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8 May, 2010
Bangkok, Thailand

I pictured Khao San Road, the famous backpacker hangout of Bangkok, to be Phuket minus the beach. I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it’s full of hawkers selling you cheap trinkets and suits and the ubiquitous MASSAAAAAAGE, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of seediness. I’ve yet to see a single sports bar or overweight Western pensioner with his hand on the leg of a Thai hooker. Some of the side-streets, which are lined with leafy deciduous trees with lights strung through the branches, are downright pleasant.

We flew out of Phuket on some budget airline called One-Two-Go, or something. I was dreading another sardine experience, but we were lucky enough to be put in the emergency row, which gives you a lot of extra leg room. This plane also gave us free food and drinks, unlike Tiger. Chris spilt his Sprite all over his balls. I started reading Dune, which is so far reminding me of the Wheel of Time series. The plane smelt like vomit for some reason, but our noses got used to it. I considered what would happen if I yanked the emergency hatch levers five kilometres above the ground. On the whole it was a pleasant flight.

Although I like flying, planes and airports in general, probably because they represent doing something interesting with my time, I’d prefer to use them as little as possible while travelling. I’m not sure why, but I have an urge to travel by train and bus and avoid flying whenever possible, even if it’s cheaper and more convenient. There’s just something more adventurous about traversing an entire continent by land than shoving yourself behind a lunch tray with every other Joe Six-Pack on the 1.30 shuttle to Bangkok. Of course, our alternative methods of travel are usually the local equivalent of Greyhound, which is hardly more romantic, but there’s just some irrational thing inside me that says as soon as you’re up in the air, you’ve lost contact with the thread of travel and you may as well be flying straight in from your home country. Or something. I can’t quite articulate it.

I’d like to walk, or maybe cycle, all the way from Times Square to Santa Monica Pier one day. I’d like to travel overland from London to Singapore. Or Cape Town to Tokyo. Something about watching the landscape and the culture gradually change day by day really appeals to me.

Anyway, Bangkok is where we had to decide what we were doing – ditching South-East Asia entirely and going straight to China (or even North America), or giving Cambodia a shot and hoping that, unlike Thailand, it has some redeeming features to go along with its heat and squalor. We’ve opted to go to Cambodia. It would feel like a cop-out if we just wrote off a whole region after ten days on the heaviest tourist trail in Thailand.

Bangkok (or at least Khao San Road) is also slightly more appealing than we thought it would be, so we might kick around for a few days rather than head straight for the border. Chris is running a fever at the moment, so if he comes down with something we’ll be here a few days anyway. I’ll do some exploring tomorrow. And maybe take some photos – I haven’t been posting any, not just because it’s a bich, but because so far I’ve only taken about a dozen. If you’re not enjoying yourself you don’t really feel the need to document it.

Oh, and out the window of our taxi (and later tuk-tuk) I’ve seen virtually no sign of the protests, apart from a single barricaded street (with a big open hole in the barricade admitting traffic) and a few soldiers with assault rifles and coils of razor wire hanging out and smoking in front of a hotel. I haven’t really been keeping up with the news over the last week. I heard the Prime Minister came to an agreement with them or something, but then there were some attacks today where a couple of cops were killed, so who knows.

I’m not concerned about it in the slightest. The demonstrations have only shown the slightest inklings of occasionally turning violent, and even then it’s aimed at police and military, not civilians, and especially not tourists, who are the economic lifeblood of this country. The road outside is swarming with backpackers from all over the world. Everybody else is going about their daily lives just fine. Don’t worry, Mum.

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6 May, 2010
Phuket, Thailand

Ko Phi Phi is where they filmed “The Beach,” something local tour operators are quick to capitalise on. We arrived not long before noon, and in the short walk between the pier and our hostel I saw about fifty signs outside agencies telling us we could sleep on the beach where Leonardo di Caprio once walked. Whoop-de-doo. The main town of Ko Phi Phi is stacked with the usual hotels, dive shops, travel agencies, market stalls, hawkers and various other methods of separating Westerners from their money, but it has very narrow streets, high buildings and twisty alleyways, sort of like a medina, which was more pleasant than anywhere else we’ve been. It’s also built on a thin stretch of sand between two bays which is no higher than two metres, so it was absolutely devastated by the tsunami, with about three thousand deaths. There’s no signs of that anymore though, other than specially constructed tsunami shelters with wide stairways and flat roofs, and signs all over the island telling you how far away each one is.

