Monday, July 18, 2011

Koh Chang, Take 1

Anxiously wait at pick up point from ten minutes before and twenty-five minutes after pick up time. Repeat to self “this is Thailand,” you didn’t miss it, you were here early, they’ll be late.

Travel for nine hours. Note the America vs the Soviets theme of the bus movies. Salt and Air Force One are the selections. After bus, enjoy that the ferry takes twenty minutes (you were warned to anticipate ninety).

Stumble onto island, over to collection of Song Tows (pick up trucks with benches in back and a luggage rack on top). Pull out scrap of paper. Absent-mindedly pick one of the recommended parts of the island you scrawled onto paper. Oh sure, there’s always room for one more on the Song Tow, over here! Cram onto what is practically back bumper of truck. Hang on for dear life. Photograph road whizzing beneath feet. Laugh with fellow passengers and negotiate who’s going to grab you if you slip.

Note the ice rink texture of the roads and the ridiculous switchbacks. Not a motorbike practice trip.

Disembark from death truck at Bang Bao on the Southern tip of the island. Wander past 7/11 and down pier. Book a jungle trek, one of the few things you’ve predetermined you’d like to do, with friendly middle-aged Thai woman. Inquire about guesthouse. Calls her friend. Secure accommodation in a no name guesthouse run by family. Cool. Ask about internet. Oh, no have, cheapest no have internet. That was efficient of me. It’s a house on the pier, on stilts; as the rest of the town. Note the bay a few meters below the cracks in the floorboards. Well, that’s certainly on the bay isn’t it? Settle in. Proceed to operation find internet.

End up sitting on the dock outside an internet café that is closing, but willing to let me use their Wi-Fi after closing. Watching battery drain sitting on a damp pier after sunset and lamenting anything to do with American educational assessment, which seems so irrelevant lately. Toddler walks up, giggling. “Wanna go to grad school?” More giggling.

“Hey, do you know if there’s an internet café around here?” a fellow American.
“You’re looking at it.”
“If you just need to check your email, you can use my laptop for a minute.”
“Hey, my guest house is right around the corner and they have free Wi-Fi, it’d probably be more comfortable than here.” Karma. w00t.
Bum around more expensive guesthouse’s lounge and complete assignments. Ordered some food, I’m not a total mooch.

Realize I’m not sure how to locate my guesthouse in the dark. Note to self: flash light. A nice shop owner helps me locate the correct plank to follow. See, here’s the Thai hospitality everyone talks about.

Return to my own guesthouse. Discover sink and shower do not work. Laugh out loud. No, really I did. Well, smelly backpacker it is. Toilet does work. Phew. Not sure I’m skilled enough to use an open pier for such purposes.
But, it’s definitely the quiet I’ve been seeking.

Wake. Low tide, mud is visible through the floorboards. Try the water again in vain. Get ready to go hiking.

Stand at 7/11 meeting point. Hrm, what to eat from a Thai 7/11 that’s low on the glycemic index? And the pair of boiled eggs and sliced guava has it.
Ok and a croissant, oh well. If you ever step into a Thai 7/11 you’ll understand.

Ten minutes early, twenty minutes late. Pattern?
Guide and I spot each other and smile. I found the jungle guide I was hoping to trek with based on the recommendations I read. Not bad for flying blind. So who needs a shower?
I’m the last one picked up. I get to ride in the pickup cab. I get a seatbelt. I’m in the front seat, and I’m comfortable with that with our guide. Two other girls are in the cab.

Stop and feed monkeys some rambutan. My paranoia of monkey poo in my hair is not realized. Decent photos are. So far so good.

Park truck. Embark on trek. Stop to look at poisonous spiders, edible mushrooms (no, not those mushrooms), snakes, rubber plantation (water bottles and bowls collect the precious sap throughout the forest), other flora and fauna. A few rainy patches, jungle over beach was the right choice.

