Oh, Thailand. Just when I was about to go off and write a mean post about you, you've gone and redeemed yourself with laidback, gorgeous Krabi.
You see, I was going to write a long diatribe where I would tell a tale about going to Pizzeria Uno on Lombard Street when I was 7 or 8 with my dad, in which I was served sour milk and our food took forever to arrive and was, by my dad's standards, completely unpar, and he made us leave the meal early and had calm-but-stern words for the management and explained to me in the car ride home what a "tourist trap" was and how bad businesses might prey on innocent visitors who don't know any better and serve them subpar deep dish and sour milk, but good businesses can't get away with that because no one -- and definitely not anyone in our family -- will ever go back.
You were going to be the Pizzeria Uno in my story, Thailand, and I was going to say that at your best, you were like pizza -- even when it's mediocre, it's still pretty good -- and at your worst, you were sour milk.
But now I can't say that anymore. Because I have come to Krabi where there is dramatic scenery (giant karst formations rising up out of the earth and towering over everything), nice people, relatively inexpensive food, and an all-around relaxed and happy vibe. Hooray, Krabi, for without you gracing yourself on the itinerary of my trip, I might have written off Thailand as the Pizzerio Uno of Southeast Asia and never returned.
Getting to Krabi, on the other hand, was a whole other story, and gave me many hours (many, many hours) to reflect and think and come up with metaphors like Thailand being to Southeast Asia what Pizzeria Uno is to eating and pizza. That's because instead of taking the five hours the front desk folks at my hotel in Koh Phangan told me it would, it ended up taking over twelve.
Before leaving yesterday at 11 am for the 12:30 ferry, I had spent the previous four days on Koh Phangan and the three before that on Koh Samui. My impressions of Koh Samui were that while it was quite pretty, it was a definitely bit built up and had a kind of sleazy atmosphere, at least from what I saw wandering around in the center of Lamai Beach's little town (I'm guessing the even-bigger Chaweng is similar).
However, despite the fact that I wasn't enticed to go solo and check out Lamai's nightlife, I still had a nice two full days hanging out at my hotel's pool, renting the kayak to go out into the calm waters just out back, having a couple really nice Thai meals nearby, and generally relaxing (I even went for a painful, $6 Thai massage).
The trip to Koh Phangan was smooth sailing; the ferry took about an hour, then I was shuttled up to my resort via songtheauw. I instantly like Koh Phangnan a lot more than Koh Samui, in part because the island is way less developed and hillier, too. So that our songtheauw trip took us through all sorts of winding, steep roads, past little bungalows and people selling coconuts by the side of the road. I wouldn't just call Koh Phangan laidback, I would call it sleepy, if not downright deserted. I was there a week after the previous Full Moon Party, when the island becomes completely overrun with partygoers from all over the world, which allows the hotels to triple or quadruple their rates and enforce things like 4- or 5-night minimum stays. Instead, I got a giant king-sized bed at a 3-star hotel with a nice swimming pool and right on gorgeous Haad Salad beach for a mere $25 a night (and only $20 for my fourth night, which I booked directly through the hotel).
Koh Phangan was pretty good, for the most part, although to be honest I enjoyed my time at the beach in Cambodia and Malaysia more than Thailand. Maybe that's because those beaches felt a little less on everyone's radar, and the people working at the various establishments near the beaches were a lot nicer. Instead, my impression on both Koh Samui and Koh Phangan was that the people working in these places have dealt with a lot of jerks over the years and have a kind of weathered, don't care attitude with people they're encountering. Obviously many people are nice so that's a major generalization, but I definitely encountered a lot of staff and people in the service industry who also were majorly defensive with me, or ready to go on the attack when I asked the simplest of questions. After a while, I actually started to feel bad for all these poor Thai people stuck on the islands dealing with amateur travellers presumably coming and acting like dipshits and jerks all the time (never mind disobeying customs like no nude/topless sunbathing, which is considered a big no-no in Buddhist culture). It's like, sorry, Thailand, that your cultural preferences were traded in the name of greed and farang coming to soak up your sunshine and beach views while trampling on your customs and way of life, but I'm trying to be nice to you and smile and be polite, so work with me!?
