Thailand, part one

Many things, is this place. Many things, and many more that are central to the backpacking mentality that not coming here would be inconceivable, that avoiding it for whatever reason would just be an outrage. I knew what I was getting into, I knew what to expect, I heard all the hype, I saw the movie but didn’t, unfortunately, get around to reading the book. So entrenched, both historically and geographically, in the ‘hippy trail’ is Thailand that skipping it is not even on. I was looking forward to it, and to a degree, I bought into the hype. I’m going to go out on a tangent that even I stutter with, but it’s so apt that you got to hear me on this one. Just work with me, people.

As far afield as there are youth hostels and backpackers, you hear about Thailand. I had conversations about it over pints of beer in Estonia, Scotland and China. I don’t doubt that the same is more than possible the world over, much the same way as a cultural reference in US television becomes known even in places where the products or places are unknown. Everyone knows about New York, or San Francisco, or about Starbucks, or Krispy Kreme. Krispy Kreme is the real headline here.

For years, US sitcoms and movies would mention Krispy Kreme, interviews with bands would mention them, and writings on the internet, webcomics and the like, would drop the name without a second thought that the readers would might not know what it was. It has come close to becoming what Biros are to ball-point pens. In Australia, we certainly knew they were donuts, but as to the flavour and texture? Clueless. I always imagined a crisp, slightly crunchy feeling as the main drawcard, based on the name alone, and I assumed from the references that they were popular and that popular would equal quality. I guess that’s the real point here – popular equals quality. That real hype won’t set you wrong, that a true superstar is impossible to ignore or be repulsed by, that the genuine high quality of the goods on offer will always win the day.

Then Krispy Kreme set up franchises in Melbourne. I assume other cities in Australia felt the wrath of the calorie binge, but this is a focus group. One in Collins Street, down the end with all the gleaming office buildings, close to the corner with Spencer Street. The other underground in the shopping complex under Melbourne Central. This was the busier one, and the one that first took my tastebuds to the promised land. I lined up, bought two donuts, each with enough calories to satisfy a human adult for the better part of two days, and got ready to taste the dream, to feel the hype on my tongue, to get some of what I knew was surely the most popular donut in the world – and therefore the best.

And you know, it was ok. Too sweet for my taste, too unrefined sweet. The glaze is the crispy part, I’m guessing, because it was otherwise a standard affair. How these got to get so damn big, I couldn’t fathom. Maybe my tastes run that contrary to the rest of the demographic? Or I’m just unlucky – whatever the case, Krispy Kreme didn’t set my world on fire and the disappointment was all the more, having heard so much of them in the years before.

See where this is going? Thailand is nice, to be sure, but it’s not the be all and end all of travel. For some people, it may well be. This backpacker will not be counted on that list, but anchors up people, because that doesn’t mean it didn’t bring some cracking stories out. One thing after another, the one thing I can say for certain is that Thailand sure ain’t boring.

“Don’t believe the hype!” is hype. Thailand enthrals me. Thailand entraps me, Thailand pulls me in and showed me what it’s like to be sent through a washing machine on spin cycle. Thailand also disgusts, annoys, distorts, depresses, crushes and infuriates me. Which side will win out? Which part of this sage will capture the headline? Will I discard the Krispy Kreme for the sweet and juicy mango, or turn into fat bloated man chasing after skinny twenty-two year olds from dirt poor families with a fistful of 100-Baht notes? Where will our hero end up? Or has he revealed too much already?

Sungai Kolok is your beat up border town. The only claims to fame it can muster are being the closest thing to Malaysia’s east coast and the odd bomb threat called in on the train station. Down south, way south, past the dirty south where things get genuinely real, the locals are Muslim, and not the kind and pacifistic Muslims they are supposed to be, but the we want independence at any Goddamn cost and anyone who stands in our way we see not moral issue with blowing them away type. The kind that gives the rest of them a bad name, the kind that makes the Thai government look like total jackholes when the troops get rolled out against them and everyone loses. But that’s another story, and all it does here is explain why the station was positively crawling with dudes carrying very, very big guns. Big fuck-off guns, and huge smiles. What on earth was going on here? One such weapon-toting Guy Smiley helped me buy a ticket for the next train, after I espoused the local taxi mafia and walked there, and I had myself two hours or so to kill. I sat and waited, and I can’t say if this is totally accurate but maybe a quarter of the folk waiting around had guns. I’d heard that the area had a separatist problem, but was this really necessary?

