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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Thailand, December 2017 (Part 2)

Jeez, enough chitchat. Take me to the photos.

DAY 8: Koh Lanta to Koh Phi Phi

If I could change one thing about this trip, it would be the amount of time we spent traveling. To get from Lanta to Phi Phi, we first took a mini-van to the pier, then a ferry to Phi Phi, then a longtail taxi boat to our resort. This took most of the day, and we did this kind of thing over and over again. I would have preferred to visit fewer places, and stay longer at each one.

On the ferry, we sat next to a French guy that we immediately pegged as a douche. He was wearing a “No Rules” baseball cap, with a picture of Mickey Mouse flipping you the bird for reasons unspecified. He had immaculately groomed beard stubble, and clearly spent several hours a day on his hair. He sprawled, taking up twice his allotted space, his feet up on the arm of the seat in front of him, engrossed in a first-person shooter game on his brand new iPhone. With the volume up so everyone could hear it, of course.

“I know that guy from French crime films,” I whispered to Robin. This is a thing we do when we’re out in public – make up stories about people we see.

“Ohhhhh yeah,” replied Robin, quickly getting up to speed. “He’s like a low-level fuck-up, works at a mob-owned chop shop for stolen cars.”

“He’s always playing games on his phone when he should be working. And the boss wants to fire him, but he can’t, because he’s also the owner’s son. And the owner is a major player in the mob, so he’s untouchable.”

“His mousy girlfriend is always nagging him to get a better apartment, so he tries to pull a job on his own, and it goes horribly wrong, and then he goes crying to his dad…”

“He dies at the end.”

“I actually feel sorry for him.”

The geography of Phi Phi is stunning. Towering, haystack-shaped islands topped with bright green foliage. White sand beaches sloping toward turquoise water teeming with fish. If you stayed at your resort far from the center of the island, you might be able to maintain that illusion.

Unfortunately, you will eventually feel the need to go into town, and then you will be surrounded by crappy trinket shops, overly-aggressive dive tour shills, shirtless bros downing Jäger shots while their scantily-dressed girlfriends shriek with laughter, deafening house music providing the hellish soundtrack. Or I don’t know, maybe I’m overreacting. Let’s just say that I loved the time we spent on Phi Phi, but that was because we mostly stayed away from downtown. Mostly.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Directly in the center of town, there is a wastewater treatment plant with open pools of sewage.

Our bungalow, however, was the bomb diggity, or whatever the kids are saying these days. Air conditioning, almost-warm water some of the time, and a jaw-dropping view of the azure ocean. Sometimes we had to go into town – to pick up some anti-diarrhea medicine, for example. Since there were no “roads” into town, as such, we had two choices: hire a longtail taxi boat, or walk through the jungle. “Oh, we can walk,” is something we often say when traveling, even when we should know better. The path from the resort area to the town is twisty and confusing and steep and incredibly treacherous for someone who has balance issues due to a brain tumor operation, like a certain member of our party. After the first attempt, I told Robin that I thought we should take a taxi boat next time because I was terrified of her falling and breaking her leg or something and then what would we do? Nevertheless, she persisted.

DAY 9: Koh Phi Phi

On our second Phi Phi day, Robin had some book editing to do, so I took a hike. I saw that alluring word “Viewpoint” on a map and away I went. It was a clear, hot day. Most of the hike up was through residential areas, and near the top I walked through a seemingly abandoned construction site around a reservoir. I saw lots of millipedes on the narrow streets, a couple of snakes, and several monkeys. Further up, the paved roads turned into deeply rutted dirt roads, then trails, and I had to ask for directions from some German tourists who had already been to the top. “That way,” they said, and pointed.

At the tip-top of the island, the viewpoint is perfectly landscaped, with a wide and scarily un-fenced wooden deck for viewing. There are boulders to sit on, a garden, a snack bar and even an air-conditioned cafe. I could see the town far below, and the bays on either side of the island – Ton Sai Bay on my left, where our ferry had docked, and Loh Dalum Bay on my right. I was too far up to hear the dance music or smell the wastewater treatment facility, and the view was jaw-dropping, almost ridiculously photogenic.

They also had a bunch of cement statues of deer and chickens and elephants and whatnot up there, and one very unsettling caricature of what I guessed was an aboriginal Thai man, wearing a skirt, with coal-black skin, stooped posture, wide nose, pot belly, and thick lips. We saw the same character several times on the trip, so later I showed the picture to my Thai friend Yui and asked her about it.

