4 May, 2010
Ko Lanta, Thailand

Today we entered a topsy-turvy parallel universe where, to some extent, we actually enjoyed ourselves!

We arrived on Ko Lanta yesterday evening after sharing a minivan with a pair of Germans. The German language is hilarious. Auscht win schpiegeleibergruppen schnell mit openslager, and so on. We lugged our bags about a kilometre south rather than pay a steep rate for a taxi, and walked along the beach looking for one of the resorts we’d sussed out on Wikitravel. They weren’t signposted well, so we walked into a particularly ritzy one to ask for directions, only to find that it was in fact the one we were looking for. Chlorinated fountains, jacuzzis, a day spa, a beachfront bar… we waited around a long time for the manager, fairly confident that we were wasting his time.

As it turned out, we weren’t, since rates drop in the low season and we paid 880 baht (AUD 30) for an air-conditioned bungalow. The catch was that it has a single double bed, complete with towels arranged into the shape of two swans kissing.

 

This is about as gay as it gets. I think it was only when we asked for a bungalow with two separate beds (none available, incidentally) that the visibly uncomfortable manager on this Muslim island realised we weren’t gay.

We went for another ill-advised snorkel right off the main beach which was even more depressing than that on Ko Lipe; not only was everything dead, but it was also covered in brown muck and the visibility was down to a few metres. The only signs of life were the occasional fat sea cucumber.

We retreated back to the resort. It’s actually really nice for $15 a night, although obviously the kind of place I’d rather be with Kristie than Chris. We spent the night sleeping on our respective edges of the bed, had our free breakfast, and then decided to explore the island.

Ko Lanta is significantly larger than Ko Lipe, with a huge jungle interior and long stretches of empty road. As with any large settlement in South-East Asia, the motorcycle is the dominant mode of transport. People can’t get enough of things. Children as young as seven or eight can be seen tooling around on mopeds, and entire families will cram onto them to get around. We saw three security/police officers riding a single one today, and we’ve also witnessed multiple cases of people riding a motorcycle while holding a fucking baby. “That’s a baby,” Chris said. “It’s not like a bag or something. If you drop it, it’s dead.”

Unlike Ko Lipe, you can actually rent a motorcycle here, which we did from our resort. Chris has had his bike license for about six months (not that anyone cares in this country), so we shelled out 250 baht (AUD 8) to grant ourselves the freedom of what Vice City would dub a “Faggio,” as though the manager didn’t already think we were a pair of gay lovers.

 

We drove south along the main road, looking for one of the big caves on the island, and found it signposted about halfway down. We followed the signs inland to a scattering of shacks, where a woman told us to park and wait for a guide to show up if we wanted to visit the caves, at the price of 200 baht (6 AUD) each. This was another place showing the lack of common sense when it comes to living in your own filth. Again – I know that there’s no regular trash pick-up, I know that heaping it together and burning it or burying it is at best a temporary solution. But it’s better than just tossing it wherever you happen to be at the time, so that you’re literally living in a rubbish tip. Virtually anything would be.

Eventually our guide showed up and we followed him through the rubber plantation, up some steps cut into steep cliffs and into some true rainforest. Outside the cave was a pretty cool place with huge trees, thick canopy, and constantly falling leaves. The guide handed us some headlamps and led us up into the caves.

I’ve been in caves in the south-west of WA before, and they tend to be overrun with health and safety regulations, so there’s lights and ladders and walkways everywhere, and even little old ladies can make their way around. This one had a few crude bamboo ladders and walkways, but that was it, and there was a lot of crawling and jumping involved (which was dicey in thongs). The last cave was also full of bats, which I was wary of at first, because I imagined they’d all swarm into my hair and give me rabies, as pop culture has taught me they’ll do. But they seemed more content to screech around in the upper reaches of the cave, so we safely took some photos and walked back down to the village with our guide.

It wasn’t amazing or anything, but it was a neat little thing to do, and I’m glad we did. I wonder if we should have tipped the guide. It’s generally not done in Thailand, but some tour places come to expect it, since Americans tend to introduce this ridiculous practice wherever they go. I’ve never spoken to an American who disliked tipping, and I’ve never spoken to a non-American who did like it. We didn’t, anyway. I suppose being Australians we always have the defence of ignorance.

On the way back from the caves we ran out of petrol. The bike was pretty much bone-dry when we rented it, but for whatever reason we didn’t buy any more from the many vendors selling it in Pepsi bottles on the side of the road. We (i.e. Chris) pushed it along the side of the road for a little while before a Thai woman in a tuk-tuk pulled up alongside us and tried to help us. We agreed that I would ride with her back towards the settled part of the island, buy a bottle of petrol and walk it back to Chris. It was a bit if a tight squeeze, since she had a whole basket of laundry and three small children in the tuk-tuk with her, but we managed.

We went up and down and around the winding roads for a bit, before coming to a stall where I shelled out 42 baht for a litre of petrol. I was about to walk back to Chris, but this very kind woman (who was a Muslim wearing a full headscarf and robes, by the way, how’s that to SHAKE UP YOUR PREJUDICES) insisted on driving me back to him. We didn’t have to go very far, since he’d covered quite a bit of ground. I would have paid her something, but she drove off fairly quickly, waving and smiling. Chris mentioned that a lot of passing Thais had stopped to help him, but no Westerners.

