Rather than being freed and emboldened by my autonomy I was instead all too aware of my solitude and the vulnerability that comes with it. This then blossomed into acute paranoia, as my overactive imagination wrote and directed worst-case scenarios, starring me, that played out every violent, bone-cracking, flesh-flaying, paralysis-inducing, life-altering possibility in high-def detail on the widescreen of my mind.Read More
Bangkok : 1Sept – 3Sept : Readiness
Here. Bangkok. Sitting poolside under an overcast and threatening sky with the day’s first beer after a cooling dip, a boon after hours of walking and sweating and walking some more. I arrived late last night into a hot, dark city void of pedestrians, save knots of tourists (farang) gathered around outdoor bars and restaurants along Rambuttri, a popular travelers enclave, and where my taxi from the airport dropped me off at the wrong hotel. But even the lit-up places along this brick road were sparsely populated; Tuesday night is apparently not a big one in Bangkok.
Today I woke around 7 a.m. and had breakfast in the hotel courtyard and contemplated the yellow squirrels in the big trees along the Banglamphu canal. After breakfast, having observed a steady flow of mopeds and pedestrians disappearing under the Wat Chan Bridge that crossed the canal (I always think bridges are for going over, not under; silly me) I ducked under the low bridge, made my way on a rickety system of plywood and poles that served as a footpath over the edge of the water, and emerged, truly down the rabbit hole.
A narrow causeway along the canal was overhung with low drippy branches and lined with merchants of wares familiar and strange and fragrant. Everything in Bangkok is damp and fetid, but not always unpleasantly, and this walkway market was no exception. On offer were various edible things, some readily identifiable, some not; racks of clothing, most of it tattered and used; fine, delicate arrangements of tiny flowers and marigolds that are used as offerings at temples and shrines; storefronts, for lack of a better word, really just dark little spaces chock-full of sodas, candies, gum, water, and other more mysterious packaged treats. Live roosters strutted under basketted lids while gaunt cats looked on hungrily. Whole fish of all sizes, skewered whole and grilled on open fires, cured meat hanging from hooks, could have been fish, could have been pork, could have been chicken. Raw beef cut in thin bloody steaks hanging from hooks, too, pink drops puddling in bowls below. Plastic bags of pretty brown eggs hanging in rows above other plastic bags full of steaming, luscious-looking curries. And the people, the small, smiling Thai people manning their various tables and booths, offering hellos in Thai and English. I was the only farang making her way along this path, and while I was aware how I stood out with my height and my whiteness and my bright green shirt, I felt welcomed, not like an interloper but like an expected guest.
Eventually I made my way, somewhat accidentally, to Kao San Road, the Fisherman’s Wharf of Bangkok. It was a necessary stop. Having somehow lacked my usual care in packing, I found I was ill-prepared for the heat and dressing myself in general. No better spot, apparently, to get such beach and heat-friendly gear for cheap as Kao San Road. While I was there, I bought my train ticket to Chumpon, got a one-hour massage for the equivalent of $5, and for the most part enjoyed mingling among the other travelers, easing myself into the strangeness of everything.
But all truth told, I find the teeming bustle of Bangkok at odds with my more relaxed and meandering whims. I am eager for the ocean, for the sand, for the slowness that comes with being coastally situated. Languid. I am feeling languid and Bangkok is not a languid place. Though I seemed to have found a comparatively languid corner in Banglamphu. My hotel, perched on the snake-narrow canal and flanked by a twisting maze of alleys and small streets specked with roving purveyors of various goods and services who announce their presence with honking bicycle horns and jingling bells, it feels quiet and foreign.
Ko Phagnan : 4Sept-8Sept : Perfection
I always thought that, theoretically, if I was in a boating accident on the open sea I’d be more worried about getting nibbled on by sharks than about my ability to tread water or swim indefinitely. There were many moments on the boat ride to Ko Phagnan that I was worried I might have to test this theory.
