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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Goldilocks and the Three Islands

A little book called “The Beach” gave the islands of Thailand a magical aura that wouldn’t subside. Friends who I rendered potentially illiterate read “The Beach.” Possibly, it was due in part to Leonardo di Caprio’s buffed beach physique – his first role post-Titanic, he played Alex Garland’s main character in the movie version - that got them reading. True to my publishing roots, however, I choose to believe it’s all about the book. Regardless, I headed for the Thai islands with stars in my eyes, as nothing was going to tarnish my idea of what the islands should be about: absolutely natural beautiful beaches, relief from travel chaos, fruit-filled meals followed by lazy island sunset cocktails mixed by ex-pat hotties, and the best scuba diving known to man. Some of that vision came from my trips to the islands, some did not. Part of me thinks I’m spoiled, with the beaches of the Caribbean due south, part of me thinks that I held my perfect idea of the islands too close. Either way, I was slightly disappointed. I plan to head to the west coast islands of Phuket and the Similians before I come home, and see that side of things, but for now, my experience is limited to the Gulf of Thailand islands of Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui.

I arrived from Bangkok to Koh Samui at 9 AM, and had to hang around waiting for a 12:00 Noon ferry to Koh Tao. I asked my hotel (which was providing transfer) if I could take an earlier ferry but the response I got was “Samui airport very nice, you sit in garden, we see you 11 AM to transfer.” Ok – airport hanging. I can handle it. The Samui airport, like the hotel said, is basically one big outdoor garden space, with lots of palm trees, restaurants, shops, massages services and a waiting area for people like me. Patiently, I waited until 11 AM with my book, but, SHOCKER, nobody came for me. So, with the help of two very sweet Thai airline attendants (“you no have transfer?”), I made my way to the Samui pier for the Koh Tao ferry. They had my reservation at the pier, but the help I was promised TO the pier never arrived. The usual reply for mistakes like these is “I sorry, ma’am” with an added blank stare for “now-shut-up” emphasis. Whatever. Why does lack of service even surprise me at this point? After a long ferry, I arrived onto Koh Tao, where me and two Swedes, Peter and his mute wife, were told that we’d be transferred to the hotel when the rest of the people came. An hour later. “Go, walk around Mae Head Town, very nice” was the instruction this time. So, like idiots, we did.

Koh Tao was my favorite. Mae Head Town, where the pier is located, is the “busiest” town of the island, with a 7-11 (they’re on EVERY street corner in mainland Thailand, and seemingly, here too) being the main commercial draw. Other than that, Koh Tao housed a few restaurants, a few travel agencies, a few internet café and a million scuba outfits with guest houses for the divers. As we headed up to Sai Ree Beach, where I was staying, the street lights stopped lighting and the roads got progressively worse, as 75% of the island is without hot water and electricity. It’s all about the diving, all about the purity of the island. The Coral Grand Resort (they use the term “resort” VERY loosely here – any accommodation with a working phone and a massage therapist on the premises might be called a resort) was perfectly fine. Not exactly what I pictured, but exactly what I needed. I had a beach bungalow, hot water, electricity (that shut for 2 hours a day to change generators) a porch that overlooked the ocean, and solitude. To some, it might be a shack, as the bathroom was more Flintstone than Four Seasons (I half expected an elephant trunk to be my “running” water hose), but I was happy to just chill out and take time off from traveling. In Koh Tao, I made a friend on my first (and only) dive day, who hung with me each evening, having dinner and conversation, as he was living there for a 2-month divemaster’s course (he MARVELED at my digs and used me for my hot water). (SEE…to some, my bungalow was even considered indulgent.) I spent my days, well…the first two….on the beach, eating fresh pineapple, papaya and watermelon at mealtimes, staring out into the bluest of waters, surrounded by lush hills of palm trees and rocky valleys of boulders. At sunset, the tide would recede and on the wet sand, the locals would play soccer. Brave westerners would often join for some exercise, slowly realizing that this wasn’t their backyard soccer game and retreat just as gingerly as they came. After sunset, the restaurants along the beach put out pillows and mats for people to lazily lounge on while eating/drinking a bit before heading off to bed. Granted, the lounge chairs were unpadded, the bartenders mixing my sunset cocktails were teeny Thais that I could pocket without struggle, and the diving visibility wasn’t great, but all in all, Tao was bliss. I only got to dive for a day. As previously mentioned, monsoons kicked in and rendered anything besides hanging in the bungalow, reading, do-able. It kinda felt like a rainy camp day, for the bunk loser who had no friends.