After checking in and getting lunch, we rented a kayak to paddle to a bay less crowded, and hopefully do some snorkelling. Ko Phi Phi has a very dramatic landscape of huge limestone outcrops, rising up in sheer cliff faces from the water, with vegetation and foliage still somehow managing to cling to the sides. And, unlike Ko Lanta, the beaches are pure white sand, and the water a sparkling turquoise. From afar, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

 

Look a little closer and you see the rubbish cluttering up the beaches, and the layer of grime and chemical slicks from all the boat engines that clings to the island shoreline. You have to swim out maybe thirty or forty metres before you get to clear water. Even when we rounded the north-west point and found a secluded bay, this disgusting yellow-brown crap was floating on top of the water. Not to mention the enormous piles of empty water bottles, coke cans, styrofoam waste and general rubbish heaped up by the cliffs.

Nobody seems to give a fuck. This was paradise, once upon a time. Now it’s ruined.

We went for another half-decent snorkel. The location for it was impressive: huge limestone pinnacles rising straight up from the ocean floor. We swam through swarms of tropical fish, hovered above the regulator bubbles rising from some scuba divers below us, and enjoyed the company of a little remora fish (until the fucker bit us). The coral in this bay was doing its best to cling to life. A monkey came out onto one of the ledges on the cliff face above me, sat down with his legs crossed like a British gent reading a newspaper, and starting picking fleas out of his fur. It’s telling that the most interesting animal I saw on the dive wasn’t aquatic.

 

After that we paddled over to the southern half of the main bay, which is called “Monkey Beach” owing to the presence of a small troop of monkeys that like to pick through the rubbish there. Picture two or three monkeys sitting on a beach surrounded by a crowd of about twenty or thirty Westerners taking photos. Kayaking further south, back towards the main bay, we came across a number of snorkel tour boats, pulled up in the lee of the cliffs. I spotted one stupid bitch lugging a lump of coral she’d torn off back to her boat. This kind of ignorance boggles my mind, and the only reason I didn’t give her a piece of said boggled-mind was because I’m too polite, and I also thought it would be pretty weird to be reprimanded by some dude who just surfaces next to you wearing a mask and snorkel.

Maybe it’s naive to make a judgement based on three islands, but it seems to me that this is Thailand in a nutshell. They cover the islands in resorts and lodges and bars and resturants, swarm the place in longtail boats, destroy the native environment and don’t seem to care. I know tourism was Thailand’s ticket out of the third world, but if you don’t take care of your environment, it will be your ticket back in.

Or maybe not, since the tourists don’t seem to care either. After nightfall, we couldn’t walk down the street without getting flyers for bars and parties shoved in our faces. Europeans, Americans and Australians were walking around plastered, drinking in the streets, buying buckets of booze from roadside vendors. I don’t understand the appeal of this at all. Yes, alcohol is cheap, but not when you factor in the cost of the plane ticket to get you halfway around the world. Ko Phi Phi is Northbridge in the tropics.

We resolved to leave the next day.

Our room was right in the lobby of our hostel, and the top of the wall was open to it, so we were woken up at about 1 am by some loud British bitches, at 3 am by a thunderstorm and at 5.30 am by the hotel staff banging saucepans or some shit. We had breakfast, bought ferry tickets, sat around in the bookstore cafe and then got the fuck out of there… to Phuket.

The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” gets thrown around a lot by anyone who’s ever seen Star Wars, but Phuket is more than qualified. Northbridge or Itaewon on their very worst nights can’t compare to this. Take everything I said about Ko Phi Phi, remove the nice landscape, replace about 80% of the backpackers with 50-65 year old men with Thai girls hanging off them, make virtually every establishment a sports bar, multiply the hawkers by 1000% and you have Phuket. This place is fucking gross, not in a squalor-and-poverty kind of way, but in a seedy kind of way. It’s the Westerners that make this place gross. Walking down one of the main street at night we were handed dozens of flyers for “ping-pong shows” (yes, that kind), go-go bars, ladyboy dancing, prostitutes, cheap DVDs, cheap laser pointers, cheap shit of all shapes and sizes. It’s certainly very lively, but in the same way that a cockroach infestation is lively. I can’t even begin to understand the kind of person this place appeals to. We will never share a milkshake.

Actually, a bunch of loud, middle-aged Australian tourists came into the restaurant where we were having an early dinner, and would not shut the fuck up with their horrendous, screeching accents. I never realised how bad it can sound and I pray to the heavens that it’s an east coast dialect. Chris and I get mistaken for Brits all the time, so maybe we’re in the clear. I was still lovingly thinking of my Irish passport the entire time, as we shovelled our food down our throats to get away from this braying group of pigs as soon as possible.

We’re pretty much ready to leave. The Andaman Islands were all we really had on our list for this country, and we actually had an estimate of two or three weeks for them. So much for that sixty-day visa. We’re going to at least give Cambodia a shot, and if we don’t like that we’ll probably bail on Vietnam and fly straight to southern China. Or, if we’re in a full-on “fuck this” mood, we’ll fly from Bangkok to LA. Only $800 on Skyscanner.