After a surprisingly pleasant stay in Chumpon, due to meeting up with a fab English lady, Jenny, and having a good time of it strolling the strange food markets and drinking Chang beer and eating the yummiest tom yum ever at a cute open-air bar across the street from my hotel, I roused myself at 5 a.m. today (not like it was hard, jet lag hangs tight) to catch my van to catch my boat to Ko Phagnan by way of Ko Tao. The first leg was uneventul. Nay, it was dull. Upon pulling into the rickety pier at Ko Tao, however, the sky went from silver to slate, a gale bent the palm trees on the shore nearly in half, sheets of rain slapped on the ferry windows, drive-thru car-wash style, and the sheet metal sea kicked up like God’s own bathtub.
The two-hour ride from Ko Tao to Ko Phagnan I spent staring at the troughs and hills of white-capped waves on the Gulf of Thailand, my iPod blaring in my headphones, me wondering what would be the soundtrack of my watery demise as the too narrow boat pitched a rolled and cantilevered on a 178-degree axis, the gasps of my fellow passengers audible above the music, the hiss of my own quick intakes of air each time I watched water rise above the height of the windows as the boat tipped frighteningly from port to starboard and back again.
The whole scenario was not helped by the fact that the embarking passengers at Ko Tao were all freaky hippies/burners off to the full-moon rave at Had Rin on Ko Phagnan (a blessed forty minutes by car away from where I ended up). For you non-San Franciscans, this means: shirtless, smelly, dreadlocked (white people dreadlocks), drunk, stoned, under the age of 24, all of them, and, most importantly, unwashed. Not, up all night partying unwashed, but on the road, haven’t showered in, oh, a week or so, have worn the same grimy board shorts with the same gnarly Calvin Klein underwear, or for the girls, the same sagging string bikini under the same stained, tattered shiff for literally days and days. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for grub, especially travel grub. But this was like Haight Street gutter punks on board. Combine their collective funk with the lunging sea vessel and you get: oh my god it’s all I can do to not puke my guts out.
So, yeah. Fun boat ride.
Which was followed by an equally bumpy car ride half way around Ko Phagnan to arrive in Thong Nai Pan to the Central Cottages.
Where I found exactly what I’ve been wanting. Let me assure you, the white sand is soft, the water is somehow golden and turquoise all at the same time, the green curry is soooo delicious and spicy, the verdant jungle hills that lie behind us are the stuff of postcards, and my rustic bungalow faces the beach and has its own teak terrace.
I was there for almost two whole days before I stopped wearing shoes. There is little reason to stray from the beach, making shoes not only irrelevant, but inconvenient, especially because you have to take them off before you step into so many shops (any place that has the image of Buddha, which is almost every place). The half-mile stretch is quite replete with all manner of stores, restaurants, bars, all discreetly set back from the water, blending in to the palm trees, nestled in the deep sand. But at night everything lights up with colored lanterns and bright strings of light, so when you stand at one end of the beach and look down, it’s like looking at strange, colored, earth-bound constellations.
For the last two nights, I’ve found myself at the bar of a guesthouse at the end of the beach, the name of which refused to stick in my head. Water something. Sand something. White something. Crossing a rising wooden footbridge over a tidal creek, you arrive at a dirt patio sporting a circular bar and chaises that look out over the bay. From the dirt patio, irregular narrow stone steps rise steeply up a jungly hill, leading to another bar upstairs where shroom shakes are freely offered (no, I didn’t) and farther up, an expansive covered terrace, littered with cushioned chaises and low tables and candles, looks down the beach from eighty feet or so above it. Two levels down is a tattoo and art studio; one half of it the various predictable tattoo art you can get hammered into your skin with bamboo needles, the other half sports the work of the artist, also one of the bartenders, all of which looks like a bad acid trip on canvas: colorful, chaotic, dark, busy with strange discordant details.
The bar itself is a circular construction on the dirt patio, surrounded by teak barstools. The bartenders, two Thai hippie/hipsters and a beautiful Austrian woman, work with spliffs between their lips as they pass beers and drinks to the crowd of European and Australian tourists. The best thing about the bar, besides its Middle Earth appeal and its beachy ease, is the music. It’s the only joint on the beach that doesn’t play some tired combination of techno and reggae. Instead it’s the White Stripes, the Kings of Leon, The Shins, Social Distortion, Johnny Cash. Welcome sounds for me; hate techno and reggae.
