South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Days of brine and Islands.
Date: April 14, 1995 14:12

15:43 Ya Ya Bungalows; Ao Railay-Thailand :: 7 APR 95

There was brief hope for an InfoBahn connection here. While we are on the mainland the 'Karst topography' at the neck of the peninsula precludes overland connection by wire and there's been no cable laid over the ocean floor either. However, the resorts here are serviced by cellular phones and guests can pay (exorbitant rates) to make phone calls. The cell phone here even has an auxiliary RJ-11 phone jack 'for FAX' that may even support my modem. I just wish the resort had paid their phone bills.

The cell phone at the one other resort I've checked so far has a proprietary auxiliary FAX jack. No hope there. I'll just have to keep looking. As a matter of fact, I'll go for a walk right now. . .

17:21 Ya Ya Bungalows; Ao Railay-Thailand :: 7 APR 95

. . .and kill an hour of the afternoon. It seems the only cell-phone on this spit of land that's RJ-11 compatible has a small credit problem. <sigh>

I'm also trying to arrange a 3-day long-tail excursion into the Islands of this region. A long-tail is an open wooden boat, kind of like those big rowboats used by Australian lifeguards, if you've ever seen that. The difference is a sort of swallow tail below the water line forming a stabilizer and an enormous lawnmower engine mounted high on the stern on a turntable. The propeller shaft is about 8 meters long and levered into and out of the water.

17:16 Paradise Island Cove; Koh Lahding, Andaman Sea-Thailand :: 9 APR 95

Success! However, rather than beach camping further into the Islands we're holed up here against the probability of rain tonight. If the bungalows at Railae can be a little bit rough, this is a different experience. Let me go back a few moments.

There are 21 of us traveling by long-tail into the Islands. There are two Germans from Cologne (one of them is Katrin), an Englishman from Birmingham, a crew of 4 including Rachel from Queensland's Sunshine Coast and three Thai men, Sak, Yat and Ya, the owner of Ya-Ya Bungalows. The Thai names are nicknames and all Thais call each other by their nicknames rather than the somewhat more awkwardly multi-syllabic given names. Besides, those names remind them too much of school days, when the teachers used them.

The balance of the party is made up of vacationing Thai students from Bangkok. I don't believe any of them speaks English.

It was an interesting bit of travail getting here. At 12 noon we waited for a couple late arrivals. By 1PM we boarded the small long-tail that transported 13 of us to Ao Namo, about a 20 minute trip. From there a 1995 Toyota Hilux pickup to Ao Nang, where again we waited, bought some fruit, water and changed money. Back in the Hilux to Coconut Home Bungalows. Sitting on the bed during a tropical squall is a dampening experience, and the rather large drops sting too. We pulled off and waited the short rainfall out under uninhabited cover. We barely beat a second squall to Coconut Home and after it cleared we boarded a larger long-tail, with a few additions to the party to bring us up to 21. Racing yet another squall to the Islands, the crew elected to pull in here, for the reasons already discussed.

"Here" is a little horse-shoe cove protected by high cliffs on all sides. The sandy beach runs up under the cliff where an overhang provides shelter. It didn't look like much on arrival, rather makeshift with signs of debris scattered about. The relatively permanent residents are several Thais and an Italian fellow who's dropped out in style.

20:49 Ya-Ya Bungalows; Ao Railay (East), Krabi-Thailand :: 11 APR 95

Let's try this again. These are no more than rough drafts and sometimes, when the words don't come easily, the results are too rough.

"Welcome to Paradise Island Cove" proclaims the hand lettered sign. Another, "Canoe Explorations-Book Here" is professionally printed, with corporate logo (and seen also at Ao Nang and Krabi town- Tourist Central), but "Coke Fanta Water Singha" is hand-written on another.

One might think that tourists are expected here on Koh Lahding, that it lies along some route sanctioned by Lonely Planet, Fodor's or Let's Go! But one must be relatively determined in their search, or simply hired the right guide, to find it. The settlement has a certain Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson charm, something like Gilligan's Island with generator, television, a working CB radio-and several sea-worthy boats tugging their anchor lines with mainland in sight. But everyday a few longtails come in and the white-fella folk disembark to buy "Coke Fanta Water Singha", then take a brief look before clambering back aboard to continue the tour.

