Our return to Thailand came at a very tragic time with two bombings in Bangkok. Thailand has and will continue to hold a part of my heart and it was tragic to see more violence in the Thai capital. While a the suspect was caught, it does little to help in the pain caused to so many.
We left Penang on an early morning van heading to Trang in Southern Thailand. We got surprised when at 7am (after a couple hours on the road and crossing an international border) we got told to hop out at Hat Yai. In the confusion of getting dropped at a local travel agent office, figuring out what was happening with onward transport, etc… we realized that Liz’s phone had fallen on the floor in the first van that we got abruptly shuffled out of. Despite a bit of rather unfriendly muttering about the problems caused by foreigners(as with all languages, understanding is occasionally a curse but normally a blessing) the travel agent tracked down the original van driver and helped organize a motorcycle taxi to retrieve and drop-off the phone moments before we shuttled off to the next place. To the grouchy helpful woman in Hat Yai, thank you very much.
Our first destination in Thailand was Koh Lanta. Koh Lanta is rather large (about 30km long) and relatively quiet. It is technically two islands as there is a narrow channel a little North of center. Lanta gained some popularity for international tourists in the 90s and looked like it was starting to actually grow into a real destination in 2003 when I last visited. Unfortunately, despite lovely beaches, beautiful dense jungles with waterfalls and caves; many shops and buildings stood empty with the jungle appearing to take the land back. Our visit was in low season ‘Green Season’, so some shops might have just been closed until high season. While the beaches and jungle were amazing and appealing, our primary goal was Muay Thai Training. We booked 9 days at the hotel next to the gym (compete with pool) and a week of training. We woke up every morning to running, shadow-boxing, bag-work and sparring. We were lucky enough to have the gym mostly to ourselves, so our classes were more like private trainings. Our instructors were good natured and constantly entertained by our struggles with things that were second nature to them. I actually thought one of the instructors might pee himself when I managed to fling myself backwards, landing flat on my back, while practicing kicks shadow boxing. The owner of the gym (a champion in his prime) had a 2 year old son that put both of us to shame I’m afraid.
The week was fairly calm overall. We swam at the hotel, watched sunsets from the beach, practiced Muay Thai in the mornings and caught up on Internet stuff or walked on the beach during the day. We did spend one day checking out the island on a motorbike, filling up the tank at roadside stalls with gasoline sold from old whisky bottles and trying to avoid the occasional downpour. We also stopped by the local fresh market. Liz felt very local carrying her bag of raw eggs back to the hotel on the back of our scooter.
After the peace and quiet of Koh Lanta we travelled to Koh Phi Phi. I think it was 2002 the last time I was there, so seeing all the change that has happened since was startling. Phi Phi was very hard hit by the Tsunami at the end of 2004 and even the layout of the streets seems to have been changed since my last visit. Where we stayed it was fairly quite, but there were loads of parties with buckets of booze, fire-dancing and international beer-pong battles nearby. The beaches were littered with all sorts of trash. Some of the trash was beer bottles and such, but there were also lots of broken bits of plastic and household rubbish. It was a shame to see so much pollution in such a lovely place.
While on Phi Phi we went for a snorkeling trip. I was excited since Phi Phi had some beautiful snorkeling when I last visited. We caught the afternoon trip with the hopes of a lovely sunset. Our boat took us to a beach where we had to swim/wade in through shallow coral reefs to see monkeys. With no snorkels yet in sight, this seemed like a bummer of a filler stop since there is so much to see underwater. Besides, monkeys are terrifying creatures that climb, jump and have big teeth and attitude problems; I have no idea why people want to spend any time around them. After 10 minutes wading in, 20 minutes watching monkeys swipe peoples sunnies and then bare their teeth when people tried to get them back and then another 30 minutes as everyone tried to get out to the boat (which had moved farther out on the coral, but no deeper) we finally left angry monkey beach. Next we got passing mention of a cave we stopped by a lovely lagoon to go snorkeling. We got our snorkels and masks, but no fins and were in a pack of maybe 10 boats. Everyone was crowded around one small section of reef, people were feeding the fish and standing on the coral, and every time we looked up there seemed to be another boat arriving that was paying little to no attention to their proximity to snorkelers. There were certainly some cool fish and beautiful coral mixed with coral that had been killed. We were there for about 20 minutes, and that was the entirety of our snorkeling for the day. After that we had 2 hours to spend at Maya Bay (famous for being the setting for the movie The Beach). Our boat hit coral so hard we came very close to capsizing and it took the captain about 30 minutes of shoving with each wave that came to finally dislodge it. We paid roughly $9 a person to enter into the marine sanctuary of Phi Phi Ley, it was frankly tragic to see it so mistreated. The snorkeling trip was a complete bust in my opinion, most of the people on the trip left with coral wounds, some having not gotten any snorkeling in at all. The natural beauty of Phi Phi is outstanding, but the dismal state of environmental protections puts it low on my list of places I would plan to visit again.
From PhiPhi we spent a couple of days in Phuket. We decided to stay at Patong beach; seedy bars, high prices and more signs/menus in Russian and English than Thai. We spent a lot of time hanging around the hotel and a nearby restaurant. While scouting around for dinner options one night we did stumble across William Shatner and friends filming their epic story of how with millions of dollars and a support crew anyone can backpack at any age in 5 star resorts (or something like that). It was entertaining watching the film crew, and they filmed our ice cream being made for B-Roll, so we might have eaten a dessert with IMDB credentials.
Our early morning taxi to the airport was one of the least comfortable passenger experiences I’ve had, our driver slowed to a near stop on every blind corner and then raced aggressively on straightaways. When we passed a terrible looking accident he slammed on his brakes to get a closer look (apparently forgetting he had passed another car moments before that was directly behind us). I was happy to get out of that cab and be getting on a flight to Bangkok.
This all sounds a bit like doom and gloom, but really it was mostly a beautiful time. It is always an interesting experience returning to places years later to see how time has changed them and also my own memories.