slice-of-thai.com Journal 4/4/99: Phang-Nga Bay, Kao Sok National Forest

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

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4/4/99

Now I wanted to check out some other places in the south, and also meet up with some old school friends who were travelling in Thailand. For the next week these goals would be in constant conflict, because the places I wanted to go tended to be the places with no internet. I returned by bus to Khok Kloi and with more of my broken Thai, map drawing, and handwaving managed to get directions to the only internet place around (8 baht/minute!). It was a little boutique shop with internet access and a bunch of colorful computers labeled "kid's fun center." I guess they sold time on the computers with educational and image editing software. I wondered who in this tiny Thai town could possibly afford to bring their kids here to have some fun.

After lunch at a corner noodle place I set out to find an international telephone (since I had been out of phone range for the whole last week). I asked at a police station and, seemingly desperate for something to do, one of the police gave me a ride on his police motorcycle around town as he asked store owners one by one where the international cardphone was. It was quite an odd scene but wouldn't be the last time nice Thai policeman gave me a ride.

With no messages from my friends, and with the day's torrential monsoon rains just starting, I decided to go to Phang Nga, a semi-touristy place described in the Lonely Planet as having a nice bay with limestone formations. My objective was split between finding my friends and seeing more of the south, so I didn't go anywhere too far off the beaten track. I did eventually meet them (by sheer chance), but in retrospect it might have been a mistake to spend so much time trying to find them. I shared a sawng teeo with a bunch of monks, who each carried their belongings in a strange vase-shaped container wrapped in the same cloth as their monk's robes.

After waiting out the rain and resting a bit at the run-down but clean hotel Ratanapong, I took a walk around the warm and humid town. The town was a few miles from the shore and was surrounded by thousand-foot-tall limestone formations. The geology was similar to Vang Vieng, Lao, but in Phang Nga, the formations tended to be long, thin tree-covered ridges rather than pointy hills.

Phang-Nga is definitely an up and coming tourist town. Today, most farang tourists bypass the town by doing day trips directly to Phang-Nga bay from Phuket. There are no exclusively farang-oriented guesthouses in town. But judging from the increasing number of touts at the hotels, tourism-related stalls at the bus station, and the huge concrete riverside promenade under construction, it's clear that strong capitalist interests are at work. Fortunately, when I was there Phang-Nga's stores and markets were definitely geared towards the needs of Thais, and fisheries seemed to be the biggest industry.

After walking out of town about 15 minutes I passed over a river and into a large residential area right under one of the limestone formations. At one clearing, kids played soccer in front of a school as groups of adults burned large piles of sticks and garbage. The kids seemed to know three English words: "hello," "asshole" (which they mispronounced), and "you pay money." They didn't seem to know what the last two meant because they were smiling and happy when they said them. I walked further to a beautiful but mosquito-ridden area next to a lush swamp, which reflected the limestone rock above. The kids had all run over to sit on the edge of a pier over the swamp; for some reason, they didn't seem at all affected by the tons of mosquitos that were attacking me. A Thai mom came out of a nearby house with her 5-ish daughter and we struck up a conversation that stretched the limits of my Thai. She showed me two 15' diameter concrete fisheries they kept behind their house; I gather most folks around here make their living that way. Her kid's face was covered with some white powder, something I would see more and more in trains and buses and public places. I still don't know what the powder is for.

I wandered back towards town to a dirt road along the river. I passed a restaurant whose CD jukebox blasted fairly loud Thai music. An old, semi-drunk Thai man repeatedly yelled at me to enter the restaurant and come over to his table. Weighing my chances of complete embarrassment vs. an interesting evening, I decided to go in and see what he wanted. The bold, 50 year old man turned out to be a 20-year army veteran who identified himself to me using his service number, unit, and rank. He had dyed his hair blond to make himself "look younger." At his table was a bottle of whisky and two very depressed looking 21-year olds. They had just today received their "red card" at a male Thai rite of passage where the government assigns lucky young men to three years of mandatory military service. One of the boys wallowed quietly in half-drunkenness, while the other, who worked in Phuket in the canoe renting industry and spoke excellent English and some German, was more vocal. For him, military service was a devastating blow. Beyond the obvious concerns about the psychological effects military discipline and cruelty would have on him (which were only reinforced by the old man :), he had had great plans to start tourist businesses around Phuket, and he felt these opportunities were now lost forever. He lamented that he could not buy his way out of military service like the majority of Thais with money do. He dialed up his favorite songs over and over on the jukebox, including an English song about love lost. I tried to figure out ways to console him, but ultimately distracting him seemed to be the better bet.

