I spent the entire day trying to get out of Chiang Mai. All flights booked. All trains full, buses too. Finally I chose to go 3rd class, leaving at 6:30am to go for twelve hours to Lopburi (south toward Bangkok) to see the monkeys. Then probably on to Ayuthaya (the old capitol) then to Kachanaburi to hike and see bats. Just so happens tomorrow is the king’s birthday and this is a week long celebration, plus the &*#@^! flower show… Harumpf, “long live the king”.What a hoot the train turned out to be. It was hotter than blazes, hard as rock seats, completely packed, disgusting holes for “toilets” and I had a great time!
There were only three farangs (foreigners): myself, Hussein, and a baboon-type creature, Vern, from Australia who was on a two day love affair with a cute Thai chick, Nong (not her real name, farangs don’t fair well with the real names… The other names are real, couldn’t make those up if I tried). Hussein, who is from Yemen, had worked for the Saudis for years as a financial advisor but got fed up with the strictness of the society. We ended up taking over the dining car and hanging with the police, army dudes, train staff and conductors, (Who was driving the train?, I didn’t want to know). Then we arrived at Lobburi after eleven hours, and Oh My Buddha! What a part-ay was goin’ on!!
It was, after all, the king’s birthday and full moon taboot! So this enormous carnival was happening and, wouldn’t ya know, Nong’s mum worked it! So, we stashed our huge packs in a carnie tent and did the scene. Drank these weird mini keg like things of beer and listened to Thai rock and roll. Finally, a wee bit inebriated, we piled onto motorcycles with our huge packs and zoomed off to our hotel.
The following day I went to see the monkeys, my main reason for coming here. They have taken over the ancient wats (which remind you of a mini Angkor), and they are seriously outta control. Immediately one jumped on my back; I screamed like the girl that I am and flailed like a maniac. The park staff gave me a stick to beat the buggers back. The scene was fantastic. Monkey scratching and grooming, tiny babies, monkey fights… really hysterical.
I caught a bus to Ayuthaya, the old capitol. The wats are also really old and are spread out over the entire city. Other than the wats, it is just another crowded, noisy, dirty city, so I just quickly went to see the famous Buddha head with the tree enveloping it. Then on to Kanchanaburi. The entire day I was the only farang on all the buses. I’m beginning to wonder if I am just missing things, or finding a less beaten path. At the bus station cafeterias and really almost everywhere I went, no one spoke English, none of the signs or menus were in English or even our letters, so the waiters would just look at me and offer “pad thai?”.
I decided to splurge and pay a whopping $30USD to stay on Kasem island smack in the middle of a tributary to the River Khwae. Wow! They bring you here by boat and it is gorgeous. The transvestite men “lady boys” are a really amazing phenomenon here. Evidently there is no stigma to this, and you can see them developing from a young age growing their hair and nails out, wearing make up and then, evidently, they take hormones to get breasts. They are often quite beautiful and they work in any job from restaurants, travel agencies or boutiques. I went to a shop that was having a “Coup Sale” (yes, capitalism reigns supreme) and had such a good time.
On the other side of things are the “man-girls” I guess you would call it. Holy Moly they are tough little things! Anyway, a “man-girl” named “Gow” brought me here to the island.There are little bungalows on the water, a swimming pool, internet and soft Muzac playing… I believe this one is “you take my breath ahhwaaay, oooh,ooh, ooh…” There are little bunnies everywhere (Darwin would be quite confused) and the most enormous slug or snail (I didn’t get close enough to thoroughly identify it – I was afraid it might eat me) on the wall of my outdoor toilet. Don’t ask me why they have these beautiful rooms and then put the damn toilet outside.I am transitioning well and am actually liking being alone. I had gotten overly attached not just to the elephants but also the group. What great kids they are. All in their twenties, from England and two from the states. I shall tell you all about them another time… I gotta go wrastle with the slugmansnailboy, he’s drinking the toilet water again.
Oh boy, I have really gone off the map now… What on earth possessed me with these damn bats? I was peacefully lounging on that island in the river in Kanchanaburi and thought I’d go up to Soi Yok to see some waterfalls, springs and bat caves. Instead, the crappy Lonely Planet guide (which I have a love/hate relationship with anyway) picked just the tiny map I needed, to screw up. So I ended up with my huge pack on the side of the road about an hour from where I was supposed to be. Hmmmm, I wandered around trying to figure it all out and could only find tour groups or Thais who spoke no English. Really, I don’t expect anyone to learn English, it is just such a surprise since this place has got to be one of the most touristed places in the world! One guy I met thinks it is because they have never had an occupying force, so … good on em’… I’ll just keep pantomiming and getting lost.