I wonder if the tourists discover that Paradise Island Cove is a permanent settlement, not just a soft-drink stand with rough sleeping platforms a few bungalows and a ragtag assembly of Thai's and white-fella hangers-on. The business here is birds nests and the white nests, those constructed mostly of swift-spit, fetch 40,000 baht per kilo, more than $2,000 CDN for about a dozen nests. Apparently, they taste like chicken. No, just kidding. Avarro, the nutty Italian fisherman at Koh Lahding, insists they taste like bread. They had some nests there on display, both white and black (black with feathers, pui!) but knowing the price-tag they came with I didn't ask for a taste.

Avarro is another story, but we'll get to that later. Remind me if I forget.

The Karst geology here lends itself to the caves and other nooks and crannies that swifts love to nest in. The abundant nests support several settlements similar to Paradise Island Cove within this group of Islands, each collecting birds nests within licensed areas. And in addition to the nest collecting crew that lives and collects here full time, there's the security crew that patrols the Islands at night.

12:38 Coffee Corner; Krabi town, Krabi-Thailand :: 12 APR 95

Both nest collectors and security personnel carry firearms, protection against nest pirates. Big guns. Large bore shotguns and .357 revolvers. Which explains the proliferation of gun catalogues and magazines to be seen. The guns contradict the Thai gentleness and the typically Asian aversion to displays of anger. They are, simply, an economic necessity and it wasn't until the third day when one of the nesters non-chalantly shoulder-holstered his .357 that the presence of guns became generally known. Our obvious surprise led to a prideful display of the well-worn but well-oiled pump-action shotgun and a couple more hand guns.

It was here that I learned Thai religion also contradicted my expectations. Southern Thailand is 85% Muslim. I was expecting Buddhism and the indications of paganism, as in wards against spirits, supported that expectation since Islam as Muhammed teaches it allows but one god, Allah. I should learn that contradiction is to be expected here where even under duress a culture accepts of invading cultures only those things that are useful, and then modifies them to suit the culture to which they are brought. Through various sources, a picture of a culture emerges.

In Thai culture the head is the highest part of the body, spiritually as well as physically, and to inhibit spirits and bring good fortune Thai men often wear long scarves wrapped a couple times around the head with the ends left trailing to the side or back. From the up-pointed prow extension of the longtails brightly coloured strips of cloth are hung; the prow of a boat is thought of as its 'head'. These sashes adorn even the larger steel-hulled passenger ferries that frequent the Islands of the Andaman Sea.

Throughout the sleeping quarters, and the caves from which birds' nests are taken, and at the various shrines one will notice small white triangles of cloth attached to a short split-bamboo flagstick.

14:26 Siam Bank Waterfront Park; Krabi town, Krabi-Thailand :: 12 APR 95

These white flags are spirit wards too. The shrine at Paradise Island Cove is a sleeping platform in miniature with food and candles set out. I should have asked whether it was a decoy for evil spirits or an offering of haven for beneficent ones.

To make humans welcome, a split-bamboo mat is suspended on a bamboo frame about one meter high. Mats consist of layers of split-bamboo; each layer is laid in parallel then bound flat with wire. The mat is fashioned by lashing two layers together, one perpendicular to the other. The result is sturdy, long-wearing and, with a woven palm mat covering, more comfortable at least than bare earth, not to mention farther from the scorpions and giant centipedes frequenting the ground. But we were offered the option of a bungalow with a hewn wood floor, four thatched walls and roof. The wood bed frame and foam mattress made for luxurious quarters.

For the next two days we ate well, bedded early and slept late, swam, snorkeled, chatted, watched sunsets and twice went fishing for 'beeg juans' with Avarro. Beeg juans are barracuda and since in two days we caught but one 'leetle juan' of a meter in length with four rows of razor blades, I can only imagine the cruel enormity when Juan grows up. Avarro, heaving at the engine handle, would periodically bow his head below the boat's canopy saying 'Ohhhh. Here there are BEEG Juans!" But if they were there, they weren't in the mood to pleasure four travelers with an appearance.

But if Avarro is known for anything it is his penchant for ganja and bongs. On the first night he became strictly incoherent, eventually foregoing his babbles for silence. While the locals are not adverse to a fatly rolled joint and a few strokes from the unique bamboo bong-in fact, far from it-Avarro smoked the strong local weed with a singularly obsessive verve. As I no longer use the stuff-I just plain don't like the incoherence it causes-I can't attest to the strength of Thai grass. But two other travelers could, that is, they could the morning after three or four hits left them dumb. Avarro seemed slightly glazed even then.

