1 May, 2010
Ko Lipe, Thailand

Very little sleep last night. The King Hotel was on a busy road, with trucks going up and down constantly, and at some point all the dogs in Hat Yai started screaming. Our hotel manager gave us a wakeup call at about 7.30, and we roused ourselves out of bed, packed our bags and went downstairs.

He’d told us the minivan would leave at 8.00, but his buddy who ran the travel agency said it was actually 9.00. That cost us an hour of sleep and replaced it with an hour of walking around the rancid streets of Hat Yai. I bought some thongs from a 7-11 and then we headed back to the travel agency to sit around and wait for the minivan. I told the travel agent that we had nowhere to stay on Ko Lipe, and asked if he could book something for us, bu he said “No, island, no telephone.” Despite the fact that there was a sign behind him saying WE BOOK ACCOMADATION with a list of islands including Ko Lipe, and despite the fact that there were brochures all over the place for resorts with phone numbers listed. Whatever.

Eventually the minivan rolled up and we got aboard. We were the only people on it, but as we tooled through the streets we picked up more and more. Eventually, even though we were shoved into the backseat with our bags piled to the ceiling, the driver picked up a Western guy and his Thai wife and crammed them in too. Chris looked at me and mimed putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.

Two hours later, around 9.00, we arrived at Pak Bara, which may as well have been Hat Yai, since I kept the curtains shut the whole journey and it looked pretty much the same. We gave some women our tickets and were told to walk down to the pier, where it was more humid then ever, and where we then had to wait for our speedboat to show up. There was a crowd of maybe 40 or 50 tourists waiting to get on, and they were all Thai (or at least Asian). I know Thailand is crawling its way out of the third world, and that many Thais are middle class and have disposable income, but this was still really surprising. Also annoying, since absolutely none of the boat crew spoke English. This proved to be a sticking point when we were told that we had the wrong tickets – after our luggage had been loaded on, and first, so that it was at the bottom of the pile. They let us on anyway, after taking a whole bunch of others off for reasons I’m unclear on.

And then we were motoring away across the ocean. Chris and I went out onto the prow, and the blasting wind went a long way into cooling us down. It also made me feel better, for the first time since the Palm Inn at Butterworth, where we’d had a night to chill out and and use the wifi. We could see the mainland shrinking behind us, and the jungle-clad tropical islands passing by. I listened to the Final Fantasy X soundtrack on my iPod. Gulls swooped past in our wake. For the first time on the entire trip, I was feeling something approaching happiness.

We stopped off on Ko Tarutao, the national park where we’d originally planned to stay before the language barrier, lack of contact information and Hat Yai tour operators had forced our hand. Here we shelled out 200 baht (7 AUD) for a “park fee” and stood in line for a free lunch that we later realised was for the occupants of a different boat. Then it was back aboard, and full steam ahead.

We stopped off on another island on the way, this one tiny and uninhabited, and everybody got off to take photos and such. Chris stripped down to his shorts and dove into the water, which looked blissful. I was wearing jeans, and therefore watched from the shore. I still felt fine. The water was beautiful, the sand was beautiful, the island was beautiful. Not quite a postcard-perfect tropical paradise – there was a fair bit of rubbish strewn up along the beach – but leagues ahead of being in a goddamn city.

On the final stretch to Ko Lipe, I was feeling less great, starting to suffer from a headache that I realised was sunstroke. I hadn’t put any sunscreen on, since it was in my bag, and my arms and face had turned lobster-red without me even realising.

We pulled up into the main bay of Ko Lipe, which was lined from tip to toe with bungalows, restaurants, resorts and bars. The speedboat docked at a floating platform, where a number of colourful longtail boats were drawn up. Here we experienced our first taste of the price-gouging to come, being charged 100 baht (3.30 AUD) for the privilege of a boat ride across the seventy metres to shore. (As I wrote this I checked with Chris to remember how much it was, and he commented “That’s $3.30 that could have gone towards the plane ticket to America.”)

Having reached the shore, we set off down the trail leading inland to find a tourist centre, or just any place off the street to stay. It was clear from the very beginning that Ko Lipe is drowning under its own development. It’s only about two kilometres wide, but has maybe thirty resorts, hotels and bungalow complexes on it. Not to mention bars, restaurants, tattoo parlours, cafes, convenience stores, travel agencies…

We talked to a guy sitting in some kind of kiosk, who circled a few cheaper resorts and guest houses on our map, and then set off to find some of them. We ended up opting for a twin aircon room near the middle of the island, on the main street. It’s 600 baht (AUD 20) each, which I was willing to pay for aircon at a time when I was sunburnt, had a splitting headache and my back was killing me. I still am willing to pay that, although it seems to cool down at night, and I’m aware that I’m spending far more than I ever budgeted for Thailand, which was somewhere in the region of $30 a day.

Having taken the leviathan off my back, I switched into boardshorts, lathered myself in sunscreen, grabbed my snorkel and towel, and we headed back to the main beach. This was it. This was what I’d been waiting for, during those torturous four days crawling up the peninsula. Soft white sand, warm turqouise water and brilliant snorkelling.

The coral was all dead and bleached. There were huge swathes of it, with barely a splotch of colour to be seen. There were still quite a few tropical fish around – I saw more than I would in an average trip to Mettams or Waterman – but on the whole it was quite depressing. Bare sand or rocks would have been better, because bleached coral shows you that there used to be something amazing there… but it’s all dead now.

We trudged back up onto the beach, dried ourselves off and went to eat lunch. I was bummed. When we got back to our room we had a long discussion about what we were doing, what we wanted to do, and why we weren’t enjoying ourselves. So far it’s the fact that there has been nothing good to outweigh the bad. I would be willing to put up with the sweltering heat, the visible pollution and squalor, the worrying notice in our bathroom asking us not to flush toilet paper, the exhausting travel, and my general distaste for Asian culture and society if only something good would happen. If only we could go for a fantastic snorkel over coral reefs, or see great wildlife.

Dinner was okay. We went to a litle bar and restaurant right on the beach, sitting on cushions around a low table with candles burning. As our meals arrived a dude started doing fire-twirling right in front of us, which was cool. About time we had a mild stroke of good luck. That, along with the boat ride over here, were the highlights of the day, enough to put a smile on my face. Other things that will suffice to put a smile on my face include average jokes, seeing small children do something funny, and a cold beer.

We need more than this. This trip is supposed to be amazing, the experience of a lifetime.

We’ve decided to stay here at least two nights, so at least we’re spared the daily ordeal of checking out, dragging ourselves across another few hundred kilometres and then locating somewhere to sleep. We can sleep in, get some laundry done, maybe rent some kayaks or go on a snorkel tour. Then we’ll island-hop north, hoping yet again that the next place will be better than the last.