Escape from Elephant Island
Here I am, in the one place I promised myself months ago that I would not return to. How did I get here? I saw the warning signs; I thought I took preventative measures, and yet just when I thought everything was alright, I starting sliding down the slippery slope. When I reached the bottom, I forgot my earlier promises and reacted stupidly, just as I had before. She looked directly at me with no expression, a clear sign of frustration and as mad as my wife will ever get with me, and then turned her back on me and walked away. She ambled over to where her friends were sitting and plopped down in a beach chair next to them. Now they became silent as well and I knew I had definitely done it again. Why did I agree to come to this island on a trip I knew was doomed to go wrong? I turned towards the sea and thought back on the recent events that now made me the pariah of Thai jai yen yen.
This isn’t the first time I have been in this dark place; a place where I feel like the grinch who stole Christmas, the curmudgeon yelling at kids to get off his lawn, the Frank Grimes to Homer Simpson ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer%27s_Enemy), or all three at once. Two years earlier I had traveled to Thailand with my Thai wife to visit family and friends. Her friends met us at the airport, found us a wonderful place to stay, and drove us everywhere. So what’s the problem? The problem was they did everything for us even when we didn’t want them to, and then questioned our sanity when we insisted. My wife, the very essence of politeness, had been through this routine before and had learned to repeat mai bpen rai under her breath a thousand times. Me, on the other hand, a farang used to having at least a small say in my destiny, ended the week fuming in the back seat of a car at being completely ignored by quacking Thai women. The next day I escaped for a few hours to Pantip Plaza and beyond. When I returned, my patrons were confused as to why I didn’t want to spend another day with them shopping and were visibly saddened I was not there. I felt like the perfect wet blanket, so I determined right then and there that I would never be bitter like this again.
So, when a business trip to Japan coincided with my wife’s annual trip to Thailand and it was decided we would meet there for ten days with family and friends, I started my planning. First, for those long car drives when nothing but Thai was spoken and I would feel left out, I would bring lots of magazines so I could peruse away those quacking hours. For extended shopping trips, I would unabashedly find the first bar and announce I would be here when they finished shopping. And for other excursions, I decided to either agree to go in peace or not at all. But in all these endeavors, I would maintain my outward smile and an inner peace the Buddha would be proud of. When my wife announced the specific itinerary for our trip, it was remarkably devoid of the last trip’s low points. I suspect my wife was also planning not to repeat previous mistakes. The itinerary was to spend a few days in the south with her family, a few days in Koh Chang, and then a few days in Bangkok before flying home. Still, I brought lots of magazines and memorized when 7 Elevens were allowed to sell beer.
The trip started as planned. My wife and her best friend Mal met me at the airport around midnight. Carrying three large bags of goodies from America and precious few clothes for myself, we went to Mal’s condo where she had an ample supply of Singha beer and my favorite Thai snack, pussy nuts. Early the next morning, my wife’s brother drove us to her mom’s small house on the southern coast. After some chit-chat and a small meal, we retired for the evening to a bungalow on the beach. The next two days were spent hanging with my wife’s family, her mom being the most fun, and generally I had a good time. On our trip back to Bangkok, we stopped at the Floating Market where I caught a glimpse of the King’s granddaughter out for an afternoon of shopping. When I raised my camera for a picture, three very large Thai men started shaking their hands at me. My wife quickly told me that no ad-hoc pictures were allowed of the royal family. I lowered my camera and gave the men my best mai phen rai smile and everybody was happy. This trip was turning out much better than I thought it would. I should have remembered that the sun is always brightest before a storm.
Of course, with my wife’s friends, there is no down-time allowed. After rolling in from the Floating Market around 10 PM, I was informed we would have to leave the next day for Koh Chang at 7 AM sharp. I repacked my bag with new clothes, magazines, a couple of bags of pussy nuts, and then settled in for a short sleep. Sure enough, my wife’s phone was ringing at 6:45 AM. It was her friends and they were waiting for us downstairs in the hired mini-van. Now there were six Thai women in the van along with me and the driver, and soon we were off for Koh Chang. As expected, I was largely ignored as the women chatted away in Thai. No worries, I whipped out my magazines and read contentedly. There were stops to make, of course, and at each one I scoped out the nearest 7 Eleven or small store with a beer sign and purchased that delicious nectar that made the sounds of duck quacking bearable. By late afternoon, we had crossed over to the island by ferry and were weaving our way through the steep hills of Elephant Island. Soon we arrived at our hotel and what a hotel it was.
