Both islands are the smallest and most northern of a chain of three, and are almost completely dominated by Dive tourism and backpackers. They are similar in size, share a mountainous terrain, tropical climate, and are surrounded by warm, azure seas that are filled with coral gardens teeming with colorful sea life.
Life ashore, however, is very different; the locals on Koh Tao are generally happy, cordial, and extremely nice, while those on Utila are generally angry, bitter, and subtly hostile. The difference, of course, is rooted in the host cultures - Thailand is an ancient Buddhist country that has never been colonized, while Honduras suffers from the brutal heritage of the Spanish Conquest. My recollections of the vicious, confrontational, antagonistic conduct of the Utilans gives me an appreciation of the Thais that only increases the longer I stay here.
To get to Koh Tao we rode the overnight car ferry from Chumpon. It’s a rusty old bucket with a flat deck that was loaded with freight and a couple of cars. A bridge house in the back doubled as quarters for the crew, and flop house for the passengers. The second floor was an open room with a chest high platform welded along each wall, thereby affording two levels of communal sleeping space. Thin mattresses lay side by side the length of the floor and platforms, creating, essentially, one giant bunk where all of the passengers could recline at their ease - encased in stifling heat, rocked by sloshing waves, and serenaded by a diesel lullaby. It was an entertaining passage, at least, although restless and uncomfortable.
We arrived at koh Tao before dawn, disembarked, shouldered our packs, and trudged up a darkened lane. A few blocks up, an early rising shop keeper was just setting out his chairs and tables, so we tarried there over coffee and breakfast long enough to allow the sun to illuminate the sky.
That side of the island, the western shore, is dominated by one long beach, which is nowadays lined end to end with dive shops, restaurants, and guest houses. One author referred to it as a “Tourist ghetto”, which is close enough, although everything is reasonably nice. We chose, therefore, to walk to the southern end, where a smaller beach offered a more comfortable and laid back environment.
We found reasonable accommodations at a place called the Tarapon bungalows. It was a small hut built of teak wood on the hillside just above the beach. A small deck on the front looked out over the bay to the anchorage, where a handful of dive boats lay moored. Along the beach just below the bungalow was a small dive shop and an outdoor bar called ‘Babaloo’. Built all of driftwood and bamboo, it was artfully decorated with faux rock art and curious bits of cast off junk, like a pink push button telephone that hadn’t worked in decades, mounted on a post in the sand as if it were some stone age phone booth. The bartender was a very friendly kid from Bangkok named ‘Aut’, who doubled as DJ and barmeister. The evenings there were warm and comfortable, with the quiet hum of conversation filling in the spaces between the songs as fire spinners lit the sand with a reddish glow, whirling their fiery scepters in hypnotic arcs that dazzled and enchanted.
The days we filled by walking, riding, and exploring, the island being crossed by steep, rough, dirt roads and edged by countless beautiful coves. A little honda motorbike was our trusty steed, let out at the exorbitant toll of three dollars a day. Once we’d got the hang of it, riding up imposingly steep, drastically rutted dirt roads became more of a carnival ride than the life threatening chore it started out as. We explored north, south, east and west until the every place within reach of a 125 cc honda had been accounted for. Among them were high mountain tops that looked out to distant oceanic horizons, remote bays of crystalline water, exravagant resorts, and abandonded, grassy hilltops, scattered with palm trees, that received the light of the setting sun like a temple.
Once the limits of the air-breathing island had been found out, we looked into the water-breathing world. A snorkel trip to a small bay on the east shore yielded visions of luminescently colorful fish, grazing unconcernedly among the coral, and several glimpses of a young black tipped shark, perhaps sixteen inches long, that moved through the water with the grace of a bird in slow motion. Toward the end of our stay I joined the nearby dive school for an adventure dive. We rode out for an hour in an old, but well kept Thai fishing boat to an underwater formation called the Chumpon Pinnacle, which is a submerged peak about four miles offshore. We dove twice, and each time had several sightings of bull head sharks, perhaps six feet long, that cruised the bottom below us.
