Chiang Mai –> Phuket –> Ao Phang Nga –> Ko Phi Phi

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Back on the road today.  I started with a brief run around the perimeter of the city moat (I’m hoping to return in some semblance of fitness for rowing tryouts), which we followed with one last trip to get mango sticky-rice.  Afterward, we took a Tuk-Tuk to the airport and caught a flight to Phuket.

Phuket is an overdeveloped peninsula in the south of Thailand, where billboards advertise elephant trapeze shows and hotel brochures only sort-of attempt to mask the real meaning of their offers of Thai women for “companionship.”  Fortunately, Jackie, a master trip planner, had us on a bus away from the crowds within the hour.

Ao Phang Na is apparently on the tourist trail, but evidently not a frequent stop.  All the signs are in Thai, and after having all the standard modern conveniences in Chiang Mai, our hotel here is a bit closer to roughing it: there are quite literally holes in the wall (we paid for, and got, air conditioning, but apparently that doesn’t mean that you’ll be in a room where air conditioning will do any good).

At dinnertime, we walked down the main drag of town, which seemed completely deserted until we reached a New Years carnival.  There were games, all sorts of crappy prizes, and, of course, a large stage… on which people were singing karoke.  For her own amusement, Jackie sent me off to try to find food, but since I can’t say “I’m vegetarian” in Thai and can’t tell which mass of fried noodles is pork-free, she eventually had to take charge.  Naturally, we got sticky rice.

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I think I’ve figured out the key to authentic Thai cuisine.  Surprisingly, my favorite Thai restaurants in the U.S. aren’t too far off: they just need to add a lot more sugar.

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Well, that was the best $40 I’ve ever spent.  Today we booked a longtail boat to take us out into Phang Nga Bay.

The trip started with weaving through narrow corridors of water between impenetrable walls of mangroves.  When we emerged, we were in the shadows of huge limestone cliffs that felt like something out of Lord of the Rings.

We stopped to go canoeing.  I was initially a bit disappointed that “canoeing” meant “a Thai guy will paddle you around.”  I finally got a chance to grab the paddle, though, impressing everyone with my seafaring skills… that is, the guy immediately took my paddle back when we almost ran into a cliff.

Mid-day, we stopped at “Jame [sic] Bond Island,” a protruding formation featured in The Man With The Golden Gun. Given how far it seemed like we were from, well, everything, it was a bit of a surprise how many people were there.  It’s hard for me to be resentful of tourists since I am, in fact, a tourist.  This is genuinely one of the most beautiful places in the world, so I can’t blame others for wanting to see it.

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If there were an award for capitalist ingenuity, I know who I’d give it to.  During our little canoeing trip, we slipped under a low-lying cliff and came out into a gorgeous stone depression.  And there, waiting for us, miles from anything, was a guy in a boat selling coconuts filled with juice.

Second place goes to the guys who managed to get ice cream to James Bond Island, where there is no electricity or permanent settlement.

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Evening brought us to a Muslim fishing village, built on stilts on the rim of a tiny island.  Packed during the day with visitors—as the miles of stands selling t-shirts and fake pearls attest—it was almost completely silent and dark at night.  We were staying in a tiny wooden bungalow, and could watch the tide coming in and out through the gaps in the slats of our floor.

Practically the only other English speakers on the island were some British tourists, who invited us to play scattegories.  I’ve always loved backpacking because of the way having a limited amount of stuff forces you to interact with people, and I loved our isolation for the same reason.

The night concluded with a yellow moon rising over the cliffs.  Having no electricity is awesome because you get to go to bed early.

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It’s days like these that make me sad to think that—in an actually sustainable world—these kind of experiences would have to become much rarer.  Travel is so physically destructive in terms of the resources it uses, but also mentally broadening.  Maybe jet-setting around the world will have to be curtailed, but I do hope that in eco-topia, we get rid of our houses and cars before our travels.

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We woke up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the sunrise.  While Jackie assures me that she’s seen more beautiful ones in her time in Thailand, I was duly awed.

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It always takes me some time to adjust to the way blatant animal cruelty is so visible and open in the developing world (not that it’s not awful in the West, just that it’s hidden).

Two nights ago, my heart sank when I saw some sort of sea crustacean wriggling—alive—over an open flame at the market.  This morning, I went down to the pier and saw, in the belly of a longtail, a mass of fish and other critters—some sort of bycatch—gasping out their last.  After sunrise, a pair of fishermen came down and started sorting through them.  Some they put into buckets, while most they threw back into the water.  By this point, of course, most of them were dead, and their carcasses just floated off.

Our tactics as animal rights activists in the west often center around trying to force people to acknowledge that the meat on their plate was once a living, breathing animal.  We assume that, once they see this, they will think twice about eating it.  This strategy flies completely in the face of what you can see in practically any place other than the U.S., where it is completely obvious that meat was once an animal because people buy and cook it in a form not that different from the one it took while alive.  Thai’s see their future meat all the time and often kill it themselves, yet seem completely undeterred in their carnivory, Buddhism be damned.

Humans have such a great capacity to be indifferent to cruelty, one that definitely cannot just be overcome by presenting people with gruesome images or “the facts.”

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Our tour brought us back to Ao Phang Nga.  Our plan was to next take a bus to Krabi, from where we could get a boat to Ko Phi Phi.  Upon entering the bus station, though, we were told that the 10:30 bus—the only one that would get us to our boat on time—was full.

But wait… the British couple we had been travelling with said there was another bus—a second class bus—that we hadn’t been told about, and they had just bought tickets.  We went back and asked, but were told there were no tickets.  The British couple told us they had been told the same; we just had to ask for standing tickets.  We finally convinced her to sell us tickets, at which time a bus started pulling out of the coach park, saying it was bound for Krabi, even though it was 10:05.  The cashier told us to get on it, but the attendant said our tickets weren’t valid, so we went and exchanged them.

All in all, we must have bought and exchanged our tickets about four times.  The bus itself was quite fancy, at least in that it had very cute lacy curtains and a substantial stuffed animal collection in the windshield.  Next to a driver, there was an employee whose sole job was to manage the in-drive entertainment, which, of course, was karaoke.

By comparison to the tiny bus terminal, the boat station felt like a modern airport.  But, there were still a number of completely senseless steps in boarding, which culminated in us and about 200 other confused farang mobbing two attendants who were exchanging our tickets for nearly identical tickets, which we needed for some un-apparent reason.  This makes sense to someone.

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We arrived at Ko Phi Phi and were immediately surrounded by vendors trying to convince us to buy hotels/water taxis/underwater cameras/tattoos/scuba tours.  Fortunately, Jackie had found us a place on the opposite side of the island, away from Ko Phi Phi town, which seems pretty crappy.

I was a little disappointed when I saw the state of our bungalow.  I guess after Uganda—where 5,000 shillings ($2) gets you a top notch room with electricity and a lock—I was banking on $20 getting us regular power and maybe even a functional bathroom.

You don’t go to Ko Phi Phi for luxury, though.  The fact that we found a quiet place thirty feet from the ocean during high season on a notoriously crazy island is pretty fantastic, and it has a with a hammock at that.

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