Anyway, I decided to make the best of it and swam in some falls and hiked around a bit. I started up a “conversation” with the ranger and he, in a few words or less, indicated that there was even a BETTER cave in Rachanaburi, which was where I wanted to go anyway to catch a train south. Now, as fate would have it this place isn’t in the freakin’ guide either and certainly no mention of the bats. Well, that is just the sort of challenge I get wild hairs about so I took off on it. A few hot bumpy bus rides later with much more theatrics ends me up in what appeared to be Rachanaburi except I couldn’t read a thing as there were no signs in our letters. I get this little guy with those saengtaews, the big trucks with seats in the back, and he says or mimes that he’ll take me to the bats for 400 baht… I think this sounds expensive but I have absolutely no idea where I am or where I am going so I agree. We drive for about an hour… Geez… Where the hell am I? And finally get to a temple with huge bats on the light posts! So, he just wants to drop me off, and I say, “no way Jose, you are coming with me…”
He looks aghast but follows along and we climb friggin’ a thousand stairs past monkeys and dilapidated Buddhas to a huge hole in the ground… And then wait… Sitting there perched on the side of this steep cliff, no one else around because all the sane people (all Thais) are down below to watch… And we try to converse… Ha ha. His name is “Pinchen” and what a sport he was. At one point he starts flailing and screaming and indicates something has bitten him on the ear. He thinks it is a bat, but I’m pretty sure it was just a plant thorn, or something like that. Anyway, I start getting worried he’s going to bail on me, but Lo! At precisely 6 o’clock the bats start… Wow. A few, then thousands upon thousands of tiny black fuzzy things swarm. They sound like rain gently falling with a few chirps here and there. The hawks are around to try to catch a few and the line of bats just keeps going and going… Holy moly.
I film a bit then we decide to go down so I can get some shots of the enormous line of these things… It was like a creepy mesmerizing Dracula movie or something. Well, I was just beside myself thrilled and Pinchen was still freaked out about his ear… I cheered him up by calling him “Superhero Batman..!” He liked that. He took me to a hotel and I gave him 1000 baht. Now I know that some people think that is bad because then “they learn to charge more or too much”… But to hell with those people. This guy was a real trooper and so thrilled when he realized he got to keep all that money. At least it might pay for the rabies shots, I figure
I spent the night in a pretty nice place but still no English. They kept trying to get me to go to Bangkok to catch transport south, but I insisted that I didn’t want to go there, I wanted to continue on from here. I am just too stubborn at times. This morning I caught a moped (yes, with backpack and all, again) to the “bus” station in someplace called Ban Phong… Which turned out to be a train station. OK, that’s better… No space on first class train… Only 3rd class… Surprise, surprise… really, too many tourists here. I take the 3rd class for eight hours… So hot, the only farang again… Not even a dining car on this one. But really that’s OK cause they pass by with all sorts of interesting things to eat and drink. And very clever ways of serving in leaves or bamboo or plastic bags. I ate well but determined I would not use the scary bathroom and am perfecting my camel bladder… Yup, made it the whole day!
Toward the end, I met a Norwegian guy and his Thai wife who live in Chumphon where I intended to stay, and they helped me book a room. The lady at the guesthouse, Sedu, speaks great English and is very helpful. This is a junction town where people decide to go to the islands in the gulf or to the Andaman sea side. I am so fried I am opting for Ko Tao and surrounding islands here in the gulf even though a typhoon just passed by… I think all will clear by tomorrow. So that’s that. I’m in total tourist town now and seemingly from now on. Guess I can do some laundry now.
