On my second night in Hua Hin, I make an elaborate show of pondering the wares of every food stall in the night market, despite knowing full well that I would end up back at the same stall as the previous night, working my way down the menu rather than working my down the street. Not that it’s a very long menu: I’d tried the noodles with tofu and prawn, and now I’m dying to try out the crispy mussel pancake with beansprouts. As far as I can work out, that is the menu.
One of my favourite things about night markets is pulling up a chair at a shared plastic table in the street, giving you a legitimate excuse to people-watch and chat to fellow diners without looking like a nutter. Yesterday this had not worked out well – a grumpy German group that seemed unused to the system had grudgingly let me take a chair at the end of their table and then pointedly ignored me in silence – but this evening, a jovial middle-aged Thai man and his Mexican friend wave at me to join them and I gratefully accept.
“You know, this one has been here for 50 years,” says my new Thai friend, pointing at the stall. “Only one left. All the others change. Not this one, all same food. Her mother used to do it before.”
“Really?” I say, tearing my attention away from my new mussel-pancake love affair.
“The mother still work, over at hotel. Her recipes are…” He breaks off with an appreciative noise, gesturing with his hands. I look back at the stallholder, doing a quick estimation in my head. Her mother must be 80, at least.
“Bloody hell,” I say. “Well I’m glad I found it. This is amazing.”
“It’s the best. I used to go here when I lived here 30 years ago.”
“Ha!” says the Mexican. “30 years ago, I think you were not born yet?”
“Nope,” I grin. The Thai man pulls a face that I recognise as the international code for “shit, I feel so old”. I immediately feel guilty and apologise. This is how British I am.
“You know, we always stay friends, all this time,” says the Thai man, pointing at the stallholder, who is overseeing the production and sales operation with concentrated super-efficiency.
“Whenever I am here, I go to see her. When she come to Chiang Mai, she stays with me. Yesterday I went to party at her house. Look, I show you something.” He surreptitiously passes me his phone, although the stallholder is far too engrossed to notice. There’s a picture of her from the night before, drunk and mid-cackle, perched on a garden step.
“This is what she is like after work! Ha! Ha!”
I hand him back the phone with a smile. “It must have changed a lot here in 30 years,” I say.
Both he and the Mexican laugh uproariously.
“Changed! 30 years ago this was a fishing village!” he says.
“No skyscrapers and hotels?” asks the Mexican.
“Oh no, that all come from Bangkok. Too many people there, need more space. They all go into the area around. Keeps growing.”
“Like Mexico City,” says the Mexican.
“And London,” I chip in.
“You’re from London!” says my Thai friend. “I was student there one time. Rent was so high, but we Thais, we’re clever you know, we get ten in a room, the landlord never find out!” he laughs, and I join in.
He thinks for a moment. “Hey, you like cake? I mean afternoon tea. Ha! I remember in England, all the old ladies go for their afternoon tea at 2pm. It still like that? Well, you want the best afternoon tea, the most amazing coconut cake you can find, there’s a place up by the beach… Oh and noodles, there’s this guys who makes them, just near here – it’s so good, just 50 baht – he used to work in hospital but his dad has enough money so he can change career and now he is chef, but not expensive – he don’t make any profit. You have to go before 11am, or there is very long queue…”
By the end of our chat I have a belly full of pancake and a notebook full of local secrets, all written in Thai so that I can point for directions when I inevitably get lost.
Back in my hostel bed, I quickly run through everything I need to pack into my last day in Hua Hin: one last early morning swim in the sea, then over to an elephant sanctuary I’ve read up on to talk to them about their work, a couple of hours in the early afternoon to check out some of the places my new friend has recommended, a Skype call with an author that I’ve been chasing for an interview for a while, then the bus back to Bangkok and a few hours’ sleep near the station before my 6.45am train to Bang Phra.
But, just as I’m dropping off, a dog starts barking outside my window. Really barking. Like a thing possessed.
And it keeps barking. And barking. And barking.
At 1am, I push my alarm back by half an hour.
At 2am, I do it again.
