Arrival, The First Few Days, Ko Phangnan
I arrive at Don Muang on a flight that bounced from Budapest to Helsinki to Bangkok. In Helsinki I shared the glass-enclosed smoking area with about a dozen black-haired men, I do not know if they were Thai but since the flight is going to Bangkok, I surmise that they are Thai men. No women in that enclosure. I have never been to an Asian country before and I already am wondering what it will be like to be a clueless visible minority. I’ve visited other countries where I don’t look like the native people (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) but I speak Arabic and could read the signs and directions. I’ve been to Europe, where I look just like everyone else and so am not as obviously a tourist. But going to Thailand is a spur-of-the-moment decision made on a rainy day in Budapest and I’m wondering if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’ve purchased the only English-language guidebook I could find in Budapest (at a pricey $26) and… here I go!
Arrive Don Muang, catch a cab to, where else, Khao San Road. Once at KSR, my taxi driver pulls the “no change” thing and sends me to find change. I’m tempted to just walk away but no, he has my backpack. I get the change and pay him and he leaves. Now I am the newest of newbies on KSR, heavy backpack on, guidebook open, face in guidebook. I am assaulted on all sides by touts who want to sell me…everything. They see people like me all day long, they are sharks and I am the chum. Since then, whenever I’m on KSR, I have made it my duty to approach people who have this “look” and ask them if I can help them (“Can I help you find something? No, I’m not trying to sell you anything.”) If they speak English I generally can get them to the guesthouse they’ve chosen, and suggest a place to eat, and point them in the direction of the Grand Palace. I never see them again, but that’s beside the point.
I walk all the way down KSR; there’s the Buddy Lodge, there’s the D&D Inn, there’s Boots and the Tom Yum Gung restaurant and the Suzie Pub and the O Club and both of the 7-11's and these days, at the end of the road, there’s the Burger King (where the “My Mom Beer House” used to be.) There’s a lot of loud music coming from the stalls on the side of the road, trying to sell bootleg CDs. I am overwhelmed with the sights and sounds and the smells of KSR.
I get to the end of KSR and realize that I’ve gone the wrong way for the hotel I’ve chosen. I walk back and now the touts are on me in full force since they’ve seen me turn around, clearly not a clue where I’m going. No, I don’t need a tuk tuk, no, I don’t need a moto-sai taxi, no, I don’t want to see the Bridge on the River Kwai thankyouverymuch, no, I don’t need a tailored suit, no, I don’t want to buy any gold jewelry (yet), no, I don’t want some fried bugs, no, thank you, I don’t want anything. I keep walking and find the alley that takes me from KSR to the Vieng Tai hotel. Aaaah, they have a room for me, they have a pool. I am about ready to collapse and that is what I do when I reach the a/c room.
I’m afraid to head out into that heat and chaos again. I stay in my room, plotting my next move. I’m afraid I’m afraid I’m afraid. I drink water out of the mini-bar and read my guidebook. I fall asleep.
The next morning, I wake up and it’s 6am. I get dressed and head outside, all bravery and early-morning courage and… nothing is open. KSR is a place that parties into the night and opens late. I find nothing to do and no one with whom to speak, so I go back to my room, heartened that at least I’ve made it outside. I re-read my guidebook.
At 11am I go back and things are hopping on KSR. I stop at the Tom Yung Gung restaurant for a bowl of tom yum gung (what else?) It is so spicy that I cannot finish it. I strike up a conversation with a European man who is leaving KSR, and Bangkok, today. He clues me in a little (God bless all the people that took the time to clue my clueless ass in.) I come to realize that NO ONE stays on KSR. It is but a way-station for parts south, or north of Bangkok. I talk to a lot of travelers (never tourists) and find out that Bangkok is “a pit” and that “you really should check out ‘the islands’” and that “Chaing Rai” rocks.
