Koh Lanta Revisited Part II
The thing that really struck me about Koh Lanta first time up was how it was the perfect personification of ‘sleepy.’ A few weeks into my month on the island I remember waking up at the ungodly hour of eight with an achingly full bladder. I’d obviously overdone it in my re-hydration attempts right before I’d passed out. I’d exhausted myself on top of probably the most beautiful Western woman I have ever slept with and, bladder emptied, I really wanted to wake her up. I thought it best to bring her a cup of coffee and a plate of fruit. Wake her up good and raise her sugar levels for an hour or so before we dozed the morning away. Top plan.
When I got to the restaurant it was utterly deserted. I called out, waited and then looked over the counter. Tip was tucked up in a hammock. I edged into the kitchen and cautiously peered around the corner. And there was Somporn, the finest one-armed chef you’ll ever come across, fast asleep on a mat in the corner. His arm was flung across the kitchen floor reaching for a toppled bottle of beer just out of reach. A small puddle emitted that stale beer stench and my stomach turned. I stepped around the puddle and over the arm and proceeded to make my own preparations in single-minded relish in seeing through my plan. Same thing happened next morning. That night I got him to cut up fruit in advance.
Once I’d gotten up proper – about lunchtime – I made a habit of getting on my bike and going for a ride south down to where the inland road hits the coast and starts to rise and fall, dip and turn, and provide spectacular views of inlets and coves brushing up against the rocks and wild foliage. It was a bit of a mission with the clay pot-holed road dominating over intermittent and equally pot-holed and rutted paved ‘roading’ but it was always well worth it. Traffic was always light and considerate and there were very few trucks and concrete mixers trying to run me down. Sometimes one of the girls would come along but I generally preferred to go solo and enjoy the alone time where I could crawl back inside my mind and just observe, reflect and relax. The girls, when they came, invariably loved the ride too. Especially when I insisted they wear the only helmet on offer. Such gallantry. Nothing like wind through the hair. Oh, yeah.
While the picture postcard views always wow, a greater impression was made upon me by the panorama of real life I rode through. For me there is no better way to taste the gritty authenticities of life in many regions of the world than from the perspective of a rolling motorbike. The views of road-side life on Koh Lanta fascinated me. I was struck by the simplicity and calm that people exuded. Small family businesses sprung out of rickety shacks where I commonly saw the patriarch fast asleep in post-lunch bliss in a hammock or reclined in a creaky chair oblivious to the chatter of the slightly more industrious women and shouts and cries of children scuttling bare-feet in the dust. Sometimes I’d stop for a cold drink or to re-fuel from a rack of Samsong bottles unevenly filled with red petrol, paying what seemed to be arbitrary but fair prices.
On one occasion the girl on the back of my bike picked up what looked like a malnourished puppy that was wandering alone down a track and insisted upon doing the maternal thing. On the way back I needed some gas so I stopped in a small station that had a 44-gallon drum with a fat plastic tube sticking out the top. When the Thai attendant saw the pup his smile disappeared and he backed off, scowling and pointing to the drum. “Solly. No hab. Come back tommolow.” I gave the drum a light kick and it sounded a deep thud rather than a hollow clang indicating its fullness. I looked at him eyeing the dog and realised that it was his Muslim loathing of dogs that was the problem. He looked at me abashed, almost pleading. I smiled, nodded my understanding and said: “Okay, I come back tomorrow.” When I did in fact go back the following day by myself, he filled my tank, pumped up the tires and took to my bike with a grubby rag, shining up a storm. By my reckoning he under-charged me for the gas, too. I left him smiling and waving.
While Koh Lanta is set up for tourism, I sometimes got the sense that many Thais were somewhat oblivious to it and not directly reliant upon the tourist baht. Outside of the resorts the economy seemed to operate independently of tourists, which is no great surprise but something that those who check-in, sit by the pool or on the beach, and then check out, may fail to recognize. Many tourists are herded like buffalo into specific areas, milked of their money and then bused to the airport where one final five hundred baht payment used to be squeezed out for good measure on departure. I don’t miss that one. A few hours touring on a motorbike provides a very different perspective on island life. I particularly enjoyed trying as best as I could to get lost by following whatever side-roads and tracks I could find and pushing on until I couldn’t go any further. I’d always find a way back as I am a man and I don’t need maps. Maps are pointless; men don’t need them and women can’t read them. The enticement of random roaming beats the planned tour hands down and this approach has led me down some very interesting paths. Luckily I’m still alive to tell a few tales.
