July 13, 2007

From Bangkok to Bungalow
Ao Thong Nai Yai (Ko Pha Ngan), Thailand

You really can't beat the price of the bus/boat combo tickets being sold around Khaosan Road: From Bangkok to the island of Ko Pha Ngan for less than US$15.

This type of distance bus travel is easy for me, and I was pleased to see Lindsey rolling with it so well. Even though she'd popped a sleeping pill and was abruptly awoken when the bus pulled into Surat Thani at 4:15 in the morning (nearly two hours ahead of schedule), she seemed to be doing quite well with the whole thing. "It's kinda like taking a road trip in a car," she remarked.

The trip was made considerably easier for me thanks to the extra MP3 player Lindsey brought with her, stocked with great tunes that I haven't had the opportunity to hear for years. Her taste in music is spot on with mine—I could keep a Craig David album on repeat for hours.

I don't think anyone had problems with thievery on this particular bus journey. I've seen it happen firsthand when I did this exact same trip in 2004. A lot of these bus companies will stick a little Thai guy in the cargo hold of the bus, giving him hours on top of hours to go through everyone's gear. I saw a French couple lose a bottle of Champagne for New Year's Eve, a bunch of Traveler's Checks, and some other valuables that were poached from their packs.

I've been very insistent about my pack here in SE Asia—brushing off every single person who has tried to get me to stow it below deck. I would rather sacrifice all of my leg space than fret over things, so I simply refuse to let it leave my sight. This is how I was able to get a bit of sleep on this particular overnight bus journey.

This trip was also a lot more fortunate than my 2004 experience, in that one of the bus wheels didn't nearly pop off, which would have sent us crashing into certain death. This was almost the case then, as it was discovered in the early morning hours, well outside of Bangkok, that all but one lug nut on the right-rear wheel was missing. They'd stripped off mid-journey, so that it took waking some poor bastard up with a blow torch at dark-o'clock, so that he could make his multi-hour repairs.

That experience was a mess. This trip was easy.

As I watched the sun slowly rise over Surat Thani, I studied the Buddhist monks roaming the streets, their food pots in-hand. Food is offered/donated to the Buddhist monk#8212;this is all he will (should) eat.

After catching a 7:00 bus to Don Sak we were herded onto a large ferry, where by 8:30 we'd embarked on the four-hour trip into the Gulf of Thailand.

On The Island

It's a rather chaotic mess of backpackers, suitcase-tourists, and taxi drivers at the Ko Pha Ngan pier. We pushed out of the swarm and into the town of Thong Sala. I needed food, she needed Internet access.

Shortly thereafter, Lindsey was looking rather dejected as we left the Internet café. I'd grabbed some decent food while she spent around 70-minutes writing e-mail updates (that were sure to be none too enthusiastic about me, or her present situation). With a day of travel behind us, her exhausted, melancholy spirits needed something to make her smile. I really had no idea how to cheer her up though, and figured the best thing would be to get to our destination so she could grab a shower and put her feet in the sand.

Unfortunately, with so much time spent at the café, the backpackers from the ferry had all but dispersed throughout the island on shared taxis, leaving us open to extortion for our ride to the opposite side of the island. This possibility had crossed my mind, but I thought it better to let Lindsey write e-mails while she could, as the availability of an Internet connection was uncertain in the part of the island we were heading off to.

Map of Ko Pha Ngan

I had selected the bay Ao Thong Nai Yai because of its geographic location on the island. Storms blow out of the west around these parts, and a leeward bay on the NE side of Pha Ngan would offer up greater shelter and calmer, more swim-friendly surf. My guidebook, and a few Internet resources, pointed me towards Dolphin Bungalows at this bay.

The taxi extortion followed suit, as predicted, but were pulled out of the fire (somewhat) by a pair of European girls who had grabbed a bite to eat and found themselves in the same situation. As chance would have it, they too were headed to the Dolphin.

After plenty of bickering with the taxi hustlers, I conceded to the girl's desire to just get to the beach, pocketed my pride (which was miffed about the principle of the thing), and pulled out the extra 70 baht.

Driving through Ko Pha Ngan

The Swiss and German girls seemed to entertain Lindsey enough to brighten her spirits, as we zoomed over a dirt road, cutting through the island. Sitting in the back of a converted pick-up truck (now equipped with bench seats), we four chatted, watched the scenery, and held on for dear life. I smiled as Lindsey saw a baby elephant and went wild.

While the girls enjoyed a drink at the Dolphin's bar, I examined the last room they had available. Passing on the wildly overpriced (B$700) accommodations, the staffer was good enough to walk me to the establishment next door and round up the woman splitting her time between the massage cabana on the beach and the empty complex of bungalows I'd just walked through.

I took a peek at a sparely furnished, but pleasantly comfortable bungalow directly on the powdery white beach, and instantly told her Yes. For B$300/night our spacious chalet at White Sand Bungalows sports a pair of soft, twin beds; a private bathroom (with towels and toilet paper but minus the hot water, of course); screened windows; power outlets (always important); and a patio. Yeah, I'd pay US$5/night for that.

Attempting to secure my backpack

The only little hiccup is that I'm not able to padlock the room, and there's not a pipe or piece of furniture that I can cable my backpack to. I live with a perpetual fear that someone with a duplicated key will simply slip into my room while I'm away and snatch my entire pack. I made myself feel better by installing a pair of eyelet screws into the floor, and locking my pack to them.

I know the resistance rating of each screw can't be more 30-pounds of pressure, but at least it'll give a would-be bandit a good surprise. I should also point out what I've found to be the best method of running a security cable/chain around my pack: Feeding it though the space behind the waist harness prevents someone with a knife from simply slicing a nylon strap to liberate your gear.

White Sand appears to be completely vacant, and the same bungalow setup was gobbled up by the European girls that we'd arrived with, settling in next door to us. The staffer/masseuse later told me that the bay had almost no tourists at the moment, and that next week will be ever quieter. Only during the days preceding the Full Moon Party or in the midst of the high/dry season (at the end of the year) will the bay's accommodations be saturated with visitors.

I was getting really tired of being in Bangkok. I can't believe I was there for three weeks—a week with Aaron, about a week idling and hanging out with my Italian buddy Giovanni, and then another with Lindsey. It's no wonder I lost my tan (and the tolerance to deal with the pollution and congestion of vehicles and people).

I fell asleep in a gently swaying hammock this afternoon, tied between two coconut trees, listening the palm fronds quiver in the breeze. An attractive beach heals me mentally, emotionally, and physically—in ways that I'm still trying to understand. Finding the right balance between city and sand is still something I'm trying to figure out.

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