After 3 days on KSR, I realize that there’s not much to do. I’ve walked the road innumerable times, I’ve bought everything I even vaguely wanted (no, thanks, still don’t need a suit). I am sitting at a restaurant on the side of the road, people-watching (KSR people-watching is still a lifetime favorite of mine) and speaking with a couple who teach English in northern Thailand. They clue me in about “ka” and “khrap”, something I have been wondering about – I didn’t realize that it depended on who was doing the speaking, I thought it depended on to whom they were speaking (as in French, English, Arabic – the other languages I know.) I make a spur-of-the-moment decision to head to this “Patpong” place I’ve heard so much about. The young couple smiles and waves me off. I never see them again either. That’s what happens in travels and I love it. I love it.
Hop in a tuk tuk and tell the driver I want to go to Patpong. He asks me, “you want see sex show”? I tell him, no, thanks, I already did that in Amsterdam. He asks me, “Ping pong, you want ping pong?” What’s this ping pong show I wonder? “Yes, I want to see ping pong!” I say. Off we go.
I wind up (alone) at an upstairs ping-pong show. The hostess (mamasan) tells me to call her “Honey” and she seats me far away, in a corner. Probably so that I don’t distract the farang men. She attends to my needs, getting me cigarettes and beer and sitting next to me (making sure I don’t meet any men I guess.) She leaves for a moment and I take my opening to strike up a conversation with three US Marines. Two of them are having the time of their lives watching the show, one of them is like a kid in a candy store without any money. He’s married. The Marines are on their way home to Hawaii from an overseas deployment and had a one-night stopover in Bangkok.
I make fast friends with the married one. The other two Marines barfine two girls and all 6 of us exit the club. There’s too many of us to take one taxi so the 4 of them take one, leaving the married Marine and myself to take another. The plan is to meet in the bar of their hotel (the airport Amari). We arrive but the other 4 are nowhere to be seen. I guess they didn’t barfine the girls so they could sit in the hotel bar with the married guy and his platonic friend.
The Marine and I wind up talking for hours in the bar before we play some slap & tickle in his room. We’re both adamant that “nothing is going to happen” but thank goodness for underwear because we were :: this close :: to something happening. He said if it wasn’t for me he would have barfined his own girl, so maybe I helped him keep his vows? I don’t know. I took a taxi back to KSR and I never saw him again.
I book passage south even though I have just missed the full moon party on Koh Phangan. The train was full, and I decide to save some money and take the bus. Big mistake. Huge. 12-hours of a full-to-bursting bus, traveling through the Thai countryside
at night, only to arrive in Surat Thani at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, to wait, in turn, for another bus to take us to the ferry pier. The ferry takes another 4 hours to reach Koh Phangan, then an open truck ride takes an hour, over the worst
muddy, hilly, lumpy road to get to Thong Nai Pan beach.
Which turns out to be paradise. There’s not much at the end of the world. A sea-side bungalow costs only 200 baht per night, and comes complete with a hole-y mozzie net, rickety framing and a door that won’t lock. Whatever, I’m in paradise with the blue sky, tall coconut palms swaying in the breeze, white beach, warm blue water. I spend hours gently swinging in the hammock in the restaurant and drinking tea. I spend hours surreptitiously smoking weed from the bar down the beach and being alone. I meet a guy who somewhat belatedly decides to be faithful to his Thai girlfriend who has stayed behind in Bangkok, and who I never see again. I spend a week on the beach, ahhhh, this is what I’ve always wanted. I recharge. I read a lot and talk to few. I get bitten by mosquitoes. I get bitten by mosquitoes. I get bitten by mosquitoes.
I flee Thong Nai Pan. I didn’t bring any bug spray and the bug spray they sell on the beach doesn’t seem to help me. I am covered in mozzie bites. I fly back to Bangkok, catch a cab and wind up back on KSR, at the Vieng Tai hotel. First agenda, buy bug spray!
A week back in Bangkok, this time I’ve done a little more exploring, actually made it to the Patpong night market (wow!). But KSR is getting me down. I book passage back down south. I make a reservation at a hotel via the travel agent because I've heard that accomodations on Haad Rin can be tough to come by. I fly to Koh Samui (‘cause there’s NO WAY I’m doing the night bus again) and jump on a ferry to Koh Phangan. This time I land at Haad Rin beach – there’s so much going on there! But no one knows where my hotel is. This is not a scam; no one on this island has any clue where my hotel is. Plus, I’ve booked a hotel with air con (no more sneaky night-time mozzies for this chick) and, frankly, this beach doesn’t look like it has any big air-con hotels.
