Koh chang -part 1
Two days into my trip, and already I have experienced the worst and best of what I might have expected. Well, not the absolute worst, or best, but the trivial worst and the essential best.
To dispose with the trivial first. I barely escaped from the freezing snow and icy rains of Victoria and Seattle, shedding my fleece and windbreaker and toque at Chris's house with my car, and walking 45 minutes to the Clipper downtown. Luckily I had discovered that my runners had serious holes and were expendable, so at least I could wear them for the trek until the SeaTac airport where they went into the trash bin, and save my sandals for the remainder of the trip out of the ice and snow. My socks and feet got wet and cold anyway, but the long walk in Victoria and again a brisk walk in Seattle for a second city bus connection, after I just missed the first, at least kept my blood moving. Missing that first bus but catching the second by flagging down the driver a block early mirrored the bad/good luck that would follow in the first two days of the journey.
Yesterday on arriving I was shortchanged on the bus and then overcharged in the guesthouse restaurant. In both cases I could have or should have known better, but was cast in the spell of the jetlagged and newly-arrived - just as in Spain when I bought my first train ticket. The bus to Koh Chang again cost twice what my research told me; but at least it was easy, with a pickup from the guesthouse where I booked it, and passage with an additional taxi ride all the way to the bungalow I had reserved. Then the bungalow stuck me, as I already knew they would, for a double-occupancy rate, claiming that "all the places on Koh Chang charge for double occupancy"; though in a quick scouting trip the first night I found three places offering single-occupancy rates.
Turning down a taxi tout at the airport offering a ride for 1050, then 700, then "for you" 600, I found a free airport shuttle to the bus terminal where I transferred to the city, walked a few blocks to the river ferry, and boated to the Thewet pier. During the final walk to the guesthouse next to one where I stayed with Nora and Cleo last winter, I reminisced via the sights of temples and smells of markets and food stalls, and sensation of humid 30-degree heat, and felt a homecoming sort of familiarity. Also a deep and reassuring affirmation of the basic purpose of this whole 6-month junket, that I would not have to be cold any longer.
I did feel self-conscious of the difference on this trip this year, travelling alone. It seems most farang travelers here are couples, most in their twenties; or white males of my middle age who are either burnt-out looking expat types long ago given up to this rootless lifestyle, or puffy bland reflections of my own privileged status on the loose with inherited or overearned middle-class wealth. No fair ladies of my own life-stage and disposition? But what if there were? I was firmly set now on my own path of no more compromising with my essential life purposes: stay warm, swim, and play music wherever possible.
On my arrival at the Bailan Family Bungalows, I set up quick housekeeping next door to a fat London couple with thick accents, and headed for the beach. There only a few others lounged or read on the coarse dark golden sand, or fished wading out from the rocks, and I tested the waters before sunset. The brownish water was salty and bath-warm, and the bottom was rocky with the tide out. The sunset colors gathered slowly in intensity, in the lukewarm air. This was not a glorious splash of paradise hues, but a muted, more subtle brand of chosen environment. The essentials seemed to be in place, yet lacked a certain definite impact. In fact, on leaving the beach, I noticed a definite line of demarcation revealing that the sand had been imported here, dumped as a gilt overlay upon an otherwise unappealing stretch of plain brown dirt.
On Saturday night at the Tree House, the most popular destination for the backpacker types, a crowd of a hundred or more sat in the dim-lit sprawling bar and restaurant, a virtual campus of the university of ex-university. Couples chatted, alluring young things sprawled languidly on hammocks, DJ tracks grooved in the background. "Amazing," I observed to a nubile princess standing in line with a menu beside me. She said nothing. At the desk I inquired about room rates and retraced my steps down the gravel path through the forest, stopping for an hour at a lonely Internet outpost manned by a tanned longhair busy at a sewing machine.
Today the tide turned, in various ways. I awoke before seven and enjoyed a lovely swim in the now soft-sand-bottomed waters at high tide. Had a fruit lassi at the guesthouse restaurant and changed my reservation from four nights to two, given the cheap alternatives in the neighborhood or also likely farther afield. Then set out on foot over the forbidding hills to Bang Bao, the fishing village at the south of the island.
Just short of the turnoff to the village, I followed the obstacle-smashing impulse of my miniature Ganesh that Melanie had given me as a talisman for the trip, and stopped to inquire at the Elephant Gardens bungalow operation. Virtually the same accommodations as I was paying 480 for - an eight-by-eight hut with double bed, mosquito net, small porch, and adjoining bathroom with toilet, sink, and shower - was available here for just 100 baht ($3). Is there a good beach nearby? I asked. There was, at a 25-minute walk down the main road, and one hardly anyone knew about because it was past the limit of current development on this end of the island. In fact, these two - Agatha, from Poland, and Jan, from Austria, just coming down the path - were on their way there and maybe they could show me where it was.
Finally a friendly bungalow owner and two friendly walking companions; and the beach we came to was superb. Soft white sand curved around the forest for a mile or so without any visible human impact, past the restaurant and bar at the sparsely-populated main beach area. After a long pleasant swim and beach walk, I ate an excellent spicy and tender squid red curry stirfry for lunch, and headed back to explore Bang Bao where I wanted to check out Internet facilities, availability of espresso, and boats to the neighboring smaller islands of Koh Wai and Koh Maak. As I said, the essentials.
But the best was just to come around the first corner, where I saw same faded funky signs advertising "Djambe's . . . hand drumming . . . drum workshop." Of course I was intrigued to see all my own favorite keywords thus displayed before me like a mirror-mirage, and turned down the little path to the shore. I met there a small coterie of interesting-looking folk of indeterminate age or origin. It turned that most of them were from Turkey; there was a resident fellow named Djambe who said the few bungalows were full but they welcomed visitors to jam with them on the beach every evening, with drums and also other instruments. The drum shack was piled with djembes and drum shells, with a prominent pair of dunduns displayed in front. When I saw those drums I said to Ganesh or allied spirits, thank you for this gift of the path opening for me in just the right way - I don't need to go anywhere else now. Jep was working behind the shack. He looked more Thai than the others, and expanded on the invitation to come jam - no fixed ending, just when you feel like stopping.
I promised to return, and did go on to Bang Bao for reconnaissance of Internet, coffee, and boat trips, declining an invitation from Djambe to sit and have something to drink then and there, as there was this other impulse in me to walk when I felt like walking, and to take care of all the business I had set for myself even on this providential day. In Bang Bao a German woman running a dive business caught my ear for a while, steering me to the best Internet and coffee place, which I enjoyed in short order. On my way out of the village with $200 worth of fresh editing jobs on the tiny flash drive in my pocket, I stopped for some fresh-cut pineapple at a little stand. I waited there and then spoke a while in pigeon English with the woman who served me. Her name was Nan and she had a 26-year-old daughter in Bangkok who was returning to Koh Chang in the new year. Did I have a lady? "No? Wait, I'll show you my daughter's picture. She and her man, they split apart also." The daughter was indeed beautiful, posing in school outfit with a soccer ball, and a golden gown. Korp khun kop, I said after finishing half the pineapple, and took the rest with me as I headed out of town again to reserve my hut at the Elephant Gardens.
published: 03.12.2006 By: Nowick Gray