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A short flight transported me from first world comfort to third world chaos. One and a half hours was all it took to make this change. I was unable to buy an air ticket this morning that would take me directly to my destination, and so I was here in Hat Yai for the night. Besides, I was curious what the town might be like.
3 December Hat Yai US$1 = 47 - 54 Baht
A bus moved me into town, my returning Thai coming to good use. The driver was lost, and took an hour to bring us the 10 km into town. I was the only farang on the bus, however, and he insisted that I be the first person let off. After passing my hotel three times, I forgot myself and lost my temper, only making matters worse. Never yell in this country. Apologizing profusely, I was finally able to make my escape, and dashed out the open door with my bag under my arm.
I checked into my simple hotel and retired to the common room, my friendly hostess bringing a cheap cold beer to my table. A familiar language brought back haunting memories of a black haired beauty from my past. I was not in a social mood this evening and so I sat off to the side and tossed back a couple beers as the travellers gathered and performed their nightly ritual: A video was shown, routes were discussed and compared, the only attractive girl in the place held court to a couple shaggy tattooed Germans, a flash of a match, and the smell of ganga floated on the balmy night air.
The Monsoon has found me. I lay in bed listening to the deafening roar of the rain hitting the tin roof above me. Looking out the window, the city was hidden from view behind a solid silver curtain. The streets became rivers and buckets in the halls filled as soon as they were put in place. This made me nervous, as my flight to Phuket was at the mercy of the weather. "Take a bus," my hostess suggested. After a delicious breakfast, I grabbed my umbrella and entered the deluge. It was 8:00, and the city was wide-awake and busy. Everyone used his or her "air brakes" here. No one actually stopped unless they had no choice, but they would blast their horn if someone with a vehicle even looked like they might pull onto the street in front of them. A lady at the Thai Airways office three blocks away checked her computer, and reassured me that even with this rain, the flight would continue. Looking out as a man fell in a puddle the size of a small swimming pool and almost drowned, I wasn't sure that was good news after all. As I stepped outside, my umbrella almost turned inside out and blew away in a gust of wind.
4 December Karen Beach, Phuket
I had missed the shuttle to the airport by 5 minutes, so I was forced to pay for my mistake by taking a taxi. I expected an antique tuk tuk to pull up, garishly decorated and belching smoke. Instead, a brand new Honda Accord opened its doors, I climbed into the spotless, air-conditioned interior, and we quietly drove away. A private car takes the hardened traveler to his flight...
I arrived early and had an hour wait until security opened, so I found a seat, pulled out a torn shirt to sew, and sat back. The sewing proved to be a good idea. Soon after I sat down, I was descended on by 5 exquisite Thai stewardesses, laughing to see me huddled there with a needle in hand. Thai women are very lovely, and their smiling, easy manner caused the time to fly by until my flight. For the entire flight, one or another of these girls would visit me, raising eyebrows and drawing an envious look or two from other male passengers at the attention.
The plane landed on Phuket, and once again, I entered a different world. Palm trees lined the airport. A few fishermen mended nets on a nearby beach. While waiting for my shuttle to Karen Beach, I struck up a conversation with another solo traveller standing next to me. The two of us decided to join forces and found a very nice place cheaper than I expected. Debra is a doctor from New Mexico. She's been travelling for the last few months through Tibet, Nepal, Laos, Burma, and now here. She had many interesting stories of her travels through these areas, as well as past trips around South America. We had similar goals here, so stuck together.
The first stop was to find a dive shop. The places I wanted to try were all down at the other end of the beach, a couple km away, so we strolled along the water and took it slow. This place is about what I expected. Hideous development the entire length of the beach, including a couple high rise hotels, hundreds of bars, restaurants, guesthouses, and long distance phone shops. Everywhere you looked, fat older Europeans walked about, their huge guts hanging over barely existent swim suits. The beaches were still beautiful, despite the covering of umbrellas and beach chairs. Turquoise green waters gently rolled in over pure white sands. The sand was so fine, it squeaked like fresh snow when you walked on it. Pineapple and coconut palm trees grew along the edge, providing some protection from the busy road. But the weather had followed me here as well, and we had to take cover as large drops of rain flooded the beach. The Bob Marley Bar gave us shelter and a couple beers while we waited out the storm and talked. Debra had come here to dive the Similan Islands, one of the best dive sites in the world. I was first planning to do my advanced certification here, but I got swept up in the idea. After diving the Great Barrier Reef in Oz and the Red Sea in Egypt, I just had to try another of the best, expense be damned. This was harder than I expected. To dive the Similans, it required a live-aboard, staying on the ship each night and diving during the day. It was more expensive than I expected as well, but both Debra and I wanted the best for this, and that took money. It was peak season, though, and many trips were already full. We managed to find a couple places that would hold a spot for us until the next day, and went for dinner.
Mamma Noi, the "Little Mother" fixed us a fabulous dinner, and I loved every bite. Mamma herself turned out to be a midget, if you wondered about the name. :-) It had been some time since either Deb or I had dived, so we decided to take a day trip tomorrow. The devalued Baht made this the cheapest diving I had ever made, but I still felt poor because of the Similan trip.