As the old man got drunker and drunker and the kids' attention turned back to the food, I noticed that the restaurant was Isaan (Northeastern Thai). I ordered some food. They seemed to be impressed that I knew how to eat laab with my hands with sticky rice, and that I could identify nearly everything on the Thai-only menu. Using my journal as scratch paper, I practiced reading their handwritten Thai. An ever-changing group of more chipper 21ish Thais sat down at the table; they must have gotten the safe "black card" today. The kids spent most of their time making fun of the drunk old man and helping him go through the whisky bottle one diluted coke at a time. One young woman entertained herself by making artistic patterns with the unused table vegetables. The kids were mostly quiet; I'm not sure if it was because of my presence, or today's events, or whether they normally just hang out and sip whisky without saying much.

Every time a group arrived or left our table, they turned the volume on the jukebox down. Restaurant management would soon retaliate by cranking it up again. Generally in Thailand they seem to keep bar and restaurant music at a nice level that doesn't prevent conversation, but this particular establishment seemed to want it at an uncomfortable American volume.

On the way out I attempted to sneak to the back and pay for my dishes, but the old man would have nothing of it. I thanked him, wondering when he was actually going to be sober enough to count his money for the restaurant. I got a motorcyle ride back to my hotel with the English-speaking 21 year old.

4/5/99

Got up early and collected brochures for the various tour companies that take you around Phang Nga bay. The Lonely Planet recommends Sayan Tour. Sayan's pasted-together, xeroxed brochure looks like this:

Sayan Tour Brochure: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Sayan Tour Brochure
Click here if image does not load automatically.

An agency across the street, M.T. tour, hands out a pasted-together xeroxed brochure that looks like this:

M.T. Tour Brochure—Look Familiar?: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
M.T. Tour Brochure—Look Familiar?
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Which is interesting since Hassim is not from a Muslim fishing village and has only been in business for two years. I had seen lots of examples of plagiarism in Thailand but nothing quite this blatant (right down to the cut and pasted "M.T. Tour" in a different font, where he forgot to replace Sayan in the second paragraph!). In Thailand, it is possible to sue someone, but you might as well throw your money into the bay: your case will be caught up in Thailand's monster bureacracy for years before it ever makes it to a courtroom. When I showed him the Sayan flier, Hassim insisted that Sayan is his friend. When I purchased the Sayan package I found out that Sayan has actually been dead for three years and his brother runs the outfit now, and that Hassim is definitely not a friend. This is just the sort of dodgy, farangs-as-cattle tourism that I hoped to avoid during my Thailand trip. I think I did pretty good overall but I had to swallow it whole in Phang-Nga.

I had lunch at the Duang restaurant in Phang-Nga. I ate an extremely spicy but tasty cold salad consisting of dried crispy shrimp, papaya, pineapple, and prik kii nuu (the hottest peppers). Definitely a specialty of the south. I came back another day and had a nice but labor-intensive shrimp woon seen (glass noodle) dish. As always, the resto had about three times the number of staff it needed. Among them was this very strange 35ish Thai woman who came up to me the first day saying "you pretty...you beautiful...huh?" with this bizzare, almost constipated look on her face. Assuming she meant to say "aren't I beautiful?" (for some reason, an enormous number of inexperienced Thai English speakers invert first and second person pronouns), I quickly feigned misunderstanding and asked about the papaya :) The second time I went to the resto, the same woman and another sat at my table showing me how to crack open the shrimp. While the entire staff watched me learn about shrimps, one of the women smiled, pointed out what a good wife she would make and asked whether I wanted to take her back home. I laughed this off but to this day I am not able to decode the Thai sense of humor well enough to know if they were joking.

My next task was to extend my visa since I had lost my 90-day status coming back from Lao. Silly me, I went to the place marked "Immigration Office" on the official Phang-Nga map, right next to all the other provincial administrative buildings in the center of town. Despite a large sign to the contrary, the "Immigration Office" turned out to be the typing pool. The Immigration Office, the one office needed by people like me with no car and little knowledge of the area or language, was actually located off the map, all by itself on the edge of town. About a 20 minute motorcycle ride from the typing pool, the office was in a place with no taxis, no public transportation, and a 15-20 minute walk to the nearest major road. I knew I was in for quite a time. One of the off-duty typist-cops gave me a ride there on his police motorcycle.