Turns out this guy is a well-known clown character in a form of shadow puppetry known as Nang Talung, which is popular in Southern Thailand. Here’s a description from the site xip.fi:

“The popular characters are the stock clowns, such as Ai Nol, Ai Tong, Al Muang, and Ai Klang. They offer obscene humour, often characteristic of nang talung and always loved by the audience. Each has its own characteristics: one constantly moves its mouth, while another has a phallus-shaped index finger, and a third has features of southern Thai aboriginals.”

Good to know. Here’s a video to give you a taste of Nang Talung:

Maybe time for a word about laundry, whether you find that interesting or not. We were going to be in Thailand for a full month, and we couldn’t bring enough clothes to last that whole time, plus have you spent much time in Thailand? Our clothes were sweaty almost every day. Limited clothing + tropical climate + lots of physical activity = we had to look for a place to do our laundry every 4-5 days. Luckily, Thailand has got you covered. Just like the independent “restaurants” jammed into every available space in Bangkok, and the independent gasoline-merchants on Koh Lanta, at every stop on our trip there were plenty of people with a washing machine in their garage and a sign out front advertising their willingness to do our laundry. We would show up, shamefacedly hand over a large bag full of foul-smelling shirts and underwear plus sixty baht (approximately two dollars), and later that day we’d drop by again and gratefully pick up our clothes, which had been washed, dried and crisply folded. Amazing. They could never entirely get the cave mud stains out of my Gundam shirt, though.

Other services, and prices we paid for them:

  • Pedicure: six dollars
  • One-Hour Massage: nine dollars

DAY 10: Koh Phi Phi

There was a silver-haired Japanese patriarch who sat in the corner of the resort restaurant, watching everything. Every once in a while, if he felt a table wasn’t being cleaned off quickly enough, or noticed some other infraction or inefficiency, he would tersely command one of the staff to pick up the slack (or at least that is what we assumed he was saying). We started to imagine this guy was some kind of ex-Yakuza who had fled Japan and retired here, purchasing a small resort with his ill-gotten nest egg. We liked to narrate his internal dialog as he sat watching us.

“None of these people appreciate what I had to do to get this place…”

“…I had to kill a man.”

We hired a longtail boat captain and his first mate – confusingly known as “Captain Jack” – to take us snorkeling around the island. Captain Jack was a sexy, somewhat gender-ambiguous, eyeshadow-and-cowboy-hat-wearing local character who repaired boats, knew all the best snorkeling spots, and would smoke you up if you didn’t look like a narc, or so I heard.

We were convinced that the ex-Yakuza guy at the resort hated Captain Jack and his eye shadow, but he owed Captain Jack’s dad some money for making a rival resort owner “disappear” so he couldn’t do anything but glower and mutter. For now.

Captain Jack took us to several coves and beaches including that famous “The Beach” beach (which was way too crowded, so no thanks), each more astonishingly beautiful than the last. We passed a cave full of bamboo ladders and unpleasant-looking stalactites. We learned later that this is where locals harvest birds’ nests for bird’s nest soup.

I was still getting accustomed to my snorkel equipment (we brought our own) and I am a lousy swimmer at the best of times. Within 10 minutes of entering the water, I had bleeding gashes on my fingertips and shins from flailing awkwardly near some coral. Apart from the blood-loss-related light-headedness, I had to admit that it was a magical experience – the water was crystal clear, the beaches were like something out of a dream, and colorful fish were abundant. Robin swam delightedly, calling my attention to this or that rock formation or sea urchin that I had overlooked, while I tried to keep my anxiety under control.

We ended the day on Monkey Beach, which was exactly what it sounds like. Monkeys roamed unfazed among the tourists, leaping into and out of trees, wrestling in the sand, and sometimes, when the mood struck, vigorously fucking.

DAY 11: Koh Phi Phi

Spent the day nursing my wounds and sunburn, a/c turned up, teeth chattering. Ouch.

DAY 12: Koh Phi Phi to Khao Lak

Longtail taxi boat to the pier, ferry to Krabi, taxi to bus station, mini-van to downtown Khao Lak, taxi to resort. Whew.

At the bus station, a young boy – 9? 10? – dutifully folded up three-sheet lengths of toilet paper on a card table, while he guarded the bathrooms. A hand-lettered sign on his donation box read: “Toilet 5 baht.” Which, truth be told, was a bargain.

