Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sawadee Ka from Koh Chang

Nova gazes out our Bangkok hostel window. Her first daytime view of Thailand; a hazy, humid, burnt-out looking city. We certainly felt a long way from Southeast Alaska on this, our first trip to Southeast Asia. Koh Chang, Thailand's second largest and supposedly one of the least developed of the larger islands, was our destination. Lest you're imagining the three of us lugging huge backpacks through the jungle to a palm thatched hut such as those seen here, let me set the record straight. Having never taken a honeymoon and with Nova in tow, we decided to treat ourselves to luxury. We opted out of paying 300 baht a night to sleep under a mosquito net on the floor for this....

....our own private bungalow on the beach at a fancy-pants establishment called The Klong Prao Resort. After months of obsessive internet research in Nishiokoppe, I settled on this as our home-base for the next week and a half. We were not disappointed.

Set of Casablanca or the walkway to our room?

The view from the bathroom. Though the tub was lovely, I preferred the even bigger one outside.

Nova peeks out from the shower. Mirrored windows make for good privacy and fun people-watching whilst conducting business in the bathroom.

Breakfast was included with our stay. Every morning we'd stuff ourselves like guests on a Princess Cruise ship. Our favorite were the fresh fruits, some of which we still haven't ID'ed and the Thai Food Corner. Upon return to our room we would find the wonderful housekeeping ladies had swept away all the sand and transformed clean towels into little elephants.

The following is a summary of how we spent our days.....

Shawn's view of the beach.

The beach's view of Shawn.

Reserving beach loungers was an Olympic sport at Klong Prao Resort. Getting up at dawn, Shawn always managed to snag two right next to Ira and Oleg, a nice couple from Moscow who come to Koh Chang every year and stay for several months.
After spending the morning at the beach we would migrate several paces inland to the pool. Nova and Shawn had a ritual of ordering orange Fanta and a beer (respectively) at the bar. Nova provided some entertainment by sidling up one afternoon and proclaiming loudly, "Large Chang beer please!". Where on earth does she get it? Then it's back to the beach a couple hours later for sand castle building.

We were surprised, though not disappointed, to find few Americans on the island. Instead, almost all the guests at our resort were Eastern European. Shawn ran into a couple Aussies and a few northern Europeans but other than that it felt like we'd landed smack dab in middle of the Russian Riviera. Nova made several friends. When we asked one girl what her name was she answered proudly in a husky little voice, "I am Russian." A little break in the shade on one of the many giant beach swings along Klong Prao. At high tide some of these swing way out over the water.....super fun.
Don some bug dope in the evening and we were good to go for a jaunt down the bay to one of our favorite beach hut eateries.

A tough schedule, but we managed. While fancy resorts like ours abound, the neo-hippy backpacker hut is still alive and well on this island. The Tree House is one such establishment for those looking for a different kind of vacation experience. At night this sea-side bar is transformed into an international melting pot with hookahs for rent at the tables, (no pun intended), and "happy cake" for sale at the bar.

One of the things I just could not look past was that many European men had what we called "Rent-a-Thais" on their arms; very young Thai women who were hired in Bangkok to accompany these men on holiday for "companionship". After hearing of Thailand's notorious human trafficking problem it made me feel very sad as it seemed the norm wherever we went.
Thailand is famous for it's inexpensive shopping opportunities so when we tired of lazing about the beach we would venture down the road to the shops. I lost Shawn and Nova on one such excursion, finally spotting them at this internet/Hello Kitty booth. Both were in their element; Shawn checking sport's scores, Nova checking out the merchandise. If Nova takes nothing back from her time abroad she will always remember that Asia was the birthplace of Hello Kitty.

