Thailand - our beach-binging spell
Koh Samui - rain, cats and dogs
One obligatory constant that any sane person would take for granted for a beach vacation is sunshine. Well, there we were at the pier at Surat Thani about to take our ferry to Koh Samui, facing an almost surreal rain. Without a trace of exaggeration, what we saw was one of the worst storms in our life: there was no horizon – just one gray mass of liquid, with the torrents of water from above meeting the sea below. It was so scary I could hardly believe they could have ferries circulating at that time. Strikingly enough, they did, so when ours finally arrived all of us climbed on board this vessel which was shaking so violently we had to hold on to rails all the time. For the next two hours I was busy staying very focused to overcome the bouts of sea-sickness and Jordi was watching the waves breaking against the very top of the ferry, with splashes of foamy water covering the highest deck (I have to take his word for it but most probably that’s how it was since the shaking was extremely rough and despite my best efforts fighting off the sea-sickness, surrender was inevitable).
If we were hoping that this kind of weather was a horrible exception for our first day in the South, our hopes were brutally dispelled within the next few days in Koh Samui, as rain was all we had, torrents and torrents of it, with lightning powerful enough to scare not only cats and dogs but human-beings. After the briefest moments of sunshine when we were thinking that the sky must have exhausted its yearly supply of rainfall by then, it would start raining again, harder than before.
The day we arrived, our usual ritual of checking a few hotels for prices/conditions was more challenging than usual: not only were we soaked through to the skin but the roads were flooded up to the knee level. Anyway, after checking a couple of places, we managed to get a substantial discount in one of them (by promising to stay longer than most guests) and that was the beginning of our “Lucky Mother” period. Not sure whether that’s the official explanation of the hotel’s funny title (we never had a proper chance to ask about it), but we do agree that the “mother” of this hotel must indeed feel very lucky... – she had 37 cats and about 6 small dogs! The cats are very cute and cuddly, most of them Persians or short-hair types, and one of them was even like a red-haired version of our Baloo. Apart from being a cat paradise, “Lucky Mother” is a collection of extremely clean and cozy bungalows with direct access to the very long Chaweng beach.
So in the end rain, cats and dogs, and a very cozy room put some kind of spell on us, making us slip into a very comfortable routine for the next two weeks. It was the longest we had ever stayed in the same place ever since we started our trip in May 2010. Every day we would wake up pretty late to the lulling sound of the rain, then use the break from the rain to go for a jog on the beach and a swim, then read books or spend some time cracking the cubic Rubik, then go eat delicious suki-yaki soup at the same local eatery, then enjoy an idle evening in our hotel’s restaurant listening to the same Bob Marley CD every day and looking at the sea and occasional lanterns going up the sky, then going out in the same “Green Mango” club and dancing there despite the monstrous DJ-ing (they would have been much better off with some DJ software than the human version of it!) till very late at night, then stopping for a noodle soup at the only stall in the area always crowded with the lady-boys finishing their night shift, then running to the hotel through the new attack of torrential rain and going to sleep at dawn to wake up around noon next day to start the new cycle.
During our daily strolls through the same street full of shops and cafes, we discovered that almost every single shop-assistant in the island is from Myanmar, the “uncovering” trick being Jordi’s longyi. As he would walk along the street wearing this Burmese garment, guys would greet him in Burmese, ask him if he knew what he was wearing and on getting an affirmative answer, engage in a long chat with us. That’s how we learnt that so many of them are from Myanmar, they come to Thailand to make money for their families, and yes, they would love to wear a longyi but they cannot since the police would want to check their non-existent passports...
