We spent our last day in Bangkok sight-seeing, and when the time came we rushed back to our hostel to be ferreted off through the city. A travel agent had booked us our train, bus, ferry, and hotel on the island to which we would travel, but we had not heard a thing in days. We were told to stand idly at our hostel’s stoop and wait, and then various Thai people would slink forth from the shadows with our tickets and usher us off into the unknown, or however it is things are done there. Indeed, soon a cabdriver appeared out of nowhere, saw four honkies milling about, and took us to his taxi. Because of traffic, someone was being sent over by motorcycle, or possibly unicorn or sorcery, to bring us our travel documents. I was never actually entirely positive that the next leg of our journey was actually concrete until it had passed, and even then it seemed certain that magic would somehow be involved to complete the task.
Suddenly we were on a sleeper train bound for Surat Thani, occasionally being prompted to purchase beer or snacks from leering and confusing train workers. Periodically, we would stop in small towns, and the people waiting outside the train would climb aboard and attempt to sell their wares and foods up and down the cars, before disembarking again. Soon, a man folded out our beds, we scrambled in, and attempted to sleep.
When I woke (or, rather, got bored of lying down, because I couldn’t sleep), we arrived at our destination. With little knowledge of Thai geography and even less connection to the distance travelled, things began to become surreal, particularly as we hopped off the train and crammed into a nearby bus-van with all of our baggage and too many people. A middle-aged Thai woman, with a voice that sounded like bees climbing about in a hyena’s butthole, directed the route and chattered plaintively into an ancient, enormous cell phone the entire way.
Then we were dropped off at a random sea port, where ferries were listed and, naturally, we assumed we would be catching our boat. No. Back onto the next bus van, except with more people and baggage, and this time the Thai lady will be sitting on the steps and barely inside the fast-moving vehicle. Onward!
This was then followed by stumbling aboard a ferry, seeing no available places to linger outside, and entering the cabin. We watched a program subtitled in Thai and spoken in something else at very low volume and tried to decipher if it was originally Korean. Some of the cast didn’t look it, but it had the drama, the panache, the regular scenes of people eating food, to suggest it as such. Eventually we were approached by a buoyant Thai man, who remarked we would have to pay extra if we wanted to sit inside and continue trying to interpret the drama being presented to us in two languages we did not understand; we immediately moved outside to the freer, less comfortable deck and stared deeply into the sea and also the exposed sternums of the decrepit Germans sitting across from us, basking spread-legged and open-shirted in the hot South-Asian sun.
When we were eventually deposited on Koh Samui, and indeed at our hotel, it seemed to be another world divided from the rest of Thailand. Bangkok, while certainly tourist-friendly, had nothing on this island. It seemed to exist as a sort of Atlantis, a Vacation Isle with little cultural allegiance to the country to which it is nominally attached beyond souvenir availability. I saw almost no signs in Thai, I heard remarkably little Thai spoken except when people thought we weren’t looking, and even the hazy wash of colours seemed to be somewhat muted compared to the mainland.
Not to say that things weren’t pretty, or weird and different (they were!), but resort islands always confuse me more than anything. It’s hard to feel like I’m actually in another country, and not in, like, Thai World at Epcott Disney. Souvenir shops were everywhere, Western restaurants in freakish abundance (I am a weak man: seeing pizza and burgers and steaks and fish and chips broke me, knowing that I would return to 밥 in little over a week’s time). Store-owners would make judgment calls as you walked by, assessing you as either English, German, or French-speaking and calling out to you with hopes that they were right (I was mistaken for German more regularly than French). Every sales-pitch included a jaunty, “Where you from?” The implication being that they could tailor their salesmanship and switch modes to make you more comfortable, to minimize your alienation, to make you feel like you’re not even in Thailand at all.
When I wasn’t navel-gazing on the nature of these sorts of islands, we wandered around, absorbing the fact that we certainly were still in Thailand, and holy crap was that pleasant. Rain (and once, a monsoon) forced us inside some days, but others the sun was relentless, the heat shocking and revitalizing. I’m not typically a beach-goer, but even I was charmed by the idea of lazing about in the sand and surf.
We took to Chaweng and slathered our pale, pallor-soaked bodies in sunscreen. We were all pretty white, and knew what being out in the sun could do to us. But all around us were white people tanning successfully: aged crones and withered husks of European and North American wealth, drying themselves like raisins in the sun, each with varying darknesses of successful brown skin. We had no desire to resemble them, as one man we saw creaking by resembled the colour and texture of an oak tree, but we felt charmed and confident we could return to Korea a shade or two darker than before.
We certainly became darker.
I have experienced some remarkably bad sunburns in my life, but this one was certainly the worst. The burns on my companions were more obvious in their arrival, as they began their transformation to scarlet lobsters almost upon leaving the beach (Andrew’s, hilariously, was uneven, as he was peculiarly random about his sun-screening), but I still appeared ghostly. After about an hour or two, I noticed my skin was still hot, and an hour later, I noticed that my entire torso was turning concerning shades of puce (because red is not an alarming enough colour).
Our actions the following days were limited by this, as we walked with stiff legs and backs, hoping that the endless tubes of aloe we drained would rescue us from our burns (our hotel offered free massages; the day after I left my companions attempted to acquire them. Bill was told a Thai massage in his state would leave him weeping openly, and the woman ordered that he be slathered in aloe once more). We still saw the sights, and wandered, and ate and drank, but the weather and the horrifying, mind-bending pain forced us into reclusion, and into relaxation more than adventure. It struck me that I rarely take vacations where I’m not constantly doing something, and I couldn’t help but be a little lost and confused as to how to actually sit back and just enjoy.
[Sidebar: Ladyboy cabaret was well-done, and the Tina Turner impersonation impeccable.]