But our best and closest look at the Islands around Koh Lahding was while fishing with this glassy eyed mongrel in Thai fisherman's pants. A single blond forelock trailed from his otherwise close-cropped hair and twin earrings were dangling, dangling against a stubbled bronze cheek. His success as a fisherman has translated into free room and board at Paradise Island Cove. He will seek beeg juans for another 40 days before his ticket expires and he must fly back home, to Italy. One gets the sense he would remain here indefinitely, if possible.

16:57 Krabi -> Hua Hin (Aircon Bus)-Thailand :: 12 APR 95

One condition in which words come with difficulty occurs when one tries to make too profound an impression of too mundane an event. We paid 900 baht each and got good value for it: good snorkeling (but with inadequate equipment), excellent food, interesting geology and good times spent with friendly locals and some well-traveled foreigners. With the experience came a few more cultural bits to throw on a simmering stew of insights that might yet become a simple understanding. That is, it was a pleasant, informative three days that didn't cost much-about $50 CDN each.

I will describe a little more fully a few individual Thai people.

Thai women are often, as I expected, quite physically attractive though personality-wise their tendency is toward the demure, at least around white-fella foreigners like me. Being no expert on men, I asked Katrin her opinion. "There is no character in their faces." Only as I write this does it become clear we share the same devastatingly negative viewpoint: easy on the eyes but lacking a strong, individuated personality. It's unclear to me whether Thai cultural attitudes toward individuality promote demure, reserved people, or natural timidity in the presence of foreigners creates that impression in the observer, or whether my own culture's definition of character fails to appreciate the more subtle Thai expression of it. After three days getting to know Sak, Yat and Ya-Ya, I begin to suspect the latter case to be true.

It was Sak who proved to be the first exception to Katrin's 'no character' rule. At least, it was of him that Katrin said, "Sak's great. He has so much character!" To think of an unsmiling Sak is to think a contradiction. It is a state for him that eclipses the Thai predilection for wide, satisfying grins. Being a northerner, he has only recently learned to swim (taught by Rachel, a long-time Aussie traveler through SE Asia who came along for the ride) and is already absolutely enthralled by snorkeling-"Beeg feesh!" Mind you, not so enthralled as to consider forging into water deeper than his hips, or near the edge of shallows where the chasm opens into the abyss of open ocean. When told the best coral and fish are to be found at this point his eyes go wide and he even seems to shiver a little; in his own way he maintains the northerner's typically abundant fear of water.

My vote for the perfect Thai sidekick goes to Sak. He is the inquisitive, excitable friendly one, the one most likely to become your friend. Ya-Ya is something of a cooler customer. He owns the Ya-Ya Bungalows on Raileh, more bungalows at Ao Nang and a tourism agency there as well. These businesses he built over several years; in an early Lonely Planet guide to SE Asia on a Shoestring, Ya-Ya appears in a photo of Raileh alongside Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet. While the 3-day excursion was for him a holiday, his friends are among the Thai contingent of 12, his position as a primary business partner appeared to define his demeanor, Of the three, Ya-Ya proved the most difficult nut to crack. Perhaps due to Sak and Yat's forward nature I spent too little effort seeking to know him.

Yat owns Coconut Home, a coconut plantation passed down through several generations and to which he has added a set of tourist bungalows. He also owns the longtail used for the excursion. (Sak organises and guides Island tours for Ya-Ya. Yat and Ya-Ya are business partners in the tour venture, so far as I can tell.) Yat was university educated in Bangkok. He is serious like Ya-Ya but without the coolness. His curiosity about the west is equal to mine of the east and we exchanged questions and insights often, and these questions and insights often diverged to the more personal aspect of "who are you?".

So in these three instances of English speaking Thais time enough was spent overcoming the cultural differences to learn something about the individuals. Sak you cannot help but like. Ya-Ya seems a respectable and serious businessman. As for Yat, I would have liked to get Yat in a quiet little pub over a couple beers and shoot the shit for a few hours. I wouldn't have suspected these traits upon first meeting them. Perhaps the character you can read in a face is a shallow one?

Thai agents of tourism, on the other hand, can be an entirely difficult experience. More about that later.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

Numbers -- 30:
The number of people killed annually in Thailand by falling coconuts.