most of the garbage (in some cases literally) displayed there. I would dearly have loved to buy one of his works which are on display but carrying it even in a protective case would have been too much of a hassle.

Back to the carpark in the bus and I needed to use the loo. There is another elephant stable there (is stable the right word?) and when I emerged from the facilitieds it was to the sight of an elephant doing, well doing the same thing. They have trained them to defeacate in a specific concrete structure bearing the rather prosaic legend "Elephant Dung". Bearing in mind an adult animal eats up to 250 kilos of food a day, it was quite some pile!

Back onto the scooter, having thoroughly enjoyed myself, and it is here that the sory becomes incredibly happy, sad and confusing all in about equal measure. I took myself to the elephant hospital which, in contrast to the TECC was deserted. For most of the time there I was on my own. The Elephant Hospital was started in 1993 by a lady called Soraida Salwala who was concerned at the plight of the elephants in the region and their sometimes appalling conditions. For the full story go to www.elephant-soraida.com At first she was met with scepticism, the comment being "Why care for sick elephants when we have not enough hospitals for sick people" but she persevered. The result is quite amazing but the things I learnt there are disturbing in the extreme. I know this will sound incredible to you but this woman has received numerous credible death threats over the years for her work. Allow me to explain as best I understand it for I am not sure I do.

Elephants are routinely abused involved in the illegal lumber trade mostly in Burma, Lao and far Northern Thailand as well as being used for drug smuggling in places where they are the only creatures that can operate. These illegal trades are controlled by big business and, inevitably, the parisitical scum we generally refer to as politicians. They are the same the world over and may they all rot in a particular Hell. Annoyed by the profile she was giving the elephants, they decided to try and frighten her off. There are documented instances of the workers from the nearby TECC where I had just had such a good time hassling her from such petty things as obscuring or removing her signs to setting forest fires near her hospital and physically threatening her staff. Can you imagine the consequences of a forest fire in this tinder dry place with sick elephants panicking and stampeding? The consequences don't bear thinking about. I am really at a loss to understand it.

The work however continues, supported largely from Europe, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation being a large contributor. And what work it is. If I have mastered the technology, you should see on your screen now the mind-boggling sight of an elephant with a prosthetic leg. Really, can you imagine such a thing? Her name is Motala, a beautiful creature who lost a leg to a landmine whilst ilegal logging. That is another evil that must be eradicated from the world, landmines. Don't get me started on that one, and it shames me to say that the UK was one of the largest producers of the vile things for years. Motala is arguably the most famous elephant in the world now having appeared in countless documentaries and I have to report she looks remarkably happy wandering about her paddock. Actually, she features in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of vets involved in one operation during which they used enough anaesthetic to knock out 70 humans.

Another patient here is lovely little Mosha, a baby female who similarly lost a leg to a landmine. She is in an enclosure and seems totally unaffected by her hideous injury. Having visited this place and read about the terrible actions of the staff from the TECC, who are supposed to be elephant lovers, I am not sure that I ould have visited the TECC at all, and given the netrance money to the hospital. Sure there is no show and I would not have seen the wonderful SriSiam in action with a brush but I think it might have done more good.

Well, as usual, this is now out of date by a few days so I will sign this off now and begin the next instalment which includes a truly heartwarming story.

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