Though it's true that things are cheap, Koh Chang is considered more expensive than other places in Thailand and the phrase "same, same, but different" definitely applied to the row upon row of shops selling tourist trinkets galore. One of the highlights of my time in Koh Chang was attending cooking school. Ten of us spent the day under Leng's patient tutelage making Pad Thai, 5 different curries, and four different soups. Leng spends her days teaching this class then races across the street to run her own restaurant The Pumpkin. I told her that sounded like a lot of hard work. She replied passionately, "Yes, but I love cooking." Her love for the art came through in her instruction. These are some of the amazing fresh ingredients we used to make our curries from scratch.
"You must use the pestle quickly and always with a smile on your face, or you are not a good Thai cook." I'm grinning away here after 15 minutes of pestling like mad.... 15 minutes later my smile was wavering and my arm burning, but I eventually got Leng's nod of approval. After chopping and mashing it was off to our lovely tiled cooking station. Here we are sampling each other's curries; green, red, panang, masaman, and jungle...each more delicious than the last.
Et Voila! My British partner David and I beamed with pride at our splendid green curry. All that smiling paid off I guess.
Leng shows us how to steam rice Thai style. I loved all the info she shared on Thai cooking. For example, did you know that a Thai salad has to consist of spicy, sweet and sour elements or it's not considered a salad? Or, kaffir lime leaves are where bergamot oil comes from? Or that Thailand has 40 varieties of mango?! Or that many Thai dishes may include an ingredient added just to mask the gamey taste of meat or smell of fish? Also news to me was that 3 teaspoons equal 1 tablespoon, which I'm guessing probably was not news to the other nine participants.The cooking school was on this estuary with a little pulley ferry between the shores for beach access. It was fun to watch people go back and forth while we worked. The culmination of all our hard work, a magnificent late night feast. In reality, Leng did most of the work prepping and cleaning up between phases but we were all proud of our creations.

I felt so much joy in this experience and I have to say that some of it came from just being around English speakers again. Two of these couples were from Ireland, and three people hailed from England but even the couple from Switzerland spoke English. What a relief it was to not struggle with words and fully express myself through language again! WARNING: If you are my mother or Shawn's mother, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs.

The main mode of transport throughout Thailand is via motorbike. Whole families and even pets pile onto one bike to get to where they're going. Having done our research, we knew that on Koh Chang locals wear magical amulets around their necks which allow them to be complete maniacs on their bikes and stay safe. As part of our cultural induction, I procured amulets for the three of us from a beach vendor. Dubious of their mystical powers, I also asked for helmets, which by the way are rarely seen on Thai "amulet riders".... why wear a helmet when you've got your amulet?

The three of us did fine on little blue except for that one hill just before Lonely Beach with the hairpin turns where I had to hop off and run after Shawn and Nova before a logging truck threatened to edge me off the cliff-side. Walking these roads is not advisable and actually, I'm not sure I could recommend driving on them either.
Nova sure loved it though. And Shawn was of course a very safe driver.

There must not be a literal translation for "rules of the road" in Thailand because we saw some stuff that made our stomachs turn. It wasn't so much the motorcyclists, (thought the guy who sped past us down the center lane doing a wheelie at 60mph using his flip-flops for balance was pretty amazing), it was the taxi and private car drivers that scared the shit out of us.

We hired a private car to take us to and from Bangkok. The first trip (a five hour drive) I literally thought we were going to die. I emailed the service and told them to thank our driver for getting us to Koh Chang in one piece but the fact that he was falling asleep at the wheel and using the center lane while topping out the speedometer was unacceptable. We used the hotel's private car on the way back. It was the nicest vehicle I've ever been in to be sure but as I told Shawn as we exited, "That was just a fancier coffin". We guessed our driver was one of those Shawn had heard about who were on amphetamines to make several trips a day. After hurling through time and space, envisioning the headlines in the Empire, "Juneau Family of Three Perish On Streets of Bangkok" we rubbed our amulets in thanks for our safe passage and felt inducted as true members of the amulet riders clan. I shall never doubt you again oh sacred amulet! Speaking of safety. Another of our Thai adventures was visiting this Elephant camp which, as you can see on the platform steps, boasted "safety first".
We signed up for a two hour tour where we quickly learned that "saftey" was a misnomer .
After 15 minutes into our jungle trek our guide motioned Shawn to climb from our shifty perch onto the elephants head. With nothing to hang onto and no further instruction on how to ride this way, Shawn's face shows his apprehension in this photo. Our elephant was the largest of the 5 that made the tour. The terrain was a rocky, rooty dried ravine that wound steeply up a mountain and back again. I kept calling to Shawn not to worry, I was certain that elephants were sure-footed animals but left out saying how hard they would fall if they did manage to trip. At one point the elephants took us under a bridge where we we had to fold ourselves in half over the safety bar on our seat with only a few inches clearance above us. I envisioned being helplessly squished between the mass of this beautiful beast and the concrete of the bridge. ANYWAY, in spite of some nervous moments, we felt honored to be in such close contact with these wonderful animals. The second part of the tour offered an option to swim with the elephants which Nova refused to do but I happily volunteered for.
Here's me and our guide wading into what Nova aptly called "an elephant toilet". The thrill of this experience brought me to tears and I didn't care I was wading amongst flotillas of excrement, I was SWIMMING WITH ELEPHANTS! What could be cooler? Our guide kept motioning for me to stand up and dive in. Shawn was able to caputre my tentative wobble before I ungracefully toppled in.
After the whole experience we were glad we'd done it. Shawn discovered a new found love for elephants. We were told by locals that the elephant camps are "good for people, good for elephants". I harbored a little guilt, not knowing for sure if this was true.