Arrive at first waterfall. Swim. Climb waterfall. Slide down waterfall. Few srapes and bruises. Good photos. Rambutan for the people this time.

Onward. Stop for lunch at another branch of the river. Begin the swim hike. Leave everything except swimsuit and shorts. Swim upstream. Climb over rocks. Swim. Climb, swim, push, pull, lift each other up through current. Ignore jagged spots. Or try to. Hike up at least three tiers of falls. Swim and hike back. On foot, barefoot through the jungle for the last bit. Stop to gawk at wild marijuana. Ten year old girl behind me asks what it is. “It’s something to smoke. It’s marijuana.” She tries to pronounce it. “Ask your mother.”

Collect packs, hike back. One last swimming stop. Fatigue is setting in for the group, we’re approaching the seventh hour, little swimming. The rain picks up. What few dry patches were left are soaked in ten minutes. But the day was too awesome for that to matter much. A wonderful trip is concluded.

Time and place utility, a beach towel is expensive when you’re dripping wet, along with your only towel. The complaint of how many people cannot do basic arithmetic in the country is apparent as he cannot make the change, even with the calculator. I walk him through the simple subtraction, showing the steps on the calculator. I’m not positive he’s Thai, but he definitely can’t do math. Sad.

Dry off. Wonder if ironing very moist passport and work permit is advisable. Curse at self for carelessness, lay them out to dry.
Try shower in vain. Seek Thai lady that helped find the accommodation. She calls her friend. Figure out where in the maze of rooms the owner lives. At first she thinks I’m balking about hot water, and she tries to explain there is no water heater. I show her there is no water at all. “Ah! I turn on.” There we go.

Cold shower. Drain is a hole chiseled in the floor, straight to the bay. Reconsider biodegradable soap. Reconsider chopping hair short.

Wander around pier. Whole fish and beer for dinner. No alcohol for Buddhist Lent so serious, na? Wander around pier.
Lay out on the deck of the guesthouse staring at the stars, the lights across the bay, and dangling feet above the water. Most peace I’ve felt in I’m not sure how long. I could spend a long, long time here. So glad I got out of Bangkok, glad I found quiet.
Book. Bed.

Wake up with sun, with a start. It’s the same nightmare. I thought we were done with this. Swear at the contrast to the peace of the evening’s stargazing. Take time to calm down. Wonder if there is something to Thai superstition about ghosts. Wonder how many rings of Jasmine flowers it will take to appease the spirits. Buddha demands pink fanta!

Breakfast. Injection of internet. Sore from the current of waterfalls banging me around boulders and rocks. Saving snorkeling for another trip, despite having landed in the snorkel and dive hub, was sensible. Nap.

Quest to find a beach. Song Tows only run hourly on this part of the island in low season. Bother. Pavement is dry, attempt to rent motorbike from woman wearing “Koh Chang is not SALE,” T-shirt. I get that she loves foreigners. She demands my passport. I’ve read this is common on the island, but I say forget it. I’m sure she loves foreigners even more now. I stubbornly set off on foot. Oops. Thankfully, I’m saved from this folly by one of those hourly Song Tows that I wasn’t patient enough to wait for.

Ask to be dropped off at (what turned out to be) a rock beach. Oops. Stop to eat. Use some basic Thai. Some confusion.
“He no speak Thailand, he speak Cambodia.”
Puppy chewing at my feet.
Restaurant owners set off on quest to break my 1000 Baht note, by motorbike to various places nearby, puppy on the bike, despite their best efforts.
Enjoy a Cambodian dessert (banana in coconut milk sticky rice, boiled in banana leaf). Say goodbyes. Ponder when I’ll work out a visit to Cambodia.

Give up on Song Tows again, they’re not stopping. Walk down to what looks like private resort. Waltz in anyway. Ask. Get let in. Sand beach, that looks fabricated, rocks after waters edge, to myself. Book. Pack of dogs. Sunburn. Oops.

