So, is it terribly unfair of me to devote only one meager little post to the entire country of Thailand? A thousand years of relatively glorious history, a relatively booming economy and relatively happy people squished into a few silly paragraphs? Call it Khao San poisoning, but in my not so humble opinion, Thailand has finally jumped the shark as a backpacker destination. There’s plenty of room in the comments section, gentle 6 (my pet name for the readers of this blog), so have at me. First, the good stuff.
Bara and I planned this trip together as our honeymoon, in our accomplished style, nearly 6 months ago. As we saw my family off from the Prague airport, we wandered past the Turkish airlines ticket office, drawn by a red LED sign advertising Bangkok flights. We booked it that day and finally paid the tickets off sometime in November. A little shou out to Turkish Airlines, by the way – thanks to the friendliness of a sortof lonesome looking Turkish guy staffing the window nearly every time Bara and I came back to extend our reservation, I will NEVER EVER again book a ticket online. It was cheaper, easier and so much more friendly to deal with a live person. Anyway, we booked a dive liveaboard, packed our useless stuff and got on the plane.
After a whirlwind of transfers – from busses to planes to taxis to busses to planes, we kicked the dust off our boots in Khao Lak at ten pm three days later. Our friends Jarrod and Olessya were already cheacked in, having spent a week or two wandering the North of Thailand, and they had the little town all sussed out. We could eat seafood or try the seafood. We opted for the seafood, then passed out in our suspiciously luxurious AC double bed room. This was the first thing I noticed – gone were the bungalows with shared toilets and showers. Out with the dreadlocked pan-European dopesmokers, in with the 80 SPF crew. I wrote it off to the area – a touch off point for most of the rather pricey Similan/Surin liveaboard trips and dug into some massive shrimp.
Of course, travelers come in all shapes, scents and sizes. Indeed, most of the “true” travelers we’d met in the himalaya were young French families and an older sort of Norman Lewis set. The hippies are tedious to hang out with and almost never have anything interesting to offer, aside from tales of dubious enlightenment got to at the end of some pipe or other and constant brinksmanship regarding how little money they’d spent as compared to me, for example.
With the ink barely dry on Bara’s PADI certificate we surrendered our sandals and wobbled onboard Sea Dragon’s “Andaman” to spend five days searching for stuff most people think of as good food. It was fantastic, and I enjoyed every minute onboard, apart from an initial muck-up over our bunk assignment which was quickly and quietly rectified by the crew. I can’t remember who to name drop, but Wellington, I think. The crew of divers sure drank enough to put the fear of god into me. Christmas saw the videographer painted up like a South-seas devil, playing an earnest game of shithead with the Thai crew well into the wee hours. It was fantastic, really. Underwater, the entire team was absolutely pro, effortlessly guiding us all over the reefs of the Similan and Surin Island groups, touted as “one of the best sites in the world”. We didn’t see any of the big guys Jarrod and I were hoping for – no sharks or Manta Rays this time – probably due to some lady voodoo Bara and Olessya muttered over their breakfasts but we saw heaps of turtles, Octopi, eels aplenty and an Emperor fish as big as a VW beetle. Some of the dives were marred by strong currents, but we rolled along with it, sometimes drifting over 3 different sites during one 50 minute dive.
Sea Dragon breaks their groups up into maximum 4 person teams, each led by an experienced diver. Lucky Deo, the only Thai Instructor on board, got our crew, for which he suffered like a regular Buddha. A wicked current and about 3 meter visability on one of our Surin dives led to our group getting seperated, with Deo accompanying Bara, who’d been a little slower to descend through the murk than the rest of us. At 30 meters, Jarrod, Olessya and I huddled together, holding onto rocks to keep from getting swept away and trying to signal Deo with my flashlight. I heard Jarrod through his bubbles, “OOOOOOOOPEEEEEN WAAAAAAATTTTRRRRR DUUUUUUDE!!!” and was starting to try to recall the map of the site we’d studied on the surface when along came Neil, the boat supervisor, with his group of precise Germans aligned precisely behind him like a school of Chinese schoolkids on a field trip. He counted us up and asked me where our guide was. I shrugged – pointed up to the murk and did my best to look scared. He signaled that we should surface and look for them, a communication the three of us were determined not to understand. I indicated that Deo was with Bara and they were OK, and made some motions that maybe we could follow him. He agreed and we swam off, only to run into Deo and Bara about two minutes later – Deo towing Bara valiantly against the current. Rules were broken, KP was awarded, but everyone pulled out of it safely. Despite knowing what we SHOULD have done, me and Jarrod agreed: never abandon a perfectly good dive instructor. Sorry Deo and Neil 😦
The res of the trip passed without any undue excitement and we decided to shift our New Years plan from rainy Ko Phangan to sunny Ko Lanta, following most of the passengers south. Ko Lanta that Jarrod remembered from his impromptu visit in the wake of the Tsunami, was a cheap, laid back little island very similar to what I remember of Ko Tao on the Eastern coast. These days things have changed, lke everywhere in Thailand. Bamboo bungalows are being phased out in favor of the “luxury” resort style concrete huts with televisions and AC. AC is, in my opinion, a despicable addiction and who the hell wants to watch cable TV on an idyllic tropical island? Pondering that, we plopped down our 1200 Bhat for a hut, happy to have somewhere to park it for a few days and enjoy the New Year festivities. As it’s been scrubbed of most nastiness, Thailand has become THE adventure destination for retired British couples and noisy tour groups, predominantly Scandinavian on Ko Lanta. Unfortunately, the Thais have responded as sensible businessmen, quickly converting beachfront hammocks to platformed dining areas with hard teak chairs cobbled from the raped forests of Laos. Everything is fancy in a place where nature makes a mockery of fancy, but we enjoyed ourselves anyway – eating like swine at a few of the more staid restaurants and celebrating the New Year by making a short film about the adventures of Mr. Tuckle. More on that when I get back to the editing station… Especially worthwhile was a trip Bara and I took with two Canadian friends from the boat – Brett and Heather. We rented scooters and braved the mountains of the inner island to explore the old village of Ko Lanta and the National Park at the Southern toe of the island. Watching a brown eagle hunt for crabs along the muddy, rocky beach from our perch in a treehouse bar was a real highlight of the island experience.