At 3am, it’s still barking, everyone in the dorm is groaning and the girl from the bunk below me is standing at the window, glaring into the street as if she’s trying to make the dog explode with the sheer force of her rage, Men-Who-Stare-at-Goats style.
At 3.30am, I give up on trying to sleep, read the news on my phone for a while and push my alarm back by another half hour.
At 9am, I sleep right through my alarm and wake up in a panic at 11.
Oh crap, I think. Swimming’s off. I squash everything into my Mary Poppins bag, hastily check out and leave my stuff behind the desk, then start walking to the Hutsadin elephant home. Google Maps, which rarely recognises Thai addresses, has confidently pinpointed a place half an hour away, down a route so straightforward that even I can’t lose my way. I save a screenshot and head off into the heat.
And Christ on a motorcycle, it is hot. The hottest day since I’ve been in Thailand. Hotter than the day that I got heatstroke and was sick in a bush, although that may have been at least partially connected to a vicious bottle of whisky I’d helped to polish off the night before.
After a good 45 minutes of dodging traffic on pavement-free roads, I reach the point suggested by Google Maps: a narrow residential street. A guard dog throws itself against the bars of a gate right next to my head in a fit of snarling and bared teeth and general awfulness. As someone with life-long fear of dogs, this is a highly unwelcome development.
A few tentative steps on, I poke my head around a gate to ask for directions.
“Hallooo!” says a woman who is hanging up some clothes in her garden. “40 baht!”
“Er… sorry?” I say.
We regard each other for a moment in mutual confusion as I try to work out what the 40 baht price tag applies to and she tries to work out what this farang is doing in her garden.
After a moment, she gives up, giggles and runs off to call another woman for help.
“Sa wat dee,” I say, fairly sure that I’m pronouncing it wrong. “Hutsadin?”
A blank look.
Running out of options, I lift up my arm and self-consciously wave it about like a trunk in front of my face.
She stares at me as if I might be dangerous.
“Hutsadin?” I say again, imploringly.
“Ohhhh! Hutsadin! Yeah, yeah, this way…!” she points back at the road, then frowns at me. “But very far! You walking?”
“Oh, too far!”
“Really? How far?”
“Like five, six kilometres.”
“Crap,” I say.
“Hmm. You travel alone?” she says, sadly. “You be careful, yeah? I worried about you, with this…” she pokes my arm, which has turned the colour of cooked prawns.
“I know, I know,” I say. Constant reapplication of Factor 30 has proved to be no match Thailand’s midday sun.
“Here!” she grabs my arm, squishing my skin against hers. “We change! I think we change!”
“Ha, I would love to change,” I say. “We can swap any time.”
“Okay, but you can take this for free,” she says, grabbing her belly with her hands with an infectious burst of laughter.
Further down the road, a very sweet food vendor helps me flag down a moto-taxi (this is how far I’ve wandered from the tourist trail: I have to actively look for a moto, rather than being trailed down the street) and a driver with one tooth and a gormless expression pulls up next to me. It’s the most gormless expression I’ve ever seen in my life. His face is a totally gorm-free zone.
“Hutsadin?” I say, hopefully.
Then: “Elephant..? Chang..?”
Sensing how this is going to pan out, I reluctantly raise my arm to my face and am about to re-enact my elephant impression when the vendor jumps in to save me. After exchanging a few words, he turns back to me and says: “Okay, he take you. 50 baht.”
I’m so relieved that someone apparently knows where I’m going that I clamber on to the motorbike from the wrong side, scalding my leg on the exhaust pipe in the process (pro tip: always mount an Asian motorbike from the left to avoid permanent scarring).
A few minutes later, I spot a sign for Hutsadin, but one-tooth has other plans. He takes a sharp right into somewhere called Elephant Village, which I deduce from the sign is your standard elephants-performing-for-tourists, ethics-free-zone.
“Whoa! Whoa!” I shout, frantically pointing back to the road.
One-tooth shakes his head and points at a picture of an elephant.
“I know,” I say. “But honestly, it’s that way.” I gesture at the road again and point at a sign that says “Hutsadin.”