Apart from Burmese immigrants, the other two very distinct “labour” groups making money in this island are lady-boys and “lady-girls” (the latter is my own gentler term for the world’s oldest profession). We did see a striking number of incredibly tall and skinny lady-boys walking along the main “promenade” either luring the customers to the lady-boy cabaret or somewhere else more private, which does make you wonder why there are so many of them in Thailand? My best guess would be that maybe you simply see all of them in the streets which makes it look like “so many”, since it’s more difficult for them to get a normal job in Thailand than elsewhere in the world, employers here not being exactly open-minded. A curious piece of information we got from LP is that on top of all the trouble finding a normal job there is a real nuisance regarding their passport: it states “male” since in Thailand the definition of a female is “a person who can bear children” but they look like females – go figure how they could ever pass any passport check...
As to the lady-girls, they are the predominant social group in all the going-out places. You see most of them “attached” to a foreign guy, day after day fulfilling their part of this curious girlfriend-boyfriend game (sort of “Pretty Woman” the Thai way). The rest are in the stage of engaging a single guy who just arrived and hasn’t got a “girlfriend” yet. They do this engaging so innocently that we actually know a guy who honestly thought he met a beautiful Thai girl who simply liked him and was truly indignant when after some great time together she started to tell him the rates...
Days kept passing: we already cracked the cubic Rubik (quite an achievement since we accomplished this relying purely on our own brain and pattern-recognition capacity, and not the algorithms available on the internet), Jordi was almost finishing his “Anna Karenina”, but we still couldn’t make up our mind when to leave Lucky Mother. In the end the only reason we finally did was... the moon cycles! Funnily enough, in Thailand these cycles have a total new meaning, affecting not just women but also men... through the very famous moon parties, with the most notorious of them taking place in Koh Pha-Ngan. Since the moon was getting rounder and rounder, we knew it must be almost time to move on to the party island, so with a sigh of sadness we said bye to the “mother” and her cats and moved on to Koh Pha-Ngan.
Koh Pha-Ngan - buckets, party and straws
This island crashed on us with all the power of its enormous rum-cola-redbull buckets and electric parties with fire limbo at the beach. Before coming here, we honestly didn’t know what to expect and were prepared to be disappointed should the fame be bigger than the actual thing, but it wasn’t... Anything you might have heard about the Koh Pha-Ngan Full Moon Party is true, at least it was under the moon that was shining over our party. It was great fun, with the beach full of very drunk and very happy people wearing ultra-bright clothes and covered in various patterns of moon paint, swaying to the music of multiple bars while getting their buckets regularly refilled, with extra heat and adrenaline-rush of the party coming from the incredible fire limbo (it’s like normal limbo but the rope is on fire!!!). And the best thing about it is that unlike in other islands where they forcedly switch off the music at around 3-4 am, here in Koh Pha-Ngan your energy is the only limit...
Straws and lots of other plastic
Our Full Moon Party lasted well into the next day, but had a very unexpected turn around sunrise that started with a... straw! At some stage as we were taking a break from all the dancing and fire shows and wandering through the beach, I noticed a guy with a huge plastic bag full of straws. This Burmese guy was frantically picking up these tiny plastic objects which by that stage of the party were almost as numerous on the beach as sand grains. Somehow the sight of him cleaning up the mess after the happily oblivious tourists made us realize that for people like him the full moon party meant simply an overwhelming amount of cleaning work rather than fun... We only intended to make a symbolic contribution of a few straws but somehow ended up cleaning the whole beach for the next couple of hours. By the time we finished, we collected so many straws, plastic bottles and other rubbish that if for every item they paid us a cent we would probably be able to add an extra country to the current trip list :). It was a very unique experience which started on an impulse and took us on a journey to the “other side” of the party. We learnt that people (especially drunk and single guys) are very easily ignited into action (even if it’s something as non-glamorous as collecting straws), as many of them were approaching us to contribute a straw or two, some sticking around for a short while and one of them – Peter from Australia – for as long as it took us to finish. We also learnt that for some people all this party is just a way to make money for their families back in Myanmar (one of them burst into tears on Jordi’s shoulder when talking about his family and how long he hadn’t seen them). During all this beach cleaning we had to take special care not to hurt ourselves with the tiny treacherous needles sticking out of the remnants of what used to be pretty floating candle structures that both locals and tourists were putting on the sea the previous evening to sail away their sins. (This festival takes place once a year on the day of the 12th moon and coincided with our full moon party). Well, not sure how something that becomes so monstrous when it disintegrates can wash away anybody’s sins, but as the sea spat out these remnants the next morning, the beach looked like an aftermath of some woo-doo party... well, luckily we didn’t get hurt or scratched. As the sun was slowly rising over the beach we took long moments to just stand there and marvel at all of it... very zen...