Yesterday I ventured with one of my new Australian friends, Jay, into Thong Sala, one of the three ports on the island and where I landed three days before after the heinous boat trip. We wandered around, both of us painfully hungover, staggering through the markets, braving the strange smells and stranger sights of alien fruit and drying fish and pink eggs. We hopped a songthew, which is a pickup truck with benches in the back and a rickety metal canopy, the main mode of transport around here. The road to Thong Nai Pan Ai from Thong Sala is long, windy, pitted with cavernous potholes and ditches, and mostly it’s dirt. And there being no road rules to speak of on the island, save the fact that they drive on the left side and stick to that, mostly, kind of, the trip was a bit harrowing. As Jay said, after we survived another terrifying encounter passing a slower vehicle on a blind curve: “Always a bit dodgy, that.” Dodgy, indeed.
We were deposited back at our guesthouse, dusty but safe and sound, no further vehicular adventures for the time. Though I will be doing it all again tomorrow when I go to catch my boat back to the main land to make my way across to the Andaman coast, Krabi Town for a night, then Railay beach and Tonsai.
Krabi & Railay : 9Sept-11Sept : Changing It Up
I don’t know where to start. With the obnoxious American who wouldn’t leave me alone? Or arriving at my destination, finding I hated it, and my adventures in getting to the next place?
I’ll start with the tenacious Dave, who I will refer to henceforth as “The Tool.” I met The Tool on the boat from Phagnan to Surat Thani. He sat next to me and immediately started in on what I discovered is his style of constant, prying prattle. “So,” he says. “Let’s do the small talk thing and get that over with.” Okay, whatever. Where you from, how long have you been traveling, where are you going next, etc., the standard introductory conversation. But everything he says smacks of self-importance and bullshit. In the two hour boat ride he managed to tell me multiple dull anecdotes about “working” in Hollywood, seeming to wait for me to be all: Oh my god! you work in Hollywood? You are so cool! I want you! He also managed to insert his desire to cash it all in and sail around the world (but still unclear if he actually knows how to sail), his bottomless intelligence (”I’ve been described as a genius” he says, yet he had no idea Buddhism was the dominant religion of Thailand), his tender, oft-broken heart how maligned he is by women who take advantage of his sweet susceptible nature, how he is constantly “disappointed” by the lack of humanity in the world (who isn’t, buddy?), blah, blah, blah. I didn’t say much, because it was becoming more and more clear to me that I wanted nothing to do with encouraging him. He took a picture of us with my camera, him looking painfully metrosexual with the manscaping, me with a nearly perceptible grimace on my face. “There. our first picture together,” he says, pretending to envision a slew of happy photographs of our sudden foreign romance. I gagged.
Imagine my thrill when I found he was on the same bus with me to Krabi. Yaaay. Wedged in a seat next to him for several hours was a whole new challenge. Him leaning in on me, asking me ridiculous questions like, “What do you hate the most about yourself?” and “What are your greatest insecurities?” All of it just one excuse after another to answer his own questions and create reasons to tell me yet another boring anecdote that had no point. Then he said, “Can I put my head on your shoulder? I’m going to nap for a while.” I even didn’t look up from my book. “Put your seat back,” I said. He persisted in saying even more ridiculous things like, “I can tell you’ve had your heart broken. Some man has used you badly” and “Look at that sunset. It reminds me of the day we met.” What?! Kill me now. The sunset was beautiful indeed, but there was me, trying not to puke on him.
We arrived in Krabi and by then I was tired, hungry, hot, badly in need of a shower and a beer and totally over his bullshit. In the taxi we shared from the bus station to the main drag I had my head in my hands, trying to forget he was there. “Do you have a headache?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. You are my headache, I added mentally. And then The Tool began massaging my neck and I lost it. “Do. Not. Fucking. Touch. Me.” To which he responded by throwing his hands up and saying, “Whoa. You’re like totally on the rag, I’m only trying to help” or something equally as appalling. Yes, it was true: I was being a complete bitch. But I’d given him no reason to expect anything else from me at that point.