Five days of Koh Tao convinced us that five days was not enough, and reluctantly we departed to continue our travels to the north. We set off to meet up with an old friend in Pai, near the very northernmost limit of Thailand. That narrative, however, must wait for another day.]]>
We arrived in Bangkok all frazzled out after the usual twenty-some sleepless hours of flying, waiting and sitting. I’ve always avoided Bangkok on the other trips I’ve had here, because of it’s reputation for traffic, smog, heat, intensity and stress. On this occasion, though, we were sufficiently thrashed that we decided it was best to get some rest before continuing on. We headed in to the Khao San Road district, which is infamous as the locus of travelers in the city. It’s a small neighborhood filled with cheap guest houses, bars and cafes, all of which cater exclusively to tourists - most of whom, like us, are in backpacker mode. It was predictably crowded and noisy, and when the road shut down to traffic in the evening, it resembled nothing so much as a carnival midway, with clouds of pedestrians that swarmed along like insects or schools of fish. It’s touristy extravagance held nothing noteworthy, though, and aside from a few nice meals, our time there was highly forgettable.
Continuing on the next day, we caught an overnight train southward, intent on reaching an island in the Andaman sea called Koh Chang. Our accommodations were a second class sleeper car, with fan, built in Japan by the Hitachi corporation in 1967. It was shabby and tattered, with worn out upholstery and astonishingly uncomfortable cushions. The fan’s steady and patient efforts to counteract the oppressive heat were all but futile. The car’s only redeeming quality was a sort of charming obsolescence, a quality of other-timeliness that allowed the imagination to drift back and envision what it must have been like in that long lost era of the late 60’s. A smiling porter came by offering food and refreshments, an uplifting counterpoint to the dark, humid, impoverished ghettos just outside the window. A while later, another porter arrived to fold down the benches into bunks, complete with linens and pillows, which led to yet another sleepless night of clattering rails and rumbling wheels. Heavy rain in the small hours of the night made us glad to be indoors, but enough leaked in that rivulets of water formed small estuaries on the floor.
Arriving near dawn at Ranong, which lies near the border with Myanmar on the narrowest part of the Malay peninsula, we made our way down to the dock to find a ferry out to Koh Chang. As Koh Chang closes completely for the low season, no scheduled ferrys were running. We, of course, knew none of this. As soon as we asked, however, a friendly local directed us to a Long Tail boat which was filled with freight, and soon after we pushed off. The passage out runs down a long, muddy river, lined with docks and blunt wooden fishing boats that sat mired in mud, it being low tide just then. As the passage widened, many islands appeared both north and south of us. Some of those to the north were no more then a half mile away, and although they appeared just as sunny and cheerful as all the others, they were part of that sinister kingdom of darkness, Myanmar (or so the US newscasters would have us believe). It was tempting to run over there for a day, just to see how downtrodden they really were, but we didn’t.
We arrived at the western shore of Koh Chang to find that it was a delightfully unspoiled beach, with nothing there other than small bungalow places… no restaurants, no tour operators pushing for business, no roads, no taxis, no crowds. In fact, it was the quietest place I think I’ve ever been in thailand, because everything had closed for the rainy season. We considered ourselves lucky that one bungalow place was just open enough to allow us to stay, although they were totally unprepared for guests. It was difficult even to find something to eat. It was clearly a very fine place to be though, if things were up and running. It’s one of those places where there is not a single plastic chair to be found. Every single item of furniture was formed of weathered teak that had been carefully crafted by hand from the natural forms of the wood. The organic quality of the furniture, the simplicity of the lodgings and the overcast, grey weather allowed for at least one night of pleasant repose. It was, however, enough of an imposition on our hosts that we decided that it would be mildly impolite to stay… so we decided to carriy on and return another day.
For our next destination we chose Koh Tao, across the Malay peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand. More on that later….]]>
Mike is riding a Honda CB 400, an in-line 4 cylinder of 400 cc displacement. My ride is a Honda Bros, also a 400 cc engine, but in a liquid cooled V-twin arrangement. Mike’s bike red lines about 4000 rpm higher than mine, so he has greater power running flat out, but mine has better frame geometry and maybe a little more mid-range torque, so we’re well matched and take turns leading, and later on take turns taunting each other over who’s a better rider.