We celebrated the successfully completed beach cleaning by taking a swim, all three of us (me, Jordi and Peter), and by the time we got out we found all our clothes and shoes washed away (we didn’t realise the tide would come so fast). We managed to recover some of it (I had to wear Jordi’s T-shirt and Jordi had to use sandals he found on the beach) and considered the rest the ransom that the sea takes from Full Moon partiers... It was definitely one of the most unforgettable experiences of our life.
"I know I can sleep safe here 'cause I've got such a great camouflage" :-)
German girl, British guys and Thai police
The day after the Full Moon party we went to the room, picked some things and came back to the same beach only to fall asleep. The beach was very quiet (weirdly enough, even the usually big waves were gone, so it looked like both people and the sea were taking a rest). But it turned out that within the same 24 hours we would have yet another experience from the “karma” series... In the evening as we were taking a quiet walk through the streets of this small island, a British guy approached us asking if we understood any German. Warning him that my knowledge of this language was really rusty (in the sense I could hardly speak it any more) but that I could understand it, we asked what the problem was. It turned out they found a German girl badly beaten by supposedly her husband so they took her to emergency centre but they couldn’t understand what she was saying and had no idea what to do with her. So we followed the guy to the centre and for the next couple of hours joined them in “nursing” the girl. Not that my German was of any real use (due to being drugged, drunk or both she spoke gibberish rather than any specific language, and when she was speaking German she was simply repeating what she had previously said in English) but we tried our best to help the guys. After taking her to an Internet cafe so that she could call her mother (she did speak to her but it looked like a really weird conversation), we managed to get her write down the name of her hotel and convince her to go to the police so that she could get professional help in dealing with her violent husband. The funny coincidence was that it was the second time in the same day that Jordi saw the girl and he turned out to be the only one of us who also had seen her husband – as he was talking to one of our Burmese “colleagues” on the beach that morning, he saw a fight with one of the participants being the husband of the German girl... Anyway, as we told the Thai police about the situation, they didn’t seem to care much about the whole thing (mentioning something like it wasn’t the first time they saw the girl) and advising us to take contact with tourist police on Koh Samui. But when the British guys mentioned that according to the girl her husband was regularly dealing hasj on the beach, they immediately sprang to action: two of them took handcuffs and went to look for the guy... We were told to go and that they would send for the girl if they found the husband. They were pretty fast as about half an hour later a guy came to fetch us. The meeting of the husband and wife was a tiny glimpse into one of those personal dramas that fill this world: she was still very drugged and very hysteric, the guy was very sober and very quiet (totally changed from when he was fighting at the beach), she first tried to run away then threw herself upon the husband, he didn’t move a muscle or display any emotion, she started beating him, the police dragged her away to a cell and that’s where we left the police station... From the bits and pieces of information we gleaned in the time we spent with this German girl, her husband beats her regularly, they have a 2-year-old daughter who was at that time with her grandmother (or maybe lives with her permanently), the girl doesn’t do anything back in Germany (and doesn’t have any education) and if we were to fill in the gaps – is probably totally dependent on the guy. He beats her now and then, she loves him. She is probably a drug addict, he is probably a drug dealer... Such a weird real-life movie-like story...