Despite my being “on the rag” he followed me like a lost dog to the guest house I’d randomly picked from my Lonely Planet book, then he had the nerve to look surprised when I said NO in Thai, English and Spanish (just to be thorough) when the lady at the desk asked me if I wanted one room for two people. Nonononononononoooo. But he got his own room there anyway. Right next door to mine. Goody.
After a shower I started feeling better, then started feeling guilty about being so bitchy. I kept telling myself, be kind, be generous, do unto others, etc, etc. Not only is Krabi a small town, the traveling community in Thailand is small as well. I figured, for the greater good and my own karmic peace of mind, that I should be nice. So I asked him if he wanted to have dinner and was rewarded with a comparatively unannoying evening. Until he tried to kiss me when we got back to the hotel. Ugh. Gross. Adios, Tool.
Happily, I managed to avoid him the next morning and got away from Krabi without any further encounters with him. Unfortunately, my luck did not hold out in that manner. But more on that later.
I grabbed a taxi to Ao Nang, the easiest place to catch a longtail to Tonsai, where I was planning on staying for the next three or four days. The sky was looming, positively threatening, with big, black clouds; rain was certain. And when it came, it came in sheets and didn’t stop. I pulled out my rain poncho, stuffed my iPhone and camera in a Ziploc and prepared for wet.
The longtail ride was amazing. The weather did little to dampen the beauty of this part of the country; the great limestone monoliths that rise like strange fingers out of a sea whose color defies any standard description of blue or green. Little green islands, topped with a scrub of jungle dot the water, like their own little planets. It is easily some of the most beautiful geography I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing with my own eyes, and I can only imagine how stunning it all is when it is alight with sun.
So imagine my disappointment when we pulled into a pretty little bay and I disembarked to a muddy, littered beach. Non-marine debris floated in the water. Huge piles of garbage were heaped up everywhere. The whole place smelled of landfill. There were a few drunk Thai and farang staggering around the beach, looking like something stronger and more chemically acerbic was in their mix as well. The bungalows and businesses were all dilapidated and sagging and empty of any life of any kind, not even the stray dogs that seem ubiquitous here. I walked down the beach to find my hotel and found its common area, the bar and the beach front area under construction, covered in plastic. The path back to the bungalows littered with trash of all kinds: plastic bags and bottles, condoms, cigarette butts, Singha cans.
Nope. Not staying there. I decided to catch a longtail to Railay beach just down the coast a small piece.
One of the hardest things about travelling alone in Thailand is that most of the transportation is for groups. The longtails costs X amount of baht to go wherever. So, if a bunch of folks go, it’s that amount divided among those many people. Well, between the fact that it’s the low season and I’m travelling by myself, I either have to wait for who knows how long for a boat or a songthew to fill up, or I have to pay the entire fare myself, sometimes up to 1,000 baht, about $30. So when I met the friendly Norwegian named Peter on the beach and he suggested I take the “rock path” to Railay (”takes five minutes” he says), I was all for it. He kindly offers to escort me, and we walk back down the beach toward what turns out to be this crevice in the smooth, lovely limestone. At this point, I should let you know if you don’t already that this region is very, very popular among rockclimbers, those gravity defying rock monkeys. I should also tell you I was still strapped with my pack and my shoulder bag, so when I watched Peter sort of just hop up into the crevice with a foot and a hand on each side of the sheer rock that rose up either side in a slowly widening alley, I was like, ummm, okay. Well, how hard can it be?
Hard. Impossible, in fact. I got a bit of the way in and called out to Peter. “I can’t do this,” I said. He didn’t seem to hold it against me and we walked back down the beach, and then he says, “There’s also the jungle trail”; that sounds more my speed. I can hike it. “Is it more than a mile?” I ask, thinking of my many pounds of luggage I’m hauling around. “Nah. Take you 15 minutes. 20 maybe with the bag,” he says. Okay. No problem. I can do that. Beats wading back into the littered water to get into a longtail and paying who knows what or waiting who knows how long for four or five more folks to decide to go to Railay.
