27/12/02: Leave for Surat Thani with my companion; book back into same hotel; eat at MPA Café; early night.
It was strange going back to Surat Thani with only my companion for a companion. I had assumed that S would still be with us at this juncture, and that even M and E might have tagged along for a little while longer. Then when J and H had made their second showing, I thought we’d have a crew for at least a few more weeks or so.
In truth, M and E were on a very different route and at least a week ahead of our schedule. J and H, on the other hand, were seasoned travellers who were making up their path as they went along, and it was not impossible that we could still meet again. But S’s departure was a surprise, albeit one whose possibility had revealed itself to us gradually over the course of the last two weeks. He was supposed to have been with us for at least three months, but had now decided, for whatever reason(s), to cut his trip short. (S would spend a little more time in Samui – in Chaweng of all places – before flying back to Bangkok where he would spend a couple of days on the Khao San Road, waiting for an early flight to materialise and take him home. He would be back in London within a week, then, and would find it covered in snow for the first time in almost a decade, with only a pair of hated flips-flops for protection.)
My residual anxiety had pretty much been erased on the islands, but back on the mainland I could sense it creeping in again. Surat Thani seemed a rather miserable place that night, although the meal we had at MPA café, an establishment stuck in the 1950s, did me some good. I was looking forward to getting to Trang though, away from the hordes and to somewhere with a more solemn pace of life, but not so grave as to give me the creeps. Because, to me, Thailand was beginning to feel like it was haunted. I had not entertained the idea that entire countries could be haunted, let alone cities or towns, but this was the only way I could explain away the eeriness I sometimes detected here, when I wasn't surrounded by people or suffused with alcohol. Maybe it was some of those rooms we’d rented, or the lack of people in a few of those urban conurbations we had visited.
The coach station at Surat Thani is a case in point: noisy, but not busy; dirty, but not untidy; unfriendly, but not outwardly hostile. One is never left feeling very re-assured that you’re in the right place in Thailand. I think I'm stood in the right place and I think that’s our coach over there, but I am not altogether sure and none of the locals seem willing to reassure me either way. Trang should only be a few hours away, but what if we board a vehicle that prefers the scenic route and it takes us all day to get there? What then? What will we do if it is dark and we are dropped off along some spectre-bothered highway, with nothing but wild dogs, mosquitoes and ghosts for company?
My companion has decided she wants a bottle of water for the journey, so she goes off in search of one. She is taking a long time, and I'm sitting on our public bus minding the luggage. She is taking too long about it. I'm not worried that anything has happened but I am worried that we might drive off without her.
28/12/02: Catch bus to Trang; book into the Queen Hotel; lunch at Koh Teng (curry); drink at what should be the Old Time Pub but no longer seems to be; drink and fries and chilli sauce; play cards with my companion.
Trang. Trang. Trang. Trang.
There is something oddly European about the wonderfully named Trang, with its wide roads and shallow undulations. Clean modern concrete structure cohabits with older but no less functional architecture, not too dissimilar from French football stadia design of the 1970s (Strasbourg’s Stade de la Meinau being a good example). Its role as a stop-off point means, like Chumphon or Surat Thani, the only farang are those in limbo and consequently Trang possesses little in the way of entertainment. However, there is a bar just up from the cinema, run by a Belgian guy, which would not be out of place in Hoxton if it were not for the many tiny ants that make their home in the bamboo furniture.
It’s the public bus again and the inevitable transfer from terminus to town that is involved. Fortunately, we did board the correct vehicle and it didn't take the scenic route, and so, after finding ourselves an available taxi, we are booked into the Queen Hotel by a comfortable hour. It is mid-afternoon, in fact, and I am in desperate need of sustenance.
Koh Teng features in our guide book, but we saw the Queen Hotel first and our driver seemed the pushy sort who’d had somewhere specific in mind for us, so we made out we had reservations as soon as the Queen came into view. Now we’ve found Koh Teng and it seems a far more appropriate place for anybody remotely interesting to stay. With an open street-side atrium doubling up as a cafe, it’s like an old colonial sort of hotel that’s seen better days. It is also really cheap – not that the Queen Hotel is expensive – so we decide that tomorrow we shall defect and offer our residential allegiance to Koh Teng.
In the meantime, we shall try their chicken curry with rice, as recommended to us by the genial gentleman who booked tomorrow’s reservation. My companion has been living off green curry for some time now, whilst I have been taking full advantage of our coastal proximity of late, eating mostly fish. But we are inland again and it is time to cut back on the expenditure, with curry fitting the bill.
Koh Teng’s speciality is not your normal Thai curry. Neither green, red nor yellow, it might be a variation on the thicker Massaman curry, a dish that originates from Thailand’s Muslim south, from which we are not far located. It blows my mind and revitalises my appetite for proper Thai food. When we move here tomorrow, both my companion and I will feast on this house speciality for a second time.
Trang is rather pleasant, in a sleepy sort of way. There are newsagents, a few cafes, raised grass verges and flower beds that run down the middle of the road. There is a shopping mall a bit like the one in Surat Thani, but with fewer people and less merchandise. There is very little to occupy the traveller in Trang but I'm hoping we might stumble on something of interest soon. We’re off in search of The Old Time Pub and are having to walk down some fairly dark streets to find it. In a way, this is a very genuine Thai experience, similar to Surat Thani but without all the people and no sign of tourists. Or is it more akin to Prachuap Khiri Khan except with more people, but still no sign of tourists?
We eventually find what we think should be The Old Time Pub but it’s hard to tell. We’re the only people here, there isn't much on offer in the way of food and the staff look at us like we’re mad to even want to drink here. We settle for a couple of servings of fries, chilli sauce to go with them, and many beers. Across the road there seems to an outdoor party taking place. We cannot be sure because it looks like it’s occupying a parking lot, but there is a lot of noise coming from over there. Buoyed by a fresh intake of alcohol, I half-seriously suggest we go and check it out. We don’t but I get the sense it would either have been either a really good idea or a very bad one. I very much enjoy my evening in any case.
29/12/02: Move to Ko Teng; check emails; visit shopping mall; drink coffee; more curry; drink in bar run by Belgians.
Koh Teng – what a place. The rooms are actually very similar to those at the Queen – large, slightly shabby affairs with open-topped en-suite bathrooms shoved occupy one corner – but the many flights of stairs and the landings in-between have a dilapidated grandeur about them that is very pleasing. The strangest quality of all is that the hotel seems to have been built just inches from a neighbouring tenement block, but to save on bricks and mortar they've left the joining walls exposed so you can see across onto the other building’s landing.
We have breakfast here first and curry later. In-between we find a park, check our emails and go for coffee. In the evening we visit a bar run by a Belgian chap just across from the Queen. It is a good day and Trang has served a purpose. It has helped me readjust to the pace of travelling, and I am finally beginning to feel like I know what I'm doing.