In any case our plane to Bangkok doesn’t leave until the day after tomorrow, so we’re stuck on this festering shithole for another day at least. Maybe we should explore around a bit. Maybe it’s just Patong Beach that’s seedy and gross, full of Thais with shark smiles who treat Westerners like walking ATMs, and full of Westerners who are happy to be treated that way. Although nothing I’ve yet seen in Thailand suggests I should give it the benefit of the doubt.

Oh, and Chris wrote something up for those of you who are rolling our eyes at how we’ve been reacting to things:

You are all painting it up as if we can’t hack the heat or the dirt or the transport or the people. It’s not that at all. Its that there are no redeemable qualities. The shit we are writing about are mere observations. We came to this part of the world to see beautiful beaches and snorkel with marine life we wouldn’t see otherwise. We are leaving this part of the world with a very different outcome. Most people seem to come here in groups to laze on the beach, get drunk with friends and shop. Because they come from countries like the UK, they are pleased with what they find and the island paradise party extravaganza environment. We have both grown up on the coast of our own paradise that we now realise we took for granted. We do not fit in this tourist-swamped, money whirlpool of a life. These last 9 days and the next few are going to continue to be unpleasant, not because of the dirt or the people or the transport or some more dirt, but because we are not here for the right reasons. We did not come here to shop and drink, or join a group that is happy to watch a handful of monkeys sit on a dirty stretch of sand and take photos. Nor are we here to walk through streets and be offered MASAAAAAGE’s every second of the way. What you must understand is that we are not after the beaten tourist track. We are after the untouched trail. The one that has no neon signs or salesmen. I don’t know if Mitch does, but I am more than willing to admit I was wrong to come here for the reasons I did.

I don’t think we were wrong to come here for the reasons we did, per se, but we were certainly lied to by travel sources that promised pristine coral and amazing wildlife. (What am I going to do with this fucking snorkel and mask in my pack for the rest of the trip? It cost $100, I’m loath to get rid of it.) I also don’t mind beaten trails and other tourists, provided those tourists are looking for the same kind of experience we are, and the beaten trail provides that. I do not want to come to what is essentially Bali, where people come to get drunk and sit on a beach and sit in a pool and buy cheap shit and then fly home back to their wage-slave life.

I’m not sure exactly what I do want, but it’s definitely not that.

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.

2 May, 2010
Ko Lipe, Thailand

For a nice change of pace, today was a disappointment. I woke up in the middle of the night after a dream of home and was bitterly shocked to remember that I was here. My subconscious is trying to tell me something. So is my conscious.

We asked a French divemaster where some goodd snorkelling spots where, and he suggested two small islets off the island’s east coast. We rented some fins and swam out to the first one, circumnavigating it in the hope of seeing something interesting. The coral on this side of the island was still alive, but was a brown and grey colour rather than the vibrant tropical hues one would expect of, y’know, a tropical island. We swam back to the shore, fighting against an annoying current, and discussed that disappointment over lunch.

We tackled the second islet an hour later. It was slightly better than the first, with coral that made some sluggish movement towards being colourful. There were quite a few tropical fish around, including black and yellow angelfish, and clownfish hiding in stinging fronds, and purple-lipped clams that would close their mouths if you approached them. It was okay. Chris was really negative about the whole thing, claiming he saw better stuff all the time back home, but I still think it was better than any dive I’ve had in Perth. Chris expects to see manta rays and turtles a hundred metres off the shore of a developed tourist island. There were snorkelling tours to the national park islands for about 600 baht ($20), but we were too late to sign up for those, and in any case I have my reservations about spending a day in a boat with a gaggle of lifevest-clad Thai tourists splashing about and half-drowning in the water. We came across a bunch of these sorry souls on a longtail on the second islet. I don’t understand how you can snorkel while wearing a lifevest.

I think part of the problem here is that we’re both from Australia. Perth has many, many, many flaws, but amongst her virtues are the long stretches of pristine beaches and beautiful water.These islands are certainly picture perfect at first glance, but look a little closer and you see the piles of trash on the beaches, and the reefs dead from boat anchors. I nearly stepped on a fucking syringe today. Pluck somebody out of Canada or the U.K. or France and they’d love this place, but we have more robust standards.

There are signs everyone saying SAVE KO LIPE, for some kind of “sustainable development” fund. Too late.

The last kick in the teeth was when we returned our fins to the dive shop and learned that, as of the beginning of May, none of the ferry services run to the nothern islands. None whatsoever. The only way off this rock is to take the speedboat back to the pier and then get on a minibus (the worst way to travel) and drive north. Understand that, after those three hellish days crawling up the peninsula, and then our marvellous experience riding on a speedboat with the wind in our hair, we’d agreed to island-hop north without once returning to the mainland.