Mae Hong Son is a small provincial capitol, with maybe 7000 inhabitants. We didn’t stay long enough to learn much about it, but it’s situated among forested mountains, which bake in a dry heat at this time of year. The temperatures throughout the trip have been hot, almost oppressively so, but there is no rain so the humidity is low. We took lodging at a small guest house that looks out over a small man-made lake in the center of town, which is ringed by houses and shops, with one large, well-lit, golden Wat (temple) on the far shore. In the center of the lake is a ten foot high Illuminated photo of the King, which gives it the appearance of floating on water. In fact, there are photos of the King everywhere one looks in Thailand; on billboards, in homes, along the streets, everywhere. I think He must be the most un-smiling King in the whole world. To judge from the expression on his face, Kinghood must be a terrible burden, and a fate to be avoided at all costs. And this in a country where smiles abound on every face.
Leaving Mae Hong Son, we rode another 160 km through uninterrupted curves, teeth clenched and knuckles white, to a working class town called Mae Chaem. Not much tourism there, as the scenery isn’t as good as some of the other cities. We found dinner at a little place on the river bank, where they had built a row of little thatch-roof bamboo huts, just barely above the surface of the water. They were just large enough to contain the table, and had a lot in common with the bamboo rafts they make here, except they were help up by posts sunk into the bottom. I kind of wished I had a fishing pole. Later that evening I met some folks that were also staying at the lodging house; a Scottish man and his Dutch wife, who live in Bulgaria, and a Spanish Man and his Czech wife, who live in Barcelona. We compared notes on all the places we’d been, spun yarns and swapped stories of the travelling life. It made for a most interesting evening, and I woke up with yet another headache.
Carrying on the next day, we had a speedy ride back to Chiang Mai, where we will now divide forces; Mike heading up to the Myanmar border to renew his visa, while I journey south to the ancient city of Ayuthaya, just north of Bangkok. I’ll try to conjure up one more sending before I head back.]]>
That evening we headed out to the festival grounds, arriving there a little before the music started. The lineup was all Thai bands that played reggae or some derivative of it, certainly none that we had ever heard of before. Some of it was pretty good, but the Thais just don’t have the cadence and inflection that the Jamaicans have, so they couldn’t really pull it off all that well. Think of an american hippie trying to make it sound like he’s a rasta, then try to imagine a Thai hippie trying to sound like the american hippie. Doesn’t quite work out, if you see what I mean.
So mostly we just tolerated the music and walked around people watching. Here too, they built many fires inside the show ground, so we wandered from fire to fire, drinking buckets of rum, and marvelling at how strange the world can be sometimes.
In Thailand they have this communal drinking tradition wherein they take a small bucket, like an ice bucket or a child’s beach pail, fill it with ice and about a half a bottle of liquor, then top it off with some mixer. Anywhere from three to ten straws are then inserted, so everyone in the group can drink from the same cocktail. It’s a bit strange, but at least you don’t have to keep standing in line for another beer. Mike, who is a seafaring man, has a certain fondness for rum, so we worked our way through two buckets of it, as well as numerous beers, before creeping back to the lodging house at about 4:30 am. The next day was a total wash, and it was all we could do to go into town for dinner.
The day after that, though, we’d recovered enough to fire up our trusty motorcycles and ride about 15 km into a nearby national park, in search of a hotspring. It was easy to find, and was actually a nicely flowing stream that was heated by geothermal springs to about 100 degrees fahrenheit. We had a nice soak, and then were joined by a handful of Thai teenagers, cheerful, smiling kids that had come from a nearby village. Mike was sitting in the stream, squirting water with his hands, which the Thai kids had never seen before. He showed them how to do it, which they picked up quickly. It was all downhill after that, and pretty soon it devolved into a giant battle among the Thais. We decided it was a good time to make an exit.
This morning we left Pai, and have now made our way over to Mae Hong Son, near the border with Myanmar. It was an incredibly beautiful ride over, through forests and mountains, with never a single straight stretch of road. I’ll send more about this place later.]]>