Time to dive! A van picked Deb and me up in front of our place and we drove off to the port. There were roughly 8 or 10 people diving on our boat today which was just fine. I was happy with the diving, but it wasn't too spectacular. The first dive was interesting. We dove the wreck of the King Cruiser, sunk only 6 months ago by running over Anemone Reef. (Needless to say, the top of the reef isn't what it used to be.) The dive master, Aggie, suspected insurance fraud, as Anemone and Shark Point reef nearby were the only obstacles for many km around. But it worked well for us, and I got to dive my first wreck. It had been 2.5 years since Deb last dove, so she paired up with Aggie and I had another American for a "buddy". I put quotes around that word for good reason. Paul had over 1000 dives in his past, so he knew what he was doing, but he in no way wanted to endure someone else telling him what to do. Deb had a problem with her gear going down, but instead of waiting, Paul took off and I had no choice but to join him. This being my first dive in 9 months I had some difficulty with my buoyancy at first. Paul wouldn't give me time to work it out, and immediately went diving into the wreck, something I haven't been trained for, and with the strong currents, something I should never have attempted until I had more experience. In the end, I had a fascinating time, "flying" through a large ferry, through the snack bar, the bridge, examining the buckled steel and snapped girders from the wreck, imagining what its last moments were like. But I wasn't able to control my movements well enough, and I was constantly brushing against sharp rusted metal edges and cables hanging through exploded walls. When I got back to the boat, I had blood covering my hands and feet. Good thing there were no white sharks here! Down below, the blood appeared completely black, red being the first color to go in deep water.
5 December Karen Beach, Phuket
Our second dive was Shark Point. It was appropriately named. We saw more than 6 leopard sharks sleeping on the bottom. Even though they're harmless, it was a scary experience having them wake and swim by less than a metre away. I reached out as one went by and felt a skin resembling rough tree bark. Once again, Paul swam off without the dive master. I was low on air, though, so I stayed with Deb and Aggie. We had to go up, but Paul insisted on staying behind alone. Deb and I got out with less than 30 bar each in our tanks. Paul emerged 20 minutes (65 minutes below) later with over 80 bar. He might be a fish, but the others yelled at him for staying down too long for the profile, and made him dive shorter on the third dive. On our third dive, Deb, Aggie, and I made it a long, shallow dive with lovely reefs and more sharks. It was crowded diving, with more than 7 boats at the same site, totaling more than 80 divers in a small space.
When we got back, Deb and I decided to do our Similan dive with Genesis. They ran a shorter tour, but had a better boat and they left Sunday rather than next week.
The people at Genesis recommended a good seafood restaurant to us, and they were absolutely right. Phuket Lobster served us a meal fit for a king. But that reminds me: today was the King's birthday. Before the restaurant, Deb and I stopped off for a drink. No bar was allowed to sell alcohol supposedly today, so we were served a very special "tea" that gasp came in a green bottle, cold, but was served in teacups. It was the best tea I ever drank. The meal at Phuket Lobster was also extremely good. Deb was practically drooling as she picked the last tiny morsels from her plate.
We walked back to our place along the empty beach, an overcast sky making it almost too dark to see.
A peaceful morning. A leisurely breakfast with pleasant company, an afternoon at the beach watching the clouds blow by. Debra got a massage on the beach, a stout Thai woman pounding her muscles, twisting her back, and pressing nerve points. After an hour like this, Deb was relaxed, but expressed a sentiment I share: Thai massages are great, but we both prefer Swedish style massages instead.
6 December Karen Beach, Phuket
The peace didn't last through the day. Debra called to break up with her boyfriend. Won't include the details, but was very upsetting at any time. That was her blow. In the evening, we went to the dive shop to get fitted for our gear. I first went to the bank, getting a 26,000B advance on my visa, fattening my money belt immensely. Then came my blow. The people at Genesis were great. While we waited, they served us drinks. Deb had more questions, so while they talked, I checked my email on their computer. Messages from friends, family. And Angela. A painful, resentful letter that left me quiet for the remainder of the day. Enough about that. Deb and I were a bright, cheerful pair at dinner. Yeah right.
A night of nightmares. Two people on two beds reliving unhappy memories. In a distant land, a blue eyed beauty starts a new job and waits for a call. A call that will begin or end a dream.
7 December On board Genesis I
The morning starts with the sound of a starting motorcycle outside and a groan of pain from Deb. Lunch yesterday and emotional turmoil have her flat on her back with stomach trouble.
I spent the day mostly on my own. Even on a beach, the net stretches forth. A computer in a travel shop reaches out to the world and brings me my email. Then the ocean pulls me into the cool depths.
In the night, Deb and I catch a taxi to Kata and Genesis, then drive out to the port with the group. A simple beginning to a lux trip, we all piled into a longtail that takes us to our new home for the next few days. The Genesis I is a fine boat, obviously Andy's (the owner) pride. I place my gear in my air con cabin/closet and rise above to meet the others. A late dinner over talk of remote dive sites, consulting in South Africa, the future of Hong Kong, and future destinations.
8 December On board Genesis I
An early morning reveille as the engines quiet and the waves outside raise their voice. A groggy ragtag group gathers on the party deck over croissants and coffee for our first dive briefing. This company is very safety conscious, very organized.
Dive briefing onboard the Genesis I
I soar over strewn boulders, golden bits of light flicker around me and a grumpy old man gums at me from his cave. Suddenly the sky darkens and a mammoth creature drifts by. 4m wingspan, we should dive down, escape into the rocks, it is a monster! Instead, the dive master rises in a graceful stream of bubbles, gesturing excitedly for us to follow. This is the first giant Manta Ray he's seen this season. Giant spiny lobster twitch their antennae at us from tight crevices, moray eels (the grouches) slide forward as we get too close. Scorpion fish, poisonous to the touch, sedately float in the currents. 3 dives leave my mind foggy and body tired. Excellent dives with all sorts of colorful reefs and fish. Huge well prepared meals on board, and good conversation.
A night of cold, shivering in the cold air-conditioned room, staring out at the passing ocean through the giant windows. The boat is underway to Richelieu Rock, our best chance to see the giant whale sharks.
9 December On board Genesis I
Dive, dive, dive! An early morning dive. My healing wounds turn blue, then black, as the colors leach away in the depths. At 33m, visibility fades and colors are gone. But the dive master plays air guitar and performs a spin. He's not on stage; he has spotted a giant guitar shark and her child. A rusting cage, huge schools of large fish. But no whale sharks. Later dives found octopus, cuttle fish, schools of sharks (schools?) our giant Manta friend again. I did four dives over the day, my last dive the most relaxed. I like sunset dives. The colors are muted, fish are finding their beds for the night, the ocean always feels sleepy. Then you rise to the surface and find the ocean set afire by the sun just going under the horizon.
