SE Asia (W)rap(-up)

As I sit here procrastinating and writing about the traveling I did months and months ago, it struck me that I never finished writing about the traveling I did months and months and months ago. IE Thailand. The last thing I wrote about with regards to Thailand was finishing up my Open Water PADI certificate and heading to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon silliness. This is the party that they put into The Beach with Leonardo and is supposedly on every SE Asia backpacker’s radar. Accordingly, I expected it to be totally wack, but thought it was worth a look see anyways. As long as I keep my expectations low it should still be a good time. I do love to boogie, after all. Finding somewhere to sleep was going to be an issue though, as most of the accommodations are booked well in advance, and they even have the gall to require a minimum stay of several days. Nah, I wasn’t down. I figured I would just keep paying for my beach shack on Koh Tao and leave all my shit there, hop over for the night, sleep on the beach/if at all, and just come back the next day. The only downside is that I had wanted to go onward/further south to Koh Samui afterwards, and seeing as Koh Pha-Ngan was in between the other two islands, my plan involved a good deal of backtracking. Oh well.

But as luck would have it, I ended up having not one, but two options for accommodations. The details are now fuzzy, but I somehow fell in with these two German girls, Julia and Kathi. Julia was also getting her Open Water certificate and we must have just started chatting in one of my post-dive hazes. We ended up having dinner together, along with another American Matt, who was getting his Dive Master license/certificate. Or maybe they were having dinner and I just bumped into them. Whatever. But we hung a few more times and it turned out that the two girls had some Frenchmen that they had met earlier supposedly book them a room in a bungalow on Koh Pha-Ngan for a pretty cheap price and, after some discussion, were ok with me staying with them. A very circumspect arrangement all and all, but not any more so than my original plan. The Italian girl that I met a few days prior had also said that I could potentially stay with her, but she was planning to split the room with some Russian girl she met on some forum or another and wasn’t sure that person would be ok with. Never had I felt more part of an international community or flew so much by the seat of my pants. It’s all good though because FULL MOON PARTY.

The Frenchmen turned out to be real, one or both of which are teachers back in France and the accommodations they found were not particularly fancy, and the beach was quite muddy, but goddamn there was air-conditioning. There was some chilling, mellow international drinking, and sunset/moonrise watching. I then caught a shared taxi/truck down to the southern tip of the island where the festivities were about to pop off.

Without going into useless details that you don’t care about, I’ll just say that the FMP is probably the largest gathering of drunk and otherwise intoxicated people I’ve ever been a part of. The entire mini-isthmus was a throbbing mass of humanity moving to a variety of EDM/Euro-techno beats. Every 50 yards there would be a different bar/club opened to the sands and/or with a pavilion extension and people just wandered along in an euphoric stumble. I’ve never seen the Beach, but I’d imagine the demographic isn’t quite what the movie implies. There was the usual complement of clueless lookings kiddos and past-middle-age white dudes still clinging to their hippie dreams and skeezying on everything in their path. But overall, it was a bit too hectic/bewildering for me to put down my guard and really enjoy myself. I suppose some people may be better at cutting loose, but when there are so uncontrollable/unknowable factors I try to keep my wits about me. Plus no one wants to be stepping on used needles. I imagine it was a lot chiller of a scene before the good ol’ media got ahold of it. Paradoxically, by making the whole SE Asia experience more accessible and generally more “safe,” all the tourism infrastructure has just imported issues that we have in the “first world.” I’d imagine that back when it was an adventure just to get to this beach there would have been a much greater vibe of trust and comradeship, a measure of self-selection if you will. It was an above par experience overall, minus the skanky British young women who were giving us some inexplicable grief on the way back to the bungalow. They were deeply offended that we didn’t want to chat with them, and filled up the ride with loudly whispered threats and anti-German remarks. It would have been amusing if not for the sheer overwhelming meanness of it all. And the fact that it came mighty close to an actual physical altercation.