I had expected some small, semi-nice, Thai hotel as that was all that we saw on the island so far on our drive. But after we entered the reception area of the Nisa Cabana hotel I knew it was someplace very special. Not just new, but wonderfully chosen furniture and Thai artifacts all over the place. The same was true in the rooms, with an attached sitting room facing the sea and a large bathroom with a shower attached to it. The bed was the firmest I have slept on in all the places I have slept in Thailand. Apparently, the resort is on some sort of nature preserve and the hotel, really a main set of buildings for reception and dining with individual huts for rooms, was planted strategically on one of the most scenic areas of the island. We quickly changed and went to the pool, the beach access is down the road with shuttles to take you to it, and where we splashed away in what is undeniably the best pool on the island. Later, we decided to go to a popular seafood restaurant closer to the beach. The front desk informed us that a shuttle bus was free to take us there and would wait while we ate. Surely, the economic downturn plays a part in this as we got our rooms at half price (3,000 baht a night) yet the bargain was very real; this is a five-star-plus hotel and it is worth every baht. If they had had a long term plan I would have retired on the spot.
A couple of others in our party including myself decided that we would go snorkeling the next day. Sadly, I was also informed by my wife that the majority in our party found the price of the hotel too steep so we were going to move to another hotel closer to the beach. I whined that this is a wonderful hotel and as the rest of the group was going shopping all day, so why move to the beach? My wife gave me a shrug which meant the powers to be in our group had decided and that was that. My hackles raised a little but we were soon off to the small village that docked our boat. After walking out on a long pier, I noticed our boat was the one preferred by most of the Thai customers while the farangs preferred a newer, sleeker boat. No worries, I like many other farangs who frequently travel to Thailand, find other farangs a tad bothersome so I was happy to jump on the deck of our well-worn and definitely more friendly boat. They shared their snacks with us and I made funny faces for their kids. In the end, I was happy with our selection of boat as we had a wonderful time on the water. I also found time to teach some of the Thai kids the proper technique for can openers off the deck and other farang secrets. Near the end, I started drinking Chang beer and as our ship ambled towards the pier late in the day, I was sun burnt and a little beer-buzzed. It had been a good day.
What happened next should have warned me that I was approaching that slippery slope. We waited in the hot sun for our transport back to our new hotel, wherever that was. After 30 minutes, pickup trucks with canvas backs started to queue up. We piled into one with a couple of Thais and off we went to tackle the hills of Koh Chang. Through the heat and bumps and back and forth of the ride, it occurred to me that we had paid for a full time driver. Why didn’t we dispatch this guy to deliver us to the hotel? I asked my Thai companions that question but only got a shrug in return. With each horseshoe turn and wipe of sweat from my brow, I grew more and more indignant at my situation. By the time we reached our hotel, almost an hour later, I was ready to take on any Naga that had the audacity to cross me.
The hotel was certainly on the beach but everything else about it said, “cheap, cheap, cheap”. My sweet wife was there to greet me and was all smiles and said how much she missed me. When I asked her why the driver was not dispatched to pick us up, she immediately knew what kind of mood I was in and turned her back to me. Oh well, back to the room and a shower before dinner, and soon I would regain my jai yen yen for the rest of the evening. The bathroom was one of those you see in Thailand where you shower on the floor with no enclosure. As it was a small room, my shower filled the entire floor with water. I came out and started to talk to my wife, we were going to the restaurant with the fire dancers, when I realized I forgot to use deodorant. I walked back into the bathroom and on my second step, completely slipped and landed hard on my hip. The pain was immediate and intense. I laid there groaning, all the while having new sympathy for the woman in the commercial, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”. My wife came to my aid and soon I was laid out on the bed. I took some aspirin and washed it down with beer. After 30 minutes, I was ready for dinner, with my hip in agonizing pain and a firm belief that if everyone had listened to me and stayed at the first hotel, none of this would have happened. It was not the best of attitudes to have before going to dinner with a bunch of Thai women.