“Hutsadin,” I say again, for emphasis.
He ignores me and turns back, repeating “Hutsadin” to himself under his breath and gazing at the elephant picture as if hoping for a miracle. Eventually, realising that I’m not going to get off the motorbike, a ripple of irritation disturbs the gormlessness and he gives an exaggerated sigh that clearly denotes my stupidity.
We drive on and, just as I think he’s going to make me get off and walk, we reach the foundation, elaborately decorated outside with shrines and statues of elephants. “Yey!” I say, and for once I think that one-tooth and I are on the same page.
Two smiling staff members, one girl, one boy, come our to greet us.
“Welcome!” says the girl. “You want to do elephant trek?”
“Actually, I wanted to speak to some of the volunteers – is that okay? I sent an email but I didn’t hear back. It says on the website that you can just pop in on Wednesdays if you want to talk to the volunteers.”
“Oh no!” says the boy. “You just miss them – they here in morning, go at one o’clock.”
I look at my phone. 1.15. Fucksake.
“You come back Friday?”
“Ah, I can’t. I leave tonight. Is the owner here?”
“No, not today.”
“Hmm. Maybe you can tell me what the volunteers do, and then I can call them later for a chat?”
“Oh, I just start here,” he says sorrowfully. “I don’t know very much. Better you talk to volunteers.”
“Or,” he says, brightening, “You can come meet the elephants, take for walk, give bath, look around…”
“Great” I say.
“Only 600 baht,” he grins.
I rifle through my bag. 350 baht. I had hoped to find a cashpoint on the way but there don’t seem to be any in this part of town.
“You don’t take card, I guess?” I say.
I look around at the elephants in their individual pens. They seem happy enough in the shade, splashing in their individual tubs of water, but I’m troubled by the shortness of the chains on their legs, and how much time they must spend cooped up in such a small space. I’m kicking myself that I don’t have even enough cash on me to give one of them something to do for half an hour, but also deeply uncomfortable with the thought that, if paying customers don’t turn up, they clearly don’t get let out at all. In a place like this, billed as a sanctuary, I’d assumed that the animals’ needs would take precedence, with humans paying to fit in to their schedule, rather than the other way around. I’m sure it’s an improvement on where they’ve come from, but it’s far from ideal.
Thailand has nearly three thousand “working” elephants, mostly in the logging and tourist industries. Many have shifted from the former to the latter, as anti-deforestation efforts have slowed the pace of the country’s logging operations. Despite less back-breaking work, the cruelty they suffer is often the same.
A few thousand are also thought to remain in the wild, but numbers are tricky to track and herds are put at serious risk by (illegal) ivory hunters. So pervasive is the threat that even rescued elephants are hard to keep safe. Hutsadin, where I am now, buys mistreated elephants from their owners in the tourist trade and cares for them in their old age – but I’m told that, a few years ago, traffickers broke into the pens in the night and sawed off the tusks of one of the bulls. For poachers, the still-thriving trade in ivory jewellery makes the threat of jail well worth the risk.
I was really keen to hear about their work in detail and, after trying for several days to get in touch, I’m gutted that there’s no one around who can help.
One-tooth coughs behind me. I didn’t realise he was still here.
“Go back?” he says, looking rather more smug than I care for.
I weigh the options and decide, my pride aside, that I’d better take the only available moto rather than risk a 6km trek in the blazing heat. I leave my card with the staff and ask them to get the volunteers to get in touch, then swing back onto the motorbike and ask one-tooth to drop me at the train station – which he does, before demanding 100 baht for the trouble.
“You’re actually having a laugh,” I say. “100 baht?”
He makes a pitiful face, points to my tiny shoulder bag and says, “luggage”.
Quelling my natural impulse to argue the toss, I decide that I’m running out of time and it really isn’t worth fighting over two quid. “Fine,” I sigh, handing over a crisp 100 baht note. His eyes light up. I’m starting to think that the gormless face might be a crafty bluff.
By now the heat is unbearable and I’ve just run out of water. I pick the place on the list that sounded the easiest to find and head in what I hope is the right direction.