An early rise to a sky that's dark and a peaceful sea. A cigarette flared briefly, and I noticed Andy sitting quietly, "this is my favorite time of the day." I can't help but agree, as the day slowly comes to life. Flying fish race across the surface of the water, plink, plink, plink. Quiet sounds of a ship in the morning. The sun rose far too fast, and the day began. The first dive was a gentle start to the day. Swim throughs, inquisitive Angelfish with pursed lips. One hungry fish tried to nibble on my elbow, but as I thrashed and turned around, it swam off before I caught a glimpse. A moray eel slithered past as I looked around.
10 December Karen Beach
Two more dives with another grand sighting of the Manta Ray. Katia had her back turned to it. We frantically pointed behind her, glub burble! Turn around! She did, just in time to see the majestic creature soar over her head, less than a metre away.
But even this ended. Genesis started her engines, and it was time for addresses to be exchanged, money to change hands, bags to be packed, and gear to clean. Long after the sun had set, the same tiny longtail wobbled the lot of us to shore. Poor Morten had to leave immediately on another trip, making 36 dives in 9 days. Deb and I walked to our old home at My Friend, staggering and swaying as the earth moved beneath our sea legs.
A return to dreams. Nervous of the memories the place holds, I return to Raileh, home of the Fire Dancers, smoking at the bar at YaYa's, sitting on the beach under a moonlit sky and feeling the energy. A different man returns than who was there only 2.5 years ago.
11 December Raileh Beach
Deb and I took a minibus away from horrible Phuket out to Krabi, a long hard ride over recently torn up roads and lengthy detours. As we got closer, my heart sped up with the familiar scenery. Limestone cliffs, clear green waters, and white beaches passed by under dark gray skies and heavy rains.
From Krabi, a longtail takes us the remaining distance to Raileh. No road leads to the isolated beach. Instead, a ragged boatman, chanting "Raileh Raileh!" maneuvers a narrow boat, the long propeller sticking far out into the water, along the extraordinary waterfront. As if the cliffs were made of ice, long formations resembling icicles pour down the rock. Some islands stand above the water, half their base melted away by the hot Andaman Sea. What gives life to this barren picture is the thick vegetation pouring off the rock, mango trees, coconut palms, ferns, bushes. The water is full of life, flying fish emerging from our boat's wake and coasting across the surface of the water to get away from our noisy boat.
I found the place little changed from my memories. Bungalows span the peninsula, people playing volleyball on the beach, beachside restaurants serving a relaxed crowd. A few new places have sprung up; the horrible Dusit Resort has grown like the cancer it is. But the energy is still here. The sleeping Indian still rests in peace and the smell of ganga and suntan lotion still fill the air. Prices have gone up considerably for housing, but this is the peak season, and everything is full. Everything else remained the same, making it almost 50% cheaper overall.
The Sleeping Indian, Raileh
But the feeling I'm left with is visiting the set of a favorite movie, only to find the actors have left, and I am no longer the same. A faint echo whispers of time gone by and the years that came between. The place keeps its energy, but it can only give to those who will receive.
Enough moaning, Coco's restaurant still provides the best Thai food I've ever tasted, and leaves Deb drooling once again over her coconut seafood curry.
After a late start, Deb and I set out to explore this "island". I had no problem remembering my way, and led us first up to the lookout, overlooking both Raileh East and West. The climb alone ensured no fat old tourists were allowed. A steep, dirty trail, with ropes to help the timid. Many people refused to even try, frightened by the first climb, though it was simple enough to do.
12 December Raileh Beach
Our next destination was not so easy. A "mountain lagoon" is set in the middle of these rocks. From the viewpoint, an easy trail returned to the proper way. Then, a descent into the depths. Many tourists turn back now. One look at the rope dangling over a sheer drop, and they decided they'd seen enough. Probably a good choice... for them. Several steep descents, with ropes for those who wanted them and easy foot and hand holds for those who didn't. A banyan tree, three metres across bars the path and provides a surface for vandals to carve their messages. "France '96", "Bev & Paul '97". At the bottom, sheer cliffs rise on all sides, caves gape at all levels. The echoes would madden a man if it weren't too late.
Inside the "Mountain Lagoon"
We emerged back onto the trail connecting Raileh East and Phranang Beach. Some passing German tourists wonder at our appearance. "Vhat happened to you?!" I looked at Deb. She looked at me. Head to toe, we're coated with mud, sweaty from the climb, and our faces look like tribal paint. "Just taking a walk."
Looking out over Raileh West
Grabbing the sunscreen, we walked to the beach, to scrub the red mud away in the ocean. A longtail pulls in, one among many. But "Seán!" I hear. AJ and Katia, from Genesis, made it here. We arranged to meet later and went to scrub.
I had mentioned to Deb a cave you can climb to that overlooked Raileh West. I couldn't quite remember the location, so after a rest, we set out to find it. It's on the far end of Phranang beach, away from Princess cave. After many false starts, I found the proper entrance (well known to climbers there), but it started to pour outside, so we decided to return tomorrow so Deb could bring her camera and we'd have better viewing.
All over Raileh, posters were up advertising sailing trips to Penang, just as I did last time. On our way back from the cave, begrimed again, we stopped to talk to one of the skippers. Chas was an interesting guy. From Holland, he lived in LA in the movie industry, now sailing around Asia. He was struggling to create a web site advertising his charter yacht and I couldn't resist. After cleaning up, we all climbed into his small red dingy and motored out to the Psyche. Lovely yacht. Deb checked out the place, and Chas and I did some web site design. He got my services cheap, a beer and an evening under the stars relaxing on a yacht. If only all jobs paid so well...