On the train, every single bag was inquired about, so security (all smiling like maniacs) could see if there was an abandoned and potentially explosive bag in the mix. There were not, and we all went on our happy little way to the north. Later, I would read that travel in the area is advised against by pretty much everyone and that the Sungai Kolok station is especially dangerous and has been attacked before. The last I heard was that the locals don’t target civilians or tourists – I guess they updated their rules, and I failed to get the newsletter. Either way, I got out alive, and all the guns were not just for show, there was a decent chance something might have gone down. Fuck me dead.

Getting off in Hat Yai I was confronted with a city of monumental ugliness. Someone said this place was nice, what the hell was going on here? It’s more of a border town than anything, the crossroads where lines south to Malaysia and north into Thailand all meet, and I got there maybe in time to get a bus elsewhere but since it had been a long enough day anyway, I stayed on plan and found a room. Exceptional value at 160 Baht, but worth every cent I didn’t spend, I found the grungiest room in town. No sweat, I can deal, and there was a fan and a power point. The mattress could have been softer, but I was to learn that in the sub-200 Baht category, this was very, very normal. Thailand will cost you more than the southern neighbours, and the lower end is lower again, so cheaping it out leaves you with a case of envy (if you’re a lesser soul than I) and in anywhere worth being (as in, anywhere but Hat Yai) the lowest you can get away with paying is 300. That’s 10 Aussie dollars, just about, and at the current rate, it’s ten American too. Which is a lot of cashola to be doling out on a bargain basement room – and damn, this is just the beginning.

So Hat Yai was a concrete jungle, and I was feeling queasy. Something had upset the equilibrium of my digestives, so I took it easy and opted out of going for local food, finding something more familiar. Sometimes, you just need a hamburger. It was also raining heavily, so there was little choice in the matter, as stalking through the night market was going to be wet. And it transpires that our hero stumbled upon a too-true fact about Thailand in his decision to stay away from local grub – but we won’t be premature about this just yet.

In the morning I left the cheap hotel and tried to wrangle my way to the bus station. This was an altogether too difficult task, it seems, because around the venerable train station is a small city of travel agencies and transport privateers, all wanting to take you not to the bus station but to their friend’s travel agency. The tourism industry in Thailand is so well oiled, entrenched, maintained and unopposed that real backpacking, in the independent travel sense, becomes almost hard, almost impossible in places. Overrun as it is by visitors and with the twin sucker punch of most visitors (myself included) being illiterate in Thai and with public transportation often far removed from centres of society and commerce, it’s all too easy to bail out and just go with the friendly, smiling (I mean, what’s with all the fucking smiling?) and overcharging travel agency man. This is not what I am about, and avoiding it as long as possible is my mission. So I left the jerks at the train station, walked in the general direction of the bus station and on the way caught a taxi who offered to take me the rest of the way for a decent fare. On the way he happened to take me to his friend’s travel agency. Looking back, I should have known. They offered to take me where I wanted to go for double the price I’d been quoted at the train station, and put me up in a resort that was going to cost a week’s budget every night. I said a polite no and skipped out of there, making the taxi guy take me to the bus station.

He was not so friendly after that, having missed out on what he thought would be a very juicy commission sponsored by me (ha!) and I could hear his ragged, shallow breathing as he took me where I actually wanted to go. He didn’t even say thank you when I paid him. The bus station was surrounded by travel agencies, and the chorus of “hey you where you going… Hey you, where you go…!?!?!” rang out as I was spotted and marked. I got in, saw the counter and bought a ticket to Trang. It cost me eighty baht, and eventually, I relented and took a private mini-bus from there to Ko Lanta, but only because this was my only option. Instead of paying about 500 straight from Hat Yai, I got there for about 300, plus that taxi guy, but with a whole lot of extra crap caused not by any difficulty or situation I had to get through but by the army of private transport goons who put themselves in my way. All through Thailand you get harassed, annoyed and harangued by these guys. Walk anywhere with a backpack and they all assume they have hit the jackpot and either shout the eternal cry of the private transport industry bastard (“hey you where you go?”) which tails off into a whine if you ignore them, and get repeated with a slight trace of anger if you keep walking, like you didn’t run right in and throw your wallet at the guy simply because you didn’t hear him the first time. Is this genuine, this petulance? Or put on in the hopes you might feel sorry and go anyway? Or something about the Thai people I am yet to discern? I hold my judgements, because I know how these things can get taken out of context and mixed up – but I know which way my bets are hedged.