After fuelling up, we were roaring underway again, and stopped off at a German bakery for lunch. Again, lol. Eip schtein ubergleiss mit ein ufsterschensen. Ko Lanta is most definitely a Northern European island; all the books in our resort are in either Swedish, German, Danish or Norweigan. I really want to read The Beach, by Alex Garland, but so far the only copy I found was in Dutch. We did stop off at a second-hand bookstore, and I traded my Christopher Priest omnibus (The Space Machine and A Dream of Wessex; both meh) for a Thailand Lonely Planet. We really need a guidebook. If you have neither a guidebook nor accesible Internet, as was the case on Ko Lipe, planning your coming week can be very difficult. I didn’t pick up any new reading material. People on beach vacations tend to read really shitty thrillers.

We stopped off by the resort to pick up my snorkel, mask and towel, and, consulting the new guidebook, resolved to head to the far south of the island, since this is officially part of the marine park and might therefore have some semblence of life. And, ironically enough, it turned out that the journey was better than the destination.

Riding a motorcycle is nice. It’s really nice. You get a strong headwind, which cools you down; you have the freedom and independence to do what you want; and it’s just a really nice way of seeing the country. I was riding with Chris, who is self-admittedly overconfident and drives at 80 k’s an hour and takes blind corners in a very cavalier way… in Thailand… wearing thongs and board shorts and no helmet. I didn’t particularly care about that, though, because for the first time since arriving in this wretched country we both felt really happy.

We crossed over the centre of the island, and drove down the eastern road, on a high ridge that would give brief glimpses of brilliant tropical ocean between the trees, green islands clinging to the horizon. We discussed motorcycles as we rode. I never had any desire to learn when I lived in Perth, but when your travel alternatives are tuk-tuks and buses, it becomes immensely appealing.

Chris had previously floated the idea of riding a bike in Cambodia or Vietnam, which I’d been leery of due to the cost. Now I’m a lot more open to it, considering that riding a motorcycle is the first good experience I’ve had in this country, and considering that we’re powering through the region so quickly that we’re saving money simply by not being here very long.

We came to a sea gypsy village on the south-east coast, where kayaks could be rented. We considered renting one and paddling out to a nearby island, but the water wasn’t much nicer than back outside our resort, and in any case the place seemed to be deserted. So we drove south some more, only realising when we came to the far southern tip that what appeared to be a ring road on the map was not, in fact, unbroken, and that we were at a dead end.

We went for a snorkel anyway, since we were hot and sweaty and wanted to get in the water. It was as bad as the previous evening, with no visibility and nothing to see anyway. As we got out of the water and towelled off a sea gypsy walked past with a rifle and a dead squirrel, which was disconcerting.

We jumped back on the bike and headed north, coaxing her up the hills we’d so recently coasted down, discussing again the many wonderful benefits of a motorcycle. Ignoring the costs, the dangers, the travel insurance breaches and so on, it becomes one of the most wonderful ways to travel. I was envisioning myself learning how to use a manual, and the two of us powering up through the jungles of Vietnam, Top Gear style, Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, wind in our hair and grit in our eyes. I was happy for the first time in a week.

Then we got a flat tyre.

In the middle of nowhere.

It was our extreme good fortune that a ute-load of Westerners happened to drive past, waving at us cheerfully. “Thanks a lot, you German assholes,” we said, and continued on insulting the German people and language in general, before rounding the corner to find that they had in fact stopped for us, and were not German but Scottish.

 

We loaded the Faggio up into the tray, and me and Chris rode in the back with one of the Scots, holding it down. He and his friends had come straight from Europe and done a South-East Asian circuit, taking in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and were flying to Australia in a few days. They were clearly booze/party backpackers, which isn’t really our scene, but it was nice to talk to some Brits, who are basically fellow countrymen. Plus they really saved our bacon. We also learned that we are paying through the nose for accommadation, since they were paying between 100 and 200 baht a night, for air-con rooms. I suppose we already knew that; to be honest, we did choose this resort because it has wifi. We need to wean ourselves off such luxuries. As far as technology goes this isn’t a very good time for us to be on this trip; 2010 is late enough for wifi to be something we take for granted back home, but too early for it to be truly ubiquitous even in touristy places like this (as it will be in ten or even five years). We’re spoilt brats, in a sense.

Anyway, the Scots dropped us off outside the resort, so we wheeled the bike in and dumped it in the lap of our long-suffering manager. After it was repaired (for AUD $5, suspiciously high for a flat tyre) we drove off down the road again and found a vacant lot where I could practice riding around on it for a bit. Tooling around in a vacant lot on an automatic scooter is a far cry from riding a manual bike from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, but you know, baby steps. After I was confident with it, we headed off down the main road with me driving and Chris riding passenger.

South-East Asia isn’t the ideal place to learn to ride a motorycle. There a very few road rules, and those that exist aren’t obeyed. But I’m blessed with an excellent sense of balance, and the drudgery of the past few days was so beautifully cleansed by the fun of riding a bike that overlooked the dangers inherent in driving a motorycle for the first time in Thailand on a relatively busy road wearing virtually no protective gear at all. Again, it’s still quite a stretch from here to there, but I feel comfortable enough on two wheels that if I can spend some time practicing the clutch I think this might be doable. And I still want to do it, depending on costs. It’ll be pricier than what we had planned, but – judging from our track record so far – substantially more fun, i.e containing any molecules of fun whatsoever.

We’d signed up for a 1200 baht (40 AUD) dive tour tomorrow, taking us to four islands off the coast of Ko Lanta, but we were tallying up costs and fully taking into account just how much we’re over budget. So we cancelld and booked a ticket to Ko Phi Phi, a renowned diving island halfway between Lanta and Phuket, where they filmed The Beach and which is supposed to have great snorkelling right off the coast. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to pack all my shit so I can get up at 6.50 AM and exploit another free breakfast at this resort.

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