Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | South Thailand – The Prose and Cons of Kos and Prawns
The Prose and Cons of Kos and Prawns- Impressions from the Samui Archipeligo
With a script torn from an obscene slapstick and stretched over the sunny islands, like an old sweater that doesn’t quite fit, the scene was dominated by contrast ; between the shimmering sand and the sprawling shadows of palm, between the pale new arrivals, with coconut palms and tanned skin in their hungry gaze, and the chestnut eyes of the descendants of generations of tranquil fishermen that now sparkle and dance to the jagged tune of a dollar. The wants, needs and desires of pleasure and survival mixed with salt water and sand; The Carnival of Life goes to the beach !
From a turquiose perspective the island aptly fulfilled any postcard introduction to South Sea reclusion and delight; coconut palms swaying in the ocean breeze, rocky headlands dramatically punctuating the borders of narrow coves covered in smooth, powdered alabaster, jungle-clad pyramids of stone and earth rising to the turquiose above, while stilted bamboo shacks marched to the very precipice between land and water before taking root, and, as my gaze slowly wandered from right to left, I could then see the restaurants, agencies, signs and commotion that ‘justifies’ tourist occupation.
‘You looking for bungalow ?’
‘You like to make diving ?’
‘Need a taxi?…a moped?… a bike, or new shoes ?’
‘Banana milkshake, a joint, or just a few clues ?’
‘Or a shave, a massage, piercing and tatoos, tell us we’re listening, just what could you use ?’
It must bave been the feeling of being a star-bellied sneetch that elevated the scene into Dr. Seuss terminology, but slightly seasick and in need of a mid-day horizontal, our needs, much less our imagination, could hardly keep pace with the barrage of eager and willing offers that met us on the pier. Slowly realizing that paradise is little more than a seductive flirt between heaven and hell, we ran the touts gauntlet and escaped without harm.
On the other side of paradise, or as the case may be, on the other side of the small island of Ko Tao, the surrealities of island life began to take hold; perception began to twist and while ambition and motivation floundered in the shallows of the bay, the distances between hammock and restaurant – restaurant and beach, grew to gargantuan proportions insuring, without fail, total exhaustion and fatigue upon arrival at any given station. The small ‘ko’, barely ammounting to 20 square kilometers, could no longer be measured in conventional terms. Either it had grown or we had shrunk but the result was the same.
‘The other side of the island ?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I was there…once…nice place but what a journey !’
And so it was, just as the island had become a continent, the days had become mere minutes, passing like cumulus across the crystal horizon. We never saw a clock and wouldn’t dare to look at our own and our efforts to count the days by trying to remember what tasty meal had prededed our sleep had failed somewhere between mussaman curry and stir-fried prawns in chili paste.
I-S-O-L-A-T-I-O-N, splendid isolation, from the deadly and limiting hands of the clock to the latest dreadlines on CNN, nothing could touch us but the freedom and beauty of the stars and the sea.
Nothing, that is, but the cool fragrance of burning plastic which frequently entered our utopia with the unpleasant reminder that our laze and reclusion was not without a price. Plastic bottles, plastic wrappers, stryofoam containers, whatever remained after the pleasure had been exhausted, was put to a fiery death only to rise to greet the ozone with new poison. When the ‘pair-a-dice’ is rolled you get snake eyes every time. Snake eyes, the smell of plastic, toilets that flush into the sea, and several jaded locals that have dealt with more than one unreasonable tourist too many – the inevitable ‘other side of the coin’, without it the picture would be lacking that all-too-distinct ‘human touch’.
Prying ourselves from the coral-studded coast of Ko Tao was no easy feat but there are many kos in the sea and we were, after all, supposed to be travelling. So we changed kos with the relative ease of putting on a fresh shirt; a short and painless boat ride and we found ourselves walking the gauntlet again. In the choppy, but dry, waters between the pier and the taxi stand we swam against the current of guides and touts and finally dove in the back of a pick-up truck that safely navigated its way through the remaining foam and tides of Thong Sala, Ko Pha Ngan’s main port of entry.
Still working on the concept of isolation, we landed in a quiet cove on the northern end of the island and continued where we had left off on Ko Tao. Days passed and the tides came and went but I was bent on mastering the fine art of ‘hammocking’. Although the Olympic Comittee has failed to grasp the complexity of the sport there remains much more than meets the eye. It is not simply swinging to and fro and reading, but more importantly HOW you swing to and fro. For example, a feeble push from the porch railing scores much lower than gaining momentum by raising and lowering your arm or dangling a foot. In the same token, getting out of the hammock and staying out is also a tricky undertaking which is hardly possible for the uninitiated. As you walk away from the hammock after a good session of swinging you may feel an almost irresistible urge to return, like an elastic imbilical cord threatening to snap you back into the lazy confines of the hanging womb. Resist this temptation at all costs for if you do succomb to its lure you may risk starvation, stagnation, or, even worse, total and complete relaxation. (this sport is not suitable for novices and should only be done under the close supervision of an energetic go-getter)
After temporarily severing the link to the hammock it was time once again to change kos but not without a stop in the sun and sin of Haad Rin, the island’s most ‘developed’ beach. After the tranquility that we had experienced over the past weeks, the scene was a rather new twist on an old theme; culture shock, though this time it was my own culture that I found so shocking. I strolled past the endless rows of restaurants and cafes and watched as the patrons silently devoured one Hollywood lie after another. Glued to the box that defines our ‘culture’ and oblivious to the beauty that surrounded them, they couldn’t have felt more at home.
