16th April 2007 - The Travelling Tao Part 6 - Thailand
Panicky, sweaty palms, guilty look on my face, I had it all and there wasn't a hint of illegal contraband about my person. There was however a very large sheep filled bag attached to Natasha who was attached to me and I was attached to two very heavy cases.
I regarded this encounter with the check-in desk as our closest brush with disaster yet, in my experience the Sydney Qantas staff are the toughest in the Star Alliance (axis of luggage evil) costing me £150 in unattended baggage when we flew home in 2004, another example of how perhaps a full set of luggage might not have been such a clever idea for a wedding present after all. Fortunately, though they looked fierce (the reason for my sweaty palms), the weight of our bags was ignored and 'flossie' our sheepskin companion, only received a slight comment.
Dean's packing 3 Axis of luggage evil 0
We landed at Thailand's Scobydoobiedoo airport (my name, not theirs) and for once were actually disembarking. Tash, not content with ever doing anything simply got diverted out of the business class exit of the plane and I further on from first, arriving at the junction of the boarding bridge I waited for her to appear... and waited ..and waited. I have seen Die Hard 2: Die Harder so know what sort of shenanigans can go on in airports, ever vigilant I walked back down to the near deserted plane and inquired if they had seen her, nope, I walked back up to the boarding lounge, no sign of her there, back to the aeroplane then. Seeing my distress, or more probably, checking me out for any possible terrorist intentions I was approached by one of the stewardesses and she put a call out over the intercom. I felt exceedingly embarrassed and quite worried by this point and so decided as I was holding Natasha's passport as well, I could leave the plane and venture into the terminal. She'd be there.
Scobydoobiedoo airport has a lot of long walkways, so you can see a fair way and she wasn't anywhere in front of me. I walked these for a bit, going backwards and forwards just in case, bear in mind I now seem to be the only person in the airport as it is way past midnight and all the other passengers have managed to make it out without loosing their most valuable cargo. Eventually, more by deductive reasoning, I ended up at immigration just before the baggage reclaim and out from behind a column a teary Tash appeared.
When I am foolish enough to accompany my dear wife out shopping I spend more time trying to find her than I actually do shopping, this is no bad thing, but like you would with a small child, I have to keep my eye on her all the time lest she disappears. To give you an illustration, I have often in the past been talking to her and in the time it takes me to look the other way, find that she has gone, mostly mid sentence too. So you can imagine how that makes me feel, I will eventually find Tash after about 10 minutes of searching by which time I am a bit fraught and annoyed and she is pleasantly unaware.
This time the girl had out-done herself, she could not explain why she had continued to walk away from the plane (if you loose me, then always go back to the last place we talked, goes the Dean mantra). I was pleased that we had found each other, but slightly worried that this could be an early motif for the rest of the trip.
We spent the night at the onsite airport hotel, which is, if you research it, as plush as the reviews suggest. The only downside is that you are directed into a mini bus to get there, even though it is only 300 meters from the terminal, and then sit bemused as you get driven round in what is, a big circle. Due to the restrictions of one way system in airports, this is not a very direct route and requires you to actually leave the site.
After repacking the bags and checking one in to left luggage we boarded the flight to Phuket the next day
Dean's packing 4 Axis of luggage evil 0
We exited the airport to be welcomed by a mass of people with nameplates all vying for attention, we were also greeted by the heat, which beat all-comers to get our attention. I wasn't wearing my "go away" sunglases, or if you know what this means, more accurately my F.O.A.D shades, so had to resort to nonchelantly gazing across the crowd to find a name I recognised, there was no Natasha Dean, but attached to a very smiley man was my name - this was the first proper indication that we were in a male orientated society (the other is the look of mild horror that all the locals did their best to disguise in conversations with us, well with Tash actually. They obviously haven't yet understood the fundamental law implicit in every successful western relationship: if a man was left to organise a holiday, you would never have one. I consider it no exaggeration to say that the travel industry is female led.) Having secured the gaze of the smiling man and therefore also the key to our first leg of this micro multi hop jaunt, we boarded his little mini bus and made a swift departure for, as it turned out, a marina some distance away. On route Tash reminded me that the resort we were destined for advertised a "speedboat" transfer between the Phuket and Phi Phi island.
After our dash across the sea we skirted around a few bays and inlets, one of which was big enough to contain our resort, though I immediately thought looking down at my feet sensibly shod in hiking boots, no jetty, how will we get ashore?