“Excuse me,” I say twenty minutes later, to a café waitress on her break. “Where is this?” I show her the address in Thai, hoping that this will make up for harassing a stranger in a foreign language.
She frowns at it for a while, then smiles and points further down the road. I thank her with what starts out as a bow, but turns into a weird self-conscious nod when I don’t fully commit. I haven’t really nailed Thai etiquette yet.
After another ten minutes my head is spinning and I still haven’t found the place I’m looking for. A woman smiles at me outside a shop, so I pounce.
“Excuse me,” I say again. “Where is this?”
She studies the address for a while, then smiles and points me back in the direction I came.
“Ah,” I say, pointing at the next name on the list. “What about this one?”
She shrugs and indicates with her hand that she doesn’t know, but taps the first one again and points confidently back down the road.
Eventually, I give up and take a rest in the shade with my head in my hands. It’s far too hot, it’s nearly 4pm and I haven’t eaten anything today. Worse, I only have a few hours until my call and I still need to find a cashpoint, buy a bus ticket and pick up my stuff from my hostel. There is nothing here and I am thoroughly lost. Today is really not working out for me.
And then, joy of joys, I spot the beacon, sanctuary and hallowed beneficiary of all Westerners in Thailand: a 7-11. With an ATM outside. I skip across the road, rest my notebook on the machine while I withdraw some cash, then enter the air conditioned haven and head straight for the fridge, pressing bottles of cold water to my head when the cashier isn’t looking. Refreshed with water and sugar, I realise that I do, in fact, sort of know where I am and decide to play it safe by heading for the hipster café near my hostel that does a mean iced coffee and looks like it’s been transported straight out of Shoreditch.
Quarter of an hour later, I collapse onto a leopard-print sofa in a sweaty, disgusting mess.
“Hot?” chuckles the owner.
“Yes.” I mumble into the sofa.
“Want ice coffee?”
Oh well, I think, I’ve failed to dig out any local secrets, but at least I’ve got time to catch my breath and go through my notes before my Skype interview.
I open my bag to retrieve my notebook and immediately go cold with terror. My notebook is gone. My notebook that has everything in it. My notebook is – oh for fuck’s sake, sitting on the top of an ATM, 15 minutes’ walk away.
“Sorry! Sorry!” I shout, running out of the door. “I’ll be back!”
I leg it all the way back to the cashpoint, thinking that I might actually die from the heat and running through all the ways in which I will be totally fucked if I’ve lost my notebook. Why, why, why do I not type up interviews and hand-written notes straight away, like a responsible human being?
Thankfully, after a few false turns, I remember how to get back to the 7-11 and, when I do, the notebook is still there. I’m so happy that I actually kiss it, eliciting some rather bemused looks from passers-by.
One iced coffee, one bus ticket and one (great) Skype interview later, I’m on my way back to Bangkok, I’ve just about managed to shake the feeling that I’m a dysfunctional moron and I’m excitably making notes for the article that I’ll be researching in the coming week, which involves a trip to some permaculture farms in a very lovely part of the countryside. A thunderstorm is brewing overhead, promising some much-needed rain and a reprieve from the heat, and I have the pleasant homecoming feeling of heading back into a city that I know (just about) well enough to navigate.
Then, as we turn a sharp, poorly lit bend, there is a loud scrape as the minivan crashes into the high kerb and lunges over it, throwing us out of our seats and narrowly missing a stall on the corner before it steadies itself on the road on the other side. The handful of Thai passengers and I glance at each other in silent confusion, and then at the minivan driver – who looks extremely sheepish, smiles awkwardly and mutters something, half to himself and half to us.
Although I have no idea what he just said, something about the way he says it reminds me so much of my boyfriend when he’s just done something ridiculous that I can’t stop laughing. And then the driver starts laughing. And the other passengers start laughing.
And, after a quick damage check, we’re back on the road, and I’m thinking to myself how fun it is to be in a country where people so rarely take themselves seriously, where you can laugh away just about any embarrassment, and where it doesn’t matter if you accidentally make yourself look like a pillock.
In short, what a great place it is to be when you’re someone like me.