The rain had subsided a bit during this time, but thunder still grumbled and the sky was still dark with storm clouds. And just as I started up the dirt road that would lead to the jungle path, the rain started again. This was no ordinary rain. I’ve been in showers with less water pressure. Right about then, I noticed that my rain poncho had at some point nearly ripped in half: useless. I crumpled it up in my bag and pressed on. The rain was heavy, but it was lovely and cool, and made the gravel path firm and the jungle shimmer. I walked. Peter neglected to tell me that most of the jungle path, while maybe not much more than a mile, was definitely uphill. Really, really uphill. Imagine hauling 75 or 80 pounds up California street, except California street is gravel and rock. Climb, climb, climb. 20 minutes comes and goes. I climb another hill, becoming worried about the inevitable downhill part, with my unbalancing pack and my rickety knees.
The downhill accomplished everything the uphill did in half the distance: straight down. I tried to negotiate it on my feet, but my pack made every misstep a potential disaster. So I got down on my butt and scooted down almost twenty meters of gravel hill, snaking narrowly though the jungle overgrowth. I was very glad that no one was there to witness such a graceless display of nonathleticism. In another 20 minutes I found Railay West, having crossed over from Railay East and emerged on a beach that was free of litter and skanky farang. Being soaked to the bone, blisters having come up after walking so long in wet, sandy sandals, and my pack getting heavier the wetter it got, I basically walked into the first hotel I saw, which was, frankly, a little posher than anything a credible backpacker would stay at, and is a princely $30 a night. But I don’t care. I’m calling it my birthday present to myself.
The rain persisted.
Ko Phi Phi : 11Sept-13Sept : Escape
My voyage to Phi Phi was not nearly as fraught with adventure as my other transfers had been, which I take to be auspicious. For the end of my trip I am just as happy to have a completely dull and peaceful time of it.
Hat Railay, for all of its unbelievable beauty, proved too sporty for me, I guess is the way to put it (constant rain aside). I had been keen to see a particular cave called the Princess Cave, and the lagoon that was reportedly en route. So yesterday I left my hotel at the first sign of a break in the rain and began my walking tour of the Railay area, which sticks out like a sixth toe from the long thin foot of the Andamaman coast. I learned quickly that the muddy, overgrown route I’d taken the day before when navigating from Railay East to Railay West was the hard way to go. Between several of the hotels that dot the beach there are well-marked paths that transport you from one side of the pennisula to the other in a matter of minutes. Regardless, I would not have avoided the hike through the jungle, so another piece mucking through swampy, muddy wet was really just a matter of course at the time.
Yesterday, however, I took one of the easy paths across and walked westward on Railay East beach, the marshier, rockier side. Railay West boasts the broad white beach. Again, I found well-marked paths and signs pointing helpfully to exactly what I was looking for: Tham Pra Nang, the Princess Cave, and Sa Phra Nang, the attendant lagoon. This was going to be so great. Right?
I made my way easily along the paved path for a bit, the signs still encouraging me along. Then I saw a sign with the expected information leaning against a rocky wall, pointed upwards. Surely someone or something must have tipped the sign. Upwards. Indeed. So I kept walking on my current course and after a bit came to the beach Pragnag. I knew from studying my map that my intended destinations were behind me. So I asked one of the helpful Thai ladies on the beach who were plying their reflexology talents. She pointed me back the way I came and then made a hand-over-hand motions with her arms, as if she was climbing up a vine. She smiled and shooed me off after demanding I return to her when I wanted my feet massaged. I agreed and ventured back and again found myself at the near vertical wall of red, wet rock rising up into trees, the arrowed sign pointing skyward was, apparently, not an accident of any kind. Sure enough, someone had helpfully supplied a knotted climbing rope with which one could hoist oneself up the rock and into the jungle above. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said aloud.
