Elephant’s Leg


ANOTHER YEAR IN PARADISE

Sorry to use a cliché, but the past 12 months have continued to be spent in tropical Thailand, and while Bangkok lacks the beaches and tranquility that most would associate with an earthly Eden, it has, for the most part, been a year that was good to me.

What a shame that the country’s political scene is once again threatening to spoil 2014 almost as soon as it starts, but for now my focus is on what did happen, rather than what might, as I sum up 2013.

FAMILY

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Thankfully, all my loved ones remained fit and well last year, including my three 80-something grandparents. Most importantly, my Scottish Grandma, who has always been full of vigour, has remained so since the death of Grandpa in 2012. If anything, she has thrived, having now been freed from the duties of caring for him virtually full time in the decade or so before he passed away. She has travelled, met her great-grandchildren and been busier than ever in her community. On top of this, when I visited her in June, we enjoyed some brisk walks amid the glorious Highland scenery and she set a pace that would put many people half her age to shame. Long may this continue!

As well as the aforementioned June visit – when I also caught up the rest of the family, as usual, in England and Wales – I had two visits here. First, Dad dropped in for a few days in February, stapled on to the end of a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. He came alone so it was good to have one-on-one times and some “boys’” activities in Bangkok. In November, my uncle Daudi came here for the first time, accompanied by my Mum, who was making her umpteenth Thai excursion.

Daudi thoroughly enjoyed his trip, which also happened to be his first long-haul holiday since his early 20s! Now in his 50s, and somewhat pessimistic about things especially after the past few years in the doldrums of small-town Wales and with niggling health problems, his mood and vitality noticeably brightened by the day. Also, it’s always a pleasure to see first-timers in Thailand, as it serves as a reminder of what charms there are here that expats often take for granted.

FRIENDS

Fai and me

Fai and me

The main development here is one of my good friends becoming more than that. In May, Phornthip Korkaewkedsara – or Fai, to use her “official” nickname – became my girlfriend. After 18 months of being deliberately single, I had to move tentatively, but I haven’t made the wrong decision. Fai is everything that someone should be in a two-way relationship – affectionate, calm, open-minded, non-needy and non-confrontational – and everything that people should be in general – smart, curious, independent and considerate. I believe we have a lot of potential.

As with any other year, I made new friends. Many of them were involved in boxing training for the annual Operation Smile Fight Night, and as always, they were a great bunch. For a sport in which the essence is to fight one another, you will be hard pressed to find someone you don’t like in boxing. The culmination of the training camp was to see several of my friends shine under the bright lights of a brilliant “white collar boxing” event (more on that later). My new boxing friends include Les Weaver, Andy Steel, Richie Bell, Rich Cohen, Matt Christensen, Colin Hastings, David Shackleford, Jon Nutt, Mohamedreza Hamze, Toey Wattana, Jay-R Crisologo, and probably some I have forgotten. And through the bond that boxing provides, my existing friendships in the sport have deepened.

New friends were also made in work, as a series of departures meant a batch of new recruits. I’ve particularly spent time with a Canadian guy called Blair McBride, whose adventures and misadventures as a newcomer to the country present a constant reminder of what a fascinating place this is.

And what would any year be without the presence of old friends? I had a fantastic time catching up with my childhood and adolescene pals in North Wales – Andy Smith, Andy Owen, Frank Williams, Maurice WhiteheadJason Roberts, Nick Ellis, Liam Hunt, Rachel Jones, Jane Bebbinton and more – during my summer trip home. And many thanks to Greg Harrison and Piers Evans for travelling to see me. My time is extremely tight when I go home and I really appreciated them making the effort, and of course it was invaluable to see them again.

Also while back home, I enjoyed the incongruous sight of Sam Myatt getting married. Anyone who knew Sam from his teens and twenties will know why I said that, so his wife Jody must be a hell of a woman to get him to settle down!

I also caught up with Mark Linaker, who I went to high school with but hadn’t seen since the late ’90s. Thanks to Facebook, we had stayed in touch sporadically since joining, but when he came on holiday to Thailand in November, it was imperative that we met up. Some people may bemoan the rise of social media, but things like this wouldn’t be possible without it.

Bjorn at work

Bjorn at work

In sadder news, my friend Bjorn Lowendahl passed away in August. Twice my age at 72, he nevertheless was a fun character with plenty of shared interests. I used to do freelance editing work for him, for his books about China (or, rather, books about books about China, if you follow), and he was so old school that he didn’t use email. Instead, I would have to travel to Hua Hin, where he lived, to collect and deliver the chapters. We would then typically discuss my (hand-written) edits over a big seafood dinner, and then hit the bars afterwards, where he would chase the girls despite his age and academic look. And he wasn’t creepy with it, it was all in good fun. He didn’t appear to be ill. Indeed he routinely cycled around town and swam in the ocean every day. I last saw him just three weeks before his death, when he talked of work, property and travel plans – in other words, not topics that someone would discuss if they knew they had a serious problem. Instead, he apparently passed away one night on a bench in his garden, presumably of a heart attack or stroke. I can only hope it was quick and painless, and followed one of his trademark nights out. A quote of his is poignant for me, and sums him up well: “I do enjoy your visits, because I don’t have to be so serious.”

PLACES

Apart from my home trip, I travelled abroad just once in 2013, when I took a week to visit friends in Bali and Singapore in April.

I checked in on my pal Gavin Mitchell in Bali first. He had moved there a few months prior, and would leave soon after, a job placement having gone awry, so it was well timed on my behalf. For a full account of my trip, click here.