Out to the cave with AJ, Katia, and Deb in the morning. But I had work to do and had to hurry slightly. Then Chas and I went out again to do more web work, creating a simple, but workable site. Again, my wages were more than acceptable, a drink and interesting conversation floating with a perfect view of Raileh.
13 December Raileh Beach
14 December - 17 December Raileh Beach
Fallen behind, and the days fly. How to put it? I fell again under the spell of the place. A casual morning, some sun and swimming in the afternoon, climbing the cliffs and taking lessons, and always more trips barefoot up to the lagoon and into the caves. "You're wearing the wrong shoes," one German points out, just as his hiking boots slip and he lands face first in the mud. No, I think I have the right ones. :-) The days pass, but I have to get to Koh Phangan to meet a friend, so it ends too soon. Deb went out with Chas a few days ago, and I believe is enjoying life very much at the moment before her return home. I met some Canadians and watched many sunsets over beer...
Sunset at Raileh
18 December - 22 December Koh Phangan
Still behind, and easy days to relate.
*sniff* Leaving Raileh again
An easy trip to Koh Phangan in an air con bus and a calm sea. No change to the place since last time. The road to Haad Rin was paved. I no longer worried about the police in the port. A place of freaks and travellers. The full moon party had been on the 14th, so that crowd was gone. I spent the days on the beach, the nights dancing to oblivion at the frequent parties.
The day of arrival. After pulling myself together from last night's excesses and swallowing a couple aspirin, I caught a songthoew into Thong Sala, the port area. I was feeling relaxed and comfortable riding in. But Mike, a friend from "home" was arriving today. It was his first time travelling other than a couple short hops to Europe. I tried to see things as he would the first time, and the casual ride took on a whole new color. I was darkly tanned, my hair bleached by the sun, my chest bare, shirt hanging from back of my swim suit. I was standing in the back of the songthoew, feet on the tailgate, hands grabbing with white knuckles onto the luggage rack up on top. The road was crazy, severe blind turns, steep hills, driver going at a reckless pace, horn blaring and slamming on his brakes whenever another vehicle approached from the other direction on the narrow road. I looked out: palm trees, cliffs, beautiful beaches, Koh Samui in the distance. I looked into the songthoew. 5 people. Two women with shaved heads and tattoos, their breasts barely contained in shoestring bikinis. One guy with pierced nipples, fisherman pants, and a spaced out look in his eyes. An old Thai woman with bags of something scattered on the floor, chatting nonstop with a clean cut Canadian who understood not a single word. I think Mike will be mildly shocked.
23 December Koh Phangan
After a short wait, a ferry arrived. I asked one passenger if this was the ferry from Surat Thani (not from Koh Tao), and while I was talking, "Seán!" I hear from down the pier. Whoa! Major shock for me now. Mike, a friend I knew from work, from rollerblading, from clubbing, the consultant with the pager, cell phone, and BMW, was walking down the pier, in Thailand, with a backpack on! Somewhat of a split world. He'd had a hard crossing. Plane from Philadelphia to LA to Hong Kong, plane to Singapore, plane to Bangkok, train to Surat Thani, ferry to Koh Phangan. Harder than I ever had to do, and only for 3 weeks here. No thanks. He's buzzing with excitement, but understandably confused and disoriented.
After dumping his pack and cleaning 3 days grime off, we went out for a great pad thai and talk. I'm happily surprised at his speedy acceptance of this foreign place. We had an early night, giving him time to relax before tomorrow's Xmas parties.
A day on the beach. Mike seemed to love the place. Playing in the surf, floating out in the ocean, pleasant conversation while bobbing in the water, the lovelies lying out and swimming with us, I think he even forgave me the countless times I bored him senseless with my tales of far off places, living it for himself.
24 December Koh Phangan
That night, it was time to celebrate the birth of a child promised to save the world. The local way to celebrate this differed slightly from the way I knew growing up. At Chicken Corner, Mike and I found a songthoew heading for the Xmas party at Ban Tai beach. The back of the truck was full, so myself and one loony Brit climbed up top for the roller coaster ride to hell. On Koh Phangan, this holiday, like all others, was solemnly observed with vast quantities of alcohol, pot, "diet pills", techno music played at deafening volumes, brightly dressed and painted travellers sporting the latest tattoo and piercing styles, and much socializing on the beach between wild frenzied dancing under the black lights and banners of the "dance floor." Lightning flashed out to sea, rain threatened, and the wind tore the banners into oblivion, and yet the party only grew. A Carlsberg, a Lipo - that high vitamin caffeinated sugar rush, the spirits are high on this night. A strobe blinds me, laser lights cross overhead, "Don't cross the streams!" For the cost of a beer and a smile, Mike dances off with a lovely leaving me to my own extremity. The beer flows, the rain drenches me, gratefully accepted for the cooling spray. My body leaves the mind behind, dancing to a rhythm the ancestors knew well. Sweat and raindrops pour down my face while a dervish with red hair and green eyes beckons me to greater abandon. Her body moving against mine, my arms circling her sweaty waist and eyes locked in challenge.
The spirit fails too soon. While the party is only building at 4:00, my energies are drained. The spirit from Glasgow rose with savage energy out of the writhing horde. Her arms around my back, her fingers running through my hair, I drifted, I dreamed. I felt my fatigue. Yet memory intruded, I shook myself awake. I cannot stay. The ride home was a blur, my exhaustion allowing the darkness to rise up and envelop me.
Merry Xmas. A day of energy. Woke up in a fey mood after only 3 hours of sleep. The darkness of last night faded away, yet found myself in a state of bitter rage. Into Thong Sala for email. To vent and question and respond to my global communiqué. An offer from Sabine to travel Latin America together. Rebecca coming to terms with her own troubles. A friend's betrayal and a web site finished. Then a day on the beach, with too much sun and massive surf. An offshore monsoon has waves at 2 metres and the body surfing is awesome. Mike has a date, so I spend the day alone.
