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'Perhaps my fate would be to become a pineapple slave, pick pineapples until eternity, die with raw manual-worker hands'.

Before I left Tokyo, I decided that I desperately needed some R&R - and Thailand fitted the bill perfectly. I scanned the Lonely Planet guidebook - 'Survival in South East Asia on a Shoestring' - I wanted something inexpensive, off the beaten track and definitely far from the madding crowd. I discovered a hotel that was three hours from Bangkok, decorated throughout in old colonial style, wooden floors, ceiling fans - and all for $20 per night. It sounded perfect.

I telephoned to make a reservation. They would be delighted to welcome me to their hotel; I would be one of their first since its refurbishment. The hotel had just undergone a massive revamp as a result of being taken over by the Sofitel chain. It now cost $150 per night. This was expensive by American standards, let alone Thai standards. But it did sound nice......

I took the bus from the airport to the south bus terminal - an adventure I will never forget. Crossing the city during rush hour is a time-consuming, dangerous activity. We knocked three people off their phuk phuks and crashed into two cars. The driver, undeterred by these minor setbacks, continued this rather chaotic journey across Bangkok. Of course, I had no idea where we were, and was not totally convinced that I would recognise the bus terminal when I did arrive. But luckily the ticket inspector was kind and friendly and assured me she would let me know once we got there. After sitting on the bus for an hour and a half, I became convinced that she'd forgotten all about me. No, we still weren't there, she assured me once again. I could tell that my pestering was beginning to irritate her, but I needed to make the last bus out of Bangkok and I was running out of time. It took two and a half hours to cross the city in the rush hour, which incidentally seems to last all day. I dashed to buy my ticket to Hua Hin and I made the last bus with minutes to spare.

The bus journey to Hua Hin, a resort once frequented by the Thai royal family was scheduled to take four and a half hours. The bus driver drove like a lunatic. He overtook when vehicles came towards us - I noticed that he seemed to get a real buzz out of that. Meanwhile, I tried to relax and sleep, and pretend that I was on a National bus service to London, but the noise, the language and the heat told me otherwise. It was odd but when the bus came to a rather abrupt halt after about three hours and I had this strange feeling that we had arrived at my destination.

I asked the driver if this was Hua Hin, regardless of the fact that we were an hour and a half early, and he nodded. Did they nod in Thailand for yes, or was it like being in Russia when they nod for no? I asked again to get confirmation that I was about to get off the bus in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of night at least in the right town. He opened the door and gestured for me to get off. I stood in the darkness; the hot, humid air making me feel tired, sweaty and in desperate need of a shower. It had been a long day. And if I didn't find the hotel, it would be a long night too. I decided to take out my 'bible' - the Lonely Planet guide, complete with map to help me get my bearings.

According to the map, nothing looked like the bus station of Hua Hin. Several people on tricycles approached me to offer me a lift. Never accept lifts from strangers, my mom had always warned me - and this was no exception. With a little help from my map, I would be fine.

I wandered around the streets looking for some bearings - and then I realised that the bus hadn't dropped me off at the bus station. I was in the middle of a main road. No wonder I was confused. Reluctantly, I did accept a lift on one of the tricycles but only because I had no choice. I knew that I would be wandering around all night unless I did something positive.

After a few minutes by tricycle, we entered the driveway that led to the hotel. I was a lot closer than I had realised, but I still wouldn't have found it on my own. It was late. It was dark. It was hot and humid - and like an oasis in the desert, the most beautiful hotel I had ever seen was lit up before me. People came rushing out of everywhere bedecked in orchids to greet me. Baskets of fresh fruit were sent to my room. This was exactly what I needed - and all that I deserved for $150 a night.

I woke the next morning and looked out of my 'colonial style' bedroom across the garden to the swimming pools, and towards the perfect, white sandy beach. Close to the pool, there was a baby elephant being led to the shower by what I can only guess was his trainer. The small, Thai man clapped his hands and said something to his small grey companion. By this time, I was watching with great curiosity - this was the signal to turn the shower on. The elephant was taking a shower to cool himself down - as anybody would after a few hours relaxing in the sun. The man clapped his hands again when he was sure the elephant was nicely refreshed - and this is the clever bit - the elephant turned the shower off again. Amazing. I knew I was going to enjoy Thailand.

After a few days of being pampered - it all became too much and I wanted to see more of Thailand. I checked out of the hotel and headed for a small place called Pratchuap Kiri Khan. I'd been chatting to some Germans in the bar who'd recommended a small village, an hour south of Hua Hin. 'The best sea food in South East Asia' they said. 'No tourists, you'll love it.'

