Journal 4/9/2003-4/21/2003: Ko Lanta

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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9 Apr 2003

Now it was truly the hot season. North-east Thailand had grown so hot that I was basically uncomfortable all the time as I worked on filling my gadtanyuu obligation in Nang Rong. Bangkok had become a big race from one air-conditioned space to the next. Based on my experiences in February and March, I think Chiang Mai and Pai were probably no better (although Pai would be cool at night, the day would be a scorcher). I had an ulterior motive to find out of there was any place in Thailand where I could be comfortable in the hot season, in case one day I try to live in the country. So, I decided to head down to beaches of the south. Even though the mean temperatures in the south are higher, there is a constant sea breeze on the mainland and island coasts which might yet save the day.

I had heard lots of good things about the lack of development on the island of Ko Lanta from travelers in Pai and elsewhere, so I ditched the computer, camera, and other prison balls, and headed down there.

I took the ferry from Krabi, and after a brief, mysterious stop in the middle of the Andaman sea where we were met by longtails who removed a few passengers, we arrived at the Ko Lanta ferry pier. And they were ready for us.

In order to walk into the main "town" of Sala Dan you had to first run the gauntlet of 40 or 50 guesthouse touts who lined the pier, holding up signs and greeting you with the usual false familiarity. Behind them was a phalanx of pickup trucks, sawng teeos, and SUVs emblazoned with the guesthouse names, ready to ply the one road to deliver the guests to their island paradise.

I had no interest in picking a guesthouse by tout so I pushed through the mess and walked 100m into town, where I rented a motorbike so I could explore the place myself. It was not a good sign that I was furnished with a free, advertising-supported map covering Ko Lanta, Krabi, Ao Nang, and Railey Bay. The map revealed just how undeveloped Ko Lanta was (scale is 8 or 10 miles top to bottom):

Fully Developed: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Fully Developed
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Basically every inch of beach has been lined with guesthouses and/or expensive hotels, although some of the guesthouses are quite primitive in comparison with those in Phuket, Khao Lak, Phra Nang beach, or Railey beach. The east side of the island has a rocky coastline and is beautiful but nearly bereft of tourists. The tiny bit of beach at the south tip is inside a national park, which in Thailand means it's on reserve for a major hotel chain to pony up the bribe money.

The red line is the island's one paved road, which is actually connected with the mainland and an endless stream of tourist minivans by car ferry. Along its northern extent is a vegas-esque series of hotels, guesthouses, reggae bars, internet cafes, and indoor and outdoor Thai boxing rings, not to mention a giant, day-glo colored outdoor reggae stage with a giant picture of Bob Marley.

The orange line is a rather dodgy dirt "road" which becomes pure hell on motorbike south of Klong Nin Beach. Every time a truck passes, you get coated with dirt which doesn't settle for another 20-30 seconds and which gets in your eyes no matter what speed you're going.

Today I rode my motorbike onto the orange line, assuming (as I had been promised by the backpackers recommending Ko Lanta) the partiers would stay up north where they could easily hop from bar to bar. After checking out several guesthouses, it was getting roasting hot and I was covered with sandwiched layers of sweat and dirt, so I got a 600B bungalow (more in the high season!) at the Lanta Nature Beach resort (labeled A on the map). This overkill affair, the only bungalow they had left, had air conditioning and was a perfect example of a common pattern of construction also decried in the Lonely Planet. The vast majority of guesthouses and hotels on Ko Lanta build large, expensive, concrete, aircon bungalows right next to the beach, and then behind the bungalows the guesthouses place the cheaper bamboo huts. This is inane and self-defeating on three counts. First of all, there is no reason to build aircon huts anyway: 11 months out of 12, the sea breeze is plenty to keep a bamboo hut cool, and the 12th month (April!) is in the middle of the low season. Secondly, because they build the aircon bungalows as concrete buildings with weatherstripped, sealed sliding windows but no mosquito screens, you have to close the windows and run the aircon to be comfortable and unbitten, thus wasting energy. Finally, most importantly, the aircon bungalows block the sea breeze from the bamboo huts, thus preventing anyone from enjoying natural, ecological comfort even if they wanted to. All in the name of profit!