Have I impressed upon you the near vertical quality of this wall? It was nearly vertical. Sure, there were all sorts of tree roots and foot holds and things that would have assisted a climber who knew what the hell she was doing and had the ovaries to do it. But not I. I started, first using the rope, which I quickly found I did not have the upper body strength for. Then just the old-fashioned way, using the footholds and tree roots like a slippery, unsure, irregular ladder to certain death. Or at least paralysis. I got about eight feet up and looked down, already worried about the trip back. Then looked up and could discern no clear path or end to this nearly vertical wall. The knotted rope next to me disappeared into the trees, whatever it was tied to obscured who knows how far above.
I can’t do this. I absolutely can’t do this, I thought, and plucked my careful way back down and stalked back down the path, furious with myself for never having learned to climb anything, for being so fearful for the wholeness of my limbs, furious about the fact that no enterprising Thai had rigged up some jury rigged pully system for lame-ass farang like me. I couldn’t believe how my inability to climb that wall ruined my day. I went to the Diamond Cave instead; much easier to access, but totally boring, with only lovely stalagmites and stalagtites, no carved wooden phalluses anywhere, as the Princess Cave had reportedly offered. No rippling lagoon among black and green trees. Me, killing myself with my utter boringness. (Imagine my dismay two days later when I met a nice lady from New Zealand who showed me pictures of the giant carved phalluses at the Princess Cave. I asked her how she got up the rock wall, and she said, “What rock wall? The cave was right on the beach.” I’d probably walked right by it.)
Then the rain started again.
By the end of the day, I’d about had it with Railay, blaming it for my lack of athleticism that prevented me from partaking in the things the area was known for, and blaming the storming weather for not even being able to take a kayak out or go snorkelling. I sat on the terrace of my over-priced bungalow and read my book for hours, and watched the rain.
So, the next day it was on to better things, hopefully. I decided to get to Krabi and go to Ko Lanta or Ko Phi Phi, whichever had a boat leaving the soonest. So eager to escape Railay I was, I sprung for a solo ride on a longtail all the way to Krabi Town. $30 maybe not so well spent, but it was either that or wait until 11 or so (it was barely 8 a.m. when I was standing on the beach with all my shit ready to go, there and then) for some other people to need a ride to Krabi Town.
Once in Krabi, I let myself be carried along by the first tout I saw. Touts are the sometimes helpful, sometimes scheming people who await tourists at the ends of piers, at tourist centers, bus stations, train stations, who resolutely direct you to whichever taxi service, hotel or tour company is paying their commission. Many of them are very friendly and will answer questions, others just bully you into following them. The tout awaiting me on the Krabi pier this morning was a combination of the two, and since I had no idea where I was going anyway, I figured what’s the harm?
Within 15 minutes I was a proud ticket holder for return trip from Krabi to Phi Phi, with a transfer to Surat Thani for my journey back to Bangkok. To get to Ko Lanta would require a trip in a minivan to a ferry, departure at 10:30. Whereas the boat to Phi Phi was leaving at 10 and was a mere songthew jaunt to the ferry terminus. So, Phi Phi it was.
On the boat I picked my hotel, the Tropical Garden Bungalows, based soley on the fact that I was very hot and sweaty (rain stopped, yay! but forgot to put on sunscreen, ouch) and the description of the guesthouse in Lonely Planet said the words “jungle pool,” which sounded divine at that moment.
Phi Phi is lousy with farang, which I was expecting, but there is still something lovely and authentic in the farther corners of this perfect island. Bona fide Thai markets sit side by side with the usual shops full of sarongs and Singha tank tops and the tour offices. Once you get out of the so-called Tourist Village, you find more little pockets of locals and food stands and fresh fish barbecuing on open spits. My guesthouse I arbitrarily chose from my lonely planet book has proven to be perfect, the naturally fed fresh water jungle pool was lovely and just what my sunburnt shoulders needed to cool off, and you can get a beer without even getting out of the water. It’s also almost a kilometer away from the hubbub of the Tourist Village, which means it’s quiet and the people who stay there are like me, eschewing the main drag for farther reaches, my kind of people. I could happily spend my whole day and a half on Phi Phi lounging in the hammock on the terrace of my bungalow, a spacious structure high up on stilts in the trees.
