the Long's Strange Trip

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~  The Beach ~
November 14 through December 1, 2000
$1 U.S. = 43 Thai Baht
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Phuket, Thailand
November 14 through November 24, 2000

(ccl) If you've seen the latest Leonardo Decaprio vehicle, "The Beach" (and if you haven't, DON'T rent it - it's one of the worst movies I've ever seen), you know the story of the restless young traveler who lands in Bangkok in search of adventure way, way, way off the beaten track.  Leo's character is given a map to a secret island in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand that is inhabited by attractive, single, restless people, much like himself, who found their way there because they were searching for adventure and, ultimately, the perfect beach.  Despite the fact that Leo finds the guy who gave him the map dead from a self-inflicted wound the next morning (Hello???  Clue number one, Leo!), he heads off to follow the map to The Promised Land with a French couple as traveling companions.  Once on the island, they do find paradise in the form of a somewhat utopian society where the days are full of coconut palms and endless white, sandy beach.  But paradise is short-lived, as eventually, the unthinkable, yet inevitable happens: paradise is threatened by the arrival of The Nerds.

Our beach time in Thailand was similar, in many ways, to Leo's story.  (As an interesting aside for any 11-year old girls who read the web site, theBangkok Post  reported the other day that once the makers of "The Beach" found the island they wished to film the movie on, they decided that the natural vegetation was "all wrong", so they uprooted everything and planted coconut palms.)  We knew that Phuket, the largest Thai island, is also the most popular and the most touristed, but with good reason: it's also quite beautiful.  So we decided to stop there first, check things out, and move as necessary when it became painfully obvious that we weren't in "our kind of place".  

Guidebooks are a lot of help, but they can't tell you everything.  We knew from reading Lonely Planet that we should stay away from the main town, Patong, because it sounded like Panama City, Florida, during Spring Break.  This turned out to be an astoundingly accurate comparison, as Patong contained about twenty bars per block, numerous travel agencies and karaoke bars, and enough tattoo parlors and tailor-made suit shops to simultaneously adorn the bodies of each and every vacationing German in town.  But after reading the descriptions of all of the towns on Phuket, we still weren't sure where we would find the kind of atmosphere we were looking for.  Our first night we stayed in the smaller, less-touristy town of Kata Beach.  Kata was OK, but we still longed for a quieter, more laid-back area.  So we rented a scooter and headed north along the eastern coast of the island.  We had arrived on Phuket at the end of the rainy season, so each day we ended up dodging a pretty substantial shower.  Some of them settled in in the morning and lasted through the night.

That first day we discovered the smaller and quieter beach of Kamala.  We got there just after a rainstorm, as the skies were clearing and the beach was deserted.  We made friends with a bartender named Ning, who turned us on to a nice little bungalow just down the beach.  We made reservations for the next night there, then headed back on the scooter for Kata, dodging bugs and bats as nightfall chased us home.

The next day we loaded up our backpacks and me into a cab and started our move to Kamala, with Wiley following on the scooter.  When we arrived we saw, to our horror, that the deserted, peaceful beach we had visited just the day before was now loaded with overweight German and Swedish couples in matching bikini bathing suits.  It's usually pretty easy to spot the Germans - they're the ones having beers with their breakfast.  So it turned out that paradise was NOT found, and after a swim and some lunch we re-mounted the scooter to head farther north on the coast in search of the perfect spot to spend several days.  We had begun to think that it would really be nice to rent a house or an apartment with a small kitchen and a little sitting area, so that we could cook some of our own food, relax and read some of the many books that Lele had brought for us.  After riding for a couple of hours, we stopped for a beer and a snack at a beautiful beach that was completely devoid of tourists except for two German guys, but unfortunately was also completely devoid of lodgings.  By this time the sun had set and night was approaching, and I began to think about how my mother never seems to like for me to drive at night, so I can only imagine how she'd feel if she knew I was zipping along on THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD in a foreign country on the back of a scooter.  But a man at the restaurant assured us that there was another beach just two or three minutes farther down the road, so we decided to drive up there before turning homeward.  

This kind of single-minded determination to find "the perfect spot" probably wouldn't make sense to the person who vacations for two weeks at a time.  When you don't have much time in a place, you can't afford to keep packing up and moving around.  But we were willing to make one more move in an attempt to settle in at a really nice place, and it turned out that Nai Thon was the spot we had been searching for.  The only road in town runs right along the beach, and the three restaurants and two hotels are situated right alongside it.  A German man named Helmut, who ran two restaurants in Patong and who had been in Thailand over 15 years, showed us a beautiful studio apartment with a balcony, a great kitchen, and a king-size bed.  We booked the place for eight nights then sped back to Kamala Beach for dinner and an early bed.