Other than the construction, the place seemed nice. The sand on the beach was relatively white and fairly clean, and the water was blue and wonderfully warm.

...That was until the evening, when the neighbor guesthouse's bar/restaurant decided to play some music for the whole beach to hear. I hoped it was just a quick show, but it went on all night until at least 2 or 3am. Apparently they blast this music every night, even though it produces annoying sound levels inside every hut of their own guesthouse and every neighboring guesthouse. Nobody dances to the music, and everyone I asked found the music level annoying whether they had a hut there, or just came to eat, or just came to (try to) chill and talk with their friends. But everyone wants to be nice so nobody complains or asks. I really thought this sort of ignorance was reserved for University dorms, but apparently not. So much for this guesthouse.

10 Apr 2003

Got up extra early so I could use some of the precious cool morning to find a better guesthouse. I ventured south on the dirt "road," past the steep section where everyone falls and even the four-wheel-drive trucks need to curve at a special angle to make it up the hill. I made it as far south as Nui bay (north of Waterfall bay resort) before I decided that seeing more guesthouses was not worth further risking my life.

I passed the 24-hour security guarded gate of the infamous Phimalai resort. At this place, the rooms start at 12,000 B ($285) a night (20,000 B ($476) is more typical) and include a complimentary massage at the spa! It is beyond me why anyone would pay that amount on a beach in Thailand; this price is ridiculous even by western standards. I also wondered how the upper-crusty guests could even tolerate the journey here, until I realized that the guests are all delivered to the hotel's private pier by the hotel's private speedboat. On my dust-ridden journey I was merely passing the servant entrance.

The big question on everyone's mind is: when will the "road" be paved? Apparently there is a government construction project in progress, and you can see giant piles of sand and equipment at Khlong Nin. The government project has two phases. Phase 1 is to pave the orange line from the existing paved Phimalai! Phase 2 is to pave it all the way south to the national park. Yeah, I'm real sure that when they finish Phase 1 they'll be in a real hurry to finish that Phase 2, cuz you know it's all about the public interest.

Right around Ao Nui I also saw a giant mansion built on the top of a cliff, labeled with tacky "Private Property" stickers and fenced off with yellow "keep out" tape. The compound had at least 3 buildings, a swimming pool, and what looked like security cameras. Apparently, it is the property of some rich Swiss or Swedish man who lives there a lot of the year. I heard from several other sources that Ko Lanta is in a rapid process of being divided up and sold to foreigners and other deep-pocket interests. One real estate sign along the dirt road near Waterfall Bay reads "For sale to foreigner. Inquire within."

At Kantiang Bay I discovered a cheap guesthouse (Sea Sun, B on the map) which had 200B wood and bamboo huts right on the beach! The huts were real old and smelled of bat guano, but they had all the essential equipment (bed, fan, mosquito screen that goes around bedroom and bathroom, free hammock outside). Score!

I enthusiastically purchased a room, set up my hammock, and went for a swim. The beach here was also nice, a bit more wood and other debris scattered about than Klong Nin (A). Kantiang Bay is a half-circle of beach surrounded by giant limestone cliffs on either side. I swam out around the edge of the bay to see what was beyond. I found a smaller rock cove with volcanic-looking stones of interesting colors and texture. I hiked around to the next hidden cove, and the next... Between the second to last and last cove there was a cave, or more precisely an arch, as the water had bored all the way through the giant cliff from both sides. The cave, round with a diameter just over my own height, was like a gigantic hourglass which funneled all the sea breeze incident on a 1000 foot cliff into this tiny channel, past a soft wooden tree trunk bed someone had placed at the focus of the breeze. I lay there for hours, undisturbed by any other people or insects, enjoying the totally relaxing sound of surf in complete comfort.