But I won’t do that, not entirely anyway. I’ve taken a long walk around to see what’s on offer. There are no roads, so no cars, only bricked footpaths that crisscross the narrow waist of the island. The beaches close to the town are thick with tourists; replace the longtails with sailboats and yachts and you’d swear you were in Malibu. But the interior areas are lovely with steaming jungle and gorgeous flora.
Ko Phi Phi, basically, is a delightfully appalling place.
My first night out I met Robyn, an English woman also traveling on her own for a year. I felt pathetic about my mounting homesickness after not even two weeks. We had a fantastic time sitting at the bar, of this heinous, obnoxious place called Reggae Bar where there were live Muay Thai matches. Farang vs. farang first, then five rounds of the real deal, which was transfixing despite (or because of) the obvious WWF-style showmanship. I don’t think I could call it “real” Muay Thai fighting, but it was better than nothing.
Robyn and I spent the evening roaming the numerous bars in the Tourist Village. Robyn, 26, who’d been on Phi Phi for a couple of weeks, seemed to know everyone and had quick recall of which bars were having drinks specials or were giving away free buckets. Then there was me, freshly 35 and happily trying to steer clear of the dripping whiskey buckets and staggering party people. I always seemed to be the oldest person in the room on Phi Phi, well, in most of Thailand actually.
After an evening spent trailing Robyn around from bar to beach party and back to bar, I awoke my last morning in Phi Phi feeling none too spry and spent the first several hours of the morning reading in my hammock, then spent the rest of the morning and most of the early afternoon reading by the pool, punctuating chapters of my semi-trashy novel with luscious dips in the jungle pool. Finally, I dragged myself down the hill to sit at the bookstore and cafe (which served a shockingly delicious salami sandwich) to write and suck up a few more of the delicious Thai iced coffees that I’d become addicted to. After the bookstore, I stopped into an internet cafe, open to the street, as almost everything is, and as I sat there innocently checking my e-mail, I locked eyes with none other than The Tool. He was walking down the street, gave me an obnoxious wink and nod, and despite my psychic efforts to divert him, he made his way toward me; my skin crawled. My previous notions of kindness were totally lost, put asunder by some deep annoyance that I couldn’t shake. So, suffice to say I wasn’t pleasant. I made a point of being unpleasant, to discourage any potential hanging-on. And it worked. He said, “Jesus, you’re making me so glad I don’t have a girlfriend,” and then walked away, to be seen no more. Then I felt guilty again. But this time, I got over it.
Bangkok, Again : 14Sept-15Sept : Wily Strangers
I don’t remember having ever felt more dizzily exhausted than I did my last day in Bangkok. Part of it is simply Bangkok. I loved and hated Bangkok in ten-minute turns, wondering at it, then finding it maddening and awful, then being amazed again.
You read and hear all sorts of stories about the various cons and scams perpetrated on tourists. You read and hear about such things no matter where you go. But nowhere else have I ever been have those scams and cons been positively pervasive, unavoidable, in fact. The upshot is, after a couple of days in Bangkok, you view every friendly offer of help with bottomless suspicion and any magnanimous world view you may have had is tarnished.
The scams and cons are, for the most part, harmless. They rob you of your time more than anything, and a small amount of money if you don’t catch on in time. As you make your way through the city, you are constantly approached by “friendly” locals who ask you good-natured, seemingly innocuous questions (in excellent English) about how long you’ve been here, where you’re going now, where you’re going next, etc. Then they tell you about all of these wondrous sights you must see in Bangkok. Then they tell you that today is a special day: the king is visiting, it’s one of the seemingly daily Buddhist holidays, it’s a government holiday, the government is paying for petrol for all the taxis and tuk tuks in the city today, Buddha himself is handing out fucking popsicles.