I was the only person on the boat who had not made the standard Thai padi-satorial choice of thongs (filp flops to us English travellers) and immediately saw the error of my colonial ways as the rest of the boat disembarked to a warm welcome of smiling faces and cold towels, whilst I sat on the deck struggling to get my shoes off.
I caught up with the wife just as we both got to the wooden board walk, "it is hot" exclaimed a lady as we passed her, she was right, it was bloody hot, the ambient heat I could handle, but the hot plate masquerading as the floor I could not and it really was starting to hurt the soles of my feet. We could see that our hosts were directing us to a shaded group of tables and chairs so Tash and I made the distance in a 'hop skip and jump' style before putting those cold towels back into service again to cool our soles down. We met Joy our host who showed us the map of the resort and in what we thought was a beautiful piece of pressure selling ignored the row of beach front huts that we were to be in and focused on the delights of the 4 hilltop villas, all she told us, we could have for 25000 bhat a night, 'no thank you' retorted Tash, remembering that Thailand is supposed to be cheap.
We don't have much luck, but had it today, for reasons that we have been unable to work out, shortness of stay, new staff training, maybe our considerable standing in the internet community perhaps, we were then approached by a more senior member of staff who informed us very politely, but firmly that we were to have one of the villas for our stay and it was a free upgrade.
We grumbled about the distance as they drove us away from the beach front, past the cafe, restaurant, beachside huts, swimming pool, spa and then up a very steep hill. Due to the vagaries of Thai English translation, we initially didn't like the sound of this upgrade malarkie because we understood that the villas had a shared pool. We were wrong, they each had their own private pool, so we cheered up considerably when they opened the doors.
Then did nothing for 3 days but slob around and discussing the level of beachwear sartorial elegance.
The final part of our month long excursion was taken on the mainland in an "environmental resort", their phrase not mine, they meant close to nature, as in there were a lot of trees. To get there we took a public ferry from Tonsai on Phi Phi to the mainland.
This was a boring two hour boat ride, but we were happy to be away from that town. It was our first real taste of backpack Thailand and it had left a bad impression, not least because we were looking at the roadside cooking and were caught down wind of an open sewer. The other thing that we noticed, which was further confirmed later on in the week, was that the Thai view of the west must be largely based on the travellers that they see in places like this. The girls all seem to be far to young, underdressed (for a country with a strict morality code) and at every beach opportunity topless, call me old fashioned, but this didn't seem right at all. The men surprised me as they all seemed to be equally body conscious, tattooed or muscular, usually both. I always remind myself that in most societies tattooing is an indication of some interest in nerferious activities and are usually hidden. Also every westerner we saw smoked!
It didn't take long to reach this conclusion, the other hour and fifty minutes was taken up trying to remember and then re-word the Top Cat theme tune to fit our next destination.
The most environmental Tubkaak!
Whose intercontinental customers get to call them T.K.
Come watch the sunset today.
The indisputable leader of the gang.
He's the boss, he's a VIP, he's the championship.
He's the most tip top,
they have a chief, he's a king
But above everything,
He's the most tip top,
After a couple of days noodling around the resort, we both recognised that our twice daily walks up and down the length of the beach was an indication, like caged animals in the zoo, of our need to get out. We had already worked out that there were three important languages, Thai, of which we spoke but a handful of words, English, which we are quite good at and the curious hybrid, Thai-English, which everyone seemed to speak, us included, but no one really seemed to understand. We organised to rent two mopeds from reception, the smiley face indicated this was understood, only one turned up. We couldn't be arsed to send the Manchester United attired Thai gentleman back down the road, so as the wife has the bike license, I jumped on the back and took on the challenge of directing us around using the tourist map we had been given.
I really should have realised that something was up when we soon came to a junction and the map merrily indicated no such thing. Had I been more observant I would have read some of the local business adverts that surrounded this cartographic piece of fiction first and taken that as an indication of how useful this map was. Here is the text from one of the better ones, for a local pharmacy, I suspect that it was written by two people, one English, one Thai and not at the same time, not that you'll need any help spotting the join.
Ao Nang Pharmacy is proud to provide the most professional level of pharmaceutical services in Ao Nang.and good english language communicate and have many brand name carries a complete selection of all medicines and health care products.
Needless to say we got lost, but help was always one smile away.