We spent several hours in a mini-van with a group of German tourists on our way to Khao Lak. They wanted the windows open, we did not, and we hated them for their stupidity. “Don’t they know that makes the a/c completely useless?” we whispered to each other. “Great, now we get hot, humid air blowing at us for four hours. Idiots.”

The dashboard of the mini-van was decorated with a row of Beanie Babies and a Buddha. Buddhist symbols had been hand-painted on the ceiling above the driver, something we saw in almost every taxi we entered. A decal depicting an eagle made out of an American flag adorned the windshield.

We drove past a resort named Cabbages and Condoms, and there is an interesting story behind that, which I will let you investigate on your own.

About halfway to Khao Lak, we stopped for a bathroom break at a roadside convenience store/cafe/gas station/rest stop/magical wonderland for children. It looked like they had bought up all the cement-and-plaster statuary from failed lower-tier regional amusement parks, like Enchanted Village in Puyallup. And they hadn’t all come from the same place, so there was a mishmash of dinosaurs, deer, off-brand cartoon characters, religious icons, and a particularly down-at-heel Santa Claus.

It was also at this stop that the ubiquitous presence of digitally-printed banners and signs finally registered. No matter where we were in Thailand, they were there – brightly colored, with too many fonts, so much text that nobody driving past could possibly read them, and alabaster-skinned Thai (or maybe Japanese?) pop stars, advertising restaurants and soft drinks and skin-whitening creams. My point is, whoever controls the digitally-printed banner and sign racket in Thailand is making a killing. Somebody ought to look into that shit.

We checked into Poseidon Bungalows in Khao Lak, the jumping-off point for our three-day snorkeling tour which was scheduled to start early the next day. I walked down to the beach, climbed on a rock, tried to throw my sandals to the beach but threw them in the water instead, climbed off the rock too quickly, lost my balance, and sliced open my legs. A typical day for me, in other words.

We realized that we were out of sunscreen, and we would definitely be needing sunscreen, so maybe we should go find some sunscreen. The manager of the resort told us that there was a pharmacy or something just down the beach road, gave us some vague directions, and asked if we needed a taxi. “Nah, we can walk,” we proclaimed confidently. Two hours later, we still hadn’t located the fabled pharmacy, the sun was setting, and we were walking along the shoulder of a busy highway because someone *else* told us that there was a grocery store about a mile north. Here’s the thing: We had actually found sunscreen at a convenience store, but Robin was convinced that there was a magical superstore somewhere just around the corner, with a wider selection and better prices. I was fuming. Stray dogs followed us along the road. Motor scooters driving on the shoulder honked as they sped past. It was dark, and I tripped over a dead dog. There was nothing in sight. We stopped in a laundromat, tried to explain about needing sunscreen, and the proprietress smiled and pointed further up the highway, so we kept walking. We did eventually buy some sunscreen, exactly the same kind at exactly the same price as the first place we looked. I expressed my displeasure briefly yet forcefully, but I’m not sure Robin heard me over the roar of traffic.

By the time we returned to our resort, flashlights were required. As we picked our way down the path to our bungalow, I heard a cracking sound overhead. A split-second later, I realized something big was falling, and leapt out of the way just in time to avoid a massive, dead palm branch crashing onto the path in front of me.

DAY 13: Similan Islands

The Similans are a group of islands in the Andaman Sea, off the west coast of Thailand, approximately 41 miles from Khao Lak. Similan means “nine” and there were nine islands until 2014, when the Similan National Park expanded to include two more islands, meaning there are now eleven islands in the “Nine Islands.” The Similans are completely closed to the public from May through October (the monsoon season), and even during the other six months, some of the islands are restricted to protect natural habitats.

For three days, our boat traveled among the islands, stopping at the best spots for snorkeling and photographing. We were still a little early in the tourist season, so there were only five of us on the tour, even though the boat was made to accommodate 17. There were also four or five Thai crew members on board, but we were never introduced and they largely remained hidden on the bridge or below decks.

Our fellow snorkelers were: Peter, an international banking or diplomat type from the UK who also owned an apartment in Bangkok; Phillip, a Swedish documentary cinematographer; and Ana (Phillip’s partner), a Swedish production designer for film and television. Phillip and Ana lived and worked in Germany. Our guide was Esther, a German woman who also taught at Summerhill – a famous “democratic” school in England. Apart from me, everyone on board seemed to be an Olympic-level swimmer.