When I checked out of the hotel, the staff asked me where I was going. I told them that I was off to Pratchuap Kiri Khan, by train. 'Oh you will be back,' the receptionist said.
'No, you don't understand I am leaving,' I repeated, unsure of the competency of her English. 'You will be back,' she said again.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I should have realised then that something was amiss but instead I just queried her English. And I set off on my journey, knowing no better. I arrived in Pratchuap Kiri Khan, armed with my 'bible.' The guidebook listed two hotels and I went off to find them. The town is very small and it didn't take me long to locate the Kings Hotel - the first on my list. I walked inside and enquired about the possibility of taking a room for the night. I asked for only one night - I didn't want to over commit. 'No rooms. No hotel,' the man said from behind the desk. It was very clearly a hotel. I told him again that I wanted a room, a single room. 'No hotel,' he repeated.
What could I do? The man was denying that his hotel was a hotel. I couldn't call him a liar - I proceeded to the next hotel on my hit list.

I had a very peculiar feeling about the place. The German was right, there were no tourists. I was the only foreigner in the town - and in South East Asia we're very easy to spot because we look so different. At the next hotel, the same thing happened again. The man denied that his hotel was a hotel. It was beginning to dawn on me why they had so few tourists; call me pedantic, but in order to be a hotel, you actually have to allow people to stay there. I walked along the street, determined by now to make someone admit that they ran a hotel which said the word hotel on the sign outside.

My next encounter was slightly different. It wasn't recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide - but hey their recommendations weren't doing me much good so far. I walked in to the 'reception' - a small room with a bunch of old guys playing cards, laughing together and getting very drunk in the process. 'Do you have a room?' I asked 'Yes', came the reply. '$4 per night.' Getting better I thought. 'I'll show you.' the man from behind the reception desk said, laughing with his friends. I followed the man up the stairs to a room. But it wasn't a regular sort of hotel room - one that had a door, a lock or a window; this was what I would term open plan.' I suddenly realised why they were laughing, and also why it was so cheap. For some reason, I felt a little reluctant to take the room....

Pratchuap Kiri Khan - I had the feeling this small un-touristy place was not for me. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. And go back to the comfort of The Railway Hotel - and the luxury that I had enjoyed - bellboys replenishing my cocktails at the ring of a bell. Ahhh! I walked the streets studying my train timetable, as people stared at me from doorways. I had a problem - the next train was in two days time. Oh bugger. What was I going to do? I followed my map to the bus station. It was getting worse - the bus didn't come for five days. My only hope of getting out of the god forsaken place was to go to the police and beg them to take me back to Hua Hin - somehow. I arrived at the police station, and a very large man in uniform was standing on the step, smoking a large Cuban-type cigar. 'I need to get to Hua Hin urgently. It is very urgent.' I pleaded. I wasn't sure the man could hear me, as he didn't register that he had. But this was a funny kind of town - maybe he was thinking. I said it again, in case his English wasn't too good. But there was merely silence.

I decided to sit on the step, as much to gather my thoughts as anything else. And then he went inside to chat to his colleague. I could hear them speaking on the telephone but I couldn't understand what was going on. After a little while, the colleague came out and gestured for me to get in the back of the pickup truck. It was very high off the floor and I was relieved when I realised he meant my bag and not me in the back. I had to sit in the front next to him. If ever there was a moment in my life when I did something that instinct told me not to do - this was it. Don't go with strangers, my mom had always said. But I think even she would agree that this was a time when I had no choice. The train wouldn't come back for two days. My only chance of leaving Pratchuap Kiri Khan was at the mercy of this policeman who spoke no English.

As we drove off, I sat with my body leaning on the door; it felt safer somehow. The policeman said nothing. He had a gun in his holster by his pocket and I was nervous on my way to God only knew where. I said the words 'Hua Hin' from time to time - but it was as if I hadn't spoken. We drove for what seemed like hours, but was in fact probably more like two. I couldn't read the road signs, I had no idea what direction I was heading in. After a couple of hours, we pulled off the main road into a layby and the policeman spun the truck around on the dirt track, dust flying everywhere. We sat in silence, waiting for something to happen, but nothing happened. After a little while a lorry pulled in - full of pineapples and people - but there were far more pineapples than people. It's funny the things you remember. I had no idea what was going to happen, and no way of finding out - I just had to wait.

And then I knew what was going to happen. The policeman ordered me out of the car - he was going to shoot me in the lay-by. Now he had his audience. A brutal killing on the highway. My mother was going to read about this in the paper and wonder why on earth I had got in this strange vehicle.

But this is where the funny thing happened. I was ordered into the lorry with the people and the pineapples. They had been expecting me. Perhaps my fate would be to become a pineapple slave, pick pineapples until eternity, die with raw manual-worker hands..... But nothing of the sort. Everybody started laughing, offering me pineapples to eat - cutting them up for me and feeding them to me - all the way back to Hua Hin.

I returned to my luxurious hotel, pleased to be back after my little adventure.
I'd 'done' Thailand.
'Please send a cocktail to my room while I have a nice hot shower.....'
'I told you, you'd be back,' the receptionist said.
Don't you just hate it when people are right.

© Yvette Barnett 08/2000

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