25 December Koh Phangan
Days of darkness swallowing up the light. Swimming out to sea until the shore vanishes beneath the waves. A lonely beach with no sign of human passion/poison. The sun blazing high overhead while nature sustains with a hard won coconut. A fool at night discusses Pattaya in German and causes distress in others, eyes blazing with the dark fires of oblivion and insanity.
26-27 December Koh Phangan
A day like all others. A trip into Thong Sala hanging off the back of a songthoew, muscles tense and eyes blazing. A diversion of technology brings words from beyond. My first hate mail of the first site. Stroking of the ego rewards the work of two years, bringing new friends and old memories.
28 December Koh Phangan
An excess of energy drives me out once again to the dancing lunacy of nighttime Koh Phangan. This time, we are up in the jungles over Ban Khai beach. Trees surround us, lights hung from every branch, roots tripping the unwary and the drunk. A 6'5" Danish girl towers over the crowd. A night of wild abandon, lasting until the dawn returns us to reality.
Just as the skies begin to brighten, a group of Thais catch my eye. One girl is being hassled by an aggressive Frenchman with too many hands and not enough class. As I drew near, she greeted me as a long lost friend and pulled me off to dance, leaving him behind. The night has gone on too long for me. My feet blistered, my legs like rubber, my clothes drenched in sweat, I couldn't keep up the charade. My Thai of years past came in handy, allowing me to drop that famous line in Thai: "Can I buy you a drink?" Two waters, and we collapse on the side, watching as one of her friends drains half a Singh Thip (Thai whiskey) bottle in one gulp, and the others dance on. They were all here on holiday from Bangkok, it turns out. Noi, my new friend, and the others all work on the new Underground project in Bangkok, promising a subway system within 5 years. I asked why she was called (nicknamed) Noi. In a brief lack of communication, she said yes, please call me, and gave me her email address and mobile phone number. OK...
With the sun high in the sky, the lot of us pile in a songthoew home. Tonight is tomorrow, but it's time to sleep. With arrangements for tomorrow (today), we say our good-byes and go our own ways.
Swimming in the waves with a comely Thai lass, hanging out with her friends and eating great Thai food, that's how the days passed. They stayed out at Alan Bungalows, so never far to see them. Learning more Thai each day, and getting darker by the moment. These were a friendly lot, with many farang friends in Bangkok.
29 - 30 December Koh Phangan
Another year ends, vastly different from the last. Rather than a small circle of friends, drinking rum and Dr. Peppers (thank you Mark!), eating pizza and holding someone special as the winter weather raged outside, a different scene emerges: A quiet day at the beach fades into a balmy night. A proper Thai meal and a banana chocolate pancake followed by mayhem and masses of tripped out travellers on the beach. Firecrackers explode on all sides, sometime exploding amidst a large group of people, scorching the lot. "Diet pills for the party!" a sign at one pharmacy offers. My group is more tame, and yet bring in the new year with a bang. "Happy New Year!" a glassy eyed Swedish girl yells in my ear, giving me a long kiss on the lips before moving on to her next victim. Ah yes, ahem, uh Happy New Year to you too... Bang! a cracker goes off behind me, showering me with sand. A couple tall Germans drop their clothes and go swimming in the water to the raucous accompaniment of their friends. The party continues.
31 December Koh Phangan
May the next year bring peace...
Another day on the beach. A late rising crowd blearily nurse their hangovers on large bottles of water and dark glasses.
1 January Koh Phangan
I suffered a great personal loss today. My hat, which has travelled with me around the world and down the road for years, was stolen by a rogue wave while drifting in the ocean. It ripped the ragged, stained, well travelled hat right off my head and quickly out to sea, despite the cord tying it to me. :-( I spent the greater part of an hour trying to recover it before resigning myself to its loss. So it goes, become attached to nothing.
I had but one task to do on this day, yet it proved far more difficult than I expected. A simple call to England, it should have been easy. After preparing myself for the grief to follow, I walked into a travel agency. No, cannot make a calling card call from here. I tried several other places before accepting this. (Turns out, Thailand only allows calling card calls to your "home country", and, as I had AT&T, that meant the US.) At 100B/minute to call direct from Haad Rin, I wasn't about to place a long call from here. One hour of looking unbelievably discovered no taxis to Thong Sala, so I managed only a 3-minute call to promise more later. Pain at the other end.
In no mood to be company, I spent the evening alone, only taking the time to return a call from Mike (who went to Koh Samui for a few days) to arrange our travel arrangements north to Chiang Mai.
Time to move on. With barely a moment's thought, the island drifted behind me. Despite my better judgment, I was travelling with two backpacks this morning, to my humbling embarrassment. Perhaps it was good to temper my pride in travelling light. I was to carry my own gear of course, but also, my burden of this morning was Mike's massive pack, which he left behind to travel with only a daypack to Samui. As the ferry pulls into the port on Samui, I see a familiar face go slack, as a sigh of relief lifts his shoulders. Here, take it!
2 January On the bus from Surat Thani to Bangkok
We carried on to Surat Thani with no problems, then onto the air con bus to Bangkok for the night. My long legs were in agony as a 10-year old girl's father repeatedly slams her seat down on my knees until I threaten him with mayhem. The rest of the night passed in a daze of Pringles and short stops until we pulled into Bangkok near Khao San Rd. And the next day began.
We cut our time close. Less than two hours would easily get you to the airport in most cities, but Bangkok was another matter. When the average pedestrian walks faster than the fastest car on the road, a short trip can take forever. But the gamble I had made was on the day we made this trip. This weekend was a Thai holiday, and anyone who could escape Bangkok did so. They wouldn't return until tomorrow, so the roads were left free and clear, leaving us plenty of time for a Burger King breakfast at the airport before our flight.
