South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: The King and I.
Date: April 11, 1995 20:45

11:56 Bas Mini; Georgetown -> Krabi-Thailand :: 6 APR 95

At 7AM today Thai border guards welcomed me, on behalf of his majesty, the King, to the kingdom of Thailand. It's different here.

Yes there are the visible signs of difference. Cattle everywhere. No helmet laws in Thailand. The brightly multicoloured buses and trucks with ornate patterns in paint and metal work. De rigeur Japanese pickup trucks, some with high ornate caps and bench seats used as bus cabs; wave them down and tell them where you're going- maybe, if the people already loaded are going near there, this will be your bus. If not, try the next one. They're prolific. Malays use the English alphabet to write their language, but none of that here. Thai language is written in what looks like a cross between Sanskrit and Cyrillic (Russian). Since few Thai speak English, I'll probably be reduced to uncovering the relationships between squiggly patterns and the food that arrives after I point at them. A Thai phrase book will be mandatory. Even the Chinese here advertise in Thai.

Both Malaysia and Thailand plant row upon row of rubber trees but thus far I have seen coconut palms in Thailand but no Palm oil plantations, though, as one would expect from a tropical country, banana trees sprout here and there often without plan. [Near Krabi we encountered a few palm oil plantations. Rubber remains the mainstay.]

The architecture, particularly the homes, are different though I'm unsure how to describe it. The tendency here is toward plastered cinderblock or stained hewn timber. The regular dottings of dwellings alongside the highway seem poorer, even as their cars and trucks seem richer. Larger commercial structures, as in Malaysia, are reinforced concrete lattices whose external walls are filled with brick and then plastered over. Paint adheres to these constructions reluctantly.

I have seen the characteristic mounds of Chinese graveyards, each mound interring the remains of husband and wife. At the base of each mound an altar, of sorts, a shrine really, where money and incense are burned and food and money are left in homage or tribute. The incense sticks burn in groups of three, always, representing the triumvirate of Mother, Father, Son or Sun, Moon, Earth. Four is very unlucky.

In Vancouver, with the second largest Chinatown in the Americas, I have never seen people buried in this way. Perhaps I must look harder.

Our bus passes a pack of Harleys. The Thais seem to purchase larger motorcycles than the 125cc to 175cc scooters common to Malaysia, though there are plenty of these. The roadway is better maintained, with guardrails. For the first time in months, the center-line is yellow. Except that we're on the wrong side of the road, and the houses, plants and people are all wrong, this could be an American secondary road. Even the caution signs and guardrails seem American.

While I have seen where the Chinese dead are worshipped, I have yet to see where the living worship their gods. And nary a mosque or Hindu shrine. Thailand is Buddhist and we've passed several temples with their uniquely Thai pagodas.

There is none of that annoying blue terra-cotta covering the roofs of newly constructed buildings that is so popular in Malaysia. Then, little enough new construction has appeared. Certainly, not the large residential and commercial blocks springing up all over Malaysia. Roofs here are often thatched.

1:16 Bas Mini; Georgetown -> Krabi-Thailand :: 6 APR 95

Thai chili tingles on lips, tongue, palette. Nummers. Well, not entirely. The fish with bamboo shoots curry weren't too tasty. And even when they put a whole grape in a container of what can only be assumed to be 'grape juice', you're still going to get unusually flavoured sugar water. The chicken red curry was fine, as was the Sprite® drunk when the 'grape juice' refused to go down.

Telephone poles are square pillars of reinforced concrete. The town of Hat Yai, where we changed mini buses (actually, a Toyota mini-van seating 12, including driver), advertised cable television but once out of town aerials rise over every home.

Every now and again we pass an inventory of personal shrines and grave markers. The shrines, ornate temples in miniature on a shoulder height pedestal, find their way in front of homes and businesses. And the grave markers form the burial 'mound' of the deceased with a central spire reaching 2 meters skyward.

