May 19, 2007

Sunbathing at Ao Manao and Ao Noi
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand

Today, and the two days prior, have been absolutely gorgeous—miracles in the midst of rainy season.

For three days straight I've awoken in Prachuap Khiri Khan to clear blue skies and a smiling sun. This has been the best weather I've seen in the country since arriving, 10 days ago. …Wow, has it only been a week and a half? Feels much longer.

Each day during the rain season is like play Russian Roulette—your fate spins whilst you sleep—which will it be when you awake: The bullet, or the empty chamber.

This has made me hesitant to relocate. I wake up to amazing weather and I don't want to squander it by traveling—who knows when the sky will be clear again. So I've stayed in easy-going Prachuap, exploring the scene/surrounding area.

Ao Manao

Ao Manao, meaning "Lime Bay," is about four kilometers (two and a half miles) south of Prachuap Khiri Khan. What makes reaching this spot interesting, as I learned on my first day of sunshine, is the Thai military encampment (Base 53) it's in the middle of.

Wing 5 is the name of the small airforce base whose runway you actually have to cross to access the bay. This is sort of neat, in a fleeting moment kind of way.

A sign on the waterfront in town mentioned some interesting WWII history—albeit spun slightly—dealing with Wing 5 that I thought was worth sharing:

The Thai Government under the leadership of Field Marshal P. Pibulsongkram pursued a firm policy of neutrality amid an intense battle that divided the world into two camps. The Pacific War exploded two years later. Thailand was one of Japan's strategic destinations to land its mighty troops on their way to battle the British soldiers in Burma and Malaya.

On the dawn of December 8, 1941, Officer Srisak Sucharittham and a handful of his soldiers went fishing at the Manao Bay. They saw three Japanese vessels heading towards the shore, aiming to seize the Wing 5 as their strategic base. Despite having only a little over 100 soldiers at that time, a small band of Thai strong men decided to fight against a powerful Japanese force!

Exactly at the same time in the Prachuap Khiri Khan town, another Japanese force took to the streets after a smooth landing at the Manao Bay, firing arms into the air everywhere: at the train station, governor's office, and police station. Japanese soldiers moving to occupy the land were faced and had to fight against Thai men with swords and guns. At Wing 5, the Imperial army penetrated the area to seize the small air base. The Wing 5 was ordered to launch an air attack to resist the Japanese advancement and at the same time support ground troops.

In the afternoon of December 8 Sqn. Leader M.L. Prawat Jumxal, the Wing 5 Commander, ordered that an oil depot and an army surgery division be burnt to avoid Japanese from getting a hold of them. The thunderous noise of firearms was still heard everywhere. It was not until 10 a.m. of December 9 before Field Marshall P. Pibulsongkram's ceasefire order came through.

The event marked an end of Thailand's short but intense resistance. From that day Thailand agreed to allow the Japanese army to march to Burma and Malaya for their battle with the British. This heroic fight has shown that Thais were more than willing to unite and fight for their homeland, especially at an unbearable moment of war. To shed their lives for a hope that our land would remain forever free.

I heard somewhere that Thailand has so many old, surviving structures because the country was never conquered and sacked by another. I'm not sure if that's accurate though. Moving on…

It was a hot, sunny day, and I'm too much of a cheap bastard to pay for a mototaxi to take me four measly kilometers, so I walked. En route I was stopped at a checkpoint at the southern end of town. The guard didn't approve of my blissful, shirtless walk, and didn't hesitate to let me know. He then pointed me towards a military building, making an I'll take the check, waiter gesture. I was like, oh crap, who am I going to have to bride to keep out of jail now?

Inside I was pleased to find only a few guards that could care less about me, and a big book containing the name and nationality of each foreigner who had motored past the checkpoint for the past several years. No ID check; I could have written anything I pleased.

Ao Manao was packed with luxurious, double-decker tour buses, but it wasn't the touristic scene you might be imagining—they were all Thais. The setup at the bay reminded me more of a lake, than a beach.

Low tide had exposed a long strip of muddy sand—of which varying stages of dryness constituted the "beach." Behind that sat Thais in shorts and t-shirts, lounging, drinking, and eating at tables in the shade of a row of human-planted trees (a species of which that looked awfully out of place). Behind that were buses, a simple road (running parallel to the shore), and some food stalls on the opposite side.

I couldn't believe how calm the water was—the scene really was like a lake—not a wave in sight. I thought it would be a great place to have something to float on in the shallow water (of which there is no short supply of in this location). Then, lo and behold, as I waked past relaxing Thais—inner tubes for rent.

As expected, I was the only person in the sun. Thais—and Asians in general—aren't known to sunbathe. You can find it, but I think it's generally an uncommon thing. I think there's still a strong bias from an aristocratic class structure in many of these countries, where having dark skin is associated with work (from outdoor labor). Several centuries ago the women of Europe covered themselves in white makeup to accentuate such a belief.

But there are now trends in the western world that are influencing such beliefs/practices. Images of tanned bodies equating to sexy bodies is nothing new to folks back home, but here in places like Thailand it's having an impact. I can see the pull, and the slow shift away from such cultural stigmas (although not present at this particular bay).

I found this line interesting, discovered while researching:

Pale skins were valued when they were rare; tanned skins were valued when they were rare. Now thin is rare, therefore it is valued. There may be some truth in that.

Ao Noi

Another stunner of a day, and other bay visited. This one was Ao Noi (Little Bay), eight kilometers (five miles) to the north. Again, too cheap to pay a mototaxi, I walked there and back.

I don't think walking 10 miles is that big of a deal, and in a world where almost all my foods have been fried and probably come served on a bed of rice or noodles, walking is just about the only exercise I get.

The fishing village at Ao Noi probably looks like what Prachuap did, 30 years ago. It's tiny, quaint, and nonchalant. It's the kind of place where people (women) still whoop and holler at me as I stroll by, as I doubt they get much in the way of tourists. I'm sure it's even more rare for a foreigner (if anyone at all) to be walking between towns, and I enjoy the notion that I'm breaking up an otherwise typical workday for people along the road, simply by walking by.

Ao Noi is a notch down from Ao Manao, simply because a good portion of the day is dedicated to the fishing port (and the yuck generated as a result of it). The sand near the pier smells like rotting fish and goose droppings. At the northern end of the bay is where I sunned myself between dips in questionable water—it always felt like I was getting pricked all over my submerged skin.

Dark clouds rolled in by two or three o'clock in the afternoon on both days (at the bays), ensuring I didn't over do it too much. The timing is good, though, as I can only lay on the beach alone for three or so hours anyway.

The storms always blow in from the west, but this one came in with much greater speed and intensity than the day prior—leaving me to walk home in the middle of a monsoon. Rain, ocean—no matter; it's just water.

Colored Craig

Ahhh, it's amazing the difference a handful of hours in the sun can make. My skin is darkening fast, remembering the color it should be. Foe me, nothing cures what ails you like time in the ocean and sizzling on the sand. Wounds from nasty (bed) bugs are healing faster, and forgotten all that much quicker—my skin is focused on tanning, not itching.

I really do have a solar-powered spirit.

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