Greetings from Thailand!
My Thailand visit began on February 26th when I arrived in Bangkok to meet my friend Bob, who was flying in from Colorado for a three-week vacation. Now, for those of you who don’t know Bob, let me paint a brief and oversimplified picture: he has two kids, drives a minivan, and had never been out of the United States before this trip. Our mutual friends sent me e-mails in the preceding weeks asking me to “take it easy” on “little Bobby” and remember that he was a rookie and should not be subjected to too much rough stuff. What a laugh! By the end of Bob’s three weeks he was wearing a sharks tooth necklace and a silver hoop earring, dancing on tables in nightclubs and refusing to wear a shirt in restaurants, and he generally looked like he had been on the backpacker circuit for months, if not years. I, on the other hand, had committed all of the cardinal sins of a first-time traveler in Thailand: I’d lost my shoes and wallet in a drunken stupor on the beach, had a motorcycle accident, and been arrested. But we can get to all of that later.
Bangkok is generally a place that you don’t want to spend a lot of time in when you first arrive in Thailand. While it certainly doesn’t compare to Delhi in the “dirty and noisy” category, or even to Kathmandu, it still is not a place to hang your hat if you are planning to head south to the islands or north to trekking country. Since we were planning to do both, we spent only two days in the big city, sampling the local restaurants and visiting the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaew, which are two of the most spectacular sights in Bangkok. Thais are primarily Theravada Buddhists, a different school of Buddhism from Nepal, Bhutan and India. I missed the Indian subcontinent at first – Thailand was hot and very touristy, and I longed to have the mountains back. But I soon adapted. It was interesting to note that the Thai temples (called Wats) were much glitzier and less historic looking, done up in gold and decorated with pieces of sparkling glass and elaborate paintings, and filled with buddha statues made of precious metals. We had only one afternoon of sightseeing, however (drastically shortened by the fact that we could not seem to figure out either the Skytrain system or the river ferry system, and kept going the wrong way or getting on the wrong boat/train), before leaving for the islands on a first class overnight train. Even getting to the train station was a fiasco as we spent too much time in a bar beforehand and then faced rush hour traffic (me shouting to a cab driver: “I’ll give you 600 bhat to get us to our hotel and back to the train station! And 700 bhat if we actually make our train on time!”) I had wanted to impress Bob with what a worldly and competent traveler I had become during my five months on the road. So much for that. I’m sure he was really impressed when I lost my shoes and wallet, too.
Our first island was Ko Tao, known for being the best island for diving. While Bob took a four-day PADI certification course I spent a couple of days exploring the island on foot, and another couple days diving. Ko Tao is a fairly small island, somewhat rustic but also recently built up for western tourists, particularly divers. The roads are mostly dirt and the accommodation generally consists of simple beach bungalows and concrete block hotels, where you can get a free or very cheap room if you’re taking a dive course. Ko Tao also seems to be the place for western backpackers who have decided to stay somewhere for a while. People come, do a few dives, decide to become divemasters-in-training (DMT’s), and end up not leaving for months, or even years. We met and hung out with quite a few people on the island including a young backpacker named Nick from Colorado, three Dutch guys from Bob’s class, and several DMT’s from England. The Dutch guys were particularly amusing. One of them, John, in a drunken attempt to portray his contempt for religious war, shouted on the beach one night: “I believe in the wooden chair! You believe in the wooden table! So we are not friends!” I will not soon forget that line.
We quickly developed a taste for Thai food, which is fabulous once you get used to handling some pretty spicy stuff, and we generally had people to go out to dinner with every night. One night we also went to the local nightclub and stayed out dancing until way past my usual bedtime, which was still 10 pm at this point. I think that’s when the trouble started.
My own dives were fraught with anxiety, as usual; on my first day, I was designated a problem child and paired up with the divemaster and had to abort one dive because of a ridiculous problem with my mask. Some of the reefs, however, were beautiful and well worth the trouble. I swam into caves for the first time and saw a giant sea turtle and many trigger fish, which are colorful but slightly cantankerous fish peculiar to Thailand. Bob cruised through his dive course with no problem and even started talking about becoming a divemaster himself. I think it was about this time that he bought his sharks tooth necklace.
Our next island was Ko Pha Ngang, famous for its monthly full moon parties, in which thousands of young backpackers descend on the island from all over the world to take drugs and rage to techno music on the beach until sunrise. Our timing was not right to hit one of the full moon parties, which is probably a good thing, since I managed to get in enough trouble without it. We rented a bungalow on the beach of Haad Rin, where the parties are held, and which is lined with bars on the beach, tanned volleyball players, topless girls, and Thai fire dancers. A beach bungalow with air-con and a private bathroom is typically only about $20 in Thailand—if you can do without air-con, it is half that, and if you can do without a private bathroom you can get by on $2 or $3 per night. We also rented two dirt bikes. I had a little bit of discomfort about that because everyone knows motorcycle accidents are the leading cause of death in Thailand. On Ko Tao, some of the longer-term travelers told us that many foreigners (called “farangs” by the Thais) had accidents, and their scars were called “Ko Tao tatoos.” I decided I was being a wimp, however, and rented a bike anyway so that we could get around and do some hiking in the interior of the island.