So, because of this oh so special day, for a mere 20 baht (which is, truly, no significant amount of money to a westerner) you can have your own personal tuk tuk tour of the city. What happens after the first minor landmark or two is you get whisked off to gem markets and tailors where you become the victim of a very, very high-pressure salesman or saleslady who tries to get you to buy jewelry or custom-made suits. Then, often, if you don’t bow to the sales pressure, your tuk tuk driver maroons you in some corner of the city. Fun right?
I didn’t fall for this scam totally. I knew what I was in for, thinking if I was just firm with the tuk tuk driver, he’d take me where I wanted to go. And, hell, it was only 20 baht and I didn’t have to pay him upfront. Despite my insistence that I had no need for a sapphire ring or a tailored business suit, he dropped me off at such places, but he did also take me to some lovely sights and landmarks and waited as I tooled around and snapped pictures and chatted with other people.
But when it became clear to him that when he dropped me off at a tailor’s shop or a gem store that I was literally walking in, making a loop around the store and walking straight out, he ditched me. He happened to ditch me within a short walk of my hotel, so lucky me. And I never paid him that 20 baht, so no skin off my nose.
Everywhere I’ve been, it’s: “where are you going? Wat Pho? no, that’s closed for a Buddhist holiday,” “Grand Palace? Oh no, closed for construction,” or “doesn’t open until 3.” All patently untrue. Then they have helpful suggestions about how to pass the time instead. I have learned how to say “mai chai, kor pun ka,” (no thank you) with great firmness. And it’s particularly annoying that the first red flag is their perfect English.
There is a sign outside of the Grand Palace that says “Beware of wily strangers.” Indeed.
Today, having learned to navigate this conniving pitfall, I did see some wonderful stuff, even though it was “closed” or “for Buddhists only.” I went to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, and Wat Pho. Wat means temple. And these joints easily make the Vatican look like a simple county chapel. Gold leaf mosaic spires, intricately colored ceramic tiles, beautiful reliefs and tapestries and paintings. And Buddhas everywhere. The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho was something else. It’s about as big as you’d expect a god to be. As gorgeous as it all was, truly meant to inspire some sort of sense of divinity and wonder, it all seems so showy to me. I think I expected something a little more down to earth from Buddhists. Not sure why.
After three or four hours contemplating Buddha and various shrines to him and celebrations of him, I took a walk around Central Bangkok and came across the Amulet market, which is where they create the endless images and postures of Buddha for temples and shrines and homes and hotels and wherever anyone wants to put a Buddha, which, let me tell you, is just about everywhere. Then I found this strange alley that was all tarot card readers, witch doctors and a lone coffee cart that served the best ice coffee I’ve had yet in Thailand (have I mentioned how awesome the Thai iced coffee is? Like, wow). Then I happened into a labyrinthine food market that would make any Stateside health department implode, as most such markets here would, and had a yummy red curry and rice for lunch as I looked out on the muddy, brown, none too pretty Chao Phraya river. Yes, Bangkok has a lot going on. A lot of it is not what you’d call welcoming. But all of it is interesting and unfamiliar.
Last night the feeling of isolation was relieved at one of the usual outdoor food vendor/shanty restaurant setups along a street. There was a good mix of farang and locals sitting at the rickety little tables under umbrellas on the sidewalk, which means the food’s decent and I might meet someone to talk to. That person turned out to be a Brazilian named Mario who’d been traveling on his own for six months, and was on his way back to Sao Paolo, and like me, was eager for home. All the other considerable number of solo travelers I have met have all had the same extreme impressions of their travels as I. The benefits of traveling alone versus the downfalls: the independence, the spontaneity, the whimsy versus the loneliness, the isolation, the days on end of not meeting anyone who speaks your language, not having a conversation.
I am looking forward to being able to reflect on this whole experience from a growing distance. It’s been amazing, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. But I am so excited for the dubious comforts of the American culture, for my friends, for my family, for my life, my bed, my home, jeans, socks, sweaters, fog, cold.
Next time I come to Thailand though, I’ll be stay away longer, and I’m bringing you with me.