The next day, I had the harebrain scheme to find one of the supposedly numerous waterfalls in the interior of the island.  All I had as far as directions were three little wavy lines in my Lonely Planet. I figured we’d take a water taxi to one of the beaches poorly accessible by land, hang out a bit, and then do a little exploration. From the few words LP gave to the subject I had imagined a line of pools and cataracts the stretched from the shore into the hills. Whelp, it turns out I immensely underestimated the heat/distance/difficulty of finding wavy lines in real life. Plus I think it was the end of the dry season, and the waterfall had been reduce to a tiny trickle. In any case, we found nothing and I felt really bad leading a wild goose chase. That’s probably the worst kind of feeling I have, the feeling that I convinced everyone to do something that they’re unsure about and end up totally failing to deliver. I mean, I hate failing, but failing other people is just that much worse. And I even lost my Red Sox hat when I hopped on some random dude’s moped in order to scout ahead. Alas, the consolation prize was alright too:

We caught the ferry back to Koh Tao the next morning and I decided to stay a couple of more days and get my Advance Open Water certificate while I had the chance. It involved 5 more dives, including a night dive, over 2 days and some more coinage. The night dive was a very memorable experience, mostly because I was extremely nauseous the entire time, and spent the boat ride of the return trip alternating between tossing my cookies into the sea and lying on my back and groaning incoherently. It was less turbulent under the waves but I sitll had to devote half of my concentration (read, oxygen) to prevent myself from vomiting into my regulator. Supposedly they’re designed to handle vomit, as in you can just blow the chunks right through the membrane without taking the mouthpiece out of your mouth, but I didn’t really want to find out. Two lessons: they make spectacular gnocchis on Koh Tao for whatever reason, and, don’t stuff your face with gnocchis before your first night dive when there is a storm a-brewing. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that there was a bit of a squall kicking through at this time. Nothing major, but it sure made the plodding dive boat buck a good deal. Getting back onboard was a hoot too, with the boat ladder riding the rollers like a demented escalator. We did see some relatively big fish though, i.e. cobias and barracudas, and also quite a few panda puffers lolling about. Needless to say, I didn’t do much the rest of that night. The next/last two dives (wreck and deep) were pretty uneventful and I became a newly minted Advanced Open Water Diver. Woohoo. The rest of the day was spent trying to figure out how best to connect to my very imminent flight from Hong Kong to New York and hanging out with my new friends. I settled on taking the ferry to Koh Samui, staying over one night,  flying from there to Bangkok the next day, connecting to my flight to Hong Kong on the same day, and just spending a night at/near the airport in Hong Kong before my morning flight to New York. So long spending more than one night anywhere.

Koh Samui is quite a different beast from Koh Tao, or even Koh Pha-Ngan. It is the biggest of the three islands and by far the most developed. I think LP describes it as something like a giant golf course floating in the Gulf of Thailand. I figured I’d recoop and/or blow my money on some expensive-but-still-a-good-deal things before I head back stateside. Exhaustive research led me to the town/area of Bo Put, mostly because of its proximity to the airport and ferry dock. And it was reportedly more atmospheric than the rudely commercialized areas elsewhere on the island. The area is also known as “Fishermen’s Village” for the traditional style homes that line the main street. I stayed at L’Hacienda, a Spanish themed boutique hotel, mostly because it has a rooftop pool. What it didn’t have, however, was electricity. Well, it turns out that the whole area was to be a-electric from that morning until 4 PM or so as a result of repair work on the transmission lines. Here I was trying to enjoy some trappings of modernity and the power was out. Great. Not only that, but the shops/restaurants were all mostly closed as well. The place was almost a ghost town as it soon became apparent that everyone knew about this power outage ahead of time but me. The hotel was quite nice otherwise:

Luckily I found a thoroughly tropicalized French bistro and had myself a nice proper espresso coffee and a delicious salad.

Then I wandered along the quiet street towards the edge of the bay, where there were reportedly some resort type hotels. I figured that they should have their own generator and thus have electricity/AC/comfort. Lacking my own set of wheels, and not wanting to reenact my accidents from a few days ago, I was kind of stuck in this particular location, a location where the beach was pretty mediocre. And truth be told, I was a little beached out by this point. Lucky for me, I stumbled upon this:

And proceeded to pretend like I was a guest at the hotel, swimming in their picturesque infinity pool and partaking in the 2 drinks-for-the-price-of-1-already-really-cheap one-mid-day happy hour. Oh and a super legit massage. Then I had ceviche. Then I had steak, probably the first intact cut of meat I had in the month prior, which is a strange thing to note, but note it I did.

Then I had a cocktail, decided against doing anything vigorous/adventurous/involving searching for dancing and went to sleep. I was, so it seemed, ready to go home.