Chinese temple in Ang Mo Kio, Singapore

Chinese temple in Ang Mo Kio, Singapore

This was followed by a couple of nights in Singapore, visiting Mark and Ning Fenn. Similarly, they were nearing the end of their tenure there and would return to Bangkok shortly after. I’d been to Singapore twice before and felt it suffered in comparison to its neighbours. Yes, it’s clean, orderly and safe, but it has largely lost its Asian character. However, there is always a difference between visiting somewhere alone as a tourist, and meeting friends who live in a country, and so this time I got an altogether better impression of the place. I got an idea of daily routines there with Mark and Ning, and also caught up with my Malaysian pal TT Seah, who made a deliberate effort to show me some of the more “ethnic” parts of the island that still exist. I also met up for a drink with Leo Caballes, a Filipino friend also living in Singapore who I hadn’t seen since the distant past of when I was backpacking in Bangkok (2005, for the record).

During my trip home in June, I finally benefitted from some glorious weather. In previous years, it’s been as if the elements have conspired against me when I returned to Britain, to remind me why I moved to the tropics. However, last year the sun shone most of the time, and it shone brightest while I was in Scotland, visiting my grandma. The Scottish Highlands look fantastic even when the weather is drab, and under the sun they provide some of the most vivid, dramatic and beautiful scenes you could care to see anywhere in the world. I also visited my traditional haunts of North Wales and Kent, where my mum and dad live, respectively, and dropped in on Portsmouth, Barnsley and Nottingham too, where my sisters and step-brother now live. In Portsmouth I met my niece Violet (sister Melissa’s first child) for the first time, while in Barnsley I renewed the acquaintance of my other niece Megan and nephew Jake (youngest sister Rebecca’s kids). Step-brother Andy Wilson now lives in Nottingham, which I briefly dropped in on en route from Kent to Scotland. My hectic two-week itineraries in Britain have become even more packed as family members have scattered further across the isles!

Beautiful Ko Kood

Beautiful Ko Kood

But my most memorable trip was a domestic one, when I went to Ko Kood with Mum, Daudi and Fai. A five-hour drive from Bangkok and a one-hour speedboat run from Trat will take to a pristine, largely undeveloped island thick with jungle, with just a few resorts around the fringes, well apart, and designed so the buildings are set back from the beaches. Seeing it from the sea, the island looks almost entirely uninhabited. Some of the scenes are almost South Pacific-esque in their beauty, and the tranquility was most welcome for a city dweller. We stayed at the Neverland Resort, which is both near the beach and a river, and is run by cheerful staff and a little dog who might just have the happiest life in the world. While there, I was struck by how blessed I am to live in Thailand; to have somewhere like this within driving distance of the city. Yes, there are decent getaways not far from London, for example, but you can never guarantee the weather there, and it’s so much more expensive. And it was a big hit with Daudi, too. In this, his first trip to Thailand, he also visited Bangkok, Ko Chang and Lopburi, and said he liked them all but concluded: “Ko Kood was really a special place”.

BOXING

My love affair with the sport deepened as I completed another training camp for the annual Operation Smile Fight Night. Ultimately I didn’t get matched but training is never wasted, and I feel I achieved my highest fitness levels since my teenage years, if not ever, at the age of 36. Training at Bangkok Fight Club with Craig Somerville, Franck Marin and Martin Lowe, and at Jitti Gym with Jitti Damriram’s team was as punishing and rewarding as ever.

Franck celebrates with  Kru Craig

Franck celebrates with Kru Craig

The fight night itself, held again at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, was another rousing success. The bouts were spectacular, and I had the best seat in the house as timekeeper! It was great to see my friends put on such a show in front of an enthusiastic audience, and to play a small part in an event that raised some 3 million baht for a most worth charity (Operation Smile raises funds for cleft palate surgery for poor children).

The week before the big night, my pal Paul Weir, the former two-time world champion from Scotland, was in Bangkok on holiday and graciously agreed to pop in to the Fight Club for a training session with the guys who were set to box in a few days’ time. A former champ himself and now a trainer of some of Britain’s top professionals, Paul’s input was a real treat for us lowly “white collar boxers” and that he would do that for nothing but the love of the sport shows what a top guy he is.

Paul’s young charge Jon Slowey, who I wrote about for Boxing News in 2012 when he travelled to Bangkok for a training camp, had a great year, remaining undefeated and picking up two championships plus a BN Fight of the Year nomination. He is now 16-0 and ranked No.6 in Britain.

At the other end of the boxing career spectrum, my old mucker Audley Harrison, who I worked with in the early ‘00s, finally retired in April at the age of 41 following a short-time trouncing at hands of US hopeful Deontay Wilder. This followed an unprecedented (at the time) second Prizefighter tournament win two months earlier, in which he looked fantastic. The two shows illustrated Harrison’s two extremes and highlighted why he has always been such a compelling enigma. Almost inevitably, his retirement announcement was later retracted, but no comeback fight has been arranged. Read my take on Harrison’s retirement – as it stood at the time – here.

Finally, I had no personal connection to Kompayak Porpramook vs Koki Eto in Bangkok in August, but I was there, and it was one of the best fights I have ever seen. A 12-round war of attrition under the fierce afternoon sun which incredibly was won by the visiting Japanese boxer. Kompayak – the Thai Arturo Gatti – finally met a man whose will he couldn’t break and who was even fitter than he was, and it was stirring from first bell to last. Watch it here.


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