Monday, 10 February 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 18. KOH CHANG



03/02/03: Minibus to Koh Chang, with a stop-off at motorway services on the way, with colleague, L, ‘A’ and F – Welsh L & K to follow; book into the last bungalows in town; eat at Thor’s and get drunk on the beach with F.

Koh Chang is more civilised an island than those off of the southern peninsula, more in common with Au Nang on the west coast, but with much less traffic. Development is apparent but of a different kind than that visible, say, in Haad Yao or Vang Vieng – actual hotels seem to be afoot. No, here the intended prey is the 30-something holiday maker away for a few weeks’ peace and quiet.
There are travellers, too, but not the sort that crazy over the sight of a bucket of joy.  They could be taking time out in-between a stint on the nearby islands of Koh Kut and Koh Samet, perhaps after returning from a tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. Or maybe they’re fleeing the licentiousness of Pattaya, which is not far away. Or, like me, they’ve pretty much finished with Thailand and fancy a week or so relaxing on a beach before exploring Cambodia’s hinterland.
The beach at White Sands is shallow but just large enough for games. An emaciated man practises yoga in a modest hut overlooking the beach. The presence of so much unnecessary new-age paraphernalia hints that he’s put up home here, for the time being at least.


L is coming to Koh Chang with us, and ‘A’ and F are coming too. It is said that Welsh L & K and K’s brother, G, plan on doing the same although nobody has seen them since we arrived in Bangkok, over two days ago now. Apparently O might join us but nobody knows for sure. Koh Chang isn’t far and L has booked a minibus to take us there.
It’s an early start, but not too early: favourable terms. Bangkok mornings are weirdly fresh and even the Khao San Road can seem rather sedate at 08.00. If I wasn’t just the slightest bit apprehensive about the impending journey – as is par for my course – then I’d be at my most relaxed, observing how this metropolis slowly shifts into gear in a warmth that’s very bearable.
            So onwards and upwards. Minibuses haven’t featured very heavily on my travels up until now; I’ve used just the one, on our journey from Chumphon to Surat Thani. This is also a great opportunity to bask in the magnitude of Bangkok’s sheer scale. As with any megacity, it takes some time to exit its inner circle, the first hour or so spent negotiating gridlocked traffic under and over the many flyovers that weave in and out of each other.
            Bangkok’s suburbs give an indication as to the impact of the 1997-1998 Asian Currency Crisis. In the run up to this financial calamity, Thailand had been regarded as a ‘Tiger Economy’ and did much to open itself up to foreign trade accordingly. And then things went all wrong and financial institutions crumbled, businesses went bankrupt and people became unemployed. As some sort of testament to this, huge redundant concrete brackets strike out into the countryside, like giant Hs, intended to support flyovers that will never be built. (Probably irreparable but too expensive to pull down, most of these stanchions remain in place to this day.)
            The journey to Koh Chang is just long enough to justify a pause at a roadside service-type station. We are actually part of a convoy of two and this also allows the vehicle which we became separated from somewhere in Bangkok to catch up. I like service stations immensely, although it would be mistake to assume that they’re the same the world over. Here, it comprises of little more than a petrol garage, a 7-Eleven type establishment, and a forecourt with a few benches hewn from stone. But it is a service station none the less, and I am glad we stop there.
            Our transport bypasses the town of Trat and takes us directly to the ferry terminal. A while to wait for the ferry, because we must have just missed one. Like with our previous excursion to Thailand’s southern islands, there appears to be a variety of boats servicing a variety of destinations, but we need a vessel to take us to Hat Sai Khao (White Sands Beach) on the island’s west coast. There is no pier there, so the quickest route is by way of a weathered fishing vessel, taking about an hour and capable of anchoring within wading distance of the shore.
            Fish are caught along the way – big fish – and many of the travellers on board wince at the sight of them being clubbed to death. I wonder whether these same travellers intend on eating any during their stay on Koh Chang. I should have thought so.
            White Sands Beach resort looks to me as if it’s been pitched somewhere between Ao Nang and Haad Rin. This isn’t a bad combination when you think about it: enough bars and restaurants to keep you going, but with not too many people about, and an atmosphere in keeping with being separated from the mainland. A strange place, actually, because there must be more tourists here than is entirely obvious. At first, we struggle to find free accommodation, and closer inspection reveals the building of hotels, and swankier developments beyond these building sites still. L eventually finds us somewhere with rooms to spare, although we’ll need to downgrade if we want to keep within our budget. After Laos, maybe I’ve become accustomed to a higher standard of living, but the lower-end accommodation here is the worst I have come across. It occurs to me – what with the construction going on up the road – that White Sands is probably in the process of gently gentrifying itself and the older bungalows that remain probably won’t do for much longer.
            And so my companion and I book into the grottiest little lodging we’ve had the pleasure of staying in thus far. It’s not that it is small, but the bed looks like it’s about ready for retirement and I reckon I could punch my fist through the dividing wall without too much bother. We have a front porch, but that’s on the verge of collapse, and there’s a rockery of rubble outside too.
            No matter, L knows a lovely place to eat called Thor’s. ‘Thor’ is a tall, handsome Thai of ambiguous sexuality (Thailand has plenty of them) whose restaurant will serve me the best red curry I’ve had the pleasure of eating. His establishment is located at the end of the beach, where the sand segues into rocks, with an unobstructed view west over the Gulf of Thailand. It’s nice to be on the coast again.