The Immigration Office was a bureaucrat's heaven, a virtual paradise of paperwork and procedure. Never mind that the office was the size of an R.V.: these five government officials were kings of their hill. They took my visa extension form and examined, cross-examined, and measured it in every detail. They were like pigs in slop. They rejected the form I had brought and insisted instead that I fill out an identical form which they provided. They measured my passport photograph with a ruler and pondered for minutes whether it was acceptable, given that it was 30% smaller than the space allotted for photographs on the form. Watching them process the form, I got the distinct impression that mine was the first visa extension form to ever cross their desk. One of them seemed to be in charge of rubberstamps and, most impressively, the adjustable date stamping dongle. With his trusty inkpad and several sheets of scratch paper, he rehearsed each stamp five or six times, trying out the push method, the wobble method, and the quick-stamp method until he had perfected his stroke. He then made his chef d'oeuvre in my passport. I paid my 500B extension fee, receiving the requisite onionskin paper receipt. Finally, it was time for the approval signature, and this required the uniformed head bureaucrat, a very important man who was very busy in his office. I had to sit down and wait five minutes. Five minutes later, one of the lower bureaucrats walked over and opened the man's door. His highness made an appearance and consummated the act. In the heady afterglow, the smiling bureaucrats congratulated me and since a bunch of them were going on break now, I got a ride back to town.

Today's unseasonable monsoon rain starting, I sought shelter under the post office and used the international telephone to see if my friends in Thailand had left any messages. Since there's no internet in town, I also called some friends in California to get them to check my email (thanks Mike/Bruce!)—easily the most expensive form of internet service in Thailand by a factor of 10!

The tour of Phang-Nga bay I had booked with Sayan began at 4pm. The agency drove me to a pier and I took a short longtail boat trip to Ko Panyi, the aforementioned Muslim fishing village. 2000 Muslims occupy this village built out into Phang-Nga bay on ever-lenghtening stilts. The grid of houses and walkways clings to a tiny island with a mosque and a cemetary, above which towers a limestone formation typical of the bay.

Ko Panyi: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Ko Panyi
Click here if image does not load automatically.

During the day, this island transforms into an awful, industrial-size tourist trap with endless stalls sucking in farangs with inauthentic baubles. But once the tide of Phuket tourists receeds, the junk shops seal like barnicles and the Thais come out again. Sayan and one other island resident house a handful of foreign visitors each night, and this is the way I would recommend seeing Ko Panyi.

Walking to the extremes of the island, you can see just how rickety the stilt structures are. The swaying paths are held up by 6-8" thick logs spaced every 10'-15'. The path floors consist simply of unfastened branches laid perpendicular to the path, or sometimes unfastened wooden planks perpendicular or parallel to the path. Apparently, some fat farang tourists had fallen through the paths to the dirty water below, and so the Thai government spent 17 million baht over the last year paving kilometers of Ko Panyi's formerly wooden paths. Clearly someone missed the point.

Or maybe not. The Thai government is quite clear on Ko Panyi's tourism value: they provided the island with huge freshwater cisterns and they will soon provide electricity from land to replace the island's herd of stinky, loud gasoline generators.

The island has a school with a small concrete playing field (where a crowd of teenagers played soccer and the volleyball-like takraw), and a larger soft playing field that can only be used during low tide :) The kids knew how to say "hello" and seemed surprisingly friendly given the rate of tourism. During the evening, nearly everyone retired to their house to watch TV (can't blame them really). One guy was replacing a weak stilt using an interesting technique: he used a long-tail boat like a tractor to apply the necessary sideways force to the bottom of the stilt while his friend stood by the house using a pulley knot to force the top of the stilt into place.

Located just next to the main pier, our rooms were simple but clean. Room locks were provided with Donald Duck keychains :) The toilet and shower were Thai style (squat, no running water), but after northeast Thailand I could handle this. A sign in the room apologized in advance for waking us up with the morning prayer calls and longtail boat engine noise. Our hosts served us dinner near our rooms, and then we walked to the other side of the island for some really nice sweet tea, fried bananas, and "conversation" with some of the locals. In fact only Sayan's brother and his friend could really speak English. We learned that locals past early high school age must take a boat each day to Phang-Nga town for school. The locals are grateful for the government's improvements and they are optimistic that Ko Panyi will remain free of tourist resort hotels; good to be optimistic I guess. We asked about his religious customs. He told us about the Thai Muslim man's prayer schedules. We tried several times to ask about the customs for women and why only a few women on the island wore the traditional all-covering white clothes, but he always immediately changed the subject after such questions.

