‘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

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Dirk’s big break

Visiting Dirk in hospital

I had no plans to visit Koh Samui, and after three days on the island, I knew exactly why I had been avoiding it like the plague. However, this wasn’t a sightseeing trip or a bit of beach time – it was more of a mercy dash for a stricken friend.

Dirk when we were tubing in Laos

You may remember Dirk, the German guy from my tour around Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. He of the Vietnamese mafia fame, who got chased on motorbikes after having his camera stolen and paying a wedge of cash to get it back. He who then had said camera knocked clean out of his hand and into the tubing river in Laos – and then having to pay another wedge of cash for divers to retrieve it. He who then lost his treasured hat to some driver who gave it to a street kid in Luang Prabang.

Yep, you get the picture. Poor Dirk hadn’t had a great deal of luck during his few weeks in southeast Asia. We loved him for it on the tour though, and he was a great guy to travel around with.

Unfortunately, just before Christmas, and in the middle of his Padi diving course in Koh Tao, he broke his leg. Twice.

He’d been stuck in hospital on Koh Samui ever since, and while a few others from the tour had visited, I was now the only one left in this part of the world from the tour, as everyone else had either moved on to Australia or gone home. Well, I was the only one who still had the use of both legs…

With Samui on the horizon from the beach at Koh Phangan, I felt it was my duty to go and see him and try to lift his spirits a little.

View from the boat leaving Koh Phangan

I caught an afternoon sailing from Haad Rin to the island, the largest of the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, and after the storms of recent days, there was a huge swell in the sea.

A bit of a rough crossing - some struggled!

We bobbed our way for an hour across the crystal clear turquoise blue water, which offered us some stunning views or the immaculate beaches on both islands, before heading to Chaweng Beach, quite near the Bangkok Hospital on Samui. And yes, having a hospital with another city name is incredibly confusing.

After the excesses of New Year, I’d set aside this week as a ‘cheap week’, skimping on a few areas like decent accommodation, food, drinks – you know, the stuff you normally take for granted – but with depleting funds, it’s a necessary step as a backpacker.

With many places full, the rooms I could find were starting at about 800 Baht a night. I feared the worst. It works out to be £16 a night, well out of my price range. Its one of the downsides of travelling alone, that everything is done on a room rate here, rather than by person. My luck changed a little when a guy approached me in the street for Ali Baba’s restaurant. There were rooms available, so I agreed to check them out.

Somehow it almost looks nice in the photo!

Hmmm. It was fan cooled, so pretty stuffy. The sheets had stains and fag burns on them. The mosquito covering over the window was pointless, as there were some weird building tiles that let what little air there was into the room – as well as every insect known to the Thai islands. The toilet was a non-flush bucket version, the water out of the taps was brown, the electrics looked shocking (pun intended)…but I got it down to 350 Baht a night.

“I’ll take it,” I said, taking a deep breath and telling myself I won’t be in it much.

If anything, it meant I could get my heavy bags off my back.

Home sweet home

I walked out onto the street.

“Sexxy masssaaaaaaage,” said a gaggle of girls in skimpy skirts near the doorway.

Head down. Walk on.

The beach wasn’t anything spectacular, despite what the Lonely Planet described as ‘one of the best on the island’. It was marred with rubbish, washed up weed and too many tattoed skin-headed blokes getting beered up for two weeks.

Above all, there was a perculiar atmosphere, one of tourists, holidaymakers, families and backpackers all trying to mix together. Nobody seemed to want to talk or get to know one another. Most were in couples or groups. I knew I wasn’t going to like it here.

The only photo I could be bothered to take of Chaweng beach!

However, I wasn’t here for ‘me’ I was here for Dirk, and that night, unannounced, I made my way to the hospital he’s spent just over two weeks in. It was only a couple of miles away, but taxis wanted a standard 300 Baht for the trip – £6 for a journey that would cost pennies in Bangkok.

In the end I found a motorbike taxi for 80 Baht and made my way to the particularly plush hotel, sorry, hospital that Dirk was being cared for in. I found my way to his ward, and asked the nurse if he was awake. She looked at the cctv monitor and nodded, pointing towards his door. I knocked.

“Jaaaa, come,” came a familiar voice.

Still full of beans!

I walked in, Dirk looked around and then cheered at the top of his voice. A huge smile lit up his face and he grabbed me for a manly hug. I could see he was so pleased to see a familiar face.

Then I looked at his leg – out stretched and covered in bandages and dressings where a series of metal pins and plates have been inserted during surgery.

“Its getting better – now I can move my toes a little,” he said.

Some serious repair work

I was gutted for him. Dirk was always one of the ‘cwazy’ ones in the group (as he says) giving us all a laugh, daring to be different, and nobody deserves to spend Christmas or New Year in hospital alone, thousands of miles away from family and friends back home, knowing that your dream trip around the world was at an end.

Dirk at Christmas

For the first time, Dirk told me exactly how he got such a terrible injury. Its still subject of an insurance claim, but what I can say is that it happened on a beach. After the first break was done to his shin bone, he tried to stand up and then broke the fibula, the calf bone behind it.

“I looked down and my foot and lower leg was at right angles to the rest of my leg,” he said.

“The pain..oh the pain,” he grimaced, covering his head as he relived the moment.

It was one of those horror breaks that you see footballers, boxers and other sportsmen do every now and again, usually with a story about how it ended a career. For Dirk, it was the start of an agonising 20 hours before he got to a specialist hospital. At first there was no pain relief given until insurance formalities had been completed. His leg was manipulated into the right sort of position, and then strapped onto a wooden plank to give it support.