3 January Chiang Mai.
The flight was uneventful, my pack at my feet, two light breakfasts being served on the two flight segments Bangkok - Sukkothai-Chiang Mai. Then an airport taxi took us to Tapae Gate in town.
More than ever, memories tangled my footsteps in this town, as images of a water festival and another time sprang from all sides. The devalued Baht allowed us a touch of luxury here, moving up into the moderate range of hotel. We found a couple nice rooms and luxuriated in the hot showers.
After cleaning up, we took a short walk through Chiang Mai. Splash! I swear I heard echoes of an icy bucket of water as I turned the corner. Except for the many internet cafés that have sprung up around the city, I didn't notice much changed. A walled city, the moat still in place. It was like a tourist brochure come to life. Every few blocks, another gold temple gleamed in its private courtyard. Monks in their orange robes and shaved heads tend the garden. The Buddha appears on all sides and in all sizes. House temples give a home to the house spirits. Shops sell elaborate woodcarvings, Buddha's, musical instruments, clothing. Trekking agencies declare "Treks to unspoiled region". All within a day's tour. Tuk tuks and songthoews patrol the city streets; there are no buses here. Restaurants line the river and the people are friendly. The girls even more so, to the point of being predatory to the single man. Nothing has changed. :-)
Another call to make at night, again an ordeal. Making a late call sent me further and further from the city. I could choose to make the call from my hotel, at hotel rates. I could pay an agency a grossly inflated rate. Or I could walk from closed telecom office to office, finally leading me out to the expressway and the telecom headquarters, open 24 hours. But they wouldn't take a credit card, so a guard gave me a ride on his bike out to the bank and back to get the necessary cash. Another call. "Are you OK?" the man asked as I paid him after. Sniff, yeah.
I walked back to the hotel, taking the time to think and recover. By the time I returned, it was already 11:30. Mike was pissed off, and acted the perfect asshole. Bad idea. But after we got that out of our systems and I cleaned up from my sweaty walk, we went out on the town.
The Riverside Cafe had a live band, good food, and large cold beers to drink as we sat by the river. A congenial crowd of mixed Thais, expats, and tourists enjoying a mellow evening. But Mike and I wanted to dance, so we grabbed a tuk tuk outside to GiGi's, a large dance club outside of town. Dance halls in Chiang Mai were odd places. Rather than a dance floor, with a few seats on the sides, here, the entire place was tables and chairs, with a live band up front, and people dancing in the aisles. Strange. There was no cover charge, and even though the place would close soon, we went in. We were the only farangs in the entire place. A crowd of 18-25 year olds all drinking and dancing. I towered over everyone, feeling slight conspicuous. A girl grabs my arm, "Very tall," she gasps, wide eyed. She was far into her cups, and amusing entertainment as she introduced us to her friends and husband. A late night dancing and drinking.
4 January - 10 January Chiang Mai
A nice cool week. Mornings snuggled under warm blankets feeling oh so good followed by a nice hot shower. Mike and I didn't do too much sightseeing, but we got around. One day, we went out to Doi Suthep, a beautiful temple with a grand view of Chiang Mai. The park next door had lovely walks in the quiet forest along well-tended trails. This place had a spirit, lacking in those wats within the city.
Wat Doi Suthep, Outside Chiang Mai
One night at Gigi's, a group of Chiang Mai University students scooped us up just as we were heading home and dragged us off to a late night club. We met them the next day and had a great time. They showed us around the university. One girl studied dance, and gave us a demonstration of Thai traditional dancing, moving gracefully to the music. Her friends introduced us to the variety of traditional instruments they used. All day long, they sat down to eat small meals of Som Tom, curries, chips, seafood. We took a songthoew out to a nearby wat, to feed the massive catfish and explore the grounds. At sunset, we all went on their bikes up to a viewpoint with a lake to talk and watch the sunset. Then out to a food market for more food. Great day.
The lengths people go to take pictures for people back home...
Mike on an elephant outside of Chiang Mai
On our first morning in Chiang Mai, Mike and I were having breakfast, nursing hangovers from the night before. I ran around the corner to get us some water. The only shop I could find was at a Shell petrol station of all things. Carefully bending over, I took two waters out of the cooler and shuffled up to the counter to pay. There were two young girls working there. One rather shy, the other laughing and chatty - in Thai of course. The shy one whispered "La'ar" - handsome, watching me from behind her friend. I turned to her and to her horror, said "Khow chai! Kawp khun khap!" - I understand, thank you! She blushed bright red, but recovered quickly. "You very handsome" her friend helpfully translated for me. I gave a grin, paid, and walked out, blushing bright red myself. For the rest of my time in town, I would repeatedly go into this shop (hey, it was close to my hotel!) to buy water. Each time, the two girls became more brazen. By the end, every time I went in there, I was greeted with shouts of "Hello, handsome man!" And, "I love you!" If only they had been five years older...
Being lazy again, Mike and I took another flight back to Bangkok, nice and easy. Again, the devalued Baht made this a cheap luxury. In Bangkok, I introduced Mike to Khao San Rd. "This place is a ghetto!" he exclaimed. I couldn't help but agree. Sadly, Ploy Guesthouse looked badly deteriorated from the days I stayed there before. The brand new carpets were now worn through and stained. The freshly painted walls peeling and chipped. We found another place down the road and walked around.