On the way back I sometimes stopped at one of the other beaches, often Klong Khong or Klong Nin, for a cold one in a beach bar. This way I got to check out the other beaches and discovered that with Phra Ae (Long Beach) I’d probably picked the best of them. Many of the other beaches were rocky and not great for swimming unless you fancy having a few toes sliced off. At low tide the amateur biologists and shell collectors were in heaven. The sea was always dead calm and I wiled many an hour away staring blankly towards the horizon, mulling things over.
I happened across a tree-house out in front of a bar where the local Thai pot-heads would shimmy up and down a tree for hits on a bong. I was invited up and managed to haul myself onto the platform with relative ease. Getting down was another matter after imbibing the local greenery, so I always ended up staying there for a few hours. If I didn’t smoke there then I’d roll one when I returned to my room from my daily motorbike adventures. Then I’d head out to ‘The Trap’ to enjoy the late afternoon sun and do some reading and philosophizing. Dubliners got traded for Don Quixote and I managed to giggle my way through it over a month of lazy beach afternoons. By the time the sun was setting, the beer, weed, heat and reading always had me heading back to my room for an hour-long nap to re-charge for the evening’s activities.
Despite being satisfied with the 25+ prawns I would find in Somporn’s Penang curry, I tried to get out of the resort for dinner as often as possible. Often the pair of divers who weren’t scheduled to be behind the bar on any given evening, would round a few more of us up, get on the bikes and head off somewhere else for food. Most menus were same same as most restaurants on the island supported resorts. There were very few stand-alone dining establishments, but one such place was “The Red Snapper,” near Klong Khong, operated by a Dutch couple who were pioneering decent Western cuisine on Koh Lanta. I had my first taste of Ostrich there, and on subsequent visits I could never decide between this and the beautifully tender duck breast. They also had a decent wine list and I was able to enjoy a nice Australian Chardonnay instead of the crappy Chianti on offer everywhere else. If we wanted a good solid Western meal, cooked proficiently but without expense, we’d head back up the road to Klong Dao, which sits between Saladan and Long Beach, and dine at Mr. Bean’s. Some people called him Bean, and some people called him Dean. Either way Dean Bean was a thoroughly nice man who always looked after his guests with great hospitality. He also did a superb English breakfast that I’d often go for if I woke up alone. On this, my first trip to Thailand, I was really enjoying experimenting with Thai food but every few days I’d have a craving for something that I might eat at home. Not much beats a good bacon sandwich or a medium / rare steak off the BBQ.
Once our gastronomic needs were met we would inevitably head back to “The Trap” and get started on that night’s festivities with a few bottles of Chang. Various people would start to roll in to enjoy the conversation and good music. The vibe was always friendly thanks to the laid-back atmosphere created by the divers and their ‘no problem, anything goes’ attitude. Over the month, people came and went and I enjoyed meeting such a diverse crowd. Among them was a rather intriguing man from Switzerland who claimed to have survived two plane crashes, two separate shootings, and most recently, stomach cancer. As a party trick he would lie on his back and invite all-comers to jump up and down on his stomach in order to prove that his innards were just fine now. Having witnessed this it was clear that his survival was largely due to a very strong mind / body connection. Unfortunately the body and mind shut down after consuming copious quantities of Chang one evening, leaving him comatose on the beach until sunrise. He spent the next few days nursing literally hundreds of red ant bites. Poor bastard. The Scandinavian contingent was in full force which allowed me to indulge in my love of tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed blondes. Even if I got a knock on the head and suffered severe amnesia I don’t think I could forget a few of these girls. Late in the evening when the crowd dwindled, we’d wander off down the beach in search of a party and rarely in vain. I think I drank more beer and smoked more pot during that month than before or since and yet for some reason I always felt in control. Nothing could touch me; nothing could go wrong. Lanta looked after me real good.
Every day I looked forward to these evenings sat around the bar or a bon-fire, conversing with travelers and flirting with beautiful women. It provided the ultimate escape for me at a time when I badly needed it. I fell into comfortable routines that allowed me the perfect mix of solitude, sex, sleep, companionship, conversation, friendship, cold beer, sticky weed, good food, sunshine and motorbike riding. The day I left was a sad one for me, but on that day I realized that I hadn’t really felt sad all month. As I hugged my friends goodbye on the jetty and stepped onto the ferry with tears in my eyes, I resolved that I would be back on Koh Lanta again one day. I made over a dozen subsequent trips to Thailand but it wasn’t for a full five years that I stepped off that ferry and back onto Lanta. When I did so, I couldn’t help but smile ruefully at the irony.
That's the sort of escape many dream of.