I already talked about my fear of the water and my lousy swimming skills, so I won’t belabor that point except to say: This was a challenging trip for me. I was determined to push through it and snorkel every day, do whatever everyone else did, except that I would be wearing a personal flotation device at all times. That, however, was before the seasickness hit. I have never been seasick in my life and had a general belief that I was immune. But after two hours on the ocean, my head was throbbing. I felt dizzy and fatigued and profoundly nauseous. I tried focusing on the horizon, pressure point bracelets, an anti-nausea patch behind my ear, and some mysterious pills provided by Esther, but nothing really made it go away. I never actually threw up, which somehow made it worse. I spent a fair amount of time lying in my bunk with my eyes closed, but generally roused myself to go snorkeling at every stop. FOMO is a hell of a drug.

Robin, on the other hand, was in her element. She couldn’t wait to dive off the boat in the morning, and only came back on board to eat, after which she would jump in the water again with a full stomach, while I moaned softly and tried to convince the world to stop spinning.

Speaking of food: It was excellent! How the crew managed to prepare these feasts three times a day in a tiny kitchen on the open sea was a source of amazement. It is no exaggeration to say that the meals we had on that trip were the finest meals we ate in Thailand.

My nausea didn’t blind me to the beauty of the Similans. If you can imagine the perfect place to swim and snorkel – the most picturesque place with the clearest water and the most abundant undersea wildlife and coral reefs, the most interesting rock formations and lush green forests and white beaches and shipwrecks – I am willing to bet that you are picturing something like the Similans. Simply stunning.

In the short time we had available to snorkel on our very first day, we saw an octopus, crown of thorns, moray eel, sea cucumber, angelfish, unicorn fish, porcupine fish, a longtail boat wreck, and more. Ana was stung by a jellyfish, which was exciting only because it didn’t happen to me. The rest of us only got bitten by sea lice.

Esther had a preferred order of islands to visit, but that plan was scuttled at the last minute because the Princess was on an official tour of a wildlife habitat on one of the islands. We were ordered to stay away, so Esther adjusted our itinerary accordingly. I didn’t care either way, as I was sequestered in my bunk with the curtains drawn.

DAY 14: Similan Islands

Phillip told us a story about their arrival in downtown Khao Lak: The mini-van had dropped them off and they were waiting for a taxi. Just audible over the sound of traffic, he heard the distressed quacking of a duck. He couldn’t see the duck directly, because a car was blocking his view. The quacking reached a frantic pitch and then, to Phillip’s horror, he saw a Thai man raising a length of pipe over his head. As Phillip sprinted over to prevent duck murder, the man brought the pipe down hard – wham! The duck screeched, and the man brought the pipe down over and over. Phillip could see the blood on the pipe now, and his stomach twisted each time he heard the pipe strike the pavement. Phillip, breathless, reached the crime scene fully expecting to see a decimated duck but instead saw a smashed snake. The duck was still very much alive, and guarding her flock of ducklings while quacking angrily at the crushed serpent. Phillip was embarrassed to realize that he had assumed the Thai man was a duck-assassin, when he was actually a goddamn hero.

Back to the Similans: We weren’t the only people enjoying the islands. In my journal, I see this note: “We hate speedboats and the people on them.”

On the second day snorkeling, we swam with a friendly sea turtle and were attacked by an angry triggerfish who charged at Robin and bit Esther’s fin. I saw a giant clam, which I previously thought was something fictional made up by Jules Verne. Nope: REAL. Schools of neon parrotfish swarmed around us, unbothered by our presence.

Later in the day, we anchored in Donald Duck Bay on Koh Similan, the largest island in the chain. If you Google images for “Similan Islands,” many of the photos you see will be of Donald Duck Bay and its most notable feature, Donald Duck Rock. After snorkeling for an hour or so in the bay, around giant, rounded boulders and a few disconcertingly large brain coral formations, we took a small boat to the beach. As the afternoon faded into evening, we hiked up to Donald Duck Rock to watch the sunset. Spread before us was the white sand beach, the dense jungle, the mammoth boulders, the deep turquoise of the bay and the open ocean beyond. Watching the sunset from there, with my beloved partner Robin, was one of the highlights of the trip and something I’ll never forget.

DAY 15: Similan Islands

On our last day snorkeling, I got to see a skate (or ray? Even with Google’s help, I’m not sure).