Koh Tao - PADI production line
After Koh Pha-Ngan we were ready to take a rest somewhere quiet from all the buckets and partying and Koh Tao was a perfect place to do it. It’s a relatively quiet island which focuses almost all its business grip on aspiring divers, which in its turn makes it the biggest PADI Open Water certifications factory in the world. Since it’s supposed to be one of the best places in Thailand to dive, we decided to check for ourselves and signed in for a fun dive. Well, with the visibility quite bad and nothing striking about the dive location we finished the dive quite disappointed.
Our cute sandman:
But spending some time in the diving community was nice for a change, and we enjoyed listening to stories about how people ended up in the PADI “production line” here on Koh Tao. One story was particularly curious since the beginning was like ours but the end... well, we don’t know ours yet :). Anyway, once upon a time there was a couple who decided to go on a round-the-world trip. They started in Australia and travelled Asia and then came to Thailand, and were passing through Koh Tao, and tried diving. And the guy liked it a lot, so he did his advanced course, and then the rescue. And then the centre where they were diving offered him a dive-master course, and one day they simply asked him if he would want to work for them. Since he liked it, they “lost” their flight tickets for the rest of the world trip, he got certified as an instructor, and has been teaching people in Koh Tao ever since... This “ever since” is not more, not less than 8 years! In all this time that the guy was in the picture what happened to the girl? Well, she went back to England, got a nice office job, and according to him “they are now both doing great in their own way”... It’s all a matter of perspective of course, since as we found out the most hard-working instructor in Koh Tao is earning about 600 euro, rents a place for about 100 and spends/saves the rest, but is working in a beautiful island. As to the office career of his girlfriend, we all know what the pros and cons are... Well, this is just a little sketch about the usual money/beach life dilemma and how one couple resolved it for themselves.
Jordi opening a coconut that fell from a palm tree "Robinson Crusoe" style:
As to us, since we also still need to get the beach career out of our system, we are actually considering coming back to Koh Tao: Jordi would teach diving and I would either get a dive master and join him or do something else fun. However, one thing we know for sure – in our case this would only be a short (about 4-months) break from our round-the-world trip. The diving model in this island is that almost all instructors are freelancers and work with all the centres of the island. They get 20% of the money from each certification and have to be very flexible, as the centre will sometimes call them half an hour before the course would start asking if they are available. The higher the flexibility, the more calls they will keep getting. Tough as it may sound, Jordi is willing to give it a try, so we left his CVs in all the diving shops of Koh Tao, talked to all the managers and the idea is that if we are back to the island they would start calling him for the Spanish-speaking groups.
The Beach was our next destination after Koh Tao. Ambitious as this name may sound, that’s a perfectly befitting title for the Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi Leh. We went there for a day trip and, despite the distracting mental flashes of scenes from “The Beach” movie, managed to have our own “perfect beach” day. There were no horrible sharks like the ones that ate the Swedish guys in the movie, but I did get bitten by some very aggressive fishes while snorkelling at one of the bays. The biggest surprise was how small the island is compared to the image created in our minds by the movie, and... how much nicer it is in real life (even with all the numerous boats delivering even more numerous tourists).
The pictures below were taken at the Monkey Bay and the Viking Cave on our day trip to Koh Phi-Phi Leh:
The pictures from The Beach:
During the time of our visit to the Beach we stayed at its “big brother” - Koh Phi Phi Don, which is big enough to accommodate all the hotels, restaurants and bars that the never-ceasing crowd of backpackers demands. One funny coincidence of our stay on this island is that we ran twice into the same British guys who found the German girl on Koh Pha-Ngan. As we were chatting with them, they mentioned that they had just come back from Railay where they’d been doing some climbing. Since Jordi really likes climbing and I enjoyed it the two times I tried it with him in Spain, we decided to check for ourselves this “climbing paradise”.