For anyone looking to relax on Ko Lanta, make a reservation at Somewhere Else on Long Beach, just south of the port. Happy little bungalows still prevail there, nestled in the grass beneath massive palms. A disturbing new trend has developed down south that leads most bungalow owners to claim that their places are full when you contact them online – or not to reply to your requests at all. This is nonsense – the international collapse of the consumerist swine has left most of Thailand’s “luxury” resorts practically empty and the ruse is intended to build up interest in an area. Kindof backwards, but whatever. Evidently, it’s working, and driving prices up as service declines.
With Jarrod and Olessya off to a sort of horrifying “cleanse” on Ko Samui and the Canadians heading South to Ko Lipe for some isolation thrapy before returning to work in a Saigon school, Bara and I decided to head North to the Golden Triangle. This is where it starts to get a bit grumpy… Anyone who wants to experience the Thailand of sunny smiles and honest service AVOID anything mentioned in the Lonely Planet books while traveling through Bangkok and Chiang Mai. All of the places I remembered fondly from my first trip had been hopelessly sunk. Miserably, unfriendly staff do their best to ignore the “cheap” patrons they got stuck with as a result of the book. Everyone is pissy and the experience, in a big city like Bangkok especially, is just downright disappointing. In Chiang Mai it was just as bad, with most guesthouse staff glued to their television sets and extremely disinterested even in peeling themselves away long enough to sell something. There’ll always be another tourist, of course, so why bother much? It’s just sort of sad, but I guess it’ll take some years before people work out that it’s easy enough to avoid these places in the sea of Thai offerings. Someone, eventually, will also realize that it pays to try harder.
Due to my stupid stomach, Bara agreed to take a driving tour of the Golden Triangle, which ended up being a nice little trip away from the Fair Trade Boutiquishness of Chiang Mai and a peek into the manic zones where the borders beteen Laos, Thailand and Burma fray. Chinese merchants, descendants of Chang Kai Shek’s Nationalist Chinese army who escaped Mao’s forces by crossing into Thailand, do a massive trade with Thais out for cheaply manufactured Chinese crap hustled down the Mekon. Burmese children swim accross the river to play with their Thai friends, leaving worried parents on the bank – a tantalizing 50 meters away. From a vantage point at the peak of Mae Song you can look out over the two rivers and the Burmese town over the bridge. Low concrete buildings huddle close to the banks, unlike the soaring Thai buildings around us, lit up with neon signs and Pepsi ads. Beneath us, the markets bustle with color and noise – four or five different languages accompany the goods being slogged off on everyone and noone in particular. On the far bank, only a few cars meander in from the hills and the street life is tiny, desaturated clumps. It must be a long 50 meters indeed. Bara and I shuddered as an Austrian busmate discussed the possibility of crossing into Myanmar to get a stamp in his passport. Whatever money the border guards collect goes directly into the hands of the swine who have been terrorizing that poor country for decades. Our Thai guide said something about how much time it could take, de-fusing the situation, and herded us back into the bus for our last haul of the day – up the hills to visit a “Real Live Hill Tribe Village”.
Utter nonsense, of course, the village was actually a refugee camp for Karen villagers driven out of Myanmar. While the long-neck women posed for photos I sat around in aloof grumpiness on a bench at the far side of the encampment thinking again of Norman Lewis and the Southeast Asia that is long, long gone. I wondered quite a bit about what I might see in Cambodia and Laos in the coming weeks. A news program playing from a radio in the schoolhouse broadcasted a report about Gaza in Thai – I could only make out an occasional “Gaza” or “Israel” – and I figured that, at the very least, there were far worse refugee camps in the world to be stuck in. Here, the Thai government makes an effort, however minimal, to let the people they are sheltering retain their culture, stories and way of life. They allow it to become a zoo of sorts, but fat ladies with cameras are a far lesser evil than teenaged imbeciles and cynical gangsters armed with American weaponry.
Safely delivered from the falling darkness and the clutches of the savages, Bara and I meandered through the night bazaar in Chiang Mai. She waded through potential gifts for friends and family and I ended up sucking down cans of Chang at Mike’s, a Grease-style burger joint that’s taken over the city like Kudzu. We were off to Bangkok again the next day – Bara back home to teach and me to huddle in a quiet corner of Kao San road to read books about the seige of Khe Sanh and the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. We were swallowed up slowly by the sound of the wooden frogs ubiquitous throughout Thailand. Hello Frog? Frog, no thank you. Hello Frog? No Goddamned Frog, Thank You!