Five-minute friends

Sunset and beautiful skies at Railay

Sometimes in life, you’re destined to meet particular people. They go on to become friends, soulmates, someone to have a beer with, partners, or in some cases – eventually – you meet someone who will become a lifelong partner.

You meet through work, through friends, through school or university or perhaps by complete chance. Sometimes it can be engineered, but I’m a firm believer that if your paths are meant to cross, then at some point, your paths will cross.

I’m lucky to have some brilliant friends around me, but when I think back to how we met, there are reasons for it. Going to university on the south coast, mainly because of a relationship and applying late for a journalism course, I knew nobody. I remember walking around Southampton on my first day there with the strange feeling that I was completely alone. Three years later, I left with a group of lifelong friends, and a couple of them who have become absolute soulmates, people you trust, people you look forward to spending time with. And I knew in most cases, straight away from the moment we first met, that they were ‘my type’ of people, that I’d like to be friends with them and enjoy spending time around them.

Travelling provides so many of these opportunities. Every new place you get to, there’s a chance you could meet that new person to add to your friend list. The ‘five minute friend’ check usually makes up your mind – join them for a Chang and share a room, or leave them struggling with their rucksacks and boring stories on the pier

Where am I going with this? Let me explain – five years ago I was on an overnight flight back to London from New York with my family. It was our ‘last’ family holiday together, and we’d had a brilliant time. For the flight back, we changed all our pre-booked seats and chose some towards the back of the plane.

About two hours before we landed, I began talking to a cheerful blonde girl sat next to me. She’d been asleep most of the way, but she was around my age, had similar interests and, co-incidentally, was a journalist based in the City. After lots of chat about our jobs – a favourite hack pastime – a bit about our travels and how we got our careers, the tick box in the ‘five minute friend’ test had been well and truly checked. Her name was Hannah.

We swapped business cards, promised to add each other on Facebook, that we’d meet for coffee sometime and said goodbye at the baggage carousel.

Of course, time went on, we had a few messages every now and again, perhaps one of us would ‘like’ a status or a photo every so often, but as our lives went along separate paths, there was little chance of us bumping into each other again.

Fast forward five years, and to my last day in the Look North office before setting off on my travels, when a message drops into my inbox. Its from Hannah, the girl on the plane, who had seen my status about how I was leaving for a few months to travel the world. She too had gone through a break-up, packed up her career for a while, stuffed some clothes into a backpack and set off for a round the world trip of a lifetime. She was already in Thailand and loving every second.

“We should meet for a beer on the beach,” we agreed.

Of course, Thailand at that point seemed a million miles away. I was still to turn on my ‘out of office’, bring everything in my daily life to a halt, find my passport and work out how to get myself across Russia. Maybe we’d meet, maybe we wouldn’t, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one taking the plunge in such a spectacular way and wished her well for her journey.

Three months on and Hannah and I, along with her friend Laura, have just been out on one of the best nights out of my trip so far in Ao Nang, Krabi. Our paths crossed, and the five minute friend test was right. We had an absolute blast, and we’ve gone on to become really good mates.

Coffee in London...or Mai Tai in Thailand?!

It rounded off a great week of meeting new people. Having gone to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon party with the daunting prospect of not knowing anyone on the island, I ended up sharing a brilliant few days with Sarah, Emily and Brad, while yet another five minute friend, Jenny, had abused me in the street for seemingly outstaying my welcome in Haad Rin.

My ferry that finally gets me off Koh Phangan!

But alas, my time on the island did eventually come to an end and I got the overnight ferry to Surat Thani in the south, a huge transport hub that sees hundreds of backpackers pass through every day.

Sleeping arrangements on the ferry! Cosy!

I was heading to Railay, a place that had been recommended to me and where I had found bungalows just before Christmas going for around 400 Baht, or £8. It was affordable, just, and pencilled myself in for a few days.

My bags enjoying the ride to Railay

After an exhausting journey, I arrived on the beach by longtail, the only way you can get there thanks to a complete lack of roads, and a way that always evokes images of a Robinson Crusoe-esque arrival nomatter how many times you wade ashore with your bags. I made a sweaty, bag-laden trek up the steep hills to the back of Railay East and  the cheap bungalows I had found.

They were full – and had almost doubled in price.

It prompted a search high and low for something affordable, but thanks to peak season and a lot of package tourists being in the area, it was impossible. In the end, I settled for a jungle bungalow after bartering them down from £22 a night to £14. I also made a mental note to leave the place as soon as possible.

Eventually found a home in the jungle!

Then I had a message from Jenny, the girl I met in Koh Phangan who ‘kept seeing me everywhere’. She was making her way back north to Chiang Mai from Koh Phi Phi, a short ride away from Railay. Her journey meant a stopover in Krabi, a place where she’d been before, so she asked if I fancied meeting for a beer in Railay as she’d like to see it.