I hiked and swam back to the guesthouse, and to my horror the bar/restaurant of the guesthouse next door to Sea Sun was playing music even louder than the one I ran from last night! I talked with the Sea Sun guesthouse owner in Thai. He was even more frustrated about the situation than me! The bar/restaurant next door was staffed by drunk and/or stoned teenagers from Krabi who don't listen to a word anyone says and who blast their music daily until 3 or 4 in the morning. I talked to some other guests at Sea Sun who confirmed that they did not get much sleep for the last few days. The bar itself is not licensed and the kids smoke all sorts of illegal stuff, so Sea Sun's owner tried complaining to the police. But the police will do nothing about it—he thinks the kids must have relatives in the government.

Alas, another entire beach full of great guesthouses, spoiled by one loud bar. Damn it! It's interesting and surprising that in both cases, the culprit seems to be the Thai locals, since none of the farangs seem to appreciate the music and since it seems to be driving away more customers than it attracts. I wonder if this phenomenon happens year-round or only in the low season when they can get away with it?

I regretfully motorcycle back to the first guesthouse and pay for another night of thumping and ineffective earplugs.

11 Apr 2003

Ok, now I have decided the only place for me must be the end of the orange road, the fabled Last Beach which (C on the map) I had heard about in the last few days.

I'm not about to motorbike there with all my gear so instead I spend the morning exploring the paved road on the east side of the island, getting my fifth and final rabies shot at the hospital (I now have a complete collection of Thai hospital cards from each of the four regions of Thailand!), and returning the bike at the ferry pier at the north end of the island.

In the center of the island there is a hill with a nice view which, surprise surprise, is home to an increasing number of bar/restaurants which charge for said view. I had a 60 B smoothie at the topmost restaurant, which had built a scenic 360 degree viewing platform with low tables and triangle pillows.

The east side of the island is almost completely free of English signage and tourists. There's a bunch of rubber plantations. There's a "sea gypsy" village which looks like other Thai villages on the island, but where they perhaps haven't yet abandoned fishing for tourism, like on the rest of the island. And there's a handful of farang-oriented restaurants, all of which seemed to be closed for the season.

Near the end of the paved road, one establishment stands out as it precariously clings to the steep uphill side of the road. Technicolor signs and an intricate but sturdy wooden stairway welcome you to "Heaven Hill," a roofed, open platform in the sky with a panoramic view of the sea and the sunrise, manned by friendly, dread-locked hippie Thais and other hangers on. It looked as if someone had ripped a piece of Pai out of the northern Thai mountains and glued it to the side of this hill on Ko Lanta. As I arrived near the crack of noon, the proprietors yawned and welcomed me up as they prepared their breakfast. It was unclear to me, and remains unclear, whether this was a place where they sell you food and drinks and stuff, or just a place where they live. At any rate they seemed content to just chill and talk. The open side of the perhaps 10m by 5m platform was festooned with clinking mobiles made from shells and bones in the proprietors' and guests' copious spare time. A graveyard of seashells, gathered from some nearby secret beach on a lazy afternoon's improvised outing, spilled out from one corner in carefully arranged patterns on the floor, next to the guitars and other musical instruments and paraphernalia which help to pass the time.

My guide in this strange universe was a hammocked Canadian woman who in some ways reminded me of the didjeridoo guy in Chiang Khong as someone whose adventurousness, and associated patience and tolerance for going with the flow no matter how insane it gets, is way beyond anything I will ever achieve. She had been sleeping and hanging out at Heaven Hill for some number of months. With a calm and peace in her voice she introduced me to the smiling Thai owners as they scraped and cooked up a meal in their outdoor kitchen, the cute resident puppy who plays with wild dogs from the adjacent uncut forest and comes back covered with ticks, the few-week-old kitten who they found and who now lives there in a basket, eats only chicken (not milk) and who can barely walk or see yet (and the bugs she had to remove from that creature to make it clean), the bees who bore perfectly round holes and make their home in the rafters of the Heaven Hill, and of course don't forget those little bugs who fly around your nose and won't go away even if you swat them. She related tales of amazing, nearly free longtail boat trips past playful dolphins to untouristed beaches of nearby islands, improvised on the spot and piloted by Sea Gypsy friends of the Thai guys, far better than the speedboat tours other farangs pay big money to book on the other side of the island. And there was that amazing Sea Gypsy new year's celebration, where all drank and were merry, and where they decided to motorbike home that night even though their 60s-era motorcycle's light was long dead, and ended up in a ditch.