When my time to leave Tao arrived, I wasn’t ready. With the rain, I lost 2 full days and wanted to stay longer and dive some more, but I had a reservation on Koh Phangan, the party island, and the Full Moon party – one of the largest parties in the world – fell during my time in Thailand. How could I NOT check it out? So, I begrudgingly got onto the ferry down to Koh Phangan to see what the Full Moon scene was all about.

WRONG MOVE. I arrived in Koh Phangan to a throbbing pier of youngsters, half-clad and hungover, waiting for the boat to ferry them OFF Koh Phangan. When my communal taxi driver dropped off a couple about 50 km and a huge hill AWAY from their hotel, calling it a ride, I knew I was in trouble. 15 minutes later, he tried to drop me in a mud pit in the “center” of town that served as a taxi stand. I balked, pointing to my wheelie. Wherein, we proceeded to have a half Thai-half English discussion/fight about door-to-door transportation (my side) and “Why is bag so big? Everyone else carry on their back! Not MY fault you don’t pack good!!” (his side) So I politely told him to fuck off, then gave him another $1 and get proper service.

My hotel was another disaster. I was “lucky” according to every traveler headed to Full Moon, to have been able to secure lodging. But, I promise, The Drop In “Resort” was no picnic. The elevator was broken, there were ants ALL over the bathroom that kept making their way closer to my bed area, the shower curtain had so much mold on it that when my soap slipped out of my hand it was brown when I picked it up from the briefest encounter with the curtain scum, the pool stereo system pumped 50 Cent and Eminem at 10 AM at full blast, and the staff were pissed at me because, guess what, they sent a car for me to the pier and I didn’t show up. ARE YOU KIDDING?? Then, then show me the sign I was supposed to notice on the crazy Koh Phangan pier. It was an index card, used for 2nd grade multiplication tables, not transfer service signage. I mean…..

So, after checking in, I make my way into town. This isn’t for me. I know immediately. As if my Jazz Fest experience (and those of you who experienced me there) wasn’t a telling sign that mass parties taking place in outdoor spaces that bring out the dregs of society looking for an excuse to get wasted in excess wasn’t enough of a warning that I don’t like these types of events, this was the icing on the cake. Town is packed with people, EVERYWHERE. And town, on a good day, wouldn’t pass for A town. It’s just narrow little lanes of crappy stores and rundown cafes, winding toward the beach, on which, everyone will congregate at a later hour. OK. I breathe, walk, survey the scene.

First thing I notice is everyone is white and speaks English. Second thing I notice, I am easily 5-10 years older than most people here. Third, everyone has dredlocks and a messenger bag of some variety slung over their person. I fit in oh-so-well in my little Marc Jacobs skirt, James Perse wife beater and ivory bangle bracelets., right. The cafes are packed with lifeless bodies strewn around, watching movies and reruns of Friends. Everyone in the cafes is comatose, eyes glued to the Joey pees on Monica episode, or a showing of Lost in Translation. Why vacation to sit in a café doing what you would do on your couch at home? I’m not sure I get it. Ok, I don't. I’m starving, so I sit down at a little Mediterranean café. The one thing that people raved about on Phangan was the Mediterranean food, as tons of Israelis live here. There, I indulged in the best falafel I’ve ever had and watermelon shakes (my first of MANY) and was momentarily happy. Heading back to my ant hole, I felt that sleep would probably serve me for the long night ahead. I was determined to get through Full Moon. Of course, I couldn’t sleep, I was just itchy and buggy and waiting for the rodents that I knew were hiding in the walls to come and get me. I’m really not squeamish, but after seeing a cockroach as big as a small sparrow in the internet café downstairs, I felt like the Drop In houses more insects than people.