Being in a bungalow, it was already hard to meet other people so I told her it was a great idea, and the following day she arrived on the peninsula. We had fruit shakes on the beachfront, chatted about life back home, our families, our travels. She told me of stories about her trips through India and to the Everest base camp, and how she was gutted to be leaving Thailand in a week’s time.

We joked about the small world that finds her family running the Hill Holt Wood project in Lincolnshire, a place where a few years ago I did a bit of filming. A fellow blogger, we talked about futures, careers and aspirations. Basically, we completely hit it off and had a brilliant laugh along the way, mainly about the way we met and her abuse of me. It also turned out she had been in the same taxi as me when I arrived on Koh Phangan – she told me how she’d jumped out after realising she could walk the distance to where she was staying. Immediately I remembered the moment – I’d even shouted out ‘good luck’ as she set off on a seemingly futile trek. Perhaps our paths were supposed to cross.

Indoor fire shows in a wooden bar...safety first, as usual

In the end we had a brilliant night, watching Thai Boxing that was laid on at one of the beach bars, laughing about the lack of complete health and safety regulations as a fire dancer performed a full routine – indoors – and sipping buckets until the early hours, tapping our feet to the current Thailand anthems.

Jenny meets her match

Jenny left the following day as she continued her journey north, and ultimately on her way home back to Derbyshire, but I know we’ll stay in touch. After such a fleeting meeting in a busy street, suddenly a new friendship is formed, one that will continue, and it’s a great feeling. Its one of the best bits about travelling.

Continuing her journey home

I too was moving on, to meet up with Hannah, the girl from the New York flight five years ago. I was to share a room with her friend Laura, a complete stanger. But then it was easy to forget that Hannah was still a complete stranger to me herself. The next few days could be brilliant if we get on, but could be a disaster if it turns out we don’t!

With Laura and Hannah...after visiting 7-Elevens (keep reading!)

As it happens, they’d clearly had similar discussions as it was revealed I’d been referred to as ‘Psycho Phil’ prior to my arrival, a joke between them about how little they knew about me, yet we were to share accommodation. Infact, there was nothing to fear – the next few days were a blur of beach time, dancing in bars and making regular stops at the 7-Elevens for a new game dubbed the ‘7-Eleven bar crawl’.

Spy wine coolers...girly but deadly!

It’s a great way of saving money when you’re on a budget, where to save the £3 cost of bottled drinks in the touristy bars around Ao Nang, you simply raid the 7-Eleven ‘bars’ at the back of the shop. For just 60p, you can get bottles of Spy, a sparkling fruity wine drink, that while being incredibly girly, packed a 7% alcoholic punch!

Loving the 7-Eleven Bar Crawl!!

The rules are simple – on the way to the pub, you have to stop at every 7-Eleven you come across, pop in to the chiller at the back, pick up a drink and finish it before you reach the next 7-Eleven. Sounds easy, but there were five on the way to the main bars from where we were staying, and its fair to say we were well on the way to a morning ‘Changover’ by the time we reached them.

Flaming B52s all round!

It resulted in a couple of fairly heavy nights out, but there was plenty of banter between us, we all laughed at the same things –

He was awesome...

mainly a guy wearing a ‘I Am Awesome’ t-shirt, and they helped to sober me up after one too many buckets by force-feeding me a Burger King before going to bed. That’s when you know you’ve found some good friends…and they found it highly amusing!

After three days of hitting Ao Nang’s nightlife, raiding the 7-Eleven girly drinks cabinets and some much needed hungover breakfasts, I was ready to relax. I booked a ticket to Koh Lanta, an island a little off the tourist trail and one where hopefully I can enjoy some cheap living for a week.

I doubt whatever it was happened to be that funny!

Another 7-Eleven purchase!

New buckets please!

Saying goodbye to Hannah and Laura was more of a farewell – in a week’s time, I’m heading to Koh Tao to do a diving course, and at the same time, Hannah and Laura will be there too. We’ve agreed to meet up for more fun and games together, but in the space of just a couple of days, we had become great friends. So much so, it was easy to forget we had been strangers before – you know when you’re in tune with people when it feels like you’ve known each other for years.

Laura, Hannah and their awesome friend!

When I think back to when we first met, of how Hannah was trying out my noise cancelling headphones (not that she remembers) and telling me how she hates flying, who would have thought that the next time we’d meet wouldn’t be in a coffee shop in London, but infact on a beach on the opposite side of the globe. That if we hadn’t changed our seats on that flight, the chances are we wouldn’t have spoken at all. And if Facebook wasn’t invented, well, it would have just gone down as a chat with a random passenger on a plane.