On the way home we were navigating back around the twisty new road that will eventually be the main artery to a number of resorts currently under construction on this stretch of land. Rounding a bend, seemingly put there to allow the construction of another jutting peice of soon to be holiday real estate, we both spied a group of Thai women builders sauntering back through the site, the obvious matriarch of the group looked at Tash, then me in pillion, lit up a big smile and offerd the "thumbs up" signal, directed, as we both guessed, to Tash. Just on a bit further another female worker waved and then finally just as we were pulling into the resort, she was beeped by a trio of pillioned women as they too sped passed. Our suspicions were confirmed later that evening by the female concierge, who confirmed that my wife had been playing a significant role in progressing the Thai female emancipation cause by being the rider to a male pillion. Seemed the logical way to do things to me, I thought.
For our final day away, we again left the now comfortable confines of the Tubkaak. This time the melodic refrain 'The most tip top, Tubkaak!' could only just be heard over the thud thud of the longtail boat's engine as we made our way out on a private excursion to the Hong Islands and on to Railay Beach.
I am not going to bore you with the minute details of this trip, but will instead present this précis -
The Hong Islands were beautiful, Tash conversed with the rangers in her Thai, which surprised them and so we were welcomed to the island with their laughter, hopefully with us and not about us.
On the way across the bay our long tail driver spotted a stationary long tail, adhering to the rules of the sea we diverted over to see if he was ok - long tail boats, which are powered by large car engines sat precariously on the stern are understandably principally designed to be moving - so there had to be a reason for his lack of forward motion, Thai's remember are not known for adhering to the English tradition of morning and afternoon tea. As we got closer to him I could see why, at rest the engines are pushed downwards and the long propeller shaft is left out of the water, this boat was not going to be anything other than at rest, in a "what's wrong with this picture" manner I worked through the scene; Long tail boat, check, smiley boatman, check, car engine, check, long propeller shaft, check, propeller, umm no.
We pulled up and apparently offered him some help, but he had help coming. Our dude then tried to restart our boat and only managed to produce some slow spluttering noises from our equally out sized motor. We now needed some help.
My extensive knowledge of breaking down in motor vehicles told me that we had a flat battery, up until this moment I hadn't considered that these boats had them, but then again this is a car on water, so why not. Our longboat man and our new propeller less friend hardly exchanged any other words before they started paddling towards each other, with I noted, a piece of wood which makes up the floor. Tash and I were then treated to the slightly odd sight of a really long pair of jumper cables being used to start our boat.
Railay presented all the worst excesses that tourism could do to a country as beautiful as Thailand. It is on a headland, a sort of slanted italic capital T, the two arms of which are high rocky out crops. For reasons that I dare not comprehend some idiot has plonked an exclusive resort down in between them, effectively cutting off the two public beaches that sit on the top of the 'T' shape.
We reached the first of these, Monkey cave (it is a beach and a cave, there are monkeys) by blazenly walking past the resorts "please do not enter, private property" signs. Luckily our greating of "Sawadee" to the security guard so enamoured us to him, that he saluted in return. The beach was crap, small, overcrowded and full of hawkers (that would be people selling their wares and not men blowing their noses, it is important to point this distinction out I feel) so we tried and were thwarted in returning by our initial route by a rather unpleasent security guard. By chance someone pointed us to the 'commoners' route back, a small, but nicely paved path running along the side of the resort, but in most places almost under the cliffs. It turned out to the 'other' Railay beach, which apparently you don't swim in. This was the nicest vista I have seen in Thailand, despite (possibly beacuse of) the hoardes of long tails piled with the resorts recyclable rubbish and all the resorts service buildings placed on this side.
On the way home a familiar silhouette came on the horizon, it looked liked our jump-starting-propeller-loosing friend from earlier had not yet been rescued. Not being content with impressing us with their previous display of maritime mechanical tomfoolery, this time we were treated to a display of boat towing. Not as you might imagine by having one boat behind the other, but tied on to the bow of the boat so in keeping with the mixed transport metaphors I have already used in this story, we led it into the shallows like a horse.
By the time we left Tubkaak we were both so relaxed that the approaching packing issues were nonchalantly tackled. The biggest packing issue of the trip was the flight back to Bangkok, as Thai-Air have a 15kg bag limit, by now this was easy.
Dean's Packing 4 - Axis of luggage evil 0
We arrived back in the UK the following day, the two international flights with Cathay Pacific passed without much issue, my ad hoc repack outside the left luggage centre in the airport wasn't as embarrassing as I had expected it to be, the pants and undies had been confined to the bottom of the case by now. Tash had decided to test the idea that all Asian Oriental peoples are as nice as the Thai's by picking an argument with a guard at the security screening gate in Hong Kong, they are not by the way, and I am pleased that it didn't progress as I was too tired to cope and just got on the escalators and left her.
Final score then; Dean's Packing 5 - Axis of luggage evil 0 - A decisive victory!