Around 9 PM, I made my way onto the beach. What a difference a few hours makes. The carnival had begun, sunset had let loose the creatures of the Full Moon universe. Everywhere you turned, people. Most were in various states of undress, glowing with body paint announcing “Full Moon 2-14” or “Full Moon Party.” Glo - sticks, glo -headbands and glo-glasses were being sold like candy (yes, people were buying them like they were gold), as were roses, shell necklaces, hits of X. mushrooms shakes, marijuana, lollipops, water and, the Thai bucket that so enticed me in Chiang Mai. I decided I wanted a proper place for the action and headed down to one of the many lounge areas set up along the beach (pillows, mats and tables in the middle) and ordered…a beer. I just didn’t have it in me to be any more daring than that. Shortly after I sat, two guys sat next to me and became my protectors for the night. I only remember Steve. The other’s name escapes me, if I ever even knew it. We just took it all in. As we walked down the beach, there were fire throwers, rings of fire for the daring (and drunk) to jump through while a crowd jeered, suspension ladders to climb. There were clubs as far as the eye could see, and as you walked, you hit different decades of music with each new venue. 70’s. 80’s. 90’s. Electronica. Trance. Hip-Hop. Dance. Then, high on a mountain top, away from it all, was Mellow Mountain, playing Reggae and Dead in different rooms. The bodies were pulsating, convulsing to the music, everywhere. Walking around, dancing, drinking, all night – Steve, No-name, and I just wandered and watched. It actually was a blast and when I next looked at my watch it was almost 5 AM. 8 hours had passed!?!?!? So, rather than an awkward goodbye, when Steve and No-name went to the bathroom, I bolted. Happy to be back at my anthole, I drifted off to sleep. And….can you guess? I checked out the next morning.

If Koh Tao was the sleepy island and Koh Phangan the island that never sleeps, Koh Samui is somewhere in between. It’s definitely commercialized a bit, as McDonalds and Starbucks have made their way to Samui, but it was a blessing after my time on Phangan. My hotel was on a gorgeous four room beach bungalow (again, me and my 3 kids were staying for the week….) off an infinity pool that opened onto the beach. I stayed on Lamai Beach, a long stretch of sand with unbelievably warm ocean water. While the beach itself wasn’t gorgeous, the background setting again struck me as beautiful about the islands, keeping me smiling. On Samui, the music at the pool was a mix between Maroon 5 and Marc Cohn, rather than rap, and the nightly BBQs dotted along the sand consisting of fresh-caught fish ranging from Barracuda to Tiger Prawns (as big as 3 lb lobster tails!), were fantastic.

Now, as the rain sets in on the last hours of my last day on Samui, I am ready to get back into hardcore travel (after I indulge in just one more spicy beef salad and pad thai). I’ve been idle for almost 10 days now. Sure, the chocolate of my skin will help me fit right into India where I’m heading in a bit (I can’t tell you how many times people have asked if I’m Indian (or Israeli)) and I’ll miss the daily beach massages BUT…I’m ready to move on. I arrive into Delhi tomorrow AM, where I am meeting my friend Matt who lives there. Then, the Hanfts and I are Taj Mahal-ing thru Agra, and I just found out (thank you, Kim) that Ehrenberg is arriving into India for three weeks of work on March 1st. Who knew life would be peopled with such familiar faces….IN INDIA? For the experiences I KNOW I’m about to have there, I absolutely cannot wait.

More soon…


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