We had escaped the crushing chill of northern Europe and were lapping up the simple beach life, far away from it all at Bamboo Bay on the southern tip of Ko Lanta.
Despite the tropical bliss after a week we felt the need for a little cosmopolitan action and had hitched a ride up to Ban Saladan where you can buy a newspaper, drink an ice-tea and check out the traffic propelling the tanned, the burnt and the lily-white from ferry to resort and back again.
Technically Ban Saladan is still just a village where the ferry docks ( Ko Lanta Old Town to the south-east being the administrative centre) but in reality it’s Ko Lanta’s tourist gold-rush town.
There is a building frenzy going on as it expands southwards along the beach road in order to cope with the thousands of tourists who come to enjoy the island’s golden west coast beaches.
It has the look of a town that’s been built in a hurry, signage bursts out over the busy main road in a haphazard, cartoon way (ATM! Dive shop!, Travel Agent! Pharmacy! Internet Café!)
But because Thailand is not a country of hustlers you can still sit and chat with the locals about the old days when 7-11 was the amount of hours they spent scraping a living.
While it sometimes seemed that the whole place was devoted to dealing with the Farang, we found a small piece that was intent on entertaining the locals.
In a field off the main road Ban Saladan’s Chinese New Year Festival was in full swing.
A tented market offered all the joys of Asian shopping, cheap clothes, tools and toys. High quality Gucci copies jockeyed for space with dubious DVDs of inept go-go dancers. Fresh cooked chicken, steaming rice, and deep fried locusts glistened beneath arc lights and 12v fly whisks.
Demure girls sporting Islamic headscarves and punk-rock t-shirts ran pop-the-balloon stalls, music blared from every angle and an ancient childrens’ big wheel cranked us skyward where we tried to tear our eyes away from the cars’ rusty bolts and brackets long enough to take in the scene, or at least guess where we’d land if the thing collapsed.
Just like any fairground anywhere in the world groups of giggling girls pointed and flirted with groups of cocky young men. They huddled, metres apart, and sent each other fruity text messages. Fairground roustabouts collected ride tokens, strolling through the moving machinery with calculated boredom.
At one end of the field was a huge, savagely floodlit, karaoke stage, constructed from advertising placards. Costumed girls danced to a 5-piece band and at the front, motionless, the latest contender belted out a love song at a pitch and volume that could curdle milk.
It was a wonderful place, a night market with bells on, full of smiles, cheap diversions and small affordable pleasures
In the distance we spotted the yellow, blue and red canvas that suggested some kind of sideshow, we headed over and in full view we were left in no doubt. The gaudy painted cylinder of slatted wood, the candy striped tent roof, the bally platform and the guy in the cowboy hat with the microphone could only mean one thing- The Wall of Death was in town.
Even though he’s barking in Thai you know what the boy in the hat was saying, “Step right up Ladies and Gentlemen, faster than a speeding bullet, death-defying feats, come and witness the wall of death, a once in a lifetime experience”
Three girls, the eldest 14 the youngest 6, flung themselves around on the platform in a guileless parody of a sexy disco routine. Beneath them, on the apron of the stage a series of faded photos and newspaper cuttings advertised the show’s authenticity.
We paid our 20 baht and for 3 seconds possessed a grubby ticket that was whipped out of our hands at the bottom of a rickety iron staircase. Once at the top we waited, looking down a dark wooden well with a centre pole, a bike and an open trapdoor. The rider, a lady, stepped into the pit and waid. She slammed the hatch shut and dropped a section of ramp in front. She scanned the crowd estimating the take, and for a moment she looked so tired and worn out that we thought she wasn’t going to bother.
But she got jumped on a shabby looking 250cc trial bike, no flashy costume or protection, just a t-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and sneakers
She put on an extra silk t-shirt and fired up the bike, the unmuffled roar enveloped us. A couple of loops and she was off the ramp and climbing the wall. The noise pulsed with every circuit and with every rotation the wall bulged and shifted against the wire bindings that held the boards in place.
She found a spot halfway up and settled the bike into a regular orbit, and went through her routine- hands free, blindfold, changing t-shirts- spectators transfixed and braced against the handrails.
