A phone rings. It is answered.
G’day Trev. You are ‘the’ Trevor Nottle aren’t you Trev?
Well Trev, have I got a deal for you. Can you meet me at the airport coffee bar so I can tell you about it?
Who are you?
Sorry, Trev, mate, should have said. I’m Tom from Gotta Go Travel but every one calls me Gabby because I talk so much. Just call me Gabby Trev. Yeah, I’ll be coming through Adelaide next Thursday morning could we meet I have an idea to discuss with you.
With some apprehension I agree to go despite the appointed hour being 8.00am when flights and transfers are at their busiest. On arriving I find a seat in the only coffee bar in the place and sit down to wait feeling a little obvious as I am the only person who is not nursing a cup of java. I feel the proprietor and the barista glaring at me as I take up a chair intended for patrons.
I am wearing my best red pullover so I will be plainly visible but how will I recognise my new acquaintance Gabby? I know soon enough. A rather dishevelled chap in a rumpled suit somewhat stained with spilled coffee and food approaches, pulls up a chair and sits down while introducing himself as Gabby from Gotta Go Travel and asking if I’ve already had a coffee.
My first impressions are a bit doubtful but my more accepting side suggests that the fellow has arrived en route to somewhere else, or from somewhere else and that his untidy appearance is thus accounted for. Within a minute or two coffee is ordered and Gabby repeats that he has got a deal for me.
The deal turns out to be that he would like to offer me a tour to a flower festival in South East Asia if I will take on the role of tour host. No work, just acting as host and accompanied by a tour manager from Gotta Go Travel. All costs met but no living allowance as I would be a try-out for more such ventures. I would have to pay my own travel insurance too and get a decent travel kit – clothes, shoes etc suited to tropical weather conditions. And I would have to take lots of photo’s for Gotta Go’s webpages so I would need a decent camera. He knows I can write decently because he’s seen my books. And I would have to agree to Gotta Go using my pictures and words in any publicity campaign they wished to without payment. And I would have to supply a range of portrait shots at my own expense. The girls in the office will take care of everything; they all call him Gabby apparently, and they are just one happy family, and they love being based in Suva.
Gabby continues revealing that Gotta Go is a legitimate travel business, properly registered and insured, and established for some 25 years since he left PNG to go to the big smoke – Coolangatta. I am invited to inspect his bona fides if I wish. I don’t, which is great because Gabby likes to operate on trust and a handshake.
It transpires that he sees me as the attraction which will bring in the customers who will buy his tour to see the Royal Gardens of Thailand because I have a profile as a public person who has market appeal. I have been on radio, and done a bit of TV work, and then there are my very popular books which Gabby thinks add up to something sellable.
Despite feeling a tad dubious about my newfound elevation to a person with a profile I agree to consider a proposal from Gotta Go Travel with a deal so good I wouldn’t be able to say no.
Driving back home from the airport I ponder the prospect of taking up a new career direction, a direction I had never before contemplated or ever been offered.
And so it came to pass that your author was transformed into a tour host sans day-glo orange pennon, sans fluorescent orange rain coat and sans orange peaked cap but a tour host none the less.
Arriving at the airport in ample time to go through check-in and security I was taken aback to see one fellow traveller, actually a she-traveller, with at least twice the amount of allowed luggage. Offering an explanation she told me that the extra case was for medications. She had potions, pills and powders, infusions, inhalants, salves and unguents from her herbalist, her homeopathist, her holistic healer, her iridologist, her psychic counsellor, her allergist, Weight Watchers, her mother and even her regular doctor. I was quite certain she had a kitchen sink too – just in case. Scepticism aroused I was, however, relieved and grateful that we were seated well apart in coach-class.
At the major international airport from which the Gotta Go party was to fly out there gathered some 25 travellers ready for the floral extravaganza promised by The Royal Gardens and Flower Pageant of the Thailand package tour. We first met in the departure lounge. Most recognised each other having travelled previously with Gabby and his girls and I stood out as the new boy to the group. Having introduced ourselves we proceeded to exchange the usual niceties of where we lived, what we did and so on. A few mentioned that they liked flowers and gardening.
In Bangkok we were met by streets barricaded with heaps of old tyres, placard carrying Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, a police escort, towering portraits of HRH King Bhumibol Adulyadej and a herd of topiary elephants in the median strip outside the Modern Décor Hotel. The orange marigold garlands thrown over the little shrine near the hotel entrance showed some promise of flowers as did the numerous orchids, bromeliads and crotons crowding the entrance court.