Same could be said for Jenny. What would otherwise have been a boring couple of days without knowing anyone in Railay, and probably having to go on yet another solo night out in the hope I’ll get chatting to someone (it gets tiring after a while!) turned out to be a memorable few days. Again, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, we were able to meet, have a laugh and become friends.

The importance of staying in touch with five minute friends – you just never know when they might be in the right place at the right time for a beer and a good knees-up. Even if it is in some far flung land!

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‘You’ve been here ages’

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My home for a while!

How do you know when to move on to pastures new when travelling? When you get bored? When the weather turns? When you’ve made your way through every dish on the local restaurant’s menu?

No. Its when a complete stranger bellows across a busy street: “You’ve been here ages, I keep seeing you everywhere!”

Or in my case, its when two complete strangers shout that at you. On the same night.

So I was back on Koh Phangan after three days on Koh Samui to visit Dirk. With him on his way back to Germany, I was glad to be getting off the island, and I wont be going back.

Overall conclusions? An island that’s been spoilt by mass tourism, in a ‘Benidorm or Blackpool in Thailand’ kind of way. I know by me being there, and in Thailand in general, I am a tourist and therefore contributing. But the sad thing was, it was dirty, overpriced, the sewerage system can’t cope leaving the streets smelling really bad, the beach needed a serious litter pick, the constant pestering by massage girls, the unfriendly feel about the place. Whether or not its because I’m more used to quieter places in recent weeks, I don’t know.

Beautiful sunset back on Koh Phangan

What I do know is that I feel at home arriving back on Koh Phangan. I checked into my room that I’d managed to book in advance before I left for Samui and had a walk around Haad Rin, stopping for lunch at one of the cafes. It felt like I was among friends again, and quickly got talking to two blokes on a nearby table.

On the way back to my room I bumped into two familiar faces in the 7-Eleven – an Australian named Brad and his French partner Emily. Strangely, I’d also bumped into them the night before on Koh Samui, when I’d decided to take myself out for a night out on my own. It was a strange feeling, walking around a nightclub on my own and having brief conversations with people, but I figured if the music was going to keep me awake in that awful room I was staying in, I may as well go and enjoy it!

It was towards the end of that night that I recognised them – they had been in my taxi just before New Year, and their friend Sarah was a journalist. Bumping into the pair of them again, I was jokingly accused of following them and then we got talking, agreeing to meet up the following night for a few drinks.

Koh Phangan

Suddenly, I had a new group of friends, and we met up the following day for drinks on the beach. It was while walking back into the town that a random girl shouted at me.

“You’ve been here ages – I keep seeing you everywhere. You were on my boat!”

I had no idea who it was, and for a second shouted back that she too had been here ages in that case, before we began chatting. Her name was Jenny and she told me she lived in Derbyshire. I told her I was from Grimsby in Lincolnshire.

“I know that, well, I know Lincoln,” Jenny said.

She told me her dad runs a business and lives between Lincoln and Newark.

“Norton Disney?” I queried.

“How did you know that? Nobody knows that place!” she threw back at me, laughing.

That’s when I told her about my job back home and that I happen to have a fairly in-depth knowledge of Lincolnshire’s towns and villages after years of driving and filming in and around them.

Jenny told me how I’d been on her boat over to the island and that she kept seeing me everywhere. It gave me a bit of a complex, that perhaps I was becoming part of Haad Rin’s furniture and that others would see me and think the same. I didn’t particularly want the reputation as ‘that guy with glasses that just wanders around’. I told Jenny she’d obviously been stalking me.

She was fun, but she had a friend with her and I was keeping my new friends waiting so we joked we’d probably see each other at Full Moon.

Incredibly, a few minutes later, the same thing happened with another girl near the beach. She was a bit worse for wear, but was still able to pinpoint where she’d seen me. Growing slightly concerned that the next edition of the Lonely Planet will have an entry about me and where best to spot me. (it would be the café next to Chicken Corner  – superfast wifi!)

Full Moon wear!

It was now officially Full Moon day, the night when the beach fills once again with thousands of people to dance the night away, under the brightness provided by a full moon.

Haad Rin is a town where the whole economy is based on this once a month spectacular. Every shop is filled with bright illuminous clothing, all daubed with bright slogans and logos for full moon. There’s loads of bright fluorescent paints available, glow sticks to buy, flashing lights and hats to spend money on. There are posters everywhere about the event, as well as about Half Moon and Dark Moon events – there is something almost every week to keep the parties going.

It all started back in 1985, when the first Full Moon Party was held at a bungalow outfit on the beach as a thankyou for about 20-30 travellers.The parties carried on and quickly gained fame through word of mouth, and the event now draws a crowd of about 20,000-30,000 every full moon evening, more for big events like New Year.