She cracked the throttle and took a dive towards the bottom of the well to pick up speed and then pulled the bike up to the very lip of the wall, inches from our faces.
The wall shook violently, the sound and smell of the machine dominating everything. She kept going until we were convinced that something had to give-and then she was gone, dropping in a lazy, slowing spiral back to the ramp and finally off the track and onto terra firma. Grinning she killed the motor, she stepped off, looked up and took a modest bow.
While we, the Farang, applauded wildly, the Thai reaction was more restrained, but still, like us, they threw money to the brave rider who waid in appreciation of every gift.
People took a moment to regain their balance before tackling the cranky stairs. At the bottom we again had the chance to thank our fearless smiling entertainer who now seemed small and frail.
Once the spectators were unloaded there seemed to be a moment of blessed stillness, and then the PA system crackled into life. The boy in the cowboy hat resumed his patter, the girls on the bally platform commenced their dance, and the rider scanned the onlookers and waved them over to the stairs, there was no rest- another crowd had to be conjured up to keep the money coming and the wheels turning.
The next day, back at our quiet resort, I began to ask about the show and the fairground. Curious because of a carefree youth spent working on similar shows.
I was told that the fair had been part of the New Year celebrations for 4 years since electricity had been brought from the mainland. The Wall of Death had been there on two previous occasions. But nobody knew anything about the lady rider or where the show was from. We decided to rent a bike and go back to town and find out more.
We needed a translator but a mist of vagueness seemed to settle on any arrangements we tried to make over the phone, so instead we decided to just head back to town and trust that we could snare someone from a shop when we had arranged an interview.
We got back to the fairground site by mid-morning and found our rider inflating balloons for the dart stall that was part of her pitch. Yes, she would do an interview she replied to our mimed question. We shot off to the main drag to see who we could rope in. We found Pamela at the front desk of the Lanta Holiday travel agents and the drop of a hat she jumped on her bike and followed us back to the lot, we were in business.
Somrak Sawagnet, our star rider, is a slight but unmistakably tough lady. For all that, her tiredness was obvious and whilst we could have hung out there all day we kept our interview short.
Somrak was taught to ride the Wall of Death by her aunty when she was 17 and it has been her life ever since. The family were from Ayutthuya and Somrak was born there in 1965.
Somraks’ family were all in the stunt business and her great-grandfather built the wall she uses sometime in the 1950’s. The photos on the bally platform were all of her family riding in the heyday of the show.
Her trade has taken her all other the world including the United States, and of course she has been all around Asia. She showed us a clipping from a Straits Times article written in 1983 which waxed lyrical about the daredevil antics, the bravery, and the modest attire of the (then) 18 year old Somrak.
She’s only had one accident, she said, but a bad one. A drunk in Krabi pushed her off the wall, the bike landed on her and crushed a leg putting her out of business for months. Despite that, Krabi remains her favorite place for the show.
Whilst our translator popped back to her shop I wandered around the lot checking out the battered, but beautiful, old Isuzu truck that hauled the show from town to town.
Back in the shade Somrak fed our 3-year-old Lili slices of watermelon and made her an apple out of a balloon. As good as her word the enthusiastic Pamela returned and said she could spare another ten minutes. Somrak showed us some of the photographs that usually hang at the front of the bally platform. The photos were of more prosperous days when packed crowds had attended and the show could pick and chose its locations. There were many photos of Somrak’s mother Mallee riding a British 250 Villiers bike, all taken in a era when motorcycles symbolised, danger, excitement, individualism and escape for a post- war generation.
Looking at the worn state of the wall, the bikes and the care lines on Somrak’s face it was hard to be optimistic about the future. The old circus shows of Europe came came to Asia in the 80’s, driven away by ‘sophisticated’ European consumers who could go to a multiplex and see galaxies at war. Now here in Thailand I guess the same is happening.
Somrak will not (or possibly can’t afford to) retire, but, with the pride of the natural showman, she declares, “ I will never stop, the Wall is my life, and besides my fans won’t let me”