Like an unfortunate number of my other stories, this one begins with an open bar.
I’m on day 4 of a Contiki tour around Thailand, and we’re in the island paradise of Koh Phi Phi. That’s not just a turn of phrase – it really is the closest to paradise I’ve ever been. And it really is an island. We’ve spent the day on a Blanco Boat cruise around Koh Phi Phi and it’s neighbouring sights: Maya Bay, Monkey Beach, Viking Cave. We’ve had an inordinate amount of vodka. We’ve swum, we’ve kayaked, we’ve snorkeled. (As it turns out, only one of the above is a bad idea whilst drunk. Probably because it involves lying face down in the water). And now that night has fallen and we’re back on dry land, some of us have decided to traipse out into the heart of Koh Phi Phi to watch our fellow tour members get traditional Thai bamboo tattoos.
When one of my new travel buddies suggests that we hit the street and find some food, I leap at the chance because I am a) actually hungry and b) about to be talked into getting a tattoo that I will almost definitely regret. Up to now, my most daring travel collections involve a shoebox full of bookmarks and six gluwhein mugs, which I’m very proud of. In the moment though, with the words ‘when in Thailand’ being thrown around with increasing effectiveness, my reason is deserting me. Did I mention the open bar? It would be safer, I think, to leave immediately.
I was wrong.
Now, rule number one when it comes to street food in Asia: eat street food in Asia. Seriously. It is delicious. And life is too short to miss the chance to immerse yourself as deeply as you can in new tastes and cultures and atmospheres. So when said new-travel-buddy (let’s call him Aussie Matt) points in the direction of a small pizzeria, I politely slap his hand and tell him firmly not to be a goose. His next attempt is better – he points at street stall run by a small, friendly-looking Thai lady, heaped with various meats on sticks. I beam happily. Another chance to expand ourselves, not as tourists, but as travellers. Excellent!
It is at this point that twelve hours of day drinking and far too much fun-in-the-sun catch up with us, and we forget Rule Number Two. Aussie Matt points to two skewers of meatballs and says, hopefully, “Chicken?”
“Chicken!” the Thai lady agrees, happily. “Happy New Year!”
Aussie Matt pays for the skewers, and we head for the beach. If my brother had been around, he would have pointed out that saying ‘Happy New Year’ halfway through January has, in our experience so far, been the Thai equivalent of “I’m sorry to disappoint you but I don’t speak any English (and so probably didn’t understand your question about the origin of this meat).”
Unfortunately, I lost my brother about two hours ago, and am only about 58% sure that he actually made it off the boat. So we try the skewers.
My first clear thought in about six hours is “This is not chicken.”
My second is “I wonder what kind of animal has this many joints?”
Then a cat without a tail runs past, and I almost spit the food straight out.
The downside of travelling with new people is knowing how to behave in certain social situations. Do you know this person well enough to dance together in a nightclub, or have them watch your drink, or – to take a completely random example – spit half-chewed potential cat-tail into the back of their head?
Aussie Matt decides that we do. I decide that we don’t. Interestingly, the taste of the possible-cat isn’t the pressing problem, so much as trying to decide how to chew what feels like at least 4 tiny vertebrae simultaneously. I settle for an enormous, painful swallow, which turns into a hacking cough as one of the joints gets stuck on the way down. I am just remembering Rule Number Two (Stick to meat that is recognizable – not crumbed, minced or meat-balled) with watering eyes when Aussie Matt pulls a pack of slightly melted Tim Tams out of his pocket. God bless Australia.
The next morning, a beaming and oblivious member of our Contiki family arrives at breakfast with the words #JUNGLE CAT tattooed on his arm. I don’t talk to him (or stroke stray cats) for the next two days.