Where’s my hotel? The hotel that I booked with the travel agent at the same time I booked a flight to Koh Samui? It’s not on Koh Phangan, it’s in Phangan province – on the other side of Thailand. The travel agent on Haad Rin had to phone my travel agent in Bangkok to get this choice bit of info. I beg her to help me and she calls around and finds me an air-con room in a bungalow operation on Haad Rin. This is where I wound up staying for weeks & weeks on end, taking pictures with the staff, playing with the baby, paying a lot of baht. Just… by… chance. I love traveling.
My bungalow on Haad Rin.
I arrive, sweaty and confused. The bungalow operation issues me a free plastic 1.5 liter bottle of water and a roll of toilet paper. They are on “island time” which means that I shrug off my humongous backpack and grab a white plastic chair at one of the open-air restaurant-cum-reception area bamboo tables while I wait to be checked in. The sand on the cement floor grits against my flip flops. I look around. There are a few farangs, a few Thai waitresses. It’s about 3pm, a lazy time of day. It is very hot and humid and sunny.
I am given a key on a keyring that has a large plastic attachment. One of the proprietors shows me to my bungalow. It is whitewashed with a small porch that sports a hammock between the pillars. The staff person demonstrates how to unlock my door and shows me how to insert the plastic thingy into the socket to get power for the lights and ac. She shows me the toilet area and the towels and then leaves. I trail after her back to the restaurant area and retrieve my backpack. Once again inside the bungalow, I dump everything out of my backpack onto one of the beds and paw through it to find my swimsuit. I grab a towel, a sarong, a book, my sunglasses and my key and hit the beach, less than 5 minutes after being shown the bungalow. The beach is less than 25 yards away.
I find a shady spot, spread my sarong on the sand, spread my towel on top of my sarong, drop my book and key and sunglasses onto my towel and walk across the hot sand (quickly!) to the water. I slip into the warm water. This is heaven.
After swimming I flop down onto my towel. Here come the beach vendors.
“Sarong, only 200 baht.” (“No, thanks, I already have a sarong, I’m lying on it. See?”)
“You want Thai massage!” (A sandy massage? No thank you.)
“Hello. You want tattoo?” (“Hello. No thank you.”) “Why you no want tattoo?” (“Uh, I’m fine thanks.”) “Tattoo?”(“NO!”)
“YouWantWatermelonPineappleCo-co-nut!” (Actually, I find I do want some, but I haven’t thought to take any baht with me.)
I get up, go into the open-air restaurant and order a watermelon shake. It takes a while, so I grab a pack of smokes from the counter (making sure the staff sees me and adds it to my bill), and a chair and read my book and smoke a cigarette. Ahhhhh, the shake is cold and fruity, just the ticket to refresh oneself. The staff put it on my tab and I go back to the beach.
The shade of the palm tree has moved, so I tug my sarong/beach towel combo a little to the east and settle in again. I open my book. Someone upwind of me is smoking a joint. I smoke another cigarette, stubbing it out in the sand but making a mental note to take the butt with me when I pick up my things. I am getting warm again, so I run across the hot sand to the water for another splash. Repeated more times during the afternoon.
Around 6pm, the sun is setting so I gather my things (butts included) and head back to the bungalow. Oh, the bed looks so inviting (but it’s hard as a rock). I nap until 8pm. You have to be careful about napping before dinner on Haad Rin. You might find that you’ve missed your chance for dinner and are relegated to finding an abysmal sandwich at Chicken Corner. Luckily, I wake in time and wander over to the restaurant.
I order dinner, chat with some Farangs, make plans to go out around 10pm (after showers are had). This has gotten waaaay too long so I will say that I fall into bed at 4am with a smile on my face and am woken by a coconut falling onto the bungalow roof the next morning. I have found my spot on this earth.
Interesting to get a story from a woman's perspective.