All these adventures are possible if you just let go of your worries about deadlines and long-term plans and let yourself be pushed down the river of life by the unpredictable flow. She didn't speak any Thai and the Thai owners spoke only some English, but it was clear that language was of very little importance here. While daily existence at the Heaven Hill was not always easy and sometimes they became cranky, this group of people clicked together like puzzle pieces, doing their chores and work and otherwise contributing to each other's well being without anyone asking it of them, patiently awaiting the next little current or wave to carry them into some fascinating new eddy of southern Thailand culture. And, far from an exclusive club, they welcomed anyone else to come and stay for a while.

Briefly tempted, but ultimately content to stay stuck on the bank and watch them pass by, I bid them adieu and took my motorbike back to the tourist "town" at the north end of the island.

I turned in my motorbike and waited for the 4pm ferry to arrive so that I could hitch a ride with the tout/driver from Last Beach. The driver was a relaxed old Muslim Thai gentleman who actually just held up his sign and didn't try to waylay any of the arriving tourists, which I found promising. The 45 minute ride down the all-too-familiar road in the cab of an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive pickup was like massage compared with my dusty motorbike travails. The driver gets to do this trip at least 2, and sometimes 4, times a day. He told me, in his thickly accented southern Thai which I could barely understand, how things have become a bit more expensive since tourists came to the island and how he only makes 10,000 baht a month driving, not enough to buy gas and maintain his truck and feed his family of 7. Hm.

Last Beach Resort (or Last Resort Beach, C on the map) was just that, the very last beach along the line before the national park. It had whiter sand, fewer guesthouses per meter, bluer water, and nicer coral than any other beach I looked at. It had wood huts with fan for 200 B. It had no telephone and power only at night. And most important, although it had a bar, they played the music quietly! I was in paradise!

12 Apr 2003 - 18 Apr 2003

The place was indeed relaxing and I would spend several days just hanging out in a hammock, flopping around in the water, or otherwise chilling. The three guesthouses in this bay provided a plentiful supply of people to meet and restaurant dishes to try. The sunsets on Ko Lanta fill the sky with fire, reflecting off the blue water and providing spectacle for an hour.

When the wind was blowing (most of the time) the temperature was great. When the wind occasionally died down, revealing the horrific southern heat, I came to understand that there is actually no place in Thailand that's comfortable for me in the hot season. I eventually bought my own desk fan and extension cord from town to cool me off inside the mosquito net during the sweltering evenings.

It seems all of the guesthouses in Ko Lanta are owned by Muslim families, many of them fairly devout ones by the look of it. The proprietors would periodically excuse themselves to go pray, and prayer could be also heard from distant mosques in some places. The island was a totally odd mix of bikini-clad farang women, bare-breasted farang men, and burka-clad natives who some how put up with the former. Muslim establishments are not allowed to sell booze, so they made a rather iffy compromise worthy of the Christian church—the Muslims run the restaurant and guesthouse themselves, but they sublet a small strip of land between them and the beach to some other Thai who runs the bar on a separate set of books, and collects money from the guests separately.

Last Beach was no exception. A dreadlocked Thai man and his Swedish girlfriend shared bartending duties at the little bamboo outpost along the sand, a self-contained unit built with a stereo system and their living quarters upstairs, supplied with ice and beer from courageous delivery trucks which arrived every day. The bar was actually owned by another local and a farang who were building a second bar/restaurant much closer to "town" at the north end of the island.