11 January Bangkok
At night, "I have special girl for you!", it was time to visit Patpong. My first time there. Odd scene. Down Patpong 1, a night bazaar spread out, with crowds of tourists shopping up and down. But along the sides, touts with cards describing, well, describing indescribable acts their women would perform followed the single men. Gogo bars with scantily clad lovelies dancing on stage had their doors open to the gawking passerby. Taking the plunge, we stepped in one for a drink. Immediately, two lovelies with cries of joy descended on us, wrapping their slim bodies around us. But their break was over. Soon, they were back up on stage, dancing. At first glance, rather nice. But a second look showed more. Most of the dancers were older than they first appeared, dancing with a tired, bored look showing on their faces from time to time, the numbers on their hips promising more than a dance if you offered them a drink and talked nicely to Mamma-san. It was not my kind of scene.
End of the road for Mike. His flight was at noon, so he had to take an early taxi out of town. I saw him off at the curb, then packed my bags and moved out to Siam Square, the shopping district. I made a call as soon as I got in and let Noi et al know where I was staying.
12 January Bangkok
That evening, Noi came by in her car (Honda Civic '94) and drove me down to Khao San Rd to meet the others for dinner. They all liked hanging out there, especially two of them with a strong interest in farangs. One left happy and the other with a broken heart. So it goes.
13 - 16 January Bangkok
One of the murals surrounding Wat Pra Keo
Too much time on the computer during the day. Sitting at Byte in a Cup café with a lemon slush by my side and access for 120B/hour, I looked for work, talked with people back home, worked on the site and passed the time. The rest of the time was spent doing little.
Reclining Buddha at Wat Po
A day of sightseeing, checking out the Royal Palace, Wat Pra Keo, Wat Po, etc. filled my appetite for tourist stuff. You need guide?
Passing the time learning to speak Thai and staying out of the polluted steamy streets. Schoolkids taking interviews. Fruit stalls on the corner. Lovelies in the malls.
One of the many statues around Wat Po
The nights were more interesting. Sometimes with the whole group, sometimes with just Noi. Dancing on Soi 4, Thai traditional dance, hanging on Khao San Rd, once out to Patpong, just because Noi thought I'd enjoy it. One night, we went to an Irish pub around the corner from Patpong. Can't recall the name of the place, but it was very strange. As soon as we walked in, I could have sworn I was, well maybe not in Ireland, but at least in some western country frequented by Irish. Half the servers were Irish, all the clientele were farang. And when I saw the prices, I understood why. 8-O But Noi settled for a fine shepherds pie, and I selected the salmon with potatoes, and a Guinness to wash it down. Now, what country am I in?
"For your protection, this napkin has been sanitized, sterilized, hydrolyzed, pasteurized, traditionalized, plagiarized, folded, rolled, and wrapped. It's clean too."
-Napkin wrapper from Irish pub in Bangkok
"I went to Pattaya... to go bowling!"
17 January Pattaya
When the weekend came, I had to get out of Bangkok. Noi suggested a trip out to Chonburi, her hometown, and then out to Pattaya at night. Despite its reputation, I was curious, and one night seemed enough.
We set out early, Noi at the wheel. Now, I hate to drive under normal conditions. The traffic around Bangkok raised this to an entirely new level. As Noi drove madly through the streets, coming inches away from other cars, "Chuart!", I had to force myself to relax. I repeated this when she ran a red light, horn blaring and beating the bus by seconds. I repeated it again when she passed entire lines of cars by pulling into the oncoming lane. This was not a relaxing trip!
Reaching a small town near Chonburi, Noi stopped at her mother's house. A small shop at the front selling the usual melons, bananas, soft drinks and simple foods. A friendly old man out front greeted us as we got out of the car. "This is my grandfather," Noi told me. Oh! Hands raised to chin level, I wai'd him, "Sawaat dee kap!" "Heh, heh," he replies with a smile. Then her mother, same same. She left me there to go call some friends, and the mother relentlessly closed in. First a cold Pepsi, "Pepsi yen neung kuwat!" Then a whole watermelon sliced up, then some bananas, oranges. I like mothers. Eat! Eat! Like an Italian household. The grandfather chatted away with me, despite the fact that neither he nor Noi's mom spoke English. I caught the stray word, but mainly just smiled, nodded, and answered the occasional "Mai khow chai kap!" (I don't understand) when he expected an answer. Despite this, he decided he liked me. What happened next surprised even Noi. He took a tin from off a high shelf in the back and dug to the bottom of it, coming out with a giant black Buddha talisman which he proudly showed to me. "Sa'am roi!" he kept saying. The thing was over 3 hundred years old, signed on the back by Rama V and worth more than Noi's car. A friend gave it to him many years ago when they were drunk, and never got it back. :-) He asked me if I would like one. Are you serious?! "A small Buddha," Noi clarified. Oh, yes, I would be honored! Again, he goes into the back room and comes back with a small Buddha. With gestures and noises, he lets me know it will protect me even from bullets. Good to know. Noi later told me he never shows his old Buddha to anyone at all, fearing theft. And for him to give me one showed he really liked me. Well.
After we had eaten enough to satisfy Noi's mom, we jumped back into the car and drove along the coast, stopping (urp) for more food along the way until I was Im ma'ak! Im pai! (very full, too full!). We found a nice hotel and went for a walk on the beach. Then in the evening, out for dinner at a great Vietnamese restaurant. Noi ordered, as the menu was in Thai, and the food completely unfamiliar. Still, it was tasty. As usual, Aha'an yo pai, too much food! Now, we were in Pattaya, so of course we visited South Pattaya, with the gogo bars. I felt conspicuous walking with a Thai girl, seeing the crowds of fat old men with their girls, but Noi told me to relax. "I dressed too expensive to be a prostitute," she brags. Nice. She also explained that her light colored skin (she was a quarter Chinese) was considered very attractive by Thai standards, but not for the farangs, who generally preferred dark colored women. Different tastes. I wasn't interested in stopping anywhere, and she doesn't drink, so what to do? "How about bowling?" Noi suggested. Ha ha, very funny. But she was serious! 5 minutes later, I'm putting on those funny, ugly bowling shoes.