Fighting the puzzling urge to do the same…”hey, isn’t that the new film with…?” , I continued on to the strip of coastal desert that draws pale-skin like flies to honey, and I watched. (carnival music begins playing in the background) I watched the ‘beautiful’ faces scan the sand looking to be seen, their beauty to be acknowledged by a smile, a flirt, a hollow hormone- driven-gaze that makes the world exciting and new, for a moment anyway. And there were the muscles, flexed and pumped, beaded with sweat and flinching in the sun, but they were there, to be seen and admired, their sufferings now justified . And no strip of sand is complete without ‘The Cool’ , henna tatoos and instant dreadlocks, above the world of mere beachmongers, their hazy eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses with indifferent, but varied, expressions of “I am hip” across their lips. (The tortures of vanity pay off in the shallows above the sea.) And scattered throughout the scene, the true heroes of vanity; the ‘plain’ faces and overweight bodies that rarely enjoy a second glance, their breathtaking beauty hidden just below the surface as they defy a world where image sets the pace. These faces along with hawkers, vendors, masseurs and con artists, mixed in the politics of sun and sand and I would be lying if I said that I found the scene completely repulsive…
After the sun gave way to the first hues of neon, the beach lit up like the golden mile in Las Vegas. Huge speakers pumping out various, pulse-accelerating bass tones began competing for listeners and the dance floors began to fill. Alchohol, in almost every possible incarnation, began to flow while the borders of decency found still more room to expand in the silky heat of the night. A topless girl darted out of one of the discos chasing a seemingly unreluctant partner into the chaos of the streets and the music got louder. A man sitting next to me stood up, walked about 2 meters to the edge of the water and nonchalantly relieved himself in the encroaching surf before getting the next drink at the bar. The batons were lit and a show of twirling pyromania further incited the crowd to insanity. One of the many ‘queens of the evening’ took a swig of methyl spirits, drunkenly approached the flames and made a suprisingly good attempt at flame-throwing which, in turn, inspired several other not-so-successful attempts, but who cared, turn the music up and make it a double ! Hell for leather, tomorrow is a long ride away !! Someone lept out of the dance floor and just managed to direct his vomit onto the sand outside. Still viewing the scene from a somewhat sober perspective, I quickly concluded that a double was indeed a fine, if not neccasary, idea. A couple waded into the water and consumated their lust, a bell rang, someone fell, the Brits began dancing on the tables swinging Manchester United jerseys in the air, while somewhere in the background Madonna was singing about the day the music died and like a self-fulfilling prophecy the tune was quickly overcome by the mechanical drone of techno and the night thumped madly on.
…and I would be lying if I said that I found the scene COMPLETELY repulsive…
We slipped out of Haad Rin in the early morning (11:00 am) and swam the 22 kilometers to the island of Ko Samui. No, that wasn’t a mistake, I did use a form of the word swim in that last sentence, it was a boldfaced lie but not a mistake. We took the boat of course, but only because my toothbrush holder wasn’t watertight, maybe next time I’ll be better prepared.
If tourism can have a positive effect you wouldn’t find any evidence of that on the island of Ko Samui. The largest island in the Samui Archipeligo, Samui has quickly become one of the leading tourist destinations in Southeast Asia and for good reason, at least initially. Now the island is equipped with an airport which receives a dozen plain-loads of pale sun-worshipers each day and promtly sends an equal number of sunburnt passengers back to Bangkok: Assembly Line Tourism.
It’s actually quite simple, you see the white ones come in on this side where they proceed to the beach and bake for 1 week, peel for 3 days and have just enough time left, on their 2 week all-inclusive vacation, to get themselves red as a tomato again before they are brought back to their own countries full of tales from the Orient…and WHOOSH…there goes yet another batch of satisfied customers now.
To be honest we didn’t spend any time looking for the magic of Samui. My initial impression is the one that I am forcing upon you now and my opinions will surely gnaw at the toes of a few Samuists out there and while I won’t apologize I do suggest that you stop reading here.
No, it’s not all bad. The island itself is beautiful and the usual assortment of waterfalls, jungle, and beach are all on offer. If that is all that was on offer we might have even stayed, but, somewhere in the process of trying to attract temporary refugees from the Land of Milk and Honey, someone got carried away and decided that we wouldn’t feel at home without a Big Mac*, wiener schnitzel, and frappucino. Maybe not, but if feeling ‘at home’ is the goal, it seems that this could be accomplished for alot less money and completely free of the rigors of jetlag.
(* That said, while travelling I do find occasional solace in the global consistency of Mcdonald’s hamburgers- even the ketchup to mustard ratio remains unvarying from Anchorage to Zhongdian !)
We spent 4 weeks in the archipeligo and I am sure we will return again. The are countless little slices of paradise to be discovered and enjoyed and almost every possible degree of comfort and service is available. There are the unappealing sides but for this we have no-one but ourselves to blame. The most repulsive scenes, in almost every case, were only reflections of the shortcomings of our own society. I find it a paradox that during our brief escapes from the commercialism of the western world we are indirectly instilling the virus into the very sands that that we have chosen as refuge.
It’s no mystery that we aren’t living in a perfect world and I don’t expect to change anything with these words. In fact, forget all of the downsides, look on the sunny side, and while you are at it- go to the beach, you might just find that it is not COMPLETELY repulsive.