04/02/03: Cookies for breakfast with my companion, L, F and ‘A’; hang out on beach; Welsh L & K, G and O arrive; Thor’s again with all; get drunk on buckets.

05/02/03: Very hungover; Cookies with colleague; random bar, plus L and ‘A’, to play cards; Thor’s with and 15 Palms with all except O and F; drinks at guesthouse with L and G.


Koh Chang was just what I needed without having realised it. It had been a month since I’d been by the sea and I was surprised how pleased it felt to be reacquainted. I don’t normally care for beaches, not for the people they attract or for what you’re supposed to do on them. (Why do people like to sunbath – no really, why?) I could put up with the typical traveller types in somewhere like Laos because I appreciated what it had taken to get there: it had taken an enquiring mind and the willingness to cover some ground, intent on seeing something a little bit different. Any old hippy can fly down to the islands, put their hair in cornrows, maybe get a tattoo, and then sit on a beach, get drunk and eye up the girls and boys. But I didn’t mind it here, maybe because the clientele seemed a little less frivolous, I don’t know. And, despite my indifference to sand, I do like to look at the sea, hear the sea and smell the sea.
I could put up with our ramshackle hut, to whose inventory I could now add bedbugs, rats, seawater and a large lizard. It took a while to be sure about the bedbugs because I hadn’t been too aware of them, lying prone on my bed. Little red dots started appearing about my person, and on my colleague’s too. I dealt with this by covering my bed with a dramatic flourish of DEET, which seemed to put a stop to the little red dots appearing about my person.
The scurrying about in the loft I assumed at first to be nesting birds, but what birds? Other than the gallinaceous kind, I’d never been particularly aware of the presence of wild fowl anywhere in Thailand, and the birds I had observed were too spindly in leg to produce the racket above our heads. Must be rats, so I sprayed more DEET into every point of access anywhere in the room that I could find.
It took a while to discern that what I was washing in was not fresh water but something more brackish. Whether it came directly from the sea or the tide backed up into our bungalow’s water supply I am unsure, but I hadn’t been aware of the taste of saltwater coming from the shower. (It’s a given that you don’t drink the tap water in Thailand, and you buy bottled water with which to clean one’s teeth.) No, what alerted me to the presence of salt in my water was the absence of soapsuds, yet it still took two showers for me to notice.
And on top of all that was a large lizard, although not as large as the one that S suffered in Haad Rin. It was a welcome addition anyway: a sort of sentry to guard against the insects and the rats.

Our first full day on Koh Chang sees the arrival of Welsh L & K and K’s brother, G. They tell us that O is on his way too. I like the way these people are so spontaneous in their travels. It always takes me at least a day to update my itinerary, and when I do get around to it I’ll then normally book something for the day after that. This held true even when we were using public transport, where booking in advance is not normally required.
            But it’s good that things have worked out this way, rather than travelling with a group of people who you don’t really know that well. You’ve got to take your kicks as and when they come, meeting people, hanging out with them and then being prepared to go your own separate ways.
            Welsh L & K and K’s brother, G, have arrived and they are in good spirits. They apologise for not meeting up with us in Bangkok but they’d high-end accommodation to exploit, and who could hold that against them? They’d also wanted to show G some of the sights and the Khao San Road wasn’t among them. I could have done with them around in Bangkok, if I’m honest. Or failing that, I could have done without L and her Welsh friend B being around, again being honest.
            So Welsh L & K and K’s brother, G, have arrived, and O’s on his way too. L’s looks a little put out by that last snatch of information. Turns out that she’s not so keen on O. You would have thought that she’d like another American amongst the rank and file, but no, she thinks that O’s a bit weird. She’s not ingratiating herself towards me with statements like that, as she didn’t when she turned on M (Mk.2) in Luang Prabang. I’m beginning to think I might have even hit it off with that John Malkovich look-a-like in Nong Kai, assuming I hadn’t gone to him for a massage.
            Welsh L, K and K’s brother, G, are up for a few drinks tonight, and so is O now that he’s arrived. It’s great to hear L advocating a return to Thor’s because it really is the perfect place to make merry; there are global flags hanging from the rafters, wooden picnic-bench style seating, reasonably priced drinks, a toilet embellished with gay porn, and Thor plays some good music [St. Etienne’s Heart Failed (in the Back of a Taxi) is a highlight, featuring on some ambient compilation that’s guaranteed to play every night we’re there].
            After dinner, we work our way along the beach in search of watering holes. The thing with Koh Chang is that the entertainment isn’t as concentrated as it is on other beaches – it’s not that sort of place. None of the bars are particularly busy – which is not to say that there’s some sort of abstemious culture at play – but there are people drinking and there are plenty of bars to choose from. And to hit the point home, some bright spark goes and buys a Bucket of Joy, and then somebody else buys another after that – maybe even me.