But first, there was more eating to be done for lunch the next day:

Then I went and packed and prepared to bid Thailand adieu. Casualty from the trip? one green Red Sox hat, one broken Citizen watch, and one set of misplaced Shure headphones. Gained: a whole bunch of jewelry with no recipients, one wooden turtle, one pink cotton string/bracelet, one rotating shiny horse bauble, various postcards, one large lacquered disc with Khmer motifs, bag full of first aide supplies, sunscreen, and thousands of pictures.

But not before picking up some last minute gifts, i.e. ill fitting tank tops, and a book for the plane rides (Jerusalem, whoah time warp).

That little spit is Hat Rin, where the Full Moon party goes down, and the island is therefore Koh Pha-Ngan.

This is Bangkok. The bit of land in the top curve of the river’s “S” is the old downtown with the temples and train station and Chinatown. You Can sort of see the line of skyscrapers that spread east from there. After this picture, I landed, switched airports, and spent the next many hours waiting for my flight to Hong Kong. I arrived there supremely exhausted, rather disoriented, and found my way to a nearby Marriott. It was all in all a very frustrating experience, involving a retricant information desk and the absolute dumbest room service policy ever. And me being too tired to complete basic critical thinking tasks. But that’s probably neither here nor there. Either way I caught my flight back to Newark, landing on May 1st 2013, and onward back to good ol’ CONNECTICUT without further ado. PYCHE (I knew I forgot something). Actually my dad was visiting his sister in NJ and so I went there first instead of home. Still unable to think clearly, I rented a car for an absurd sum for the day because my dad refused to drive 20 minutes and pick me up himself. Then I stopped and ate some American food masquerading as Mexican cuisine, choosing that instead of the equally American options of OMG bagels. What I did do was hang out with my dad and my aunt/cousins and my brother (who graciously brought me my car) for a few days…then I drove up to Vassar for Founder’s Day i.e. a weekend of further debauch, and then I went to my high school reunion at Groton after finally going home for a few days. THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES. But really, it was good to be back in America and still have the freedom to do whatever I please… But that’s another story for another day.

How did I feel about SE Asia? Did I LEARN (?!?) anything?

Good question. The answer is yes. I think the biggest difference between this trip and my previous trip to Europe (when I was 18) was my self-assuredness and self-awareness. Not that I didn’t overthink a great deal of things, but I was certainly more comfortable with dealing with things as they came. Rather than planning my every move ahead of time I improvised and didn’t lock too many things down far in advance. i.e. I booked every night of my accommodation back in 2009, whereas this time when I landed in Thailand I only had my first night, and my initial scuba course, booked. I was pretty happy with the overall balance of comfort and economy and I think I found a relatively rewarding space between straight up danger/stupidity and not doing anything exciting at all. Nothing really went wrong except for my little scooter “accident.”

I also interacted with my fellow travelers much more, and would continue to do so when I go to the Middle East. While I certainly had a few conversations with others in Europe, I had much more in depth interactions this time around. But this may also be a product of traveling in a more exotic locale, where the travelers band together due to a sense of “us” and “them” in a rather imperialistic reflex. The automatically assumed/practical imbalance in power was a little unsettling if you think about it too much. To be placed in such a hierarchy as a result of my tourist status makes a lot of sense, but I still chafed a bit at this reality. Which is not to say I wasn’t annoyed when I wasn’t preferentially treated when white tourists were. It’s doubly confusing since I could usually, depending on what I was wearing, pass for a local until I opened my mouth.

What did I think about the actual place? It was interesting and there is more than a little bit of an “adventure” feel left in the region. I really want to explore up the Mekong and Laotian highland in particular. I knew very little about the Khmer culture and history other than the usual Sinocentric view that most Chinese unconsciously have, so it was enlightening to just learn some basics there. The landscape was beautiful and far different from what I am used to. But it was also far too hot. I should’ve probably not gone in the hottest time of the year. The urban areas, well I guess it’s just Bangkok, were not too attractive for me as a transient. What would’ve been really cool was to rent a car and really go off exploring. I really do like the freedom associated with road tripping, and, as I discovered in Turkey/Jordan, it’s entirely possible to do in a foreign country. Alas, I can’t go back until I’ve hit either South America or Africa at least. Either way, I’ll stop  making contrived generalizations and get on back to my life of anatomy, neurology, and concept map making…

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