I went into "town" for Songkran, the Thai new year festival which has somehow devolved from its original peaceful ceremony of penitence into a country-wide water fight. There were hundreds of farangs and an outnumbered but spirited Thai contingent standing at the island's only paved road intersection, ready to douse anything which came by. Many stores sold squirt guns and provided buckets of water, some of them chilled with huge ice cubes. Store owners were sure to douse anything dry-looking that passed their shop, and passers by would obediently kneel to allow excited kids to cover their faces with powder as well. There was one aircon hotel nearby, and in a scene which for some reason reminded me of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppet show, two farang guests loitered up in their 4th floor hotel room balconies emptying trash cans of water they'd filled in their shower onto unsuspecting pedestrians and truck passengers below. At one point, the town's water supply seemed to run out as all hoses stopped pouring. So then a man rode off on a motorbike with a sidecar filled with water bottles, and the crowd cheered each time he returned to re-fill everyone's supply. Things got especially wild at 1pm when the boat ferry arrived and the guesthouse trucks started filing through the intersection, as hundreds of unsuspecting backpackers found themselves and their belongings totally drenched before they even made it to their guesthouses!

Being at Last Beach had one minor disadvantage to those who want to book tours: no phone. I wanted to book an all-day snorkeling tour to the island of Ko Rok, and it took me an amazingly long time. The first day, it rained. The second day, it looked like it would rain so we didn't book. The third day (one of the days of Songkran), the weather was great but guesthouse staff was drunk and forgot to book the tour. The fourth day, they booked the tour by driving up 4km on the "road" until their cellphones got a signal, and the tour company had me on their list, but the boat driver "forgot" to pick me up. So I got a taxi all the way back up to "town" and talked to the darn tour company myself. The next morning, I waited and waited and it seemed like I would be passed over again, so I started booking a local longtail for the day after that (note: should have done that in the first place, cheaper and better). Finally, the bright red speedboat arrived one hour late and cautiously entered our bay. I talked to the boat captain in Thai. He neither confirmed nor denied that it was him who ditched me the day before, but with subtle winks to his teenage coworkers, mentioned that "some" drivers never come into my bay even if they're supposed to, because they're afraid of damaging their shiny speedboats on the shallow rocks.

On the speedboat journey, the crew and about half the guests were Thai, and when one of them figured out I could speak Thai I was again (for perhaps the 500th time on my trip) compelled to disclaim in public that Bush is indeed a dangerous idiot and that all Americans were not like him and did not like his policies and behavior.

The snorkeling at Ko Rok was very nice, about the best that can be imagined in the more turbulent April waters. Visibility was maybe 10 meters. There were a few small sharks but mostly it was cool-shaped corals and schools of fish swimming around you. I was a bit wary of taking this tour during Songkran, since I heard they had over 100 people going there on 8 boats, but the island was big enough that it turned out ok and not too crowded. Our boat had good food too, perhaps because there were so many Thai guests; a nice spicy curry, bland vegetables for the farangs, and fruit. Rather than packing the food in eco-disaster styrofoam single-serving containers like usual, they actually brought along sternos, vats, and plastic plates.

One night there was a full moon, and for an unknown reason, some fellow guests, the bartenders and I decided to rent the truck to take us up to see the "full moon party" that was going on at the loud guesthouse where I first stayed. On the way, we picked up some hiply dressed, paying hitchhikers, a crass twenty-something American with spiked hair and a mouth full of tasteless, unclever sexual puns, and two European women whose fake, patronizing laugh rang out every time he made a remark and encouraged him to make more. The three were like sheep, scared they've lost their way, struggling to eke whatever self-confidence they could out of following each other's "baaaa"s in the night. With their boastful remarks they played to stereotypical images of "party animals" headed for "the real action" on the island, but they came off as bad actors about 10 years too old for their part. These folks, who I'm guessing are typical full moon party goers, gave me the creeps and made me happy I was at Last Beach. The party was, well, loud. A silly-looking day-glo and black-light set separated out the "dance floor" where they blasted the type of techno music (the 99% of techno music, that is) which gives techno music a bad name. They had about 200 or 300 people attending and sold food, beer, and other booze. The only interesting part was that they had a large number of fire-dancers. The performers seemed to consist of people they had hired for the event, and other partygoers who just happened to have learned fire-dancing in their travels! There were some pretty amazing performances, especially by the immortal local Thai teenagers, of flames spun at unbelievable speeds at the end of a pair of metal chains while performers created giant bursts by spitting lit gasoline out of their mouth. The best performer was this farang woman who had obviously spent a lot of time hanging out at beach parties.