It’s not surprising that I’m hungover the next day and nor is it surprising that I’m not the only one. What’s slightly more confounding – only slightly – is that the following evening offers up a repeat performance of the one before. O and F aren’t involved this time around, the latter on account of the nasty headaches he’s been experiencing from the anti-malarial drugs he’s been taking [Larium]. I’m not sure what O’s excuse is.
            Come the end of the night, it’s me, Welsh L and G battling it out for supremacy back at The Meeting Place, our guesthouse’s sorry excuse for a bar. We’re joined by two English lads who have just finished a two week tour of duty in Cambodia, where they paid money to liberate ammunition from an AK-47 selective-fire assault rifle. Good fun, you would think, and if/when we end up in Cambodia then I might have a go myself, but one of these guys appears almost traumatised by the experience. With a genuine sense of disturbance, he tells how delicate he has come to realise life really is. He discovered this the moment he squeezed the trigger and released a volley of fire from his rifle. The rest of us find his revelation hilarious, but he stands firm and assures us that his life has been irrevocably changed.


06/02/03: 15 Palms for breakfast with my colleague; stroll about town; 15 Palms for coffee with my colleague, L and ‘A’; dinner at Cookies – barbequed fish on the beach; drink and a game of cards at Pens with all – a rather subdued evening.

07/02/03: 15 Palms for breakfast; beach; Pens for a small drink with F, G, Welsh L & K; dinner at Tonsai with my colleague, L and ‘A’; Oodies to see a band with my colleague, L, ‘A’, F and O; drinks on the beach.

08/02/03: 15 Palms for breakfast; post postcards – getting very hot now; Thor’s for tea with colleague, L and O; Oodies plus Welsh L, K and G; drink on beach with Welsh and G, and make mantrap.

09/02/03: 15 Palms for breakfast; L departs; Tonsai for tea with colleague; play cards back at Welsh L & K’s bungalow, with F too.


I have found an establishment that can cater for my hangovers. Up until now I have been ignoring L when she knocks on our door at 10.00, pausing for 10 minutes or so and then moping off to the local store for crisps and Gatorade (or my colleague has gone – we’ve been taking it in turns). Then I’ve been taking a cold shower, and, finally, I’ve been going to Cookies and battling with an American Breakfast. But even the mighty American Breakfast has been coming up short of late. I must have seen something at 15 Palms last night I liked, or maybe I just can’t be bothered to walk any further (IT’S SO HOT!!), but that’s where I find myself seeking succour today.
            So here it goes: 1 bacon and egg roll, 1 serving of fries (with chilli sauce to taste), 1 lime and mint shake and 1 cup of coffee. If I can get the egg and bacon roll down my throat before the gag reflex kicks in then I’m home and dry (fries are so mild a foodstuff I could manage them under almost any circumstance, and the chilli sauce merely adds flavour). Solids ingested, I get to work on the lime and mint shake. I’ve been drinking shakes on an almost daily basis since I chanced upon them in Bangkok. They’re a great form of rehydration and hugely refreshing. Made from crushed ice and real fruit juice, they’re like healthy Slush Puppies. Some folk prefer a Lassi, which adds yoghurt to the mix, but I do not find these to be as rejuvenating. Then I finish off with my coffee, which hopefully hasn’t gone completely cold by now.
Like some sort of bonus feature, 15 Palms also plays Mezzanine by Massive Attack and Once in a Lifetime – The Best of Talking Heads without fail, and sometimes on the bounce. This will ensure that from now on I will take breakfast here every day regardless of my physical state of being. [Incidentally, O’s parents had been friends with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz – the bass player and drummer from Talking Heads – and O has childhood memories that involve their presence. The music in 15 Palms, and my fondness for it, enabled him to reveal this fact to me with a gratifyingly insouciant air.]

After those first two nights of intense revelry things began to settle down a bit. As a group we’d be pretty fragmented by day. Welsh L, K and her brother, G, hired a motorbike at one point and ventured off to explore the island’s interior. My colleague and I attempted a long walk but found nothing of particular note, so spent most of the time reading or playing cards with whoever was about. I recall that I struggled with dinner at a place called Tonsai but quite enjoyed the barbequed fish at one of the pop-up restaurants on the beach, and was very glad when we made one last trip back to Thor’s place – especially so when it prompted a final night of heavy drinking and the construction of man-traps with a very inebriated Welsh L and G. (Just like O and F before him, G was proving a most welcome addition to our entourage.)
            And then, on our sixth full day on the island, L parted company having finally realised than the rest of us had our hearts set on travelling to Cambodia. The skirmishes on the border seemed to have abated, but there was no time now to launch an offensive into Vietnam. I was relieved that she was gone if only because her presence seemed to scare off Welsh L & K, and I very much wanted for them to accompany us to Cambodia, at least until I got a handle on the place.
            But was it as simple as that, now that L was out of the way so to speak? We made it clear to our friends that we were ready to leave and that it was to Cambodia that we would be travelling, and we’d probably be catching the earliest ferry back to the mainland the next day. Yet no invitations were extended and no plans were shared. Maybe it wasn’t L who was the problem after all?


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