But the animals looked well cared for and got fed lots of fresh fruits from tourists like us. These shrines were found here and there..... not sure if the beer bottles are part of an offering.

We came across a mass of shrines on a bend in the road and had to stop to take photos. People kept honking at us at they sped around the corner. I thought they were telling us to get out of there.... that we were committing sacrilidge by taking pictures. I read online after we got home that honking at these shrines, placed at the more dangerous sections of the road, is good luck. Kind of like, beep, beep please little shrine dieties don't let me die the next time I have to round this corner. Amulet back-up.... never hurts.
Our holiday was somewhat devoid of cultural enrichment. Looking back I wish we had delved into some more of the religious customs.
Little figures perched happily indside their colorful dwellings. Tiny dieties enjoying the shade. The plant life was pretty spectacular. Besides palm trees which to me are the epitomy of tropical-ness, the flowers were lovely.
I have one of these plants in a pot in Juneau. It was fun to see it growing wild.
Probably wouldn't want to lean against this tree unless you were an elephant with an itch.
I think this is a mangrove tree. Pretty cool root structure.

This island's interior is part of a national park system that is suppsed to be protected. On several online forums there is discussion about how tourism is quickly corrupting Koh Chang's natural beauty. I have to admit that things seems to be developing much too quickly and with poor thought. Good to see the place while it's still in the early stages of development but hard to think we might be contributing to the problem. A beach vendor passing in front of our second favorite beach kitchen.

Nova took this splendid photo of us lunching one day. On the left Shawn looking very cute with his Thailand tan. On the right, the American Skin Cancer Society's posterchild who slathered herself with 50+SPF every day. Just one of the perks of being a hypochondriac I guess.
Palm Beach restraunt, our very favorite place to eat. Portions; huge, food; amazing, price; outrageously low and after 6:30 pm our young waiter and his dad strip their shirts off and perform a crazy fire dance. Shawn declares this place the finest eating experience he's ever had for all it's elements including wiggling his toes in the warm sand while he dines. For 15 baht a braid Lenu will give you a do like this. Nova was such a hit with these women. They would knead her little white belly and kiss her cheeks. She did her usual shy routine but when she thought they weren't looking would giggle. After a few days Nova would meekly approach them with a "sawadee ka" or "kap koon ka", hands under her chin prayer style. I am so proud of her for experincing all these different cultures so gracefully.
If you want to know what my idea of heaven is.... you're looking at it. I've always said that if I won the lottery I would get a massage every day. Well, in Thailand I felt like I'd found the golden ticket. The price of 10 Thai massages equal what I pay for one in the states.

This was Nang. She and Lenu became my best friends during our stay. They are such incredible women.... they work their asses off massaging sweaty tourists from early morning until the mostquitos come out at night and they do it with such love and warmth and dignity. Lenu has lived on Koh Chang for 5 years and during that time has learned a little of many languages from working on the beach. We had fun quizzing eachother on all the different ways to say hello. I was so endeared to them..... hours before we left I got one last massage and they gave me a bottle of their coconut oil as a gift, for a friend they said.

We were very impressed with the gregarious warmth of the Thai people. Especially toward children. Sometimes people would walk by Nova and give her a little squeeze without ever stopping.... I wondered if this was a gesture of luck wich seems to be an important part of the Thai culture.

An impromptu soccer match between locals and a farang (tourist) father and son.

It's amazing to think that this place exists day in and day out in a perpetual state of sunshine, beach, lush jungle, warm people, delectible food, colorful goodness even in the dead of winter.
What a priviledge to have experienced it.