But the real excitement came as we headed back to Koh Lanta. Our captain heard over the radio that there was a school of dolphins nearby, so he took our boat over there to investigate. We were all perched on the deck, hanging over the rails, peering into the water, and then there they were, all around us. It was hard to count, since they were leaping up then disappearing and swerving from one side of the boat to the other, but I estimate there were 15 or 20 dolphins swimming alongside and in front of us. Many were in tightly synchronized groups of two or three, slipping through the water inches apart, their bodies undulating in time with each other, leaping together, then squirming around each other like strands of a rope. We weren’t a source of food; there was no rational reason for them to follow us except pure joyous playfulness. It was a thing of beauty.

After the dolphins left us, when we were cruising slowly near the mainland, heading for the Khao Lak pier, we saw two huge monitor lizards on the beach, slowly ambling along like an old married couple.

And then it was over! Robin was sad, and I was, too, a little. But I was also exhausted by seasickness and eager to sleep in a real bed.

Day 16: Khao Lak

Our final day in Khao Lak began with a DiAngelo-Toews Vacation Tradition: Jason awakened by the sound of Robin vomiting. The night before, she had let herself get dehydrated, skipped dinner, drank two sweet cocktails, and now a migraine was looming. She gulped down Ibuprofen and bottled water while I busted out with my Bob Seger impression: “Woke last night to the sound of chunder…” I thought that was pretty clever, but Robin just glared.

The waitress set our breakfast on the table, then screamed. A gecko’s tail had fallen from the ceiling onto the back of her neck.

Robin felt marginally less horrible after breakfast, so we rented another motor scooter for a day of exploring. As we rode away from the rental garage, the agent called after us: “No Insurance!”

First we visited the 813 Tsunami Memorial Park. Here’s a description from thailandee.com:

“On 26 December 2004, Thailand lived one of the darkest episodes in its history, a tsunami of an incredible magnitude struck the south coast of the country. Khao Lak was the most affected city. The wave penetrated more than 1 kilometer inland and took a police patrol baot [sic], the Police Boat 813, almost 2 kilometers from its anchorage on the land, where it is now exposed. A memorial is being built around the ship to remember the tragedy and honor the victims.”

Next to the 813 patrol boat was a fascinating modern sculpture that I think was supposed to represent the wave. There was a stray dog sleeping inside.

We also visited the Tsunami Museum (or one of them – later we saw a sign for a second Tsunami Museum), but it was disappointing. A few flat screen monitors playing low-resolution video of news coverage of the event, and some infographic posters. 2/10, would not recommend.

Finally, we left the main road and drove far out into the country to see Ton Chongfa Waterfall. The falls themselves were not spectacular, but the drive out was wonderful – empty streets bordered by rubber plantations, giving way to deep forest. Exploring the backroads on a motor scooter was becoming my most enjoyed feature of our trip. Robin stopped at the first level of the falls, but I climbed to the top, where I was frightened by some kind of long-necked bird that I mistook for a snake.

Later that night, we walked into town to find some dinner and pick up our laundry. What I mean to say is, the restaurant also did laundry in the back, so two birds with one stone, right? What a time to be alive. While we ate our dinner, a package arrived for the owner. Stamped on the side of the box: FRAGILE – CHRISTMAS TREE – SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. The wait staff slit the box open and puzzled over the contents as we finished our tom yum soup and mango salad.

We could have taken a taxi, but our resort was just a mile down the beach, so we figured why not walk? But we started too late, and by the time we were halfway home, it was dark. There were no lights on this section of beach, and there was a tricky bit where we had to cross a small river by climbing over some rocks. I had a flashlight, and I was fairly confident I could navigate the rocks, but I wasn’t so sure about Robin, what with her BRAIN TUMOR and all. Also the tide was coming in faster than expected. Then I noticed that a couple of stray dogs were following us silently. That in itself was troubling, because all of the stray dogs we had encountered thus far were singularly disinterested in human interaction. Then a couple more dogs joined, and three more, and now there were seven dogs following us down the deserted beach, in the dark. They were mostly chasing and wrestling each other, but sometimes they would get too close and I would shine the flashlight and shoo them away. Crossing the river and clambering over boulders did not deter them in the slightest – they knew this beach better than we did. They seemed playful, for the most part. But I also had the distinct feeling that a couple of the alpha dogs were not to be trusted. They snarled and nipped at the other dogs, and would sometimes charge me and then back away. It sounds ridiculous now, but they seemed to be testing us for weaknesses.

By the time we reached the gate to our resort, I was walking backward and holding a piece of driftwood like a bat, ready to swat any dog that charged us. A friendly dog that lived at the resort (we called him “Black Balls”) ran out to meet the pack, and that distracted them for a moment, so we made a run for our bungalow and locked the door.

Proceed to Part 3

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