We went back to the room and mulled over our options. Chris was in one of his dark, brooding moods, where a black cloud hangs over him and destroys everything in its path, and I knew with miserable certainty that before long I’d be dragged down into the same mood. Sure enough, I found myself laying on my bed thinking about home, wondering what was going to happen to the rest of the trip, imagining we’d be miserable every step of the way, imagining myself miserable even if I canned the whole venture and went home, or went to Europe.

Putting it off wasn’t going to solve anything; we went to a travel agency and booked a ticket to Ko Lanta. We were planning to check out some of the smaller islands, like Ko Bulon or Ko Libong, but we now have neither the ability nor the inclination to do so.

Hopefully – and I’m sick of writing that word – Ko Lanta will be different. Hopefully there’ll be a few more Westerners there, more stuff to do, more stuff that’s actually open and available in the low season. At the moment I’m craving to be somewhere – anywhere – that’s cold. Patagonia or Tibet or Canada or Ireland. As I’ve said before, I’d be willing to put up with all this heat and hassle and unpleasantness if only something good would happen. Not like the good snorkel I had today, because although that was nice it was nowhere near good enough to justify the ordeal I had to go through to get to it.

Also I’m aware that so far this entire blog has been nothing but a catalogue of bitching and moaning, but it’s my blog and that’s how I feel right now, so shove it.

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.


April 30, 2010
Hat Yai, Thailand

We’re in Thailand. We were expecting it to be a blissful release from the stinking, humid, filthy cities to the south, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to make it to the coast. So now we’re holed up for the night in Hat Yai – another stinking, humid, filthy city, only in a country with a lower standard of living, so the stink and filth levels are even higher.

The view from the train windows was uniformly one of squalor and poverty. “How can they just live in their own rubbish like that?” Chris asked incredulously.
“They don’t have regular trash service.”
“So? Couldn’t they just get together and agree to throw their rubbish in one place? Like, ‘hey, nobody’s using that spot, let’s dig a pit and throw our garbage in it?'”
“…Yeah.”
“I mean, fuck, if you’ve got a dead duck in your front yard you can either throw it away or leave it there. Throw it away.”

We got caught by a tout fresh off the train, who asked us where we were staying and wanted to drive us tere. Chris also made the mistake of telling him we were going to Ko Tarutao the next day, so he then dragged us off to his buddy’s travel office. I can’t stand these people, but I’m always too polite to say anything. That needs to change. Eventually we got him to just drive us to our hotel in the back of his pickup.

We’re staying at the King Hotel, a creaky and dilapidated building that is nonetheless better than any hostel, which we don’t have the patience for at the moment. We went out to get dinner, which was a hassle, since this Muslim southern province sees few Western tourists and hardly anybody speaks English. We ate some tiny plates of unidentified meat at a bar and then beat it back to the hotel. The desk clerk had earlier tried to push his minivan service to Pak Bara (the harbour town that’s the jumping-off point for the islands we’re so desparately trying to get to), and we had neither the will nor the time to check out other options, so we agreed. We tried to ring a bunch of places on Ko Lipe to get accommadation for tomorrow night, to no avail. Now we’re just looking up their websites but half of them are down and the half that are up don’t allow bookings less than 48 hours in advance anyway.

We’re tired and frustrated and still not having fun. I dislike this place even more than Chris, since it reminds me so strongly of Korea, from which I fought so long and hard to escape. The filth, the humidity, the sweat, the motorcycles, the clamour, the language, the people. It’s exhausting me. It’s exhausting both of us. It wasn’t meant to be like this. It’s been three days now and we’re nowhere near where we want to be, and not enjoying ourselves in the slightest. Every day is a struggle to stay fed and find somewhere to sleep and try to inch ever closer to our goal. This wouldn’t be so bad if only there was some redeeming features; if only we were enjoying ourselves, as well as putting up with the hassles. But we’re not. So far there’s been nothing to enjoy.

Chris mentioned over dinner that he wished we were in America. I keep thinking of Europe, of Belgium and France and Ireland. It can’t just be culture shock, because I’d even love to be back in Japan. Or South America. I’m just burned out on Asia. Whcih is a shame, because according to our plans we’ll be here another six months or so.

Something I’ve decided in the last few days, however, is fuck the plans. If we don’t enjoy a place we’ll leave, and if we want to do something else we will. If these islands are no good, if South-East Asia continues to be the sweaty, fetid armpit of the world, we’ll jump a plane to Los Angeles or Beijing or Santiago… somewhere different. I’ve visited six foreign countries now, and every single one was in Asia. It was geographic convenience that sent us here first, but I’m tired of the place.

This has been an exceptionally negative entry but that’s how I feel right now and I just needed to dump it out. These islands better be good. Christ, I’d settle for just being able to get there. Whoever it was that said the fun is in the journey, not the destination? Fuck that guy.

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