The next morning we set off through the crowds of protesters, police, television crews and secret agents down the street and to a canal where we boarded a ferry to the Flower Markets. Things seemed to be off to a good start; there was no real disruption of our progress through the crowds and we arrived at our destination quite safely. Before the ferry was tied up at the floating pontoon landing stage I heard many cries of:
“Look at that.”,
“Can you see what I see?”,
“Wow, see that.”,
“Look at the glorious colours.”
“Just look at the sizes and shapes.”
“Look at the patterns and colours.”
As I watched, my tour group disembarked and headed straight for hawkers proffering racks and foot-path displays baggy pants with elephant patterns and a floral range of colours. Like a horde of demons the ladies of my group set upon the clothing, rummaging and rifling through the piles and stacks of patio-pants choosing contrasting or matching colours, finding the right leg lengths and wait band sizes, or choosing those that daughters and grand-daughters would like.
A few of the troupe made it past the street market into the flower market. I admired the huge stems of heliconia and torch ginger (Etlingera), the buckets filled with stems of cows-udder fruits (Solanum mammosum), the massed displays of potted bonsai’d Desert Rose (Adenia hybrids) and towering cornucopias of orchids; a few others did too but for the others who made it inside the temptations of the vendors of knick-knacks on the other side of the market were too much.
The next day saw us visiting the famous city palaces and several golden Buddhas, one reclining, one seated and one carved from a rather washed-out emerald of considerable size.
The approaches to each venue were lined with dense displays of goods offered for sale by hustling merchants. The merchants knew their stuff and had every possible permutation of elephant pants possible thus enabling those who had purchased 5 pairs of pants to add a further 5 without any risk of repetition. And they did.
In keeping with the flowers and gardens theme I dutifully escorted my group to a bronze foundry and a lacquer workshop. Not so far removed from the tour theme as you might think. The foundry produces a vast array of fountains and sculptures of a kind that are meant for landscape settings. From a twist of busty larger than life mermaids spiralling skywards to a clutch of muscular lads wresting a la Greque to lion masks and cute dolphins the choices for shooting water into the air were both varied and similar – all would be at home in an Arabic palace in Kuwait or a drug kings fortress in Columbia. The lacquer workshop generated much more interest, and a sale. One of my flower loving followers decided she had to have a 2m tall red and gold carp, standing mouth agape on its tail, for the stair landing of her home. What a statement. Such a feature. The cost – enormous. The transport charges – exorbitant.
Next came a day at a cooking school. The objective was to visit a food market and purchase the necessary ingredients from a list provided by the chef and to return to the school to prepare it and then eat it in a shared meal. Sounds a pretty good model of operation to me and I look forward with keen anticipation to Tom Yung, Larp and cold spring rolls. What I could not have anticipated was that beside meats, fishes, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices there would be more elephant pants, and diamond encrusted sandals – all at prices too good to miss.
The cooking class, or more particularly the shared meal afterwards, produced another side-effect that left me discombobulated. The shopping list called for all kinds of hot chillies, at least 6 – birds-eye/ pequin, scotch bonnets, long thin red and green chillies, thicker habanero type chillies as well as cabbage, bok choy, several kinds of mint and basil, garlic, garlic chives, carrots, rice vermicelli, rice-paper wrappers, peanuts and so on. And we were required to but chickens, live chickens and have them slaughtered on the spot, gutted, plucked, singed and cut up into serving pieces. That expectation didn’t leave much wriggle room for the squeamish among my little band of learners but one way or another all returned to the school house with bulging baskets and everything that was called for.
Thus we chopped, sliced, diced, grated, marinaded, mixed, stirred, wrapped, steamed, boiled and fried our way towards a pretty decent sort of mini-banquet fit for travellers if not for King Bhumibol himself. After all that you would be entitled to expect that everyone would play along with good manners and personal grace and eat the communal meal but, no, cries went up,
“I don’t eat chilli.”,
“I only eat low GI rice.”,
“Did you see how they butchered the chicken? I’m not eating it.”,
“Soy has salt. I can’t have it in my food.”,
“I don’t like Asian food.”,
“I hate the slimy texture of tofu!”