I have determined that Lonely Planet definitely needs to prep more on what to and not to bring. For example, wear a skirt or easy to remove capri pants on the train. Have a buddy watch your bag cause there is nowhere to hang it in the can and the floor is disgustingly wet. Wear very thin light clothing, you only need the top of your shoulders and maybe knees covered to pass the modesty test and you seriously only need flip-flops. Forget your hiking boots and rain gear. Even if it rains you’ll dry in five minutes. I did want a warm hat in the mountains. I think brushing up or having a cue card for some basic Thai words like “bus”, “train” or “hotel” would have helped. The Lonely Planet guide was too cumbersome on the spot. And finally, a real live map of Thailand with the towns in both English and Thai… Granted it would take a bit of the thrill out of it all. But most of all… I have wanted shampoo bottles that don’t leak… Is that possible Mr. travel engineer? I finally chucked the darn things and am going with the dred look; it matches my bites, burns, rashes, scratches and god only knows what under my nails.
Somehow in my fatigue after the eight hour hot sweaty 3rd class train… I allowed myself to book everything with Sedu Guesthouse. Sedu, is a really nice lady and speaks English well. However, I should know better and not assume she knows my tastes in accommodation, etc. She was around my age so I did think she might kinda get that I wouldn’t want a party town. Turns out I get booked at “Bans diving resort,” the biggest on this Ko Tao. The ferry from Chumphon takes two or so hours and I met some people who had been to this island in the past. I have subsequently seen them here and they are horrified by the changes.
I did get the resort to let me move down the path to a little bungalow right on the beach. Sounds great doesn’t it… But the truth is, it is small, cramped, hotter than hades and no mosquito net. During the day there is no end to the sounds of building going on and at night no end to the mopeds passing, drunk English boys till 4am, and then the gangs of dogs howling. The good side is, I have a nice couple next to me. I went on a snorkeling tour around the island yesterday with a boat full of young adult Thais from Bangkok who had all studied in the U.S. We had a really nice time and the fishies are gorgeous.The people who run my bungalows are really old. And grumpy. I can’t blame them. I wish I could talk to them about the changes they have seen. It must be so depressing for them. I have also spoken with a few business owners and found out there is no city council, therefore no rules whatsoever. I encourage anyone coming to this part of the world to simply avoid this place and all these islands over here. I hear Ko Lipe, way down south on the Andaman side, still has no electricity and you can find some peace. I’d have to see it to believe it. I think this part of the world has probably already been ruined by all of us.
If you are just morbidly curious, I can say if you go all the way down to the end of this beach (Sairee) you can find a bit quieter spot. Or you can hire transport and go to some other part of the island, although I hear they are more resorty and without sandy beaches, mostly rocks. I go tomorrow to Ko Phangan, the small island between here and Samui (where I will do the yoga retreat). I hear it is really crowded too. That is where they have that full moon party which is gratefully over now. I can only pray that the yoga place is secluded and quiet. Oh how I miss the elephants. I will have to cancel my scuba diving since it is raining so hard. That is a shame because diving is the main thing to do around this island. Although, I think you see everything with the mask and snorkel, it’s just pretty cool to breathe under water.I finally found a peaceful beach!!
Left the din of Ko Tao for Ko Phangan with not much hope, but then “Sunny” picked me up at the pier and showed me where we were going… And I nearly cried. It is a tiny place called “Coconut Beach” at the very tippy top of the island with its own private little bay and beach. AAHHHHHHH… Finally. We stopped and met his family including at least a hundred year old granny, ate and drank coconuts, then on to a little fishing town to eat some soup from a stall on the side of the road, then on over very rutted dirt tracks to reach a few little bungalows where I have not budged for three days. The people are great here and quite a few have been staying for ages and plan on staying even longer. Folks from Switzerland, Australia and Holland mostly, really nice people. And of course the owners are wonderful hosts also. There is fabulous snorkeling just a stone’s throw away and we go out in our little kayak. And today I went on the Piña Colada run in our rickety little boat. We only have electricity from 4pm until midnight, no hot water (but, again, you don’t need it, it’s so hot). The name of the bay is Hat Khom and it just on “the other side” of Bottle Beach (which is closed at the moment). So here it is… The one quiet place in the gulf.
Tomorrow I am off to Samui and the yoga retreat… I hope I can move in the heat and humidity. Honestly, I’m a bit worried… I have done so little for so long and my Thai food belly, bites and rashes look frightening… Not so yogini-ish I’m afraid. I arrived to Yoga Thailand on Friday on the verge of a full system meltdown: neck not moving, tummy rumbling, heat rash everywhere, serious bad attitude. Much to my dismay, the electricity was out so no fan or hot water… I was a bit peeved for near $50 per day! But electricity did return, the food was fab and I slept ten hours. Next day we had a restorative yoga class and I ventured out in the downpour to explore. A german baker, Sonja, picked me up on her moped and we got soaked together on the way to her bakery. I came home and napped two more hours, then to bed at 9pm to sleep another 9 hours!