So yeah, I missed something there. The ordinary public bus got me from Hat Yai to Trang, and Trang is a town I half thought I might spend the night, but on a rival it looked like a younger brother of Hat Yai’s concrete and crap veneer, so I resolved to get to Ko Lanta. A look around revealed the public bus station was a long way away and a quick canvassing of local business people told me that if I was to get local transport that way, there would be two busses and two ferries and I would be a long way from the beach. I believed them, and I actually think they might be right, but we will never know. In the couple of hours I had to hang around in Trang, waiting for the next mini-bus to go, I sat at a café next to the train station and had myself a mango shake. One of the waitresses took a keen interest in me, but being too shy to talk to me, I found myself in a surreal high-school-romance drama. I got little notes passed to me by her friends. Eventually I had to leave, having not actually spoken to her, but I wrote down the old e-mail address and left her to it. I didn’t actually see her too well, but she might have been cute. Her little notes were, and I kept them all.

Ko Lanta was disappointing. The mini-bus, packed like a sardine can full of white people, with me right in the back getting leg cramps (I was paying extra for this?) took two ferries to get to the beach and where we got out was camped a couple of taxi drivers. Bidding for the car started at a thousand baht. I heard this, went ‘fuck that’ and started walking. I earned the honks of every taxi on the road, maybe they thought I just couldn’t hear anything but their honking, and so then they all slowed down and yelled at me. I was willing to part with about 30 baht, mostly because I didn’t know the way, and eventually I got a ride for that much. The driver took me into a side street and there seemed to be a lot of accommodation options along the way. He tried to get me into his place, for the princely sum of 600 a night, with the lie that it was high season (half true) and that everywhere else would be full (totally untrue). I told him no thanks and walked off. He didn’t try to follow.

About ten minutes of walking past some very expensive looking options (and worryingly full) and I spotted a guy who asked me if I wanted a room. He pointed me across the street where I was shown a bungalow on stilts with a big double bed and told I could sleep there for 300. I said fine, as it was the cheapest I’d seen all day. You might be able to find that mystical cheaper option somewhere, but like I intimated, it was sort of high season (Lanta isn’t that popular yet to really heave at any given time of the year) due to the winter holidays gripping Europe and the hundred-baht-hero is never going to win easily. At least not without spending a fortune on taxis to look around, or all day with his luggage. The hero concedes, and promises himself to eat cheaply. No sweat, captain.

Three hundred baht is, like I said, ten Aussie, and in Malaysia you could get by on that for a whole day, maybe just a little more, if you didn’t drink. In Thailand, or in the south at least, it sounded like that would all go to the room and anything on top would be piled into the budget, potentially causing a crisis down the line. Food is cheap enough, but not as cheap as elsewhere, same goes for transport, even when the real public deal is tracked down. At least beer is cheaper, and cheaper still when you don’t pay – like we will find out soon enough.

The bungalow was nice, if the place overall was a little shabby, but hey, we who don’t want to pay for comfort don’t get it. The room was nice but the mosquitoes were angry and seemingly not held at bay by the mozzie net. Nearby was a cheap Thai food option and reasonably priced motorbike rentals. The beach, called Long Beach, was indeed long, but lined with restaurants and massage places. That’s legitimate massage too, for the connoisseurs out there, so don’t get too excited. It looked a little grubby too, but it was the main beach and there were others about. The first night I was there I wandered down to check the night life and was underwhelmed, because it was supposed to be pretty busy, but I found little evidence of this. Still, I sat and had a drink, hadn’t done that in Thailand yet, and eventually got talking to two Germans. Their English wasn’t so good but we got by, and they told me the island was mainly the choice for older people, not the party-all-night crowd. Great. Hopefully I’d salvage something from this, having already been unimpressed by the weather, the scene, the cleanliness, the crowd and the overall vibe – and I saw what might be the answer come over and sit down on a sitting platform on the beach.