At this point my inner cringe gave way to a visible frown. But, Buddha like, I sat quietly and contemplated the virtues of cultivating inner mindfulness; so much for the great cultural centre Chiang Mai. At least there were no elephant pants, or diamond encrusted sandals
Another day, another town, another sight – this time Kanchanaburi and the Hellfire Pass museum, a camp hotel in the teak forest, an elephant sanctuary, an orchid nursery and no shopping opportunities. In fact, this came pretty close to what I had imagined when Gabby described the tour.
The orchid nursery, large and colourful with racks of Vanda orchids in bloom seemingly existing on fresh air; the teak forest shady, dappled, quiet and high with a carpet of rustling leaves; the walk down to Hellfire Pass through the forest was a serene preparation for the bare simplicity of the pass – in itself a dignified and powerful memorial to the thousands who died there during WW2.
The elephant sanctuary had as its finale a trek through jungle on a howdah. Moving silently through the high grass and scrubby undergrowth brought the jungle down to eye-level so the observant could see the diverse flora.
And so to Chiang Rai home to the Mother Queen’s Garden, The King’s Garden and the Floral Spectacular featuring Hills tribal people in costume. The climate in the Hills is wetter and more humid and in some seasons cooler, so we are informed. In the gathering darkness we wait on preferred seating on bleachers adjacent to the regional governors reviewing stand. The parade commenced with a flotilla of police cars and cars of the military junta but in time marching bands, American style in uniform and instruments, and then come the floats.
In a seemingly endless procession orchids, roses, anthuriums, amaranthus, crotons, heliconias, gingers and lush foliage pass by arrayed as Buddhistic and nationalist symbols; standing Buddha’s, seated Buddha’s, reclining Buddha’s, pagodas, temples, lions, lotus blossoms, flags, towering images of the King and Queen garlanded with thick strands of orange French marigolds and so on.
We are impressed and admiring and amazed, but not so amazed that many of us hold back from flocking to the front row of the stand to barter with passing hawkers for balloons, flags and yet more elephant pants, and even the odd pair of diamond encrusted sandals. Last of all the Hills tribal groups march or amble into view. We are left astonished; it seems the Hill tribes have been very early first adopters of tinsel, rhinestones, sequins, feathers, faux fur, bud lights and fluoro-coloured polyester fabric. Their traditional dress is varied but uniform for each tribal group, and all are constructed using traditional techniques and materials. Translators inform us the tribal people love pattern, silver jewellery and colour, and have always dressed this way.
Finally to the Royal gardens. Informed that each garden has been a gift from the people to the Royal couple it is easy to understand why each represents at least several regions of the country thus buildings and pavilions are constructed in the traditional manner, teak wood painted dark red with the usual curlicued ridge-caps and finials. A degree of formality is introduced by avenues of palms and regularly spaced dot plantings of crotons and other colourful shrubs trimmed into balls; elsewhere a shade-house provided display places for ferns, begonias, bromeliads, orchids and tillandsias and a glass-house shows off a fine collection of Cattleya orchids.
The Royal Dutch Bulb Growers have donated a large collection of Hippeastrum which are just about to open; they stand cheek by jowl waiting to be displayed conservatory fashion on raised tiers. The gardens go on forever and contain some interesting examples of traditional English gardens translated into a tropical setting. A tunnel covered with various kinds of pumpkins in fruit looks rather good but the formal rose gardens look under stress; the collections of useful plants such as rice show great diversity in colour – red, black, brown, green, white, yellow, and in the manner of their growth; the variety of bananas and plantains is astonishing but the rock gardens greatly over-emphasise the rocks at the expense of any plant life.
Before we depart Chiang Rai for the return to Bangkok there is time allowed in the itinerary for a little shopping; a last chance to buy yet more elephant pants and diamond dusted sandals, just in case 20 pairs of each at bargain prices are not quite enough. To these are added bargain priced watches – mostly ‘Rolex’ and ‘Tag Heuer’, various pieces of jewellery, lengths of silk textile and leather goods. It is no surprise then to find that at the departure point outside the hotel those customers who arrived bearing one piece of baggage had now a second piece. Ignorant of the ways of tourists I was laughingly informed by several ladies that they always carried one suitcase inside another to carry home all the stuff they buy while away.
I learned rather a lot from my experience:
• Australians abroad are a funny, unpredictable lot.
• People do not always travel for the purpose stated in travel brochures.
• Most Australians who travel in groups are terrific fun and good company.
• Some people are fussy beyond endurance.
• A few people are never happy unless acknowledged to be more sick than everyone else. (I refrained from repeating the gruesome details.)
• And that I should be wary of men called Gabby who say “Have I got a deal for you!”