Another Trip Through Thailand, part 1.

Coleen and I have been in Thailand for about ten days now, and although we’ve had no grand adventures, we have seen and done enough nice things that it’s worth setting some of them down.

We arrived in Bangkok all frazzled out after the usual twenty-some sleepless hours of flying, waiting and sitting. I’ve always avoided Bangkok on the other trips I’ve had here, because of it’s reputation for traffic, smog, heat, intensity and stress. On this occasion, though, we were sufficiently thrashed that we decided it was best to get some rest before continuing on. We headed in to the Khao San Road district, which is infamous as the locus of travelers in the city. It’s a small neighborhood filled with cheap guest houses, bars and cafes, all of which cater exclusively to tourists - most of whom, like us, are in backpacker mode. It was predictably crowded and noisy, and when the road shut down to traffic in the evening, it resembled nothing so much as a carnival midway, with clouds of pedestrians that swarmed along like insects or schools of fish. It’s touristy extravagance held nothing noteworthy, though, and aside from a few nice meals, our time there was highly forgettable.

Continuing on the next day, we caught an overnight train southward, intent on reaching an island in the Andaman sea called Koh Chang. Our accommodations were a second class sleeper car, with fan, built in Japan by the Hitachi corporation in 1967. It was shabby and tattered, with worn out upholstery and astonishingly uncomfortable cushions. The fan’s steady and patient efforts to counteract the oppressive heat were all but futile. The car’s only redeeming quality was a sort of charming obsolescence, a quality of other-timeliness that allowed the imagination to drift back and envision what it must have been like in that long lost era of the late 60’s. A smiling porter came by offering food and refreshments, an uplifting counterpoint to the dark, humid, impoverished ghettos just outside the window. A while later, another porter arrived to fold down the benches into bunks, complete with linens and pillows, which led to yet another sleepless night of clattering rails and rumbling wheels. Heavy rain in the small hours of the night made us glad to be indoors, but enough leaked in that rivulets of water formed small estuaries on the floor.

Arriving near dawn at Ranong, which lies near the border with Myanmar on the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula, we made our way down to the dock to find a ferry out to Koh Chang. As Koh Chang closes completely for the low season, no scheduled ferrys were running. We, of course, knew none of this. As soon as we asked, however, a friendly local directed us to a Long Tail boat which was filled with freight, and soon after we pushed off. The passage out runs down a long, muddy river, lined with docks and blunt wooden fishing boats that sat mired in mud, it being low tide just then. As the passage widened, many islands appeared both north and south of us. Some of those to the north were no more then a half mile away, and although they appeared just as sunny and cheerful as all the others, they were part of that sinister kingdom of darkness, Myanmar (or so the US newscasters would have us believe). It was tempting to run over there for a day, just to see how downtrodden they really were, but we didn’t.

We arrived at the western shore of Koh Chang to find that it was a delightfully unspoiled beach, with nothing there other than small bungalow places… no restaurants, no tour operators pushing for business, no roads, no taxis, no crowds. In fact, it was the quietest place I think I’ve ever been in thailand, because everything had closed for the rainy season. We considered ourselves lucky that one bungalow place was just open enough to allow us to stay, although they were totally unprepared for guests. It was difficult even to find something to eat. It was clearly a very fine place to be though, if things were up and running. It’s one of those places where there is not a single plastic chair to be found. Every single item of furniture was formed of weathered teak that had been carefully crafted by hand from the natural forms of the wood. The organic quality of the furniture, the simplicity of the lodgings and the overcast, grey weather allowed for at least one night of pleasant repose. It was, however, enough of an imposition on our hosts that we decided that it would be mildly impolite to stay… so we decided to carriy on and return another day.

For our next destination we chose Koh Tao, across the Malay peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand. More on that later...