The question really is, where are the Thais in all this? They’re there, trying to rip off or serve the tourists, who are the lifeblood of the local economy. Most visitors who come are short term and care so little about the people and culture side of travel that they stomp all over it like an unwanted slice of watermelon. They want their two weeks in the sun, they want to escape from freezing winters and snowy nights, they want their little slice of paradise – or something darker, all too often – so the kind of vibe I like to travel on is almost always totally missing from the picture. The Thais are reduced to bus drivers, waitresses, hotel workers, cleaners, cooks, masseurs, tour guides, shop attendants – the underclass, you might say. They work hard, oh so very hard, and see hordes of white, rich tourists come to see their beautiful piece of the world and turn red on the sand for a while, pick up and leave. On the Andaman Coast it would be possible to go from beach resort to beach resort via boat and never see anything that wasn’t a fancy hotel or nicely groomed section of sand for weeks. It’s no wonder they work so hard to get every last drop out of these visitors as possible. But that also leaves almost no room for anything else, and the youth scene, I am sad to report, is in a bad way of its own.

So the locals, what of them? I walked over and started my half-drunk rap on the two girls I saw come over. They were, honestly, the only things worth talking to on the beach, and this one bar I was at seemed to be the only place doing anything worth talking about. So we talked, and their English was just up to the task, and a few more drinks later I went for a swim with one of them. That was fun. I left my shorts on the beach and when I came back a crab had taken up residency in them. My t-shirt was very wet, but she was too. It was time to get to bed at that point but she told me to be there the next afternoon at one, and I went to bed. Things had gotten a little crazy, and pointed the way to further fun. Maybe even that double bed wouldn’t be wasted all on me.

The next day I showed up on the beach at one, but no sign of the girl. Fair enough, seemed about the flavour of the story. So I rented a motorbike and took myself around the island. Getting away from the main commercial strip on the north side of the island you get to a series of nicer beaches and on the far side you get to some amazing scenery, as the road runs next to some cliffs that drop into a turquoise jewel coloured sea and off the way sit numerous perfect looking islands. Did I nearly drive right off the road because a curve came along and I was staring at the view? Maybe. Yes. Hell yeah, it’s really amazing, and this is where I first realised why people come from all over the world to see this part of Thailand. It looks better than the photos and postcards and movies, because it’s there in full 3D panoramic reality, genuine surround sound and smell-o-vision optional extras if you have the senses required still intact. Best yet, down the back road of the island, I had it all to myself, more or less. Sure, another vehicle came the other way occasionally and there were cafes and guest houses dotted along the way, but compared to the overcrowded parts I’d seen of Thailand already, this weren’t bad at all.

I stopped at a place called the Panorama café, because the view was surely worth the overpriced food they were going to serve up. And I was right. I’m always right. The food was expensive by Thai standards but the view was magnificent. The sky was partly heavy with tropical clouds, bruised and blue and all grey, and the southern sky was clear blue. The ocean below reflects the sky above from a prism is perfect blue tones and it swells and flows. A handful of islands are visible from the deck perched on the cliff where I was sitting, most of them uninhabited but very visitable (by overpriced longtail boat charter) and one even had a fully fledged resort on it (on the side you couldn’t see from the main island, wow). I was more than happy with the view I had gotten myself and if the huge clouds hadn’t spurred me onward to finish the day’s riding I might have stayed even longer. The people running the show were over-the-top friendly and all smiled like it was going out of fashion. Again, why all the smiles? I didn’t dwell on this as I followed the road to the fishing village at the end of the line, a place where life seems to go on like it always has, oblivious to the touristic orgy going on elsewhere on their island. Doubtless, slightly more intrepid souls like mine where the only white people to get that far, because there wasn’t a sandy beach no-one was interested. Simple houses with simple people, most of who waved and smiled. This point of the island would have been washed away by the tsunami, I thought, as I climbed over the rocks at the point and went as far as I could before going back. I thought about how far I’d come since Meulaboh and how such a disaster could be felt so far apart. It’s a sobering thought, so I stayed with the beauty of the place a while and drove back to the bungalow. I got caught in the rain, but no-one’s counting.

Back at the beach that evening, I ran into the same two girls as the night before. Things were going swimmingly, I was buying drinks for me and them, and I just about had my hands down her underwear when we all got distracted by some fire twirling. Oh, ah, very nice. But when I got back to the girl, she was off in a dark corner with some other dude. Confused, balls busted, drunk – pissed off, annoyed and downright messed up. Did I read the signs all wrong? Or was this a strange place? I took a walk down to the water, and her friend followed me. Oh well, she said, there’s other girls out there. Are you coming back? I imagine her concern was for the bill, not for me, as cynicism was at an all-time high. I said yeah, in a minute. I need a little bit of a walk here. Ok, she said, and left. I took my chance to wander up the beach a ways, then double back in the dark and scarper to the bungalow where I showered and slept. First thing in the morning I paid up and took the first mini-bus that had room for me and I was so far out of there, several thousand baht in unpaid bar tab and one emasculating bitch later. I can never go back.