That evening the fog came in (haven't seen that since San Francisco!) and most of the town retired with the generators at 11pm. The bay was amazingly still; the only waves were those from passing boats.

4/6/99

In the morning, after the requisite prayers, tens of longtail boat captians would walk down the pier, start their vehicles, backfire, and roar off to some unknown fish haven. I couldn't understand their conversation but I did notice the word 'rua' (boat) appeared at least once or twice in every sentence! An hour later, a few of the captains were still working on starting their vehicles, prodding their engines with bamboo sticks and repeatedly trying to turn them over with tiny two-foot-long pull cords. Failing that, the bamboo stick became a budget oar to get them over to the toolbox.

I left Ko Panyi for my morning tour of Phang Nga bay. First stop was the dreaded James Bond Island, a small island with an even smaller rock used in "The Man with the Golden Gun." The Thai tourist industry has been milking the movie dry. This once beautiful beach island has now been covered with touristy junk trinket stalls. Even taking a pee cost me 5B. I managed to convince my boat captian to spend just 10 minutes there instead of the usual 30. I think skipping James Bond island was out of the question since a bunch of the stalls were run by his relatives on Ko Panyi.

The rest of the tour was much more interesting. Several of the thousand-foot-tall limestone formations are pierced with caves whose ceilings are just at longtail-boat height above the water level; we motored through a bunch of those.

A Phang-Nga Cave: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
A Phang-Nga Cave
Click here if image does not load automatically.

We also motored through narrow channels in beautiful mangrove forests, where you could see the trees and the first foot or two of the root system above water. I guess the roots are submerged in the rainy season, but I'm not sure. We stopped at a large cave overlooking one of the forests and I withdrew my extra 20 minutes there. After the longtail's engine had been off for a few minutes, the zillions of birds and insects in the forest came back to life. The sound was quite cool.

Back at the Ko Panyi bus station in early afternoon, still with no messages from my friends in Thailand, I decided to make my way to Khao Sok national forest to the northwest and then take a bus to Bangkok (I was pretty sure my friends would be in Bangkok on the 8th). I watched 6 or 7 enormous VIP aircon buses go by. Then the stubby-looking "old style" local bus to Takua Pa arrived. Packed with seats, even the Thais had a hard time fitting in this one. Fortunately, the back of the bus was filled with cargo: I could use the 50 or so corrugated cement ceiling tiles to manufacture an almost-comfortable seat with some legroom. The 2 hour journey was very interesting: this was the first time since Bangkok that I had taken a local bus in Thailand. In the pouring monsoon rain, Thais packed on and off the bus in an effort to get home. Many moms boarded with bottom-naked babies and toddlers; this really seemed to be asking for trouble, but what do I know. The teenage conductor and another passenger in the back of the bus would frequently sneak a smoke, hiding their butts from the old driver. At each stop, the conductor yelled some uninitelligible syllable, hopped out, waited until at most one of the last departing passenger's feet touched the ground, yelled a different syllable, and then as the bus started pulling away, remained on the ground until the last possible millisecond before hopping on again. Sometimes he would even walk past the bus so that the bus was going really fast when he hopped back in the rear door. A strange ritual, but one I had seen all over Thailand.

Takua Pa town center looked pretty interesting, but we were going to the grungy bus station outside town. It was about 6pm and the last public bus to Khao Sok had already left. Sawng Teeo drivers occupied the place like a militia, banded together in a price fixing scheme that would make Bill Gates proud: drivers would not take under 300B for a ride to the national forest, a 20B bus trip. Although I waited around for 20 minutes deflecting the driver's incessant prods to go, there were no other passengers to Khao Sok and (I think) no other transportation options. It was pouring rain. Eventually I had to just bend over and pay the criminal rate.

Little did I know I had picked the sawng teeo from hell. This was one scary ride. Much to the chagrin of oncoming traffic, the man constantly drove in the middle of the road. This was presumably because the wind had a significantly greater role in steering than he did: a strong yank of the steering wheel would, at best, effect a tiny change in the truck's direction (sometimes in the other direction). Or it could have been because he couldn't see the left of the road anyway since one wiper was broken and the vehicle had no functioning defogger. He further won my confidence when he put on an old pair of glasses, leaned over into the steering wheel and stared at the gas gague for a good five seconds before making a reading. As I held on for dear life, I quickly understood why the passenger side of his furry dashboard cover was all worn off. As we were passed by motorcyles on blind curves in the rainstorm, I wondered whom to pity more.

