The Craziest Festival I’ve Ever Been To

The air is heavy with smoke. All I can see is a carpet of red shells, strewn across the ground like rose petals, and the sparks of fire that rip through the endless cloud.

The angry splutter of explosions intensifies – the procession must be approaching. I see the Gods first, carried high on a litter, impervious to the firecrackers launched into their thrones. Before them emerge devotees, both men and women, in vivid silk robes and huge blades or metal poles pierced through their faces They shout and quivering in religous ecstasy, some whipping themselves as they walk. Here and there, a trickle of blood runs down the steel, but mostly – and miraculously – the knives seem to pierce their skin without serious damage.

Carrying the God statues at the Vegetarian Festival Phuket

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I Was Followed By Secret Police In China and Here’s Why

Part 1: In Which We Lose All Our Money and Survive Entirely on Mama Noodles


Just over a year ago, the bear and I embarked on a long, perilous, chaotic journey across Thailand, China, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey.

I wasn’t able to blog about it at the time, partly because I was busy posing as a hapless tourist rather than an equally hapless journalist in front of the authorities, and partly because we spent a fair bit of time either in remote gers (yurts) or trapped on endless bus journeys across the desert, stopping only so the driver could proudly take a dump next to the window in the snow.

But now that the story we went out there to write is published – and more importantly, I’m now at a comfortable distance from the Chinese secret police –  It’s probably safe to divulge the sheer absurdity that shaped much of this trip.

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The day that it all went wrong

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.

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A very clean start

“This way looks pretty safe,” I say, marching ahead around the corner and straight into the trap: six, maybe seven Thai teenagers, eyes full of malice, fingers already on the triggers of their pistols.

I freeze. Behind me, my companions are backing away, about to take their chances ducking through heavy Bangkok traffic, but there’s no way I can outrun our assailants. There’s too many of them, they’ve got me cornered, and I’m wearing badly thought-out footwear. Few farang* are out in this part of the city tonight, and a pale-skinned blonde that’s fresh off the plane is a prime target.

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An offer I can probably refuse

Avoiding eye contact, I scuttle over to my desk, but he’s spotted me, and is already making his way over. In a slightly higher pitch than usual, he asks if I have five minutes for a “little chat”.

I follow him into a meeting room, trying to look serious and professional and not at all like someone who plans to be elephant-spotting on a jungle island in just over a month’s time.

“I can’t stop you from leaving,” says my boss. “I mean, I won’t try, since you’ve clearly got a pretty solid plan laid out for when you go.”

“I’ve got a one way ticket to Bangkok,” I mumble, apologetically.

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3 weeks, 3 days

I’ve done it. I’VE DONE IT.

I had to wait an interminable age until my boss actually decided to head home for the evening (he inexplicably opted to stay until nearly 8pm, which I’ve never witnessed before), but I waited until the coast was clear, typed up my preternaturally restrained letter of resignation, spent 25 minutes hunting around for an envelope (perils of the digital age) and then perched it jauntily on his keyboard for early morning discovery. The presence of a few stragglers from the media team prevented me doing a little dance, but I did one inside.

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