Far-from-smooth bus drive to Railay
So off we went to Railay. On the way there we decided to make a stop-over at Phuket, to check this super-touristy place and on confirming the worst expectations we had about it, continued on to Railay. It wasn’t a smooth journey... When we were purchasing our ticket in Phuket, we were promised a direct trip by minivan that would take a few hours. What happened in reality is that we changed 3 minivans and were finally delivered at some big office of this transport company, where a lot of tourists were waiting for their next connection. We had been waiting for almost an hour so I wanted to ask the company when we would have our next bus. But since we realised that our driver had taken our tickets, we first tried to get those tickets back so that we could talk to the managers with tickets at hand. However when I asked the driver for the tickets he told us something unintelligible in Thai and since we kept insisting he gestured something like “wait” and in the meantime kind of ran away and hid himself somewhere. By that time our running-after-the-driver game attracted the attention of the manager and he asked what happened. I told him that the driver wouldn’t give the tickets back and that we were waiting for very long to get our bus to Railay. He told me that the tickets had been given away by the driver at some company checkpoint “like they always do” and that they had just shipped a whole minibus of people to Railay so now for the two of us he would need to arrange a new one but that meant that we had to wait till some other bus comes back etc. etc. In our turn, I explained to him the basics of customer rights (mainly, how the ticket is the customer’s only proof of having completed a purchase, and how the customer should always be able to keep his copy, and how it’s wrong for a company to have a process where they use this sacred customer copy to do something internally so that eventually the customer ticket is lost long before his/her multi-van journey is completed, and how without such a copy we couldn’t go to the police in case a certain transport company would fail to deliver us at our destination due to a faulty business process... After our a bit heated 5-minute discussion, the manager suddenly signalled off to our driver (who by that time was recovered from his hiding place) to take us to the minivan, and 15 minutes later we were delivered at the pier from which a boat took us to Railay.
Railay - the climbing paradise
On arriving to Railay, we had to walk a long way through the shallow sea to reach the shore (there was no pier), and afterwards – even a longer walk via a very steep path to Ton Sai on the other side of the town. The next two days we spent marveling at the walls and climbers, and trying to decide whether we should go for a climbing adventure or not. Why the hesitation? Well, the place was awesome – gorgeous scenery, great prepared walls of many different levels (so some suitable for beginners like me), really nice atmosphere with an insane amount of climbing maniacs all assembled in one place performing incredible feats on all those karst peaks. We wouldn’t have hesitated for a second in joining them, were it not for the price of doing so: hiring equipment and a guide was really expensive. So after a lot of painful thinking we let the pebbles decide: both of us drew a black one from the black-and-white pair so it was a unanimous pebble “No”. Sad as we were to miss the chance to have a view over Railay while hanging on the climbing rope, we decided that one day we will come back for a couple of weeks with our own equipment and have a super intensive climbing experience.
Climbers, climbers everywhere:
Kids on the beach:
Koh Lanta - waves, coconuts and sunsets
Our next and last beach was the Long Beach of Koh Lanta. We arrived at this island with an idea to either stay a few days and leave for Trang islands or if we like it a lot, just stay till we needed to go to Hat Yai to catch our flight to Kuala Lumpur. We did like it, so we stayed and had a really great time enjoying our new routine a-la Koh Samui: waking up late, going for a jog at the beach, having a coconut and a 7-Eleven coffee for breakfast, afterwards taking our books and spending the rest of the day on the beach, swimming, playing in the waves, brainstorming about different things and watching the very beautiful sunsets, afterwards going to eat some very delicious noodle or curry soup and green papaya salad from the same local canteen, and after dinner having a very quiet evening in the beautiful garden of our hotel watching a couple of series of our favourite “Two and a Half Men” via seriesyonkies.com and reading...
Our "Clean Beach Resort":
The Long Beach:
The coconut shop and Jordi's favourite noodle soup:
Eight days that we had passed so fast, that here I am now sitting in our hotel in Hat Yai typing all this in the past tense...
Tomorrow we leave for Malaysia: we will first fly to Kuala Lumpur and then without leaving the airport – on to Borneo. Our first stop is Kuching – the city of cats (mostly wooden but I am hoping for a lot of real ones also)...