Its popular as almost every genre of music is played by the dozen or so bars along the beachfront, each with ever impressive sound systems that could shake your fillings out if you stand still long enough.

Its now one of ‘the’ things to do for anyone backpacking their way around the world. Tonight is my third ‘Full Moon’ event in a year, and yet again I locked all my belongings safely away so unfortunately have little in the way of photos from the night.

It began with Sarah, Emily and Brad, who I’ve become good friends with over the last few days. They invited me to their hotel to join in with the body painting workshop that was currently taking place in their bathroom. I went for dots and squiggles down my arms, in some fetching dayglow yellow, stunning pink and a bit of green. A trips to the 7-Eleven bar meant we had some cheap drinks before hitting the buckets yet again. Tony Bucket was delighted to see me back on the island, and naturally gave me a big free hug!

Fire fun - or madness, depending on viewpoint!

It was actually nice to just wander along the beach and take in everything that was going on. We walked up to Mellow Mountain to the extreme left of the beach, with a great view looking over the whole area. The beauty of this huge event is that everyone seems to be in a great mood – everyone is on holiday of one sort or another, and while there have been reports of some violence here and there, compared to some nights out I’ve had at home, its chilled, relaxed and has a very friendly atmosphere.

Most of our time was spent around the Cactus and Drop In bars, which seemed to be playing the six anthems of Thailand on a loop, the main one being Levels by Avicii, with an incredibly catchy chorus of ‘Woah-oh, sometimes’ which has an annoying habit of getting completely stuck in everyone’s heads, while ‘Save The World Tonight’ by Swedish House Mafia, and David Guetta’s ‘Without You’ are other favourites. Infact, you can normally walk along the beach and hear any one of them playing somewhere at any point in the night!

The fire ropes and fire jumps were back out in force, with many having a go, while others – and it has to be said, mainly the girls – had a go at firebreathing.

With Tony Bucket saying goodbye - and my bucket!

Sarah, Emily, Brad and I opted for another drink and a bit of dancing on the tables until the sun rose. Apparently, it’s the rules that you have to see the morning in on such a big night. Once again, that mission was accomplished, but with the tide coming in fast, we called it a night. I went home with a souvenir – my last bucket from the party, and possibly my last ever bucket from Koh Phangan.

Tony signing my final bucket

The next day, as usual, was a bit of a write-off after Full Moon, but I met up with my French and Australian buddies for dinner. It was our last night together before we all go our separate ways – Sarah to Hua Hin in the north, Emily to Burma on a visa run, and Brad on his way towards Bangkok and preparing for his journey home to Sydney.

With Brad, Emily and Sarah at the great Thai restaurant off the main street

I took them to a lovely little Thai restaurant, run by a family, and which serves some of the best food I’ve had. Thankfully, my friends agreed. Over dinner they told me more about Leela Beach, a beautiful beach a few minutes walk from all the craziness of this town.

Paradise on party island

They were right – it was stunning. I’d had no idea the beach existed, yet a few minutes walk up a hill and then down through the Cocohut resort leads you out into a smaller cove, away from Haad Rin and with a typical coconut palm fringed beachfront, idyllic quiet spots and beautiful clear blue water.

Leela beach

I was slightly annoyed I’d not visited sooner. I knew I’d have to leave the next day, as it was time to explore more of the country,

Little crab friend that kept me amused

but the beach was beautiful. It seemed a million miles away from the buckets, chicken burgers and pumping dance music on the other side of the hill. It was peaceful, relaxing – and it had wifi for the blog! I spent the entire day with a coconut tree waving over me, watching the waves lap on the shore, writing away about recent events with an occasional swim to cool off. Fab!

Sarah left around lunchtime, so we took a few photos of each other on the beach and said goodbye. She’s also blogging about her journey, having travelled across land from home. Incredibly, along with Emily, they hitchhiked most of their way to Thailand before catching a few trains along the way. Sarah was returning home to her job as a journalist for AFP, full of traveller stories and tales, although she wasn’t looking forward to the cold.

Sunset beach

I, however, was looking forward to moving on. I’d already had another tweet from Derbyshire Jenny, winding me up about how she’d managed to escape Koh Phangan’s clutches and wondering if I was still stuck here. I was, but only for a few hours – I’m booked onto a night ferry to Surat Thani, and onwards to Railay in the south. My plan is to spend a cheap week or so there, and then move on.

I watched yet another stunning sunset on the island, had a last walk along the beach where I have so many memories from my three visits over the past year, and said farewell to a great place that had become home. I didn’t particularly want to leave, but as one cheeky redhead from Bakewell rightly pointed out, I had been here ages!

The sun sets on my time on Koh Phangan