The next stop was Krabi. Krabi Town, to be exact, since Krabi is a province, and most of the action there is beach-related and nowhere near Krabi Town. But high demand and little beach front property means expensive digs, so Krabi Town and a rented motorbike are you best friends. The mini-bus dropped me at a travel agent type’s place across from the dock, no doubt there was a commission thing happening here, but the room was only 150 and the bike 200, so the numbers were good. The guy running the place was nice and friendly, but this was only for show, as I later found out. Not wanting to dwell on the rest of the day’s events, because it wasn’t the best day I’ve even had on the road, I’ll fast forward.

The beach at Ao Nang is nice, long and clean, but cluttered with fat Europeans getting their two weeks in the sun. The locals? Serving drinks and food to them. Resort town, I thought to myself, and wished I had something more to do. I eventually went for a quiet drink and had to fight off the advances of the most desperate bar girl hooker in town. I won’t say it wasn’t fun, but it got really old and old fast. Annoyed with that scene, I got some food and looked elsewhere. Pause, now, for a minute, to learn something.

A go-go bar is a regular looking bar, perhaps with more neon than is really needed, and with the addition of slightly more expensive drinks, a stripper pole and way too many female staff. It’s illegal to show naked boobies in Thailand, so any dancing that the pole sees is simply suggestive, but not much is left to the imagination. The deal usually is, you go in, buy a drink, talk to the girls, play pool, Connect Four (every bar in Thailand has a set, how this came about I am mystified) and various other bar game, watch the inevitable Premier League game on TV and have some fun. The girls speak enough English to get by, but the conversation is pretty limited. Should one of them catch your eye, you buy her a drink, at about double the going rate, and half goes to her in commission form. This is the introduction, the prelude, to paying for sex. After such an occurrence, you can pay a ‘bar fine’ of a few hundred baht and take the girl home. Or to her place. After that, how much you pay her is negotiated. I’ve heard anything between two thousand and two hundred in possible, but here’s the most important thing – I never actually did any of this, I learned about it the hard way, and from people telling me, and every single girl you see in these places is for sale. All of them. I knew none of this before finding the next place.

And we uncaused to see our hero in a laneway full of bright neon and pretty girls all calling to him. It’s widely known that he is attracted to bright and shiny objects, and it’s also pretty well known it’s been a while since he got any. This is a bad combination, when his ignorance of the whole scene is taken into account. He’s what you might call a ‘greehorn’, and very nearly gets taken – only his tightarsedness gets in the way.

He chooses a bar and goes in, gets a drink and plays pool with an unexceptional looking girl. He feels tired, sits down and immediately sees an amazingly pretty girl. Just unbelievable. They talk, her English is not so good, but they talk and he gets another beer. Eventually the owner, always the oldest and most wily of the ladies, tells him he could take her home and it will only cost 2200 baht. He makes a repulsed face at this, knowing how much food that could buy. He regrets both his small budget and moral compass (which told him to leave a long time ago) and quickly leaves. Truth be told, he was only a beer and a half away from saying ok to this – which makes it all a very dangerous combination. Neon, beer and working girls. It had been a lesson, and on the way back to Krabi Town the bike gets a flat. What a night.

In the morning, extortion. The once-friendly guy makes up some story about the bike needing major repairs, maybe, and I should pay for it anyway. What? How does he know? We should take it to a shop. The argument rages, and the fact that nothing was signed and no liabilities talked about makes it a very harsh scene. I knew that this kind of scam took place, and that the almost too cheap prices hinted at a sinister underlining. I argued and argued, the dude eventually falling into the realm of incomprehensibility and walking off. I take the bike to see if it needs serious repairs and its doesn’t. Just a new tube. Fine, that won’t be too much – but the guy asks for five hundred and I gag at this. He actually stuck his middle finger up at me, can you believe it? So friendly the day before, now trying to stick me for all it’s worth, and he’s left without a leg to stand on. Unlucky for me, some other tourists were there and they took his side, telling me to just pay and walk away. So I did it, and left without saying a word. What a motherfucker. Two lessons in 24 hours, Thailand was turning into quite a tough place to get by at times. Maybe you do need to know the rules.

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