Our second night on the island we managed to drink so much that we still don’t know what happened. Bob went to find a bathroom and got lost. He had the key to the bungalow, and, I thought, my wallet. I slept on a bench until 2:00 am, then went out to find Bob wandering drunkenly and aimlessly on the beach, looking for me, pursued by a parade of persistent Thai hookers. He didn’t have my wallet. A dispute ensued about who had it last. We still have not resolved that one, although I certainly lost points in the morning when it was discovered that my shoes were gone too. Lest you think that move was stupider than it really is, let me inform you that all restaurants, shops and bars in Thailand make you take off your shoes at the door.
Cranky but still partying, we went on to the next island, Ko Samui. Samui is probably the most touristy island in Thailand; the hotels are more expensive, the beach more built up, and the crowd older and wealthier. To get there we took a rough ferry that was lots of fun as it plunged through huge waves and soaked us from head to toe. We stayed only one night, rented another beach bungalow, and had a hard time choosing between the many inviting-looking seafood restaurants right on the beach. They all featured carts with fresh fish; you would point to the particular fish you wanted and have it grilled by the chef right in front of you. We had another late night in the techno clubs of Samui where hookers once again abounded, and in one place they danced on the bar, but fortunately we did not lose anything, or each other, this time. Then there was an extremely hung-over early morning flight back to Bangkok, where we connected to a flight north, to the city of Chiang Mai. I was still without new sandals at this point and tried to get away with getting on the plane barefoot but was finally reprimanded at the security check of Samui’s open-air airport. I have to say, however, that a point in Thailand’s favor is that I could get that far (over the course of two days!) without wearing shoes.
Chiang Mai is about 700k north of Bangkok and is considered one of the main centers for booking trekking trips to local hill tribe villages, as well as a great place to shop for local handicrafts and tailor-made clothing. We planned to stay there for one week and then return to Bangkok for a final weekend before Bob’s departure on the 18th. Because I was too hungover to have any patience, we checked into a boring package tourist hotel called the Diamond Riverside, which I instantly hated, but which has unfortunately now become my new home. We spent two days checking out the city, visiting some wats, and shopping at the little stalls of the famous night bazaar, where a person with good bargaining skills can get fantastic deals on local clothing and handicrafts. We had a suit and dress custom-made at a local tailor for a fraction of what it would have cost in the U.S. On the third day, we did a one-day trek with a guide named Batman, who was very knowledgeable and took us to two hill tribe villages: one Karen village, the largest tribe in Thailand and descended from the Burmese, and one Mon village, descended from Tibet. The villages that allow farangs have become quite touristy and sell various crafts and services, but it is still interesting to see how they live. Some villages are far from any roads and are fairly cut off from Thai society, although others now can gain Thai citizenship if they wish. They are fourth-world people that live in simple bamboo huts, where you can stay overnight if you book a multi-day trek, and they subsist primarily on rice, chicken and pork they cultivate themselves. But they also weave clothing and make jewelry for tourists, and some have motorcycles for getting down out of the hills. Their culture is clearly in the midst of a major transition.
We also had a brief elephant ride and a bamboo-rafting trip during our hill tribe tour. The rafting was fun, as the boatman did not seem to have any problem with us running up and down the raft, crashing into rocks, and falling off the boat. In the U.S. they would have made us sit down, I’m sure of it.
We found northern Thai cuisine to be a bit different than southern and we got interested in learning to do some of it, so after our hill tribe tour Bob took a one-day cooking class. I was not feeling well that day, but later in the week I also took a different course with the same school and found it to be a blast. I am planning to take further cooking classes next week. Thai cooking, if you like spicy, is a great thing to know how to do—it consists mainly of curries, noodles and seafood, and is incredibly varied considering how few ingredients and what simple cooking techniques are used.
On the last normal day of the trip we rented dirt bikes again and drove about 70k south to a national park which contained the highest peak in Thailand: Doi Inthernon, at about 7000 feet. I had a bad feeling about renting bikes again, but since I did it on Ko Pha Ngang and nothing happened, I ignored it. Once inside the park we visited a waterfall, then drove to the top of the mountain to see two beautiful Buddhist stupas (another kind of temple) with immaculately landscaped flower gardens and views of the surrounding mountains. On the way back down we decided to take a different route, since the highway had been boring and full of fuming, speeding trucks. An officer at the police check in the park warned us the roads were bad, but we figured since we had dirt bikes it didn’t matter. Most of the route was beautiful, winding down through the mountains on a dirt road and in dense forest, and we enjoyed it until it got dark and it seemed like it was taking too long. Just as we had stopped getting worried, because we seemed to be starting to approach civilization, I saw Bob fishtailing in front of me; I had no idea know why, since there didn’t appear to be anything in front of us. Then suddenly, I slammed into something and felt myself launch off the bike and fly through the air, landing in a bush on the side of the road.
To be continued…