While I was at Last Beach, a yacht came and anchored to spend a few days on shore.

The vessel was captained by an American named Paul who began his sailing journey 4 years ago in Florida, and who has been sailing around the world almost non-stop (with only a few seasonal breaks to work) ever since. Talk about someone with a long term, patient perspective. He just came up from a few months sailing around different islands of Indonesia and a quick trip to Phuket, and he and his ever-varying 'crew' are planning on being in South Africa in around 9 months. Paul commented on one occasion that, as he sails around visiting ports of many countries, he sometimes feels he is just getting a look at the peel rather than the rich fruit inside. So far he has not spent a long time traveling in any country with the boat moored. On the other hand, he gets to see and visit the natives of islands in places like Indonesia where no other traveler would ever go.

It takes a special kind of personality to survive in close quarters with other people, occasionally for weeks at a time, as the yacht crosses wide seas. Paul speaks slowly and with confidence, and for him there is no difference between everyday speech and waxing philosophical. With the gaze of Mark Twain and the psyche of Frank Zappa, Paul speaks without reservation and requires no mind-altering substances to see a deeper side to things. He is astoundingly tolerant of other things and ways (except Bush) and as the people and cultures he encounters on his travels continue to challenge his American-born presuppositions, he has made it his trip mission to find out what he "doesn't know" about the world. When he speaks, some people look at him funny, but he doesn't bat an eye because from his perspective it is the others who are off kilter. When and if he goes home, I think Paul will likely have some trouble adjusting back to 'normal' American dialog. On one occasion when his favorite song came up on the bar's stereo, Paul excused himself and went and had a joyful, child-like romp on the beach about which he was neither embarrassed nor boastful. Mostly the other guests on the beach looked on and smiled, regretful (or jealous) that they no longer have the courage or spontaneity to do that.

His crew members are wanderers who have dreamed of sailing their whole lives, and shorter-term passengers grateful for the experience. The crew seems to pitch in (sort of) for food and fuel and the larger trip seems to be funded by a mysterious but benevolent spouse. Paul seems to act as counselor for his crew, smoothing over relationship problems between couples with a little life advice that leaves both of them confused and unable to continue arguing with each other.

The night before I left, Paul and his crew were getting ready to leave for a trip to a nearby island where they would say one last hello and goodbye to the crew of another boat before sailing to Africa. Paul and the crew enjoyed mushroom-infused tea in a circle of chairs out on the beach and danced around the bonfire the staff makes each evening. I bantered on in Thai-English with Mun, one of his crew, an English-competent, also dreadlocked, late-twenties Thai owner of an art gallery in Phuket who came on the yacht with his Belgian girlfriend (a record—two couples with Thai male and farang female in the same place at the same time). Mun was psyched to meet me because he thought I would be able to use my English and knowledge of Thai and farang customs to explain nam jai and gadtanyuu to his Belgian girlfriend. This in turn would smooth over the relationship problem whereby he was considering her every need and desire 24/7 but she wasn't paying enough attention to him. Well I made a go at that but I think they might have a much different view on what commitments are implied by the term "boyfriend" and "girlfriend."

As the evening went on, Pink Floyd came up on the stereo, and since one of the non-English-speaking Thai guesthouse staff was singing along, I thought it would be neat to tell him what the lyrics meant. I thought about how to translate them:

we don't need no education
we don't need no thought control
no dark sarcasm in the classroom
teacher leave those kids alone
But then I thought, in deference to centuries of differences in cultural upbringing, better leave well enough alone.

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