Fat men in bad clothes crowd the place. A Hawaiian shirt with short shorts, black socks, and a cigar waddles past, beer in hand. Crash! "Strike!" one man yells, doing a dance. 25 lanes, and the place is packed. It must be bowling league night. What country is this? But then I saw a group of Thai teens and the image was shattered. Neither of us were any good, but I still won 2 out of 3 by a narrow margin. Bowling in Thailand...
18 January Bangkok
Again a slow start. We ate a fine Thai brunch on the beach. Pizza Hut, chocolate ice cream, and Pepsi. We found a couple beach chairs under an umbrella, ate, and talked about Noi's job. In the past, she often had to switch jobs because the boss would try to sleep with her. Not in her job description, but sexual harassment laws are only starting to be put in place, so her recourses were few. This boss hasn't tried (yet) but far too much work, and inexperienced people working under her make it a hard task.
Whoops! Wrong Trip!
Abul Simbel (Mini Siam)
After we finished our feast, we made our slow way back to Bangkok, making many stops along the way. Once, we stopped at a beach she used to play at as a child. The family used to bring food and have picnics here, as the kids splashed in the water. Kids still swim here, but the place was now far from idyllic, thanks to the pollution from an enormous pier the government installed. A large freighter sat at dock, leaking oil and scum into the once fine water.
Another stop was at a Chinese Buddhist temple at Bang Saen. Noi asked if I wanted to respect the Buddha. I said yes, and the ritual began. It was incomprehensible to me at the time, but I'll try to read more about it later. We walked about, placing incense in various places, candles, a lotus blossom, kneeling in prayer and other strange routines. At the end, it was time to consult the "fortune teller." A cup of sticks, each with a number was shaken until one fell out. Then a set of blocks were thrown. If they landed one up, one down, you had your fortune. Otherwise, try again. You take your number to a desk, make a donation with a prayer, and collect your fortune. Of course, it was written in Thai, so Noi had to translate for me. Not good. "Someone will try to deceive you. Someone will try to hurt you. Beware." And more...
Back on the road, Noi asked if I'd like a meal cooked by her. "Will I die?" Her apartment has no kitchen, so instead, we visited her sister in Chonburi. Dinner was already on the table when we arrived, though, so we sat on the floor with the others and enjoyed a huge meal. Her sister has two cute children 5 and 8, but is not married. The father lives with them (along with his mother), but I never understood the whole situation. He was the only one who spoke English, so while I politely spoke what little Thai I knew with the others ("La'ar" (handsome) her sister whispers to Noi), he and I had a great talk about engineering, the economy, computers, and so on, drinking Singha while the womenfolk cleaned up. (Gotta love this culture! :-)
More of the same.
19 - 23 January Bangkok
Again, time to get out of Bangkok. A trip out to Ayuthaya was rather interesting. Along the way, we stopped at Bang Pa In palace. Italian sculpture and architecture, Chinese architecture, European gardens, the place seemed quite out of place, but rather nice.
24 January Bangkok
At Ayuthaya, I was happily impressed. Dozens of ancient wats, stupas, and such to dazzle the eye, few tourists, and great food (of course). Climbing one enormous stupa, ___, Noi suddenly exclaims "Too high!", and runs back down. A fear of heights, looks like...
At Wat Pra Sri Samphet we saw the most impressive, in my book. A series of three huge stupas in a line, with ruins all around. Even for a jaded traveller, quite impressive.
That night, Cinemax played the film "Street Fighter." One of the opening scenes (supposedly in China) was this very temple! Later, scenes filmed down at Phranang beach (near Krabi) also appeared. I know that place!
Ayuthaya Wat Pra Sri Samphet, Ayuthaya Wat Pra Sri Samphet, Ayuthaya
More of the same. Noi occasionally skipping half days at work so we can go watch a movie together, or go shopping.
25 - 26 January Bangkok
"Religious payback or Third World Justice?"
27 January Bangkok
Today was the Chinese New Year. In Bangkok, it is not a big affair. Children are given money, feasts are laid out for the spirits, etc. Noi was worried, because this year, she was broke, and couldn't perform the proper rituals for her car. Yes, her car. I didn't say much, but inwardly, I scoffed at her superstitions.
Then that night, as we were driving out to Khao San Rd for dinner, Bang! Three lanes merge to two. Noi was in the center lane, but her aggressive driving habits don't let people in. Another woman tried to force the issue, and two fenders get banged up. Minimal damage, Noi would have let it go. But then the other woman "generously" said Noi could go if she first accepted responsibility and agreed to pay. I think not. One hour later, insurance inspectors nose through the tangled mess of cars trying to pass and take a look. They also cannot settle it, so the whole bunch of us drove over to the police station. There, we wait another hour, as mosquitoes eat us alive. Discussing it with Noi, the woman overhears me telling Noi I thought it was the woman's fault. She gets all worked up, starts yelling at me "If you lie, you no witness!" What a night. A series of interviews then take place. Drawings are argued over, forms filled out, the cars were inspected finally, and the verdict: fault cannot be determined. Both Noi and the other woman had to pay 400B for an incident report, and we were free to go. At midnight... So hungry. Phom hue maak kap!
Sitting in a restaurant on Khao San Rd, I decided I was bored. So I bought a ticket to Nepal. The North held no interest at this time, and I was feeling fat and lazy. Some people go on a diet to lose weight, I go to the Himalaya! It was sad to leave the Bangkok crew, but time to move on...
28 January Bangkok
Time to go. My flight was at 10:30, so Noi couldn't take me to the airport because of a meeting she had to attend. Easy enough to take a taxi, even with the rush hour traffic. I found I could even chat some with the taxi driver with my baby talk Thai. That was fun. Again, there wasn't much impact on moving on, but perhaps because I was coming back...
30 January Kathmandu
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