If allowed but a single word to describe first impressions: ornate. Shrines and temples, alphabet, cars and trucks; curlicues, curves and colour. But Katrin comments: the people are so drab. True, there are no bright batiked silks wrapped and draped over the women and men. There are no Muslims or Malay to parade such a shout of colour. So the people appear colourless.

I am told another difference will be in the expression of human nature. "Helloooo! Where are you going?" Several times a day the ethnic Malays would sing out in melodic greeting. They are curious, friendly and they speak English. In Thailand, English will not serve so well. When paying for our Lunch the Thai woman had to write '74' on a piece of paper before I understood the price was not 24 baht. However, "Two plate" proved a sufficient signal that I would pay for both lunches.

22:05 Ya-Ya Bungalows; Ao Railay (near Krabi)-Thailand :: 6 APR 95

One of the recipients on this distribution said of the Thai peninsula "The Krabi area in S. Thailand is a great area to explore-Karst topography coming out the ying yang. Also great beaches etc. " By Karst topography she's referring to the limestone massif formations that predominate the landscape. It's not too far from here that the Island pinnacle scenes appearing in the 007 thriller "Man With The Golden Gun" were filmed. The limestone rises like mountainous dollops of cookie dough bunched together on baking pans. By great beaches she means sand like talcum powder, an ocean warm as a freshly drawn bath, coral formations a short swim from shore and the Karst pinnacles all around.

The Thai word Ao means bay and we are staying in the [supposedly] cheap huts found on the east beach at Railay. This is a smaller beach with mangroves and murky water, but the west beach, just a brief walk across the peninsula, is of the variety described above.

After the initial disappointment of a roadside lunch dinner tonight was exceptional. The Thais make my favourite food and my favourite dish out of the Thai kitchen is Pad Thai (called Phat Thai here), rice noodles in a red chili-paste with crushed peanuts, vegetables and, often, prawns. The Phat Thai tonight was very good, but the coconut milk soup, loaded with vegetables (the kitchen forgot the chicken) was divine.

We got here after a 12 hour bus trip from Georgetown, Penang, which the booking agent assured us would take 8 hours. Then it was 40 baht each ($1 CDN = about 18 baht) for the boat to Ao Railay, about a 45 minute trip. The bungalows themselves were initially disappointing: concrete and raw brick inside and out with an open beam and timber ceiling. I hardly expected to see the Thai version of 3-story condos here, but that's what we've found. What do you want for 200 baht a night?

12:53 Ya-Ya Bungalows; Ao Rai Lai (near Krabi)-Thailand :: 7 APR 95

My response to Georgetown, on the Isle of Penang: disappointment. If for no other reason than the inundation of white-feller travelers. They were everywhere. Most are in transit to/from Thailand and stop here for a couple days before moving on. Georgetown is a popular place to purchase a Thai visa.

When you go to a restaurant there will be travelers there. You walk through markets and there are white fellas there. Street restaurateurs demand payment upon service, a request not made once in the entire month I've traveled in Malaysia. A protection against the old 'dine & dash'? But why here and nowhere else?

That Australian tourist network I once pined for-where hostels, transit companies, tour operators join forces to share the profits of tourism while providing cheap, efficient service to the tourist-I find it here and it rankles. I wonder if what I'm being guided to will be authentic. I wonder if in the heightened awareness of tourist presence whether I experience Malay culture or a tourist trap. I begin to understand a little better the difference between tourism and traveling.

The setting here at Ao Railay is, as I described earlier, beatific. I just wish it didn't feel like a western enclave, like a cheap Club Med where you can climb, snorkel, scuba, soak the sun and play a little beach volley ball amidst all the cultural comforts of home, people who speak your language, and a good ethnic restaurant staffed by those 'adorable Thai people'. If there were any Asians here besides the staff, I'd feel differently.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

The difference between a tourist and a traveler:
A traveler doesn't know where they are going;
A tourist doesn't know where they have been.
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