When we arrived at the restaurant, I was determined to suppress my growing frustration with being dictated to by a larger group. I knew this was the Thai way; suppress the self interests for the will of the group, but with each decision I had no part in, my will to keep the peace grew weaker. The dinner was fine; I long ago gave up hope of influencing the menu selection except to ensure they ordered beer for me instead of fruit juice. When we finished, we retired to lounge chairs on the beach that had been placed as front row seats for the fire dancer show. I, of course sat at one end, my wife next to me, and then the rest. They immediately started in on some heated discussion in Thai and I started to get those dark “left out” feelings again. With my hip starting to throb and now with an overwhelming urge to do something dramatic, I got up calmly and went to the farthest chair in the front row, some 10 meters from the others. I tried not to look like I was not sulking but my acting skills only extend to looking serious when my customers were proposing some preposterous scheme. A short silence in the group discussion followed, but when the quacking re-started, my wife slowly got up from her chair and sat next to me. “What’s the matter?” she said.
I replied that my hip hurt and I just needed a different chair. She wasn’t buying it. I blurted out that for the last two days, I felt left out of most conversations and decisions we had made on the trip. She reminded me of instances where we had done what I wanted, and upon reflection, she was right. What I didn’t know then but should have; I was not used to being in a group and having to respect other’s choices just because it was their turn vs. what was the best idea, made me very irritable. Usually, it was just my wife and I that made decisions together. Anyway, after several feeble attempts to get her to see my views, I got the final “look” and she returned to her friends. After sitting cross-armed for a while, I slinked back as well. The fire dancers soon started and we all clapped after each performance. When we returned to the hotel, we all lied and said it was a wonderful evening. I had done it again.
The next day during the long drive back to Bangkok, feeling fully chastened, I was on my best behavior. I drank half as much beer, agreed with every group opinion I understood, and smiled at every opportunity. Slowly, my wife warmed back to me as did the rest of the group. When we reached my wife’s friend’s condo, we were all in good spirits, except me. This time it wasn’t pride, it was a throbbing hip and a strange swelling on the side of my foot. The next morning, the hip was better but the foot was worse and now it hurt like hell when I walked on it. That day, we were to attend a birthday lunch at a restaurant for one of wife’s friends. By now, my foot was very painful. I spent most of the time at the party with a painted smile on my face and sucking as much beer as I could. This time instead of disgust, my wife sensed my pain and on the drive back to the condo, she insisted we stop at a nearby hospital. After x-rays, a Thai doctor announced that I had pulled a ligament in my foot when I fell, forgetting that the sore hip and swollen foot were on separate legs. No worries, I was in group-think mode now. I took my prescribed pills, rested my foot, and kept my mouth shut. In fact, I sat on my ass and drank beer in front of a TV for the last two days of my Thai vacation. The foot was no better when I stepped on the plane to return home to America but not having to walk on it was a blessing. The day after I returned, I was in another doctor’s office who declared the painful lump to be a severe infection I had picked on my trip through a small scratch. Sure enough, after a couple of days of industrial strength antibiotics, the swelling subsided and it was much less painful. Being a good group member this time had meant wasting the last precious days of a much needed vacation.
And so, like Grimes trying to show the world what a fake Homer Simpson is, I had grabbed the high voltage wire without gloves the way Homer would have and paid the ultimate price. Now it was me everyone felt sorry for, while Homer snored through my cremation. Where is that peaceful yet independent middle ground between Thai group-think and American arrogance? I certainly haven’t found it yet.
In our first year of marriage the Mrs, me and two o her friends went away to Hua Hin. It was a disaster and the Mrs and I had an almighty row! It felt to me like I was the chauffeur and that was my only reason for being there. After that trip we agreed that if she wanted to take a holiday with her friends, I should stay behind – or go off with my friends. What a farang guy wants to do and what a bunch of Thai women want to do is often very different!