At this point, you have to remember Koh Tao’s roads are basic to say the least, bumpy, pot holed and rutted. There was no ambulance at this point – his journey to the boat was in the back of a pick up truck.

“I felt every rock on that ground, every hole in the road. Man, it was so painful I was screaming,” he said.

Then it was onto a boat to Koh Samui, rocking on heavy seas, and finally to a hospital.

“I have never known pain like it,” he said

“It was like something else.”

Dirk, one of his nurses and his monkey mascot Whiskey

Some serious surgery followed, and a specialist had to be flown over from Germany to keep an eye on the injury. There were some huge complications too – compartment syndrome set in at one point, where the lower half of his right leg effectively began to shut down as pressure built up, cutting off blood. He told me he came within a few hours of losing his leg completely. A terrifying prospect.

With Dirk as we said goodbye in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Dirk had left Germany a week or so after I left the UK. Our paths met in Bangkok in November, and at the end of our tour I didn’t expect to see him again. While he was also travelling to Australia, he was then to go on to travel across South America, taking a completely different way home to me. He was due to return back home around June.

“I will be back,” he says, defiantly.

“This is just God’s way of saying I need to be home for a party in Germany. This is all part of my journey.

“Once I get the use of my leg back, I will fly out to Australia and complete my trip. Whether that’s in three months, six months or a year, I will do it.”

His determination is heart warming. With his constant laughing and joking, and the overall way he’s dealing with it, I admire him. Every day he’s having intensive physiotherapy to try to rebuild muscles which have been destroyed and to get his leg and foot functioning again.

I stayed until 11pm, and then walked slowly with him around the hospital ward as a last bit of exercise before he goes to bed. He is to fly back to Germany in a couple of days, and I promise to return the following night.

That night, I hardly slept. The room was hot, the mosquitos were biting – despite me taking refuge in my sleeping bag – and I appeared to have booked a room right between two huge outdoor nightclubs. LMFAO’s Party Rock song – you know, the ‘everybody’s shuffling’ song, must have played about eight times before I managed to grab some kip. I woke up in the morning with it still shuffling around in my head.

‘Sexxxxy massaaaaaaage’

I walked outside through the gaggle of skimpily dressed massage girls again. By now I’d have thought they’d have got the message that I was staying in the adjoining hotel. Instead, they tried to grab me like I was a regular customer. I smiled, put my head down and walked on to the beach.

I found it to be a huge problem on the island. While Thai massage is a huge part of life, and the culture, of Thailand, these massage parlours seemed to be of a seedy variety offering anything but a traditional massage. And there were lots of them – flyers and massage girls are in your face almost everywhere you go. While some parts of Thailand do suffer with that sleazy image – and indeed benefit from it – I didn’t know Koh Samui, or this resort, was heading such a way. They were harmless, but it got so annoying everytime I went back to my room!

I spent the day on the beach, setting up camp outside the Ark Bar and making full use of its free wifi for the price of a solitary Coke. I made sure the password was kept safe for future visits!

I didn’t speak to one person properly all day, and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. When you travel alone on a backpacker circuit, you get used to rocking up next to someone and just starting to chat. Its easy, its fun and you meet so many different people with different stories. Here, there was almost a snobby attitude – that I was some sort of outcast for being here on my own. The majority of people in the resort were Australians on their annual summer holiday, either as a group or couples on a two-week package tour. I felt uncomfortable at times. It’s quite a lonely feeling.

Back to see Dirk

I was glad to return to see Dirk that night, but I had the sad job of helping him pack his bags. Its difficult for him to move around with his crutches, so I spent half an hour walking around, collecting some of his belongings and helping him to get them inside his packed rucksack.

The sweetener for Dirk is that he’s being flown home to Cologne in style – he has to keep his leg straight to help it heal, and the only way he can do that on his Lufthansa flight home is to fly in the First Class compartment. With a doctor from his homeland to accompany him too, I can see exactly how his insurance bill is already running into tens of thousands of pounds.

Dirk in the First Class lounge awaiting his flight home!

One of the items he packed was his X-Ray taken just after the accident, showing just how badly his leg was broken. It was a clean break, and I’m sure his X- Ray will one day be an infamous trophy from his time in Thailand.

I left him that night with a handshake, a pat on the back and a promise that somewhere, one day, we would meet again. For now, his travels were over and he is heading back to Europe. A reminder to me, and to any backpacker, just how quickly your fortunes can change. Yes, its an amazing experience being in far flung parts of the world, doing things that you would never do back home. Yes, travelling around clinging to the back of pick ups or on tuk tuks is fun. And yes, if you’re so inclined, the fire shows, fire rings and burning skipping ropes on the beach at night can be an exciting thing to get involved with after a bucket.

But suddenly, with one error of judgement, or an accident caused by someone else, you can find yourself back on a plane and heading to the colder climes of home for a potentially long and tough recovery.

I have to pay tribute to Dirk. If the same had happened to me, I’d be beside myself. I can’t think of anything more depressing than being sat in that room with a shattered leg while the rest of the world is celebrating Christmas and New Year outside, and your family are thousands of miles away back home.

Yet, throughout his entire ordeal, Dirk has remained strong, in good spirits, laughing and joking with everyone involved in his recovery. Not once have I heard him moan or get angry about what happened. Instead, he looks for the positives – choosing to look on the bright side of life.

“It could have been worse – a lot worse,” he says.

“I might have gone back to Germany without a leg. Me? Without a leg? I can’t imagine it.

“This is just part of my story, part of my travels, a story for my blog. I will go home, I will get better, learn to walk on it and I will start again.”

Dirk, from me, our tour mates, from our tour leader Fon and from all the other backpackers who I have told your sorry tale to in recent weeks – we salute you.

Get well soon buddy. Your world awaits.