Wander into interesting Jungle Hut/bar/hang-out/hookah bar something or other. Nice chat with a couple of expats that opened the place. Use bathroom, after they check the rain hasn’t rendered it inoperable. Not even phased by Thai toilet any more. Still hilarious when it’s American standard brand.

Aloe massage in open hut next door. Score.
“You want foot scrub?”
“Uh, sure.” Why not?
Rubbing alcohol. Paper or gauze on my feet, more alcohol. Ok, yay hygiene, but what are they doing prepping for surgery?
“You want manicure?” (They meant pedicure) “Have many colors.”
“That’s ok, thanks.”

Darkness has already fallen, though it’s barely after 6:30pm. My confidence in flagging a Song Tow in under three hours (they stop at 9) is low. Get the second Song Tow barreling through to stop and take me to base camp in under twenty minutes. Good.

Well, if I’m staying on the fisherman’s wharf, another seafood dinner is in order. Fresh crab fried with garlic and pepper. Beer. Sure, the big one. Leo, of course.

English expats behind me. Conversation. America vs Britain, diving, etc. Join table. More beer is ordered. Oh dear.
Four times my usual intake of one, time to wander back down the pier to bed. Thai (or Burmese or Cambodian or…?) waiter walks with me and starts conversation. Both headed to 7/11. Walks back from 7 with me. Arrive at my small jetty.
He gets a little too touchy feely. Uh, newsflash: a five-minute conversation and walking to 7/11 does not grant you access to come back to my guesthouse. It’s a good thing you finally took my no, or I might have lobbed you off the pier. Oh, to be a white girl in South East Asia. *sigh*
Decide to shower. No water. At least still quiet. Sleep.

Wake with the sun. No nightmare. No water. Succeed in waking guesthouse owner after about forty minutes, get water turned on. Upload, organize photos from jungle trek from camera to computer. Delete 60%. Need more camera practice. Lament how much is left to do to rebuild my photo website. Repack. Getting better at that.

Arrive in town exactly at nine, first Song Tow, the one I need to catch. Deserted. What? Something in Thailand left on time or early? Wait what I’m not awake enough for this. Am I going to miss my boat and bus now? Song Tow driver convinces me I’ll still make it, and he’s not leaving for an hour. I’m not so sure but I don’t really have an alternative. Time for more breakfast, not just the 7/11 fare. Chat with Norwegian about Ho Chi Minh City.

10 AM Song Tow. Talking to Norwegian about travel in general. Stop. Two Americans get on board. The four of us chat. We’re all getting anxious about making our connections. Get on ferry. Get off ferry. At exactly time bus is supposed to leave. Things don’t leave on time in Thailand. Except this morning’s Song Tow. Book it off the pier towards the buses. Find bus sitting there half empty and waiting. Feel silly. Thank goodness, not packed this time. Ignore Day After Tomorrow in favor of book, despite Jake Gyllenhaal. I hate apocalypse movies. The American duo from the Song Tow made it onto the bus too, they didn’t have a reservation yet, but they’ve got a departure time from Bangkok to their Northern province. Cutting it close. We discuss grad school, English bookstores and what not.

The bus air-conditioner starts leaking on me. Really glad it’s not a packed bus as it continues to piss down on the seat next to me.

Finally in Bangkok. Stop at the godforsaken tourist bus trap catty corner from Khao Sarn. Ugh. The vultures are already there.
“Taxi? Tuk-tuk?”
Push drivers out of the way to retrieve bag. Resist urge to do any worse than the cold shoulder and multiple irritated “No”s.

Walk back to Khao Sarn Rd. Not far. Seek dinner. Chat with acquaintance I haven’t seen in two months. Dinner. Wi-Fi, ah, the lifeblood of an information junkie. Type ridiculously long, tense inconsistent adventure blog post. Wonder how much to cut. Wonder how much longer it’s possible to stall on next round of grad school homework. Wonder if anyone is still reading at this point.

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