The first two days in Koh Phangan I hung out at pool and at the beach, where the very shallow waters allowed you to walk way out looking at cool coral right at your feet. The third day, I arranged for a day trip to Koh Nang Yuan and Koh Tao, which was fun but had that whole tourist-trap feeling I got very annoyed with in Vietnam -- forty people shuttled on a speedboat, forty people getting off at Koh Nang Yuan to snorkel, forty people queueing to eat mediocre food at the private island's restaurant, forty people back on the boat to travel to Koh Tao to snorkel more, forty people annoyed, impatient and sunburned getting off the boat being barked at to get into the right songtheauw to go home. The snorkeling itself was really gorgeous and I loved swimming with all the bright fish, especially when I could swim away from the packs of other tourists and have the water all to myself. I had not brought sunscreen with me, though, and I got worried about my skin, so I cut the snorkeling short at Koh Tao and spent the last 10 minutes there watching an Asian chick try to take selfies of herself in the water with her GoPro.
On my last day in Koh Phangan, I rented a motorbike again to keep working at my skills, which meant I got to deal with a ton of very steep inclines and descents. I went looking for waterfalls on my map, but I kept missing turns or not seeing where the trails began, and after a while I realized I was actually chasing waterfalls, which is the one thing TLC sang about not doing, so I decided I should stick to the rivers (well, in this case, roads) that I was used to (and advice from '90s pop songs) and head back to the hotel.
I got back to the hotel, had some dinner and felt generally sorry for myself because I had woken up with a cold a couple days before and it wasn't getting better. The woman at the restaurant where I ate that night said I should inhale onions, so she gave me a bag of cut-up onion which I brought back to my room. Too tired to focus on repacking my bag for the zillionth time, I sent a whiny text to a friend back home and he kindly offered to Facetime with me. I don't really love Facetime as I spend most of the conversation half-listening to whoever's on the phone while trying to figure out what angle I look best at holding the phone, but I finally figured out if I propped the phone against a pillow while laying down on the bed, I look OK and can talk without my arm growing tired.
We were chatting away when suddenly I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. On the bed. Crawling towards me. And having lived in NYC for four, traumatic years, I knew instinctly what it was: a giant cockroach coming to wage war against me.
"OH HELL NO!" I screamed. "YOU GET THE F***K AWAY FROM ME YOU PIECE OF [insert rant of expletives I will not type as they are too offensive and my mom is reading]." When I confront cockroaches, I basically turn into a guest on the Maury Povich Show.
While my friend on Facetime looked at the ceiling of my hotel room, I looked around for something to kill the cockroach with. My sneaker? Too weak. My guidebook? Not heavy enough against the bed. Why was it on the bed, anyway?
Oh my god the onions! The onions! Get rid of the onions!!!!!!
In a panic I threw the bag of onions out the window and told my friend we'd have to talk later. What happens next is me going SEAL Team Six on the enemy intruder, who darted back under the bed, then near the window, then back under the bed. I shone my headlamp under the bed and discovered that a chunk of the bed frame was seemingly made of foamcoare and was hanging on the floor. Wait... were there more cockroaches? How many were in here?
Unlike my days of NYC living when I could have easily set up a one-woman extermination business, I had no protection -- just a map I'd rolled up as a makeshift weapon. (In NYC I had an arsenal of sprays, Borax, a special spatula used only for cockroach murder, all served up with a special kind of insanity brought on by not sleeping for four years.) This was one battle I was not equipped to go alone. I went down to the front desk to see what they had in the way of cockroach massacre supplies and found no one at reception. Right, because it's 11 pm and in Southeast Asia the assumption is nothing ever happens after 11 pm because everyone is asleep. Everyone ... except cockroaches.
In a rage I picked up the mosquito-electrocuting racquet left on the front desk and took it to my room, where I ran it under the bed while talking to the cockroach like Deputy Sam Gerard in The Fugitive. Only in this case, it's like Deputy Sam Gerard is, like, the good guy and The Fugitive Cockroach is basically Osama bin Laden. Is that metaphor neat and elegant? Do I care?