Finally, and thank god, this morning I felt almost back to normal just in time for Mysore yoga, and now I realize that it really isn’t named after the city in India, no, it is because ‘my’ just-about-everything is really ‘sore’ now. They are fairly brutal in a spiritual sorta way and wouldn’t even let me have my $10 cheat sheet I had just purchased (why, one might ask, do they sell it here?) I was squashed into positions I really didn’t think I was capable of. Today, the rain let up slightly and I went to ‘Big Buddha’ … And well, that sums it up… It is, indeed, a big ol’ Buddha. There are actually a few fairly cute areas for this crowded island and my little yoga place is quiet and on a private beach. I am feeling pretty rested and healthy (no drinking or smoking here, and only vegetarian food), so I think it was a good call to do this right before coming home.The yoga “retreat” turned out to be a bit too expensive for what you got. Although the one class, Mysore, in the morning was kick-butt. They are very serious. I had thought there would be more classes included, but these people charge for every little thing. I did end up resting and reading a lot, and I believe I did improve my practice somewhat, at least my sobbing knees, crying ribs and screaming neck certainly think so.
I met a young lady from Seattle and she was brave enough to rent a moped (the transport of choice in these parts). She was willing to cart me around the island so I think I’ve covered quite a bit of it. We went to Namuang waterfall and I opted to go to the top. I acquired a guide of sorts and it turned out to be a blessing (my friend chose not to go; those youngins wear out so quick). The route was quite slippery as it has been raining off and on for the past few days and there were many alternate routes. My friends are familiar with how quickly I can become hopelessly lost. In addition there were ropes and rocks to criss cross the falls. I was relieved to have my “Tom” (or Ton, Tun, Tan). At the top there was a pool and a cave with the falls where you hung on to a rope to guide yourself through the falls and into the cave… It was pretty cool and I was the only one up there, with my faithful guide of course.
I have moved from the Yoga place to Buddha beach and a bungalow to myself. I’m not up for most of the touristy things to do here, which include elephant trekking (yikes), crocodile and monkey shows (ugh), canopy zip wires (done it), Thai boxing and water buffalo fighting. I do believe I am ready to come home to the rain, friends, family and even… Work. The weather here has been preparing me for home with stormy skies and big waves. I can’t say as I have minded too much because the temperature has been quite pleasant. I found a more ritzy hotel that agreed to let me use their pool if I drank… Ahhh, the pressure. The ocean has just been too choppy to swim in and strangely I have had enough of sun, salt and sand. I chose to go see a movie and get out of the wind. Rather than renting a moped I went with the “taxi moped,” who at least know the roads and traffic. They say more people die here than anywhere else in Thailand due to all the tourists who don’t know how to ride mopeds, are drunk or aren’t familiar with driving on the left.
The movie scene was yet another study in culture. You select your seat and wait for an invitation to enter. They, like us, have twenty minutes of previews but then everyone is asked to stand to honor the king. They sing, kinda like the national anthem, and show a video of the king and his good works. They really love him here. Every day of the week that you could be born on has a color. He was born on a Monday I guess, and the color is yellow. His wife, Friday, color blue. On these days you will see the majority of the population in royal yellow shirts (or blue on Friday). The shirts have the emblem of the monarchies flag and say “long live the king” in English or Thai. Anyway, I saw some English sci-fi movie about dragons and it was a nice break. I would like to see some of their movies that were advertised, like the exploits of two chubby boys off to their stay in a monastery to serve their obligatory time as monks. It looked really cute and a view into this uniquely Thai custom.
Today, I went to the Samui airport to catch my flight back to Bangkok and wow, what a gorgeous airport. They even served complimentary snacks, drove in little trolleys like at Disney World to the plane and served a delicious lunch even though the flight was less than an hour. Truly, they got the tourist gig down. I have to admit I was not so excited to come to Thailand because I generally prefer less touristed places. But really, there were still some adventures to be had and fantastic people to have them with. And most of all, there is good work to be done here by those of us blessed with the time, money and inclination to do so.