I must say, I'm doing rather well, thank you  Nai Thon turned out to be a really nice town.  We stocked the refrigerator with food, did our own cooking most days, and burned through several books, either laying on the beach or the couch.  We spent entire days without putting on our shoes, as the local restaurants certainly didn't mind if you showed up without them for dinner.  We had a phone and a local Internet connection, so we spent a great deal of time surfing the web - too much, we discovered today, when we got the bill from our ISP.  

Another gorgeous sunset  The days went by, and each one was a lot like the one before it, which was exactly how we wanted it.  We cooked great meals, we ate great meals at the local restaurants, we went for runs on the long, white beach, we worked out at the local gym, and we played with the local stray dogs.  We each wrote in our journals and worked on the computer, and we took walks on the beach and talked. Sometimes I just laid on the couch and listened to the rain patter on the corrugated plastic roof over my head.  Wiley and I talked a lot while we were in Nai Thon about how typically, when you're on vacation, you don't take the time to do those kinds of things.  You can't, really, because you just don't have the time.  We meet people from around the world who can't believe we're Americans when we tell them that we're traveling for such a long time.  Americans, in general, can't or don't take extended time off to travel.  We're devoted to our careers, and to working to build up our retirement funds so that one day, I suppose, we can take extended trips.  I'm certainly not taking aim at any of you, dear readers: after all, you're probably reading this at work, so you can't be THAT devoted to your jobs.  I suppose our time on Phuket highlighted again for us how we had perhaps lost sight of what was important to us, as we were working to climb to the top of that proverbial ladder.   

The highlight of our time in Nai Thon was Thanksgiving Day.  All year I've been wondering what it would be like to spend the major holidays out on the road, away from family and friends, in places where people aren't even aware of the holiday you're celebrating.  I have never spent Thanksgiving away from either my family or Wiley's family, except for one dreadful year when I was stuck in Plano, Texas, in the middle of a ten-week training class while working for EDS.  I remember how the company graciously allowed us to work only a half-day, then treated us all to a delicious lunch of pressed turkey coated with a yellow, gelatinous gravy in the corporate cafeteria.  Oh yes, and I'm pretty sure they let us come to work in something other than a suit that day, but I wouldn't swear to it, as it's been over fourteen years and my memory fails me.  

What would Miles Standish have to say about THIS?  It turned out to be one of the most memorable and wonderful Thanksgivings either of us has ever had.  The day before we jetted off to the open-air market back in Kamala, and purchased produce, fish, rice, and fresh flowers.  We actually recognized a lot of the stuff in the market after taking our Thai cooking class the week before in Bangkok, so we were able to get everything we needed.  We completed the shopping list at a local store by stocking up on some nice French wine.  Thanksgiving day dawned gray and rainy, as most days did while we were on Phuket.  Wiley bravely scaled and gutted his first fish, and I got the prep-work underway.  The menu, albeit untraditional, was quite exotic:

Baked Camembert with Cashews and Asian Pear Slices

Baked Snapper with Tropical Ratatouille
Steamed Jasmine Rice
Stir-Fried Thai Long Beans with Spring Onions and Peanut Sauce
Roasted Ginger Sweet Potatoes with Thai Whiskey Sauce

Mon Jolie Rouge

No turkey, but still a FINE feed  The meal came out fabulously, and we toasted many times to the good fortune we've had that has allowed us to take a trip like this, and to the continued health and well-being of our family and friends back home and all around the world.  After dinner we took the leftovers down the street in search of any of the many stray dogs that live in Nai Thon.  Helmut, our landlord, had told us that whenever he can, he grabs them and vaccinates them, putting collars on them in the process.  Hopefully he's also bringing the vet to town every now and then to do a little reproductive surgery, so that the whole vicious cycle can be slowed down.  The dogs who ate our leftovers told us that they'd never heard of Thanksgiving, but they were thankful for the grub, nonetheless.  I'll have dark meat!!

On the day after Thanksgiving we left Phuket.  While it was a really nice island, it just wasn't the beach we were looking for.  Wiley took the long ride back to Kata Beach on the scooter, in the rain, and returned in a taxi about two hours later to pick me up.  At the airport, he handed what he thought was 800 baht to the driver, who thanked him profusely, then sped away.  Once inside, Wiley realized he had given the driver 8000 baht, not 800.  That's the equivalent of giving a taxi driver $180 on an $18 fare.  Ouch.  I realize that many of you assumed we would be losing money at every turn on this trip, knowing our past history, but this is really the first major financial "accident" we've had.  We tried to console ourselves by thinking about how we had just made that guy's week, month, and year.  Oh well - it's only money, right???  

Excuse me, sir, but you'll have to shave your head if you're going to sit there  After a short delay due to the rain, we boarded our flight to Koh Samui.  Wiley spent some time pretending to be a monk in the "monks-only" waiting area, but no one was fooled.  The flight in the tiny plane was pretty harrowing, but we landed safely at the Koh Samui airport in a driving rain storm to continue our search for the perfect beach.

Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand
November 24 through December 1, 2000

We pretty much knew that we wanted to head over to Koh Pha-Ngan, a neighboring island reachable from Koh Samui by ferry, as soon as we could.  Koh Samui's main beach, Chaweng, sounded a lot like Patong in Phuket, and while there were probably other good places on Samui we would have enjoyed, everything we'd read about Koh Pha-Ngan made us want to go there.  We had planned to take the ferry over the next morning after arriving, but high winds cancelled the boats that day, leaving us to spend an additional night on Koh Samui.  We made the best of it by exploring the town of Chaweng, and even managed to see a tape of the Tyson-Golata fight and work in nine holes of golf - putt-putt, that is.

We sailed from Koh Samui on Sunday morning in a driving rainstorm.  The fact that it had been raining pretty solidly since we arrived there made us think about how you try to cram so much into a two week vacation, or in many cases, a one week vacation.  If it rains even one day during that time, you've missed a substantial percentage of your allotted time away from the office for the year.  We're pretty sure we'll never be satisfied with even two week vacations after this trip.

We alighted in the main beach town of Pha-Ngan, Hat Rin Beach.  After walking a little ways with our backpacks, a woman offered to show us her bungalows.  Bungalows are one of the standard types of budget accommodation in Thailand, and they range from a hut made of straw with a mattress and a mosquito net to a cabin-like dwelling with bathroom, small refrigerator, and porch.  The one we were shown was the latter, and in addition to being brand-new had incredible views of a small beach lined with coconut palms and the bluish-green waters of the Gulf of Thailand.  Just, sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip

Summertime, and the livin' is easy  Pha-Ngan is an extremely mellow place.  While there were still tourists there, most of them were considerably younger and looked as if they had come to stay a while.  Sunrise Beach in the town of Hat Rin hosts a huge full moon party every month that is supposed to be quite "the scene".  We missed the full moon by a couple of weeks, but were able to catch the "Black Moon" party, which occurs on a night when there's no moon.  It's not as well attended as the full moon party, but there are plenty of young backpackers trance dancing as if spellbound, swaying back and forth in front of huge speakers blaring house and techno music.  

Looking back on it now, it's somewhat difficult to say exactly what we did for five days on Koh Pha-Ngan.  It was similar to our time on Phuket - lots of reading, eating, and watching the waves roll in.  We were blessed with better weather for most of our time on Pha-Ngan, so we were able to rent a scooter and explore the island a little.  There are some paved roads and some dirt roads on the island, and the dirt roads had seen better days since the rains of the last monsoon.  We got the bike back on some roads that we probably had no business being on, and had a couple of wrecks, which were thankfully at incredibly low speeds, so no one got hurt.  The only casualty was the digital camera, which landed right underneath me on the second wreck, probably saving me from a nasty bruise, but losing its ability to make pictures in direct sunlight as a consequence.  That would explain why you haven't seen a lot of pictures of the island beauty that Thailand has to offer.  Palm trees at sunset, Koh Pha-Ngan

The local bars and restaurants played the latest movies on videotape.  Most of these were pirated, and were of extremely low quality, although we did manage to catch several classic episodes of "The Simpsons", the first we've seen since leaving home.  Reliving Homer's Halloween experience of seeing the alien (which turned out to be Mr. Burns doped up on painkillers; "I bring you peace, and love!") brought tears of homesickness to our eyes.

Tourists feed me because I'm so damn cute!  We got acquainted with the local wildlife while staying at our little bungalow.  One day I was walking back from the store when I heard a "meow".  I looked around to find the most adorable cat/kitten, snowy white with a stump for a tail.  It seems that quite a lot of the cats in Thailand have hooked tails.  Our new friend brought over a couple of her friends once we fed her some tuna, and one of them even had a tail that appeared to be tied into a knot!  We named the cats "Munchkin" and "Tigger" and had them as house guests for most of the days that we were on Pha-Ngan.  

Man, this sock tastes AWFUL, Ralph!  The other wildlife we got acquainted with was much more wild.  The first day we were there, Wiley was taking a nap.  I heard a noise outside on the porch and looked out of the window to see two very large monkeys sitting on the railing.  They looked at me with great curiosity, and one of them began picking up towels and bathing suits and looking at me to gauge my reaction.  When I didn't react, he lunged towards me slightly, then bared his incredibly long fangs at me.  I suppose it was some game they regularly play - try to scare the tourists.  It worked on me, as I scooped up Munchkin and Tigger whenever the monkeys arrived and went in the house.  I'm fairly certain they were herbivores, but I saw no reason to take a chance.

After enjoying the slow pace of life on Pha-Ngan for several days, we felt the need to get off the "perfect beach" and see more of Thailand.  With only a little more than three weeks left before we flew to Bali, we still needed to see the northern part of the country, so we took the little ferry once again back to Koh Samui, and flew out early next morning to the city of Chiang Mai.  We have plenty of reasons to come back to the islands of Thailand one day, because one can never be too sure that one has found that perfect beach.  The search must go on...

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