Somehow we made it to Khao Sok. As we were approaching the area with the guesthouses, thousands of glow bugs on the roadside turned on and off like flying yellow-green LEDs. We stopped at Khao Sok Garden Huts. Khao Sok's hydroelectric power plant had failed, so I had a nice dinner by oil lamp and candlelight. Walking to my bungalow, I became submerged in the sound of tens of thousands of farting, burping, bellowing, and guffawing frogs and screaming cicadas from the jungle. The volume level rivaled any rock concert and you could hear your ears fight back. Sometimes the cicadas would start chirping in phase and the effect was quite amazing. With earplugs, I was able to get some pretty decent sleep, waking up only to evict the two or three frogs that managed to jump into my bungalow.

4/7/99

In the morning the frog/cicada symphony had ended. The fog had rolled in and bizarre slide-whistle-like birds sang from the forest. I had some breakfast drove with the guesthouse owner's family into the park.

As in most or all of Thailand's other national forests, there were no useful trail maps available in any language. But unlike Khao Yai in the northeast, trails in Khao Sok seemed to be marked (in Thai). You could hire guides, sometimes even English-speaking ones, at the park HQ. My hut owner also offered her non-English-speaking 15ish son's services as a free guide (I think he was going to hike around anyway :). Since I had little time, I chose this option. We hiked for four or five hours to some neat waterfalls and a swimming hole.

In Khao Sok, the flora was much more lush and there were more bird and insect noises than Khao Yai in the north, but we didn't see as many large animals. We saw a big, beautiful spider (7" major diameter including legs) with a wicked yellow and black jacket pattern on its abdomen. A butterfly landed in its web and we watched as the spider killed and packaged the meal, expertly pulling and cutting its silk to form the perfect shape around its prey. We saw lots of other spider species, as well as some fun millipedes and some nasty looking, poisonous centipedes with pointy red body armor.

My kid guide showed me all sorts of cool plants. One plant was a natural pinwheel and would soar and spin through the air. Another could be used to make a kazoo. Another could be blown through to make a variety of silly noises. Using the long, thin leaves of a fourth plant and a clever pull-and-tear technique, you could launch the leaf's central vein like an arrow for many meters and with great accuracy.

Khao Sok also had a whole bunch of leeches. These leeches looked just like San Francisco area earthworms, except they had amazingly strong suckers at each end. Whenever they felt the ground shake, the leeches would stick to the ground and wave their other end in the air, hoping to snag an animal. We saw hundreds, and a few, inevitably, latched onto us. We were wearing thongs but even boots would have done no good since most of them latched onto us from leaves at thigh-level. The little things could climb anything (including you) by using one sucker after the other like a live slinky. Despite the gruesome description, I definitely have to say the leeches are one of the least annoying pest creatures: they carry no disease, their attack does not hurt, they don't make you itch, and, if you yank them off within ten seconds of attachment, they leave no mark at all. Compare this with malaria-infested mosquitos!

Back at the hut I had a very welcome shower and lunch. I headed to the bus stop by the main road for a ride back to Takua Pa. There was a sawng teeo driver desperate to get back to town for a real fare. I felt somehow vindicated as he lowered his asking price from 200B to 100B to 50B to 40B and on. In Takua Pa, I bought my ticket for an all-night bus to Bangkok (aircon was the only option) and wandered around the rather dull markets next to the train station. There was a huge place on a street corner that sold nothing but Buddhist paraphernalia: big Buddhas, little Buddhas, Buddha pictures, incense, charms, bowls, robes, spirit houses, funereal items, everything—you want it, they got it, only in Thailand.

My record with Thai aircon transportation continued unabated: the Bangkok bus's air conditioner worked most of the time, but at random intervals of five minutes or less it would start grinding loudly, waking up everyone in the bus, until the driver shut it off and turned it on again. The driver also left some rather annoying modern Thai music playing until about 1am; I wondered whether he forgot or whether he was trying to cover up the air conditioner.

I arrived in Bangkok about 4am. The bus terminal, and much of the city, was still bustling with activity. I had 24 hours to find my friends before their plane trip back; shouldn't be a problem, there's only a few million people in this town...

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donate now   Donate Now
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get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
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Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
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