After two hours on a stakeout mission, I had to admit defeat. The cockroach (cockroaches?) were living under the bed and I had no choice but to sleep on top of it. I crawled into the green sleep sack my sister lent me and tried not to cry myself to sleep lest the cockroaches be enticed by the taste of my tears.
The next day I repacked my bag in an exhausted, delirious haze and went downstairs for breakfast, loudly and slowly sliding the mosquito racket on the front desk, an act raised which raised exactly zero eyebrows. At 11 am, the songtheauw carted me off to the ferry terminal back to the mainland while I cursed the 3-star resort in my mind and raged silently about the annoyances of Southeast Asia (honestly, I think I am more mad that no one was around to throw me a can of roach killer than I was about the roach in the first place!). The ferry journey was uneventful, it just took about twice as long as what was listed on the information at the hotel. Here's how the rest of it went: get off ferry in a port near Suratthani, get on a bus, bus takes you to a bus depot in Suratthani where you exchange your ticket for another ticket to get on a songtheauw, get on a songtheauw to a travel agency in Suratthani where you exchange your ticket for another bus, get on another songtheauw which takes you to the actual bus, wait on the bus for an hour so that as many locals can get on as can fit, then slowly drive stopping every five feet to let a local on or off until the bus breaks down on the side of the road for an hour and a half hours, then drive five feet before the bus breaks again and everyone gets off and waits by the side of the road.
So yes, the bad news was, the bus broke down. The good news was that a new bus came careening down the road and everyone loaded on to that and the new bus driver drove at breakneck speeds all the way to Krabi. If you've ever wanted to disembark from a moving vehicle, you should move to Thailand (or Vietnam), where the bus might slow to 10 or even 5 kph and open the door for you to get off. The other good news was that we were waiting so long there was virtually no traffic by the time we were back on the road, and we got to drive through dimly lit Thailand, which was actually kind of cool and beautiful. (I always thinks it's amazing the neutralizing effect darkness has on a place -- at certain stretches with just a little house lit up in the distance or zooming by a gas station, if you weren't paying attention you could think you were driving through the night in Maine or Tahoe or Spain, it was just the sudden flash of a palm branch or writing in Thai that gave away the location's identity.)
We finally made it to a bus depot outside Krabi Town around 11, at which point only Westerners were left on the bus and we all had to hand over tickets again to be exchanged for tickets for a songtheauw. After much rigamarole, we were all loaded up on to the same songtheauw, with two guys hanging off the back, and driven to everyone's hotel. I finally made it to mine just as the clock struck midnight, wandering first down a dark road which I fortunately found lit up just after I rounded a corner. The guesthouse was a dream come true -- they'd left my key at the front along with the Wifi password, and my room is one of the cleanest and nicest I've had so far. After so many grubby places along the way, I am just grateful for a nice place to lay down. (And with the bed off the floor, at least I can be fairly certain there isn't a cockroach colony conspiring against me while I sleep.)
I set down my bag and ran out to find something to eat, which can be a challenge at certain hours in SE Asia since, you know, nothing happens after 10 pm, not even cockroaches. I walked back up the road and found a woman cooking up noodle soup at a street vendor for 60 baht. I had not eaten anything since a small sandwich at the bus depot in Surantthani at 4 pm, so I gobbled down a bowl of soup -- which was served with a smile and a lot of kindness, making me think that perhaps I had misjudged Thailand and all the time I'd spent grumbling to myself about its bad attitudes and hassle and inconveniences were perhaps a little unfair.
Today, as I walked down Ao Nang Road to hop a longtail boat to Railay Beach, I discovered that Krabi might be part of the Thailand that everyone loves. It's busy, but not chaotic. Laidback but not a total sleeper. There are palm trees and trucks and mango juice vendors and it overall feels like a nice place to be. Bouncing up and down on the waves to Railay Beach in a longtail boat, looking up at the massive limestone rock formations jutting up from the earth, carved by wind and sea, I finally had one of the best feelings that comes with travel -- that sense of being totally open and free.
So, Thailand, I'm glad I didn't write you off completely. You might by touristy and, I dunno, kinda basic, but despite the cockroaches and bus breakdowns and surly staff, you have your beautiful parts, which I'm glad I've stuck around long enough to see.